Monthly Archives: January 2019

Planting Seeds of Dialogue – Yitro 5779

Two decades ago, when I was living in Houston and working at my final job as a chemical engineer, I learned to meditate at a Buddhist temple. Conscious of my Judaism and wary of our tradition’s all-encompassing prohibition of everything to do with idolatry (we read a taste of that in the Ten Commandments today), I made sure that nothing that I was doing could be construed as violating that prohibition.

There was a Burmese monk who was something like the local rabbi, and he would give a little inspirational talk after the meditation hour. One day he told the story of how the Dalai Lama was speaking somewhere in California, and was asked by a member of the audience if he could tell them how to find the quickest path to enlightenment.

The Dalai Lama did not answer the question. He simply started crying.

There is no easy path to enlightenment. It takes work. Years of careful, thoughtful work.

But the wider lesson here is that very few significant things in life are achievable without careful planning and preparation. Consider the moment on Mt. Sinai that we read today, where God begins the revelatory process with Moshe / Moses: this was such a fundamental moment for our ancestors that it required extensive preparation – days of communal and individual purification, and let’s not forget the whole Exodus story which preceded it. Many things needed to be in place before the moment of contact between God and Israel.

I am concerned that our national state of anxiety, coupled with the new tools of social media, have created a climate in which everything happens in an uncontrolled frenzy. Consider the news story that unfolded over the past week about the apparent stand-off between a Native American drummer and a high-school kid by the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. An initial video, shared widely and rapidly via social media, seemed to show the teen and his posse mocking the drummer. When other footage surfaced, the picture seemed more complicated, involving an hour or more of prior invective from a couple of Black Hebrew Israelites, who are known to spew hatred at passersby in some cities. (I myself was verbally assaulted on multiple occasions by these guys on the streets of New York.)

standoff

Subsequent analyses of the situation only seemed to muddy the waters, to the point where it is difficult to say who was at fault, who was mocking whom, what the motives of the various parties were at the time. And then as the news cycle turned over and PR firms were hired, the scene became a kind of Rorschach test for the observer.

I concede that I do not know what exactly happened that day. But what concerns me is not only the scene of people from disparate ethnic groups clashing with each other, but also our rush to judgment; our willingness to assume that we knew what was going on from a few seconds of out-of-context video footage. It is almost as if we wanted to see conflict, to point fingers unambiguously. No chance of enlightenment here.

This is just one small example of the many ways in which we are losing patience for the careful, diligent work it takes to understand the other, to effect change, to exert leadership, to get to know somebody, to cooperate across racial or religious or ethnic lines. We have lost interest in intellectual rigor, in authority based in years of experience. And we are all just too darned busy to dig deeper, to create relationships, to foster real discussion.

The second-century CE collection of Jewish wisdom known as Pirqei Avot, verses of the ancestors, tells us the following (4:23):

רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר אוֹמֵר, אַל תְּרַצֶּה אֶת חֲבֵרְךָ בִשְׁעַת כַּעֲסוֹ, וְאַל תְּנַחֲמֶנּוּ בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁמֵּתוֹ מֻטָּל לְפָנָיו

Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar says: Do not attempt to assuage the anger of your friend while he is angry; do not try to console her at the time when her deceased lies before her.

In other words, don’t try to tell anybody something that they are not ready to hear. Even words of comfort are alienating when the time is not right, when the other person is not able to listen. True communication happens only when both parties are prepared for it.

Last Sunday morning, we featured Beth Shalom member Zack Block in our Lox and Learning series. Zack is the Executive Director of Repair the World Pittsburgh, whose mission is to “make meaningful service a defining part of American Jewish life.” In short, what Repair the World does is to engage Jews in a range of volunteer activities with partner organizations.

One of Repair the World’s activities is maintaining community gardens, and Zack used the example of gardening as a community-building activity. First, he said, you bring people together to plant seeds in pots indoors. You water the seedlings regularly. Some time later, you bring people together again to take the seedlings to the garden and plant them. There is watering and fertilizing and weeding and pruning and all sorts of ongoing maintenance. And then you bring people together again for harvesting, and bringing those fruits and vegetables to food pantries, or to bag them and make them available for nearby residents to take and use, or to host an exciting event with an up-and-coming local chef who can do something brilliant with string beans and eggplant.

seedling

It occurred to me that this is an excellent metaphor for dialogue across political, religious, ethnic, racial, or even gender-based lines. And, since this past Monday was Tu Bishvat, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, which, according to the Talmud, is the new year for the trees, the plant metaphor works well in this season.

This is how diplomacy works: you plant “seeds”; you tend to them, and when the time is right, you “harvest” the solutions, the compromises, the social justice commitments, and then you pass the garden on to your successors.

Let’s acknowledge for a moment that we have guests in our Sanctuary today. Welcome, members of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, and a special welcome to the Right Reverend Dorsey McConnell, Bishop of the Diocese. We will have a Q&A with Bishop McConnell and myself and Rabbi Markiz after qiddush (i.e. “collation”), and I hope you will join us for that. We are all in agreement that, particularly in the wake of October 27th, both here in Pittsburgh and across these United States, we are all in need of more communication with people outside of our own circles.

I sometimes feel that we are a nation in retreat: retreating to our own news bubbles, retreating to our comfy armchairs and our Netflix subscriptions, retreating to our own kind, or into ourselves. Where do we see examples of true dialogue in our society today?  Where there was once discussion we see diatribe; where there was once debate we see demagoguery. We are all just screaming to be heard, striving to collect the most “likes,” to achieve the most re-tweeted tweet, to post the most outrageous selfie.

I hope that today we will plant some seeds and mark the beginning of a conversation between our communities, a conversation that will ultimately yield fruit in making meaningful connections across a religious divide. And there are more gardens to plant, conversations to be had – many groups reached out to us following the Tree of Life massacre.

But it will take time. We need to talk. To break bread together. To make small-talk. Only after you have come into our space, and we have come into yours, and you have asked us questions, and we have asked you questions, can we really start to dig deeply and honestly into the difficult issues that we all face. One meeting is not enough.

Just as there is no speedy path to enlightenment, there is no quick way into meaningful dialogue. As with the rabbinic wisdom from Pirqei Avot I cited above, there is no shortcut to being able to enter the truly challenging, but essential, conversations; there is only the garden, in all its labor-intensive greenery.

A final note: the main event of Parashat Yitro (our Torah reading for today) occurred in the reading of the Aseret haDibberot, the Decalogue. But the name of the parashah comes from Moshe’s father-in-law, Yitro / Jethro, who is a Midianite kohen, that is, a non-Israelite priest. In the words of Rabbi Sharon Cohen-Anisfeld, president of Hebrew College in Boston:

Yitro embodies a quality of capaciousness – and indeed, his name itself comes from the Hebrew root yeter, or yoter. Abundance. More-than-enoughness. What Yitro embodies here is a quality of big-heartedness. There is more than enough room in his heart to truly rejoice in the blessings of another people.

Like Yitro, we should all have more than enough room in our hearts for our neighbors, for diplomacy, for reaching out and creating the depth of relationship required to achieve honest, heartfelt discussion. That is how we may achieve enlightenment.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 1/26/2019.)

 

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Singing Together with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – Beshallah 5779

Some of you may recall that a few weeks back I spoke about refrigerator-magnet texts – short, pithy statements from our textual tradition that are the most resonant, the most useful in our day-to-day lives, and how we should keep them in front of us at all times. (I’m actually looking into making refrigerator magnets; will keep you posted.)

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a few go-to verses of his own, pieces of Biblical wisdom that he continued to return to in his sermons and speeches and writings. One with which you may be familiar is from the prophet Amos (5:24):

וְיִגַּל כַּמַּיִם, מִשְׁפָּט; וּצְדָקָה, כְּנַחַל אֵיתָן

Veyiggal kamayim mishpat, utzdaqah kenahal eitan.

Let justice run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

It’s a verse that appears in our siddur / prayerbook in the Prayer for Peace (Siddur Lev Shalem, p. 178), which we occasionally recite. It also appears in one of the quotes inscribed around the perimeter of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC:

We are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.’

Dr. King delivered that verse on Dec. 5, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, on the first day of the Montgomery bus boycott, just a few days after Rosa Parks famously refused to surrender her seat in the front of the bus.

One month after the shooting here in Pittsburgh, my family and I went to Washington, DC for Thanksgiving. It was my first visit there with our kids, and although I have been to our nation’s capitol many times, somehow this trip was so much more emotional. Perhaps it was because it was the first time that I was seeing the monuments to our democracy through the eyes of my children; perhaps it was because the communal wounds of October 27th were still bleeding; perhaps it was because of the divided state of our body politic. In any case, when I got to the Martin Luther King Memorial, I found myself tearing up and indeed even sobbing out loud.

Have you been there? Let me describe it: The three-quarter bust of Dr. King is hewn from a piece of stone which looks as though it has been cut out of and moved forward from a larger stone hill. Inscribed on the bust is the line, “Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”

dr king bust

And around the entire plaza are a series of fourteen of the most powerful quotes from Dr. King’s oratorical bounty. With virtually every one of those quotes, I cried even more. Here is just a taste:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

(Letter from Birmingham, Alabama jail, April 16, 1963.)

We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience.

(Montgomery, Alabama, March 25, 1965.)

Dr. King had a special gift that brought people together, that made Jewish kids from New York want to go down South and work on behalf of African-Americans, that made Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel want to walk with him in Selma, that made people want to stand together, to march together, to sing together.

DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.; DR. RALPH BUNCHE;  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel;  Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. links arms with other civil rights leaders as they begin the march to the state capitol in Montgomery from Selma, Ala. on March 21, 1965. The demonstrators are marching for voter registration rights for blacks. Accompanying Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (fourth from right), are on his left Ralph Bunche, undersecretary of the United Nations, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. They are wearing leis given by a Hawaiian group. (AP Photo)

When we face the types of social challenges that we are up against right now as a society: the scourge of hatred in all its forms, the struggle for equality for all people, the breakdown of family and neighborhood ties, the curse of opioid addiction, the seemingly endless cases of unarmed black men and boys shot by policemen, it would do us good to remember that the framework of religion, and the interfaith coalitions that this framework often spawns, have helped us in the past to overcome such challenges. Dr. King’s leadership was successful not only because of his knowledge of pithy texts, but also because of his ecumenical sense of, “We’re all in this together.”

And we do indeed all need to be in this together.

And even while our paths to God may vary, the true strength of what unites us is formidable.

Take for example, the following:

Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a better person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.

(March for Integrated Schools, April 18, 1959.)

To me this suggests two different mishnayot from Pirqei Avot, the 2nd-century collection of rabbinic wisdom:

Pirqei Avot 2:2

Rabban Gamliel, son of Rabbi Judah the Patriarch, taught:…

All who serve on behalf of the community should do so for heaven’s sake. Their work will prosper because the inherited merit of our ancestors endures forever…

Pirqei Avot 1:18

Rabban Shim’on ben Gamliel taught: The world rests on three things – on justice, on peace, and on truth, as it is written (Zechariah 8:16): “With truth, justice, and peace shall you judge in your gates.”

These words drove our ancestors in ancient times to keep our faith alive; they drove some of our parents and grandparents to join forces with Dr. King in the fight for civil rights. They will also always drive Jews to work on behalf of the common good, to seek justice and equality for all.

Dr. King spoke and wrote and marched at a time when churches, synagogues and other faith-based organizations worked as focal points of community organizing.

But we have a problem today: fewer and fewer of us are in the sanctuary. Fewer of us are in the pews. Religion holds much less sway as an organizing factor than it did in the 1960s, because so many of us have opted out.

And yet it is here that we sing together. It is here that we learn together. It is here that we take our ancient wisdom and learn to apply it to today, to launch the words of Torah out into the world. We need synagogues, we need churches and mosques and all other houses of worship to gather people together so that we can all be inspired to repair this broken world.

And in all those houses of worship, we need to double down on the words of our various traditions – the texts that speak of justice and peace, of community and equal rights, of our nation and of God. We can make change by coming together, by emphasizing the principles that we share. We still have the power to act on Dr. King’s vision, that vision in which people of all races and religions and socio-economic statuses can in fact cooperate for the common good.

When we sing together, loudly, as people of faith, our voices will be heard.

Back at the Dr. King memorial, from his Christmas sermon in Atlanta in 1967, I also read the following:

If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.

Here is a challenge for us all: How much do we love our nation? How much do we love our city? How much do we love our neighbors? How much do we love the world?

If we desire to act on the love that we explored over the High Holidays, then we all need to reach out, as a community of faith, to other such communities: to our black and brown and white neighbors, to partner with them to make this world a more just and equal and peaceful place, a place where no child is separated from their parents, where nobody is shot for any reason, where no drug company can work to convince doctors to write out more prescriptions of addictive pain medication, where we as a nation and a world can wrap our brains around the realities of climate change and protect the populations which will soon become the most vulnerable.

On this Shabbat Shirah, this Shabbat of Song that coincides with Dr. Martin Luther King Day weekend, we remember that when we sing together, our voices are stronger.

We already sang the song at the Sea of Reeds, an ancient song of redemption sung by our ancestors, which was introduced as follows:

אָז יָשִׁיר-מֹשֶׁה וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת, לַיה

Az yashir Moshe uvnei Yisrael et hashirah hazot ladonai

Thus sang Moses and the Israelites this song to God…

Moses and his sister Miriam lead the Israelites in singing together, and a midrash says not only that all the men, women, and children were dancing and singing, but even the unborn babies – the fetuses in the wombs of some of the women – sang along as well.

Every single voice joined together for that song. And we continue to sing it today, every morning, as a symbol of our ongoing desire for redemption, as a spur to work harder to build the society that Dr. King envisioned, the one in which we truly understand that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and that we become “a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience.” A nation where justice will run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

We need to raise our voices together with those of our neighbors, express our love together through song, and bring a little more redemption to this very broken world.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 1/19/2019.)

 

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Leadership, Doubt, and Hamilton – Va-era 5779

The whole family and I saw Hamilton at the Benedum Center on Wednesday night. Really, it was awesome. We already knew the soundtrack; my kids have it mostly committed to memory, and, thankfully, they have the good sense to, when singing along with the soundtrack in the car, NOT audibly recite the four-letter words.

One of the themes that the musical tangles with is leadership: what makes a good leader; what was truly revolutionary about the leadership of the American Revolution. When Alexander Hamilton, “young, scrappy, and hungry,” arrives in New York to seek his fortune, he clambers into the spotlight, while the more politic Aaron Burr cautions him to “talk less, smile more.” When George Washington announces that he will not seek a third term as president, we see King George across the pond, guffawing about how ridiculous it is for a leader to yield power to somebody else. Hamilton is not a reluctant leader; he vows over and over not to “throw away his shot,” and makes all the moves to position himself as a leader. He is not afflicted with doubt. He spends every waking moment writing, speaking, publishing, and his gift with words and ability to lead with the pen is formidable.

Alexander Hamilton

Let’s contrast now with that other epic musical that we feature each week here at Beth Shalom, the Torah, and in particular, the leadership of Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our Teacher, who is filled with uncertainty.

We read today in Parashat Va-era about Moshe’s doubts. In fact, there were a few places where Moshe expresses doubt since we started Shemot / Exodus last week.

  • Last week, when God instructed him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, Moshe says, “Mi anokhi?” “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?” (Ex. 3:11).
  • He further protests (4:1) “What if they do not listen to me?” and (4:10) “I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”
  • And in Va-era, when prompted by God to go to Pharaoh, he describes himself (twice: 6:12 and 6:30) as “aral sefatayim,” literally, “my lips are uncircumcised.” i.e. that his speech is impeded.

What exactly does this mean? Rashi tells us that the word that is usually translated as “uncircumcised,” “arel,” actually means, “obstructed.” The prophet Jeremiah uses the term in reference to the ears and the heart, suggesting that these organs can also be obstructed. Moshe is uncertain of his abilities as a leader because he is not a public speaker. He is obstructed. In some sense, Moshe is the anti-Hamilton.

From the moment that we meet Moshe, in fact, we rarely see him emerge from this state of self-doubt.

But I would like to make the case that Moshe’s uncertainty is what makes him a good leader. Doubt is healthy and natural. Consider your own doubts.

Or, consider mine. I remember a teaching session back at Temple Israel of Great Neck when I expressed my own doubt about God always hearing prayer.

One of the attendees confided in me afterwards that he was uncomfortable with his rabbi expressing doubt. I offered the following in response: we all have doubts. Even rabbis. But the way to approach faith is not by eliminating all doubt (which is impossible), but to acknowledge it.

Maimonides, for example, strongly rejected the idea that God has any kind of physical form, or human-like body parts. But we all know that the Torah and many rabbinic texts reference God’s arm, or God’s face, or God’s hair. So which is “true”? And, by the way, how can God hear prayer without ears?

Doubt is a universally-human trait, and anybody who claims to be 100% certain about any spiritual matter is exaggerating. It would be deeply disingenuous of me to stand before you and say that I agree with everything in our tradition, that I accept every word of the Torah as the absolutely true word of God received by Moshe on Mt. Sinai, that I approach God and Judaism unquestioningly. And I sincerely doubt that God gave us intellect and reason specifically so that we could ignore that gift in matters of faith. And I am 100% certain that Rambam would stand with me on that one.

To achieve honest faith, we must acknowledge our doubts. And as American Jews living in skeptical times, when religion holds far less sway than in past decades, we must openly embrace these doubts and those that have them, so that we can keep the door open for those who might otherwise leave. We in the Conservative movement maintain an intellectual openness that is essential today.

These are deeply skeptical times; we do not look to the heroes of past years, or turn proudly to our institutions for uncorrupted inspiration. The 20th century, the American century is long over. As a society we are struggling to maintain traditions, religious and secular, in the wake of the fall from grace of our once-glorified political, social, and religious leaders. Our suspicions about authority of any kind – government, corporate, religious, even medical – run deep. All the emperors are naked.

Add to this the fact that we are quite far removed from the ancient daily struggles that kept our ancestors coming back to God. We do not face the immediate life and death challenges that our ancestors – Israelite subsistence farmers – faced: the dependence on rain, the helplessness in the face of disease and famine and war, the great natural risks involved in childbearing, and so forth. And thank God, we live in an open society in which we can draw spiritual inspiration from many wells, not just the Jewish one.

All of these things conspire to make it very hard for any of us to feel very deeply about religion, let alone achieve faith in the face of doubt. Indifference is rampant. No thanks, Rabbi Adelson. I’m good. No need for me to come to shul (synagogue).

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was keenly aware of the challenge of faith, of the power of doubt. As we wrestle with God and ourselves, the likelihood is that our experiences of the Divine are fleeting, if not entirely absent. How then can we justify faith? Heschel says in God in Search of Man (pp. 154-5) that

“Faith in the living God is not easily attained… Why, we often ask in our prayers, why hast Thou made it so difficult to find Thee? Why must we encounter so much anguish and travail before we can catch a glance of Thy presence?”

We must work hard, says Heschel, to find God. And although most of us want, even the skeptics among us, to find that connection to the Divine, very few of us do.

Honest faith, therefore, must reflect this struggle; lack of certainty is an essential part of faith. It is in the struggle that Jews find God, just as Yaaqov did, and so too did Moshe. It is in this cosmic wrestling match that we discover the power that Judaism has to alter our lives. That is why we are Yisrael, the ones who struggle with God.

And that is why we should fear the leader that has no self-doubt.

By emphasizing Moshe’s concern about his “uncircumcised lips,” the Torah is actually insinuating that he is the correct choice to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. It is not his lips that are uncircumcised, but rather his heart — he does not want to accept that he is, in fact, capable.

But we know how the story ends.

What do we learn from all of this? That we can, as with Jeremiah (4:4), cut away that obstruction around our hearts, and pursue our faith with an honest acknowledgment of doubt. It’s what makes us human.

We cannot allow the fundamentalist groups in this world, who tolerate no doubt, to control the dialogue about any religion, particularly Judaism. We cannot allow the extremists in our midst to shift the conversation to some inhuman, unrealistic position that does not account for the complex nature of human thought. Uncertainty is an essential part of who we are. We do not unquestioningly accept every word of authority as truth. On the contrary, we challenge. We argue. We wrestle. And we occasionally do not believe.

Doubt is what makes faith real and honest. It is the essential nature of faith, that those of us who are sometimes uncertain still step forward to grasp the mantle of Jewish tradition. So cut away that which obstructs your ability to seek God wholeheartedly, and embrace the doubt.

And furthermore, uncertainty is what ultimately makes leaders great. The ability to re-evaluate, to re-frame, to re-work the plan when necessary, the willingness to concede your uncertainty is what allows for a true leader to thrive. I would pick Moshe over Alexander Hamilton any day. (I think.)

Shabbat shalom.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 1/5/2019.)

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