Monthly Archives: August 2018

The Great Divide (You Are Needed) – Ki Tetse 5778

I read with great interest a few days ago about the efforts of some tech companies to prevent the use (or abuse) of social media to foment political division. In case you have no idea what I am talking about, here’s a brief summary:

Foreign powers like Russia and Iran have created fake accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms for the purposes of creating division in our society. The way it works is something like this: they create what look like activist groups by posting items of interest around certain hot-button causes – racism, for example, or gun ownership, or abortion. They attract followers, and then amp up the message by posting items that promote violence and hatred against those who disagree with them. Then they make connections with other, actual groups who have similar views, and convince them to host protest activities. One protest in Houston in May of 2016 called “Stop the Islamization of Texas” was not only organized by one of these fake groups, called Heart of Texas, which had 250,000 likes on Facebook, but also that protest was met by a counter-protest that was also organized by Russian trolls. Interestingly, nobody from Heart of Texas showed up, because it has no actual members, only Facebook likes.

stop the islamization of texas

The goal here is to disrupt us, to make us all angry, to make it seem like we are not all on the same team.

We are apparently all being played this way. Some of the platforms (Facebook and Twitter) are now working harder at taking these things down, but they are not necessarily easy to find. Also a few days ago, Microsoft announced that they thwarted Russian attempts to hack into the US Senate and two right-leaning think tanks.

In a few weeks, over Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I will be speaking about love: love of self, love of family, love of community, love of the world. These are all essential things that we need more of, and we will be discussing sources in our tradition that point to to the imperative to love. But even before we get to that point, we have to understand as a society that we are all in this together. Perhaps we have lost that sense.

In thinking about this, it occurred to me that a curious, obsolete law in today’s parashah (Torah reading), Ki Tetse (BTW, the Wikipedia entry on this parashah offers seven ways of spelling its name!), suggests something relevant to us today. It’s about the situation in which a man has two wives, and he loves one and hates the other. (In biblical times, perhaps this was a common occurrence; divorce is permitted in the Torah, but generally due to some kind of perceived flaw — this also appears later in Ki Tetse). The man’s firstborn son, who inherits a double portion of the man’s estate, was born to the unloved wife. The man is not permitted to favor the son of the wife he loves; he must follow the laws of inheritance despite his personal preference.

What we might find in this is the following: our personal feelings about others around us do not matter. Their politics, the things that others do that we do not like, these things are irrelevant. We still have to cooperate with them, interact with them, and maintain societal norms with them. With respect to the law, we cannot favor those whom we like.

About two years ago, the New York Times published a captivating op-ed by the Dalai Lama and Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute about contemporary anger, discontent, and anxiety in the wealthiest nations of the world. Their suggestion was that not enough people feel useful – that is, that the nature of our society is that too many of us feel not needed, and that for humans and society to thrive, we have to feel needed. They said the following:

Virtually all the world’s major religions teach that diligent work in the service of others is our highest nature and thus lies at the center of a happy life. Scientific surveys and studies confirm shared tenets of our faiths. Americans who prioritize doing good for others are almost twice as likely to say they are very happy about their lives. In Germany, people who seek to serve society are five times likelier to say they are very happy than those who do not view service as important. Selflessness and joy are intertwined. The more we are one with the rest of humanity, the better we feel.

One of the primary goals of halakhah, of Jewish law, is to set up an interdependent society in which people take responsibility for each other. And an essential part of that is to understand that everybody, and I mean everybody, is a part of that. Not just your friends. Not just your family. But all of us. That’s why the Torah exhorts us multiple times to take care of the orphan, the widow, the stranger among us. That is why halakhah is so all-encompassing, framing every aspect of our lives in holiness.

The Dalai Lama and Mr. Brooks go on to suggest a plan for how to improve everybody’s sense of being needed:

What can we do to help? The first answer is not systematic. It is personal. Everyone has something valuable to share. We should start each day by consciously asking ourselves, “What can I do today to appreciate the gifts that others offer me?” We need to make sure that global brotherhood and oneness with others are not just abstract ideas that we profess, but personal commitments that we mindfully put into practice.

Does anybody hear anything in that passage that exists in Jewish tradition? Neither Arthur Brooks nor the Dalai Lama are Jewish. And yet, how do Jews start each day? By expressing gratitude for everything: Modeh ani lefanekha. Grateful am I to You, God, for putting my soul into my body this morning. And then we continue with a whole litany of thanks known as Birkhot HaShahar, the morning blessings, which we recited here just a short time ago.

And I can point to a myriad of ways in which our tradition reinforces the idea of oneness. What does Hanukkah teach? To cast light in this world. What does Pesah teach? To bring people out of oppression. What does Rosh Hashanah teach? To remind us of our equality and humility before God, across all of Creation.

What does daily prayer teach? That a minyan, a quorum of ten Jews, is needed to get going. That we need you to make it happen. That we are all in this together.

veahavta.png

In a greater sense, we all need each other if we are going to tackle the great challenges facing our society right now. We need everybody to be on board in trying to do something that is really hard: reaching out to others.

It is a natural human inclination to favor the ones we love, and particularly the ones we like. But we need everybody. We cannot allow divisions to be created. We are all on the same team: Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, poor and rich, black, white, brown, young and old. We cannot allow division to be sown.

You count. You are needed.

And here is what we all need you to do:

  • Before you click the “Like” button or retweet any content on social media from any activist group, do the best you can to verify that it is a real organization.
  • Get out of your information silo: If there is a newsworthy item that concerns you, it is worth checking out how is it portrayed in various news outlets — not necessarily to change your mind, but to better understand the flip side of arguments or just to see how people you disagree with see the world and why.
  • This is an old debate-team trick: try to argue the other side’s opinion.
  • Seek ways to widen the circle of people you interact with.

A final note: one of the special things about houses of worship, like synagogues, is that they bring together a whole range of people: people with diverse opinions, people from different backgrounds and economic strata. We need you to be here, but even more so, our society needs gathering places like this that build social capital, where we can come together for holy purposes and, even when we disagree, understand that we are part of something greater.

The future of our society depends on you: your willingness not only to understand that you are an essential part of the universal whole, but also that your neighbor is not your enemy. Ve-ahavta lereiakha kamokha (Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:18). Love your neighbor as yourself.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/25/2018.)

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Horeb and Sinai: Pennsylvania’s Clergy Abuse Report – Shofetim 5778

I was actually not planning on giving a formal sermon this week, given that I should be dedicating my time to preparing for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And then the report released by the Pennsylvania grand jury investigation into more than 1,000 victims of abuse by Catholic priests over the last 70 years hit the news. And I realized that I cannot let this go by without comment.

And here is why: we who care about religion, and the image that religious people have, are all affected by this. Yes, it might be easy to say, “That’s not us; that is the Catholics.” But that would be an exercise in rationalization. While I think it would be difficult to make the case that the horrific, even systematic kinds of abuse described in this report exist to this extent in the Jewish world, there have certainly been a few cases among the Jews, and even here in Pittsburgh as well, and recently.

I do not think that there is anything that anybody can say or do that can help those who have been hurt in this way by religious leaders. There is nothing that will remove the fear and suspicion, pain and mistrust caused by the abusers. It is a “hillul haShem,” a profanation of God’s name of the highest possible order. And I am simply devastated that those victims may never again be able to put their trust in God, or even in people.

This is not good for the Jews. It’s not good for Judaism, because we, the faithful, have to continue to reach out to those who have been turned off by the appalling behavior of few outwardly pious people. As you know, it is not only my job, but yours as well, to make the case for the value of our tradition, of our prayer and learning and community. However, the echoes of those sins described in the report, and the failure of these dioceses to respond properly, will continue to ring in the ears of those who are looking for an exit not only from the church, but from all forms of religious life, including ours.

Perhaps the only upshot that will come from this is that the report has made it clear that, even though the Church claims that it handles abuse allegations very differently from in the past, the most important thing to do if you ever hear anything that suggests that a case of abuse has taken place is to go immediately to local law enforcement.

You might say that this principle is enshrined in the opening of today’s parashah, Shofetim, which mandates the creation of “shofetim veshoterim,” judges, courts, and law enforcement officers, and gives the imperative, “Tzedeq, tzedeq tirdof.” Justice; you shall pursue justice. It is our responsibility as Jews to ensure that we live in a just society, and that we have the people in place to enforce justice.

***

A childhood acquaintance of mine, Andrew Nicastro, was abused by his Catholic priest in my hometown of Williamstown, Massachusetts, when we were in junior high school. Most of you know that I grew up in an idyllic New England setting, a small college town where life was generally quiet; scandals happened elsewhere.

Williamstown

My perspective as an adult makes everything back in my childhood home seem somehow smaller, less powerful when seen through adult eyes.  The soccer field upon which we rejoiced in victory and choked up over loss; the schoolyard where 6th-grade drama played out in its full, nasty glory, the single-screen movie theater where my friends and I saw the best and worst movies of the 1980s are today less valent, less polarized with emotional residue.

My current realities of fatherhood, of meetings and mortgages and the endless logistics of scheduling the modern family have changed the equations of memory and my youth. We grow, we change, we mature.

But more than this, we learn to take responsibility for our choices.  We learn independence, and we learn how to lead.

A few weeks back, in Parashat Va-ethannan, we read the re-iteration of the covenant at Mt. Sinai, the so-called Ten Commandments or Aseret Ha-Dibberot.  It is worth noting that in Shemot, the place where they receive it is called Sinai, and in Devarim it is called Horev / Horeb.

Moshe

Why the change?  What’s the difference?

The names are different precisely because the context is different.  Not Shemot vs. Devarim, per se, but rather that in the first recounting of Moshe’s sojourn on the mountain, the Israelites have just left Egypt; they are, for the first time, masters of their own destiny, but not yet mature. We all know that the generation of freed slaves, as if they were children, whined their way across the desert.  “Moshe, are we there yet?” “Moshe, we’re thirsty.” “Moshe, we miss the meat and the leeks of Egypt.”

But the second telling, the one we read today, occurs nearly forty years later.  The tribes are now led by the children and grandchildren of those former slaves, and they have a new perspective.  As such, they are ready to accept the mitzvot, to accept the obligations of the covenant with God.  They are now a mature people, about to enter their own land. They have grown.

Horeb and Sinai are not really two names for the same place; they are distinct names for different states of mind.  Sinai is a place of immaturity; Horeb is a place of readiness, of willingness to step forward into a new life, of leading rather than following. Of responsibility.

At Sinai, Moses is at the height of his leadership, but that is as much about the Israelites as it is about him.  At Horeb, Moses is preparing to relinquish leadership, to hand over the reins to Joshua, the only clear leader who emerged from the prior generation.  This leadership piece is an essential part of the Horeb equation. As the Israelites have matured between Sinai and Horeb, they have also gained the ability to accept and participate in leadership.

Now back to Massachusetts. My abused friend, Andrew Nicastro was awarded a settlement of $500,000 in 2012 for his civil lawsuit against two retired bishops of the local diocese of the Catholic church. Between 1982 and 1984, when we were in junior high school, Mr. Nicastro was regularly molested by a local priest, Father Alfred Graves. The lawsuit charged that the bishops knew that Father Graves had committed similar sins elsewhere within the diocese in 1976, and had covered it up.

I knew Andrew from the age of eight or so because we played on the same soccer team; his father was also a member of the faculty with my father at nearby North Adams State College; I was unaware of the abuse until 5 years ago. However, the details of this case suggest that this horrible crime against him could easily have been prevented.

I am clearly not in a position to judge the Catholic Church and its issues; let’s leave that to God. But it is clear that what happened to my friend resulted from a disastrous failure of leadership.  Rather than do the right thing in 1976, when charges against Father Graves were first raised, the bishops covered up the problem and moved him to a different parish, as was done with Catholic priests in Pittsburgh and all over the world when such charges came up.

The diocesan elders were not at Horeb; they were at Sinai.  They responded to the problem not by defrocking Father Graves (as eventually happened, but not soon enough), but rather by seeking a quick fix.  This is not leadership. We can only hope that after all of the similar cases that have come to light in recent years, that they have in fact made the move to Horeb, have learned to make the responsible choice, and have atoned for their past failures.

I was shocked when I first heard this news a few years ago. But this was not a faceless victim; this was somebody I knew personally. And I remembered Andrew again this week. And I remember that although I never went to St. Patrick’s Church in Williamstown, Massachusetts, on some level, that could have been me.

This tale serves as a reminder that no matter where we are, we are never exempt from the responsibilities of doing the right thing.  We can never be at Sinai; we must always be at Horeb. We must always step back from the situation, from the anxiety and the emotion and sometimes even the inclination to forgive those whom we know personally for their wrongs.  Moshe will not be there to accompany us into the Promised Land; that we must do ourselves. Let us hope that the Catholic Church has taken that step, so that not only will my friend Andrew find some peace, but that there will be no more like him.

The grand jury report demonstrates that the shofetim veshoterim / judges and law enforcement officers are the right people to handle cases of abuse at the hands of clergy. As for the task of restoring faith in religion, well, I leave that up to all of us to continue to teach the values of the Torah, among them the values of leadership, of responsibility, of making the right choices in our interactions with everybody.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/18/2018.)

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The World is Burning – Re’eh 5778

I mentioned last week that I was out west two weeks ago. My son and I, along with my brother and my nephew, took an epic road trip that began in Phoenix. We spent Shabbat in Grand Canyon National Park, then moved on to Arches NP, Dinosaur NP (which has a Pittsburgh connection, by the way: it was initially excavated by Earl Douglass of the Carnegie Museum beginning in 1909; several of the dinosaur skeletons unearthed there are located in PGH at the museum); Devil’s Tower NP; and ending at Mt. Rushmore, with a few other destinations along the way. It was a long drive and a lot of fabulous locations to squeeze into a week, but it was my first trip out west (excluding California), and the scenery was almost overwhelmingly beautiful. The mountains, the rivers, the cliffs, the arches, the prairies, the unusual rock formations, the spacious skies, the amber waves of grain, etc.

Devil's Tower

It’s almost impossible to believe or understand how you can drive 90 miles between two intersections and not see a single home or store or even gas station, and barely any other cars on the road. There is a lot of space out there. And, given that we spent most of the time without wifi or mobile phone service, it was easy to forget about the world, to not be reminded of the Russia investigation, or the burning kites released into Israel from Gaza, or the anniversary of Charlottesville.

Except that there was one thing that we could not get away from, something lurking in the background pretty much wherever we went. Lurking in the background is this:

The world is on fire.

On the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, you can clearly see on the North Rim three wildfires. (Smoke by day, actual fire by night.) At several points along the trip, in Arizona, in Utah, and in Colorado, we saw signs and smelled the smoke of wildfires.

Smoke in Grand Canyon

The Adelson boys in the Grand Canyon. Smoke from wildfires can be seen over my left shoulder.

You may be aware that the currently-burning Mendocino Complex Fire is the largest ever recorded in California, having destroyed over 300,000 acres; another current fire, the Carr Fire, has killed 8 people and destroyed over 1,000 homes.

And it’s not just the American West. There are currently 1200 firefighters and 19 aircraft battling wildfires in southern Portugal. Wildfires in Sweden (!) destroyed 61,000 acres of forests in July. A wildfire in Greece killed 90 people in the last couple of weeks. There is an epic heat wave in Europe, such that the cattle who graze in the Swiss Alps are parched – helicopters are airlifting water to them. Sweden’s highest peak, the Kebnekaise glacier, actually dropped into second place because the heat melted the glacier, and it is now 13 feet shorter. There is a severe drought in Australia as well.

Ladies and gentlemen, the world is burning up.

Now, of course we cannot attribute any particular weather event to climate change; please remember that climate is not equal to weather. But when we consider that 7 of the 12 most destructive fires in California’s history have occurred in the last three years; when we consider that we are now losing polar ice at a rapid rate; when some climate scientists are concerned that we have already passed a global “tipping point,” beyond which we may never return to where we were, we have to ask ourselves, where are we headed? If we extrapolate this line, what will our future be?

And, as Jews, we must ask ourselves, what can we do right now to change the outcome?

Up front in Parashat Re’eh, right at the very beginning, is one of the clearest statements of the Torah’s understanding of theology (Devarim / Deuteronomy 11:26):

רְאֵה, אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָה

Re’eh anokhi noten lifneikhem hayom berakhah ukelalah.

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

Look, says God, I have put before you today blessing and curse. If you follow My mitzvot, you’ll get the blessings. If you don’t, you’ll get the curses.

It’s very simple. Black and white. You do X, you get Y. If you don’t do X, you don’t get Y. That is also the theology described in the second paragraph of the Shema, and in many other places in the Torah.

However, that is not actually the theology that we hold by, we who live in 21st-century America. We know that God is more complicated than that. And that’s not a contemporary re-reading; even the rabbis of the Talmud (Bavli Berakhot 7a) observe that God does not seem to work like this. And I am grateful for all of the modern Jewish philosophers (Buber, Heschel, Kaplan, Gillman, etc.) who have enabled us to understand God differently.

But there is also something powerful here, embedded in this binary theological formula that cannot be ignored: that we still have to strive for blessings, and we have within our hands, at least in some cases, the potential to earn those blessings. We also have the potential to create curses. In endowing us with free will, God puts before us the power to create our own blessings and curses.

None of the classical commentators picks up on this, but note the presence of the word “hayom” (“today”) in that verse. Look, says God, I have put before you TODAY a blessing and a curse.

It is up to us today to make the choice. And every day we make these choices. Today is not just today; it is yesterday and tomorrow. In every moment, we can fashion the future.

So how do we maintain the blessing? How do we choose the good? How do we honor God’s Creation and make sure that it is there for generations to come? How do we ensure that we do not turn Scandinavia into a desert and drown Bangladesh?

It is that we make the choice today. And not just us, in this room, but all of us. The entire world.

Here is why the challenge of climate change is so hard for us to solve: we all have to cooperate to make it happen.

The reason that we are all here, ladies and gentlemen, gathered together in this building, in a city in North America, is because of the most salient ability of Homo sapiens: the ability to share ideas. Were it not for this remarkable talent, humans would never have passed the stage of nomadic hunter-gatherers. It was this intellectual revolution that enabled agriculture, trade, money, religion, nation-states, human rights, universities, the space program, etc., etc.

And you know what? As individuals, we can all spend all of our energies trying to minimize our carbon footprints, offsetting our transportation by planting trees, and so forth. We can stop eating meat. We can reduce, reuse, recycle all day long. But this will accomplish virtually nothing with respect to climate change – not compared to the 100 million barrels per day of crude oil that the world consumes.

The polar ice caps will continue to melt until every single government in the world commits to some serious legislation that will lessen the amount of greenhouse gases that we are pouring into the atmosphere. That was exactly the point of the Paris Climate Accords, through which the 196 signatories pledged to ensure that total global warming is limited to 2 degrees Celsius. (We are already halfway there.) It’s not enough of a limit according to scientists, but it is something.

Now, I know that there are always those among us for whom government is perceived to be the problem, rather than the solution. To you I offer a challenge: How can the private sector alone solve this problem? Is this something that the free market can solve? If so, I would like to hear those ideas.

Failing some other solution, I think that the only thing we can do is to implore our elected officials to push for legislation. The United States produces 15% of the world’s greenhouse gases; China produces 25%. Changing that will be hard.

But as California burns, I think we have to ask ourselves, can we afford not to do so?

Yesterday morning, I heard an interview with Pastor Ira Acree, who leads a Christian congregation on the west side of Chicago. He was speaking with an NPR reporter about violence in Chicago. The reporter noted that last weekend was especially bloody: 70 people were wounded in gun violence, 11 died. Toward the end of the interview, he quoted Proverbs 29:18:

בְּאֵין חָזוֹן, יִפָּרַע עָם

Where there is no vision, the people perish (KJV)

About half of the population of the world lives within 120 miles of a coast. Without a vision for reining in our production of greenhouse gases, many, many people will die, and for the rest, life will be unimaginably transfigured.

Re’eh anokhi noten lifneikhem hayom.

I put this before you today. Now is the time to act for blessings. Now is the time for vision.

Shabbat shalom.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/11/2018.)

 

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