Festivals Sermons

Who Are We? – Pesah 5776

Pesah is about identity in a way that no other holiday is. It is the festival that tells us who we are, and that is the essential Jewish question of our time.

Not too long ago, there were very specific cultural and tribal definitions of what defines a Jew. We knew who we were, the non-Jews knew who we were, and there were very clear lines. There was no liminality, no ambiguity around the borders of the tribe.

All of that began to change with Jewish emancipation. From the time that Napoleon first granted French Jews the rights and privileges of French citizenship in 1789, the gradual inclusion of Jews into the wider, non-Jewish society has yielded the situation in which we find ourselves today. Now there are all kinds of Jews in the mix: black, white, Asian, openly gay, straight, transgender, secular, not-so-secular, of course, but also all sorts of combinations that are the product of interfaith relationships. The Jewish world is no longer demarcated by simple, clear lines.

Add into this melange our changing concept of personal identity in 21st-century America. The idea of “Who are we?” in the wider culture is far more fluid than it has ever been. One need not look too far beyond the very-current struggles over who can relieve themselves in a public bathroom to understand this. Are we who we were at birth? Or can we become something else entirely?

Fortunately, for Jews, we have some common themes of identity, and some of the most important aspects of Jewish identity are invoked in the Pesah seder. For one thing, some of our most fundamental, personal Jewish memories involve the seder table – a home ritual that brings friends and family together.

It’s worth noting that, after the lighting of Hanukkah candles, the seder is the second-most observed ritual of the Jewish year: about 70% of American Jews (according to the Pew study of 2013) show up for a seder. That’s a pretty impressive number, especially since only 22% of us have kosher homes and 13% avoid spending money on Shabbat. It is therefore a very strong identity-building ritual, even if it’s just dinner with matzah. Think of your own seminal sedarim: how you may recall your silly uncle’s embarrassingly-loud, horribly off-tune singing, or that time your teenage cousin actually drank four full cups of wine, or checking to see if the wine in Eliyahu’s cup had actually gone down when you opened the door. Think of the lessons learned, how proud you may have felt being invited to engage in serious discussion of tough questions with grown-ups, the sense of community engendered by making your first seder on your own for your friends when you couldn’t get back home, the feeling of togetherness created by having all the people you love together, and so forth. Even the implicit messages — who are we? We are the people that gather to eat traditional foods and to discuss their history.

Passover 1946 - the Seder Table at the Elinoff home, with Joel's great-grandparents, grandparents, and extended family.
Pesah in Pittsburgh, 1946.

And all the more so for those of us who spend some time at the seder discussing the themes of the holiday. If you dwell at length on the text of the traditional haggadah, then you have most likely encountered the most relevant statement about what it means to be Jewish. It’s quoted straight out of the Mishnah (Pesahim 10:5):

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

Bekhol dor vador hayyav adam lir’ot et atzmo ke-ilu hu yatza miMitzrayim, shene-emar: “Vehigadta levinkha bayom hahu lemor, ba’avur zeh asa Adonai li betzeti miMitzrayim.”

In every generation, one must see oneself as having personally come forth from Egypt, as it is written (Ex. 13:8), “And you shall explain to your son on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt.’”

When I was growing up, we used to read through the haggadah in English, full-speed ahead, do not pass Go, do not collect 200 sheqels. So I never really paid much attention to this line until I was in my 30s.

But this is in fact the whole reason that we gather and tell the story on the first night of Pesah : to make it personal. To put ourselves into the story. To walk a mile in the shoes of our ancestors, to connect with their struggles. To re-live the formation of the Israelite nation, conceived in slavery and delivered at Mt. Sinai. We went down into Egypt as a family and emerged as a people, as Am Yisrael. And as much as we celebrate our freedom on Pesah, we also celebrate our identity as members of the tribe that left Egypt together and received the Torah together.

And so it is our duty to reinforce that message at the seder, not only to dine as free people in the style of the Greek symposium, reclining and dipping and telling weighty stories, but also to connect ourselves with slavery, and to tell our children about it.

And how do we do that? How do we teach our children, who are mostly, thankfully, being raised sheltered from even the strife and hardships that our grandparents knew, what it’s like to be a slave? While we are reclining in our safe, comfortable homes, in an environment in which food is always plentiful, where debts are mostly politely confined to paperwork, where manual labor is generally an option, how do we continue the generational transmission of understanding oppression?

Here are a few ideas:

  1. Ask those gathered to discuss what we are “slaves” to (job, mortgage, alarm clock, etc.). Are we really “free?”
  2. If you have any Shoah survivors at the table, ask them if they were ever slaves, and perhaps to describe their experiences.
  3. Find some information in advance about slaves in the world today. Estimates vary, but there are many millions. Consider our economic habits and how they may keep people enslaved in distant lands (see, for example, Consider what that means in the context of our heritage.
  4. Consider another essential line in the haggadah, the preamble to the Maggid (storytelling) section of the seder: Kol dikhfin yeitei veyeikhul. Let all who are hungry come and eat. Discuss how our understanding of / history of slavery require us to act in this world?
  5. Consider that the Torah invokes our having been slaves many times, and uses that statement of our history to justify our not mistreating strangers, because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Talk about how that obligation affects our relationships with others.

Your creativity at the seder should not go only into the food! On the contrary! The more that you put into making your first nights of Pesah engaging, informative, and reflective, helping those around the table enter into our tradition, the greater chance that they will carry on that tradition, creating new memories and new opportunities for our collective spiritual growth.

Why have Jews always been at the forefront of issues of social justice? Why did Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and many other Jews, march with Dr. Martin Luther King? Why was the American Federation of Labor founded by Samuel Gompers, a member of our tribe? Why did so many American Jews advocate to help free our Soviet cousins in the 1980s? Why did the Zionist movement ultimately succeed in building a Jewish state? Why did Sigmund Freud seek to liberate the unconscious mind? Why did Jonas Salk work to rid the world of polio?

Because of the identity formed around the seder table, where we see ourselves as slaves and learn about the imperative to help all those who are suffering from persecution and oppression of all forms to gain their freedom. That is who we are, regardless of all of the other ways in which we differ.

And the very foundation upon which this identity has been forged, the one thing that we all have in common, is the Torah. Yes, we interpret it differently. Yes, we disagree over its meaning. But that is simply the way that Jews have always related to our tradition, and it is, in fact, ours. The Pesah tale, the story of our nation’s departure from Egypt, is the seminal moment of identity formation, and it connects directly to Shavuot, seven weeks later, when we celebrate the giving of the Torah. That is the cornerstone of what it means to be Jewish, and perhaps that is why we keep coming back to the seder table every year.

So when you gather with your family and friends tonight, look around the table at the young people there, and ask yourself, “Have I engaged them? Have they learned something? Have I helped them fashion their identities? Have I enhanced that multi-generational connection?

That is what Pesah is all about. Not necessarily the food, not the karpas, not even the Pesah-Matzah-Maror or the four retellings of the story. It’s about identity. It’s about who we are.

Shabbat shalom and hag sameah!



Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, First Day of Pesah 5776, 4/23/16.) 



Why We Don’t Edit the Torah – A thought for Parashat Tazria

Don’t you wish you could edit out the things in your life that you don’t like? Wouldn’t it be nice to go back and somehow erase that fantastically embarrassing incident that happened in eighth grade, or to flick a switch that would make your spouse put his/her dishes in the dishwasher instead of in the sink, or to resolve that intractable family dispute? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have exactly the existence that you want, surrounded by exactly the right people in exactly the right circumstances?

This desire is, of course, heightened by our digital tools today: we read only the news we want to read, listen to only the songs we want to hear, friend only the acquaintances we want to friend. But that is not real. Life is not sterile, and it is far more all-encompassing. We take the good with the not-so-good, the satisfying with the bothersome, the pleasurable with the painful.

While there are many things in the Torah with which I struggle, I must confess that Parashat Tazria is among the most challenging. Most of it (Leviticus chap. 13) is about an unidentifiable skin disease (although some older translations, most notably the venerable Hertz humash, translated the Hebrew term “tzara’at” as “leprosy,” it is quite clear that the affliction described is not what is today known as Hansen’s disease). The brief part of the parashah that does not concern tzara’at (Lev. 12) is hardly better; it specifies that a woman who gives birth to a girl has a period of ritual impurity that is twice as long as the one who gives birth to a boy. Ouch.

We can respond by throwing up our hands in disgust, or by perhaps indulging in apologetics. Or maybe we can look past the inherent sexism of the Torah (an unfortunate given, although clearly related to the time in which the text of the Torah unfolded) to see if we can uncover something meaningful to us.

Every such challenge is an opportunity. We are, after all, Yisrael – the people who struggle with God; it is the name given to Jacob following his encounter with the angel in Genesis 32. And we struggle not only with God, but with our holy texts. It is this struggle, the ongoing interpretation and re-interpretation and argument and dissent and quest for meaning in every generation that are integral to Talmud Torah, Jewish learning, that has maintained us as Jews since the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE.

Jacob’s Struggle With the Angel - The New Yorker

Perhaps what we might learn from Parashat Tazria is completely outside the text itself. Perhaps the message is that is our duty to keep reading it, and to keep thinking, “Ouch.” Thank God that we do not live in a world in which we think that a baby girl brings twice as much tum’ah, impurity; thank God that we live in a society in which being a woman does not disqualify one from being President of the United States or called to the Torah and counted equally under Jewish law.

Pulling back the lens, we might acknowledge that to appreciate the good things in our lives, we must have the unpleasant experiences with which to compare them. That horrible, painful rejection by the object of your affection in high school makes you love your spouse that much more today. The crushing loss of a departed relative, given some time and distance, enriches your life by urging you to recall the wisdom, love, and support she/he gave you, and that you in turn share with your children and grandchildren.

And so we continue to re-read, struggle with and re-interpret not only the challenging parts of our ancient texts, but also the texts of our lives. That is what makes us feel complete, reminding us of what is truly valuable.


Rabbi Seth Adelson

(A version of this post appeared in The Jewish Chronicle, 4/7/2016.)


Listening to Silence – Shemini 5776

When I arrived in Pittsburgh last summer, my family and I took one of the duck-boat tours of downtown. At one point, the tour guide was interrupted by an excessively noisy truck that was passing by, so he diverted momentarily from his canned speech to remark, “We have very loud trucks here in Pittsburgh.” The engineer in me began to wonder if the trucks here were louder than they were anywhere else, and if so, why would that be? Is it because of the air? The confluence of two rivers somehow metaphysically amplifying the sound waves? Echoes from nearby coal mines?

We live in a world that is blessed with much noise, and I am pretty certain that it’s getting noisier, perhaps mostly because of our digital devices. The various notifications, the constant ringtones, people talking at full volume in public places, and so on. Add to this all the noisy things that are vying for our attention: advertisers, celebrities, politicians are all trying to steal our focus. I suspect that the noise is as cacophonous in our heads as it is in our work and play spaces; considering the way that life has been accelerated by the Information Age, the constant interruption makes for difficulty in concentration.

When might we enjoy a wee bit of quiet? I find that it’s increasingly difficult to find respite.

John Cage, excerpt from 4’33” (1952)
Excerpt from 4’33”, by composer John Cage

Silence makes a rather dramatic appearance in Parashat Shemini. Following the mysterious, sudden deaths of Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aharon, the Kohen Gadol (High Priest), the Torah states, in a terse, removed voice (Leviticus 10:3, Etz Hayim p. 634):

וַיִּדֹּם אַהֲרֹן

Vayiddom Aharon.

Aharon was silent.

He has just witnessed the brutal death of his two sons, and he is struck dumb. The Torah doesn’t usually make note of silence; Avraham and Yitzhaq walk together for three days, barely speaking, on the way to the mountain where the father has been instructed to offer up his son, but the Torah never says “Vayiddom Avraham.”

So why here is Aharon silent? What could be going through his head? What does he hear in that painful, absolute quiet?

There are, of course, many possibilities. Rashi says that he receives a reward for his silence: a private word from God; a communication for his ears only.

I like that idea – it is in silence that we might hear God’s voice, the qol demamah daqqah described in the haftarah we read for Parashat Pinehas (I Kings 19:12), the still, small voice (so King James) that the prophet Eliyahu hears only after the mighty wind, the shattering rocks, the earthquake and the fire have all passed by. It is only when we can tune out all of the tremendous noise all around us, not only that which our ears can detect, but all of the other noises of life, the messiness of all the relational challenges we face, the barrage of promotional messages with which we are constantly assaulted, that we can hear that qol demamah daqqah.


Last year, there was a wonderful article in Harper’s Magazine about silence. Well, actually, the article was about the search for neutrinos, which are a type of subatomic particle that is particularly hard to pin down. (I have actually been waiting for a whole year for Parashat Shemini to show up again to use this!) Neutrinos pass through all types of matter without apparently affecting it. The Sun produces many, many neutrinos and sends them our way – we are all constantly being bathed in them – 65 billion per square centimeter per second. That’s an awful lot of extraordinarily tiny particles flowing right through us at all times.

And scientists have an interest in learning more about neutrinos, particularly because they are believed to be a component of so-called dark matter. But it’s kind of hard to learn anything about them when they pass through everything virtually unaffected. How do you measure something that you can’t isolate, and doesn’t interact with anything? One must concede that this is an essential question, not only about neutrinos, but also about how we understand God.

Now here’s the interesting part. In order to understand neutrinos, physicists have created listening stations, with the goal being to create an environment that is as “quiet” as possible. Not just the kind of silence you find in a recording studio, say, or deep in the stacks of a large library, but silence from all of the forms of energy that surround us at all times: radio waves and light waves and all forms of electromagnetic radiation and particles and rays and so forth. Utter, complete silence.

To do this, the neutrino detectors have to be located deep in the Earth, far away from all that noise. The article in Harper’s told of one such listening station, called the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF), in Lead, South Dakota.

Almost one mile underground, SURF is a good place to detect neutrinos because it is shielded from all the other noise of the universe. The author of the article in Harper’s, Kent Meyers, describes what this search evoked for him:

I began to think of neutrinos and dark matter as whispers: the most intimate messages of the universe’s voice, carrying its closest secrets to ears that are all but deaf — or, perhaps more accurately, immune, because so other-natured.

Meyers speaks of the voice of dark matter in almost Divine terms.

With Earth itself as part of the instrument, underground labs simply receive. Designed into them is the knowledge that everything floats on a sea. And then there is the tank of water, and deep within it, the core of transparent xenon. The method of an underground lab is less-from-too-much. One feels that lovely lessening in spite of all the money invested — science as introversion and withdrawal, setting up the conditions of silence and waiting for the smallest voice of the universe, the voice of its conception. It’s this poetry I appreciate, the womb of the universe in its dark bigness, its amniotic sea of particles touching that smaller womb we have recognized our tiny Earth to be.

He stops short of using explicit God language. Nonetheless, Meyers casts the Earth as cosmic shield, a protective envelope to which we might retreat in order to find answers to the seminal questions of what we are, the fundamental nature of the universe and ultimately life. To understand Creation, we must return, in some sense, to the first day, in the dark, a quiet that the universe has not known since the Qadosh Barukh Hu, the Holy, Blessed One, said, “Yehi or.” Let there be light (Gen. 1:3).

The Large Underground Xenon dark matter experiment at SURF

What I find so compelling about Meyers’ piece is the idea of blocking everything out so that one might only “hear” that qol demamah daqqah, a still, small voice. The voice of the neutrino must be something similar to that of God – passing through us at all times, and yet nearly impossible to hear.

And as if that were not enough, the article takes it one step further into the theological realm:

What if we have arrived at knowledge that we cannot mine or turn into something — arsenic, dynamite, trucks — that helps us mine something else and in so doing produces, always, another thing we cannot get our minds around? What if dark matter and neutrinos are so out of reach that all we can do is think about them, not manipulate or change them or mix them into new combinations? Of the many revolutions science has offered us — and challenged us with — that could be the quietest and the largest and the most interesting of all.

When I read this article a year ago, my mind immediately went to our yearning to conceive God. Perhaps this is Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s sense of wonder, that is, how we react to God in awe, struck by the grandeur of the Divine nature and ascending higher in holiness as we contemplate the Infinite. Or perhaps Martin Buber’s Unconditional Thou. We may have intimate knowledge of a Presence that affects us deeply and personally, and yet we cannot manipulate it or even acknowledge it in human terms, because it is constantly, immediately there.

The search for dark matter evokes our natural desire to listen for and express the ineffable, to uncover the quiet layer of Shekhinah, the lowest emanation of the Kabbalistic Godhead, but we can only do so when it is set against the completely black backdrop of nothingness.

To some today, perhaps the inclination is to give up listening. Why spend the time and money and energy looking for something that may never be heard. To others among us, though, we still hope that a neutrino-like-voice will continue to offer us guidance and hope, love and reassurance.

Perhaps we’ll eventually hear that private message from God, the one that will only come when we have successfully blocked out all the other noise. Meanwhile, keep listening.

Shabbat shalom!



Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 4/2/2016.)