Categories
High Holidays Sermons

Being There: You Need a Minyan – Rosh HaShanah 5783, Day 1

As some of you know, I went to see the Pirates play in PNC Park in August, on Jewish Heritage Night, my first time back to the stadium since 2019. (As some of you know, I threw out the first pitch as well, and didn’t embarrass myself…) And I remembered something extraordinarily important that evening, something which many of us might have lost touch with during the pandemic, an essential principle of human life: being there in person is much better than watching it on a screen.

Jewish Heritage Night, 8/16/2022. (Courtesy of the Pittsburgh Pirates)

And I must say that I am concerned about us, ladies and gentlemen. I am concerned that the pandemic has dramatically accelerated a phenomenon that was already taking shape beforehand: not being there. I am, of course, not referring to Pirates games, but not being physically or spiritually present in general.

What do I mean by “not being there”? It is very easy today for us to be in touch with many people, using all the platforms that we have, without actually being in their physical presence. It is all too easy today to attend a meeting, a class, a work appointment, even a synagogue service, while you are actually somewhere else, and maybe even doing something unrelated. How many of us have Zoomed into work meetings or committee meetings while driving, or reclining on the comfy sofa in your living room? Some of us are doing it right now! It’s OK – I’ve done it too.

Now, on the one hand, that can be good. It certainly allows those who are physically unable to participate – for medical, or physical, or locational reasons – to remain involved with others. On March 15, 2020, Zoom suddenly became my primary means of meeting with people for services, for pastoral conversations, for teaching, and so forth. At the time, our community was acting on the essential Jewish value of piqqua nefesh, saving a life. We likely saved lives in doing so.

But our digital connectivity has also come with a number of downsides. We were already spending lots of time looking at screens prior to the pandemic, and then we were suddenly spending almost ALL of our time doing so. As a result, our ability to concentrate on anything for an extended period of time has been reduced even further, likely due to the infinite amount of amusing material available instantly at our fingertips from TikTok, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, etc., etc., and the constant interruption our mobile digital devices offer us: calls, text messages, alerts, notifications, and so forth. 

Second, all of that constant digital interruption and amusement has made it difficult to discern what is important. Is the latest Internet-generated crisis more important than having a conversation with a good friend who is sitting in front of you? Is watching videos or sharing memes more valuable than spending time in reflection and meditation in the context of your synagogue community? Our affection for our screens has distorted the picture of our lives by pushing into our field of vision ideas and opinions which may not actually be as important as they may seem in cyberspace. The tech giants control our eyeballs; the most frequent posters and influencers tinker with our perception.

Third, while Zoom meetings have made it more efficient for many of us to gather or work or communicate without leaving the comfort of our living room, I hope that the experience of the past couple of years has left you wanting: Wanting human contact; wanting to catch up with a friend before or after the meeting; arguing a finer point in the parking lot; shaking hands or getting a hug when needed. At least as of right now, you cannot do that on any platform in a way that feels like being in another person’s physical presence.

I am dedicating my High Holiday sermon series this year to Being There. (Yes, I borrowed the name from the classic 1979 film starring Peter Sellers, about the naive gardener who, by being in the right place at the right time, accidentally convinces everybody around him that he is the world’s most brilliant and inspiring person.)

Judaism has some essential principles regarding Being There:

  1. Minyan – The principle that daily synagogue services and certain other rituals require a quorum of ten people physically present
  2. Beit Kenesset – The synagogue, as the primary Jewish building throughout history, is the central place of Jewish gathering. Every community needs a gathering space, and both the Greek term “synagogue” and the Hebrew “beit kenesset” reflect that this is a house of gathering.
  3. Qehillah Qedoshah – The Hebrew word for a Jewish congregation; the literal meaning is holy community. Qehillah* is derived from the Hebrew word “to gather,” and is today the preferred term that the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism uses to refer to its member congregations.
  4. evruta – This Aramaic word meaning “partnership” refers both to a pair of learners who study Torah together, and also to that style of learning, which is native to the beit midrash, the Jewish study hall. “O evruta o mituta,” says the Talmud. “Partnership or death.” We need holy Jewish partnerships for us to learn and practice our tradition, so that we might squeeze the most value out of it.

Today, tomorrow, and on Yom Kippur, I will explore Being There – being connected to each other and our community in real time, in person, through these four essential perspectives, because we all can appreciate right now how much we need that personal, physical connection. And it is fundamental to Judaism and Jewish life, as well.

Today’s topic is minyan, the essential quorum of ten people. But I’m not going to take the angle that you might be expecting.

***

Let me begin with this: You need a minyan. Yes, of course you need a minyan for synagogue services, and we at Beth Shalom provide one every single day of the year, morning and evening. (I’m just going to throw out a quick Todah Rabbah / thank you very much for everybody who regularly supports our daily minyanim by attending, by leading services and reading Torah, by preparing and serving breakfast, by dropping everything to come to shul when we are in need of a ninth or tenth person, and of course by making it possible for all of you to come and daven and recite Qaddish and so forth. You all deserve so much credit, so many mitzvah points for being here frequently.)

But you need another kind of minyan as well. Remember that the word “minyan” does not mean “service,” even though you need a minyan for a service. What it means literally is “count,” “The count is 2 and 0.” 

The count, for Jewish purposes, is ten. (You may also know, BTW, that some Jews have a superstition about not counting people, so some will “count” the people in the room, when checking for minyan status, by “not counting”: not 1, not 2, not 3, etc. My father, the mathematician, loves this; only mathematicians can imagine a world in which ten people is “not 10.”)

What you need – what we all need – is a quorum of people whom you can count as your mini-community within this community.

I have been here in Pittsburgh for seven years now; this is actually my eighth Rosh Hashanah on this pulpit. At this point, I feel like I have a sense of how this community works. And there is something that I have noticed for a while, and I have been struggling for several years to figure out how to address it. 

You all know that Squirrel Hill is the most wonderful neighborhood in America, if not the world. OK, so we may not have the groovy vibes of Lawrenceville or the anything-can-happen, seductively dangerous appeal of East Carson Street on a Saturday night. But we have a center of Jewish life, stable and vibrant now for over a century, a neighborly place where everybody knows who lived in your house before you did. Some of you who grew up in Squirrel Hill have known each other your entire lives; there are days on which I am particularly grateful to the Allderdice Class of 1976 in particular for every way in which they help make this congregation run.

But something else has been happening for a while, something which some of the veteran members of this community may not have noticed: that while there are fifth-generation members of this congregation, and octogenarians who grew up here, there are also a whole lot of people, including yours truly, who are newcomers. We are people who grew up in New York and LA and Wisconsin and Florida and Western Massachusetts, and have relocated to Squirrel Hill. And we do not have the connections that you all do. We do not have cousins who belong to every shul in the neighborhood, and we do not bump into old friends who grew up on our street at the Giant Eagle. And the challenge here is that, as immigrants to Squirrel Hill, we do not feel as deeply rooted in the neighborhood as the people whose great-grandparents used to live in the Hill District.

Williamstown, Massachusetts, where I grew up

So we have on the one hand, a stable population of people who have known each other all their lives and are often related to each other, and a newer, more transient population who are less connected. What can we do about that?

And just to add another complication. As Americans, we are more isolated than we have ever been, and it is not good for our health, mental or physical. 

I was actually somewhat surprised recently to hear a piece on NPR’s All Things Considered about how to make friends. It is fascinating, and a little depressing, that we have reached a point in which we need to be reminded that to make friends, you have to go do things with other people, but that is more or less what the NPR story said.

That is why you need a minyan

One of the most powerful principles of minyan is that it brings together people who might not otherwise spend 45 minutes together in the same room. It is a source of social capital a la Dr. Robert Putnam, the Harvard professor of public policy who wrote the book on social capital, Bowling Alone. 

(Very briefly, in case you haven’t heard me describe this before: Putnam demonstrates, using various measures, that social capital, that is, the connections we feel to the people around us, has declined steadily since the early 1960s, and that this lack of connection is not healthy for us as individuals or as a society.)

Social capital – being interconnected with others around you – makes you more resilient. It creates an environment where you are supported by the wisdom, the perspective, and the friendship of the people around you.

So we have a solution, something that will help us build a stronger community and a healthier, more resilient Beth Shalom, and that solution is avurot

What are ḥavurot? A ḥavurah is a group of people within the congregation who meet regularly to do things together. The Hebrew word חבורה means “group”; it is related to the word חבר / ḥaver, meaning friend, or לחבר / leḥabber, to connect. Those of us who know some modern Hebrew might also think of the term חבר’ה / ḥevreh, meaning “folks.”

We have a few informal ḥavurot which have formed over the years, but we at Beth Shalom have decided to step up our game and facilitate the creation of these groups. The idea is to bring more of us together in a smaller, more manageable environment, so that you can all be more strongly connected with a wider group of Beth Shalom members. We are a congregation of about 600 families, and I dare say that while many of us know each other, we need to boost our social capital, to be more interconnected.

The idea will be, for those members of Beth Shalom who choose to participate (and I strongly urge you to do so), that we will attempt to group you according to various affinities: demographics like stage-of-life and activity interests. So parents with young children might form one avurah, and people who are interested in social action might form another. Our intent is that these avurot will be no more than about 10 family units (a unit being a family, a couple, or a single person). 

We will also provide some suggestions about how often to meet, and what to do with your avurah. The events that groups will hold will not necessarily be at Beth Shalom, although you might occasionally meet here. All the more so, the idea is to have events that take place under the umbrella of Beth Shalom, but also in your homes, in the park, at a cafe, and so forth. And they do not need to be explicitly Jewish activities, although having a Shabbat dinner or coming together to dance with the Torah on Simḥat Torah could potentially be avurah activities.

I am sure that some of us will welcome this idea, and immediately sign up. Some of us, I’m sure, are thinking, what do I need this for? 

I am going to offer two reasons: the personal and the communal.

  1. The personal: We all need stronger interpersonal connections. We need more robust relationships with one another, with the people immediately around us. Part of the challenge that we are facing today with the polarization of American society is that we barely know each other any more. Yes, I know that Squirrel Hill is bucking the trend (I know many of my neighbors). But there is no question that having more, and stronger interpersonal bonds will have many good outcomes for all of us.
  2. The communal: If we want Beth Shalom to continue to be the center of non-Orthodox Jewish life in Western Pennsylvania, we need to be a more highly integrated community. Everybody here should have the sense that this building is like an extension of their living room, and that the other members of the congregation are like family. And furthermore, we want people on the outside to also think, “Wow! Members of Beth Shalom are really tight. I want to be a part of that.”

Some of you might also be thinking, I have plenty of friends already. Why should I sign up for this? 

Here is something else I will suggest: you can create a avurah with, let’s say, six other families, and then open it up to invite four more in, so that you expand your connections within the congregation.

We are going to be rolling this program out in the coming months, after the holidays, and I hope that you will participate. Watch for the materials that we send you – we will ask you for some information to get the process started. Although this will take months and years to build and grow, we hope that this will ultimately be a benefit of membership that is unique in our neighborhood.

We will build social capital; we will create a more-interconnected, more resilient, more healthy congregation. And, post-pandemic, we absolutely need it; we need that spiritual support which a avurah can provide.

Back when I lived in Jerusalem, now more than two decades ago, I would occasionally be walking down the street, minding my own business, when I would be solicited to help make a minyan. I was always glad to help; I met interesting people, heard exotic synagogue melodies from places like Algeria and Syria and Iran, and of course helped out fellow Jews who really wanted to be able to complete their services. It gave me a certain amount of pleasure to do so, if I had time.

No matter how “cool” our devices are, no matter how “talented” artificial intelligence technology becomes, it will never replace the essential human need for personal contact, for being in the presence of others. Our tradition has both relied on and satisfied that need throughout Jewish history. And we need it all the more so today. 

Let Mark Zuckerberg try to make Meta the place where everything is happening virtually; you will still need a minyan of actual people, not just to say qaddish, not just to call 13-year-olds to the Torah for a bar/bat mitzvah, not just for weddings. 

Rather, you need a minyan to get that essential feeling of connection which comes only from being around others, and part of a tight-knit group.

As we enter 5783, we should be looking for ways to renew ourselves, our connections to others and to our community, our relationship with our faith and our people. This is the time to take on new challenges to help improve ourselves and our world, and here is an excellent opportunity to do so.

When the opportunity comes to sign up to join a avurah, please take it. Your willingness to participate will ultimately help to build Beth Shalom in many ways.

Tomorrow we will talk about the continuum of Jewish life, as symbolized by the synagogue itself, the beit kenesset.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, first day of Rosh HaShanah 5783, 9/26/2022.)


* Yes, I know that USCJ and many other folks spell this “kehillah,” with a k. However, this disguises the fact that the Hebrew word is spelled קהילה, with a qof, and the Latin equivalent of the Hebrew qof is a q. They actually are even written alike – just reflections of each other (ק – q). Some Jews (e.g. Iraqis, Yemenites, and Persians), in their historical pronunciation of Hebrew, actually pronounce the ק differently from the כ (kaf), whose English equivalent is a k.

Categories
Sermons

Qal VaḤomer: Standing Up in the Face of Anti-Semitism – Ki Tetze 5782

We passed an unfortunate milestone this week. Fifty years ago, on September 5th, 1972, a group of Palestinian terrorists called Black September, assisted by West German neo-Nazis, entered the Olympic Village in Munich and took 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team hostage. Two of the athletes were immediately murdered, and the other nine were killed when the West German police bungled their attempt to rescue the hostages. The Olympic games were suspended for a day and a half while the hostage situation was taking place, an unprecedented act. The murdered athletes included Shoah survivors, including one who had participated in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, as well as immigrants to Israel from Russia, Belarus, Poland, Romania, Libya, and the United States.

A paradox of those Olympic games that summer is that Mark Spitz, a Jewish American from California, won 7 gold medals in swimming competitions. When the hostage situation unfolded, Spitz had already completed his events, and was immediately whisked back to America lest he be a target for kidnapping as well.

Mark Spitz

On the one hand, this victory for a Jewish American was something for us to celebrate: a Jewish athlete who had performed miraculously, honoring his country and his co-religionists, and only 27 years after the Nazi horror was vanquished in that land. On the other, the tragedy overshadowed everything else: Jewish blood flowed once again on ground that was long soaked with the same, at a location 10 miles south of Dachau. The peaceful, non-political nature of the Olympics was shattered by an act of political terrorism, carried out against representatives of the only Jewish state in the world, who were murdered because they were Jews.

We, the Jews, know and understand tragedy; our history is littered with the tales of anti-Semitic persecution, people who were tormented just because they were Jewish. The Munich Massacre was only one highly-visible instance of the ways in which our people have been victimized due to our otherness.

But of course, we also know that we have survived, and often thrived, and in some cases, as with Mark Spitz, have been wildly successful despite anti-Semitism.

And let’s face it: 50 years may seem like a long time to some of us – I was 2 years old at the time, and thankfully unaware of what had transpired – but really, half a century is next to nothing when considering thousands of years of Jewish history.

And right now, many of us are deeply concerned about anti-Semitism once again. Some of you may have seen the recent CNN special report about anti-Semitism, which, although curiously omitting outright mention of the Pittsburgh tragedy of 10/27, did shine some light on the current state of affairs, and of course it is not pretty. 

We have a genuine reason to be concerned right now. The statistics of anti-Semitic hate crimes have risen dramatically in recent years, buoyed by the pandemic, the boost in white nationalist activity that occurred in tandem with the Trump administration, anti-Israel sentiments which often cross over into outright anti-Semitism, and all of this, of course, is aided and abetted by the fantastic new tools of social media. 

But of course, there is only one response to Jew hatred, the same approach that our people have always taken, and that is this: be loudly and proudly Jewish.

Qal vaomer, all the more so now that anti-Jewish activity is on the rise. Now is the time to recommit to tradition, because if there is one thing that makes anti-Semites recoil, it is a Jew who is not afraid.

The principle of qal vaomer, by the way, plays a starring role in my favorite mitzvah, which appears in Parashat Ki Tetze. What’s my favorite mitzvah? So glad you asked! In Hebrew, it’s called shillua haqen, sending the mother bird from the nest (Devarim / Deuteronomy 22:6-7):

כִּ֣י יִקָּרֵ֣א קַן־צִפּ֣וֹר ׀ לְפָנֶ֡יךָ בַּדֶּ֜רֶךְ בְּכׇל־עֵ֣ץ ׀ א֣וֹ עַל־הָאָ֗רֶץ אֶפְרֹחִים֙ א֣וֹ בֵיצִ֔ים וְהָאֵ֤ם רֹבֶ֙צֶת֙ עַל־הָֽאֶפְרֹחִ֔ים א֖וֹ עַל־הַבֵּיצִ֑ים לֹא־תִקַּ֥ח הָאֵ֖ם עַל־הַבָּנִֽים׃ שַׁלֵּ֤חַ תְּשַׁלַּח֙ אֶת־הָאֵ֔ם וְאֶת־הַבָּנִ֖ים תִּֽקַּֽח־לָ֑ךְ לְמַ֙עַן֙ יִ֣יטַב לָ֔ךְ וְהַאֲרַכְתָּ֖ יָמִֽים׃     

If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life.

Rashi pulls a qal vaomer on this verse:

למען ייטב לך וגו’. אִם מִצְוָה קַלָּה שֶׁאֵין בָּהּ חֶסְרוֹן כִּיס אָמְרָה תוֹרָה “לְמַעַן יִיטַב לָךְ וְהַאֲרַכְתָּ יָמִים”, קַל וָחֹמֶר לְמַתַּן שְׂכָרָן שֶׁל מִצְווֹת חֲמוּרוֹת

That you may fare well, etc. If in the case of an easy command which involves no monetary loss, Scripture states “Do this in order that you may fare well and have a long life”, it follows, qal vaḥomer, all the more so, that this at least will be the reward for the fulfillment of mitzvot which are more difficult to observe.

That is, if you can fulfill the mitzvah of shillua haqen, which is not so hard (as long as you are looking for nestlings to eat) and the reward for this is long life, then qal vaomer, just think of the reward you will receive for fulfilling the more challenging mitzvot.

Likewise, in considering the ongoing scourge of anti-Semitism, we have to remember that we should celebrate our being Jewish when we mark our successes, when it is easy to celebrate and be proud and loud and open. Qal vaomer, all the more so when we are threatened, when it is hard to do so, we have to be even more loudly and proudly Jewish.

Because, let’s face it: anti-Semitism is not going away. We have lived with it for millennia. And we cannot act like ostriches and bury our heads in the sand and pretend it is not there. So of course we must do the best we can to protect ourselves, but more importantly, we have to try not to be afraid. 

I have mentioned in this space before an art song by the early 20th-century composer Joel Engel, based on the story of Rabbi Levi Yitzḥaq of Berdichev’s fabled din toyre, or lawsuit, against God

What Rabbi Levi Yitzḥaq of Berdichev says is, You, God, have given so much to so many: the mighty empires of this or that country, the powerful kings and great armies. But what have you given the Jews? Nothing but misery and suffering. All we have is Qaddish. All we have is a prayer for the dead. And yet, says R. Levi Yitzḥaq, in response to our God-given plight:

Lo ozuz mimkoymi! I will not move from my place! (Hebrew)

Khvel zikh fun ort nit rirn! I will not stir from my place! (Yiddish)

Un a sof zol dos zayn! There must be an end [to this suffering]

Un an ek zol dos nemen! It must all stop!

Yisgadal, veyiskadash, shemei rabba!  May God’s great name be magnified and sanctified!

You might say that the legal strategy of R. Levi Yitzḥaq of Berdichev is defiance. Defiance of those who hate us and persecute us. That is our primary weapon of self-defense. We will not move an inch from the place of pride, from the place of leaning into Jewish tradition, to practicing our rituals and laws and studying and applying our holy ancient texts. That is what we have always done. We ain’t movin’. Qal vaomer in the face of anti-Semitism.

I am very proud of our community, right here in Pittsburgh, that even as we continue to grieve for the 11 members of our community who were murdered by a person motivated by anti-Semitic hatred nearly four years ago, that we have not backed down from our own commitment to our tradition. On the contrary, our community is thriving. Qal vaomer.

According to statements he has made in the past half-century, Mark Spitz never really saw himself as a Jewish standard-bearer. But the juxtaposition of his Olympic victories alongside the terrorist horror of Munich made him an obvious target of “qal vaḥomerism”. Just as Jewish pride flows from the thrill of victory, all the more so from the pain of tragedy.

Lo azuz mimmeqomi. I shall not move from this place.

A final note: Pittsburgh is hosting the second annual Eradicate Hate Global Summit from Sept. 19-21 at the Convention Center. Among the keynote speakers are Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, United States Special Envoy To Monitor And Combat Antisemitism and Alice Wairimu Nderitu of Kenya, the United Nations Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide. I attended as many sessions as I could at last years’ summit, and I can assure you that it is worth your time as well. It’s open to the public.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 9/10/2022.)