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music Sermons Video

What Is Jewish Music? – Shabbat Shirah 5782

For Shabbat Shirah / the Shabbat of song 5782, I covered a musical topic featured in my current Derekh Lunch & Learn series, “Make a Joyful Noise! Jewish Music Past and Present.” The boundaries of Jewish music are occasionally unclear, but there is a lesson to be found in that. This is the second such musical sermon; my Musical Crash Course in Synagogue Song from Shabbat Shirah 5781 can be found here.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally chanted at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 1/15/2022.)

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Kavvanot

A Thought for This Tu Bishvat / MLK Jr. Day

I am captivated by the image of the mycorrhizal network: a system of microscopic pipes produced by fungi which connect individual trees and plants together through soil. These networks enable trees to share nutrients with each other – water, carbon, nitrogen, and so forth – creating a greater system out of what might seem like separate plants. They effectively allow trees to communicate with each other and support one another.

Today is Tu Bishvat, the 15th day of the month of Shevat, the Jewish New Year of the trees, corresponding this year with the observed birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King. On this day in particular, we might recall that as human beings we are all connected together, something like the system created by mycorrhizal networks. And those who seek to divide us by emphasizing our differences – racial, ethnic, religious, etc. – work against the unity of purpose that our ecosystem suggests.

In the wake of the synagogue hostage situation in Colleyville, Texas, which took place during a Shabbat morning service and for ten hours (!) after, we in the Jewish community are once again on edge. Particularly here in Pittsburgh, where the trauma of 10/27/2018 still ripples through our community, it is very easy for us to bring up the anxiety created on that horrible Shabbat; the pain and grief that we still feel are never far from the surface.

And then I remember that, just as Dr. King envisioned, we have to continue to work toward the day when we all truly see ourselves like trees in the forest – each of us a little different, but deeply connected to one another in ways that are often unseen. We have to lean into that future time, when we shall join hands and sing together, in whatever language or melody we have, somewhat like the interconnected trees.

I am grateful to the Ribbono Shel Olam, the Master of the Universe, for protecting the hostages and enabling them to emerge unscathed. I am anxiously hopeful that no congregation of any kind should ever face this kind of terrorism. And I am beholden to the trees, and to Dr. King, for giving us a glimpse of a humanity that could be.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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Sermons

For All Time – Bo 5782

There is a standard rabbinic story about three rabbis, Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox, who, in a spirited attempt at pluralistic cooperation, decide to meet to discuss issues of halakhah / Jewish law. At their first meeting, they find that they all agree that smoking cigarettes is clearly assur / forbidden. It is damaging to your health, and since we are forbidden from causing deliberate damage to our bodies, God has therefore prohibited smoking.

The following week, they arrive at their meeting, and each of them is smoking. They regard each other with curiosity.

The Reform rabbi says, “Halakhah is a system that was intended for an ancient audience, and this particular aspect holds no meaning for me today.”

The Conservative rabbi says, “Halakhah has continued to develop and change throughout our history, and although we are bound by it, that was last week, and this is this week. Times have changed.”

The Orthodox rabbi shrugs nonchalantly, and offers, “I sold my lungs.”

***

A few years ago, when we asked members of Beth Shalom to answer a survey question about potential adult learning topics, the topic that was most frequently suggested was effectively, “What are the principles of Conservative Judaism?” That is something that I do try to include in many of my sermons and classes.

So it seemed to me like a natural opportunity to come up with a Conservative response to a recent back-and-forth on a halakhic issue that appeared in the pages of the Jewish Chronicle. A few weeks back, Rabbi Barbara Aiello, who is originally from Pittsburgh but now serves a congregation in Italy, wrote an opinion piece that suggested that the ancient Jewish calendar, set up during Talmudic times, is an “obstacle” to greater Jewish observance of holidays, and we should therefore set up a “Diaspora calendar” which would fix holiday dates to the Gregorian calendar. For example, Rosh Hashanah would always begin on the third Friday evening of September, and Hanukkah would always be December 21-28.

Not surprisingly, a more traditional, presumably Orthodox Squirrel Hill resident, Reuven Hoch, wrote a response for the Chronicle, in which he calls her suggestion “odd” and “upsetting,” and declares that making changes to suit contemporary patterns of observance is detrimental to Judaism and Jewish life.

The forces of current Western culture — social, political and ideological — that operate against authentic Jewish values and beliefs, can be alluring and overwhelming. These forces must be confronted and met head-on, with a confidence and determination that can only exist in concert with a commitment to a life permeated with traditional Jewish values and allegiance to the Jewish people.

I agree with Mr. Hoch about maintaining the Jewish calendar. To change up the Jewish year according to Rabbi Aiello’s suggestion seems to me such a dramatic break with Jewish tradition that it would sever us from our past in an irreparable way. We have been doing it this way for thousands of years. The Jewish calendar depends on the cycles of the moon; it would make no sense for Rosh Hashanah to be separated from the new moon, and for the Pesaḥ seder not to take place when the moon is full. 

The mosaic floor of the ancient synagogue at Beit Alfa in northern Israel, 5th-6th c. CE. The mosaic depicts the signs of the zodiac with their names in Hebrew, four seasonal quadrants of the year denoted by their Babylonian / Hebrew names, as well as the Greek sun god, Helios.

Where I disagree with Mr. Hoch, however, is in his reasoning. His argument is that trying to accommodate contemporary secular values by forcing Judaism to adapt has failed repeatedly throughout our history.

So, as you might expect from a Conservative rabbi, I am going to propose that the answers to the future of Judaism lie somewhere in between. We are, in fact, called “Conservative” because the original intent of this movement was to conserve Jewish practice, to be conservative in the slight changes that we make as we adapt. That is the intent of the unofficial slogan of the Conservative movement in the last century: “Tradition and Change.”

Because, of course, Judaism and halakhah / Jewish law have always changed and will continue to change. One does not have to dig too deeply into the subjects of kashrut / dietary laws or Shabbat observance to find a rich history of development and disagreement among our sages over centuries and continents. What it says in the Torah (e.g. “Do not boil a calf in its mother’s milk” – Shemot / Exodus 23:19) is interpreted by the rabbis in the Talmud, and then further in medieval codes, and to the point today where we debate whether a pareve dessert cooked in a pan used in the past for dairy may be served following a meat meal. And God forbid you should use the wrong spoon!

Jews have, by necessity, always grappled with how to treat new technologies, new ideas, and new environments. The Jewish calendar itself is an example of an innovation due to changed circumstances. Prior to the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and the dispersion of Jews throughout the world, the date of Pesaḥ was determined by specially-trained witnesses who could tell, at the beginning of the month of Adar, whether the wheat would be ready to harvest in time for Pesaḥ and bake matzah, six weeks later. If it would not be ready in time, they would add in an extra month of Adar. When the Jews were no longer living in the land of Israel, there had to be another way to determine that extra Adar. Hence the system of adding seven such extra months over a fixed 19-year cycle, which we continue to this day. This system keeps the lunar year more or less aligned with the solar year, and Pesah therefore always falls in the spring.*

So the issue with change is not that it detaches us from our roots; some change is necessary. But change should come slowly and thoughtfully and even somewhat reluctantly. You are probably aware of the liturgical changes in our siddur to reflect our egalitarian outlook; thank God, no Conservative siddur opens the morning service with “Praised are You, God, who did not make me a woman.” We say instead, “Praised are You, God, who created me in Your image,” acknowledging that every person is created with a spark of the Divine. It’s a subtle change that you have to know to look for, and you would have to be here at 7:30 AM Monday through Friday, or 9:30 on Shabbat to hear it, but it’s quite meaningful nonetheless.

We in the Conservative movement have a body of rabbis, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which meets regularly to discuss issues in halakhah / Jewish law, using principles that date back to Talmudic times. We live within the halakhic system, and it is up to this body to think about change very carefully, not only to ensure that such change is permitted according to traditional sources, but also that its consequences are considered.

In Parashat Bo, from which we read today, there is a passage that resonates through this process. The Exodus narrative takes a brief break for an aside about how to celebrate Pesaḥ, including instructions on preparing and eating the Paschal lamb, along with matzah and maror, bitter herbs. And then the Torah says the following (Shemot / Exodus 12:24-27):

וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־הַדָּבָ֣ר הַזֶּ֑ה לְחׇק־לְךָ֥ וּלְבָנֶ֖יךָ עַד־עוֹלָֽם׃ …וְהָיָ֕ה כִּֽי־יֹאמְר֥וּ אֲלֵיכֶ֖ם בְּנֵיכֶ֑ם מָ֛ה הָעֲבֹדָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לָכֶֽם׃ וַאֲמַרְתֶּ֡ם זֶֽבַח־פֶּ֨סַח ה֜וּא לַֽיהֹוָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר פָּ֠סַ֠ח עַל־בָּתֵּ֤י בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם בְּנׇגְפּ֥וֹ אֶת־מִצְרַ֖יִם וְאֶת־בָּתֵּ֣ינוּ הִצִּ֑יל 

You shall observe this as an institution for all time, for you and for your descendants… And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’ you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to the LORD, because He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses.’

Ad olam, for all time. We have carried this story, this ritual, this Torah / instruction with us for millennia, and we have retold it in many languages and contexts. And whether we are reading from a manuscript, a printed book, or sharing it over the Internet, the Torah still inspires us to be better people. It is because of these verses that we ask the questions at the Pesaḥ seder, and all the other questions we ask and answer throughout the Jewish year, as we go about teaching our children.

We cannot live in a sealed Jewish bubble; we have to be in multiple worlds. While some quarters of the Jewish world believe that they have shut out secular influences, they are kidding themselves. The Hasidic movement and the other right-wing quarters of Orthodoxy are as much a response to modernity as Reform. The Jewish world continues to reshape itself again and again.

And those of us in the middle, who clearly embrace and live in the contemporary world while upholding Torah and mitzvot, the holy opportunities of Jewish life, the challenge is upon us to prevent Judaism from becoming a secondary pursuit, squeezed in between school, work, soccer practice and bingeing TV series, but rather a constant force in our lives and our world for good.  

It might seem like a good idea to lower certain temporal barriers to Jewish life. But the fact that you have to take time off to observe Yom Tov days is a testament to your commitment to our tradition, and doing so only strengthens our tradition for future generations. Contrary to Rabbi Aiello’s assertions, there is research that shows that the higher the expectations of a religious group, the stronger the adherence of its members.  

Ad olam, for all time.

And when your children ask you, why do you cling to this ancient lunar calendar, or this or that quaint custom that my non-Jewish friends do not do, you should tell them that it is because these rituals not only saved us from slavery in Egypt, but they continue to keep us healthy and safe and strong today, even as we live as citizens of the contemporary world.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 1/8/2022.)

* The Muslim calendar is also lunar, but does not correct for the approximately 11-day difference between 12 lunar months (354 days) and the solar cycle of 365 days. So Ramadan, for example, the month during which Muslims fast every day, precesses, each year falling 11 days earlier according to the Gregorian calendar. It’s much less burdensome when it falls in the winter, when fasting ends at about 5 in the afternoon, than when it falls in the summer.

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Sermons

The Trust Deficit – Va-era 5782

Like so many other people I tested positive this week, and I am fortunate that due to the fact that I am vaccinated and boosted, I have experienced a mild case of Covid-19 – a sore throat and some congestion. Thank God for the human ingenuity that has produced vaccines. (And it’s worth it to remind you all that if you are not boosted, you really should be: Friday mornings – walk-in at the JCC in Squirrel Hill.)

A curious bit of fake news came across my computer screen this week. It was an article about a fake New York Times headline, which read, “Teachers Should Tolerate Bullying Towards Unvaccinated Students.” It seems that somebody out there with nefarious intent wanted to rile up people who are anti-vaccine, and produced a mock-up of a NYT opinion piece suggesting violence against the unvaccinated. 

Now, of course, there are people out there who will believe anything that they see on the Internet, and of course will repost or retweet extreme content. So as ridiculous as this sounds, the fake headline traveled far enough, provoking its intended reaction, for there to be a genuine news article about it.

The challenge here is that we have reached a point where many of us are willing to believe anything that fits our particular worldview, and not to trust anything that does not. The entire world, it seems, is having trust issues. 

Whom do we trust?

I feel this affecting my own behavior: I was recently shopping online for KN95 masks, and I found myself thinking, how do I know that these are really manufactured to the N95 standard, meaning that it filters out 95% of airborne particles? I certainly cannot test that myself. Am I buying a genuine product?

I read elsewhere that a survey determined that 1 in 5 Americans say that it is acceptable to fake one’s vaccination status to keep a job. One might extrapolate that, kal vaḥomer, all the more so for people who are out for a night on the town, where the stakes might be even lower. This does not breed confidence in our fellow human beings.

Maybe the reason I contracted the virus is because the KN95 that I have been wearing in public is not legit, and the people around me who claim to be fully vaccinated are not. Who knows?

Parashat Va-era, from which we read today, includes a handful of questions surrounding trust. As God gives Moshe his mission to liberate the Israelites from the grip of Egyptian slavery, the text challenges us to wonder, does Moshe trust God? Does Pharaoh trust Moshe and Aharon? Does Moshe trust in himself? Will the Israelites trust Moshe, or God? And so forth.

Tied into all of this are the questions surrounding God’s name. Last week, in Parashat Shemot, we encountered in the burning bush episode one take on the name when Moshe seeks to be reassured about the trustworthiness of this whole operation. He asks God directly (Shemot / Exodus 3:13), “When I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?”

Exodus: Moses and the Burning Bush, Marc Chagall, 1966

God answers, “Ehyeh asher ehyeh.” Not easily translatable, we might read this as “I am what I am.” Not so reassuring, right? 

And this week in Va-era, God does not wait to be asked. The parashah opens with, (Shemot / Exodus 6:3)

וָאֵרָ֗א אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֛ם אֶל־יִצְחָ֥ק וְאֶֽל־יַעֲקֹ֖ב בְּאֵ֣ל שַׁדָּ֑י וּשְׁמִ֣י י-הֹוה לֹ֥א נוֹדַ֖עְתִּי לָהֶֽם׃

I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name י-הוה [YHWH].

In both cases, the names given are apparently conjugations of the verb, “to be.” That is, God’s very name is a form of existence. 

And, as you may have heard me mention before, all of those forms of God’s name, and in particular the Hebrew yod/heh/vav/heh which we often express as YHWH, consist of consonants that are formed only from breath. (In ancient Hebrew, as with contemporary Arabic, the “vav” is actually a “w” – hence “waw”.) With all of those letters, no part of the tongue or lips or teeth obstruct the flow of air to create a percussive sound. In fact, all of these letters, alef heh waw yod, serve as so-called matres lectionis, the fancy Latin term that Bible scholars use to describe consonants that sometimes serve as vowels. 

If God’s name consists solely of breath, then, how indeed might we be able to trust this mysterious character who somehow surfaces in an inflamed shrubbery in the desert?

Perhaps that is the point. Perhaps the point is that trust in God is elusive. There will never be a hard consonant in God’s name because you will never be able to see God, to touch God, to perceive a solid surface or a concrete hint of God’s existence. Maybe the point is that the Torah wants us to take the proverbial leap of faith, to trust in something ethereal, because that is sometimes how life works. 

It is, after all, trust in the unseen which has held people together throughout our history. In his monumental review of human history, Sapiens, the Israeli author Yuval Noah Harari points out that basic trust between people erodes in groups larger than 150, since that is the human limit on close acquaintances, and therefore the only way to create trust between people in any larger group is by sharing a common story: 

Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination. Churches are rooted in common religious myths. Two Catholics who have never met can nevertheless go together on crusade or pool funds to build a hospital because they both believe that God was incarnated in human flesh and allowed Himself to be crucified to redeem our sins.  

Harari is an atheist; he pointedly denies the existence of God. But he speaks to the power which the very idea of God has. Or the ideas of a specific shared culture, or state, or peoplehood, or judicial system, or currency. 

Harari’s observation implies that trust in God yields trust in each other. If I know that you are an observant Jew, even if you are from far away and speak a different language and prefer ghormeh sabzi to gefilte fish, then we share a common bond. We adhere to the same traditions, we trust in the same God, and therefore I can trust you.

A fundamental challenge that we are facing today, particularly with the decline of religion, is a decline in trust. In a world that is rapidly transcending statehood, peoplehood, and shared theological principles, how will we trust one another? Will we be able to maintain nation-states, let alone synagogues, if we cannot trust the information we receive? Without a shared story, we have chaos.

The cynics among us will say that it is the bad actors in our world who are creating the trust deficit: Russian or Chinese or Iranian spies, or evil politicians or corrupt public health officials or mad scientists or soulless corporations. But consider how we live today: We are all living in our own silos. We are far removed from where our food is produced, from where our clothing is manufactured, from where our policies are made. And, of course, we are far removed from where our information is emanating, and we often lack the skill, the time, and the patience to verify it. So how can we trust anything?

There will not be a burning bush to show us the truth. 

I look out at the future, at the potentially untrustworthy landscape before us, and I can see only one thing that can help us return to a state of trust. And this may be because I am a rabbi, but we have to lean into the traditional institutions that we have, ailing though they are: religious observance. Trust in and fear of God. The democratic processes of our nation. Our sense of shared peoplehoods – the Jewish one, of course, but also the American one, and all the ways we express those relationships. Our sense of the common good. 

As much as the forces of chaos want to tear these institutions down, as much as each of those institutions are flawed in their own way, a future without them seems bleak indeed.

We need to support, and likely re-imagine, the institutions that we still have, while we still can. We need to uphold the principles we have received: of democracy, of learning and teaching our tradition, of prayer and academic inquiry and shared culture and music and all the things that build trust between people. 

It is inscribed on every dollar bill, a reminder that trust intersects with theology, commerce, and nation at every turn, the official motto of the United States of America: In God We Trust. You won’t find that on any cryptocurrency.

If we cannot live by that motto, I am not sure we can live together at all. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 1/1/2022.)

Categories
Sermons

You Be the [Bad] Judge – Vayḥi 5782

Do you feel that you are a good judge of people? Personality, potential effectiveness at work, ability to get along with other folks, and so forth?

I do not have much confidence in my own ability to judge people, and I have been thinking about this lately, mostly in the abstract, because of our search for an Assistant Rabbi.

I tend to see the good in everybody, and I assume the best of intentions even when evidence is clearly to the contrary. It might be because I grew up in a small town in rural New England, where we just sort of assumed that the people around us were all good and well-intentioned. Or maybe it’s just my personality – I am a naturally trusting person. Or perhaps I should thank my parents for raising me to be non-judgmental.

Fortunately, seeing the good in everybody, and a willingness to overlook deficiencies in others comports well with rabbinic wisdom on the subject. In Pirqei Avot, for example, a second-century CE collection of rabbinic wisdom, we read the following:

1:6

יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן פְּרַחְיָה אוֹמֵר, … הֱוֵי דָן אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם לְכַף זְכוּת

Yehoshua ben Peraḥiah taught:.. When you judge others, tip the balance in their favor.

2:5

הִלֵּל אוֹמֵר, … אַל תָּדִין אֶת חֲבֵרְךָ עַד שֶׁתַּגִּיעַ לִמְקוֹמוֹ

Hillel taught: … Do not judge another until you stand in her/his situation.

When we are assessing the character or choices of others, it is upon us to do so generously, to understand that we might only see a part of the story, that we might misinterpret their motivations, and that we should therefore put a finger on the scale in their favor. The rabbinic shorthand invoked by Pirqei Avot is “kaf zekhut” – literally the pan of a metaphorical scale containing one’s merits, as opposed to the one containing the liabilities, when those characteristics are being evaluated. It is our obligation to incline toward kaf zekhut where possible.

Humans are complicated; even those who are generally good-natured can make mistakes, or can be swayed by the forces and situations around them. We all have the potential to make the wrong choices, and sometimes we do, but those errors in judgment do not necessarily crowd out one’s overall good intentions.

And, of course one of the other features of rabbinic Judaism is that our tradition provides us avenues for self-improvement: teshuvah, of course, repentance, but also guides for living such as the framework of mitzvot and the ethical considerations that come with them. Our tradition, and our people, are naturally self-reflective, perhaps in a way that does not comport with contemporary society and the current rapid pace of life, and the reduction of human communications to two-dimensional, 280-character  pronouncements.

The complexity of humanity, it seems, is getting harder for us to wrap our brains around, when our only choices are to “like” or “not like” something. You have to be for or against, yes or no, vaccinated or unvaccinated, etc.

But we are not binary creatures, limited to ones and zeroes. And that is surely true of the Avot and Imahot, the patriarchs and matriarchs of the dysfunctional family featured in the book of Bereshit / Genesis. 

Parashat Vayḥi, which concluded that book this morning, includes the captivating scene just prior to Ya’aqov’s death, when he poetically addresses his 12 sons. Most are pleasant words, blessing-like descriptors, which bode well for the tribes they represent.

But given the idea of kaf zekhut, of judging others with a generous eye,  there is one passage that has long captured my attention, when Ya’aqov actually distances himself, on his deathbed, from Shim’on and Levi. (You may recall that I am descended from the tribe of Levi, and so Ya’aqov’s words sting with an ancient, generational pain.)

שִׁמְע֥וֹן וְלֵוִ֖י אַחִ֑ים כְּלֵ֥י חָמָ֖ס מְכֵרֹתֵיהֶֽם׃
בְּסֹדָם֙ אַל־תָּבֹ֣א נַפְשִׁ֔י בִּקְהָלָ֖ם אַל־תֵּחַ֣ד כְּבֹדִ֑י כִּ֤י בְאַפָּם֙ הָ֣רְגוּ אִ֔ישׁ וּבִרְצֹנָ֖ם עִקְּרוּ־שֽׁוֹר׃
אָר֤וּר אַפָּם֙ כִּ֣י עָ֔ז וְעֶבְרָתָ֖ם כִּ֣י קָשָׁ֑תָה אֲחַלְּקֵ֣ם בְּיַעֲקֹ֔ב וַאֲפִיצֵ֖ם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

Simeon and Levi are a pair;
Their weapons are tools of lawlessness.
Let not my person be included in their council,
Let not my being be counted in their assembly.
For when angry they slay men,
And when pleased they maim oxen.
Cursed be their anger so fierce,
And their wrath so relentless.
I will divide them in Jacob,
Scatter them in Israel.

This is, really, a shocking passage. These are Ya’aqov’s final words to two of his sons. Where is the kaf zekhut? What on Earth could Shim’on and Levi have done that warranted such harsh words from their father? 

Well, it ain’t pretty. They slaughtered the family of Hamor and his son Shekhem, members of the Hivite tribe (one of several Canaanite tribes).

In brief, Shekhem took Ya’aqov’s daughter Dinah* by force. When he subsequently asks for her hand in marriage, Ya’aqov and family insist that Hamor agrees to circumcise all of the adult males in their clan. On the third day following the circumcision, when the men are all in pain, in come Shim’on and Levi to kill them all, claiming that they are defending the honor of their sister. It is a brutal, shocking story on all fronts, and their actions are difficult to defend. (Bereshit chapter 34, Parashat Vayyishlaḥ)

Did you miss that one in Hebrew school? Yeah, I thought so. It doesn’t make for good family discussions in the car ride home.

Was Ya’aqov justified in cursing two of his sons? Was it the right thing to effectively estrange himself from them, saying, “Let not my being be counted in their assembly”? Could he not have allowed for the possibility that they have done teshuvah, that they have repented? To me this is quite jarring. It seems exactly the opposite of the principle of kaf zekhut. Could he not, on his deathbed, have found at least something positive to say?

So he must have had a reason for doing so, and also for promising that these two tribes (and particularly the Levites) would be spread among the other tribes. In later centuries, the tribe of Levi had no tribal land of their own, but as religious functionaries lived throughout the region, so at least this aspect of the backstory checks out.

The 15th-century Spanish commentator Yitzḥaq ben Moshe Arama (who, by the way, fled the Inquisition in 1492 and died two years later in Naples) teaches us that 

Ya’aqov here utters a truth which Aristotle has publicized in his Ethics. Anger and temper, though undesirable qualities, may sometimes prove useful in arousing heroism in people. Soldiers in battle are spurred to bravery and courage by anger and indignation… [Ya’aqov believed that] it was advisable that the qualities of anger and passion that had been concentrated in Shim’on and Levi should be dispersed among all the tribes of Israel… A little spread everywhere would prove useful, but if concentrated in one place, would be dangerous.

Arama’s theory is that too much anger is extreme, but a little bit is helpful. It seems as though Ya’aqov, in acknowledging the complexity of human personalities and emotion, is distancing himself from two of his sons as a protective measure. He wants their characteristic anger distributed throughout the Israelite nation, dilute enough to be safe, but nonetheless available when warranted.

How might we interpret this for us today?

Each of us reflect, in some sense, the range of personality that Ya’aqov sees in his sons. We are sometimes happy, sometimes angry, sometimes down, sometimes yearnful, and so forth. None of us are entirely angry, or entirely happy, or 100% of any particular aspect of humanity.

In assessing others with kaf zekhut, giving the benefit of the doubt, we should do our best to remember that sometimes we are ruled by our emotions, and hope that the Shim’ons and the Levis within us are kept at bay, and that we see instead the lion of Judah, the fair judgment of Dan, the richness of Asher, the natural beauty of Naftali.

So, whether you are inclined to see the good or the bad in people, it is worth remembering that all of us are blessed with a rich variety of traits, not easily separated from one another, or discerned at first glance. When we are judging others, we should keep this in mind while trying to view the entire picture. That is what Ya’aqov teaches us with his final words. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 12/17/2021.)

* Despite her hardship, long-suffering Dinah does not get a deathbed blessing from her father. *sigh*

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You Need Your People, and We Need You – Vayyiggash 5782

A funny thing happened a few nights ago here at Beth Shalom: a meeting. An actual, in-person, meeting of members of the congregation. And it was, in fact, a good meeting.

It was actually an open forum to inform members of the congregation regarding the process for hiring an Assistant Rabbi, a process in which we are already engaged. You may know that we held two such congregational forums – the first was Sunday evening, via Zoom, and the second on Tuesday evening, right here in the Faye Rubinstein Weiss Sanctuary. The Zoom meeting attracted three times as many people. But the in-person meeting was SO MUCH BETTER.

Not better in the sense that the meeting content was better – it was exactly the same material. I think Tuesday’s meeting ran a little shorter, but that’s not why it was better.

The in-person meeting was better because of the chatter beforehand, the chatter afterward, and the actual give-and-take that can happen when people are there with each other in the room, reading each other’s body language, having multiple conversations at once, enjoying a three-dimensional human experience. The incidental, unofficial parts of gathering – the pre-meeting, the post-meeting, the parking-lot meeting, are all an essential part of the picture. And those simply can’t take place on your computer screen in an organic way.

Tuesday’s meeting was, I think, the first official in-person meeting of any lay committee at Beth Shalom in about 21 months. And it felt good, because we need to be together. We need to see each other, unmediated by any technology. People in community with each other belong together.

In fact, what is it that connects people with each other? It is not merely belonging to the same institution, like a synagogue. It is not necessarily living in the same neighborhood. It is not voting for the same party, or sending your children to the same school. 

What connects us one to the other is sharing stories. Being in each other’s presence, and telling our personal stories to one another.

One reason that Jewish people feel connected to each other, all over the world, is our collection of shared stories, to wit, the Torah, the Talmud, the midrash, the medieval commentaries, all of the material on the Jewish bookshelf. But that is a macro-level connection. What connects us as individuals on a local basis is our knowledge of each other’s personal stories. 

In Parashat Vayyiggash, which we read from today, we are reminded of this to great effect. When Yosef is standing before his brothers, who have come to him in Egypt due to a famine in Israel, they do not yet know that the Egyptian vizier who stands before them is the brother who they sold to Ishmaelite traders many years earlier. But Yosef recognizes them, and is yearning painfully to see his father. As he finally reveals himself, you can almost hear his voice tremble in love and anticipation (Bereshit / Genesis 45:3)

אֲנִ֣י יוֹסֵ֔ף הַע֥וֹד אָבִ֖י חָ֑י

Ani Yosef. Ha’od avi ḥai?

I am Yosef. Is my father still well?

Note that our translation (New JPS) says “well,” because the brothers have told him already that Ya’aqov is alive; the word “ḥai” many of us know as “life / lives.” But the suggestion is that he will not be “alive” for Yosef until he can see him once again with his own eyes.

Later (45:28), his father Ya’aqov echoes Yosef’s language:

עוֹד־יוֹסֵ֥ף בְּנִ֖י חָ֑י אֵֽלְכָ֥ה וְאֶרְאֶ֖נּוּ בְּטֶ֥רֶם אָמֽוּת׃

Od Yosef beni ḥai; elekha ve-er-enu beterem amut!

My son Yosef is still alive! I must go and see him before I die!

There is such a strong need for them to see each other, to behold each other, to be in each other’s presence. It is not enough for them to simply know that the other is alive; it is, rather, essential, for them to be physically together again. Rashi interprets Ya’aqov’s words to mean that since Yosef is alive, and they will see each other once again, that he will have so much joy and happiness. (Never mind the whole “before I die” business…)

Yosef too is overjoyed to be reunited with his family, even though they mistreated him horribly decades before. Despite his fabulous success in Egypt as the head of food distribution for the years of famine, despite his having become the Pharaoh’s right-hand man, despite his fine Egyptian clothes and his successful integration into Egyptian society, signified by his having been given an Egyptian name (Tzafnat Pa’aneaḥ), he yearns for the ones with whom he shares a personal story. He yearns for his people, his family.

And we need that as well. We need the others with whom we share stories.

We have just completed the celebration of Ḥanukkah, the most observed Jewish holiday of the year. It feels to me like only a few weeks ago we were dancing with the scrolls on Simḥat Torah, and even though the 100% holiday-free month of Ḥeshvan was there in-between, my pandemic-induced time myopia has made all these holidays kind of blur together.

And now there is a long time before Pesaḥ, especially since 5782 is a leap year and there will be an extra month of Adar in there. So considering that the holidays of Yom Kippur, Ḥanukkah, and Pesaḥ are the three most-observed holy moments of the Jewish year, the coming months will be a long stretch for many of our people. Some of us may not see each other again for some time. 

And so this is a good time to remind you of the following: you need your community. You need the Beth Shalom community. And we need to see more of each other.

Coming up on two years of separation and isolation and anxiety, I want to remind you of the value of community, of the power of being in deep relationship with the people around you. And the synagogue is an essential part of that picture.

This is not just a place where folks mumble prayers in an ancient language and go home. It is a place where we see each other, where we appreciate being in each other’s presence, where we share stories. This is a place where community is fashioned, and we need to behold each other and be together for that to happen.

So come back to shul! As you know, we have been very conservative in our Covid safety protocols, to make sure that everybody feels comfortable. We are meeting in-person twice every day, morning and evening. We are having kiddush – with food! – on Shabbat mornings after services. We have many things going on now; yes, some of them are still via Zoom. But as more of us are vaccinated, we will continue to gather, to build community, to share our stories with each other in-person, in real time, in glorious physical proximity.

And, while we are on the subject, let me point out that we as a community need one more thing (aside from an Assistant Rabbi). One thing that you could help us build.

We need an effective Membership Committee, and in particular a chair of that committee. If there is one thing that the pandemic has taught us, it is that we need to work harder to fight against the isolation of these times. We need to bring people together for social purposes, not just for ritual activities, and a solid Membership Committee will help make that happen. 

In Hebrew, the word for “member,” as in the member of a synagogue or a member of Knesset, is  חבר / ḥaver. And, curiously enough, the same word is used to mean a friend, and can also mean a lover. That is what it means to be a member of a synagogue, a חבר בית כנסת / ḥaver beit kenesset*: that we are in deep, loving relationship with one another. And if we are to continue to build as a community, if we are to continue to be a more sustainable congregation, we need to lean into that loving feeling for the חברים / ḥaverim who are with us here in the pews today, tomorrow, and moving forward.

So, if you are ready to help build and connect synagogue membership, please let me know, or speak to our VP of Member Engagement, Mindy Shreve.

And if you’re ready to share more stories, to see your people, to behold and break bread with your ḥaverim once again, come back to shul. I hope to see you in person, maybe even before Pesaḥ, maybe even at a meeting, or in the parking lot after.

~

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 12/11/2021.)

* The literally meaning of “beit kenesset,” like the English term synagogue (derived from Greek), is “place of gathering.”

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The Two Sides of Ḥanukkah – Shabbat Ḥanukkah / Miqqetz 5782

Although I have been a rabbi for more than 14 years, I have never delivered a sermon on Shabbat Ḥanukkah, because I am almost always in Israel at this time, visiting my Israeli son. And, by the way, I am happy to report that he has been granted leave from the IDF to come visit us in Pittsburgh in a little more than a week. I have not seen him in nearly two years.

Something that I’ve noticed in Israel during Ḥanukkah is that the popular messaging there about the holiday is a little different than it is here. In America, Ḥanukkah is about candles and presents. There, it’s more about the historical victory over Greek culture. Not the military aspect, so much as the Maccabees’ success in taking back Jewish life from the Hellenistic influence of the Seleucid Empire and the Hellenized Jews who were in favor of assimilation. That is, the celebration of Ḥanukkah is a statement of, “We are the Jews who lean into our history and tradition, and do not seek to assimilate into the surrounding culture.”

It’s a theme that I think tends to get lost in America, when the very celebration of Ḥanukkah here derives so much from its overbearing Christian cousin. Ironically, we mark Ḥanukkah here with practices born of assimilation.

I am reading right now author Dara Horn’s new book, People Love Dead Jews, a collection of essays about the fascination that we and the rest of the world have with the tales of Jewish persecution, murder, and genocide. 

In her chapter on the anti-Semitism of the Soviet Union, she distinguishes between what she calls “the Ḥanukkah version of anti-Semitism” and “the Purim version of anti-Semitism.” Ḥanukkah anti-Semitism is that which destroys Jewish civilization from the inside by pressuring Jews to gradually become non-Jews, while Purim anti-Semitism is a little bit more direct: kill all the Jews. 

The Ḥanukkah version, perhaps more subtle, is accomplished by what is described in the first chapter of the I Maccabees (1:14-15). The Hellenized authorities convinced some of the Jews to build a gymnasium in Jerusalem (according to the gentile custom, notes the book), and some Jewish men reversed their circumcisions so they could compete at the gym, and spurned the Torah and its berit, our covenant with God.

So amidst all of the fun we have here, imitating our Christian neighbors by layering gift upon gift (as, I am told, some do for “eight crazy nights”), one might see how this message gets lost. (Not that I am impugning this practice – I’m mostly just bitter because my parents never gave me gifts for Ḥanukkah.) 

But Ms. Horn is not far off: assimilation has, throughout history, created a powerful gravitational force that has pulled many Jews away from Judaism and out of Jewish life. While we have signed up eagerly for this kind of assimilation here in the Land of the Free, the Soviet Union, and the czars before it employed this sort of anti-Semitic tactic to solve what they perceived to be their Jewish problem.

So that’s one side of Ḥanukkah. But then there is the other side, one that perhaps we might have a better feel for in this corner of the world: the symbol of light, and our duty, while we are busy not assimilating ourselves out of existence, to make sure that we act in a way which illuminates the world.

On the Tuesday evening before Thanksgiving, we held the annual Interfaith Thanksgiving service here at Beth Shalom, and I am happy to say that a handful of Beth Shalom members were there, along with folks from many other local faith communities. 

Rabbi Mark Goodman, in his role as the Director of Derekh, coordinated the service with some of our interfaith partners, but this year’s program was much less a religious ceremony and much more an opportunity to learn about all sorts of local social service organizations that are performing good works in our city. 

Among the fourteen organizations represented were such groups as 

  • the Alliance for Humanitarian Initiatives, Nonviolence and Spiritual Advancement 
  • Repair the World 
  • Days for Girls 
  • Foundation of Hope 
  • Global Links 
  • Casa San Jose 
  • JF&CS 

and so forth. Each was given a few minutes to introduce themselves, and after the brief ceremony, participants were encouraged to speak to representatives of the organizations.

Interfaith Thanksgiving 2021 at Beth Shalom

One presenter, Cheryl Lowitzer of Open Hand Ministries, told a captivating story. Open Hand’s mission is to help bridge the wealth gap between black and white Pittsburghers by among other things, helping black families to buy homes. Most of us know how complicated buying and owning a home is. But for families who were excluded from home ownership by various means (e.g. redlining) for generations, the obstacles are much higher. 

Among the things that Open Hand Ministries does is to help candidates with budgeting, reducing their debt, determining and improving credit scores, managing mortgages, and so forth. They also help families with repairing homes, using their own contractors at reduced rates. As Cheryl described it, the overarching goal of Open Hand is to help people manage their money so that it does not manage them.

Ms. Lowitzer told the story of one 60-year-old woman, whom they helped to buy her family’s first home ever. Upon achieving her goal, the woman remarked, “I’ve been paying for someone else’s dream for over 20 years. Now I’m going to fulfill my own dream.”

This is an organization that is truly making a difference in people’s lives, and I was grateful for the opportunity to learn about Open Hand, and the other organizations present that evening. 

You may know that the psalm most closely associated with Ḥanukkah is Psalm 30, which opens with (Tehillim / Psalms 30:1)

מִזְמ֡וֹר שִׁיר־חֲנֻכַּ֖ת הַבַּ֣יִת לְדָוִֽד׃

A psalm of David. A song for the dedication of the House.

The word חנוכה / Ḥanukkah means, literally, “dedication. The “bayit” (house) referred to here is the Beit HaMiqdash, the Temple in Jerusalem. Given that the psalm may have been written 800 years before anybody had heard of a Maccabee, it is clearly not referring to the dedication in the Ḥanukkah story, but more likely the original ḥanukkat habayit, the dedication of the First Temple, built by Shelomoh haMelekh, King Solomon.

But if you can imagine how powerful it must have been for this woman to dedicate her own house, fulfilling a dream that neither she nor her parents or grandparents or great-grandparents have been able to fulfill, that might give you a sense of the power of Ḥanukkah, the power of light over darkness.

Further down in Psalm 30, we read (v. 6)

בָּ֭עֶרֶב יָלִ֥ין בֶּ֗כִי וְלַבֹּ֥קֶר רִנָּֽה׃

Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning. (KJV*)

Light is a symbol of the victory over the dark; although we may suffer in dark times, redemption is always there, around the corner. 

But symbols must lead to action. Joy doth not come with the light, unless we maketh it do so. If the Ḥanukkah candles do not lead us to a place where we do something concrete, something where we actually improve the quality of life of people near us, then we have missed the point. If we allow Ḥanukkah, or any Jewish holiday, merely to wash over us in joy and gifts and over-consumption of greasy foods, then we have not heeded the message.

Our goal in this season, as much as it should be to maintain our traditions, to remember our berit, our covenant, to resist assimilation by passing on moments of joy and gravitas and prayer to our children, should also be to act. To make a difference. To cast more light through action. To bring about ḥanukkat habayit – figuratively or literally to help dedicate a house.

A joyous and meaningful Ḥanukkah to you all, and may you be re-dedicated in this season to improving the lives of others.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 6th day of Ḥanukkah, 12/4/2021.)

* King James Version translation. I don’t usually use King James, preferring the new Jewish Publication Society translation. However, in this case, it just seems to work so well.

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Less Stuff, More Compassion – Vayyishlah 5782

A funny thing happened to me this week.

The older of our two cars, a 2007 Toyota, was parked in front of our home in Squirrel Hill on Tuesday night. Judy went out on Wednesday morning, started up the car, and was absolutely freaked out by a fearful roar of the engine. It sounded like the muffler had fallen off. 

But no. As it turns out, some enterprising thief or thieves had gotten underneath the car and stolen the catalytic converter, which is apparently a 10-minute job that is worth it for the expensive metals, particularly platinum, found inside of it.

Catalytic converter

OK, so this is annoying for a whole bunch of reasons, as I am sure you can imagine. But let’s face it: a car, while essential for getting from place to place, is an expensive hunk of metal. Despite the fact that this vehicle was my first major purchase after completing rabbinical school, I do not have any particular affection or nostalgia for it. At some point, I’ll probably have to replace it with something that will look and feel a lot nicer, at least for a little while. I consider myself fortunate in that I can afford two cars.

But I had a fairly spartan childhood, growing up in rural New England. In my family, we almost never received Ḥanukkah gifts – for us, gift-giving was something that non-Jews did in December, and there was a clear, almost rabbinic opinion in my family that Ḥanukkah had nothing to do with Christmas, and that “giving in” to gift-giving was like celebrating Christmas. It just did not feel appropriate. 

So I suffered in resentful silence as my friends (virtually all of whom were not Jewish) received the newest, coolest toys, and all I got was a few pieces of chocolate wrapped in gold foil, and, if we were lucky, a few homemade latkes served with applesauce.

Truth is, my parents were experts at not buying stuff. We were all skilled in the art of re-using and recycling, way before it was cool, and turning the junk of others into our own treasure. Here is some true Adelson Family folklore:

Where we grew up, there was no municipal garbage pickup. We had to drive our garbage to the landfill (known affectionately as “the dump”) and actually toss it onto the pile, where it would soon be covered with soil. I’ll never forget the smell, which was not pleasant. 

Williamstown, Massachusetts, where I grew up

But the dump was fun in other ways – there was a recycling area where you could pick through the discarded periodicals of others, and also a spot where you could find large items that some considered garbage; but for us it was an opportunity to find slightly imperfect appliances and furniture at a VERY reasonable cost. So sometimes we came back from the dump with more stuff.

When my mother sensed that a critical mass of our household refuse had amassed in the garage, she would say, “Lennie, it’s time to go to the dump.” And my father would say, “Why? Whaddaya need?”

Now, with the anti-materialist deprivations of my childhood far behind me, I feel like I have too much stuff. I’ve got a whole house full of it. And, as I am sure is the case with many of you as well, most of it we almost never use.

As a society, of course, we think a lot about buying stuff at this time of year: the sales, the holiday pitches, family get-togethers, etc. Black Friday, the day when retail businesses go into the black, is coming up this week. And let’s face it: right now, supply-chain issues aside, the US economy needs a boost. (And perhaps some booster shots, as well!)

So it caught my eye that in Parashat Vayyishlaḥ, there is a particularly significant episode of gift-giving. Our hero Ya’aqov, preparing for being reunited with his brother Esav 20 years after effectively stealing their father Yitzḥaq’s blessing and fleeing, is expecting the worst. He assumes that Esav is still angry, and he has heard that Esav is coming with 400 men. So what does Ya’aqov do to attempt to head off a potentially deadly confrontation? He sends gifts: 550 animals – goats, sheep, camels, and even donkeys.

His reasoning is stated in the Torah (Bereshit / Genesis 32:21):

אֲכַפְּרָ֣ה פָנָ֗יו בַּמִּנְחָה֙ הַהֹלֶ֣כֶת לְפָנָ֔י וְאַחֲרֵי־כֵן֙ אֶרְאֶ֣ה פָנָ֔יו אוּלַ֖י יִשָּׂ֥א פָנָֽי׃

If I propitiate him with presents in advance, and then face him; perhaps he will show me favor.

This is very interesting verse for a number of reasons:

  1. The use of term minḥah, which we think of as meaning, “the afternoon service,” although here we reveal its original meaning, “offering.” (When the Temple was functioning in Jerusalem, prior to its second and final destruction by the Romans in the year 70 CE, the minḥah sacrifice was the daily offering in the afternoon.)
  2. There are four idioms containing the root peh-nun-yod, meaning “face,” which is clearly a leitwort / thematic word of this chapter. The root also appears in the place name Peni-el, literally “face of God,” where Ya’aqov has the wrestling match with the angel.
  3. One of those idioms is akhapperah fanav baminḥah, which is hard to translate. Our translation says, “If I propitiate him with presents,” although the verb here is to atone. Ya’aqov seeks to “atone to his face,” or something similar.

Ya’aqov knows, as we all do, that people like gifts. Giving a gift tells the recipient, I care.  I love you. I am concerned with your welfare. Or, in this case, I’m sorry for what I did to you 20 years ago. I am atoning to your face.

But gifts can also be a kind of shortcut, an attempt to say something meaningful without actually saying it! 

In recent years, since there is so much more shopping that happens online, we have not heard about the Black Friday debacles that have happened in the past: people lining up all night, and stampeding when stores open, to get to the heavily discounted holiday gift items. You may recall that there was a Walmart employee who was trampled to death on Long Island about a decade ago. So thank God that sort of thing isn’t happening right now.

We like having stuff!  Ya’aqov liked stuff too – he left his father-in-law Laban’s house with all the best animals. The offspring of that hand-picked herd, the unnaturally-selected cream of the woolly crop, was delivered to Esav to ameliorate him, because Ya’aqov assumed that his brother also liked having new stuff.

But really, the problem here is that gifts do not necessarily resolve long-standing estrangements. Gifts do not even solve simple disputes. They might make the recipient more willing to talk to the giver, and perhaps lighten the mood. But the issues are still there.

Perhaps Ya’aqov made his offering under the misguided notion that it would right past wrongs.  Perhaps he feared Esav so much that he was unable to “atone to his face” verbally, to ask for forgiveness, to apologize, to try to make amends.  So he gave him a whole pasture-full of ruminants.

And the plan may not have even worked! When the brothers meet, in the following chapter, Esav runs to greet Ya’aqov, kisses him, and immediately declines the gifts. “יֶשׁ־לִ֣י רָ֑ב אָחִ֕י יְהִ֥י לְךָ֖ אֲשֶׁר־לָֽךְ׃,” says Esav. “I have enough, my brother; let what you have remain yours.” I don’t need your charity.

Radaq, Rabbi David Qimḥi, writing in Provence in the 12th-13th c., says that Esav realizes in that moment that he has abased himself, and is filled with compassion for Ya’aqov and genuinely forgave his brother. Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, 15th-16th c. Italy, tells us that this change happens when Esav sees his brother; it is only when they see each other face-to-face that all is forgiven.

Ya’aqov fails the key test: instead of actually seeking forgiveness through reaching out to his brother, he tries to buy him off with gifts. Ironically, the true hero in this case is Esav; he is filled with compassion, not moved by gifts. He didn’t need more stuff.

What is more valuable than material goods? Genuine, true expressions of love. Honesty, compassion, sympathy, and earnest attempts to forgive those from whom we are estranged. Showing our faces.

We read in the Talmud, Massekhet Shabbat,

These are the things which people may do and thus enjoy their fruits in this world, while the principal of the investment remains for the world to come: honoring one’s parents, the practice of loving deeds, and making peace between people, and the study of the Torah surpasses them all.

The most valuable gifts we can give are not tangible; they are expressions of love and compassion. Material goods might make us momentarily happy; but personal investment in our relationships and knowledge will pay off throughout this lifetime, and the next.

So don’t worry about the supply-chain issues. What your family and friends and maybe even estranged relatives need is for you to reach out and tell them how much you love them, how much you appreciate them, and how much you care. They don’t need more stuff; they need to see your face. They need you.

Wassily Kandinsky – Unstable Compensation, 1930

A joyous Thanksgiving to you and yours, and may you have a happy, illuminating Ḥanukkah!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 11/20/2021.)

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What Do Rabbis Do? – Vayyetze 5782

What does a rabbi do?

Are we teachers? Service leaders? Pastors? 

Am I employed by Beth Shalom to perform (God forbid!) your mother’s funeral? Or to help your daughter give a devar Torah for her bat mitzvah?

Do rabbis give advice? Pray for healing? Lead by being symbolic exemplars? Counsel people going through divorce or grieving a loss or celebrating a joyful moment? Plan and execute Purim, Simḥat Torah, Tu Bishvat, Tish’ah BeAv, and so forth? Work with people converting to Judaism, or teach in the Hebrew school? Do they serve a public role in the community as representatives and advocates? Serve on committees tasked with administrative duties for our qehillah (congregation)? Help members of our community deepen their connection to Judaism?

The answer to all of those questions is of course, yes. Rabbis do all of those things, and many more.

But if you had to encapsulate what rabbis do in one sentence, what would it be?

Not so easy to answer, right? 

I have some good news: Congregation Beth Shalom is now officially engaged in the process of hiring an Assistant Rabbi. This is very good news for you, because many of you know that I am stretched very thin (…), and the congregation as a whole will benefit if we have two people working in the rabbinic trenches. Our committee met for the first time this week, and we hope to be interviewing candidates as early as December. (Watch for upcoming info on two open forums in which you can participate.)

Surely some of you are thinking, “But how will we pay for another rabbi? Don’t we have a bunch of other rabbis around? Why do we need another one?”

First, I would like you to invite you to direct all questions regarding financing to our President, Alan Kopolow, and he will be happy to answer them.

But please know that Rabbi Mark Goodman, our interim Director of Derekh and Youth Tefillah, will hand off his responsibilities to the Assistant Rabbi when his term comes to an end in June. Additionally, the new Assistant Rabbi will be my partner in doing many of the things that I do from day to day and week to week. The other rabbis on staff (Rabbi Shugerman, Rabbi Freedman) have other areas of responsibility, and usually do not share in my tasks, particularly the pastoral and adult education roles. 

Hiring an Assistant Rabbi will allow us to deepen our rabbinic relationships with the community. It will ensure that you, a healthy-sized congregation of 600 families, are better served for all of the pulpit and pastoral responsibilities that are right now only attended to by yours truly. I’ll come back to this thought in a moment, but first a word from our sponsor this week, Parashat Vayyetze.

Vayyetze contains, right up front, one of my favorite scenes from the Torah. (Yes, I know I have a number of these, but this one is definitely in the Top 5.)

Our hero, Ya’aqov, is fleeing his brother Esav, and he stops for the night to have a schluff. While asleep, he has a vision of angels going up and down a ladder, and upon waking, he realizes that he is in a holy place, and exclaims (Bereshit / Genesis 28:16-17),

אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ ה’ בַּמָּק֖וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי׃ וַיִּירָא֙ וַיֹּאמַ֔ר מַה־נּוֹרָ֖א הַמָּק֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה אֵ֣ין זֶ֗ה כִּ֚י אִם־בֵּ֣ית אֱ-לֹהִ֔ים וְזֶ֖ה שַׁ֥עַר הַשָּׁמָֽיִם׃ 

“Surely the LORD is present in this place, and I did not know it! … How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.”

Has anybody here ever had a revelatory moment quite like that?

Marc Chagall, Jacob’s Ladder (1973)

It is a striking statement. Ya’aqov had not thought that there was anything special about this place, or this particular time, and yet he is suddenly aware of God’s presence, of the holiness of this single point in the spacetime continuum.

One thing that we might learn from this is that sometimes extraordinary things happen in otherwise ordinary circumstances. That is, you never know when the miraculous might occur, and you may not even realize that you are in the middle of a miracle until after the fact.  

And so it might very well be a good idea to expect it! The 15th-16th c. Italian commentator R. Ovadiah Seforno says that after the fact, Ya’aqov regretted not being ready for this moment:

ואנכי לא ידעתי שאלו ידעתי הייתי מכין עצמי לנבואה ולא כן עשיתי

And I did not know it. That if I had known [that God is present in this place], I would have prepared myself for prophecy; but I did not.

In retrospect, Ya’aqov realized that he missed his chance. He gets another one four chapters later, when he wrestles with an angel and is bestowed the name Yisrael. But here, he was not ready. God showed up – a miraculous moment – and Ya’aqov was caught off guard.

Do not think, ladies and gentlemen, that the synagogue is the only place where qedushah / holiness happens. On the contrary: what we learn from this passage is that holy moments can happen anywhere.

I might frame my job as a rabbi to be to remind you to connect the dots between what we learn from the Jewish bookshelf, here in the synagogue and elsewhere, with what we do with the rest of our lives. That is, the rabbi’s job is to deepen your understanding and appreciation for our tradition, so that it will stick with you; that you will remember the lessons taught by Avraham and Sarah, Rivqah and Yitzḥaq, Ya’aqov and Leah and Raḥel; that these pieces of ancient wisdom will be there when you need them, wherever you are in your Jewish journey. 

We need to be ready – ready for nevu’ah / prophecy, as Seforno suggests, or maybe ready just for the opportunity to raise the general level of qedushah / holiness in our midst: by making the right choices for ourselves and for others; by greeting another person with a smile; by being a better, more respectful neighbor; by seeking to understand before we criticize; by committing to learn an inch deeper, an centimeter wider. (The Talmudic text that I taught earlier suggests that all that it takes to get the yetzer hara off of somebody’s back is to drag them into the Beit Midrash!)

That is the value of our tradition. And the role of the rabbi is to help you find the wisdom, and to be ready, because you don’t want to miss that holy moment when it comes. 

I was asked recently by one of the members of our current Intro to Judaism class what the biggest challenge to contemporary Judaism is. And, lamentably, the answer is apathy. Indifference to our tradition.

And the survey data that we collect about ourselves (e.g. the recent Pew study) reinforces this: we see a gradual hardening on the far theological right, and everybody else, from Modern Orthodoxy leftward, is gradually drifting away. You know this from the realities of your own family members. Assimilation and disinterest continue to take their toll.

My primary role as a rabbi is not only to endeavor to inspire those who may be drifting away, but also to inspire you who are not, you who are still showing up for Jewish life, to deepen your commitment, to be role models for contemporary Jewish engagement, to demonstrate your appreciation and love of Jewish text, Jewish ritual, Jewish living. My primary goal is to make you care – to show you the value in our tradition, and how it can improve your life and our world. That is, to be ready for all holy moments that come your way; to recognize that God is always in the place where you are. 

And the same will be true of our new Assistant Rabbi. Ladies and gentlemen, as we embark on this process, please know that foremost in my mind is that the successful candidate will inspire you to think about our tradition not only on Shabbat morning or at a Lunch and Learn or a shiv’ah house, but in every waking moment, and sometimes when, like Ya’aqov, when and where you sleep as well.

What do rabbis do? They help us to be ready for the holy moments, the times when God is in this place, and God knows we need more inspiration to do so.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 11/13/2021.)

Categories
Sermons

I’m Done With Outrage – Ḥayyei Sarah 5782

In the opening moments of Parashat Ḥayyei Sarah, Avraham loses his wife Sarah, and he cries for her, mourns for her, eulogizes her, and buries her.

There is no question that Pittsburgh’s Jewish community is still in mourning, three years after the horror that was perpetrated in our neighborhood by a murderer motivated by “the Great Replacement Theory,” the detestable idea held by white nationalists that Jews are engineering the “replacement” of white people by importing dark-skinned immigrants from elsewhere.

Charlottesville, Virginia, August 2017, where marchers chanted, “Jews will not replace us.”

There is no question that the fabric of this community was irreparably torn on that day. You may know that it is customary when in mourning to wear a piece of torn clothing (we usually represent this with those ubiquitous black ribbons, although the real tradition is to actually tear your shirt). If it is a parent whom we have lost, that torn shirt may be sewn up, but may never be entirely repaired. So too will we as a community never be entirely repaired from that Shabbat morning, the 18th of Ḥeshvan*.

Even as we remember those whom we lost, even as we recall the last time we saw Cecil Rosenthal in the Beth Shalom office, patiently waiting for minḥah, or Dan Stein in the JCC locker room, we nonetheless also have to remember that life goes on. That is, of course, why we say the words of the Mourner’s Qaddish, which mentions not death but life, and the God-given framework of life which enables us to go from day to day, from week to week, from year to year. These ancient customs carry us from the depths of shiv’ah to the end of a year of mourning and onward, to the point where we can celebrate with a young couple who will soon be married, as we have done today.

Cecil Rosenthal

It is not coincidental that the American Jewish Committee released its third annual report on the state of anti-Semitism this past week. The survey is based on the perceptions and experiences of 1,433 American Jewish adults, and compares with attitudes about anti-Semitism within the general American public. Now it is worth highlighting that this survey is not based on incidents reported to law enforcement, but rather on the experiences of the respondents. 

And, as you might expect, Jews not only perceive rising rates of anti-Semitism, but also that their perception of anti-Semitism is much higher than that of the general public.

We should all be concerned about anti-Jewish attitudes and perception, particularly in light of what happened here three years ago. But we should also put this in perspective: anti-Semitism is truly an ancient hatred. It has always and will always be around us. While the rate of anti-Jewish acts – from graffiti on Jewish buildings to desecrating Jewish cemeteries all the way up to physical attacks on Jewish people and institutions – may wax and wane, they have never gone away. And they never will. While we might have thought for some time that America is different, we now know that is not reality.

CEO and President of AJC David Harris released a statement regarding the report, in which he said the following:

Now is the time for American society to stand up and say “Enough is enough.” American Jews see antisemitism on the far right and the far left, among extremists acting in the name of Islam, and elsewhere throughout America. It is 2021, and a disturbing number of Jews in America are afraid of identifying openly as Jewish for fear of attack. Where is the outrage? Where is the recognition that antisemitism may begin with Jews but, ultimately, targets the fabric and fiber of any democratic society?

While I agree with Mr. Harris that anti-Semitism, like all forms of hate, is a pernicious phenomenon that eats away at all of us, I must say that I am done with being outraged. Yes, we should make people aware of anti-Semitism in all its forms. Yes, we should chastise public figures of all sorts who dip their toes into anti-Semitic waters. Yes, we should be vigilant in protecting ourselves from physical threats.

But outrage? There is enough outrage in our world. Our society has turned the outrage knob to eleven. Social media platforms, and to some extent more traditional media outlets are in fact outrage machines.

So rather than add to the outrage, I want to us to make sure that our response to rising anti-Semitism is an intentional one.

Consider the words of our neighbor and friend, Reverend Canon Natalie Hall, who is now the Interim Rector of the Church of the Redeemer on Forbes. Reverend Hall spoke at the memorial service hosted by the 10.27 Healing Partnership on Wednesday in Schenley Park, and she invoked the words of Psalm 23 to make a point which really resonated with me.

Rev. Canon Natalie Hall, Oct. 27, 2021. (Courtesy of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle)

She noted that the tone of the psalm, which speaks of being sheltered and protected by God in the context of threatening evil, takes a surprise turn toward the end. The next to the last verse reads (Tehillim / Psalms 23:5):

תַּעֲרֹ֬ךְ לְפָנַ֨י ׀ שֻׁלְחָ֗ן נֶ֥גֶד צֹרְרָ֑י דִּשַּׁ֥נְתָּ בַשֶּׁ֥מֶן רֹ֝אשִׁ֗י כּוֹסִ֥י רְוָיָֽה׃

You prepare a banquet for me in the presence of my enemies; my head is anointed with oil; my cup runs over.

Said Rev. Hall:

Enemies. What a startling turn. At the end of a walk with the Almighty, we’re invited to a table with those who differ from us. Adversaries. People who don’t know, understand, or even like one another. It’s here that we’re refreshed with overflowing cups. Why? Because God knows it’s hard to hate your neighbors when you share dinner.

In the closing picture painted by the psalm, we are dining “neged tzorerai,” sitting opposite those who despise us. It is a reminder that at the end of the day, we can be outraged about those that hate us; we can twist ourselves up in anguish and lament the state of the world and the hatred therein; we can write impassioned opinion pieces and write checks to AJC and ADL and decry the backward-thinking, knuckle-draggers who are the source of all of our tzuris*.

Or we can sit down to dinner, at the table that God has set, facing our enemies, and seek a different way.

The best response to anti-Semitism is not outrage – it is the same response that our people have had throughout our history. It is to mourn our dead. It is to grieve through the words of our ancient texts. It is of course to protect ourselves through physical and legal means. And it is to lean into the framework of our tradition: prayer, Shabbat, the 613 holy opportunities of Jewish life. 

We remember, we mourn, we are vigilant, and then we go on about our lives, wounded as we are, knowing that there will always be people who hate us for no good reason.

Outrage is not helpful. Although it is a natural human reaction, it only leads to more outrage. And don’t you think there is enough of that going around already? 

Laura Ellsworth, speaking at the recent Eradicate Hate Global Summit in Pittsburgh (about which I spoke last week), pointed out that no politicians were involved with planning the summit, and that was by design. Although a select few politicians addressed the conference, Laura affirmed to us that politicians do not necessarily have an interest in tamping down hate, because they capitalize on hate for their own purposes. And the same is surely true of outrage.

Being outraged at each other accomplishes nothing, and might even make the problem worse. Anger often yields more anger, which yields more hate.

But of course we cannot either slide into indifference, whether by our non-Jewish neighbors who fail to see anti-Semitism in their midst, or the indifference of Jews who would rather crawl under a rock and hope that the monster goes away. It will not.

Our goal, then, in this regard is to be intentional. To use the tools at our disposal to study, to prosecute, to legislate. We have to channel our energies into productive solutions. Those solutions will not be easy, but if we are sitting down at that table in the presence of our enemies, perhaps we can at least begin the conversation.

A final thought by way of Dr. Barry Kerzin, the personal physician to the Dalai Lama and the founder of the Altruism in Medicine Institute, which offers training in mindfulness and resilience for nurses in Pittsburgh and other locales.

Dr. Kerzin with the Dalai Lama

Dr. Kerzin spoke at the Eradicate Hate Summit as well, and he opened with a story about the survivors of the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. For decades, the survivors were extraordinarily angry and filled with hate toward the Americans.

About fifteen years ago, Dr. Kerzin recounted, an extraordinary thing happened. Those survivors were able to turn their hate into love. They began advocating for worldwide denuclearization, and the anger fell away. It brought them new meaning for their lives, and their perspectives changed.

We will never cure the world of anti-Semitism, and I will certainly never excuse the actions of those who attack Jews for being Jewish. But Dr. Kerzin’s message is that it is possible to replace hate with love. And that requires that we do not turn away; rather, that we continue to mourn, that we hold fast as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, and that we sit at the table that God has set for us, facing our enemies, and try to to replace outrage with love. It is only then that our metaphorical cups may be refreshed and overflowing.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 10/30/2021.)

* Jews commemorate a deceased loved one on the anniversary of that person’s death according to the Jewish calendar. This day is referred to as the yortzayt (more commonly spelled yahrzeit), Yiddish for “year-time.” October 27, 2018 was the 18th day of the Hebrew month Ḥeshvan, in the year 5779. Since the Jewish calendar is lunar, the two dates only coincide only about once per decade.

** That’s the Yiddish pronunciation of the Hebrew word tzarot, meaning “troubles.” It is apparently related to the word tzar or tzorer, “enemy” – that is, your tzar is the one who causes you tzuris. It is not related, as far as I know, to the title of the historical Russian king, the source of much tzuris for generations of Jews in Russian lands.