A Great Discussion For Your Seder Table: Let’s Think About Redemption Differently – Shabbat HaGadol 5779

Pesah is the festival of redemption. Yetzi’at mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt is the archetype, the redemption that defines all future redemptions. In our tefillah, our Jewish liturgy, we invoke yetzi’at mitzrayim not only on Pesah, but year-round, every day. The haftarah (prophetic reading) for Shabbat HaGadol draws a fine point on it (Malachi 3:23):

הִנֵּ֤ה אָֽנֹכִי֙ שֹׁלֵ֣חַ לָכֶ֔ם אֵ֖ת אֵלִיָּ֣ה הַנָּבִ֑יא לִפְנֵ֗י בּ֚וֹא י֣וֹם ה’ הַגָּד֖וֹל וְהַנּוֹרָֽא׃

Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the LORD.

This penultimate line, which is then repeated as the last line (so that we don’t end on an unpleasant note), is not only the source of the name of Shabbat HaGadol, but also a reference to redemption, some future redemption. Eliyahu HaNavi is the herald of redemption – that’s why we often reference Eliyahu at liminal moments: havdalah, berit millah, Pesah.

But what are we hoping for, really? “Redemption” could mean many different things. In the ancient rabbinic mind, it meant restoring the sacrifices in the Beit haMiqdash, the Temple in Jerusalem, Jewish rule in Israel, united under a Davidic throne, i.e. mashiah. (By the way, that word means “anointed,” as does the Greek word christos, which comes to us in English as “christ.”) For some, it also meant resurrection of the dead, which we still find enshrined in the second paragraph of the Amidah, the standing, silent prayer that is one of the essential building blocks of every Jewish prayer service.

In other words, some of our ancestors yearned for a throwback to the good ol’ days under King David, when all the Jews were in one place at home and the Temple was functioning.

But perhaps the seder, and in particular the “traditional” text of the haggadah (the book that we read from on the first two nights of Pesah), which developed over centuries of exile and dispersion, were trying to emphasize a different, more immediate kind of redemption? Perhaps the great redemption, symbolized by the Exodus from Egypt, seemed simply too big, too unbelievable to be able to wrap our brains around, and so the rabbis conceived of something else

While Jews have focused for millennia on national redemption, perhaps that the haggadah is trying to tell us is that our focus should be on what you might call “personal redemption.”

So how might we see this reflected in the seder? Consider the following: before we tell the story of yetzi’at mitzrayim, during the “Maggid” (i.e. story-telling) section of the haggadah, what do we say (in Aramaic, BTW, so that we can all understand it, at least theoretically)

הגדה של פסח, מגיד, הא לחמא עניא ג׳
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

Pesah Haggadah, Magid, Ha Lahma Anya 3
This is the bread of poverty that our
ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat, anyone who is in need should come and partake of the Pesah 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.

Why do we open with this? To focus our attention not only on the ancient, national redemption from slavery in Egypt, but also on redemption that might be achieved in our day. The goal is to remind us, right up front, that there are people in need all around us, and it is up to us to reach out to them – not necessarily in that moment, but tomorrow, next week, next month, and thereafter.
Consider the following from the 20th-c Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, from one of his best-known poems, תיירים / Tourists:

אמרתי בלבי: הגאולה תבוא רק אם יגידו להם: אתם רואים שם את הקשת מן התקופה הרומית? לא חשוב: אבל לידה, קצת שמאלה ולמטה ממנה, יושב אדם שקנה פֵּרות וירקות לביתו

I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them, “You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”

What is the ge’ulah / redemption that Amichai is reflecting? Is it the throwback to the good ol’ days? Is it even national statehood? No. Rather, it’s an understanding not of the value or fantasy associated with ancient stones, but our current reality of relating to each other as people. Not national mythology, but personal relationships. The tourist that understands that the value of the living person and society is greater than the archaeological wonders has achieved personal redemption.

Consider the following midrash:

ויקרא רבה ט׳:ג׳
מַעֲשֶׂה בְּרַבִּי יַנַּאי שֶׁהָיָה מְהַלֵּךְ בַּדֶּרֶךְ וְרָאָה אָדָם אֶחָד שֶׁהָיָה מְשֻׁפַּע בְּיוֹתֵר, אֲמַר לֵיהּ מַשְׁגַּח רַבִּי מִתְקַבְּלָא גַבָּן, אֲמַר לוֹ אִין, הִכְנִיסוֹ לְבֵיתוֹ הֶאֱכִילוֹ וְהִשְׁקָהוּ, בְּדָקוֹ בְּמִקְרָא וְלֹא מְצָאוֹ, בְּמִשְׁנָה וְלֹא מְצָאוֹ, בְּאַגָּדָה וְלֹא מְצָאוֹ, בְּתַלְמוּד וְלֹא מְצָאוֹ, אֲמַר לֵיהּ סַב בְּרִיךְ, אֲמַר לֵיהּ יְבָרֵךְ יַנַּאי בְּבֵיתֵיהּ, אֲמַר לֵיהּ אִית בָּךְ אֲמַר מַה דַּאֲנָא אֲמַר לָךְ, אֲמַר לֵיהּ אִין, אֲמַר לֵיהּ אֱמֹר אָכוֹל כַּלְבָּא פִּיסְתְּיָא דְּיַנַּאי, קָם תַּפְסֵיהּ אֲמַר לֵיהּ יְרוּתָתִי גַבָּךְ דְּאַתְּ מוֹנֵעַ לִי, אֲמַר לֵיהּ וּמַה יַרְתּוּתָךְ גַבִּי, אֲמַר לֵיהּ חַד זְמַן הֲוֵינָא עָבַר קַמֵּי בֵּית סִפְרָא, וּשְׁמָעִית קָלְהוֹן דְּמֵנִיקַיָא אָמְרִין (דברים לג, ד): תּוֹרָה צִוָּה לָנוּ משֶׁה מוֹרָשָׁה קְהִלַּת יַעֲקֹב, מוֹרָשָׁה קְהִלַּת יַנַּאי אֵין כְּתִיב כָּאן אֶלָּא קְהִלַּת יַעֲקֹב

Vayiqra Rabbah 9:3

Rabbi Yannai was once walking along the road, and saw a man who was extremely well dressed. Rabbi Yannai said to him: Would you like to come over to my house? The man replied: Yes. Rabbi Yannai brought him into his home, and gave him food and drink. As they were eating and drinking together, he examined him in his knowledge of Bible, and found out that he had none; examined his knowledge of Mishnah, and he had none; his knowledge of aggadah (midrash), and he had none; his knowledge of Talmud and he had none. Rabbi Yannai then told him: Wash and recite birkat hamazon. Said the guest: Let Yannai recite birkat hamazon in his own home. Seeing that he could not even recite a berakhah, Yannai told him: Can you at least repeat what I say? Said he: Yes. Said Rabbi Yannai: repeat the following: ‘A dog has eaten Yannai’s bread.’ Offended, the man stood up, and grabbed Rabbi Yannai by the coat! He then said: My inheritance is with you, and you are withholding it from me! Said Rabbi Yannai with puzzlement: What legacy of yours is there with me? He replied: Once I passed by a school, and I heard the voices of the little children saying: ‘Moses gave us the Torah, the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob.’ They did not say ‘the inheritance of the congregation of Yannai,’ but the ‘congregation of Jacob.’

The midrash is trying to teach us that Torah is not reserved for the few who know and understand it, but rather for all, and that the way that we act on our textual heritage is by reaching out to everybody, not to the select few whom we like.

While we continue to emphasize redemption in many of our rituals, including the seder, redemption can come in different forms and quantities. Rather than think of the great ge’ulah as an echo of yetzi’at Mitzraim, perhaps we can re-orient ourselves to consider that personal redemption will come when we all recognize the humanity in the other, when we reach out in meaningful ways to the people around us. That Torah is for all, and it teaches us to be in relation with all.

Perhaps that is what Pesah comes to teach us.

חג שמח! Happy Pesah!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 4/13/2019.)

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We Need More Nuance – Shabbat HaHodesh 5779

I recently read an article in Harper’s Magazine about the slow death of the long-form book review. It was a lengthy lament on the decline not merely of book reviews, but also an appreciation of nuance overall in our current media environment. The author, Christian Lorentzen, a former book reviewer for New York magazine, opined that even respectable media outlets have focused on covering books in a way that suits today’s climate: shorter bits, recommended lists, author Q&As, thumbs-up-thumbs-down-type coverage. In one passage, acknowledging that the reality is that even the New York Times Book Review is ultimately in search of more clicks, the author drew a fine point on it

… For certain types of journalism the quest for traffic is incompatible with, if not antithetical to, the task at hand. Once a critic has decided, or been assigned, to review a book, should any questions of attracting traffic figure into the work of analysis and evaluation? If they do, such concerns will inevitably push the reviewer to declare the book either a masterpiece or a travesty, or to point up its most sensational elements if there are any to speak of. A conscientious review admitting either to ambivalence or judgments in conflict with one another won’t travel as quickly on social media as an unqualified rave. As BuzzFeed books editor Arianna Rebolini put it…, “Are you going to put your time into something that’s not going to share well?”

Lorentzen takes us all to task. Book coverage, like virtually everything else, has been reduced to black and white. It’s either awesome or horrible, enthusiastically recommended or panned. We either “like” it (with a thumb icon) or we don’t. Not much room in that thumb for nuance, for accepting some good points with some weaknesses. The subtlety that should mark any great work of literature is lost, because such subtlety is virtually invisible in an online environment in which EVERYBODY IS SHOUTING in capital letters.

And so too throughout society. On every issue, we are all polarized. You either agree or disagree. End of story. The middle won’t hold, because it doesn’t attract enough online traffic.

Who has time for nuance? I can’t help but view the world through my professional Jewish lens. And I see a parallel between long form book reviews and (get this!) Conservative Judaism.  Our greatest challenge, being in the middle of Jewish life, is that we cannot be described in a soundbite. An unofficial slogan of the Conservative movement, in the middle of the 20th century, came from Rabbi Mordecai Waxman, who was the senior rabbi at Temple Israel of Great Neck on Long Island for 55 years, from 1947 until 2002. His slogan, “Tradition and Change,” used to resonate throughout the movement. We stand for halakhah, Jewish law, (i.e. tradition) and yet we exercise our right as modern Jews to interpret halakhah (that is, to make some change) to adapt to the framework of contemporary life.

A classic example is that, in 1950, the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, in an effort to encourage Shabbat observance when more and more American Jews were moving to the suburbs, passed a teshuvah, a rabbinic opinion, that said that if you do not live within walking distance of a synagogue, it is better that you should drive to be with your qehillah, your community on Shabbat than not to go at all, even though driving a car with an internal combustion engine is clearly prohibited according to halakhah.

The challenge to the Conservative movement is putting forward a nuanced vision of Judaism while living in a dramatically non-nuanced world. The idea of “Tradition and Change” works well on the Jewish bookshelf, but it hardly gets people very excited about our heritage.

We the Jews are masters of nuance. Rabbinic literature is filled with examples of the subtle parsing of words and concepts. One such example that came across my desk this week, courtesy of Rabbi Jeremy Markiz, the director of Derekh, relates in particular to the language of the haggadah.

One passage which you really should discuss around your seder table, is a direct quote from the Mishnah of Pesahim, the book of the Mishnah dedicated to all aspects of Passover (10:5). You might miss it if you’re only focused on singing the Four Questions and Dayyenu, and for sure if you’re skipping right to dinner

בְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת עַצְמוֹ כְאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (שמות יג), וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר, בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה ה’ לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם

… In every generation a person must see him/herself as though s/he [personally] had gone out of Egypt, as it is stated, “And you shall tell your child on that day, saying, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt’” (Exodus 13:8).

This is the call to arms of the seder. It is the line that is most important because it connects our history to who we are and how we live today

What does it say? Each of us must see ourselves as having personally come forth from Egypt. How might that guide our actions? If we are truly internalizing that notion, then it should mean that we should let that vision of ourselves guide us in eliminating oppression from our world.

But hold on a minute. Rabbi Markiz pointed me to the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides / Rambam, his 12th century halakhic work that gives a thorough snapshot of living Jewishly. And while Rambam sometimes quotes the Talmud directly, here he changes the words somewhat (MT, Hilkhot Hametz uMatzah 7:6)

בְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לְהַרְאוֹת אֶת עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלּוּ הוּא בְּעַצְמוֹ יָצָא עַתָּה מִשִּׁעְבּוּד מִצְרַיִם שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (דברים ו כג) “וְאוֹתָנוּ הוֹצִיא מִשָּׁם” וְגוֹ’. וְעַל דָּבָר זֶה צִוָּה הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא בַּתּוֹרָה “וְזָכַרְתָּ כִּי עֶבֶד הָיִיתָ” כְּלוֹמַר כְּאִלּוּ אַתָּה בְּעַצְמְךָ הָיִיתָ עֶבֶד וְיָצָאתָ לְחֵרוּת וְנִפְדֵּיתָ

In every generation a person must show her/himself that s/he personally had come forth from Egyptian subjugation, as it is stated, “God freed us from there…” (Deut. 6:23). And regarding this, the Holy Blessed One commanded in the Torah, “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt…” (Deut. 5:15, 15:15, 24:22), that is to say, as if you yourself had been a slave, and you came forth into freedom, and you were redeemed.

So here is the nuance:

  1. Rambam changes the imperative from “see oneself” (lir’ot) to “show oneself” (lehar’ot). The second form is causative (hif’il). Don’t just picture yourself as a former slave, says Rambam. Rather, show yourself. Do something that will bring this understanding home, will make it personal. Go from passive to active.

  2. Rambam also changes the proof-text. Instead of the verse quoted in the Mishnah, about what God did for me when I came forth from Egypt, he cites an explicit statement of what God did, i.e. freed us from Egypt’s clutches, and then backs it up with an oft-repeated line in the Torah about remembering that we were slaves. The impression with which we are left is stronger. Don’t think of freedom merely as a gift from God for which we should be grateful. Rather, remember that you were a slave, and now you’re free, and you have to act on that.

You can feel free to use Rambam’s words in your seder if you’d like. In fact, I encourage you to print them out and compare them back-to-back one night. But you can’t stop there – the point of the seder is not merely intellectual discussion. It is, rather, a call to action.

Show yourself what it means to be free. Contribute your time to help others – by working in a homeless shelter, or joining a group that is working to prevent gun violence, or reaching out to the local Muslim community, or the local African-American community, to work toward better inter-faith and inter-racial relations, or many other such activities, or speaking up when your own government separates migrant families at our southern border. Don’t just picture yourself as a slave; show yourself what it means to be free. Prove to yourself that your freedom moves you to act on the behalf of those deprived of it.

It is a subtle textual emendation by Maimonides. But it could make a huge difference in this world. We cannot afford NOT to parse the nuance. We cannot reduce ourselves to the Like/Dislike sickness that has afflicted our society. We the Jews have a proud tradition of textual interpretation based on subtlety; let’s put it to work as we show ourselves and others that we understand the value of nuance.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 4/6/2019.)

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Not Just Checking the Box – Tzav 5779

One of the most fundamental concepts in Jewish life is that of Torah lishmah, learning the words of our tradition merely for the sake of learning. Consider the following from Pirqei Avot (6:1):

רַבִּי מֵאִיר אוֹמֵר כָּל הָעוֹסֵק בַּתּוֹרָה לִשְׁמָהּ, זוֹכֶה לִדְבָרִים הַרְבֵּה. וְלֹא עוֹד אֶלָּא שֶׁכָּל הָעוֹלָם כֻּלּוֹ כְדַי הוּא לוֹ

Rabbi Meir says: Anyone who involves himself in Torah for its own sake merits many things, and moreover the entire world is worthwhile for his sake; He is called “friend,” “beloved,” “lover of the Omnipresent,” “one who loves humankind,” “delighter of the Omnipresent,” “delighter of [all] creatures.” He is clothed in humility and reverence, and it prepares him to be righteous, devout, upright and trustworthy, and it distances him from sin, and draws him near to merit. We enjoy from him counsel and comprehension, understanding and strength, as it is said (Proverbs 8:14): “Mine is counsel and comprehension, I am understanding, mine is strength.” It gives him kingship and dominion, and [the ability to] investigate in judgment, and the secrets of the Torah are revealed to him, and he becomes like an ever-strengthening spring, and like a river that does not stop. He is modest and long-tempered, and forgives insult to him; And it enlarges him and raises him above all [that God] made.

Torah lishmah is the key to perfecting ourselves. All of the fundamental human traits that we desire—humility, lovingkindness, reverence, uprightness, faith, compassion, gratitude, modesty, forgiveness and so forth—flow from learning, from analyzing, from interpreting the words of our tradition.

I recall reading some time ago that the difference between the Western approach to education and that of the East is that while in the East education is understood to be the way to improve yourself, in the West we use education as a means to acquire skills that help us manipulate the world to our own personal benefit. The difference is one of focus: internal vs. external. Torah lishmah, like the Eastern tradition, is primarily an internal activity. It leads us to be better people.

***

The university admissions fraud scandal, revealed two weeks ago is, unfortunately, not too surprising. In an educational system that is already clearly skewed in favor of those who grow up with means, does it surprise anybody that people who can afford to pay half a million dollars to guarantee their kid admission to Yale will do so, even through illegal channels.

But in many ways, it is symptomatic one of the greatest challenges that our society faces. We are all striving to push, to achieve, to do, that we rarely take time to consider our values. We take for granted that we must push harder, but we sometimes cannot see the humanity around us: the loved ones who need us most, the neighbors, and indeed neighborhoods in distress, the ways in which our personal choices might undermine the common good.

We are so obsessed with quantifiable achievement—grades, test scores, numbers of hours spent in extra-curriculars—that we enable a framework in which our children spend more and more time in activities that will make their university applications stand out from the crowd, that will give them the edge. We are so in love with brands – Harvard, Stanford, Georgetown, etc. – that we encourage our teens to check more boxes, to “diversify,” to extra-curricular themselves to the point of exhaustion.  

What do we want our children to be? Do we want them to be overstretched automatons? Do we want them to be successful money-making machines? Or do we want them to focus on the non-quantifiables?

In my experience, when asked, parents tend to say things like, “I want my child to be a good person, to make good choices, to know right from wrong, to be respectful, to be happy.” Nobody ever says, at least not in front of a rabbi, “I want my child to live in a fancy neighborhood and drive an expensive car.”

So how did we get here? Are we all just fooling ourselves?

Greed, avarice, egotism, selfishness. These are the traits that have enabled the bad actors who produced this scandal. And who is responsible for this? We are. We all are. Because no matter what we might tell ourselves, our children seem to think that the key to happiness in life is getting into a well-known university. Because they are all running themselves ragged chasing after that fantasy. And where do they get that idea? From us. Adults.

Marissa Tait, Beth Shalom’s Youth Director, tells me that our teens are all over-scheduled. Taken in isolation, each one of the following activities are important and laudable:  They take SAT classes, do sports, go to JLine, various school clubs, sing with HaZamir, and of course they are staying up every night until midnight or later doing their homework for all of their AP classes.

They are all deeply invested in these things. However, with the expectation, according to author William Deresiewicz in his book, Excellent Sheep, that every college applicant has 7-10 extra-curriculars, might it be possible that these kids hardly have time to be kids? As parents, shouldn’t we be asking ourselves if we are giving our children the tools necessary to build the character traits that will make them benei Adam, human beings?

How can you appreciate what you have learned if you have no time to do so? How can you improve yourself, building on the values your education endows you with, if you are too busy checking all the boxes? How can you acquire depth, recognize historical patterns that continue to play out today, acknowledge the poetic vulnerability of the human soul if you do not have time in which to reflect?

Entirely coincidentally, the Making Caring Common Project of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education issued a report this week about how parental messaging regarding the focus on college admissions is actually damaging to teens.

The report notes that

…an intense focus on academic achievement has squeezed out serious attention to ethical character both in a large majority of high schools and a large number of families. Many parents—particularly, middle- and upper-income parents—seeking coveted spots for their children in elite colleges are failing to focus on what really matters in this process. In an effort to give their kids everything, these parents often end up robbing them of what counts.

Furthermore, the process

…corrodes the development of core aspects of young people’s ethical character, often fueling their self-interest, compromising their integrity, and depleting their capacity to either know themselves deeply or to authentically articulate their identity in a college application.

The point we have reached is a destructive one. The literature shows that rates of anxiety and depression have been rising for some time.

So what is the antidote to all of this?

Among the strategies that the report suggests are,

  • “Help your teen contribute to others in meaningful ways”;
  • “Advocate for elevating ethical character”; and
  • “Model and encourage gratitude.”

Hmm. Where might one learn these things?

Pulling back the lens, considering our teens and all the rest of us, what we need is not the checking of boxes and the micro-management of our packaged identities. What we need instead is meaning. Connection. Highlighting the holy moments. And we have a framework for that: it’s called Judaism.

Yes, Shabbat. Yes, holidays. Yes, highlighting the holy moments through lifecycle events such as bar mitzvah. Yes, tefillah / prayer that is self-reflective. All of those things are valuable.

But all the moreso, real learning. Studying the words of our tradition. Torah lishmah. Torah for its own sake. Because that is how we improve ourselves; that is how we internalize the true value of tzedaqah / charitable acts of righteousness, gratitude, empathy, humility, and so forth.

Talmud: Berakhot 35b

אמר רבה בר בר חנה אמר רבי יוחנן משום רבי יהודה ברבי אלעאי: בא וראה שלא כדורות הראשונים דורות האחרונים, דורות הראשונים עשו תורתן קבע ומלאכתן עראי – זו וזו נתקיימה בידן, דורות האחרונים שעשו מלאכתן קבע ותורתן עראי – זו וזו לא נתקיימה בידן

Rabba bar bar Ḥana said that Rabbi Yoḥanan said in the name of Rabbi Yehuda, son of Rabbi El’ai: Come and see that the latter generations are not like the earlier generations. The earlier generations made their Torah study a regular activity and their work occasional, and these were both successful for them. However, the latter generations who made their work regular and their Torah occasional, neither work nor study was successful for them.

We need to make sure that Torah lishmah is an essential feature of our lives. We need to focus more on the soul, on improving our internal character.

Here at Beth Shalom, particularly through Derekh, offer all those tools, for adults, for teens, for everybody. We are offering Torah lishmah, Torah for its own sake in many ways, through programs and discussions that take place not only on Shabbat, but all week long.

Come take advantage of them. You will improve yourself and your life, and the more that we do so the greater chance we have of building a better world, one that reflects all of the values that we say we hold dear. And just maybe we will together help teach our children to be benei Adam, human beings.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 3/23/2019.

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Remember, and Do Not Forget – Shabbat Zakhor, 5779

In my former life, when I was working as an engineer in Houston, I was reviewing a piping diagram with a fellow engineer with whom I was collaborating. She was from Venezuela. At one point, she turned to me and, point blank, asked, “Are you Jewish?” I replied, “Yes.” She said, “You know the Jews killed Jesus, right?” I said, “Well, according to what I heard, the Catholic church absolved the Jews of guilt for that in 1965 with the Second Vatican Council.” She replied, “Yes, I know about that. But my father told me the truth. That’s the truth.”

I took my piping diagrams back to my cubicle, more than a little stunned.

****

The Shabbat before Purim is always referred to as “Shabbat Zakhor,” because we read a special portion from a second sefer Torah from the end of Parashat Ki Tetze (Deut. 25:17-19), a reminder of the cruel ambush by the Amalekites while the Israelites are in the desert, and our consequent obligation to remember the enemies of Israel by (paradoxically) blotting out that memory. Commentators have pointed to the fact that there is a dual mitzvah / commandment here: to remember (Zakhor et asher asah lekha Amaleq / Remember what Amaleq did to you at the beginning of verse 17) and also not to forget (Lo tishkaḥ, at the end of verse 19).

So we remember and we do not forget. Two separate holy opportunities: positive and negative.

I must say that remembering and not forgetting our enemies has been pretty easy for the past several months, and all the more so for the last week, when anti-Semitism led the news cycle for the better part of the week. Ladies and gentlemen, I have said this before: We are living in a time in which anti-Semitic activity is clearly on the rise, and statistics collected by the ADL and others suggest that this is a global phenomenon.

And what is extraordinarily troubling today is that anti-Semitic ideas are coming at us from different directions. While we traditionally associate Jew hatred with the extreme political right (think Nazism, white supremacism, Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, Father Coughlin and so forth), we are seeing today expressions of anti-Semitic ideas from the political left as well.

Now just to get one thing out of the way, criticism of the State of Israel and the government of the State of Israel or its policies are not necessarily anti-Semitic. Israelis criticize their own leaders and government all the time; Diaspora Jews probably less so, but anybody who has lived in Israel knows that the Jewish State, like every other sovereign nation, is far from perfect. While we who are Zionists, and I am proud to call myself a Zionist, are inclined to advocate for Israel from afar, such advocacy does not preclude the occasional rebuke. Governments consist of actual people, who are decidedly not infallible.

But when critics of Israel cross a line is when they veer off into classical anti-Semitism. I am not going to rehash everything we have read in the news, but it’s essential to understand that when an American elected official references “the political influence in this country that says it is okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” to most Jews this is like fingernails on a chalkboard. The suggestion is that American Jews have a dual loyalty, that we are not truly committed to our nation, that we are somehow pulling nefarious strings behind the scenes to support our interests, that we are duplicitous.

Nobody bats an eyelash when lobbyists for Panamanian or Saudi interests walk the halls of Congress. Nobody accuses Irish-Americans of dual loyalty when they parade on St. Patrick’s Day. OK, so a lot of people are concerned about Russian meddling right now, but nobody is suggesting that Americans of Russian descent (of which you might say that I am one, BTW) are advocating for allegiance to Mother Russia. Didn’t we learn our lesson after the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II? Why the Jews?

(There is a classic tale of the Klan rally, where the Grand Wizard is rallying his troops, and he says, “Who is responsible for all of our problems?” And the crowd yells back, “The Jews!” So one old man in the crowd adds, “And the bicycle riders!” The Grand Wizard turns to the man and says, puzzled, “Why the bicycle riders?” And the man responds with, “Why the Jews?”)

The roots of anti-Semitism precede Christianity, but it is the early church fathers, and in particular John Chrysostom in the 4th century, who amplify negative stereotypes about the Jews. Seeking to distance early Christians from their Jewish roots and Jewish worship, Chrysostom delivered a series of homilies to the church of Antioch called “Adversos Judaeos,” literally, “Against the Jews.” Among the things he stated were that the synagogue was a den of scoundrels and a temple of demons, a refuge for thieves, a cavern of devils and a criminal assembly for the assassins of Jesus.

From the Visigothic kingdom in the Iberian peninsula, which laid down anti-Jewish laws in the 6th century, through the centuries of the dhimmi status imposed in Muslim lands, until the Nazi horror of the 20th century, Jews have been subject to a range of ugly stereotypes, in certain times and places yielding pogroms, expulsions, forced conversions, forced conscriptions, and of course all-out genocide. The ideas sown by religious leaders, political leaders, demagogues, and even scholars have caused our people immeasurable pain, suffering, and mourning. Even as we have joined the family of nations in the 20th century, we continue to nurse our historical wounds.

And so it is no great surprise that, when any public figure indulges in even the most roundabout way in negative stereotypes about Jews, we all get a little upset. To address the complex mess that is the failed negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is not anti-Semitic. To accuse Israel of “genocide” or “apartheid” is. To disagree politically with PM Netanyahu’s choice to incorporate an extremist party (Otzma Yehudit) as his running partner is not anti-Semitic. To suggest ominously that AIPAC, in advocating for American support of Israel, is mandating “allegiance” to a foreign power, is.

When I think of anti-Semitism, I am reminded of an image that is prominently displayed at Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust museum, in the historical narrative section leading up to the Shoah, the Holocaust. It is a Nazi propaganda image:

Du sollst die volker der erde fressen. You shall eat the peoples of the Earth.

Note the symbols in the Jewish parasite’s eyes: a dollar sign, and a hammer-and-sickle. The capitalists and the communists. The left and the right.

Let’s face it, folks: there is no question that anti-Jewish sentiment will always be there, and it will manifest itself on the political right, the left, and the center. The demonic Jew of John Chrysostom will, for some, loom behind Wall Street, and for others he will be ferrying people northward across the Rio Grande.

Anti-Jewish stereotypes will be spewed by religious and anti-religious folks, young and old, Southern and Northern, black and white and Asian and Latino, gay and straight. It will spill off of your computer screen. It will exert itself angrily during marches; it will be discussed calmly on talk shows, and it may (God forbid) cause disenfranchised men to walk into synagogues with assault rifles.

And it will never go away. What can we do?

Shabbat Zakhor, this Shabbat of remembrance, is exactly the right time to invoke the following:

  1. Despite being history’s perpetual victims, we are still here.
  2. Anti-Semitism will never go away, but neither will we; this is the covenant made with our patriarchs and matriarchs that their descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky.  
  3. Remember Amaleq, and do not forget.

Do not forget”: we should always be vigilant, because, as with Haman, the villain in the Esther story, as with Nebuchadnezzar, as with Titus, and Ferdinand and Isabella, and the Crusaders and the Czars and the Nazis and Ayatollah Khomeini we really never know when the zeitgeist will turn against the Jews again. We must not forget the past.

Remember Amaleq”: this is an imperative to continue to parse the words of those who speak in coded and not-so-coded language to foment hatred against us. We are the masters of interpretation: we must be aware of the potential violence and suffering that words can cause. We cannot dismiss anti-Semitism, right or left. We cannot excuse those with whom we align ourselves. We have to call them out. We may never wipe out the sentiment, but we can certainly make known that all the political, social, or cultural privilege in the world did not save the 11 who perished on the 18th of Ḥeshvan (Oct. 27th), or the 6 million of World War II.

On this day, when the world mourns for the 50 people of faith who perished in New Zealand, and the many more who were injured, we have to remember that words matter, that our history teaches us to be wary of those who indulge in stereotypes and play on fears. Our lives, and the lives of many around the world, depend on it.

Zakhor, velo tishkaḥ. Remember, and do not forget.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 3/16/2019.)

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The Shabbat Blueprint, or How to Improve Your Life in 5 Easy Steps – Vayaqhel 5779

This past Shabbat (March 1-2, 2019) was the National Day of Unplugging, an annual program run by the Sabbath Manifesto to promote Shabbat observance not just for Jews, but for everybody. Because you know what, folks? We need Shabbat, and in honor of NDU, I offered a basic template for improving your life by raising your Shabbat bar:

Be grateful that I am not going stand before you today to talk about all of the crazy that’s going on in the world right now. In fact, I’m going to ask you to try to put those things out of your head. Because you deserve that. You deserve a break. Leave those things for tomorrow.

Because Shabbat is special. And it is valuable. And it frames our lives with meaning. But it’s also woefully under appreciated in this 24/7, instant gratification world.

(And, of course, it’s mentioned right up front in Parashat Vayaqhel, which we read today!)

The Conservative movement is filled with many ironies. One of them is that we expect our adherents to live a Jewish life, and we offer tools for them to do so, but most of us do not rise to that challenge in the way that Judaism expects us to. And let’s face it: the bar is pretty high.

Based on our own Beth Shalom survey data, only about one-quarter of us keep kashrut inside and outside the home (an additional 34% keep kashrut at home only). And about 60% light Shabbat candles regularly. Four out of five of us fast for all of Yom Kippur, but according to the Federation study only about 44% of Conservative-identified Jews in Pittsburgh ever attend a Shabbat meal. Less than half.

And even among our most committed synagogue-goers, I am often puzzled by the amount of surreptitious smartphone use that goes on in the synagogue on Shabbat; I am surprised by the lack of interest in Friday evening services which, with the exception of our monthly Hod veHadar instrumental service, only barely make a minyan every week. I am confounded by the members of our community that attend events on Shabbat, some sponsored by Jewish organizations, that are clearly not Shabbat-friendly.  

Now, there are many reasons why we make the choices that we do, from family to theology to convenience and availability, and I usually say that guilt is not part of my religion. But advocating for Jewish tradition is, and so every now and then it is my responsibility as a rabbi to stand up for what is right Jewishly, what is good for all of us in our holy, ancient framework.

But I am also cognizant of how challenging it is to live as an observant Jew in contemporary America. I had a congregant at a previous congregation who was extraordinarily dedicated to our tradition: she was a loyal attendee not only at Shabbat services but also during the week, she was involved in synagogue governance and committed to learning and promoting Jewish observance. But once she told me that she was trying not to use her smartphone on Mondays, because she needed a break from feeling constantly connected.

I was incredulous. “Why not Shabbat?” I said.

She countered with something along the lines of, “It’s complicated,” alluding to weekend family activities and suggested, in a particularly Rosenzweigisch moment, that she was not yet ready for embracing traditional Shabbat observance entirely.

It’s complicated. I know – it’s not easy to take it all on, particularly if you did not grow up with it. My family was an every-Shabbat-morning Shabbat family, but we lived 20 miles away from our Conservative synagogue. So we drove, in accordance with the 1950 Conservative teshuvah that permitted driving to synagogue on Shabbat, despite the actual combustion that is going on in the engine, the kindling of fire being explicitly, Torah-itically prohibited in Parashat Vayaqhel.

But the problem with driving to shul is that, driving home from synagogue after services, it was hard not to stop at the video store to rent videos for the weekend (remember video stores?). And it was also hard not to stop at the sandwich shop and get some subs. And in winter in Western Massachusetts, when there was a good amount of snow on the ground and great skiing a 15-minute drive away, it was really hard not to put the skis on the rack and head off to the mountain for a few good runs. We did all of those things.

And yet, here I am, standing before you, exhorting you not to do them because it’s theoretically good for you. What gives?

I need you to trust me on this: Shabbat makes my life better; my family and my community benefit tremendously from turning off certain things for 25 hours every week, and doing certain other things that heighten enjoyment and qedushah / holiness. We need that break – physical, mental, spiritual. We need the moment of recharge. We need to reconnect in a traditional, simpler way.

So, I’m hearing some of you think, “That’s great, Rabbi.  Count me in. But where do I start?” I’m glad you asked, because that is indeed the challenging part. Taking Shabbat on whole-hog (you should pardon the expression) is not so easy.

But I am going to offer you today a blueprint for raising the bar:

  1. Meals
  2. Family time
  3. Avoid commerce.
  4. Turn off the devices.
  5. Kindle lights before and after, setting off the full 25 hours from the rest of the week.
  1. Meals. In particular, have Shabbat dinner. And I don’t mean go to a restaurant. Make Friday night a holy, home-cooked meal night. Or, if life is too crazy, order in and support one of our kosher food purveyors. There is nothing quite like it. It’s something I discuss with every single couple I marry: have Shabbat dinner together. Set that precedent for your family. Your schedules may be crazy all week; you may not have time to see each other. But if you set aside Friday night dinner time as holy time, that regular practice will pay off for the rest of your life.

    The next level, of course, is to have a Shabbat lunch. Yes, it’s a little more laid back. But still valuable. Actually, my wife prefers lunch:  She’s not as tired and having family and guests pass the time on Shabbat afternoons is much of what Shabbat is all about.

  2. Family time. Spend time together, at home or with another family nearby, not out and about, not going shopping or to amusement parks or even museums, but just hanging around in an unstructured way. Take Saturday afternoon to lounge around and enjoy each other’s company. Play board games. Read the newspaper. Be old school – low tech, low stress, high interpersonal engagement.

  3. Avoid commerce. While I know that it is our civic duty as individuals to keep the economy movin’ and shakin’, the local unemployment rate will not skyrocket if you keep your wallet in a drawer on Shabbat. It’s a wonderful opportunity to just be – not to acquire or trade or take part in commerce of any kind. It’s actually quite liberating.

  4. Turn off the devices. I could have easily put this first on the list, but I must concede that, if we are trying a soft entry here, this has to be number four, mostly because we all think of our smartphones as a part of our body today. Some people feel disconnected or anxious without it. If that describes you, you might want to try this in small chunks, i.e. maybe just Friday night from sundown until the following morning, and then some of Saturday as well.

    But trust me: this may be difficult, but it is also extraordinarily rewarding.

  5. Demarcating the full 25 hours. Perhaps when you have reached this level, you might consider what is really the easiest of all, but which requires the greatest commitment: lighting candles 18 minutes before sundown (that’s the published candle-lighting time you’ll find on Jewish calendars; you have an 18-minute margin if you need it), and performing havdalah (“separation”) when it’s dark. If you have succeeded in all of the above, this is the way that you know you have made it: demarcating the full 25 hours with lights before and after.

Five easy steps to improving your life.

Now, of course I know that I am preaching to the choir. You who are here in this room right now are the most likely to be doing many of these things. But I also know that we all have the potential to stretch ourselves, and doing so will surely heighten the experience for all of us. But may I ask you to be my ambassadors?  Would you engage those you love in a conversation about this? Check out the link to the Sabbath Manifesto website. Send someone that link and start a conversation. Since you are reading this on my blog, you can easily share it, and/or leave comments below. A little more dialogue doesn’t hurt.

The Talmud tells us (BT Shabbat 118b) that if all Jews were to observe two Shabbatot fully according to halakhah, we would all be immediately redeemed. While I don’t expect this to happen soon, we can certainly aim higher. Rather, I prefer Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s take: Shabbat is a palace in time, but we must build that palace.

We all need a little more Shabbat. Shabbat shalom!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 3/2/2019.)

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The Eternal Why

On this Shabbat, one year after the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, we might turn our eyes heavenward once again and call out, “Why?” Why must we mourn for murdered high school students? Why must we remove our shoes at airports, but tolerate the sale of assault rifles? Why must we grieve for the memory of our beloved Pittsburgh neighbors, felled in hatred a few short months ago? The opening verses of Parashat Tetzaveh describe the burning of a “ner tamid” in the mishkan, the portable desert tabernacle, an eternal flame that indicated to our ancestors the constant presence of God in the center of their encampment. When we look to our ner tamid, our eternal light today in our sanctuary, we are reminded not only of our need for constant vigilance, but also of our burning desire to make this a safe world, a world where we need not ask these questions of “why.”

May this Shabbat be a Shabbat Shalom, one in which we all get a little more peace.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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I’m a Fundamentalist: Tefillin – Mishpatim 5779

As part of an ongoing, informal series, I am speaking occasionally on the fundamentals of Jewish life. While many of us are well-versed in the fundamentals, and far above that, I think it is important to refresh our memories from time to time about the things we think are the most essential. So you might forgive me if the following sounds preachy, but hey, I’m a preacher!

So far in the series, we have covered Shabbat and essential go-to (refrigerator-magnet) texts. Today we are going to cover what is, if we’re being honest here, perhaps one of the more ridiculous and perhaps misunderstood mitzvot of Jewish life: the mitzvah of tefillin.

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Now of course this is extraordinarily timely, because, well, it is our obligation to put on tefillin six mornings a week. So, for example, tomorrow. And not only that, but it so happens that Sunday, February 3 was the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs World Wide Wrap, which we celebrated during JJEP at Rodef Shalom with the teaching and application of tefillin.

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So first some hard truths: putting on tefillin is a little strange, and somewhat alien to those who have never done it.

And yet, I believe that this mitzvah is truly essential. In fact, I think it might be up there with some of the most important physical mitzvot: building a sukkah; removing all the hametz from your home before Pesah, for example.

Those mitzvot that require a certain amount of physical work, of doing something that requires more bodily investment than the recitation of prayers or eating certain foods, are, in my mind, the ones that bring it all home in Jewish life. You have to go out of your way to do these mitzvot. It’s kind of like dipping your toe in the water versus immersing your whole body. Putting on a tallit is easy. Refraining from eating shrimp is pretty easy. Even many Shabbat observances can be easy. But tefillin is hard. It requires familiarity with an arcane ritual and obscure scriptural readings and then there’s that whole binding-in-leather-straps thing, which for many seems a wee bit uncomfortable. Plus, I know this a deal-breaker for many: it messes up your hair.

As you may know, I am at morning services here at Beth Shalom every day except Wednesday. Most of the men who join our services put on tefillin, and also two women who join us regularly. Often, there are people who are attending services who are not “regulars” – generally people who are observing yahrtzeit (annual remembrance date of a loved one’s death). I offer tefillin to men, and to women if they are already wearing a tallit, thus signaling that they have taken on at least some of the mitzvot traditionally ascribed to men.

Nine times out of ten, that person politely declines the tefillin, and I don’t push.

Dr. Jonathan Sarna, in his magnificent history entitled American Judaism, documents how during the period of heavy immigration from Eastern Europe in the early 20th century, there were reports of men who burned their tefillin on the boat. They knew that America was a free country, where they would no longer be bound by the archaic folkways of the shtetl. The release from the ancient leather straps suggested a kind of release from ol malkhut shamayim, the yoke of the kingdom of heaven, i.e. the mitzvot.

We’re free here to put on tefillin, or not. And most of us do not. But that is nothing new; the medieval rabbinic commentator Rabbi Shelomoh ibn Aderet, aka “the Rashba,” went on a “tefillin tour” of France and Spain in the 13th century to promote the mitzvah.

Marshall Sklare, the Brandeis sociologist who chronicled American Jewry in the middle of the 20th century, suggested that American Jews are most likely to maintain Jewish rituals that:

  1. May be redefined in modern terms
  2. Do not demand social isolation (i.e. requirements that separate the Jew from the wider society)
  3. Offer a Jewish alternative to a non-Jewish holiday (e.g. Easter, Christmas)
  4. Center on the child
  5. Are infrequent (e.g. annual, rather than weekly or daily)

Mostly we think of Sklare when we think of holidays: Pesah and Hanukkah are still widely practiced; Shavuot and Tish’ah Be’Av less so.

And the mitzvah of tefillin does not make the list, because it’s every day and not child-centered. And it messes up your hair.

But tefillin scores high, I think, on the ability to redefine for today.

What meaning can we derive from tefillin? How can this curious ritual, become meaningful enough that it can become fashionable again?

So, before I answer that, I have to first give you the basics of tefillin.

  1. Where does the mitzvah come from? The four passages are as follows:
    1. Shema, first paragraph: Devarim / Deuteronomy 6:4-9, and particularly 6:8. Page 1026 in Humash Etz Hayim

      וּקְשַׁרְתָּ֥ם לְא֖וֹת עַל־יָדֶ֑ךָ וְהָי֥וּ לְטֹטָפֹ֖ת בֵּ֥ין עֵינֶֽיךָ׃
      Ukshartam le-ot al yadekha, vehayu letotafot bein einekha.
      Bind them as a sign upon your arm, and wear them as a symbol between your eyes.

    2. Shema, second paragraph: Devarim 11:13-21, and particularly 11:18. Page 1053.
    3. Ex. 13:1-10, particularly 13:9. Page 392.
    4. Ex. 13:11-…, particularly 13:16. Page 393.
  2. How do we do it? We take those words literally. The boxes of tefillin contain those four passages, written on parchment. And, just to be sure, there are two sets of them: in the tefillin shel rosh, the head box, there are four individual scrolls inserted into four individual chambers, and in the tefillin shel yad, they are all written out on a single scroll. This is decidedly old-school: we are not binding anything metaphorically; we are doing it literally.
  3. What does the word, tefillin, an Aramaic-ish term, actually mean? It is, in fact, a plural form of tefillah, our general word for prayer. So, even as we are reciting prayers with our lips in the morning, we are also binding prayers to our body to complete the experience, spiritual and physical.
  4. What are the customary symbols associated with tefillin?
    1. The Hebrew letters shin on either side of the shel rosh: one representing the three avot / patriarchs, one with four points standing for the four imahot / matriarchs.
    2. The wraps around the forearm: seven, that is, three plus four, representing once again the imahot and avot. Also, seven is, of course, the number of days until Shabbat. Also, the number of words in the verse (Ps. 145:16) Poteah et yadekha, umasbia lekhol hai ratzon – You open Your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing.
    3. The Almighty: Shaddai, shin-daled-yod on the hand. Same as on a mezuzah scroll, by the way.

And I would love to stand before you and say, “There is magic here! These boxes are special communication devices which connect us directly to God! They are amulets that ward off evil spirits! They keep you healthy!” But I can’t do that.

(They might actually protect you in the event of a heart attack through remote ischemic preconditioning, but although there was one such medical study that indicated this, I am sure that there will soon be another one that will contradict it.)

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Really, there is no magic here; only one of the most powerful, physical symbols that we have as Jews. We so understand the richness and value of our textual heritage that we display them proudly on our arms and our foreheads every day.

This is the sign of our love for our tradition, and a sign of God’s love for us.

What do we say when we wrap the strap around our middle finger? Hosea 2:21-22:

וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי לְעוֹלָם

וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי בְּצֶדֶק וּבְמִשְׁפָּט, וּבְחֶסֶד וּבְרַחֲמִים

וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי בֶּאֱמוּנָה; וְיָדַעַתְּ, אֶת-ה

I will betroth you to Me forever;

I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and justice, in loving-kindness and mercy;

I will betroth you to Me in faith, and you shall know God.

And not only do they declare our betrothal to God, but they also suggest that, every morning, we connect our arms with our heads and hearts, as a reminder that the works of my hands should reflect my ongoing struggle to ensure that my deeds are in line with my intellect and the good intentions of my soul. This binding is, you might say, a kind of suggestive intent for our actions for the rest of the day, a pre-emptive reminder of the mitzvot, of making the right choices in our interpersonal relationships.

But in case that is not enough, here is something else that might help rekindle our interest in tefillin:

In 2014, the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) passed a teshuvah (halakhic responsum, that is, a rabbinic opinion that answers a particular question in Jewish law), written by Rabbi Pamela Barmash, that concluded that women may be considered obligated to all mitzvot. Her conclusion, approved by the committee and therefore a halakhic option available to Conservative communities, is as follows:

The historical circumstances in which women were exempted from time-bound positive mitzvot are no longer operative, and the Conservative movement has for almost a century moved toward greater and greater inclusion of women in mitzvot. In Jewish thought and practice, the highest rank and esteem is for those who are required to fulfill mitzvot. We rule therefore that women and men are equally obligated to observe the mitzvot. We call upon Conservative synagogues, schools, and camps to educate men and women in equal observance of mitzvot and to expect and require their equal observance of mitzvot.

So here’s the kicker: in an ultimate statement of redefinition, we are all obligated to the wearing of tefillin. One of the most traditionally masculine mitzvot can be understood as applying to all of us. And we all should strive to take that holy opportunity six mornings a week.

I am ready and available to teach anybody who wants to learn. Come see me!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 2/2/2019.)

 

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