Monthly Archives: October 2019

I’m a Fundamentalist: God – Bereshit 5780

I am always captivated by Bereshit, the beginning of the Torah, as the source of so many Big Questions. Who or what or why is this thing referred to as God? Must we take these stories literally? How can we possibly relate to a completely abstract concept? What can this mean to us as modern people? How might we understand God in this moment?

We cannot read the Creation story that we read this morning (second time this week, actually!) without facing these Big Questions.

I am going out on a limb here with what you might expect to be an unpopular notion, at least outside of this building: we need God. 

This is the fifth installment in an occasional series called, “I’m a Fundamentalist.” So far we have covered Shabbat, tallit, tefillin, and “refrigerator-magnet texts” – the best quotes from the Jewish bookshelf that you should really have on your refrigerator. Today’s Fundamentalist topic is God.

A former congregant on Long Island, one who was quite committed to Judaism once lamented to me the fact that her adult children were not very interested in Judaism. She told me that one of her sons had said, “Really, Mom, there’s no need for religion. There is no need for God. Because science has already figured almost everything out, and what it has not yet figured out, it will soon.”

I did not want to insult her son by saying that this is a particularly myopic view of the role of religion as well as a misunderstanding of what science is capable of explaining. But here are a few bullet points that I can share with you:

  • First, it is worth pointing out that science and religion address different questions. Scientific inquiry leads us to a better understanding of electron clouds, or how to cure terminal diseases; it might even describe where we came from. But it does not wrestle with the question of how to respond to somebody who is dying of a terminal disease, or offer a framework for grieving when that disease has run its course. New technology might enable us to choose the eye-color of our babies, let’s say, but it cannot make the argument about why we should or should not do so.
  • Second, what Judaism offers is community. It is learning together. It is breaking bread together. It is holding each other in times of need and celebrating in times of joy. Our tradition gives us the imperative to care not only about ourselves, but rather the others around us as well. Judaism gives us a guide to holy behavior, to sanctifying our relationships. And of course it gives us ritual – opportunities to act while we reflect on the values that we uphold. Science offers none of those things.
  • Third, Judaism offers us a glimpse of the Divine, and the opportunity to see the Godliness in the world around us. Yes, science may teach us that spewing carbon dioxide and methane and chlorofluorocarbons into the atmosphere will ultimately destroy our environment, but Judaism teaches us why we should care.

Many assume that reason and religion are antithetical.  I cannot speak for other faith traditions, but I know that reason was of utmost importance to Maimonides; Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his seminal work, God in Search of Man, points to the value of reason within Judaism. But Heschel cautions us that, “Extreme rationalism may be defined as the failure of reason to understand itself… The way to truth is an act of reason; the love of truth is an act of the spirit.” 

Rabbi Heschel’s argument is that reason and religion balance each other; we need both. He continues:  

… science is unable to give us all the truth about all of life. We are in need of spirit in order to know what to do with science… Reason’s goal is the exploration and verification of objective relations; religion’s goal is the exploration and verification of ultimate personal relations.

It is the synthesis of reason and religion that yields truth and righteousness. In The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism, Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin point out how reason alone can be immoral. As an extreme example, they argue that those who followed the orders of the Nazi regime were acting reasonably:

When the average German citizen remained silent while his Jewish neighbors were shipped to concentration camps, he was acting entirely according to reason.

The ones who acted morally, to try to prevent the killing of their neighbors,  were themselves shot.

But Judaism marries reason to spirit. Our entire tradition is derived from interpreting our ancient texts for us today, even incorporating what science teaches us.

We need God so that we can take what we have learned about the world and apply it in a way that is just, that liberates people and does not oppress them; that lifts up the needy and raises the humble of spirit.

Let’s take a real-world example: consider the challenge that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has right now. Here is a guy who created a way, through the use of technology, to connect people to each other in a way that they had never connected before. And lo, how they have connected! Zuckerberg and his friends thought they were changing the world for the better.

And yet, in his appearance before a congressional committee a few days ago to discuss Facebook’s new crypto-currency, Mr. Zuckerberg had to apologize for the company’s “trust issues.” Why do people not trust Facebook? Because people’s information has not been kept confidential. Because the platform has contributed to political upheaval in countries around the world, including our own. Because human interaction cannot be a free-for-all; it must have limits. It must be truthful. 

Science and technology may open up many new pathways for us, but they will not tell us how to behave.

So that brings us back to the problem of God. From where do these boundaries flow? Certainly not from our smartphones. And not from us as individuals, because your boundaries and mine may not coincide.

They must flow from God. God is the one who gives us the limits, the standard by which we measure the truth.

But what is God? And how can I possibly believe in something that I cannot see or hear or feel? And, by the way, wasn’t God just for ancient people who had no other way of explaining where we came from? Haven’t we moved beyond that?

We need God today, as much as ever. No, we may not rely on God for rain, or fertility, or healthy crops, like our ancestors. We may not even see God as being the source of our prosperity (when we are prosperous) or our grief (when we are grieving). 

But we need God to understand what are our limits. What will prevent us from despoiling all of Creation, if not the sense that God gave it to us “le’ovdah ulshomrah,” (Bereshit / Genesis 2:15) to work it and to guard it? What will save us from the devolution of society due to the ease with which falsehood can be spread, if not for the mitzvot regarding telling the truth? What will ultimately prevent us from killing each other, if not for the standard that murder is wrong? 

It is all too easy today to look out for number one; to rationalize – to examine our bank statement and think, I’m OK – nothing to worry about. To talk ourselves out of going the extra distance for a fellow person in need because, eh, somebody else will take care of it. To live our lives in quiet, selfish anonymity. To think, I don’t need community, I don’t need ritual – I have everything I need.

But Judaism, and indeed the presence of God in our lives drives us to dig deeper, to reach out with two hands, to be the best individuals we can be.

And you know what? You do not need to accept any of the traditional understandings of God to do that. You do not need to believe that God created the world in six days, or that God dictated the Torah to Moshe on Mt. Sinai, or that God split the Sea of Reeds so that our ancestors could walk through on dry land. 

You can understand God as completely non-understandable. You can conceptualize God as having no concept. You can see God as a spirit that works through us and around us, as with Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, or as an imperceptible presence that is completely without condition, as with Martin Buber. Or you can come up with some other idea or metaphor for God that is nothing like anything else.

Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, whose writings became the basis of Reconstructionist Judaism

And yes, it is a challenge to accept the God idea in a world in which we seemingly have a rational explanation for everything. And, in a post-Sho’ah world, a world in which an angry Jew-hater with a gun can murder Jews at prayer, one must ask about the challenge of accounting for evil. But, as Rabbi Milton Steinberg argued, the one who believes in God must account for one thing, the existence of evil. The atheist, however, must account for the existence of everything else.

I will conclude with words of caution: once we let go of God entirely, we are lost. Humanity will destroy itself. There will be nothing to prevent us from killing each other. Recent history has demonstrated that those who think only of enriching themselves or amassing more power will inevitably allow or encourage other people to murder each other.

God is a check on that. We need God.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 10/26/2019.)

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Remembering and Forgetting – Shemini Atzeret 5780 / Yizkor

As I have aged, I have learned to be somewhat more forgiving of my own brain. When I was younger, it seemed that I remembered everything. Today, I sometimes feel lucky if I remember the most important things: to spend time with my children, to eat lunch during a busy day at work, to tell my wife how much I love her.

How many of us are sometimes frustrated by not being able to remember something? Where you left the keys, as a relatively innocuous example, or something more contentious, like your spouse’s birthday. How many of us wish that our brains worked more like the RAM in a computer – efficient storage that is always available and easy to find? Wouldn’t it be awesome if you never forgot anything?

You may have heard that there are a handful of people in the world who are endowed with a curious condition that enables them to remember everything. That is, you give them a random date on a calendar, from fifteen years ago, and they will tell you what they wore that day, what they ate for lunch and who they bumped into on the street. This condition is known as “hyperthymesia,” and although it does not allow for “total recall,” it does allow a person with the condition to remember virtually everything that relates to them. For example, while a person with the condition might remember what clothes she was wearing on a certain day, she may not be able to recall what her friend was wearing, unless the friend’s outfit was somehow related to her personally. Dozens of cases have been reported in the last 13 years or so, since the condition was formally identified by neurobiologists. The actress Marilu Henner, whom you may recall from the late ‘70s/early ‘80s TV show, Taxi, apparently has this condition.

Imagine for a moment how cool that might be! School would be a breeze; you would never be embarrassed again by not knowing the name of somebody who you met five years ago at a party after a few drinks; you would never misplace your keys ever again. Speaking as a rabbi, I could definitely see how such a condition would make my life and my work so much easier.

And yet, maybe not.

There is a good reason to forget things, and perhaps the reason why, evolutionarily speaking, this feature did not become standard among humans.

Certain things need to be forgotten, and particularly those things that cause us pain and emotional anguish. We need to forget the pain of loss, the grief associated with the death of a parent or sibling or God forbid, a child. We need for ebb of time to dull the sharp memories, the ones that push our sorrow buttons. We need for those memories to be less fresh, so that we can go on about our lives with some semblance of normalcy.

Not to forget entirely, of course. But rather, to lessen the heartache somewhat. For the person who remembers clearly what he or she did on any particular day, a great personal loss must be ever-present. The stabbing pain of feeling like, “How can I possibly live without her?” must be as fresh a decade later as it was at the start of shiv’ah.

Thank God for the hollowing-out of memories that time brings. We learn to live with loss, but of course it takes time. That is the point of shiv’ah, of sheloshim, of yahrzeit – the calendrical framework of Jewish mourning. Seven days of deep pain, pain which prevents us from leaving the house, which can only be slightly soothed by the presence of others in our homes bringing comfort. Then three more weeks of somewhat less grief, when we saunter out of our homes, return to work maybe, but still feel like nothing’s quite right. And then the balance of a year, in which we acknowledge our ongoing grief by limiting our joyous activities.

And thereafter, we set aside just a few days for remembrance, to recite prayers of memory.

Memory is essential to Judaism, and our framework of mourning is known to be one of the best. But even beyond that, we have not one, but two days in the contemporary Jewish calendar called “Yom haZikaron,” the day of remembrance: Rosh Hashanah we all know. Less known to American Jews, but extraordinarily important in Israel is the national Memorial Day for fallen soldiers, a day marked by solemn ceremonies around the country, set aside for public grief for those who gave their lives defending the State of Israel. (It is an unfortunate shame that we Americans do not take our own Memorial Day as seriously as Israelis do.)

But even so, our relationship to memory is complicated. Our tradition wants us to remember things that we did not personally experience: the entire holiday scheme of the Jewish year is intimately tied to our history: the Exodus from Egypt; receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai; wandering in the desert; the destruction and rebuilding of Jerusalem; the Sho’ah. We are, in some sense, striving to constantly relive our ancient, communal memories, to make sure that we do not forget, that we remember to connect our gratitude for what we have today with all of those past events. We have a history that stretches back thousands of years, and we carry it with us wherever we go. That is an essential piece of Judaism.

And yet, even though we set aside one day a year to mourn the desolation of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and then the Romans, we do not relive that every day. We understand that communal grief has its day. Even though we remember and mourn the 6 million murdered by the Nazi machine in our own time, we also still acknowledge that there can be joy in our lives. On Shabbat morning, we read from Megillat Qohelet, the book of Ecclesiastes (3:1-4):

לַכֹּ֖ל זְמָ֑ן וְעֵ֥ת לְכָל־חֵ֖פֶץ תַּ֥חַת הַשָּׁמָֽיִם׃
עֵ֥ת לָלֶ֖דֶת וְעֵ֣ת לָמ֑וּת עֵ֣ת לָטַ֔עַת וְעֵ֖ת לַעֲק֥וֹר נָטֽוּעַ׃
עֵ֤ת לַהֲרוֹג֙ וְעֵ֣ת לִרְפּ֔וֹא עֵ֥ת לִפְר֖וֹץ וְעֵ֥ת לִבְנֽוֹת׃
עֵ֤ת לִבְכּוֹת֙ וְעֵ֣ת לִשְׂח֔וֹק עֵ֥ת סְפ֖וֹד וְעֵ֥ת רְקֽוֹד׃

A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven:
A time for being born and a time for dying, A time for planting and a time for uprooting the planted;
A time for slaying and a time for healing, A time for tearing down and a time for building up;
A time for weeping and a time for laughing, A time for wailing and a time for dancing;…

The words of Qohelet ring across the ages: we cannot dwell in grief forever; neither can we ignore that grief. Rather, there is a time for that.

Qohelet does NOT say, there is a time to remember, and a time to forget. But the Catalogue of Times also reflects back to the opening verses of the book (1:4-5):

דּ֤וֹר הֹלֵךְ֙ וְד֣וֹר בָּ֔א וְהָאָ֖רֶץ לְעוֹלָ֥ם עֹמָֽדֶת׃
וְזָרַ֥ח הַשֶּׁ֖מֶשׁ וּבָ֣א הַשָּׁ֑מֶשׁ וְאֶ֨ל־מְקוֹמ֔וֹ שׁוֹאֵ֛ף זוֹרֵ֥חַֽ ה֖וּא שָֽׁם׃

One generation goes, another comes, But the earth remains the same forever.
The sun rises, and the sun sets— And glides back to where it rises.

With each rising and setting of the sun, life goes on. Our pain will ease; the peaks and troughs of life will even themselves out. And we continue. We go on. We live with our memories, the painful ones and the joyful ones. We do not forget, but we manage with what is on our plate.

This is the last Yizkor / remembrance service that we will observe in the one year of mourning following the anti-Semitic attack in our neighborhood. There will always be a before and after in Pittsburgh; there will always be a weightiness in our hearts for those whom we lost, and for the sense of security our community lost. That day will be seared in collective memory forever. We will never forget.

I must say that I am somewhat relieved that the actual Yahrzeit (annual day of remembrance which corresponds to the day on the Jewish calendar when a loved one passed away) is a few weeks after the date that the rest of the world will associate with Pittsburgh. When the media people doing follow-up stories leave, when the cameras have moved on, we will muster our grief together and mark the 18th of Heshvan (November 16, 2019) by saying Qaddish as a community – quietly, mournfully, appropriately.

The horror of that day and its aftermath will continue to live with us. But as it recedes in memory, as we learn to grapple with it from a distance, as we remember those whom we lost, we also re-establish our sense of selves: who we are, what we stand for, and why we must continue to lean into our tradition. We re-establish our violated sanctuary as sacred space.

I remember Cecil, who wrote me notes of gratitude which I could not read. I remember Dan, always with a smile, always with a friendly update. And my memories of them drive me forward to proudly wave my lulav and etrog, to recite words of tefillah with my community, to celebrate around the Shabbat table and resonate with our ancient tradition.

I continue to meditate on the words of Qohelet – dor holekh, vedor ba… vezarah hashemesh uva hashamesh – one generation goes, and another comes, the sun rises and the sun sets – and understand that I am neither the first nor the last Jew to feel the pain of hatred, of persecution, of murder. I will not be the last Jew to cry out in anger and frustration, as Rabbi Levi Yitzhaq of Berditchev did in bringing a din toyre, a lawsuit against God. I will not be the last Jew to recite Qaddish for martyrs.

But I will certainly do whatever I can to try to make this world a place where more Jews, and more people everywhere, are liberated from painful memories.

As we turn now to Yizkor, the service of remembering, we should be at once grateful that memories recede, and also grateful that we have the framework of our tradition to guide us through dark times and to sanctify our holy moments.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shemini Atzeret, Monday morning, 10/21/2019.)

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Happiness? Or Meaning? (Turn! Turn! Turn!) – Shabbat Hol Hamo’ed Sukkot 5780

Sukkot is acknowledged throughout Jewish tradition as the happiest festival of the year. We referred to it today in Shaharit / the morning service as “Zeman simhateinu,” the time of our joy. The Torah reading from this morning included the commandment, usmahtem lifnei Adonai, you shall rejoice before God on this holiday.

And what’s the best-known Sukkot song?

וְשָׂמַחְתָּ֖ בְּחַגֶּ֑ךָ… וְהָיִ֖יתָ אַ֥ךְ שָׂמֵֽחַ׃

Vesamahta behaggekha… vehayyita akh sameah.

You shall rejoice in your festival, and you shall have nothing but joy. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 16:14-15)

But what does it mean to rejoice? To be happy? And is happiness a goal unto itself, or should we rather seek “meaning”? And what does “meaning” mean, anyway?

When I was a sophomore at Cornell, the folk singer Pete Seeger played on campus. I have always loved folk music, and Seeger’s performances (he was already quite advanced in years then) were special because of the way he incorporated the audience, urging them to sing with him as he accompanied on the banjo.

One of Pete Seeger’s best-known songs goes like this (sing with me):

To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time for every purpose under heaven
A time to be born, a time to die 
A time to plant, a time to reap 
A time to laugh, a time to weep 
A time to kill, a time to heal

Of course, it was popularized by the Byrds. But Seeger wrote the music.

Not the lyrics, however. It is almost a direct quote of the opening verses of Chapter 3 of the King James translation of Ecclesiastes, known in Hebrew as Qohelet, some of which we read earlier. This particular passage, to which scholars refer as “the Catalogue of Times,” is a reminder that while every event in life occurs in its proper time, we have no control over these times; the “when” is solely in the hands of God. Since they are paired as opposites, one way of reading this is that neither happy times nor sad ones are to be expected. Reality is such that sometimes we are happy, sometimes we are sad, and much of the time we are neither.

Qohelet, ostensibly written by an ancient king of that name, is among the more-challenging books of the Tanakh, theologically-speaking. It puts itself forward as a book of philosophy (e.g. 1:14: “I observed all the happenings beneath the sun, and I found that all is futile and pursuit of wind.”), but, somewhat like the book of Job, leaves us with a very unsatisfying conclusion. To Qohelet, effectively everything that we pursue – wealth, wisdom, food and drink, labor, and so forth – is vanity and emptiness. Nothing will bring you lasting satisfaction. Qohelet’s conclusion is, therefore, merely to enjoy the things that you have when you have them, fear God and perform the mitzvot. That’s it.

Not very satisfying, right? Perhaps, though, there is an important message here. After all, there must be a reason that we read this book during Sukkot, the most joyous festival of the year. So what’s the reason? One possibility is that Qohelet points to the transience of human life, which is also suggested by the fragile, temporary sukkot in which we are commanded to live for the week. Another is that fall is the season that most suggests mortality, a feature of our lives that the Catalogue of Times clearly invokes.

Here is another thought: in the wake of Yom Kippur, after beating our chests and seeking return and forgiveness and afflicting our souls and so forth, it may be our intent to seek happiness, albeit perhaps from a new perspective. Qohelet is a reminder that happiness is not an end unto itself, but rather ebbs and flows with the randomness of our lives.

Speaking of ebb and flow, allow me to return for a moment to Cornell University of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Despite a physical chemistry lecture that occasionally made me consider javelin catching as a career, those were great days. The academic ferment of that particular ivory tower provided a rich backdrop for developing strong social bonds and discovering who I was as a person. I had good friends and good times. It makes me think of the well-known song, “Those Were the Days” (Mary Hopkins, 1968, although based on a Russian folk tune).

We tend to speak of the “good old days.” Maybe those were they; there is a time for every purpose under heaven.

But perhaps reality is not so simple; we do tend to see the past through etrog-scented glasses (or something like that). The gypsy-punk band Gogol Bordello recorded a philosophically-minded song titled “Ultimate,” which decries the existence of such days. On the contrary, the song suggests that to refer to the “good old days” is in fact an insult to both the present and future:

There were never any good old days,
They are today, they are tomorrow
It’s a stupid thing we say
Cursing tomorrow with sorrow.

Qohelet, I think, would agree with Gogol Bordello. There were no “good old days,” says Qohelet. Ve-ein kol hadash tahat hashamesh. And there is nothing new under the sun (Eccl. 1:9).

Maybe my university days were the good old days, or maybe these days are just as good, and 5780 will be even better. Only God knows, and about that I’m not even so sure.

One thing, however, is certain: happiness is fleeting, while “meaning” is enduring. Rather than seek happiness, we should seek meaning. That is a message that is difficult for a college student to understand, but it is a message that we can glean from Jewish tradition.

An article in The Atlantic from a few years back cited a study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology that

asked nearly 400 Americans aged 18 to 78 whether they thought their lives were meaningful and/or happy. Examining their self-reported attitudes toward meaning, happiness, and many other variables — like stress levels, spending patterns, and having children — over a month-long period, the researchers found that a meaningful life and happy life overlap in certain ways, but are ultimately very different. Leading a happy life, the psychologists found, is associated with being a “taker” while leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a “giver.”

This is a fascinating revelation. Perhaps Qohelet’s suggestion to fear God and fulfill the mitzvot is an ancient attempt to steer us away from seeking happiness in favor of meaning. You might make the case that a certain portion of the mitzvot are about giving, not taking: giving your time and yourself over to holy pursuits. It’s not what we reap in this world, to borrow Qohelet’s language, but rather what we sow.

And that may in fact be one message of Sukkot. Why does the Torah command us to live in a shack in the backyard for a week? To remember that it is not our possessions that are important and valuable; that meaning may be sought in the simplest environment. That living in a sturdy, well-appointed home, when compared to a shaky, non-climate-controlled sukkah, might seem more like taking than giving.

The article goes on to say:

Meaning is not only about transcending the self, but also about transcending the present moment — which is perhaps the most important finding of the study, according to the researchers. While happiness is an emotion felt in the here and now, it ultimately fades away, just as all emotions do; positive affect and feelings of pleasure are fleeting. The amount of time people report feeling good or bad correlates with happiness but not at all with meaning.

Meaning, on the other hand, is enduring. It connects the past to the present to the future. “Thinking beyond the present moment, into the past or future, was a sign of the relatively meaningful but unhappy life,” the researchers write. “Happiness is not generally found in contemplating the past or future.” That is, people who thought more about the present were happier, but people who spent more time thinking about the future or about past struggles and sufferings felt more meaning in their lives, though they were less happy.”

In other words, happiness is in the moment. Those university days were joyful for what they were, but the real satisfaction of living comes from the fullness of life’s experiences: the glorious and the miserable, the bountiful and the meager, the cacaphonous and the silent, and the entire palette of humanity in between. The researchers agree that “What sets human beings apart from animals is not the pursuit of happiness, which occurs all across the natural world, but the pursuit of meaning, which is unique to humans.”

To everything there is a season, and we all need the carefree periods in our lives in which to pursue the momentary happiness that sustains youth. But we also need, at some point, to reach deeper, to seek out those things which bring us meaning, to give as much as we have taken, and maybe more. The good old days are indeed today and tomorrow.

So it is as much comforting your screaming child in the middle of the night as it is to see her standing under the huppah, as much receiving a wonderful promotion as losing a parent that makes life meaningful and rich. These are the things that make us human, and this is the takeaway from Sukkot.

As we celebrate the transience of life on this joyous festival, we would do well not only to fulfill the mitzvah de’oraita (commandment from the Torah) of being happy in the wake of Yom Kippur, but also to reflect on the discomfort that comes with being removed from your house for a week. Spend some time in the sukkah, with the bugs and the rain and the cool fall breeze. It’s the human thing to do, and will help make these days as good as the good old days.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat Hol Hamo’ed Sukkot, 10/19/2019.)

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All of This Belongs to You: Finding Resilience in Jewish Tradition – Yom Kippur Day 5780

This is the fourth and final installment in the “All of This Belongs to You” High Holiday sermon series. You may want to read the first three:

The Greatest Jewish Hand-Off Play Ever – Rosh Hashanah 5780, Day 1

Be a Jewish Superhero! – Rosh Hashanah 5780, Day 2

Do Not Be Indifferent – Kol Nidrei 5780

***

One of my favorite books from childhood was The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster. In it, there is a wonderful story about a city where somebody discovers that if you walk while looking only at your feet, you get to your destination much more quickly. Soon everybody in the city is looking down at their feet as they are walking from place to place. And nobody is talking to each other, and nobody is noticing the trees and the buildings and the birds and the flowers. Soon enough, the city starts to disappear.

Our tradition, Jewish tradition, is like a beautiful city, with the most wonderful, architecturally stunning buildings. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel spoke about Shabbat as a “palace in time.” That palace is at the center of this city.

I am not suggesting that Judaism is disappearing, because it certainly is not. But I am suggesting that we all take a better look at what it has to offer. Because there is much more there than what you might think. And if we are only looking at the things with which we are already familiar – the comfortable, the expected – we are missing a whole lot of scenery. And that is what I want you to see more of: the value that Judaism can bring to your life, our community, and the world.

Our theme over these High Holidays, as you really should know by now, is, “All of this belongs to you.” My goal is to remind all of us that, in the wake of the completion of Project Assimilate, it is up to us to reclaim our tradition, to make it ours once again. To make it yours once again, because it belongs to you.

And how will we reclaim it? That can be summed up in one word: meaning. We have to seek out and find meaning in our tradition. And that means looking beyond where you usually look. That means stretching yourself a little bit, to perhaps show up for a different service, for a new program, for a Talmud discussion, for a cultural event, for something that you have not sought out before. Because I’ll tell you this, folks: what we teach can change your life.

And today, in particular on one of the four days of the Jewish calendar in which we actively remember those whom we have lost, there is something that our tradition stands for that is tremendously valuable at this particular moment, in this particular place, and that is resilience.

5779 was a year of grieving. We will continue to grieve, of course, but this new year, 5780, will have to be one of looking forward.

Consider the great catastrophes of Jewish life. The destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. The destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE. The crushing of the Bar Kokhba revolt in 136 CE. The massacres at the hands of the Crusaders in the 11th century. The Expulsion from Spain in 1492. The Sho’ah / Holocaust. And so many other mini-exiles and dispersions and destructions and pogroms and so forth along the way.

And in each case, what have the Jews done? We have buried our dead. We have mourned. We have grieved. And then we got up from shiv’ah and continued doing what we do: worshipping the one true God; learning and teaching and debating about our tradition; supporting each other in times of need; yearning for freedom and working for the freedom of others; finding ways to illuminate this world based on Jewish texts and wisdom.

Many of you probably know journalist Bari Weiss, whose family belongs to Beth Shalom, and who became bat mitzvah in the context of this community in 1997. Her bat mitzvah service was held at the Tree of Life building, because that is where Beth Shalom services were located following the fire in 1996. Ms. Weiss just published a book titled How to Fight Anti-Semitism. In it, she describes the various expressions that anti-Semitism takes. But more importantly, Bari makes the case for how to respond to it.

Among the strategies that she suggests (with an assist from Rabbi Danny Schiff) is that the way we have always overcome anti-Semitism is by doubling down on our identity, and by turning back to tradition. The haters win, she says, when we take our kippot off and try to hide. She points to the statement by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, who said, “Non-Jews respect Jews who respect Judaism, and they are embarrassed by Jews who are embarrassed by Judaism.”

She cites the case of Theodor Herzl, who grew up in a secular Hungarian-Jewish family that was barely connected to Jewish tradition. At one point, young Herzl even made the case for why Jews should convert en masse to Christianity.

And then, while he was working as a journalist in Paris, he had a front-row seat to the trial of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish captain in the French army who was falsely accused of treason. Herzl witnessed the anti-Semitic mobs in Paris chanting “Mort aux juifs!” “Death to the Jews!”, and concluded that the only safe future for the Jews lay in the Zionist imperative to build a Jewish state in Palestine.

When faced with existential threats, we have responded by looking inward, by embracing our peoplehood, our traditions, our community. As Bari wrote in a New York Times op-ed, “The long arc of Jewish history makes it clear that the only way to fight [anti-Semitism] is by waging an affirmative battle for who we are. By entering the fray for our values, for our ideas, for our ancestors, for our families, and for the generations that will come after us.”

Her solution is to “build, without shame, a Judaism and a Jewish people and a Jewish state that are not only safe and resilient but also generative, humane, joyful and life-affirming.”

Must say, I could not have said that better myself! Remember that city? The better we know it, the more familiar we are with its alleyways and architecture, the less likely it is to disappear. The more we own our heritage, the more we claim our Jewishness, the more resilient we will be as individuals and as a people.

The key to fighting anti-Semitism is to lean into tradition. Our resilience in the face of hatred comes from knowing and loving and acting on what is distinctly ours.

And let me tell you something, folks: ours is a rich heritage, one with a pedigree that stretches back thousands of years. And our strength is derived from knowing our tradition, and practicing it. It is a framework that has always nourished us, in times of persecution and in times of freedom.

Has anybody here been to Terezin? It’s the location of the “model” concentration camp, which the Germans called Theresienstadt, about an hour northwest of Prague. If you have been on a tour there, you may have seen the “secret” synagogue, tucked into a hidden basement behind a house. It was created by Jewish prisoners interned at Terezin. On the wall in this otherwise nondescript room, written in 80-year-old, flaking paint, there is a quote that we recite three times every day in the Amidah: “Vetehezenah eineinu beshuvekha letziyyon berahamim” “May our eyes envision Your return to Zion in mercy.” It was a plea for better times, an acknowledgment of the fact that despite this low point of Jewish existence, we as a people, and maybe even as individuals, will soon see better days.

That kind of statement is hard-wired into who we are. The resilience that is in our DNA is found all over our liturgy, our siddur.

In a recent episode of the renowned radio show This American Life, the show’s host and creator Ira Glass reflects on going to synagogue for the first time in many years, to say qaddish on the occasion of his mother’s yahrzeit. And although he admits that he does not really believe in aspects of our tradition, particularly the idea of God, he confesses that the words of Jewish prayer nonetheless hold a very strong power for him:

I always liked going to synagogue as a kid. We went a lot. And so it was nice going back. I know all the Hebrew prayers by heart. And [LAUGHS] I don’t know if this is good or bad, but not having sat in a synagogue in over a decade, it really hit me how every day is a rerun.

Do you know what I mean? They never do a new episode. Every day, the same words, same songs in the same order, stretching back hundreds of years. They read a new part of the Bible, part of the Torah some days. So there’s that, but all the rest is basically exactly the same every day.

And everybody is singing and chanting… And I really was struck at how many of [the prayers] — the Amidah, the Ashrei– are about praising God at length. That’s what the words mean. Even the Kaddish, which you say over and over during services.

יתגדל ויתקדש שמיה רבא

… “May His great name be exalted and sanctified. Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One.” That is what they have you say when your mom dies. Comforting, huh? It’s basically God is great over and over, building up to this beautiful line, really beautiful, that’s basically God is so great. It’s beyond the power of any prayer, or word, or song, or praise. It’s beyond the power of language to capture it…

But weirdly, even… without believing any of the words, I do find it’s a comfort to say the prayer. It’s just– it’s familiar. It’s familiar as the nursery rhymes my mom sang to me as a kid, as the Shema, the prayer that she had me and my sister say every night before we went to sleep. It’s comforting.

Despite the fact that it’s in another language and part of a doctrine I don’t believe anymore, just the fact of it handed to me by my parents and to them by their parents– Frida, and Lou, and Melvin, and Molly– and their parents before them– David, and Elizabeth, and Isidore, and people whose names I don’t even know– and before them, their parents for hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds of years and standing in synagogue that day, standing and saying these words in unison with other mourners, it was comforting.

***

I know that Ira Glass thinks like a radio producer rather than a shul-going Jew, but it’s neither fair nor accurate to say that it’s a rerun every day. Yes, the words may be similar from day to day, and with the appropriate seasonal changes for holidays and so forth, but what makes tefillah / prayer interesting is that every day, month, and year, we are different. What changes is the kavvanah, the intention, the mind-set, what’s on your plate. We change, we grow, we celebrate and we mourn, and our traditions are there as a framework to support us. The liturgy may be set, but as we change, the words of our tradition continue to reveal new things to us – about ourselves, about our community, about life.

Regardless, Mr. Glass gets it: our tradition brings us comfort and strength and resilience, even if you do not entirely buy into it. Or, as the modern Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig would have put it, even if you do not buy into it yet.

Many of us gathered on a Saturday night two and a half weeks ago for the first recitation of Selihot, traditional prayers in which we ask for forgiveness in preparation for this day. At that time, I read a commentary that appears on the pages of your mahzor, p. 298 in the margin if you would like to see it. It comes from Rabbi Rob Scheinberg, a very good friend of mine, whom I have known since my first summer at Camp Ramah in New England in 1980. (Some of you may know that Rabbi Scheinberg was among a handful of rabbis who came to Pittsburgh to help out New Light Congregation in the months after the shooting. Rob was also among the founders of Pizmon, the Jewish a capella group from Columbia University that performed here at Beth Shalom last November.)

Rabbi Scheinberg’s commentary refers to the line that we say every time we put the Torah away. It is the next to last verse in Eikhah (5:21), the book of Lamentations, which we read on Tish’ah Be’Av, the day on which we commemorate all the destructions in Jewish history:

 הֲשִׁיבֵנוּ ה’ אֵלֶיךָ וְנָשׁוּבָה, חַדֵּשׁ יָמֵינוּ כְּקֶדֶם

Hashiveinu Adonai elekha venashuvah; hadesh yameinu kekedem.

Return us to You, O God, and we shall surely return; renew our days as of old.

It is the only hopeful note in the entire book of Eikhah, which is a litany of the destruction of Jerusalem and Israel wrought by the Babylonians 2600 years ago. A midrash (Eikhah Rabba) interprets this verse as referring back to Adam haQadmon, the first humans, following their exile from Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden. Rabbi Scheinberg explains the midrash as follows:

“It means, ‘Renew our lives, as you renewed our lives after we were exiled from the Garden of Eden.’ Hadesh yameinu kekedem is then not a plea for restoration of a formerly perfect condition, but rather it is a plea for resilience, a plea for the ability to renew ourselves after future crises and dislocations, just as our lives have been renewed before.

In other words, the verse is not about requesting to take us back to Eden. It is, rather, about pleading for the capacity to recover quickly from dire circumstances. As Elie Wiesel said, “God gave Adam a secret – and that secret was not how to begin, but how to begin again.”

Ledor vador, from generation to generation, we have begun again and again and again, packing up in one place and unpacking in another; leaving behind the old synagogues and cemeteries and building new ones; starting over in a new culture with a new language. We have been doing it for thousands of years. And what has maintained us, then as now, is our tradition.

And now, in 5780, we have an opportunity to begin again. Only this time we do not need to pack our bags and move.  We have to unpack our emotional suitcases and take stock in what we, the Jews, have, what belongs to us that is unique.  What belongs to you.

And the way to do that is to stare proudly in the direction of the anti-Semites who have crawled out of their holes, put on a kippah, and dive right in.

And we at Beth Shalom give you so many opportunities to do so. We will never be rid of anti-Semitism; but the way to respond, ladies and gentlemen, is to know what we stand for. Nothing suits an anti-Semite more than a Jew who cannot defend the value of his/her own tradition.

So before you leave today, pick up a Derekh High Holiday Guide, which we have lovingly produced to make it easy for you to find your way into Jewish learning. Peruse the offerings. And pick one.

And let me assure you, there are lots of things to choose from. In 2018-19, Derekh hosted 168 events, yielding nearly 2900 encounters in five areas, empowering many members of this community not only to learn, but to take leadership roles in this community.

And if you do not see something you like, do this: come up with your own idea, find two friends, and then drop in on Rabbi Jeremy Markiz to make it happen. That is what Derekh is set up to do.

The response to hatred, to persecution, to anti-Semitism, to grief, and even to cold-blooded murder, ladies and gentlemen, is to double down on Judaism. It is not to hide our kippot and cower behind armed guards. It is, rather, to be loud, proud, and informed. To be the Jewish superhero, with the big red alef on your chest, as I described on Rosh Hashanah. To dwell in that beautiful city, the one with Heschel’s Palace in Time at the center. To know our tradition and to live it. To share it with others. To act on Jewish values and do so boldly.

The anti-Semites won’t like it, of course, but, y’know, haters gonna hate.

This is yours, and if you take the ball and run with it, Jewish wisdom and ritual and prayer and text and community will continue to nourish our people and the world forever.

All of this belongs to you. Ta shema! Come and learn.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Yom Kippur day 5780, October 9, 2019.)

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Filed under High Holidays, Sermons

All of This Belongs to You: Do Not Be Indifferent – Kol Nidrei 5780

This is the third installment in the “All of This Belongs to You” High Holiday sermon series. You may want to read the first two:

The Greatest Jewish Hand-Off Play Ever – Rosh Hashanah 5780, Day 1

Be a Jewish Superhero! – Rosh Hashanah 5780, Day 2

***

Have you seen the TV show, “The Good Place”? It is a sharp and witty comedy about the afterlife, and conceptions of “heaven” (i.e. the Good Place) and “hell” (the Bad Place). [MILD SPOILER ALERT!] In the most recent season, the characters on the show discovered a flaw in the algorithm that determines to which place people go when they die. What they found is that life today is so complicated that none of our decisions can be completely, decisively good or bad.

Buying an organic tomato, for example, is better for the Earth in some respects and maybe better for you. But if it was picked by underpaid migrant workers, shipped on a diesel truck from California, sold in a store where there is no gender parity in their pay-scale, placed in a single-use plastic bag, and then driven home in a large gas-guzzling vehicle, then you’ve racked up exponentially more negative points. And so they determined that nobody was getting into the Good Place anymore, because life has become so perpetually fraught.

(It’s worth noting here that Judaism is not so hung up on the afterlife – we are more about the here and now than about what comes after. Our reward for doing the right thing is found in the quality of our personal and communal relationships. But although that is an excellent sermon for Yom Kippur, that is not the direction we are going this evening.)

Let’s face it: we are all overwhelmed. Overwhelmed with all that needs fixing in our world.  Overwhelmed with emails, texts and notifications. Overwhelmed with the pace and complexity of contemporary life. Overwhelmed by so many choices, and so little reliable guidance. We have difficulty prioritizing our time, particularly because it seems that there is just not enough of it. And who has any time left over for volunteering, let alone doing things that are good for your soul, like daily tefillah / prayer?

Given the above, how can we possibly be the best versions of ourselves?  If the demands on our attention continue to grow, how can we hope to ensure a just society, one in which everybody gets a fair shake?

As many of you already know, the theme of this year’s High Holidays is, “All of this belongs to you.” My plea for you for the 80s, the 5780s, is to acknowledge that the great project of assimilation into American society is done, and that we now need to consider how we can reclaim our tradition.

Too many of us have taken Judaism for granted for too long; we have reduced it to a day or two per year in synagogue, a few home-based rituals, and lifecycle events. But if that is the extent of your Jewish engagement, you are missing most of the richness and value of our heritage, of our customs and rituals, of our ancient wisdom.

To that end, I am going to address this evening an essential message that Judaism offers us and our world, a message that our texts return to over and over. (Get ready – I’m about to do some text, then follow that with a story that drives the point home.)

The Torah teaches us that all of us are responsible for members of society that are less fortunate than ourselves.  Here is just one example (Deut. 15:11):

כִּ֛י לֹֽא־יֶחְדַּ֥ל אֶבְי֖וֹן מִקֶּ֣רֶב הָאָ֑רֶץ עַל־כֵּ֞ן אָֽנֹכִ֤י מְצַוְּךָ֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר פָּ֠תֹחַ תִּפְתַּ֨ח אֶת־יָֽדְךָ֜ לְאָחִ֧יךָ לַֽעֲנִיֶּ֛ךָ וּלְאֶבְיֹֽנְךָ֖ בְּאַרְצֶֽךָ׃

For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.

God expects us to take care of the poor, and the Torah refers more than thirty times to all those in ancient Israelite society who were likely to be destitute: the widow, the orphan, the foreigner, the Levites (who in ancient Israel did not own land, and were therefore among the poor).  The reasons for doing so may be obvious, but just for good measure, and also in multiple places, the Torah gives us a justification based on our national history (Exodus 23:9):

וְגֵ֖ר לֹ֣א תִלְחָ֑ץ וְאַתֶּ֗ם יְדַעְתֶּם֙ אֶת־נֶ֣פֶשׁ הַגֵּ֔ר כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃ 

Do not oppress the stranger, for you know the soul of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

As Jews, we must have compassion for others in difficult situations, because we know, as a people, what that feels like.  This is so important that we commemorate our slavery in Egypt for eight days out of every year by retelling the story and eating the “bread of poverty,” the matzah of Pesah. And to some extent, that is also the message of Sukkot, when we are commanded to leave our comfortable, climate-controlled homes to live in ramshackle huts.

Thank God, most of us have never known true hardship. But our tradition urges us to at least consider it.

In the 19th century, there was an intellectual movement among Lithuanian Jewish thinkers called mussar, meaning “moral conduct.” An important figure in the mussar movement was Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, leader of the famed Slabodka Yeshivah in Lithuania. He took that verse about not oppressing strangers a little further. Rabbi Finkel reads it as requiring us not only to sympathize with others, but to make an effort to feel their joy and their suffering.  Referring to our obligation not to oppress gerim, strangers, he writes:

Please do not explain these words according to their plain meaning, that we are forbidden to oppress a stranger because we too have been strangers and have been oppressed, and thus know the taste of oppression.

Rather, the reasoning behind it is that a person is obligated to feel and to participate in the happiness of his/her fellow, and also their troubles, as if they had afflicted him as well. ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18) – truly just like yourself. One’s relationships to others are not found to be complete unless one can feel oneself and one’s fellow person as being in the same situation, without any separation.

If we feel neither the joy nor the suffering of our neighbors, says Rabbi Finkel, we ourselves are not complete.

It is all too easy to ignore the plight of others around us, particularly people we do not personally know. And yet, says the Torah, for our own welfare, we cannot afford to ignore others in need.  A few weeks ago, in Parashat Ki Tetze, we read about returning lost items to your neighbor (Deut. 22:3):

וְכֵן תַּעֲשֶׂה לַחֲמֹרוֹ, וְכֵן תַּעֲשֶׂה לְשִׂמְלָתוֹ, וְכֵן תַּעֲשֶׂה לְכָל-אֲבֵדַת אָחִיךָ אֲשֶׁר-תֹּאבַד מִמֶּנּוּ, וּמְצָאתָהּ, לֹא תוּכַל לְהִתְעַלֵּם

You shall [also return your neighbor’s] donkey; you shall do the same with his clothes; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent.

Rashi, writing in 11th-century France, tells us that “lehit’alem,” to remain indifferent, means “To conquer your eye, as if you do not see it.”  That is, to actively choose to overlook human loss or suffering that is directly in front of you.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are exposed to poverty, suffering, and the needs of others every day, and we usually do not see it.  Yes, these are complex, multi-faceted issues, and it is easy to be indifferent, particularly in the face of intractable problems.  However, it is incumbent upon us as Jews not to allow ourselves to “conquer our eyes.” We cannot ignore others in need, whoever they are.

The following is a true story that appeared in the New York Times Magazine eight years ago. It speaks volumes about the positions of Rabbi Finkel and Rashi. It’s called, The Tire Iron and the Tamale, by Justin Horner, a graphic designer from Portland, Oregon.

During this past year I’ve had three instances of car trouble: a blowout on a freeway, a bunch of blown fuses and an out-of-gas situation. They all happened while I was driving other people’s cars, which for some reason makes it worse on an emotional level. And on a practical level as well, what with the fact that I carry things like a jack and extra fuses in my own car, and know enough not to park on a steep incline with less than a gallon of fuel.

Each time, when these things happened, I was disgusted with the way people didn’t bother to help. I was stuck on the side of the freeway hoping my friend’s roadside service would show, just watching tow trucks cruise past me. The people at the gas stations where I asked for a gas can told me that they couldn’t lend them out “for safety reasons,” but that I could buy a really crappy one-gallon can, with no cap, for $15. It was enough to make me say stuff like “this country is going to hell in a handbasket,” which I actually said.

But you know who came to my rescue all three times? Immigrants. Mexican immigrants. None of them spoke any English.

One of those guys stopped to help me with the blowout even though he had his whole family of four in tow. I was on the side of the road for close to three hours with my friend’s big Jeep. I put signs in the windows, big signs that said, “NEED A JACK,” and offered money. Nothing. Right as I was about to give up and start hitching, a van pulled over, and the guy bounded out.

He sized up the situation and called for his daughter, who spoke English. He conveyed through her that he had a jack but that it was too small for the Jeep, so we would need to brace it. Then he got a saw from the van and cut a section out of a big log on the side of the road. We rolled it over, put his jack on top and we were in business.

I started taking the wheel off, and then, if you can believe it, I broke his tire iron. It was one of those collapsible ones, and I wasn’t careful, and I snapped the head clean off. Damn.

No worries: he ran to the van and handed it to his wife, and she was gone in a flash down the road to buy a new tire iron. She was back in 15 minutes. We finished the job with a little sweat and cussing (the log started to give), and I was a very happy man.

The two of us were filthy and sweaty. His wife produced a large water jug for us to wash our hands in. I tried to put a 20 in the man’s hand, but he wouldn’t take it, so instead I went up to the van and gave it to his wife as quietly as I could. I thanked them up one side and down the other. I asked the little girl where they lived, thinking maybe I’d send them a gift for being so awesome. She said they lived in Mexico. They were in Oregon so Mommy and Daddy could pick cherries for the next few weeks. Then they were going to pick peaches, then go back home.

After I said my goodbyes and started walking back to the Jeep, the girl called out and asked if I’d had lunch. When I told her no, she ran up and handed me a tamale.

This family, undoubtedly poorer than just about everyone else on that stretch of highway, working on a seasonal basis where time is money, took a couple of hours out of their day to help a strange guy on the side of the road while people in tow trucks were just passing him by.

But we weren’t done yet. I thanked them again and walked back to my car and opened the foil on the tamale (I was starving by this point), and what did I find inside? My $20 bill! I whirled around and ran to the van and the guy rolled down his window. He saw the $20 in my hand and just started shaking his head no. All I could think to say was, “Por favor, por favor, por favor,” with my hands out. The guy just smiled and, with what looked like great concentration, said in English: “Today you, tomorrow me.”

Then he rolled up his window and drove away, with his daughter waving to me from the back. I sat in my car eating the best tamale I’ve ever had, and I just started to cry. It had been a rough year; nothing seemed to break my way. This was so out of left field I just couldn’t handle it.

In the several months since then I’ve changed a couple of tires, given a few rides to gas stations and once drove 50 miles out of my way to get a girl to an airport. I won’t accept money. But every time I’m able to help, I feel as if I’m putting something in the bank.

What an inspiring story!  Would that we all could have such heart-warming interactions!  Better yet, may we all be blessed with finding opportunities to create them.  When Mr. Horner was in need, he was helped by those who clearly understood what it means to need help.  He learned to appreciate those who are willing to help others, and translated that into his own willingness to reach out to strangers in their time of need. And when the family returned his $20 in the tamale, he surely learned that acts of kindness are, in fact, their own reward, a particularly Jewish concept.

These are the principles that the Torah is trying to teach us.  As a people, we must not remain indifferent to the needs of others, because we, the children of Israel, not only know what it’s like to be strangers in a strange land, but that our tradition requires us to participate in their joy and in their suffering. And we also understand the value that action for the benefit of others brings us in the here and now.

Ladies and gentlemen, the essential message of the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance that include Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, is that we have the power to change ourselves for the better.  We can become more compassionate, more understanding, more forthcoming in our outward relationships. 

Fasting and afflicting our souls through abstention from physical pleasures on this day is not for its own sake. Yom Kippur is not some kind of macho endurance test, or an opportunity to lose weight.  It is to remind us that we have obligations to everybody else, that the hunger we experience today is the hunger that too many experience every day, that we may not remain indifferent in the face of suffering. 

Although some have the custom, before Yom Kippur to greet others with, “Tzom qal,” “Have an easy fast,” I do not say this. It is more appropriate to say, “Have a meaningful fast.” But here is another suggestion: Have a challenging fast.”  This day should be, in fact, a challenge to our values, a challenge to our daily routine, to our modes of comfort. To face the challenge of fasting for 25 hours, and yet remain unchanged by that challenge, that would be an embarrassment before God.

Tomorrow morning, we will read the words of Isaiah in the haftarah (58:6-7):

This is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke.  It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe them, and do not ignore your own flesh.

We cannot ignore the hungry, the poor, or the naked, says Isaiah.  I would extrapolate Isaiah’s line of thinking to include the homeless, the neglected, the abused, the emotionally and physically wounded.

Just a few quick statistics:

Did you know that more black children in Pittsburgh grow up in poverty than black children in 95% of similar American cities? That black infant mortality puts Pittsburgh in the 6th percentile? That’s not compared to white people – that’s only compared to black people.

Did you know that the food insecurity rate in Allegheny County is 14.2% overall, but for children it is 17.8%? That means that nearly 1 in 5 kids go hungry regularly.

Did you know that at any given time, there are a couple of thousand homeless people in Allegheny County? Some of them can even be found in our own neighborhood.

We are surrounded by people in need, and we cannot remain indifferent. 

Why are we here this evening?  On this, the holiest night of the year, a night on which we focus on improving ourselves, a night on which we pre-emptively invalidate frivolous vows (that is the purpose of the Kol Nidrei prayer), we should consider making some vows that we will strive to keep:

  • To be aware of those around us who are in need
  • To reach out to them, whether directly, in person, or through all the various charitable organizations that do so
  • To think pro-actively about how we can make a difference in the lives of others

And you can turn that awareness into actual deeds right now: you can fill up those bags for the Squirrel Hill Food Pantry. You can donate to any number of organizations that help those in need. You can volunteer to work in a shelter or soup kitchen.

And, as with Justin Horner and his flat tire, you do not even have to look very far to find somebody in need of help. The point, ladies and gentlemen, is to be aware of others, to think beyond yourself, and to stop and give aid.

On this day of teshuvah / repentance, of self-denial and self-judgment, our task is to challenge ourselves not to succumb to information overload, not to tune out the ever-present challenges of poverty, of suffering, of those who have less than we do.

Rather, this is the essential message of our tradition: we must surmount our indifference and to turn it into action. This is a fundamental value of Judaism. All of this belongs to you. Now go out there and make 5780 a year that counts.

Gemar hatimah tovah.  Have not an easy fast, but a challenging fast.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, evening of Yom Kippur 5780, October 8, 2019.)

Continue reading the final installment in the “All of This Belongs to You” series: All of This Belongs to You: Finding Resilience in Jewish Tradition – Yom Kippur Day 5780

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All of This Belongs to You: Be a Jewish Superhero! – Rosh Hashanah 5780, Day 2

(This is the second in the “All of This Belongs to You” series of High Holiday sermons. You may want to read the first before this one: The Greatest Jewish Hand-Off Play Ever)

While I was in Philadelphia with my Israeli son this summer, we stumbled across an exhibit of Marvel characters and memorabilia at the Franklin Institute. And I thought, OK, it’s wonderful that Stan Lee, born Stanley Lieber, a nice Jewish boy from New York, created these characters and this universe and the tremendous wealth of entertainment value that they have all produced, but a museum exhibit? Really?

Now you may know that I am not the most avid consumer of pop culture. I have no clue who Lizzo is. But something that this exhibit made me suddenly aware of was the great power and cachet that the very idea of superheroes has today. On some level, we all wish that we had some superheroes today. Since we’re entering the year 5780, that means we’re back in the ’80s, people! Here’s an appropriate musical cue:

Consider the milieu in which the first contemporary superheroes emerged. American Jewish kids, children of immigrants from Europe, hatched the first comic-book based superheroes because the Jews needed them. Hitler was murdering our people in Europe; Jews in America and elsewhere seemed powerless to convince their governments to stop the transport of Jews to camps, to halt the Nazi death machine. They needed help, help which they did not have. Help which was greater than any government or law-enforcement agency.

And so Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel created Superman in 1933. And Bob Kane (Kahn) and Bill Finger created Batman in 1938. And Joe (Hymie) Simon and Jack Kirby (Jacob Kurtzberg) created Captain America in 1941. And so forth. These, and many others, were the fantasy heroes who would save the Jews.

And there was even precedent for this in Jewish folktales of the middle ages: the golem, a mythical defender of the Jews fashioned out of clay, most famously put into action by the Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Yehuda Leib ben Bezalel, in the 16th century. As some versions of the story go, the clay form would come to life when the Maharal would inscribe the letters of alef-mem-tav, emet, the Hebrew word for “truth,” into its forehead, and then would return to a clay mass when the alef was removed, leaving the word met, dead, in its place.

So it seems that the alef was the animating letter, the one that held the power, the silent letter that carries far more than its own linguistic weight.

And it is the same alef that begins the Hebrew word for love: ahavah. And it is also the same letter with which God speaks to the Israelites en masse at Mt. Sinai, opening the words of the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, with the silent alef of the word Anokhi, I, the letter that speaks volumes without making a sound.

If I were a Jewish superhero, I would certainly wear an alef on my chest.

***

If you were here yesterday, you know that our theme for 5780 is, “All of This Belongs to You.” Now that the American-Jewish project of assimilation has run its course, the outstanding question is, “How might we reclaim our tradition for the needs of American Jews today?”

The welcoming gate pictured here is a typical “sha’ar” – the illustration found in the front of all printings of the traditional Vilna layout of the Talmud, dating to the 1870s. It is an invitation into the text.

My appeal to you today is as follows: be a Jewish superhero! Proud, committed, open, willing to go the extra distance, maybe even bend the rules a bit to get the job done; not limited by convention – the Jewish world needs you!  

The folks who attend services on the second day of Rosh Hashanah are the more committed folks – the ones who are more likely to show up for synagogue events, who are more likely to participate in many of the aspects of Jewish life, to be more engaged.

So I am going to make the pitch to you to stand up for a new American Judaism – to be the superheroes who will forge that path of the Jewish future, the one that maintains and modernizes our heritage and highlights it for generations to come.  

We need a Beth Shalom, a Conservative movement, an American Judaism that reflects who we are and how we live right now. Yes, to some extent Judaism tells us how to live. But we must acknowledge that today, people relate very differently to Judaism, and to religion in general. While at one time, religion was an organizing principle that helped create a society in which you could trust people whom you did not know, our data-saturated and secular law-infused age has, to some, made this type of organizing principle unnecessary.

But that does not mean that Judaism is irrelevant. Quite the contrary! I think that the numbers of high-profile criminals with Jewish names that have floated across our screens in the past few years are only a symptom of what we have lost along the way to complete assimilation.

You have probably heard me say that Judaism, Jewish life, Jewish practice, Jewish learning offer us real value: they help make us better people and help build a better world. 

If only more Jews were to learn and live Jewish values! If only more Jews were to seek out and engage with Jewish practices – halakhah, learning the words of the Jewish bookshelf, and so forth – then perhaps, just perhaps we would not have had the likes of Bernie Madoff, Harvey Weinstein, Michael Cohen, Jeffrey Epstein. 

If more Jews knew their heritage and engaged with it, then maybe we would have a better chance of truly repairing the world.

So that is where you come in.

I recently heard a wonderful interview (On Being with Krista Tippett) with Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, a well-known Reform rabbi and author. He told the following story about the time he gave a tour of his synagogue’s sanctuary to children in the pre-school, and they theorized about what might be behind the curtain in the aron hakodesh, the ark:

One kid, obviously destined to become a professor of nihilistic philosophy at a great university, opined that behind that curtain was absolutely nothing. Another kid, less imaginative, thought it had a Jewish holy thing in there. A third kid, obviously a devotee of American game show television subculture, guessed that behind that curtain was a brand new car.

And the fourth kid said “No, you’re all wrong. Next week when that rabbi man comes and opens that curtain, behind it, there would be a giant mirror.” From a four-year-old. Somehow, that little soul knew that through looking at the words of sacred scripture, he would encounter himself in a new and heightened and revealing way.

Torah, by which I mean not just the scrolls behind the curtain but all of accumulated learning and commentary and argument and behaviors it has yielded over the last three millennia, is not an old, dusty collection of obscure literature. It is us. It is a reflection of who we are and how we live. It is an assessment of our lives, an opportunity to consider who we are and how we can improve ourselves.

It IS a mirror.

But when we truly pay attention, when we embrace and commit ourselves to learning the wisdom of our tradition, we see who we are. It is a mirror that reflects not our outsides, but our insides.

And, truth be told, not everybody wants to stand in front of that kind of mirror. We do not want to be judged. We usually do not want to have to think too deeply about our own shortcomings.

But I want you stand before that mirror and think, How can I infuse my life with just a little more qedushah, more holiness? How can I teach Torah through my words, through my consumption choices, through my philanthropic donations? How can I bring a little more Torah to the world in how I interact with all the people around me? How can the awareness of myself and the world that Torah brings me shed a little more light on us all? 

Can I imagine myself with a giant, red alef on my chest, bringing my whole self into the synagogue, and then out into the world, armed with Torah? Heck – we already have the cape…

And the answer is, yes. Yes you can. You are going to be the alef.

And as a Jewish superhero, you’re going to need a mission. You know, “Fighting for truth, justice, and the American way!” Or “Here I come to save the day!” And here it is: Positive Judaism.

I have recently read a book that provides a blueprint for how to do that. It’s called The Happiness Prayer, by Rabbi Evan Moffic, who is a Reform rabbi who leads Congregation Solel, in Chicago. The premise of the book is that, drawing on the principles of positive psychology, Judaism can be a force for good in our lives and the world. I’m not going to go deep into the background on positive psychology – you can feel free to do that on your own time. 

Rabbi Moffic derives the principles of “Positive Judaism” from a well-known passage in the Talmud that he calls, “The Happiness Prayer.” It goes like this:

אֵלּוּ דְבָרִים שֶׁאָדָם אוכֵל פֵּרותֵיהֶם בָּעולָם הַזֶּה וְהַקֶּרֶן קַיֶּמֶת לו לָעולָם הַבָּא. וְאֵלּוּ הֵן. כִּבּוּד אָב וָאֵם. וּגְמִילוּת חֲסָדִים. וְהַשְׁכָּמַת בֵּית הַמִּדְרָשׁ. שַׁחֲרִית וְעַרְבִית. וְהַכְנָסַת אורְחִים. וּבִקּוּר חולִים. וְהַכְנָסַת כַּלָּה. וּלְוָיַת הַמֵּת. וְעִיּוּן תפילה. וַהֲבָאַת שָׁלום בֵּין אָדָם לַחֲבֵרו וּבֵין אִישׁ לְאִשְׁתּו. וְתַלְמוּד תּורָה כְּנֶגֶד כֻּלָּם:

These are the deeds that yield immediate fruit in this world and continue to yield fruit in the World to Come: honoring parents; doing deeds of lovingkindness; arriving at the beit midrash / house of study early–morning and evening; providing hospitality; visiting the sick; helping the needy bride; attending to the dead; probing the meaning of prayer; making peace between one person and another, and between husband and wife. And the study of Torah outweighs them all.

This prayer appears in many traditional siddurim / prayerbooks, and it is based on passages found in the Talmud (Mishnah Peah 1:1, BT Shabbat 127a). 

Rabbi Moffic universalizes the language somewhat while preserving the prayer’s original intent. He interprets them as follows:

כִּבּוּד אָב וָאֵם / Honor those who gave you life.
גְמִילוּת חֲסָדִים / Be kind
הַשְׁכָּמַת בֵּית הַמִּדְרָשׁ, שַׁחֲרִית וְעַרְבִית / Keep learning
הַכְנָסַת אורְחִים / Invite others into your life
בִקּוּר חולִים / Be there when others need you
הַכְנָסַת כַּלָּה / Celebrate good times
לְוָיַת הַמֵּת / Support yourself and others during times of loss
עִיּוּן תפילה / Pray with intention
הֲבָאַת שָׁלום בֵּין אָדָם לַחֲבֵרו וּבֵין אִישׁ לְאִשְׁתּו / Forgive
תַלְמוּד תּורָה כְּנֶגֶד כֻּלָּם / Look inside and commit

Now, this is a really fabulous template for finding happiness in Judaism, but I really do not have time to explain each of these. You might want to check out Rabbi Moffic’s book. But among these ten items, I think the most important ones are as follows:

גְמִילוּת חֲסָדִים / Be kind

Practice random acts of kindness and senseless beauty, says the bumper sticker. Well, yeah. (They do not have to be random or senseless.) Find ways to do good works for others and for society, because that is how we make this world a better place while endowing our own lives with a sense of meaning. The 20th century Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas explained that suffering is the root of kindness – understanding that we all suffer in one way or another, this suffering is always an opportunity to provide comfort through deeds of kindness. That, says Levinas, is God’s vector in the world; we become God’s hands.

הַשְׁכָּמַת בֵּית הַמִּדְרָשׁ. שַׁחֲרִית וְעַרְבִית / Keep learning

An 80-year-long monumental study of life satisfaction began at Harvard University in 1938. One of the study’s key findings was that the happiest people were the ones who pursued and shared wisdom, which they attained through a lifetime of learning: from travel, from classes, from new experiences, from other people. The Jewish value of learning is not just about the Beit Midrash, the traditional study hall, but also that as we walk through life, we should always strive to acquire more knowledge, more wisdom, more experience. 

הַכְנָסַת אורְחִים / Invite others into your life

One of the major challenges that we face as a society is isolation. Thanks to our newfangled digital devices, it is possible for us to feel connected even when we are not. I’m not judging our use of technology, but I think there are reasons to be concerned. The antidote to this isolation is to reach out to others any way you can. Perhaps the most powerful connector in Jewish life is the Shabbat meal at home, or a festive meal in the Sukkah, and we should all be hosting more of them and inviting more people. But gathering in synagogue is also a powerful tool. I am especially grateful that Beth Shalom is attracting many new members nowadays, and that is due to your talent at hakhnasat orehim. But there is always room to grow – to reach out to somebody else, to get to know someone whom you do not. The power of community is found in the sharing of stories and experiences. By this time next year you I hope for you to count how many times and how many people you’ve hosted, and take stock of the ways in which these instances impacted and enriched your life.  

הֲבָאַת שָׁלום בֵּין אָדָם לַחֲבֵרו וּבֵין אִישׁ לְאִשְׁתּו / Forgive

Related to the challenge of isolation is the fact that all of what we learn about the world through online platforms – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, etc. – is curated to do one thing: keep your eyeballs on that platform as long as possible. And so these platforms are constantly putting in front of you items that they already know you love. The difficulty here is that the algorithms are effectively constantly telling us, “You’re right,” continuously affirming our perspective. How much harder, then, is it for us to excuse the people around us for viewing the world in a way we feel is 100% wrong? And how much easier is it, then, to dig in our heels, even when doing so pushes us apart?

One of the most essential things that we should be thinking about, as we consider the brokenness of the world, is how to bring people together. And the key to doing so, to repairing the world, ladies and gentlemen, is forgiveness. And that does not mean overlooking the misdeeds of others who have treated you badly; it means reaching deep within yourself to find the intestinal fortitude to let go of the animosity and the desire for revenge. 

Forgiveness, says Rabbi Moffic, is actually a form of revenge – “a favor we do ourselves because it releases the energies we would have expended in feeling hurt and aggrieved.” Letting go of the anger we hold onto can be tremendously liberating. I have seen this happen.

עִיּוּן תפילה / Pray with intention

You all know that I pray regularly, and that daily prayer brings real value to my life. And it can bring real value to yours as well, if you commit to it. However, tefillah / prayer is simply not one of those things that you can enter lightly. You really have to be intentional about it, and that is hard. In fact, it does not necessarily get easier the more you do it. But once you get the rhythm, the choreography, the themes, the language, it allows you to access yourself in a way that is unlike any other. It’s like yoga for your head and heart, soothing your soul and sensitizing you to the others around you. You cannot be a part of a minyan, a quorum of ten, without the others in the room, and that is by design. That magic combination of doing something good for your soul, reflecting quietly, reciting ancient words of tradition from a place of humility, and doing it in fellowship with others is healthy for your body, your mind, and your community.

תַלְמוּד תּורָה כְּנֶגֶד כֻּלָּם / Look inside and commit.

As a Jewish superhero, you have to be committed to the prime directive of the Jews, and that is to spread light in a too-dark world. And the way to do this is to know and understand the range of wisdom found on the Jewish bookshelf, and to use it to locate that mirror that Rabbi Kushner described. Our ancient wisdom is our stock-in-trade, the Jewish gift to the world. And you need to know more of it, so that you can bring out the best in yourself and in others. Pirqei Avot (6:1) teaches that the one who learns Torah for its own sake is clothed in humility, reverence, and modesty, and is slow to insult. If only more of us carried those qualities with us at all times!

***
Those are the pieces of the Happiness Prayer that I find most appealing, but you should not take my word for it. If you are going to be a Jewish Superhero, if you’re going to help create the Judaism of the 21st century, to help us reclaim our spiritual heritage, you are going to have to investigate some of this for yourself.

So find a big alef, whether physical or metaphorical, and pin it to your chest. Without the alef, we are met / dead. With the alef, we are emet / truth.

You are the alef. You are the superhero. All of this belongs to you! Now go out and make it happen.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, second day of Rosh Hashanah, 10/1/2019.)

Continue reading the next installment in the “All of This Belongs to You” series: All of This Belongs to You: Do Not Be Indifferent – Kol Nidrei 5780

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All of This Belongs to You: The Greatest Jewish Hand-Off Play Ever – Rosh Hashanah 5780, Day 1

Some of you may know that I am a big fan of the old comedy troupe from England, Monty Python, and spent (or arguably wasted) a good chunk of my adolescence memorizing some of their routines. 

There is a scene in their classic 1975 movie, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” when a feudal lord is preparing his son’s wedding, and is trying to explain to his adult son the importance of marrying the young woman that the father has chosen, because her father owns a lot of property. The son, who does not seem to care for property or farming or being a feudal lord, is completely disinterested. He only wants to sing, and the father is intent on stopping him from doing so, so that he can focus on the wedding.

At one point, the father gestures to the window dramatically, as if to survey all of his fields, and says, “One day, lad, all this will be yours.”

The son, regarding the window, says, “What, the curtains?”

The young man does not see the huge tracts of land that his father wants to bestow upon him. He does not see the legacy he is poised to inherit. He would rather just sing.

****

Ladies and gentlemen, we are in the middle of a paradigm shift in Jewish history. We are witnesses to the one of the most dramatic changes in Jewish life that has ever occurred. Let me explain.

Do you remember Abe Salem, alav hashalom / May peace be upon him? Abe was a key figure in this congregation, the Ritual Director, Torah reader and service leader for nearly a quarter-century. He was a survivor who spoke a barely-understandable patois of Yiddish and English, told nearly- unbelievable stories, like how he had once personally received a pistol from David Ben Gurion, and how in 1939, after fleeing the Nazis in Poland, he was imprisoned in a Soviet labor camp because the Russians suspected him to be a spy.

Abe is gone. He passed away two years ago at the age of 97. Zikhrono livrakhah. May his memory be for a blessing.

Ladies and gentlemen, the texture of the Jewish world is not what it was in the 1950s and 1960s, when synagogues were run by scrappy survivors like Abe. Gone are the Old World sensibilities which drove the community of the past. Gone are the classic bubbies, who devoted their lives to cooking and doling out often-unwanted advice. Gone are many of the institutions that sustained Jewish life: the kosher butchers and bakers that once populated Murray Ave., the daily Yiddish papers. Gone are the Bundists, the Hebraists, the proto-Zionist veterans who left their comfortable lives in America to go serve in the Israeli War of Independence in 1948. 

All that is left is us, ladies and gentlemen. We are the inheritors of our millennia-old tradition. And we are woefully ill-equipped to inherit it.

Because the top of the agenda for our parents and grandparents was assimilation. It was to be American. It was to fit in, not to stick out, not to be a greenhorn. When my grandmother, my mother’s mother, Pinia Reyzl Bronstein, arrived at Ellis Island in 1921, at age 8, speaking not a word of English, she decided that she was going to acquire a perfect American accent, and she quit speaking Yiddish. And when she was raising my mother and her siblings on the North Shore of Boston, they would go to the neighbors’ apartment when they wanted to eat clams, like Americans; she would not dare cook them in her own kitchen while her mother, my great-grandmother Hannah was alive; after she was gone, kashrut disappeared as well.

My grandmother was not so moved by her Jewish heritage. She may as well have left that back in her shtetl, in what is today Ukraine. She knew that to be an American meant that she did not need to keep kosher or to fast on Tish’ah Be’Av.

Did you know that it was not uncommon for American Jews to celebrate Christmas in the first half of the 20th century? Families had trees and even hosted Christmas dinners: 

“In his 1958 study of second-generation immigrant Reform Jews on Chicago’s South Side, clinical psychologist and rabbi Milton Matz revealed that in the second generation parents often agreed that a Jewish child might need a Christmas tree to “hyphenate the contradiction between his Americanism and his Jewish ethnicism.” (Rabbi Joshua Plaut, myjewishlearning.com)

In subsequent generations, parents realized that there might be a contradiction here, and today there are very few Jews who celebrate Christmas. But no matter: the project of assimilation was deeply entrenched.

And in the course of this great project, what did we lose? I’ll tell you:

  • We lost the deep knowledge and familiarity with Jewish living. 
  • We lost the sense of the synagogue as an extension of our living rooms. 
  • We lost the sense of love and appreciation for the text of our tradition, the value of prayer and indeed the value of having a regular prayer practice. 
  • We lost the sense of deep interconnectedness and interdependence within our community. 
  • We lost the sense of the extended family as the essential unit. 
  • We lost almost all of the close neighborhoods in which the people knew and trusted each other and the businesses that depended on proximity. 
  • We have reduced our Judaism to lip-service: many of us declare proudly that we are Jewish without knowing what exactly our tradition teaches us.

It is undeniable that we have also gained: we gained more freedom, more independence. We moved out of cramped, urban environments into leafy, roomy suburbs. We gained entree into all quarters of American society, including into the exclusive clubs and law firms and echelons of government. And still, despite current trends, obvious signs of anti-Semitism are the exception rather than the norm.

Get ready, folks; I am about to do something I almost never do: use a sports analogy:

We are witnesses to the greatest Jewish hand-off play ever. What do I mean?

The American Jewish project of assimilation has run its course. We are done. We are as American as every other immigrant group.

And I am in fact concerned. But I am also hopeful.

Why? Because the receivers of that heritage, that handed-off football, are reclaiming it. Our parents and grandparents carried it for some time, and now it will be ours. Not mine; not the rabbis and the historians and the Judaic Studies professors, but ours as a community.

****

As you probably know about me by now, my primary goal is not only to teach Judaism, but to make the case for why you need it. I’m not so convinced that everybody in the room is on board. Because, if you were, you would be here more often! You may find this hard to believe, but we almost never fill the sanctuary on Shabbat morning even though there are only 1600 seats. 

But my intent is not to make you feel guilty. It’s rather to inspire you to to be a student of your own heritage, work harder and, to reach a little higher in giving shape to your spirituality, to dip maybe a second toe into the water of Jewish life beyond the lifecycle events of baby namings, ritual circumcisions, benei mitzvah, marriage and death. Because doing so will ultimately be repaid to you in ways that you may not yet appreciate.

Nobody had to make this case a half-century ago. Why? Because the Jews were just showing up.

Today is different. The Jews do not just show up. A piece of conventional wisdom says that Jews used to come to synagogue because they were Jewish. Today, Jews come to synagogue to feel Jewish. We are fully-assimilated Americans. When I feel the need to “get my Jew on,” I go to synagogue. Maybe.

Over these days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I am going to give you reasons to show up, to find meaning, to enrich your life and your relationships and to improve the world through Jewish life, learning, and ritual. Now that the project of assimilation is complete, we can, and we must reclaim what is ours, and take our wisdom to make our lives and our world better. All of this belongs to you – now take that football and run with it.

The welcoming gate pictured here is a typical “sha’ar” – the illustration found in the front of all printings of the traditional Vilna layout of the Talmud, dating to the 1870s. It is an invitation into the text.


Perhaps one of the greatest and best-known stories in the Talmud (found in tractate Bava Metzia 59b) is that of the Tanur Shel Akhnai, the oven of Akhnai. It’s about an argument that some rabbis are having about whether the Tanur shel Akhnai is kosher. The halakhic particulars of the oven do not matter, but what does matter is that one rabbi, Rabbi Eliezer, believes the oven is kosher, and so, apparently does God. But all the other rabbis disagree.

On that day, R. Eliezer answered all the answers on Earth (i.e. the halakhic objections) and they did not accept it from him. He said, “If the law is as I say, that carob tree will prove it”; the carob tree was uprooted from its place one hundred cubits, some say four hundred cubits. 
The other rabbis said: “We do not allow proof from a carob tree.” 
R. Eliezer then said, “If the law is as I say, the river will prove it”; the river flowed in reverse direction.
They said: “We do not allow proof from a river.”…
R. Eliezer then said, “If the law is as I say, a voice from Heaven will prove it”; a heavenly voice [i.e. God’s] said, “Why do you disagree with R. Eliezer, who is correct in every way?” 
R. Yehoshua stood on his feet and said, “Lo bashamayim hi.” “[The Torah] is not in heaven,” (Deuteronomy 30:12)…
R. Natan met Eliyahu haNavi and said to him, “What did the Qadosh Barukh Hu / Holy Blessed One do?” Eliyahu said to him: “God smiled and said, “My children have defeated Me, My children have defeated Me.” 

What does this story teach us? For one thing, that the tradition is ours. We received some initial, Divine communications, however they came down to us, and thereafter, we took the tradition and made it our own. And ultimately, we make the tradition. It belongs to us.  We interpret it in each generation as we carry it.

It belongs to us because the tradition of Jewish learning and teaching across the ages is unique in the world. Our “religion” (and I use that in quotes because it is an inadequate term) is not only arcane rituals and mumbling ancient words in synagogue, but rather as much about the body of wisdom called “Torah,” which we continue to learn.

It belongs to us because we all understand and relate to the concept of God differently: some of us understand God as a law-giving being; some of us understand God as a force in nature that works in and around us; some of us understand God as the human imperative to do good for others in this world, and the theological palette is truly limitless. And all of these conceptions of God belong to us as well.

It belongs to us because there is no single right answer on virtually anything in Jewish life. There is no single way to be Jewish. There is no single, correct answer for most questions in Jewish law. We have no pope; there is no single commentator who has a monopoly on interpreting our tradition. Torah, our textual basis is flexible enough to tolerate a wide range of understandings. 

And how do we make it ours today? By re-interpreting once again. By taking the football and running with it.

By acting on the ways that our tradition brings us value today. Here are some examples:

Our tradition teaches us how to be a family: Dine together, particularly on Shabbat. Express gratitude together, with the words of our tradition as well as your own words. Come to Beth Shalom, where we have services and activities for the whole family.

Our tradition teaches us how to be good parents: Bless your children and hold them tight, like each of the Matriarchs and Patriarchs did. Guide them with the wisdom that our ancestors gave us. Teach them the values of derekh eretz / treating others with respect, hesed / acts of lovingkindness, and hakarat hatov / recognition of the good that we have been given. 

Our tradition teaches us how to be good citizens: Seek to understand the people around us; do not swindle or deceive others, do not curse the deaf or put obstacles in front of the blind; share our wisdom and our joy with our fellow human beings, and greet everybody with sever panim yafot / a pleasant face.

Our tradition teaches us how to be an authentic person: Act on the statement of the sage Hillel: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?

Our tradition teaches us how to maintain holiness in all our relationships: Remember that every person on this Earth has within them a spark of the Divine, a modicum of holiness. Never forget that. Strive to seek the holiness in each other in all your dealings, whether in business or in encounters with strangers or in matters of the heart.

And the ritual aspects of Judaism support all of those things. That is why we have them. That is why what we do in the Conservative movement is an excellent approach to being Jewish: we maintain our traditions while acknowledging that the world has changed and we must change incrementally along with it. 

Why do we do what we do?

Because tefillah / prayer gets us in touch with ourselves and sensitizes us to the world around us.

Because observing Shabbat allows us the physical and emotional space to let go of our anxiety and just live in the moment, not swept up in commerce or politics or work.

Because kashrut / the dietary laws remind us on a daily basis of our responsibility not to cross certain lines in God’s Creation. We were not given this world so we can abuse it. And not only that, but it’s worth remembering that what comes out of our mouths should be as pure as what goes in.

Because qehillah / community provides the framework of support that we all need, in times of grief and joy, mourning and depression and celebration and hanging out and schmoozing, and everything in-between. And all the more so in the past year, in the context of what happened a few blocks away from here on the 18th day of Heshvan in the past year. We were there for each other.

Because Talmud Torah / Jewish learning teaches us that all of these things are found on the Jewish bookshelf in abundance. It’s all there, ladies and gentlemen. You just have to reach out and grab it.

I know. You’re thinking, there is so much to Judaism, and I’m so busy, and Beth Shalom offers so many portals into Jewish life. Where can I possibly start? 

Here’s an easy one: host a Shabbat dinner. Look, you’re going to be eating dinner on Friday night anyway – just make it a wee bit more special. I am happy to help you out with home rituals if you need. Invite guests. Enjoy! Then do it again. 

Then consider an online study group – Derekh, our targeted programming arm, is now coordinating them via Zoom. Or drop into Rabbi Jeremy’s Talmud class, or my Lunch and Learn. Stop by the monthly Shabbat morning Discussion service, where we get into the “whys” of what we do. The bar is not as high as you think.

***

Ladies and gentlemen, every time the Torah is put away, we sing, Ki leqah tov natati lakhem, torati al ta’azovu. For I [God] have given you a good heritage; do not forsake My Torah.

We sympathize with the young man in the Holy Grail, who only wants to sing. But we need to see the land, not just the curtains. And we need to dedicate ourselves to that property, the rich heritage of which we are the inheritors, even as we sing.

We take the tradition that our ancestors received at Mount Sinai, and we are still fashioning it to suit our needs today. We continue to make an ancient tradition new. We continue to make it ours. Lo bashamayim hi – it is not in the heavens. It’s down here with us, it’s fourth down and three yards to go. Take the hand-off.

All of this belongs to you. As they say in the Talmud as an invitation into the text: Ta shema. Come and learn.

Shanah tovah!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, first day of Rosh Hashanah, 9/30/2019.)

Continue reading the next installment in the “All of This Belongs to You” series: All of This Belongs to You: Be a Jewish Superhero! – Rosh Hashanah 5780, Day 2

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