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Wants vs. Needs: A Pandemic Primer – Aharei Mot/Qedoshim 5780

Last Tuesday, on the night of Yom HaAtzma-ut, Israel’s Independence Day, we sang a song composed by Hayim Hefer and Moshe Vilensky, two of the greatest Israeli pop music composers, called Hayu Zemanim. It is an Israeli classic from 1948, originally sung by Shoshanna Damari (the Chizbatron, a group of performers who emerged from the Palmach, sang it in 1949). The song is about young soldiers, already veterans of Israel’s War of Independence, envisioning themselves sitting around the fireplace as grandparents, reminiscing and telling war stories about 1948 to their grandchildren about their time serving in the Palmach:

יָבוֹא הַיּוֹם וְעוֹד תֵּשֵב אֶל מוּל הָאָח
וְגַם הַגַּב יִהְיֶה כָּפוּף כַּחֲטוֹטֶרֶת
וְתִזָּכֵר אָז בְּיָמֶיךָ בַּפַּלְמָ”ח
וּתְסַפֵּר עַל זֹאת אַגַּב עִשּׁוּן מִקְטֶרֶת
וּמִסָּבִיב, וּמִסָּבִיב יֵשֵׁב הַטַּף
וְאִשְׁתְּךָ גַּם הִיא מֻפְלֶגֶת בַּשָּׁנִים
תַּזִּיל דִּמְעָה וּתְקַנֵּחַ אֶת הָאַף
וְתֵאָנַח: הָיוּ זְמַנִּים, הָיוּ זְמַנִּים

הָיוּ זְמַנִּים
אָז בַּמִּשְׁלָט יָשַׁבְנוּ
הָיוּ זְמַנִּים
לָחַמְנוּ וְאָהַבְנוּ
עַכְשָׁו דָּבָר אֵין לְהַכִּיר
עַל הַמִּשְׁלָט יוֹשֶׁבֶת עִיר
אוּלַי בִּזְכוּת אוֹתָם זְמַנִּים

The day will come when you will sit by the fireplace
When your back will be bent like a camel’s hump
And you will remember your days in the Palmach
And you will tell about this while smoking a pipe
And around you will sit all the little children
And your wife will also be distinguished in years
A tear may fall and you will wipe your nose
And you will sigh, “Those were the days, those were the days.”

Those were the days
When we sat in the army fortification
We fought and we loved
Now there is nothing left to recognize
Where the fort was stands a city
Perhaps because of those days

The Chizbatron, with Hayim Hefer front center, September 1949.

Of course, it made me think of the times we are in right now. Not like war, of course (there is only one person in America who thinks we are at war), but rather, like being cooped up with people whom we love and strive with in a kind of fortification.

And I hope that one day, in the distant future, we will look back on these times, and we will ask ourselves, what did we learn? How did we manage being apart from so many friends and family and workplaces and favorite haunts? What did we learn about the value of things we had always taken for granted?  

It has now been seven weeks since the Men’s Club Shabbat here at Beth Shalom, which was the last time the Faye Rubinstein Weiss Sanctuary was populated with Shabbat morning service attendees. Seven weeks of social distancing, of face masks and hand sanitizer and not hanging around with your friends on lazy Shabbat afternoons. And I must say that, while my family and I are long past stir crazy, I have settled into a kind of routine – davening via Zoom morning and evening, online meetings, frequent trips to the fridge, making pastoral phone calls, occasionally a walk outside, meals with the whole family, trying to find a quiet place in the house to write sermons, and so forth. The time is moving faster than I would have figured – strangely enough, even though I rarely leave the house, there are not enough hours in the day.

But I’ll confess something that I did not expect: I do not miss my weekly shvitz.

On my day off, up until 7 weeks ago, I would go to the gym to work out, after which I “rewarded” myself with a good shvitz, that is, sitting in the steam room, followed by a few minutes in the jacuzzi. Made me feel all loose and relaxed and calm. For years now, I have been looking forward to this routine; my shvitz time has been essentially sacred. 

Now I must say that up until perhaps this week, for some reason, I had not actually noticed that I had not thought about the shvitz in seven weeks. It simply got pushed down on my list of priorities. While we were trying to cope with the new reality, suddenly other things became more important. 

Now some of you may recall that Qedoshim is probably my favorite parashah (OK, so Aharei Mot comes along for the ride most years – they were together when I became bar mitzvah 37 years ago this week – but Aharei Mot simply doesn’t have the cachet that Qedoshim has.) So why is Qedoshim my favorite? Because it opens with what is essentially the most important piece of guidance from the Torah that we have:

קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

And then what flows from that statement is a whole bunch of laws, which scholars refer to as the “Holiness Code,” that guide us in proper behavior. Examples: honoring your parents, leaving some of your produce for the poor to glean, being honest, not bearing a grudge, not mistreating a stranger, having honest business practices, and so forth. What we learn from Parashat Qedoshim, writ large, is that being holy mandates treating others with respect. We must respect their livelihoods, their feelings, their families, their citizenship status, their essential needs. That is what it means to be holy.

In this parashah, Jewish values are on display in abundance. How do we live our values? By acting on them; by walking through life with respect for others; by understanding that every human has fundamental needs, and that we should not stand in the way of the needs of others.

So the challenge we always have, and the challenge that is perhaps most easily answered in the current moment, comes down to two questions: “What do I need?” vs. “What do I want?”

Ours is a society that is saturated with want. Virtually every sponsored message of any kind out there is trying to tell us what we want. Think of the most “sticky” ad jingles that your brain is filled with – here are some that will be forever stuck in mine: “You deserve a break today.” “Have a Coke and a smile.” “Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t,” “Have it your way,” etc. Selling a product is all about telling you not what you need, but what you want.

המבין יבין

One of the things that is truly remarkable, and truly foreboding about this time is how much of the American economy depends on want, rather than need. At least 30 million Americans are now jobless; 1 in 4 workers in Pennsylvania. And that is due to the fact that we have closed non-essential businesses – one might presume that most of those closed businesses serve wants, rather than needs. And let us not forget that all of those newly-jobless people have actual needs, and now no means to pay for them; we should not discount the grave situation which we are now in as a society.

So what do we need? Obviously, food and shelter and clothing and healthcare. (And, as we all know now, you don’t really need that much clothing to attend Zoom meetings. And, BTW, do we really need the Internet? It’s hard to believe, of course, but it was not so long ago that we all managed without it. Not too much before that, at least in historical terms, humanity even survived without electricity.)

But all the more so, we need the intangibles, the things you cannot buy, which are just as essential. “I’ll buy you a diamond ring, my friend, if it makes you feel alright,” sang Paul McCartney a long time ago. “But I don’t care too much for money / for money can’t buy me love.”

We need love. We need companionship. We need friendship. We need family. We need spiritual structure. We need intellectual stimulation. We need meaning. 

Dr. Viktor Frankl, noted psychologist and survivor of Auschwitz and three other camps, documented in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, the ways in which the Nazi operation dehumanized people, taking away their spirit and ultimately their will to live. Frankl observed that the feature shared by those who survived was that they made the active choice to seek some future goal, to put their current context into perspective and not allow the despair and pain and deprivation of bodily needs sap their desire to look to the future. He describes how he arrived at Auschwitz carrying the manuscript of his unpublished book, which at the time he felt was the most important thing in his life, the thing that he needed the most, hidden in his coat. It was promptly taken away from him and destroyed. His coat and manuscript are replaced by:

… the worn-out rags of an inmate who had already been sent to the gas chambers immediately after his arrival… Instead of the many pages of my manuscript, I found in a pocket of the newly-acquired coat one single page torn out of a Hebrew prayer book, containing the most important Jewish prayer, Shema Yisrael. How should I have interpreted such a “coincidence” other than as a challenge to live my thoughts instead of merely putting them on paper?

Frankl sees the Shema as a kind of divine message: keep these words upon your lips at all times, says the Shema. Speak them, teach them to your children. Live them. It is a sign that daily prayer, that seeking meaning through a spiritual framework, maintains the will to live, the intangible sense that our lives have value, that we are here for a purpose. It is a sign that the constancy of that spiritual framework, uniting past, present, and future, gives us life. He would not survive Auschwitz by lamenting the loss of his book, upon which he had worked so hard; rather, he would survive by knowing that he would write an even better book after the camps, after the Shoah.

Yes, the life-sustaining things are important: the food, the shelter, maybe even the internet. But what ultimately will enable us, as Jews, as a community, and as a nation, to survive is our drive to find meaning in our current predicament, to use it as an opportunity to hone our sense of ourselves and our values, to strive to be better people when we get to the other side.

Right now, we must mourn those whom we have lost, stay home and stay healthy, and look to the future, when we will treasure that much more our sense of respect for one another, our obligation to fashion a society that cares about the neediest among us, our drive for personal enlightenment as individuals and as a qehillah, a community.

I do not miss the shvitz, but I do miss all of you. And someday, far in the future, we will sit around and tell our grandchildren about 2020, about how we survived by learning about our values, about what we really need. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered via Zoom to Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh PA, Shabbat morning, 5/2/2020.)

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