Monthly Archives: September 2019

All Of This Belongs To You – High Holidays 5780

Leave a comment

Filed under High Holidays, Video

Being Honest With Ourselves – Ki Tetze 5779

In his short story, Tallit Aheret, (“Another Prayer Shawl”), the great Israeli writer Shemuel Yosef Agnon, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966, speaks of an ineffective Yom Kippur. He goes to his grandfather’s synagogue for services, where his tallit awaits him, and one thing after another distract him from actually praying, from being able to seek teshuvah / return on that day.

He arrives late (during Pesuqei Dezimra, which, BTW, many of us consider “early”), the old men will not offer him a seat, he is attacked by a pitcher of fruit juice, and when he finally dons his tallit, somebody points out that it is not kosher – it is missing one of the four tzitziyyot, the specially-tied strands that hang down at the corners. It is a symbol of death – some have the custom of deliberately making a tallit pesulah (not kosher) before burying it with its owner, by removing one of the tzitziyyot. The speaker grieves for himself, and realizes that the holy day has passed “belo tefillah uvelo kelum.” Without prayer and without anything.

Agnon speaks in a language that is rich with metaphor, but one possible way of reading the story is this: it is absolutely possible to show up for Yom Kippur and go through the motions, and not actually succeed in plumbing the depths that one must plumb in order to achieve teshuvah. I am certain that many of us fast through to the shofar blast at the end and not actually achieve anything – lo tefillah velo kelum – no actual prayer, to put Yom Kippur aside for another year.

The overwhelming number of captivating and indeed relevant mitzvot found in Parashat Ki Tetze is breathtaking. Just a brief sampling:

  • We are forbidden from taking a worker’s tool in pawn, so that she/he cannot make a living
  • Shilluah haqen – we must shoo away the mother bird before taking the nestlings (a curious, yet significant mitzvah)
  • Shikhehah– produce from our fields that is forgotten must be left behind for the needy, and several other associated mitzvot
  • We may not be indifferent to our neighbors (we’ll speak about that one at Kol Nidrei)
  • We must use honest weights and measures in business

That last one is particularly important right now, a mere two weeks out from the beginning of the seventh month of Tishrei, the “holy month” of the Jewish calendar, and in particular the cycle of teshuvah / repentance followed by celebration. But first, a story, this one courtesy of Rabbi David Wolpe:

One Shabbat morning, a rabbi gave her congregation an assignment: study Psalm 153, because we are going to take a deep dive into it during the sermon next Shabbat morning.

The following week, after the Torah is put away, the rabbi says, “Shabbat shalom! I asked you last week to read Psalm 153. Raise your hand if you read it.”

Two-thirds of the people in the room raise their hands.

“Well, that’s too bad,” says the rabbi. “Because there IS NO Psalm 153, and today’s sermon is about lying.”

So we are talking about lying, but not what you might be thinking of. The Torah tells us, as I mentioned, not to have two sets of weights and measures (Deut. 25:15-16)

אֶבֶן שְׁלֵמָה וָצֶדֶק יִהְיֶה-לָּךְ, אֵיפָה שְׁלֵמָה וָצֶדֶק יִהְיֶה-לָּךְ–לְמַעַן, יַאֲרִיכוּ יָמֶיךָ, עַל הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר-ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ.  כִּי תוֹעֲבַת ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ, כָּל-עֹשֵׂה אֵלֶּה, כֹּל עֹשֵׂה עָוֶל

You shall have a perfect and just weight; you shall have a perfect and just measure, that your days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God gives you. For all that do these things, all that do unrighteously, are an abomination unto the LORD your God.

Ibn Ezra, the great 12th-century Spanish commentator, does us the favor of interpolating the latter verse to explain that the “unrighteous” things described are neither limited to falsifying weights and measures to swindle your customer, nor any other deceptive business practice, but any sort of deception or falsehood. The Torah mandates that we treat each other with honesty, and the reward for doing so will be long life.

But I would like to extend the thinking from the external to the internal. Of course, the Torah expects us to deal honestly with each other. But reading between the lines, the Torah also expects us to deal honestly with ourselves.

Welcome to Elul! We are already halfway through the month in which we must start thinking about dealing honestly with ourselves; we’ve been blowing the shofar every morning at minyan for two weeks. This is the time in which we should be taking, if you will, a spiritual inventory, asking ourselves the tough questions, like:

  • Have I mistreated anyone in the past year?
  • Have I not fulfilled promises?
  • Have I let anger cloud my judgment?
  • Have I been too critical of others?  
  • Have I judged others without walking in their shoes?
  • Have I judged myself unfairly?

There are many such questions we could ask ourselves during Elul. (If you would like some more for your own personal review, find them here.)

And here is the REALLY hard part: you have to answer honestly.

I know, I know. You’d really rather watch funny videos on YouTube than answer difficult questions about your behavior. So would I. We are really good at finding ways of distracting ourselves from the hard work.

‘Cause let’s face it: these holidays come up every year. The services are carefully choreographed and lacking in improvised devotion. We recite these ancient Hebrew words of confession and contrition, but really, most of us do not connect them to our actual behavior. And then we go to lunch, or break the fast.

But sometimes, hevreh, and especially in Elul, we have to actually take the blame, which nobody likes doing.

Of course, it is also possible that not all of the blame is yours. We also have to be honest with ourselves when we might be inclined toward what might be called “false modesty.” Maybe I contributed to how a situation went wrong, but I have to be honest with myself about my role.

Without raising your hand, how many of us can think of a time where we really did something wrong? How many of us can think of a time in which we said words that were harmful? Or acted out of spite or anger? How many of us went back, after the fact, and did the best we could to, rather than fixing the situation, try to cover our tracks? How many of us have dug our heels in unnecessarily? How many of us have, rather than offering an earnest apology, have instead doubled down on the wrong thing?

Elsewhere, the Torah (Exodus 23:7) exhorts us, “מדבר שקר תרחק” (Midevar sheqer tirhaq – “You shall distance yourself from falsehood.”) Rabbis often joke that this line is the reason that everybody sits in the back in shul.

But seriously, now is the time to distance ourselves from the falsehood within ourselves. So here is a suggestion:

Find some time in the coming weeks to reflect back over the past year. You might need to isolate yourself in a quiet place, away from any kind of digital technology, to do this. Try to remember the instances where you made the wrong choice, said the wrong thing, damaged a relationship. A year is a long time – there are surely many such potential instances. But if you allow yourself to go back, you might find one or two that absolutely must be addressed. I already have a few items on my list.  

Write them down on a piece of paper and carry it around with you for the next several weeks as a reminder. If the opportunity comes up for you to make a situation right, then do so. If not, well, then there’s Yom Kippur. During the moments when you need that extra help searching for “inspiration” for teshuvah, take that piece of paper out and meditate on it.

After Yom Kippur, recycle the paper, and hope that as that paper is ground up and fashioned into new paper, the transgressions indicated thereupon will help you and everybody else to make better choices the next time, and to be more honest with yourself.

Nobody wants to see herself or himself as having messed up. We have a complex, layered series of self-protections to avoid exactly that. But the point of the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Return, is to swallow our pride and admit our failures. We have all failed in one way or another; the challenge at this time is to be honest with ourselves about it.

And furthermore, nobody REALLY wants Yom Kippur to pass by “belo tefillah uvelo kelum.” We want our words, our fast, our beating of the chest to be honest, to help improve ourselves, our relationships and our world. You can do it. You got this.

Shabbat shalom, and I hope that the remainder of Elul is truly introspective.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 9/14/2019.)

Leave a comment

Filed under Sermons

The Masters of History – Shofetim 5779

This past week we observed the 80th anniversary of the start of World War II, Sept. 1, 1939, when Hitler’s armies invaded Poland. 

I had a congregant on Long Island who was there when it happened: his name was Bill Ungar, and he was a soldier in a cavalry regiment of the Polish army, which fell quickly as the Nazi troops overwhelmed them. He was injured in the Nazi onslaught, but ultimately survived the war and the camps, made it to America, and was proud to have a successful career in business and raise a bountiful family that is committed to Judaism and to Israel. He passed away a few years back, at age 100, and as a former synagogue president, his funeral was held in the synagogue sanctuary, which was packed full of mourners.

William Ungar z”l

As the first-hand witnesses to that period age and leave us, there are fewer and fewer individuals who can speak from personal experience. But, as with everything in Jewish life, the history of those years – of Nazi aggression and genocide – continues to reside with us, deposited in the collective history of our people.

We have carried our history with us wherever we go, and it is the lens through which we continue to see ourselves, to determine our role in the world, to guide us in our choices. It is our history that returns us to our values, and in particular, the value of justice.

A key clause right up front in Parashat Shofetim is, “Tzedeq, tzedeq tirdof,” notable because of the repetition of the word tzedeq, justice. Properly translated, it means, “Justice, you shall pursue justice” – holding out justice in front of us to dangle momentarily at the leading edge of the clause, before applying the verb that tells us what to do. It is as if to say, “Justice! Think about that for a moment. Then go out and pursue it.” And the text does not say, as it could have, “Tzedeq ta’aseh.” Do justice. Rather, tirdof is more active. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said that what is implied is that we must actively pursue it. Go out and make justice happen.

Through the lens of history, we know that justice must be pursued with vigor and endurance.

It is easy to point to September 1, 1939, as the start of World War II. For the Jews, I think it is difficult to separate the war from the Sho’ah, the destruction of European Jewry. One might just as easily consider January 30, 1933, when Hitler came to power. Or September 15, 1935, when the Nuremberg Laws were passed in the Reichstag. Or November 9, 1938, Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. And so forth. 

Over the summer, while spending time with our family in Budapest, Judy and I went to the Hungarian Holocaust Memorial Center. Neither of us had been there before, despite the fact that it tells the story of how Judy’s parents, who were both in their teens in Hungarian areas during the war. As is the case with all Holocaust museums, the exhibit was grim. But what was unique for me about this museum is that it tells the story of the persecution and murder of Jews from the Hungarian perspective, which is different from the German perspective that is usually told. 

In Hungary, anti-Jewish legislation was passed into law in 1920 under the leadership of Regent Miklos Horthy, the last Navy admiral of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and a self-declared anti-Semite. The law, referred to as “numerus clausus” (“closed number” in Latin), drastically limited the number of Hungarian Jews who were allowed to enroll in universities, thereby rolling back the civil liberties granted to Jews in the early 19th century. Thousands of Jews left Hungary. And this was years before anybody had heard of Adolf Hitler. The law was largely repealed in 1928, but a decade later Horthy’s regime was allied with the Nazis, and we all know what came next.

One of the fascinating aspects of the study of history is that we can trace the currents of ideas and cultural phenomena as they turn over and simmer and develop and flow. When we speak of the injustice to Jews wrought by European anti-Semitism, do we go back to Martin Luther? Do we start with St. John Chrysostom in 4th-century Constantinople?

I have read that as people age, time seems to move faster. You know this from your own experience: remember when summer vacation, a mere two months, used to last for what seemed like forever? Remember when, in September, you could not remember the math you’d learned in June? And now, for those of us over a certain age, you feel like you kick up your feet for a moment in July, and the leaves are already falling off the trees.

One theory behind this phenomenon is that the older you are, the more lived experience you have to measure every moment against. It’s as if you are looking through thicker lenses; every current event is filtered through all the relevant things that you remember from your own life. So time seems to move more quickly because each moment is refracted by everything that came before it.

And we the Jews, well, our history stretches back, depending on where you start counting, at least 2,000 years, and maybe 3,000. Our collective lenses are the size of the Herodian stones at the base of the Kotel / the Western Wall in Jerusalem; our people’s shared experience includes centuries of dispersion and oppression, yes, but also learning and thriving and teaching and yearning for freedom. And perhaps that helps with perspective; we survived the Babylonian and Roman destructions; the Spanish Expulsion; the Sho’ah. We’re still here.

It is anathema to the Jews to be ahistorical, because we know that it is only a matter of time before the situation changes once again. Slowly, inexorably, the ancient hatreds come back, with new movements and new methods and new champions. We have no choice but to be masters of history; we forget the past at our own peril. 

It is our history that has led us to continue to pursue justice. For we know that wherever people are inclined to draw lines between the “goo”d folks and the “bad” folks, between the “real” Hungarians or Aryans or English or Russians and the people who came from somewhere else, wherever leaders seek to exploit traditional fear and enmity and suspicion, we know that justice is about to be thrown out the window in favor of mob rules. 

We know that it is our responsibility, as the Torah exhorts us over and over and over again, to stand up for the widow, the orphan, the stranger in our midst; to remember that we were strangers in Egypt; to recall that people, when left to their own devices, are not fundamentally inclined to treat each other justly.

Tzedeq.Justice, says the Torah. 

Tzedeq tirdof. You must pursue justice.

Nearly 2,000 years after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem, and then banned Jews from living within sight of that city, we are still here despite the injustice served to us throughout those many centuries. 

עוד לא אבדה תקותנו,‘Od lo avdah tikvatenu,Our hope is not yet lost,
התקוה הנושנה,Hatikvah hanoshanah,The ancient hope,
לשוב לארץ אבותינו,Lashuv le-eretz avoteinu,To return to the land of our fathers,
לעיר בה דוד חנה.La‘ir bah david hanah.The city where David encamped.


Hatiqvah hanoshanah, the ancient hope identified in Naftali Herz Imber’s 1878 poem, which later became the national anthem of the State of Israel, was a hope not merely for a return to the city where David camped (as with the original text). I read it also as an ongoing plea for the Jewish soul to find comfort in a society in which the guiding principle is justice, in which there is no fear of hatred, no need for synagogue security guards, no angry mobs.

Imber died an alcoholic pauper in 1909 in New York City after a lifetime of wandering; he knew neither the Holocaust nor of the State of Israel. But we still live out his yearning today; we are still drawn by that ancient hope. We are still seeking tzedeq

Our greatest challenge is not memory. We have that in spades. Rather, it is how to act on that memory. How to pursue the upright path in the societies in which we live, in the times in which we dwell. How to make sure that tzedeq, that justice remains in front of us at all times.

What will truly make us the masters of history is when we turn our historical lenses onto ourselves, and pursue that which is truly just.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 9/7/2019.)

4 Comments

Filed under Sermons

Shall There Be No Needy? – Re’eh 5779

These are good times in which to be living if you are a vegetarian. You may know that I have been a “Jewish vegetarian” since 1988 – that is, I eat anything that does not qualify as “meat” for kashrut purposes. So while many traditional vegetarians do not eat fish, I do. Kosher fish, of course.)

These are good times because of the explosion of interest in plant-based foods, and the growing availability of meat-like products, like the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger. And I heard earlier this week that KFC just began test-marketing a plant-based chicken-like product in one of its restaurants in Atlanta. Apparently, it tastes like chicken.

I must say that the Torah was extraordinarily prescient in its time for setting limits on food. The laws that appear in Parashat Re’eh (pp. 1072-74 in the Etz Hayim humash) draw fairly clear lines: for land animals, only ruminants (which are, by definition, all herbivores) with a split hoof. For sea creatures, only those with fins and scales. No birds of prey. (Yes, I know there are a few critters that fall into grey areas, but such are the glorious complexities of God’s Creation.) 

And there are good reasons for us to limit our consumption. It is a reminder that not all things are nor should they be available to humans to eat or otherwise cultivate. Although God has given us the power and the know-how to manipulate our environment for our benefit, that should not be a boundless endeavor. There are just some things we should keep our hands off of.

But there is another way of reading Parashat Re’eh that I had not previously put together. Just after Deuteronomy chapter 14, in which those lines of consumption are drawn, in the following chapter we encounter what may be one of the most striking statements in the Torah (Deut. 15:4, 1077):

אֶפֶס, כִּי לֹא יִהְיֶה-בְּךָ אֶבְיוֹן:  כִּי-בָרֵךְ יְבָרֶכְךָ, ה’, בָּאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן-לְךָ נַחֲלָה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ.

There shall be no needy among you – since the Lord your God will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion…

And here is the striking part (15:7-8):

כִּי-יִהְיֶה בְךָ אֶבְיוֹן … 

If, however, there is a needy person among you…

Now, hold on there a minute. Did the text not just say that there will be no needy among you? How can that be? 

OK, so regardless, if there is a needy person among you: (1078)

לֹא תְאַמֵּץ אֶת-לְבָבְךָ, וְלֹא תִקְפֹּץ אֶת-יָדְךָ, מֵאָחִיךָ, הָאֶבְיוֹן.  ח כִּי-פָתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח אֶת-יָדְךָ, לוֹ; וְהַעֲבֵט, תַּעֲבִיטֶנּוּ, דֵּי מַחְסֹרוֹ, אֲשֶׁר יֶחְסַר לוֹ.

… do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs.

The logical conclusion that we can draw is that the world free of needy people will never exist. It is a blueprint for a world that could be, an ideal to which we should aspire.

And of course, that begs the question: how are we working to build that world?

There is a classic rabbinic textual-interpretation principle known as “semikhut parashiyyot,” literally, the juxtaposition of passages. The idea is that adjacent stories or concepts in the Torah are near each other for a reason; they must therefore comment on each other. 

One traditional example of this principle is that many items of the list of 39 avot melakhah / Shabbat prohibitions – things like hammering, weaving and building – are drawn from semikhut parashiyyot. In Parashat Vayaqhel, the Torah’s description of the building of the mishkan / tabernacle follows a restatement of the requirement to rest on the seventh day. The rabbis conclude that the activities related to creating the mishkan were therefore forbidden on Shabbat. 

So, using this principle of semikhut parashiyyot, we must ask,

”What do dietary restrictions have to do with the ongoing existence of poverty?”

And the answer emerges on two different levels. 

On an individual level, we might derive from this the fundamental requirement to be mindful of our food will ensure that we are also mindful of the nutritional needs of others. That is, drawing lines in what we eat should remind us of the imperative to make sure that all people around us have food, particularly those most likely to be food-insecure – i.e. evyonim – poor people. 

We should therefore take seriously the mitzvah of opening our hands to evyonim, as the Torah instructs, by supplying them with food. There are many means of doing so; one, the Squirrel Hill Food Pantry, is nearby and run by Jewish Family and Community Services. (As in past years, we will have donation bags available prior to the High Holidays.) 

But on a greater scale, I think we have to consider our manipulation of the natural world on a grand scale to provide food, and perhaps we might consider how our food choices affect our environment, which in turn will lead to greater numbers of food-insecure people around the world. Now, I don’t have time to address all the issues therein, but consider the following:

  1. Lots of people to feed (7.6 billion!), diminishing agricultural lands.
  2. Climate change is disrupting agriculture in various ways.

Vegetables.  We all need to be eating more vegetables. And the vegetables need to be of greater quality. And the only way we can really do that is to make sure that we are eating vegetables in the proper season. How many of us have traveled to foreign countries and discovered that the vegetables that they eat are tastier and cheaper? Our vegetables come from far away, and the entire system is geared toward longer shelf-life and year-round availability, not local and tasty.

We just love packaged, processed foods! But you know what? They are generally not good for you, nor good for the Earth. The more highly-processed foods are, the more energy they take to produce, and the more energy, the greater the contribution of greenhouse gases.

Waste. Americans throw away nearly 40% of the food we produce. That is staggering, considering all the energy we put into producing that food – $160 billion, and it is equivalent to putting 3.3 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere unnecessarily. Our Torah teaches us not to waste: the mitzvah of bal tashhit (Deut. 20:19-20) is understood by Maimonides to apply to wasting anything of value. 

Meat. Meat production, and in particular beef, is a major source of climate-change-causing gases, particularly methane. Also, water: it takes 106 gallons of water to produce one ounce of beef; soy requires only 22 gallons; chicken only 17 gallons. Greater water consumption also requires more energy to make that water useable, which brings us back to greenhouse gases.

If we all ate a few more locally-grown vegetables and just a little less meat, we would be well on our way to making our food consumption more sustainable. 

If we could, at the same time, figure out how to waste less – I know, it’s not so easy – that would certainly help.

I’m not trying to convert you to vegetarianism. For some, Shabbat is not Shabbat, or a simhah is not a simhah without meat.

But I am suggesting that you might want to consider eating less meat.  Be mindful.  Be deliberate in your food consumption as our tradition demands us to.  

Rabbi Jeremy and I were at the miqveh yesterday morning as we brought a candidate for conversion to complete her journey to becoming Jewish. Before immersing herself, she recited a kind of pledge that is found in the Rabbi’s Manual for Kabbalat Ol Mitzvot, which literally means, “taking upon oneself the yoke of mitzvot / commandments.” Among these statements of commitment to the holy opportunities of Jewish life, she pledged that one of the ways that she will be committed to Jewish life is:

“By incorporating kashrut into my life and by sharing my bread with others who are hungry.”

These two things clearly belong together, and not only because they are both found in Parashat Re’eh; they also belong together because our local awareness and our global conscience regarding not only the boundaries, but also the essential needs surrounding food should be intimately linked.

What cannot be forgotten in this picture is the essential requirement  (p. 1077) that will make it possible for there to be no needy among you – that we keep the Torah, the mitzvot that God has given us. If we do this by fulfilling not just the letter of the principles of kashrut, but also the global spirit therein, maybe, just maybe, we will achieve that theoretical world of no needy people.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 8/31/2019.)

1 Comment

Filed under Sermons