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Sermons

Sanity, Not Cynicism – Bemidbar 5781

(Note: This sermon was delivered during the 11 days in May, 2021, in which Hamas rockets rained down on Israel by the thousands, and Israel responded with airstrikes on Hamas targets in Gaza. Although a cease-fire was announced on 5/20, the message here still applies.)

We knew this would happen again. We knew that there would be instigations in Jerusalem. We knew that the rockets would fly from Gaza, causing Israelis to flee to bomb shelters at all hours. We knew that there would be reprisals. We knew that there would be an asymmetrical body count. We knew this, because nothing has changed since 2014, the last time this happened.

Nothing has changed.

Nobody is talking to each other. There is no round table, no smoke-filled room. Rather, there is cynicism all around. Cynics who have declared the peace process dead. Cynics who say, “They don’t care about peace.” Cynics who say, “This is our land, not theirs.” Cynics who say, “The other side only understands violence.”

Granted, talking is hard. This is the most intractable diplomatic challenge in the world. The Israelis believe that they have no reliable partner with whom to talk. The Palestinians are concerned that talking with the Israelis will only inflame the Palestinian street. Anxiety leads to cynicism leads to war.

And yet, something has changed for me. This time things are a little different than they were seven years ago. 

What has changed? My 20-year-old son, Oryah, is now serving in חיל התותחנים / Ḥeil haTotḥanim, the IDF’s artillery corps. He was recruited for his mandatory army service last summer, two weeks before my daughter Hannah’s bat mitzvah. At this moment, he is serving in the West Bank.

I am breathing OK for now. But I must say that being the father of a soldier in an active armed conflict is an experience that I have never desired, even if it is for a country that I love. I am praying more fervently now for all Israelis in the line of fire, but all the more so that those who defend Israel from terrorists can do so speedily and securely and with minimal loss of life. 

Ladies and gentlemen, I will remind you once again that I am a proud Zionist. I have lived in Israel; I have been a diligent student of Israeli history and the Modern Hebrew language; I adore Israeli pop music, Israeli food and culture; I am grateful for the modern miracle that is the Jewish state. I am grateful that Israel is a thriving, multi-ethnic, multi-religious society, a bustling democracy in a region that is not known for its strong adherence to democratic principles. I am proud of Israel’s success in education, in high-tech industries, in public health. 

I am also proud, and nervous, to have a son serving in the IDF.

But I am also anxious about Israel’s current state. Consider the following:

  • Israel has had four national elections in two years, and is still unable to form a governing coalition. The political chaos has left it rudderless for some time. This is not a healthy situation.
  • Palestinian elections were supposed to take place in the West Bank, but were canceled, perhaps due to the Palestinian Authority’s concern that they would lose. The PA is, sadly, widely seen as corrupt and ineffective by the Palestinian population.
  • The confluence of the end of Ramadan and Yom Yerushalayim, the Israeli holiday celebrating the reunification of Jerusalem following the Six Day War in 1967, created even more political and religious tension in the holiest city in the world.
  • Add to this the real estate dispute in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem. As you know, every square centimeter in the Holy Land, and particularly the Holy City, has the potential to be a flash point. The opportunity surrounding this for instigation by activists on opposite sides was simply too great not to take advantage of, and suddenly there was a serious tinder-box situation.

Israel attempted to lower tensions by putting off the Sheikh Jarrah court decision and by canceling the Jerusalem Day parade. But this was not enough; Jerusalem was already heating up, with rock-throwing and demonstrations and police and worshippers injured in horrible clashes on the Temple Mount. 

Hamas, in an extraordinarily cynical and murderous move, decided that in order to “defend Al-Aqsa,” the mosque on the Temple Mount, they must actually shoot missiles into Israel, including into the Jerusalem area, where Al-Aqsa is located. Their calculus in doing so is that of being perceived on the Arab street as being the true defenders of the Palestinian cause compared to the powerlessness of the PA.

The thousands of rockets which Hamas has sent over have not only put Israelis in danger, but also put Israel in the unfortunate position of having to respond by seeking out and destroying the terrorist infrastructure in Gaza.

Again.

Please remember that, as in the past, Israel does everything it can to minimize civilian casualties, including warning shots, leaflets, calls to cell phones, and so forth. Hamas typically urges Gazans not to leave, so that the body count is higher. It is truly heartbreaking.

An even more unfortunate development, something that has never happened before, is the civil unrest that has broken out in Israeli cities with mixed Arab and Jewish populations. Border troops were deployed in Lod, where a synagogue was burned. A presumably Israeli Arab man was beaten by a Jewish mob in Bat Yam. A group of Arab protesters seriously injured a Jewish resident of Akko. This is a gravely upsetting situation that will breed further mistrust and will tear at Israel’s social fabric for years to come.

I hope that the Jewish Israelis who are participating in these riots understand what an embarrassment and a tragedy it is to see our people stooping to such a horrible low point. We have to be above thuggish behavior; if not, we are no better than the terrorists. Let us act on the Jewish value of kevod haberiyot, respect for all of God’s creatures, including those who hate us, and not on the base principles of revenge.

What is the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different outcome. We (and I mean all of us) have been working on finding a solution for decades now, and we have, it seems, lost the will to proceed. We are not talking to each other. And people are dying. Again.

Back in my final year of rabbinical school, before they gave us a JTS tallit and kicked us out into the world, senior rabbinical and cantorial students were required to read a book by Rabbi Edwin Friedman, who was also a family therapist, called, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue. The book was written for clergy, to help them work with families and congregants, and I learned from Rabbi Friedman some valuable lessons about the principles behind family therapy. Family therapy is an area within psychology that treats families as systems, taking into account how all the members of the family unit interact with each other.

One of those principles is the difference between stasis and equilibrium. Equilibrium occurs when all of the individuals within a family system are functioning together harmoniously, when they are all connected to each other and there are no breakdowns between people. It is a family system in balance. That is what we all seek in our own lives, within our own families; it is a healthy situation.

Stasis means that there is a dysfunction in the family system – breakdowns between people, failure to communicate, acting out by some individuals, and so forth. When a family is in stasis, nothing is changing, but the system is not in balance. Until the underlying problems that are the source of toxicity are revealed and addressed, a family in stasis cannot move forward, and certainly cannot be in equilibrium.

All the stakeholders: the Israeli government, the Palestinian Authority, their respective citizens, the international community, the nearby Arab governments, the Western powers, and yes, even Hamas, are all in a family system together, and it is a system that has been in stasis, not in balance, not healthy, for a long time, and that is having a pernicious effect on all parties. Nobody wants to address the underlying problems, because there will be a political cost. Nobody wants to stick their neck out, because the task seems insurmountable.

Peace is hard. You don’t make peace with your friends. Finding solutions to where lines are drawn, how governments cooperate, who is in charge of what, who can travel where, who provides electricity and water to whom – these are all extraordinary challenges. But it certainly beats having to run into bomb shelters, or to have your building destroyed, or your fields set on fire, or civil unrest in your city, or God forbid to lose a child.

True leadership is not driven by fear or anxiety or the possibility of losing your prime ministership or even your life. True leadership happens when, while being in touch with all the relevant stakeholders, you make a decision to move forward. True leadership is bravery. And we need the kind of bravery Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin showed the world in the 1970s. We should all be praying for such leadership to emerge.

Good, brave leadership, both within Israel and outside, would find a way to talk rather than to launch rockets.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have ancient marching orders here from on high. These are the words of Psalm 122:

שַׁ֭אֲלוּ שְׁל֣וֹם יְרוּשָׁלִָ֑ם יִ֝שְׁלָ֗יוּ אֹהֲבָֽיִךְ׃
יְהִֽי־שָׁל֥וֹם בְּחֵילֵ֑ךְ שַׁ֝לְוָ֗ה בְּאַרְמְנוֹתָֽיִךְ׃ 
לְ֭מַעַן אַחַ֣י וְרֵעָ֑י אֲדַבְּרָה־נָּ֖א שָׁל֣וֹם בָּֽךְ׃
לְ֭מַעַן בֵּית־ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵ֑ינוּ אֲבַקְשָׁ֖ה ט֣וֹב לָֽךְ׃ 

Pray for the well-being of Jerusalem; “May those who love you be at peace.
May there be well-being within your ramparts, peace in your citadels.”
For the sake of my sisters and brothers and fellow humans, I pray for your well-being;
for the sake of the house of the LORD our God, I seek your good. 

I do not know, any better than you do, or PM Netanyahu, or PM Abbas, or any of the other relevant leaders, how to solve the very, very deep problems here. But I do know this: if we do nothing, if we do not talk to each other, at best, nothing will change; at worst, bloodshed will continue. We will be in the same place in another few years. And that is tragically, indeed, homicidally cynical.

Let us pray for Jerusalem, and for all its inhabitants; that we seek God’s imperative for good, for well-being.

Let us pray for Israel, and for the entire region, that those who live there, between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, should live in peace.

Let us pray that all the stakeholders seek equilibrium, and emerge from this dreadful stasis.

Let us pray for sanity over cynicism.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 5/15/2021.)

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Festivals Sermons Yizkor

Once You Learn How to Die, You Learn How to Live – Shavuot / Yizkor 5781

Do we truly understand the value of life? The value of our lives? Do we really appreciate the gift we have been given, while we still have it?

One of the things that the pandemic has taught is just how frail we all are. Think about this for a moment: millions of people around the world taken too soon; young, healthy people suffering from virus effects long after regaining health, the so-called “Covid long-haulers;” the economic fallout – the jobs lost, the industries disrupted, the evictions and lives put on hold, and so forth. All of this due to a tiny piece of RNA wrapped in a protein shell. This microscopic thing, which can barely be called alive, has caused so much damage. It is hard to wrap your brain around. 

And the fallout that it has caused is primarily due to fear of death. We have spent 14 months staying away from people – from loved ones, from strangers in the supermarket, even passing people on sidewalks (I have found myself walking out into the road, perhaps unsafely so, many times) – out of respect, yes, but more essentially out of fear.

And with good reason, of course. 14 months later, nearly 600,000 of our fellow citizens are confirmed to have succumbed to that strand of RNA, and perhaps the figure is even closer to one million. Based on CDC statistics, this virus is about as deadly, per capita, as heart disease and cancer, and far more deadly than auto accidents and Americans with guns. Somehow, however, death seemed so much more close this year, so much more present. 

And we fear death.

A congregant who recently lost his grandfather (not due to COVID-19) asked me for suggestions on the topic of books that deal with death from a Jewish perspective. I came up with a few myself, but I also posed the question to fellow Conservative rabbis, and one suggested the 1997 memoir by Mitch Albom, Tuesdays With Morrie, a book that was on best-seller lists for four years. Probably some of you have read it. I never had, until I stumbled across a copy in one of the Beth Shalom libraries a few weeks back. I figured, maybe I should read this.

In case you do not know, the book is about Brandeis sociology professor Morrie Schwartz, with whom Albom had a close relationship while studying there as an undergraduate. Upon graduation, Albom wandered off into the world to seek his fortune, and did not stay in touch with Schwartz. Instead, he worked hard at building a career as a sports journalist, until one evening he was watching Nightline, and he saw his old professor and friend being interviewed by Ted Koppel (remember Ted Koppel?) about dying of a terminal disease. Morrie had ALS, and was at that point already unable to move his legs. Albom reconnected with him, and then went to visit him at his home outside of Boston over a series of 14 Tuesdays. During each of his visits, Morrie Schwartz unloaded wonderful bits of wisdom – about death, yes, but all the more so about life.

Although Albom is Jewish and so was Schwartz, the book is not really drawn from traditional Jewish ideas about death. While there is one brief moment in which Schwartz, a self-declared agnostic, looks heavenward and suggests that his life is in God’s hands (“I’m bargaining with Him up there now,” he says, p. 163), there is otherwise no reference to any of the things that Jews associate with death and mourning. Nonetheless, it is a very Jewish book, primarily because Morrie’s approach to dying of a terminal illness is to talk about it, to make Albom and the reader aware of their own mortality.

That is what we do. We are not only the people of the book; we are also the people of the schmooze. (Most of you know that I grew up in WASPy, stiff-upper-lip New England; I have never been much of a talker. Somehow, going to rabbinical school changed all that.)

You might make the case that Morrie’s essential argument is that we have no need to fear death, because we are all going to die. Death is an essential feature of life. During one of their early visits, Morrie offers one of his most impactful statements. “The truth is, Mitch, once you learn how to die, you learn how to live.” (p. 82) What he means by “learning how to die” is to be prepared for it, to be aware that it is coming. Once you have done that, you can appreciate life in a much more complete way.

I became aware just this weekend, through an article in the New York Times about a nun, that Catholics have a practice known as “memento mori,” Latin for “remembering death.” The idea is to “intentionally think about your own death every day, as a means of appreciating the present and focusing on the future.” Sister Theresa Alethia Noble of the Daughters of St. Paul convent in Boston has made it her mission to raise the profile of this somewhat obscure practice. Her argument is that we are too focused on the superficial and the inauthentic, the “bright and shiny” things that are constantly occupying space on our screens and in our consciousness.

The article notes that Buddhist mindfulness meditation tries to achieve the same thing, and Morrie Schwartz also invokes the Buddhists. 

But we, the Jews, have our own traditions that keep our mortality in front of us on a regular basis.

You may never have thought about this in these terms, but that is what we do every time we observe Yizkor, when we take a few moments to recall those whom we have lost. One of the traditional things we say during Yizkor are the words from Psalm 16: 

שִׁוִּ֬יתִי ה’ לְנֶגְדִּ֣י תָמִ֑יד כִּ֥י מִֽ֝ימִינִ֗י בַּל־אֶמּֽוֹט׃ לָכֵ֤ן ׀ שָׂמַ֣ח לִ֭בִּי וַיָּ֣גֶל כְּבוֹדִ֑י אַף־בְּ֝שָׂרִ֗י יִשְׁכֹּ֥ן לָבֶֽטַח׃  

Adonai is always before me, at my right hand, lest I fall. Therefore I am glad, made happy, though I know that my flesh will lie in the ground forever.

As ironic as this statement sounds – happiness and death in the same verse – it is absolutely the feeling one gets in reading Tuesdays with Morrie. Teacher and student are united in their joy of connecting and reconnecting, even though one will soon be gone. They enjoy food together; they exchange powerful hugs.

And every time we respond to one reciting the Mourner’s Qaddish, we are doing the same thing. The text of the Qaddish is not even about death, but even though it is an essential part of mourning, it promises life and joy in our praise of God. And every time we celebrate any life cycle event – berit milah, baby naming, bat/bar mitzvah, wedding, etc., we are reminded that life is a cycle – a cycle of joy and grief and loving and loss and thriving and languishing and beginning and ending. 

Why is a Jewish wedding ring a perfect, simple circle, with no stone? Because life is a circle, one in which we all experience all of those beginnings and endings every single day, as we wind our way around.

Elsewhere, Morrie adds, “The most important thing in life is to learn how to give out love, and to let it come in.” (p. 52) As we turn around and around, the way we make our lives full, the way we fill in that circle, is by giving out love, and maybe getting some of it back.

Death is always there. We hear it intoned in our rituals. We bring comfort to those who are approaching death, and when they are gone we are there for those who mourn. We know that we can be happy today, because we also know that there is an endpoint. And we will be remembered by those to whom we gave love.

Perhaps one of the most striking lessons that Morrie Schwartz offers, and one which living a life committed to Judaism also gives us, is the following:

“So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They seem half-asleep, even when they’re busy doing things they think are important. This is because they’re chasing the wrong things. The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.” (p. 43)

Jewish lifecycle events, Jewish holidays, Jewish ritual and song and story and text and halakhah and customs, are primarily focused on connecting us to each other and offering us meaning. While we know where we are headed, we understand that the most important thing that we can do before we get there is to connect, and to re-connect, and to love. That is our purpose; that is what gives our lives meaning.

As we emerge from this pandemic, let us not only remember those whom we have lost, but let us also recommit ourselves to living better, to finding meaning, to engaging with the words of our tradition, to loving more.

That is how we may truly appreciate the gift of life.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, second day of Shavuot, 5/18/2021.)

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Sermons

Tear Down This Meḥitzah – Behar/Beḥuqqotai 5781

In 1952, working here at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Dr. Jonas Salk, the son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who grew up in the Bronx, developed a vaccine against poliomyelitis. Today there are only a few hundred cases of polio that are contracted each year in the whole world. Polio had been a dreaded disease, causing paralysis in about 5 out of 1000 infected people.

Thank God, we have no need to fear polio today. Thank God for the Divine inspiration, working through the hands of Dr. Salk and his fellow researchers, that led to the development of the polio vaccine. 

I am sorry to say that we will not have as much success with SARS-CoV-2, and that will be largely due to the politicization of health care, and, frankly, everything else.

Vaccination centers have plenty of available doses waiting for arms. We hit a peak of over 3.3 million shots per day in mid-April, and now we are around 2 million per day.  We all saw this coming. But the public discourse has led to a situation in which a whole lot of people are insistent that they would rather take their chances with a virus that has killed officially nearly 600,000 Americans, and perhaps as many as 900,000, a virus that is in fact far more dangerous and deadly than polio. 

Now, before we all start pointing fingers, let’s face it, folks: we are all to blame for this. We are all to blame because of what you might call a meḥitzah in public life.

Let me explain:

What is a meḥitzah? Many of you may be familiar with this word from its Yiddishized pronunciation, with the accent on the “ḥi“. (Being a Zionist and a lover of the Hebrew language, I prefer to place the accent in the correct place, i.e. the final syllable. BTW, it’s related to the word ḥetzi, half, because a meḥitzah cuts things in half.)

The meḥitzah is the divider that you find in Orthodox synagogues between men and women. Since we at Beth Shalom and the Conservative movement are egalitarian, that is, we make no distinction in Jewish law between men and women, we have no need for a meḥitzah. And in fact, it was the elimination of the meḥitzah which was one of the hallmarks of the Conservative movement in its early years, even before Conservative synagogues became fully egalitarian. We want people to be together, families to be together in synagogue.

The Faye Rubinstein Weiss Sanctuary at Beth Shalom, which has no mehitzah.

Metaphorically speaking, however, a meḥitzah is a barrier, a dividing line. And I think that we are living in a time in which the meḥitzot of our lives are causing very real damage. 

We are experiencing a breakdown in communication across our society, and that has everything to do with the fact that we are all living in different media environments. We seek out the news sources that merely reaffirm our own worldview, abetted by social media, and are siloed such that we dismiss arguments for the other side.

And that, by the way, also plays out in the Jewish world.

For example, the metaphorical meḥitzah between Orthodoxy and everybody else has led to complexities surrounding the essential question of “Who is a Jew?”, and in particular around the challenges of who can get married in Israel or be buried in a Jewish cemetery. (Some of you may recall that my name is on a “blacklist” of rabbis whose testimony as to who is Jewish is not accepted by the Orthodox Israeli rabbinate.)

Back on this side of the Atlantic, the challenge of the meḥitzah in public life is now playing out in our efforts to eliminate the coronavirus from our midst. Israel, where politics infuses everything, has many challenges, but thank God, public health is not one of those. My son, who is in the IDF, was fully vaccinated back in January.

I heard a story this week on NPR about a rural area in Oregon, where vaccine resistance is so high, and that people are so angry at each other about it, that local pastors claim that they cannot even talk about it in church on Sunday, for fear of getting people riled up. 

The factors here are complex, but to some extent, listening to this story reminded me of Robert Putnam’s seminal sociological work from twenty years ago, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Putnam’s essential argument is that social capital, the glue that connects us to people outside of our regular range of friends and relatives, has steadily declined since the middle of the 20th century. The result has been a decay in the overall resilience of our society, by a range of measures.

Social capital and public health are inextricably linked. One reason that we were able to eliminate polio is that the vaccine appeared at a time when Americans had a much greater level of social capital, of interconnection between people. Now we are all metaphorically bowling alone, not in leagues, disconnected from one another, residing in our own bubbles, and constantly stimulated by the division machine that is the media, which feeds off of your clicks and likes and reactions and shares. 

If we are not interconnected, through civic organizations and sports leagues and bridge clubs and, of course, synagogues, we are less likely to care about the people around us, and therefore understand the need for public health measures, or sustainable energy sources, or anything that requires collective action. And of course we should note that the pandemic isolation has likely caused even further decline in social capital.

We are having a very hard time right now thinking about the greater good. We are all in it for ourselves. And it is just that much easier to throw up a meitzah, a dividing line between you and me.

The major question that we are facing in the current moment is, how will we get those who are vaccine-hesitant to change their minds? Politicians, it seems, will not be able to do so. (See the meḥitzah problem.) Fervent opinion pieces in major newspapers will not do it either. Noodging your resistant friends and relatives probably will also fail.

New York Times columnist David Brooks, in his column this week on our failure to achieve herd immunity, writes:

A lot of Americans have seceded from the cultural, political and social institutions of national life. As a result, the nation finds it hard to perform collective action. Our pathetic Covid response may not be the last or worst consequence of this condition.

Between the silos of American life, the distrust sown between people in different groups, and the loss of social capital, the challenge here seems insurmountable.

Based on some of the things that I have read in various sources, it seems that only cold, hard facts from a trusted source (e.g. the family doctor) might work. Let’s hope that our medical community still holds some sway here.

But the bigger picture, the one about the meḥitzot of our lives, will be with us for a long time. Until we can all find a way to get past us vs. them, until we can begin to think of ourselves as all being in this together, then we will continue to devolve as a nation. I am of course hoping that synagogues, churches, mosques, gurdwaras, and so forth, as places that still create social capital, will help us with seeing past ourselves, to the others around us, to those not like us, to those with whom we disagree.

One of the gems that is found in Parashat Behar, from which we read this morning, is the quote that is inscribed on the Liberty Bell, Vayiqra / Leviticus 25:10:

וּקְרָאתֶ֥ם דְּר֛וֹר בָּאָ֖רֶץ לְכָל־יֹשְׁבֶ֑יהָ

Ukratem deror ba-aretz, lekhol yosheveha.
Proclaim liberty throughout the land, to all the inhabitants thereof.

Though the Liberty Bell is a powerful symbol of our American freedom, the Torah’s context is a somewhat mundane issue about the jubilee year, the 50th year in the agricultural cycle, in which ancestral lands were returned to each Israelite tribe, so that each tribe would retain its original boundaries. The liberty, found here is in fact an effort to make sure that nobody would be in permanent debt, and that no one person or tribe could swallow up all the other tribes’ land. It preserved a healthy status quo that enabled our ancestors to retain their independence as well as their interdependence.

I am afraid that we will not have learned the most essential lesson of this pandemic, which is that we are all in this together, and that we must work together, to rebuild trust, to re-establish that sense in our immediate communities as well as throughout our society.

We may be able to start gathering again. But will we address the greater challenge, the challenge of the meḥitzah? I certainly think that we should, and that as individuals and as organizations and governmental agencies we should be thinking about this on a high level.

We must sit together, with no meḥitzah. We cannot bowl alone.

Only when we each see the humanity in every other person, no matter who they are, the color of their skin, their ethnicity or sexuality or religion or even who they vote for, will we be able to move forward. Only in this way may we ultimately begin to solve the challenges that we face, and only then might we finally proclaim liberty for all of our inhabitants.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 5/8/2021.)

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Sermons

On Being Imperfect – Emor 5781

I am feeling at least as much anxiety right now as I have throughout the pandemic, and that is despite the fact that I am fully vaccinated.

Why? Because it is easy to shut things down, and just say no to all forms of gathering in person. It is easy to say, you must always wear a mask when you are around other people, or stay 6 feet away from others, and so forth.

It is not quite as easy to make cautious decisions about restarting all the things that we stopped more than a year ago. It is not so easy to say, some may come and others may not, due to their vaccination status. It is not so easy to differentiate between what is permissible outdoors vs. indoors, etc. 

And we have all been in this anxious mode for so long, it is not so simple to turn it off. I went to see my optometrist this week, my first real in-person appointment with a health-care provider in more than a year. And despite the fact that I and the optometrist are both vaccinated, it was still very strange for us to be in a small room, so close to each other. We wore masks, of course. 

We are going to be in this limbo phase for a long time, it seems – until children can be vaccinated, until we know for certain that we are sufficiently protected from the more infectious or more deadly variants. I fear that, for many of us, our anxiety level will remain quite palpable for some time.

One of the lingering concerns that I have, after 13.5 months of isolation and anxiety and uncertainty, is what loss to the Jewish world and the Jewish future that the pandemic will have caused. We have not had in-person Youth Tefillah for all of that time. Registration at both our Early Learning Center and JJEP has been lower than a “normal” year. We have canceled two Family Benei Mitzvah Retreats. And so forth.

Students learning at JJEP, the shared religious school between Beth Shalom and Rodef Shalom

Now, as an astute observer of Jewish life commented on Facebook not too long ago, the Qadosh Barukh Hu is grading on a curve this year. Nonetheless, my feeling is that we have so few opportunities in today’s always-on-the-go society to get Judaism into our children, that a loss of so many things in the past year will have a long-lasting impact on what our kids know and how connected they feel.

These are valuable hours that will never be regained.

So that is a burden that I feel I am carrying with me, as I consider my tiny role in the chain of Jewish tradition. I am sure that you all have similar types of burdens, about your work, your family, your relationships, and so forth.

I must say that the pandemic has reminded me over and over how imperfect I am, how flawed all of our lives are. 

Which brings me to Parashat Emor, and what we read today about the Kohanim / priesthood. One of the things we read about this morning was perfection in the context of the ritual sacrifices that took place in the mishkan, and later in the Beit HaMiqdash / Temple in Jerusalem:

דַּבֵּ֥ר אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֖ן לֵאמֹ֑ר אִ֣ישׁ מִֽזַּרְעֲךָ֞ לְדֹרֹתָ֗ם אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִהְיֶ֥ה בוֹ֙ מ֔וּם לֹ֣א יִקְרַ֔ב לְהַקְרִ֖יב לֶ֥חֶם אֱ-לֹהָֽיו׃

Speak to Aaron and say: No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his God. (Vayiqra / Leviticus 21:17)

Not long after this statement about the perfection of the individual kohanim offering the sacrifices, we find:

כֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־בּ֥וֹ מ֖וּם לֹ֣א תַקְרִ֑יבוּ כִּי־לֹ֥א לְרָצ֖וֹן יִהְיֶ֥ה לָכֶֽם׃

You shall not offer any [animal] that has a defect, for it will not be accepted in your favor. (Vayiqra / Leviticus 22:20)

The Torah insists that everything involved with the sacrificial offering is flawless: the kohen offering it, and the animal being offered. Of course, that expectation could not be put on the person actually bringing the sacrifice, whom, in many cases, would be bringing it because he or she had transgressed in some way.

And that expectation of perfection in ritual still plays out to some extent today. We expect that the person leading services does so fluently in Hebrew, and does not mis-pronounce words, and that this person is Jewishly observant Jew and a model citizen. We expect that the Torah is read perfectly, such that (at least, when we are doing so in person) we even have two people standing by to correct the reader in the event that she or he makes an error. And that is why we teach our children the language and the words and rituals of Jewish life, so that they can offer their own supplications and praise and requests and Torah in a way that comports with our tradition.

But, after a year of isolation, and grief, and economic and social chaos and upheaval, I occasionally feel that I am a broken vessel. I am flawed in ways that we are all flawed. Even as Congregation Beth Shalom goes from strength to strength despite the pandemic – anointing a solar roof, hiring a Development Director and a new Executive Director – I am feeling inadequate in the face of all the lost hours of Torah, the future of Judaism and the Jewish world slipping through our hands with every passing week of not gathering in person. 

I wake up in the middle of the night wondering, have I done enough to teach our tradition? Have I worked hard enough to help you all appreciate the value and meaning of Torah? Have I reached out to enough people to bring comfort and inspiration? Have I sufficiently grieved, or celebrated, or chanted or pleaded or inveighed for or against? Have I been the rabbi that you all need in this moment? Have I been the husband that I ought to be? Have I been the father that I ought to be? The son? The cousin? The friend?

Ladies and gentlemen, I can only offer myself. And I am far from perfect. And I am certain that many of us have similar doubts about ourselves. 

Fortunately, despite the strict imperative to perfection in Parashat Emor, there are other opinions on the Jewish bookshelf.

זִֽבְחֵ֣י אֱ-לֹהִים֮ ר֪וּחַ נִשְׁבָּ֫רָ֥ה לֵב־נִשְׁבָּ֥ר וְנִדְכֶּ֑ה אֱ֝-לֹהִ֗ים לֹ֣א תִבְזֶֽה׃

True sacrifice to God is a contrite spirit; God, You will not despise a contrite and crushed heart. (Tehillim / Psalm 51:19)

The Psalmist is teaching us that it is not only acceptable for us to be imperfect, but that is the absolutely the correct way to offer sacrifice to God. We offer ourselves, our imperfection of spirit in prayer, in meditation, in reflection. Furthermore, that line is just two verses after 

אֲ֭דֹנָי שְׂפָתַ֣י תִּפְתָּ֑ח וּ֝פִ֗י יַגִּ֥יד תְּהִלָּתֶֽךָ׃

O Lord, open my lips, and let my mouth declare Your praise. (Tehillim / Psalm 51:17)

You may recognize this as the line that is murmured in silence before the Amidah, as we take three steps forward (and three steps back first, if necessary) to enter the court of God in true, reflective prayer, prayer which is offered in earnest sacrifice of the soul on the metaphoric altar of awareness.

Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk, an early 19th-century Ḥasidic rabbi, in a statement that riffs on the line from Psalms, teaches us that, “There is nothing so whole as a broken heart.” It is this line that my teacher Rabbi Ed Feld drew on when he titled the siddur that some of us are holding right now, “Lev Shalem,” which literally means, “a full heart.” We enter tefillah with a broken heart, with the intent to make it complete again.

It is in fact the very intent of our tradition to offer ourselves in prayer, imperfect though we are, as dissatisfied with ourselves and our behavior as we are. 

That is the whole point.

A few years back, when I was on Long Island, a curious thing happened. In an effort to put out practical reading material in the synagogue lobby, I ordered a bunch of pamphlets from a Jewish publisher that were aimed at people who were having difficult times, emotionally and spiritually. The titles were things like, “Caring For Your Aging Parents,” “Bringing Your Sadness to God,” “Coping With the Death of a Spouse,” and so forth. You may have seen these – they are in many synagogue lobbies, and they are written from a Jewish perspective.

A former president of the synagogue, who had invested many, many years in helping to build and support the congregation, saw this and told me, “We cannot have these here. This is not us. This is not who we are.” 

What I think she was saying was, “We are not the kind of people who acknowledge our pain and grief in public. We are stronger than that.” Her knee-jerk reaction was to recoil from the idea that people could see and embrace their own vulnerability.

Being a young rabbi, a year or two out of rabbinical school, and lacking the hutzpah to respond properly, I said nothing. But the display of pamphlets stayed up, and people took them home and read them. Because actually, that is us.

We offer ourselves. And we are not perfect.

And as we look forward to the near future and anticipate that we will soon gather once again, remember that whatever burden you are carrying, whatever anxiety you might be feeling, whatever brokenness you might perceive in your life right now, you are not alone. We are all imperfect, and we are all in this together. That is what synagogue, and tefillah, and Torah are for.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 5/1/2021.)

Categories
Sermons

Poles of the Pandemic – Tazria-Metzora 5781

An interesting thing happened in Israel last week. No, not the ongoing saga of who will lead the country, which political parties will form a governing coalition in the wake of the fourth national election in two years, and the most inconclusive of all of them. That is interesting, but it’s dragging along, and quite frustrating for all observers of Israeli politics, and of course Israeli citizens.

Rather, this week included the annual days of mourning and celebration that are right next to each other: Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s memorial day for fallen soldiers, and Yom HaAtzma’ut, the day commemorating the State’s 73 years of independence. Yom HaZikaron is a somber day, with public ceremonies during which Israelis remember their family members and friends and colleagues and army comrades who gave their lives to build and protect their nation; the air raid siren sounds throughout the nation for two individual minutes, and all Israelis stop what they are doing to recall those who are gone. Yom HaAtzma’ut is a happy day, a day of barbecues and musical performances and giant, silly, blue-and-white inflatable plastic hammers. And since Yom HaAtzma’ut immediately follows Yom HaZikaron, the difference between the two days is stark, and one can actually feel the mood change as the sun sets on Yom HaZikaron, separating grief and remembrance from celebration and joy and national pride.

One of the challenges of reading Tazria-Metzora every year when they come around (and all the more so in years when we read them separately, so that we get two weeks of reading about skin diseases), is what to say about this. The rabbis just could not accept that the Torah should really be taken at face value here, but rather that the image of infectious affliction of the skin must be allegorical. 

The Torah is otherwise terse. In many places it says so much with so little; in this case, the Torah seems to say so little of apparent relevance to us today with so much material. There are many such attempts to reinterpret the nega of tzara’at; perhaps the best-known was cited by Sylvia earlier in her devar Torah.

The Slonimer Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Noah Berezovsky, a 20th-century Hasidic rabbi, in his take on Metzora, points to Sefer Yetzirah, a proto-kabbalistic text, for guidance. Sefer Yetzirah observes that the Hebrew word נגע / nega, affliction or disease, which appears many times in Tazria and Metzora (e.g. Lev. 14:32: זֹ֣את תּוֹרַ֔ת אֲשֶׁר־בּ֖וֹ נֶ֣גַע צָרָ֑עַת), is an inversion of the word ענג / oneg, meaning enjoyment. 

Oneg is an expression of joy in engaging with our tradition (think “oneg Shabbat”), while nega is the exact opposite – a deficiency of engagement that is so weighty as to be a physical affliction. The Slonimer Rebbe extrapolates this further to say that investing ourselves in Jewish tradition – tefillah / prayer, Shabbat, kashrut, holidays and so forth, include the two components of (quoting the words from Psalm 34, which we sang earlier in today’s service) sur mera va’aseh tov. Repudiate evil and perform good deeds. We need both of those things to achieve oneg, enjoyment, and of course to avoid nega, affliction.

One of the things that the pandemic has done is to lay bare the stark difference between the oneg of our lives and the nega, the enjoyment and the affliction. We do not have to dig too deeply to come up with examples of how our lives have changed for better and for worse, and sometimes those things are right next to each other.

Some of us have improved ourselves and our world in this time. I would say that I have seen a greater effort on the part of many of us to perform charitable acts for others: to help out those who were homebound in this time, to reach out to friends in need, to be there as a comforting presence, even from a distance, to those who have suffered, to those who grieve lost loved ones, to those who have lost their livelihoods. 

I was thinking about this when a heartwarming story floated across my desk about the largely white Fiji fraternity at Louisiana State University, 90 of whose alumni raised over $50,000 to pay off the mortgage of their longtime cook, a 74-year-old Black woman named Jessie Hamilton, who had been working two other jobs to make ends meet. This is a dramatic act of tzedaqah, but I suppose that one reason this made the news (including the New York Times) is that we are all so much more appreciative right now of such acts of generosity, in the wake of so much loss and grief.

Certainly many of us have become newly aware of the struggle for racial justice in America. While recent events suggest that there is still a long, hard road ahead of us in this regard, to guarantee the safety and education and equal treatment under the law for all of our citizens, nonetheless our public consciousness suggests that we now at least have the potential to move in the right direction.

It seems to me that many of us have also used this time of isolation to improve ourselves personally. I know that I have spent much more time making sure that I get enough exercise by taking regular walks in Frick Park (and I have seen many of my neighbors doing the same, even throughout the winter), and I have been cooking more (I make sourdough bread and fresh pasta regularly now), and I have also spent some time learning to play the banjo, something I hope to inflict on all of you soon enough. And I am sure that many of you have also engaged in similar pursuits.

So there is the oneg, the enjoyment. But we all know what the flip side of this is. We have plenty of nega / affliction to go around right now as well. 

Some of those contemporary afflictions are the plague of misinformation, and the bad actors who are willing to put any falsehood out there via Internet, and the platforms that care only about their bottom line, with no sense of responsibility for how the spreading of misinformation is actually killing people. (By the way, whatever you may think of his method and brand of humor, the English-Jewish actor Sacha Baron Cohen has used his fame to call attention to the very real danger that Facebook, Twitter, et al have caused.)

And we cannot forget, of course, the lies told by public figures that led to the violent insurrection in Washington on January 6th. Our democracy has held, but the cost in lives lost and the invigoration of white nationalist groups that helped foment this attack is truly chilling. 

And of course we probably know this anecdotally, but the emotional distress caused by isolation in this past year is great. It is likely that rates of depression, anxiety, domestic abuse and other social ills are much higher. CDC data released this week showed that overdose deaths from opioid abuse have jumped dramatically in the past year.

These are certainly variants of the nega, the affliction that the Torah goes on and on about in today’s parashah. We are greatly afflicted, and not only due to the loss of over 560,000 lives. We are greatly afflicted, even as some of us have found some oneg, some enjoyment. The oneg and the nega are proximate.

We are hopeful, of course, that we will see an end to this soon. And we certainly will, if we can get as many people vaccinated as possible as quickly as possibly. (Vaccine appointments are very easy to come by now. If you have not received a shot, you should push everything out of the way to do that now.)

And what comes next, of course, will depend on how thoughtful we are about the near future. Given the oneg and the nega of the past year and change, we should not lose out on the opportunity to move forward in a way that, shall we say, accentuates the oneg in our lives.

Sur mera va’aseh tov, says the Psalm. Repudiate evil and do good. As we begin to inch forward slowly into gathering at this time, we should keep the following principles before us:

  1. Sur mera. Repudiate evil. We have to continue to keep each other safe through masking / social distancing, until such times as our public health authorities say that it is OK to let our guard down. The sooner we get our transmission rates down low, the sooner this will all be over. And that means, by the way, that if we know people who are on the fence about vaccination, we should reach out to them in love, and maybe even drive them to get a shot.
  2. Aseh tov. Do good. We should continue to seek ways to improve ourselves, our lives, and our world, and while of course there are many such ways of doing this, I personally recommend considering the many traditional ways of Jewish living: setting aside Shabbat as a holy day of rest and oneg, eating mindfully, engaging with words of Torah, expressing our gratitude to the Qadosh Barukh Hu, and of course raising the bar in terms of our tzedaqah and hesed, our charity and acts of lovingkindness. 

It is through these things that we can lean into the oneg, the enjoyment, and keep away the nega, even as they bump up against one another.  

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 4/17/21.)

Categories
Sermons

I’m a Fundamentalist: Kashrut / Mindful Consumption – Shemini 5781

Having just completed Pesaḥ a little more than a week ago, I am still grateful for the dietary freedom that has suddenly re-appeared on my plate.

There is a funny thing about Pesaḥ – just about everybody takes the idea of kashrut over Pesah a wee bit more seriously.

My family actually became kosher (that is, everyday kosher, not just K-for-P) when I was around 11 or 12, mostly at my urging. While my parents both grew up in kosher homes, they had more or less abandoned the practice. But Pesaḥ was always 100% kosher – we went all out. One year, before that time, I was visiting my cousins in Hartford during Pesaḥ, and one afternoon my older cousin Stephen and I walked to a nearby mall. We were hungry, so we went into a non-kosher restaurant to have lunch, at a kind of low-end steakhouse. I was a bit hesitant, thinking that this did not seem quite right during Pesaḥ, but I trusted my cousin. So we ordered steaks, which came with a slice of toast. Stephen rationalized, “OK, so since it’s Passover, we just won’t eat the toast.”

Now my cousin’s family was less kosher by traditional standards than my own. But when my aunt Brenda, Stephen’s mother, heard that we had eaten at a non-kosher restaurant, during Pesaḥ, she absolutely hit the roof. My cousin was caught completely by surprise. I just felt guilty and embarrassed.

Regardless of the outcome, this story is a reminder of the fact that we, the Jews, have a fairly strong historical attachment to dietary guidelines, and that even amongst those of us who do not hew to the letter of the law regarding kashrut, there are still limits to how we eat. Even when my family did not explicitly keep kosher, for example, there was still a strong inclination to avoid pork, and I’m sure that there are many members of Beth Shalom who are in the same boat. 

Data from the Federation of Jewish Pittsburgh’s community study a few years back suggested (not directly – you have to attempt to extract the estimate yourself) that about one-third of self-identified “Conservative” Jews keep some form of kashrut inside and outside the home, and although I would suppose that the figure is somewhat higher for Beth Shalom members, it is difficult to parse out what the respondents meant by kashrut.

Nonetheless, I thought that today would be a good day to return to my very-occasional series on the Fundamentals of Judaism. In certain ways, I am a fundamentalist, and this is the sixth installment in an occasional series on the fundamentals of Jewish life. The others are:

Parashat Shemini, from which we read this morning, includes one of the two passages in the Torah dedicated to things we are permitted to eat and things we are not. Sometimes there are discernible patterns: land animals that are ruminants and that have a split hoof, fins and scales, and so forth, and sometimes there are not, as with birds (while no distinct features are described, the only implicit rule is that they are not birds of prey, which is a behavioral distinction, more so than a physical one). 

But let’s face it: restricting ourselves to particular foods is difficult, and that’s even before all of the complicated layers added in rabbinic law: the rigorous separation of meat and dairy implements, the rules surrounding kosher slaughter (which of course are not found in the Torah), procurement of “hekhshered” products, and so forth. 

And all the more so today, in which boundary-crossing of all sorts has become the norm: we do not like being fenced-in by boundaries that seem arbitrary. On the contrary, in our 24/7 world, in which conventions of the past are being tossed out, seemingly at blisteringly fast rates, traditional dietary restrictions, at least those that are religion-based seem at best somewhat quaint, and at worst downright annoying.

My life has no limits in so many areas. Why should I be limited in what I eat, particularly by guidelines from an ancient book?

This, of course, raises the larger question of why we would want limits on our behavior at all. Judaism is fond of limits: things you should do on Shabbat vs. things that you should not. There are codes of behavior with respect to daily prayer, how we speak, how we interact with others in a business context, how we educate our children, how we grieve, and so forth.

As Americans, we chafe at the idea of being limited in any way. “Don’t tell me how to behave, ” we say. “This is a free country, ” is our persistent refrain.

And yet, we know that there are some problems that come with the principle of “everything is available to me at all times.” Life has to have guard rails. 

All parents and teachers know that setting limits is healthy for the development of children:  it makes them feel safe, builds patience and problem solving skills, resourcefulness, responsibility and self-discipline. If we are the children of God, then all the more so for us as humans. The Sages warn us not to presume to understand God and the reasons for the laws, but I am certain that this is one of the fundamental principles behind kashrut: to set boundaries within Creation.

Even beyond the idea of boundaries, a related challenge that we face is too much choice. Too many options. I have given in the past the relatively innocuous example of the toothpaste aisle, in which there are seemingly endless varieties of toothpaste. Too much choice sometimes makes life more difficult. 

But germane to today’s discussion, we know that too much dietary choice in particular is dangerous: the CDC website, for example, says the following: “Adults who eat a healthy diet live longer and have a lower risk of obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers.” And we all know that many of us are not eating a healthy diet; certainly the range of unhealthy foods easily available for our immediate consumption is contributing to these maladies. To make matters worse, attempts to help limit our consumption of these foods through legislation, like mandating smaller portion sizes, usually fail when political forces intervene. We like having lots of opportunities to make bad choices.

Put more starkly, too much choice is killing us. When confronted with many options, people often do not choose the healthier one, particularly when it is up against foods specifically designed to turn on our pleasure centers: fatty, salty, sweet edibles that our bodies feel like they just cannot get enough of.

And that brings me back to kashrut. You may have been told, as I was growing up, that “kosher food is healthier,” because of diseases like trichinosis, which can be contracted from under-cooked pork. Ramban, who lived in Spain in the 13th century, believed that the flesh of non-kosher fish was toxic. 

But let’s face it: that is a disingenuous argument. Kosher food can be just as unhealthy as non-kosher food. 

The more persuasive argument, in my mind, is that kashrut, particularly in combination with the range of berakhot / blessings surrounding food consumption, heightens our awareness, and simply being aware of what we eat is 90% of the battle. Kashrut is mindfulness of consumption.

When I know that I am limited in what I am permitted to consume, it makes me pay attention: I look for the hekhsher at the grocery store; maybe I check the ingredients as well. I think about my meals in advance: is this a dairy meal? A meat meal? Have I prepared a salad, which is pareve, and can go either way, and then I’ll have some left over that I can use at the next meal? 

I am aware that some things are available to me and some are not. I do not necessarily know why God said this and not that, that and not this, but I do know that this awareness helps me understand that I am interconnected within the greater ecosystem, that I have been shaped by these boundaries to consider the consequences of the choices that I make. I am therefore aware that what I eat shapes our food production system, our economy, our world.

I am aware that the Talmud teaches us that eating food without saying a berakhah is like theft of God’s Creation, that my food is not simply at my disposal to take or to leave, and that even the most mundane human task of eating can be elevated to a holy moment, and that this holiness keeps me grounded firmly in Creation. It reminds me of my obligation to protect and defend what God has given us from unbounded despoliation.

Awareness. Awareness of what and how we eat leads to a greater awareness of ourselves, our world, and the necessity of taking responsibility for what God has given us. 

Kashrut is a fundamental statement of who we are as a people. It helps us to stay connected to each other and to our identity as Jews. But beyond that, it is also an opportunity on a daily basis to reaffirm the holiness in our lives and our world.

As a fundamentalist, 

  • I observe kashrut because it reminds me multiple times each day of the Jewish value of gratitude for what we have
  • I practice holy eating to nourish the spark of the Divine within me by being mindful of what I put into my body
  • I practice kashrut to remind me to respect Creation by considering the resources I consume
  • I observe kashrut to acknowledge my connection to my people

And so should you. If you need any help in stepping up your kashrut game, please give me a call and we’ll talk.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 4/10/2021.)

Categories
Festivals Sermons Yizkor

The Original Non-Fungible Token – Eighth Day Pesaḥ / Yizkor 5781

You might have heard a curious news blip a few weeks back about an extraordinarily unusual art auction. The artwork, by the American artist known as Beeple, was a collage of 5,000 individual digital images, assembled over nearly 14 years. Beeple, whose birth name is Mike Winkelmann, made one image each day, beginning on May 1, 2007, and the collage, entitled “Everydays: The First 5,000 Days” sold for an astonishing $69.3 million, the third-highest price paid for the work of a living artist.

Now, what is most curious about this? That the purchaser has nothing to show for his $69.3 million other than a JPEG file, about 21,000 x 21,000 pixels, with a size of about 320 megabytes. No canvas, no paint, not even a carved, gilt frame. Theoretically, anybody with a computer could easily make and distribute innumerable copies of the file and share it online with a few clicks.

You heard that right: the owner paid nearly $70 million for a computer file.

So how is it that this work could be sold for such an exorbitant sum? Because it is a so-called “non-fungible token,” or NFT.

What’s a non-fungible token, you ask? You’re not alone. Saturday Night Live actually put together a musical skit about it last week, in which a befuddled Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen (played by Kate McKinnon) seems to be at a loss to explain it

As briefly and as simply as I can explain it, an NFT is any unique item of digital content – art, tweets, music, etc. – that can be verified as the original version through a series of secure, verifiable, time-stamped files that attest to its legitimacy. And why the need for this verifiability? So that the creator can sell the original digital content, and its ownership, or transfer of ownership, can therefore be proven. Many people can possess a digital copy, but there is only one non-fungible token of any digital content that exists anywhere, and the proof of that ownership is entrusted to thousands of computer servers, scattered around the world, so that the ownership can always be proven. (Some of you may have heard of Blockchain – NFTs use that technology.)

In short, this enables people to assign a dollar value to something that is effectively a set of ones and zeros that only computers can translate for us. Completely intangible. And the records that make it “real” are entrusted on a whole bunch of secure servers, ostensibly forever.

Other items that have sold as NFTs are the first tweet by Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter, for nearly $3 million, and a digital picture of a column by New York Times Technology columnist Kevin Roose, which netted $560,000, which is I presume far more than Mr. Roose earns in a year. (He donated the money to a charity.)

Now, why is this interesting, other than the absurd amounts of money involved?

First, because it means that art, and specifically ownership of art, has moved beyond the physical product into a kind of spiritual state. It effectively means that you can own an idea, and not just the Earthly manifestation of that idea. (I suppose that the concept is not too different from the principle of intellectual property, except that usually people want to own their intellectual property because it can be used to create physical things of value. That does not seem necessarily to be the situation here. Hence the novelty.)

But second, as curious as the principles behind non-fungible tokens may seem,  the concept suggests something very powerful: that intangible items are truly valuable. And, particularly relevant on a Yizkor day, that our relationships, our sets of memories of those whom we recall today, are something like NFTs in that they are unique, real, and non-fungible. But these relationships are much richer, and effectively priceless.

Let me explain:

When I was in graduate school at Texas A&M University, I recall a discussion with some fellow Jewish grad students over a Shabbat dinner at the Hillel building there. One of my colleagues opined that it was essential to publish academic papers, because it meant that when we were gone, there would be something tangible to show that we had made an impact on the world, in print and therefore “official.” (Since he was a grad student, I’m guessing that he was also trying to rationalize what he was doing in graduate school.)

You could extend this to any particular product: inventing a gadget, say, or building a house. When we create tangible things in this world, we can point to them and say, “Aha! I have left something for the world that will remain after my death.”

But I must say that I disagree with my grad school buddy. An object is just an object; it will eventually crumble and return to dust. A paper in a journal, no matter how essential it might seem right now, will ultimately become obsolete. Yes, it is true that we read words from the Torah today, a book that is still with us after over 3,000 years, but how many other books can you name that are that old? (The Torah is clearly exceptional, for several reasons.)

Rather, I am convinced that the greatest impact that we can have on the world is to place a little bit of the intangible pieces of ourselves – our wisdom, our love, our emotional support, our humor, our personality – into all the people we know. 

And, in fact, that is what every single person on this Earth fundamentally creates during our lifetimes: the intangible dust of relationships. Memories, sentiments, shared experiences, wisdom, cherished moments, expectations fulfilled, or not, and so forth. That is the content of our relationships, much more comprehensive than the pixels arranged on a screen by a digital artist. 

And, almost miraculously, we give out these bits of ourselves to others every time we interact, every time we speak, every moment we share with others. Taken together, all of those create a unique, non-fungible collection of us as individuals, a collection that will remain long after we have departed our physical bodies.

And, unlike an NFT, the content of these vouchsafed bits of ourselves is much more rich. My relationship with my wife, for example, is quite different than my relationship with my 6th-grade teacher, Mr. Welsh. OK, so Beeple spent 5,000 days creating the piece that sold for $69 million. But I have spent already more than 18,000 days on this planet, and within that over 300,000 waking hours, much of that time engaging with others in all the ways that people interact. And nobody can ever take that away from me. Or from you. Or from all the people we know.

The total value of the unique relational moments of my life, if it could be sold, would easily eclipse any NFT by an infinite number of orders of magnitude. 

And that is precisely the point. Our relationships are priceless, and they are forever. Even if one cannot recall a specific interaction, it leaves an emotional residue – cumulative and integrated into the totality of relationship. Even when all those who knew us personally are gone, the dust of our relationships continues to echo in all relationships, in all the collective facets of humanity. 

In a commentary on Shir HaShirim, Song of Songs, from which we read this morning, Rav Avraham Yitzḥaq Kook (1865-1935), the first Chief Rabbi of Mandate Palestine, teaches us that, “Each worldly song is linked to all other songs, and their totality expresses the supernal harmony of the divine whole.” That is, the songs of our individual lives are interconnected. The relational dust that we all leave is a part of the greater song of humanity.

That is, I think, the very meaning of the term “Tzeror haḥayyim,” the bond of life, which appears in the El Male Raḥamim memorial prayer, which we will recite in a few minutes. We are all tzerurim bitzror haḥayyim, bound up in the bond of life together, inextricably interconnected in all the relational material that we share and re-share.

On this day of hazkarat neshamot / remembrance of souls, we recall those whom we have lost by singing their songs, by recalling the holy moments we spent with them, by engaging with that relational residue. We understand that our lives were not only enriched, but in fact defined by those pieces of themselves that they placed in us. Those memories are unique, and together they define those whom we remember today.

We carry them with us. We attest to not only their existence, not only the non-fungibility of their lives, not only how very real they surely still are, but how those relationships shape our lives, our world, our outlook, and our ongoing relationships, which we continue to share with others.

And that, hevreh, is truly priceless.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Eighth Day of Pesaḥ, 4/4/2021.)

Categories
Festivals Sermons

As God is My Editor – Pesaḥ Day 1, 5781

The past year, in addition to facing all of the various physical, social, and economic ills caused by the coronavirus pandemic, we have also had a sort of national reckoning on race, and we continue to look deep inside ourselves as we wrestle with the biases and prejudices that we all have. As a part of this process, we have continued the public struggles over symbols of the racism of American history. And this has not been an easy or comfortable conversation.

Right now, we are celebrating one of the most essential festivals of the Jewish year, a holiday that marks our freedom from slavery and our freedom to worship as we please. And yet, in more than one passage in the Torah, it is clear that some of our ancestors, thousands of years ago, owned slaves. Now, the slavery described in the Torah seems to be largely an economic arrangement born of bankruptcy, in which one who could not repay debts could effectively sell him/herself as a slave, although there are also arrangements for enslaving those captured in war. And it is worth pointing out that the Torah requires slave owners to let slaves go free, if the the slaves desire, after 7 years.

How can the Torah permit something which it elsewhere decries?

Of course, the very idea of slavery of any kind is detestable to us today as Jews, and as Americans. And yet, of course, as with all the other passages in the Torah that make us uncomfortable, we continue to read them, albeit with the disclaimer which I find myself making whenever explaining these thorny parts of the Torah, that although this was permissible in ancient times, we no longer do this. That’s the thing about the Torah – we read it all, out loud, every year (well, every three years at Beth Shalom, where we follow the triennial cycle). We cannot edit out passages that we do not like.

And let’s face it: as an ancient tradition that unfolded over centuries, there are plenty of things in Jewish life that we have received from our ancestors which today we find uncomfortable. And we must wrestle with those things.

The traditional Pesaḥ haggadah, for example, includes a passage that I find particularly objectionable. You can find it in your haggadah right after the berakhah for the third cup of wine, which is in the “Barekh” section (most of which is Birkat haMazon). 

 It is the following:

שְׁפֹךְ חֲמָתְךָ אֶל־הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יְדָעוּךָ וְעַל־מַמְלָכוֹת אֲשֶׁר בְּשִׁמְךָ לֹא קָרָאוּ. כִּי אָכַל אֶת־יַעֲקֹב וְאֶת־נָוֵהוּ הֵשַׁמּוּ 

שְׁפָךְ־עֲלֵיהֶם זַעֲמֶךָ וַחֲרוֹן אַפְּךָ יַשִּׂיגֵם 

תִּרְדֹף בְּאַף וְתַשְׁמִידֵם מִתַּחַת שְׁמֵי ה

Pour your wrath upon the nations that did not know You and upon the kingdoms that did not call upon Your Name! Since they have consumed Ya’aqov and laid waste his habitation (Psalms 79:6-7). 

Pour out Your fury upon them and the fierceness of Your anger shall reach them (Psalms 69:25).

You shall pursue them with anger and eradicate them from under the skies of the Lord (Lamentations 3:66)

These are a relatively late addition to the haggadah, probably from the 12th century, in the context of the Crusades, which were particularly painful to the Jews of early Ashkenaz: four verses saturated with anger and grief and pain. They were chosen because they are an obscene gesture to our non-Jewish enemies, a reflection of the powerlessness of our medieval ancestors in response to their horrible condition, maintained by anti-Semitic oppression.  

And what do we do when we recite these verses? We open the door, ostensibly to welcome Eliyahu HaNavi, the Prophet Elijah. Yes, I know that is what they told you in Hebrew school. 

A cup for Miriam the Prophetess, which some put out in addition to a cup for Elijah

But what are we saying as we do this? May God slaughter our enemies, in anger.

One theory about why we open the door is that our ancestors in these troubled times were demonstrating to our non-Jewish neighbors that nothing nefarious was going on, to show that we were not, as we had been accused, using blood of murdered Christian children to make matzah. So the irony here is that we open the door for all to see our innocence, and yet at the same time we are calling on God for vengeance.

I have often been at a loss to try to square these verses, their origin and context, with my own outlook on American Jewish life in the 21st century. On the one hand, anti-Semitism is, lamentably, still thriving here and around the world. On the other, is cursing our neighbors and calling for their destruction the right response? So, when leading a seder, I have tried to put these in context, to rationalize their presence in my haggadah, or to lean into the Eliyahu haNavi bit rather than the pouring out of Thy wrath.  

But that is what we do: when faced with rituals or text that challenge our contemporary sensibilities, we do not merely take them out. We modify them slightly (for example, adding the Imahot, the matriarchs to the opening paragraph of the Amidah), or we put them in context. The Conservative movement has historically been the home of Tradition and Change. We do not gloss over the ugly parts; rather, we seek context, meaning and intent in every generation, as our world evolves.

And we must do the same as Americans.  We are struggling right now with symbols of our past that are fraught with the sting of racism. 

You may recall that the wider movement to remove some of these symbols, like statues of Confederate generals and Confederate flags, gained a new urgency following the mass shooting at an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina by an avowed white supremacist in 2015. You may also recall that the shocking march of white supremacist groups in Charlottesville, Virginia in August of 2017 was precipitated by a public debate in that city about whether to take down a monument of Robert E. Lee.

Some symbols, like those of Confederate generals, are too painful to remain in public places. Mississippi, the state with the highest percentage of African-Americans, only removed the Confederate emblem from its flag last June. I cannot even imagine how it must have felt to the 40% of Mississippi that is Black to live in a state that flew that flag; picture having to tolerate veneration of Nazis in your neighborhood.

But while Confederate symbols and statues are clearly unacceptable, all cultures have heroes, and heroes are never saints; they are human. Their achievements can be admired while also giving context and even speaking of their failings. Presidents Washington and Jefferson, for example, were slave owners. Should we remove the statues of these icons of American democracy?

We the Jews are all too familiar with the danger of words and images. We understand where the constant denigration of others can lead. We are all too familiar with the grief and suffering caused by ancient hatreds – the pogroms, the forced exiles, the forced conscriptions, the genocide.

When we look deep into our own tradition, there are clearly troubling items to be found there. But our response is always to teach, to argue with ourselves, to write commentaries and fiery sermons and opinion pieces and critical editions of ancient texts. And, of course, around Purim time, we remember to forget Amaleq, who sought to destroy us.

In short, the remedy to these things is education. We do not edit out the bad parts; we teach them! And we teach that hatred is wrong, that oppression and slavery are wrong.

And so too as Americans. We have to teach the shameful parts of our past, and help our coming generations wrestle with our own internal demons to lead us all to live in harmony with each other, to understand that we are all in this together, that nobody is truly free until all are free. We have to make sure that the commentaries are there, the explanations that say, “This is not who we are. We are better than this.” 

We, the Jews, have to share a little bit of the seder with our non-Jewish neighbors, a different part, the passage that is, I think, the most important one in the whole book: Check out the beginning of “Maggid”: Kol dikhfin yeitei yeikhul. Let all who are hungry, come and eat. I am going to break these down, Rashi-style:

Kol dikhfin / All who are hungry: This refers to all who suffer in any way, whether through physical or spiritual deprivation. It includes the homeless as well as the oppressed, the abused, the victims of grinding poverty, baseless hatred, and corrupt governments.

Yeitei / Let them come: Open our doors with love, honesty, and compassion.

Veyeikhul / And let them eat: We are obligated to take care of one another, to make sure that all are welcome, all are fed and clothed and housed and all have access to health care and justice. We should incline toward building a better society, one in which nobody falls through the cracks. The work of repairing this world is not yet done.  

If you want to reinterpret “Shefokh ḥamatekha” / pouring out God’s wrath a different way, that’s fine. Perhaps you’d like to interpret this passage as directed at the enemies within ourselves, the parts of our personalities that resist God’s holiness. Maybe right afterward, you could reprise Kol dikhfin yeitei veyeikhul. But just make sure that we know why we are saying what we say. Teach our values, so that we may live them, and that our children may live them, and all of us may live together.

חג שמח / Ḥag sameaḥ!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, first day of Pesa , 3/28/2021.)

Categories
Festivals Sermons

Next Year in Jerusalem – Shabbat HaGadol, 5781

Leading up to Pesaḥ / Passover, I always try to remind anybody who will listen that the most important part of the seder experience is not the meal, but the discussion surrounding the meal. I know – eating is more fun than talking about tradition and history and customs and ideas and holiday themes and slavery and freedom. But I want to try to give you a discussion topic today that I think you will really WANT to have with your family, whether they are there in person or meeting via Zoom or however you are gathering.

It is this: Lashanah haba-ah biyrushalayim. The last three words in the haggadah: Next year in Jerusalem. That should be our mantra this year.

Because this year, this Pesaḥ, we can see Jerusalem from a distance.

What do I mean by that? First, let’s consider the role of Jerusalem in Jewish life.

In the year 70 CE, the Romans destroyed the Second Beit haMiqdash / Temple in Jerusalem. The Beit haMiqdash was the center of Jewish life up until that time – it was where the kohanim (Jewish priests) sacrificed animals to God, according to the instructions found in the Torah, some of which were described in Parashat Tzav, which we read from this morning. Following this destruction, the Beit haMiqdash has never been rebuilt. 

(As you have heard me argue before, the Romans actually did the Jews a kind of favor; Maimonides makes the case, more than a millennium later, that it was ultimately God’s intent to bring us to tefillah / prayer as our primary form of worship in lieu of sacrificing animals. Not everybody agrees with Maimonides, but that is a subject for another day.)

About 65 years after the Roman destruction, following the Bar Kokhba rebellion of 132-135 CE, the Roman authorities banned Jews from living in Jerusalem and its outskirts. 

(Another aside: when you read tonight about the five rabbis – R. Eliezer, R. Yehoshua R. El’azar ben Azariah, R. Aqiva, and R. Tarfon – who gathered at Benei Beraq to discuss the Exodus all night long, that may be a description of an all-night Bar Kokhba rebellion planning session. When one of their students pops in to say, Rabbeinu, higi’a zeman qeri’at Shema shel shaḥarit / “Our teachers, the time has come to recite the morning Shema,” that may have been the sentry’s code for, “Hide the maps! The Romans are coming!”)

From the early 2nd century forward, the entirety of the rabbinic enterprise was dedicated not only to creating a religious system to replace the kohanic / sacrificial system, but also to remember and highlight the grandeur of the Beit haMiqdash, and the “good ol’ days” of its existence, even as they replaced its centralized, hierarchical system with the democratic, decentralized system of Rabbinic Judaism that we have today.

In doing so, the rabbis elevated Jerusalem, also known as Tziyyon / Zion, as the focal point of our yearning. We find this throughout rabbinic literature, manifest in the messianic desire of rebuilding Jerusalem and the Beit haMiqdash of course, but also in passages like this from the Talmud, Massekhet Qiddushin 49b:

עשרה קבים חכמה ירדו לעולם תשעה נטלה ארץ ישראל ואחד כל העולם כולו עשרה קבים יופי ירדו לעולם תשעה נטלה ירושלים ואחד כל העולם כולו …

Ten kavim of wisdom descended to the world; Eretz Yisrael took nine of them and all the rest of the world took one. Ten kavim of beauty descended to the world; Jerusalem took nine and all the rest of the world in its entirety took one.

90% of the world’s beauty is in Jerusalem, and 90% of the world’s wisdom is in Israel. This yearning continues until this very day; you can find it on many pages of the siddur, including multiple berakhot in the weekday Amidah, which we recite three times per day, while facing, and bowing in the direction of Jerusalem.

The medieval Spanish poet, Yehudah haLevi, who lived in the 11th/12th century, captures this ancient desire so beautifully in his primal poem, Libi vemizrah

לִבִּי בְמִזְרָח וְאָנֹכִי בְּסוֹף מַעֲרָב
אֵיךְ אֶטְעֲמָה אֵת אֲשֶׁר אֹכַל וְאֵיךְ יֶעֱרָב
אֵיכָה אֲשַׁלֵּם נְדָרַי וֶאֱסָרַי, בְּעוֹד
צִיּוֹן בְּחֶבֶל אֱדוֹם וַאֲנִי בְּכֶבֶל עֲרָב
יֵקַל בְּעֵינַי עֲזֹב כָּל טוּב סְפָרַד, כְּמוֹ
יֵקַר בְּעֵינַי רְאוֹת עַפְרוֹת דְּבִיר נֶחֱרָב

My heart is in the East, and I in the uttermost West–
How can I find savor in food? How shall it be sweet to me?
How shall I render my vows and my bonds, while yet
Zion lieth beneath the fetter of Edom, and I in Arab chains?
A light thing would it seem to me to leave all the good things of Spain —
Seeing how precious in mine eyes to behold the dust of the desolate sanctuary.

In some sense, Yehudah haLevi is yearning not for the rebuilt Beit haMiqdash, but rather the idea of returning to this “precious” jewel of a ruined city. Were it not for the desire to see Jerusalem, his exile in Spain would be impossible to bear.

An essential destination in the Earthly Jerusalem: Marzipan.

And furthermore, the Talmud tells us that there are really two Jerusalems, and our yearning is arguably greater for the heavenly Jerusalem, Yerushalayim shel Ma’alah (BT Ta’anit 5a):

וַאֲמַר לֵיהּ רַב נַחְמָן לְרַבִּי יִצְחָק מַאי דִּכְתִיב בְּקִרְבְּךָ קָדוֹשׁ וְלֹא אָבוֹא בְּעִיר מִשּׁוּם דִּבְקִרְבְּךָ קָדוֹשׁ לֹא אָבוֹא בְּעִיר אָמַר לֵיהּ הָכִי אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן אָמַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לֹא אָבוֹא בִּירוּשָׁלַיִם שֶׁל מַעְלָה עַד שֶׁאָבוֹא לִירוּשָׁלַיִם שֶׁל מַטָּה

Rabbi Yitzḥak said to Rav Naḥman that Rabbi Yoḥanan said … The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: I shall not enter Jerusalem above, in heaven, until I enter Jerusalem on earth down below at the time of the redemption, when it will be sacred in your midst.

Rabbi Yoḥanan’s suggestion is that the heavenly Jerusalem is the greater prize; that will not be rebuilt until the Earthly Jerusalem, Yerushalayim shel Matah, is rebuilt.

So why am I telling you all of this today? What does it mean for us at this particular moment?

When we say, Lashanah Haba-ah Biyrushalayim tonight and tomorrow night, we should lean into our own immediate yearning. We have been in exile for more than a year; we have been yearning for the East, our hearts at the end of the West, since Adar of 5780.  

Yes, I know that is not a long time, compared to the nearly two millennia that our ancestors waited for the opportunity to rebuild Yerushalayim shel Matah / Earthly Jerusalem. 

Yes, I know that even with all the grief that the virus has caused – the sickness, the death, the anxiety, and all the various socio-economic consequences – these things are still small compared to the way our people have suffered throughout the centuries of displacement. 

And yes, I know that it does not really help to look at one’s predicament and say, “Oh, but it could be so much worse.”

Nonetheless, the point at which enough of us will have been vaccinated such that we can begin to gather safely again, to re-open businesses, to see our families and friends, will actually feel to many of us like a major redemption. People have told me that they have cried when receiving their shots; many, I know, are saying a berakhah. I certainly recited sheheheyyanu when I got my first dose two weeks ago. This is my Jerusalem right now.

So as we all gather this evening, here are a few discussion questions you can ask:

  • Why do we say, “Lashanah haba-ah biyrushalayim,” if most of us are not actually planning to move to Israel in the next year?
  • What might “Yerusahalayim” represent this year?
  • What might we do to make sure we get there more quickly?

You might guide the discussion by seasoning it with the difference between the Earthly and Heavenly Jerusalems, and while we can all visit and/or move to the Earthly Jerusalem, the Heavenly one is more of an idea that encompasses our yearning, our individual goals of freedom at this moment.

And, by the way, you do not have to wait until the end of the seder to discuss this, because right up front in the “Maggid” section, in which we tell the story, when we say, “Ha laḥma anya,” this is the bread of poverty that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt, it also says, a little further into that Aramaic passage:

הָא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא דִּי אֲכָלוּ אַבְהָתָנָא בְאַרְעָא דְמִצְרָיִם. כָּל דִכְפִין יֵיתֵי וְיֵיכֹל, כָּל דִצְרִיךְ יֵיתֵי וְיִפְסַח. הָשַּׁתָּא הָכָא, לְשָׁנָה הַבָּאָה בְּאַרְעָא דְיִשְׂרָאֵל. הָשַּׁתָּא עַבְדֵי, לְשָׁנָה הַבָּאָה בְּנֵי חוֹרִין

This is the bread of poverty that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat; let all who are in need come and partake of the Pesaḥ sacrifice. Now we are here, next year we will be in the land of Israel. ​​​​​​​This year we are slaves, next year we will be free people.

Let me rephrase that for you:

Now we are living apart; in the coming year, with the help of the Qadosh Barukh Hu, we will be free once again to greet each other, to hug each other, to dine together, to worship together, to sing and dance together. That is freedom; that is a vision of Yerushalayim shel Ma’alah for which I am yearning right now.

Shabbat shalom, and ḥag sameaḥ!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 3/27/2021.)

Categories
Sermons

Gathering With Purpose, Then and Now – Vayaqhel-Pequdei 5781

The Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle published a fascinating piece this week about the history of Beth Shalom by Rauh Jewish Archives director Eric Lidji, and it is truly a great read. It is about the oldest part of this building, the central piece that is now where the Helfant Chapel is located, and the few floors above it. Drawing on a Beth Shalom yearbook from Rosh Hashanah 5685 (that’s 1924!), Mr. Lidji reports that the building was called the “Community House,” and featured spaces for learning, prayer, physical exercise, and of course preparing and eating food. You should check out the article yourself (there is also a link to it on our Facebook page, and it will be in next week’s print edition), but what caught my eye was a wonderful statement by the congregation’s second rabbi, Rabbi Goodman Rose:

We… are laying the foundations for a new Jewish community, distinctive, and in certain respects different from those from which we had come. We must organize our Judaism and mould our spiritual structures. What plans have we to follow? No set rules, no standard patterns, no fixed precedents are available for our guidance. We must think out our way step by step and act by act — this only being our unswerving principle, that not an iota of our Judaism is to be sacrificed.

I read that and I had one of those moments that remind me of bad ‘80s television, in particular, the George Peppard character on The A-Team, which I must concede that I watched and enjoyed when I was in junior high school. When the team’s solution to the crisis of the week was falling into place, Hannibal would say, “I love it when a plan comes together.” So as a rabbi, I love it when a sermon comes together.

When Rabbi Rose wrote those words, he was thinking, arguably “outside the box,” about the ways in which we use our spaces to gather. And when this article landed in my inbox, I was thinking about that as well. I was considering the opening line of Parashat Vayaqhel, and also about the keynote lecture that the author and conflict-resolution expert Priya Parker gave to the membership of the Rabbinical Assembly at our annual convention last week. Ms. Parker spoke on the subject of gathering, particularly in the context of the pandemic. She has written a book on this topic, titled, The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters.

I’ll come back to Priya Parker in a moment, but first, it is worth remembering that the Hebrew term for synagogue is “beit kenesset,” which literally means, “house of gathering.” That is what this building is for. We, the Jews, are a communal people. You can’t be Jewish alone, and the essence of “doing Jewish” is doing it in the context of community, in Hebrew, “qehillah.” Even here on Zoom, in this virtual space, we are making qehillah happen, but I must say that I am thinking about gathering in the same physical space again.

It has certainly been a year that has been challenging for many reasons, and from where I stand, the challenge is exceptionally great. For an entire year, beginning on this Shabbat, Shabbat HaHodesh last year, we have been gathering mostly not in person, mostly online. I am of course very proud of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative movement for giving us a rabbinic hekhsher (permission) to do so, and I am also particularly proud of Beth Shalom as a congregation for keeping the momentum of gathering up over the last year. We have maintained a morning and evening service every single day of the last year, and our attendance has actually been better than prior to the pandemic. Our tradition has developed over centuries, and our response to the pandemic is on the continuum of ways in which Judaism has grown and changed with time.

But think for a moment about the situations in which we gather:

Certainly, we gather for tefillah / prayer. Al tifrosh min hatzibbur. Do not separate yourself from the community, says Pirqei Avot (2:4). Rambam takes this even a step further; in the Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Tefillah 8:1), he reports that one who does NOT go to a synagogue in his neighborhood is called a bad neighbor! So of course we gather for tefillah.

And did you know that you have to have a minyan, a quorum of ten people at a wedding?

We of course gather for funerals. For shiv’ah. For supporting those of us who mourn.

We gather for benei mitzvah, as we see our young people called to the Torah

We gather for meals – Shabbat, Yom Tov, breaking the fast, etc. You do not need a minyan to eat, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.

We gather to learn. We gather to schmooze. We gather to support those in need, and to bring holiday cheer to one another, and to argue over bylaws and synagogue budgets and current events. We gather to toss our sins away on Rosh Hashanah, and to confess them together in public on Yom Kippur.

In short, almost everything in Jewish life involves gathering.

The beginning of Vayaqhel, which we read from this morning, includes an ancient imperative to gather (Shemot / Exodus 35:1):

וַיַּקְהֵ֣ל מֹשֶׁ֗ה אֶֽת־כָּל־עֲדַ֛ת בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֑ם אֵ֚לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּ֥ה ה’ לַעֲשֹׂ֥ת אֹתָֽם׃

Moses then gathered the whole Israelite community and said to them: These are the things that the LORD has commanded you to do…

Gathering has a purpose: here, God needed to tell our ancestors about the essence of Shabbat and the building of the mishkan, their new center of worship. The verb, vayaqhel, comes from the same shoresh / Hebrew root as qehillah, community. We have been gathering as a people since ancient times.

Among the principles that Priya Parker spoke about is the fact that good gathering includes storytelling, and understanding why the gathering is taking place, and is not about the form and the details of the room or the furniture or the food, but rather about the purpose therein.

(BTW, although she is not Jewish, she complimented us, the Jews, heavily, saying that she could have written her book drawing exclusively on anecdotes from the Jewish world! All cultures have forms of gathering, but we do it especially well.)

The bottom line, says Ms. Parker, is that we should not gather because we have to; rather, we gather because it meets a certain need. Tefillah, schmoozing, grieving, celebrating – those are the needs; we gather as Jews because we need to, as individuals and as a qehillah.

And when I read that quote from Rabbi Rose, my predecessor of many decades, I understood completely his description of the Community House: no set rules, no standard patterns, no fixed precedents for how Beth Shalom came together in our first building; a new, distinctive Jewish community, an opportunity to “mould our spiritual structures.” In short, purpose over form.

And we are there again, just as we are poised to re-emerge from a year of hibernation.

Over the past year, I know that I have lamented our lack of gathering. I have advocated for us to gather whenever possible; our coronavirus task force has put the kibosh on some ideas. But I am certain that many of you are longing for us to gather once again, in all the ways that we do so.

And so, as more of us are vaccinated, as more of us can safely gather, let’s not just return to where we were, but rather take time (א) to savor our gratitude for being able to be safely in each others’ presence again, but also (ב) to ensure that our gathering is good, that it is meaningful, that it meets the need of molding our spiritual structure.

To that end, let me suggest just a few things that we can consider, inspired by the wisdom of Priya Parker, while we are still in pandemic mode, perhaps to be implemented when we return:

  1. Consider defining your own personal ritual as you enter the synagogue building or our prayer space. Is it to recite, “Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’aqov,” the words that are traditionally said upon entering a synagogue? Is it to wrap yourself up in your tallit for a minute, for a moment of solitude? Is it to greet everybody in the room?
  2. Consider what we might do as a qehillah to re-establish our presence in this space, in each other’s presence. Should we have a ceremony? Should we spend a moment sitting in utter silence together, or sing songs together, or dance together in one huge, non-socially-distanced circle?
  3. Consider the ways in which we can, moving forward, ensure that all of our gatherings have a shared sense of purpose. Will that require an addition to our service, a moment of focus? Will it necessitate discussions or classes or a revised approach to what we do? Our Board meetings always begin with a devar Torah; maybe all our other gatherings should include a little thought from our tradition as well?  

Every morning of the year, just before the end of Pesuqei deZimra, we recite Psalm 149. It is one of those that we mumble through, without any particular songs or particularly quotable lines. But the first verse reads as follows:

 שִׁ֣ירוּ לה’ שִׁ֣יר חָדָ֑שׁ תְּ֝הִלָּת֗וֹ בִּקְהַ֥ל חֲסִידִֽים׃

Sing to God a new song, praise of God in the gathering of the faithful.

How can it be a new song every day, particularly when we chant the same ancient words? By ensuring that the gathering of the faithful is endowed with purpose.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 3/13/2021.)