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Count Your Berakhot – Vayyetze 5781

On this Shabbat haHodayah, Shabbat of Thanksgiving, I’m going to state the obvious: many of us might feel right now that there is not a lot to be thankful for in the world. 

The virus has taken off for what appears to be a colossal third wave, which, our Coronavirus Task Force authorities tell me, will likely not peak until (get this!) February. Many people were unable to gather with friends and family for the traditional American turkey seder last week. Even the seasonal Black Friday tradition of waiting in long lines to buy the latest cool seasonal gift was disrupted by this tiny, not-quite-living yet deadly thing. Unemployment and economic devastation continue.

And yet, Jewish tradition mandates that we offer words of gratitude every single day. 

Modeh ani lefanekha, we say every morning: Grateful am I before You. We put the modeh, the gratitudinous verb first, because that should be the first thing out of our mouths every morning. And Modim Anahnu Lakh, “Grateful are we to You… Rock of our lives and Shield of our salvation… for the miracles you perform for us all day long.” We have already said that twice this morning and will do so two more times in a few minutes.

There is a principle out there in Jewish life that we should say 100 berakhot / blessings a day. It is actually not so hard to reach that number if you recite the words of shaharit, minhah, and ma’ariv; just the three recitations of the Shemoneh Esreh (the Amidah) in those daily services account for 3*19 = 57 berakhot alone.

That’s right: we count blessings. Count your berakhot, as the old saying goes. 

(I’m pretty sure that expression is a translation of a Medieval Hebrew slogan found on a fragment in the Cairo genizah adopted from a Babylonian Jewish Aramaic saying derived from ancient Akkadian texts, perhaps with a Sumerian origin.) (That’s a little humor for all you Biblical scholars out there.)

Count your blessings. Ironically, when we say that, we are implicitly remembering the curses! You count your blessings when you know that they are interspersed with misery and failure, because of course it is the misery and the failure that remind us how valuable, and how needed the blessings are.

In the beginning of Parashat Vayyetze, our hero Ya’aqov is fleeing from his brother Esav, from whom he has effectively stolen his father’s powerful blessing, the one reserved for the first-born child, which Ya’aqov is not. And he comes to rest for the night at a place called Luz, a place where he has a dream of mal’akhim – heavenly messengers – climbing up and down a ladder.

There is a midrash about the mysterious town of Luz, which pops up here and there in the Tanakh. The midrash says that Luz was a place that was only accessible by a secret cave entrance that the Mal’akh haMavet, the Angel of Death could not find, so people there lived forever. They only left when they were tired of living, and upon leaving the city walls, the Mal’akh haMavet would take them.

But of course, I think we can understand why living forever is not really a blessing. 

It must be something like hyperthymesia, of which I have spoken of before, which prevents the afflicted person from forgetting. He or she remembers every single thing: what you had for lunch on May 28th, 1997, what pair of socks you wore the next day, and the really, really embarrassingly stupid thing you said in public the day after that. The ability to forget is actually an under-appreciated blessing.

We count blessings that we see in opposition to, or delineating between the not-so-good parts of our lives. For example, being able to open our eyes in the morning, and to behold the morning light, those are berakhot / blessings that we actually recite every morning. During a pandemic, remembering these simple things every day can be truly powerful.

But that does not mean that we should ignore, or forget, the pain and suffering in the world or in our own lives. 

I recently came across a provocative piece in the online Jewish magazine Mosaic by Daniel Gordis, the Senior Vice President of Shalem College in Jerusalem. Dr. Gordis is a Conservative rabbi and the son of Rabbi Robert Gordis, one of the leading scholars of the Conservative movement in the middle of the 20th century.

The article is titled, “How America’s Idealism Drained Its Jews of Their Resilience.” Noting that while businesses in Israel that were bombed by terrorists during the Intifada re-opened within months, the Tree of Life building down the street remains damaged and empty, he uses this as evidence to deplore American non-Orthodox Jews for their effete non-resilience. 

Being on the ground here in Pittsburgh, I find Gordis’ argument distasteful. Never mind the faulty comparison between a for-profit business like a pizza shop and a synagogue, and the likelihood that he has no first-hand knowledge of the particularities of our situation here. Rather, this follows a pattern that Dr. Gordis has often taken: calling out of American Jews for their perceived weakness and lack of commitment, particularly in comparison to the vitality of Israel. 

Nonetheless, he makes a captivating point about one of my favorite moments of weekday services: tahanun.

Never heard of it? I understand. I did not know what tahanun is until I was in cantorial school, and that is mostly because, although my family and I were Shabbat-morning regulars, like many of you, we were rarely in synagogue for weekday services. But it was also because many Conservative synagogues (not Beth Shalom, BTW) and the Ramah camps stopped reciting tahanun in their weekday services in the middle of the 20th century. I presume that they did so as a time-saver, and also because, well, it’s sort of a let-down.

Tahanun, literally, “supplication,” etymologically related to the Hebrew word hen, meaning “grace,” is actually one of the four major modes of Jewish prayer, and usually refers to a selection of passages after the repetition of the Amidah that emphasize that we are sinful, and that we suffer due to our insufficient righteousness. It includes the lines that we all know as the dramatic, musical conclusion of “Avinu Malkeinu”: Have mercy on us, though we have no good deeds upon which to plead our case. In fact, tahanun reads something like a little slice of Yom Kippur, every weekday shaharit and minhah (morning and afternoon services).

And then there is this:

שׁוֹמֵר יִשְׂרָאֵל שְׁמוֹר שְׁאֵרִית יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאַל יֹאבַד יִשְׂרָאֵל הָאֹמְ֒רִים שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל

Guardian of Israel, guard the remnant of Israel, and let not the people of Israel perish, the ones who say, “Hear O Israel.”

We are She-erit Yisrael, the remnant of Israel. We have suffered, and we continue to pray, to recite the Shema, to unify God’s name, to recite three times the words of qedushah, of holiness – Qadosh, qadosh, qadosh Adonai tzeva-ot / Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts (Isaiah 6:3, used in the qedushah part of every Amidah.)

Furthermore, the recitation of tahanun is marked by an act called, “nefilat apayim” – literally, falling on one’s face. When we recite the first part, it is traditional to put one’s head down into the crook of the weak arm (unless you’re wearing tefillin, in which case it’s the other arm), and recite these words of supplication in a position that suggests groveling. We are not proud of having sinned, and suffering for them; we are, in fact, ashamed. 

Nefilat apayim / נפילת אפיים / “falling on one’s face” during tahanun

So what Dr. Gordis posits is that the omission of tahanun by 20th-century non-Orthodox Jews, a standard piece of liturgy for perhaps a millennium, is evidence of “feel-goodism” in Jewish life, that we have emasculated Judaism by emphasizing only the blessings and not the curses. American idealism, suggests Gordis, has led us to forget the sense of dislocation, the “brokenheartedness” endemic to Jewish life. By omitting tahanun, he claims that we are in danger of forgetting our history of oppression and loss and hence our source of resilience:  

Hardship is not a break in the structure of Jewish history; it is an enduring feature of Jewish history. That is why Jewish resilience — enduring and overcoming hardship — is so noteworthy, and why understanding it is so critical in our own uncertain times.

His point is a decent one. Even as we count our blessings, we cannot ignore the hardship. That is the message of tahanun: it is, to some extent, the misery and failure that have enabled us to survive as She-erit Yisrael, to stick together as a people in tough times, to maintain our traditions and hold up our Torah in the face of anti-Semitic oppression and genocide, to build a Jewish state after 2,000 years of exile and dispersion, and yes, to continue to thrive here in the New World. 

Those of you who have been to my Benei Mitzvah Family Workshop (mandatory for 6th graders and their parents) may remember that the 2013 Pew study of American Jews found that 73% said that “Remembering the Holocaust is an essential part of what being Jewish means to me.” Only 19% of American Jews said that about “Observing Jewish law.” I still find the juxtaposition of those numbers staggering; if we are only Jewish to remember what Hitler did to us, then what are we?

But: the destruction of the First and Second Temples, crushing of the Bar Kokhba rebellion, the Inquisition and expulsion from Spain, the blood libels and the pogroms and all of the ways that we have been persecuted and slaughtered and yes, the Shoah, they all remind us of how our ancestors grasped these words, these berakhot, and held aloft their Torah; these things have, somewhat ironically, kept this remnant together.

We need the berakhot. We count those blessings. But we cannot forget the pain and suffering either. It is the entirety of our history, and the entirety of our liturgy, that has kept us alive and sustained us and enabled us to reach this very moment.

And so too the future.

~

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 11/28/2020.)

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The Constant Gift of Life – Hayyei Sarah 5781

One of the ways in which I have coped with our pandemic separation is by cooking. This week I did something I had not done in a long time – at least a year. I made a butternut squash soup. It’s a great recipe that I discovered a few years back (of course, I use kosher vegetable stock instead of chicken stock): lots of butter, which makes it so rich, but also with fennel, which rounds out the flavor. It is, however, an extensive kitchen project, with lots of time peeling and chopping and sauteeing and simmering and pureeing. We ate it with Shabbat dinner last night. (Yes, in our house, Shabbat meals are often dairy.)

But, as we learn in Pirqei Avot, Im ein qemah, ein Torah; im ein Torah, ein qemah. If there’s no bread, there’s no Torah; if there’s no Torah, there’s no bread. You have to eat to learn, but you also have to learn to eat. Food and Torah are intimately tied together in our tradition.

In other news, you might say that I “hit for the cycle” this week. (Yes, I’m using a baseball metaphor, even though I think the season is over. Right?) I hit almost every lifecycle event this week.

Last Sunday, on the most beautiful November day of my lifetime, I officiated at the wedding of Abigail Blatt and Eric Yoffee. Eric is the son of our members Carol Beth and Mike Yoffee. It was held in the Yoffees’ back yard, with about minyan of attendees. 

Wednesday, longtime Beth Shalom Cantor Moshe Taube passed away, and we have been preparing for a memorial service for him, which will be held on Thursday evening (11/19).

Cantor Moshe Taube

Thursday, I made a new Jew! We brought Casey Weiss’s husband Doug Frisbee to the miqveh to complete his journey to Judaism. Casey is, of course, the daughter of our members Amy and Lou Weiss.

Friday, we welcomed Carson Weiss, the son of our members Emily and Aaron Weiss (no relation to the previous Weisses), into our people’s covenant with God through the ceremony of berit milah, ritual circumcision. Emily and Aaron were with me last January on the Honeymoon Israel trip, and we now see the fruits of our having welcomed them into this community.

Today, of course, we are celebrating Maddie Zabusky-Stockton’s stepping forward into direct relationship with the mitzvot of Jewish life, as we called her to the Torah as a bat mitzvah.

And also this week I spoke with potential new members, people observing yahrzeits, people recovering from COVID-19, other conversion students, and so forth. Plus I virtually attended the United Synagogue’s first conference about Jews and racism.

And all of this was with the pandemic in the background. All socially-distanced. All masked. All a little more anxious than it would have been under “normal” circumstances. 

And this is how our lives are right now.

A good news item this week was that at least one company that is working on a vaccine published results of a successful trial, indicating that their vaccine was 90% successful in preventing new infections of the coronavirus. Maybe the end of our current predicament is in sight. Let’s hope.

But even so, things are not looking so good, in a more immediate sense. Rates of infection are taking off, here in Allegheny County and all over the world. Hospital beds are filling up again. Ventilators and PPE may soon be in short supply. We may soon be back where we were in April.

Meanwhile, we have to do everything that we can to prevent the spread of this virus. We have to continue to be very careful about being masked when around others, and about maintaining our distance, and about minimizing our exposure. We must continue to be vigilant, particularly as Thanksgiving comes and then the December holidays, because the opportunities to spread the virus will certainly increase if people gather, even in small groups. Please remember the essential message of piqquah nefesh / the mitzvah of saving a life – preventing the spread will save lives, and that is one of our most essential mitzvot / holy opportunities as Jews.

Taking a step back to the Jewish bookshelf, right up front in Parashat Hayyei Sarah, Sarah dies. In the first two verses of Hayyei Sarah, the Torah takes note of the fact that her life, “Hayyei Sarah,” spans 127 years; then she dies, and Avraham mourns her and cries for her. The last word of that second verse, Bereshit / Genesis 23:2, is velivkotah, meaning, “and to cry for her.” In Torah scrolls and in some humashim, including Etz Hayyim, which some of us have, the “kaf” in that word is smaller than the other letters. It is a longstanding scribal tradition that dates back many centuries, maybe more than a thousand years.

The small kaf is a reminder that grief can make us feel small. In the Post-Gazette’s obituary for Cantor Taube, he was quoted as being so wrought with grief when the Nazis invaded Poland, that, in his words:

I could not sing between 1939 and 1945. I couldn’t sing because of the atrocities that happened. Singing is an expression of fulfillment, happiness, of worship. I did worship, but not with singing.

Although he survived the war, being number 22 on Schindler’s List, he carried that sense of having been made small by the Shoah for the rest of his life, and you could hear that in his music, in his voice. Indeed, the numbers of our people were made significantly smaller by the Nazis, and so too was our spirit as a people brought low.

We also lost this week Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, a universally-admired interpreter of Torah for our times. (BTW, there aren’t too many rabbis who get THAT title.)

Of course, there are also times when life makes us feel larger, like the bigger letters in the Torah: joy over happy lifecycle events – weddings and new baby rituals and benei mitzvah – these things can make us feel a little bigger.

But the vast majority of letters in the Torah are the same size. They have the same proportions. They do not stand out from one another.

And that is how our lives go. Sometimes the big letters; sometimes the small letters. But most of the Torah that we live is of average size. Thank God.

Yes, we suffer devastating losses; we grieve and mourn; sometimes we cannot sing. And yet we also find moments in which to celebrate and to mark the passage of time and the milestones in our lives in great happiness. We should never diminish the power of loss or of joy.

And yet we must go on about our lives. We must continue to get married and have children and celebrate benei mitzvah. Although we may feel small, we have to look not only for the big letters of Torah, but also all of those regular letters, the ones we usually hardly notice. With the recent string of births, I hope that we are seeing evidence of a COVID baby boom, which would certainly be a silver lining.

In reflecting on life, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks wrote: 

“It is difficult to feel depressed when you remember fairly constantly that life is a gift. ”

Yes, life is a gift in the sense that we occasionally experience joy to counter our grief. But life is also a gift when you consider his use of the word “constantly” – while we walk this Earth, while we breathe, we experience the constant miracle of being alive. That is why, three times a day, every day, in the Amidah, on Yom Kippur and on Purim, whether we are in mourning or celebrating, we say words of gratitude, in the paragraph thematically dedicated to thanks:

נֽוֹדֶה לְּךָ וּנְסַפֵּר תְּהִלָּתֶֽךָ עַל־חַיֵּֽינוּ הַמְּ֒סוּרִים בְּיָדֶֽךָ וְעַל נִשְׁמוֹתֵֽינוּ הַפְּ֒קוּדוֹת לָךְ וְעַל נִסֶּֽיךָ שֶׁבְּכָל יוֹם עִמָּֽנוּ וְעַל נִפְלְ֒אוֹתֶֽיךָ וְטוֹבוֹתֶֽיךָ שֶׁבְּ֒כָל עֵת עֶֽרֶב וָבֹֽקֶר וְצָהֳרָֽיִם

We will give thanks to You and recount Your praise, for our lives which are committed into Your hand, and for our souls which are entrusted to You, and for Your miracles of every day with us, and for Your wonders and benefactions at all times— evening, morning and noon.

I am grateful to have met Cantor Moshe Taube and heard him sing and been inspired by his music; I am grateful to continue to learn from Rabbi Sacks, and we mourn for them. And I am also grateful to be here today for Maddie’s bat mitzvah, and to have celebrated this week a wedding and a berit milah and bringing on a new member of the tribe. But I am also grateful to have made (and ate) a tasty yet humble (okay… its hard to call it a humble soup when you use a full stick of butter…) squash soup.

Life, this miraculous gift, goes on. Be vigilant. Wear a mask. But look to the moments of ordinary-ness, of constancy, when all the letters are the same size, and we will make it through this together.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 11/14/2020.)

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Healing Through Welcoming – Vayyera 5781

Late Tuesday afternoon, when the polls were still open and anxiety hung in the air like a mixture of stale cigar smoke and vinegar, I was invited to appear on an Israeli TV news program where they were discussing the American elections. I was actually quite impressed with the way that Israeli commentators, some embedded here, were pontificating on aspects of the electoral college system and the issues on the table at our present moment. 

And frankly, as I watched and waited for the host to call on me, I was terrified! While my modern, spoken Hebrew is decent, I cannot think and talk in the rapid-fire mode that is typical of these kinds of programs, even in English. But I had my pre-translated talking points ready.

They wanted from me not only some reminiscences on the two-year anniversary of the Tree of Life massacre, but also a perspective on the election, considering our unfortunately unique position here in Pittsburgh. 

Now, as the rabbi of a congregation that includes people of a whole range of political perspectives, I do my best to try not to favor one political party over another. While you know that I surely occasionally speak about issues which some may think are political in nature, my primary goal is actually to try to discuss things that we are all thinking about from the perspective of Jewish tradition and Jewish text. 

So while the host might have wanted me to pick one presidential candidate over another, I declined to do that, but rather focused on the way that we relate to one another. And I must say that the most important thing that we should be doing right now is to try to speak to each other and think about each other in a healthier way. As a society, we need a whole lot of healing right now, because if we cannot talk to one another, we cannot face the big challenges that we need to address. The great division in our society – over politics, over culture, over race and sexuality and public health and even religion – is actually killing us.

Some of you may know that Parashat Vayyera contains one of my favorite scenes in the entire Torah, one which I have learned with many of you in parlor meetings and in other contexts, and in fact I like it so much that I mentioned it last week, while we were still reading Lekh Lekha

It is the story of the three strangers who come to Avraham, who rushes to bring them water and find them a place to rest and to feed them. He welcomes them in with an overwhelming show of desert hospitality.

And the kicker is that, at the end of Parashat Lekh Lekha, Avraham had just circumcised himself, at age 99! So he’s in pain. And a midrash reminds us not only of this, but also tells us that God had made the sun especially strong that day, had “taken the sun out of its sheath,” in the poetic language of the midrash. So Avraham is sitting by his tent, in pain, in the most vicious heat of the day, when he sees these strangers (whom we later discover are malakhim, heavenly messengers), and he leaps into action to make them feel welcome.

So what is the message that the Torah wants us to glean from this? It is that hakhnasat orhim, the welcoming of guests, is a Jewish value of utmost importance. 

You have probably heard me say that before. But here is a new thought:

Perhaps Avraham needed those angelic guests precisely BECAUSE he was in pain. Perhaps the very act of hakhnasat orhim, into which he leapt with such zeal, enabled him to heal more quickly.

And maybe the healing that we need right now, soothing the pain caused by the great political divide I mentioned earlier, is something we can achieve through haknasat orhim – by reaching out to others and welcoming them in.

“Oh, rabbi,” you’re thinking, “you’re so naive. The people on the other side do not want healing. They want division. They are being cynically manipulated by their self-serving and dangerous leaders and media outlets. They thrive on that.”

Well, perhaps. 

But let’s face it, folks: you hired me to be naive. To teach Torah as some kind of theoretical, possibly unreachable ideal. You want me to stand up here and teach you about mitzvot, about halakhah, about the stories of our tradition and the values therein. You want me to challenge you, to encourage you to reach higher, to be a better person. To some extent, it is my job to be naive, to put before you simple truths from the Jewish bookshelf that are uncluttered by the complexity of contemporary life.

And yes, our tradition is demanding. Yes, we fail to meet its expectations time and time again. That is why we all keep coming back for Yom Kippur, to beat our chests and say we’ll be better next year.

So this, too, will be hard. Healing through welcoming is difficult. I do not think we even know how to do it.

How might we heal ourselves, our society? By relating to one another with compassion, with understanding. By seeking out the stranger in our moment of pain and discomfort. By welcoming them in. And we are obligated to do that, even if those folks do not want to be welcomed.

Think of the many people in pain right now. As we were all obsessing over absentee ballots, we set an eye-popping record of 121,000 new positive coronavirus cases in America on Thursday. Now over 236,000 fellow citizens have died. And the wave of new infections will surely bring another spike of death in a few weeks. Think of all those who have lost parents to this virus, who are grieving for the people they loved most, whose loss might not have occurred had more people been willing to engage in mitigation measures.

And let’s not forget the economic devastation it has caused. Yes, the economy has come back somewhat since last spring, but there are still many, many people out of work. It may be hard to quantify this, but I’m almost certain that I am seeing more folks on the street asking for money. 

And even before the virus shut us all down, many of us were aware of the statistics indicating that younger people today will likely not exceed their parents in earnings and wealth.

And don’t think the opioid crisis has gone away, just because Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family settled with the Justice Department for billions of dollars over the aggressive marketing of OxyContin.

And did you know that this hurricane season has featured a record-setting 28 named storms?

And did you also know that the US officially left the Paris Climate Accord this past Wednesday, the only nation of the original 200 signatories to have done so?

And we cannot forget the ongoing challenges of providing a decent education for the young people of America, and good-quality, affordable health care for all of us, as any nation should do.

We have so many sources of pain, and the only means to alleviate this pain is to reach out to the people with whom we vehemently disagree. If there is any single lesson to be learned from last week’s election, it is that we are not only heavily divided as a nation, but also that regardless of on which side you stand, there are a whole lot of people on the other side. Nobody will be able to accomplish anything without bringing a few folks from across the aisle with them.

And yes, some of those folks have opted out of living in the world of facts. I think that has something to do with the unfortunate reality that the truths of this world are just so painful. As I have indicated many times in this space, we are going to have to address the misinformation / disinformation problem that we have as a nation. We the Jews know how important the truth is; it is the falsehoods that have been told about us by others that have caused us so much pain and suffering for our people, including, of course, the deaths of the 11 holy souls whose yahrzeit we observed on Thursday.

A few days ago, a colorful graphic of unknown origin floated across my screen. It said, “After the election, if you win, don’t gloat. If you lose, don’t despair.”

Indeed. The way for us to move forward as a society is not for the winners to mock the losers or for the losers to give up and opt out. It is not to scream at each other or, God forbid, drum up violence in our streets.

Rather, the way for us to undo the damage wrought by the unhealthy division in our society is to take a deep breath, to roll up our sleeves, and 

(א) to acknowledge that the vast majority of American citizens are good people who just want to make a living and be treated justly, 

(ב) to condemn the outright anti-Semites and the racists and the other haters in our society, including those whose brains have been invaded by ridiculous and offensive conspiracy theories, and 

(ג) to reach out across the aisle and try to move forward together.

We are in pain. But we can bring healing by waiting by the metaphorical door to our tent, and when strangers come by, rushing to greet them and to welcome them in. Hakhnasat orhim will heal us.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 11/7/2020.)

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What Does a Jewish Person Look Like? – Lekh Lekha 5781

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר ה’ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃

God said to Avram, “Go forth from your land, your native land, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Bereshit / Genesis 12:1)

One person. 

Lekh lekha. Pick yourself up and go, says God. It’s a singular imperative. Avraham is chosen to launch monotheism, and hence Judaism, into the world.

And then there are two monotheists. And then a family. And then Yitzhaq, Ya’aqov, Rivqah, Rahel, Leah, and then 12 tribes and then two million former slaves are standing at Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah.

And what color was their skin? Did they “look Jewish?” Does the Torah tell us?

No, it does not. The only thing we know about the Imahot and the Avot, the Matriarchs and Patriarchs is that they are all descendants of the first humans, who are created “betzelem Elohim,” in the image of God. And usually, when we use that term, we are speaking more about our spiritual construction than our physical appearance. Rashi, by the way, disagrees; he claims that God created us in God’s physical image as if stamping us out like coins.

And if we are following Rashi, then, every single human face reflects God’s image, and God’s holiness.

**** 

Perhaps you are familiar with the following rabbinic anecdote:

A man is riding a train from Pinsk to Minsk. He is reading a book, minding his own business, and he becomes aware of a woman seated across from him, who is staring at him intently. He tries to avoid her gaze, but then she speaks:

“Excuse me, sir, are you Jewish?”

“No,” he replies politely.

Some time passes and she continues to stare. “Are you sure you’re not Jewish?”

“Yes, I’m sure. I’m not Jewish.” Now he’s annoyed. 

More time passes. “Are you absolutely sure you’re not Jewish?”

“Alright, alright. You got me, lady. I’m Jewish. Now will you leave me alone?!”

“Funny,” she says, “you don’t look Jewish!”

Many of us are burdened with a stereotype for what Jews look like. I am blessed with an ample, yet otherwise well-designed nose, for example, and throughout my life have been told that it is a “Jewish” nose. And yet, I know plenty of Jews, even Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews that have more petite, yet fully functional noses.

My wife, however, has blonde hair and blue eyes, and gets very resentful whenever she hears anybody talking about how somebody “looks Jewish.” She grew up in New York, a secular Zionist born to two Hungarian Holocaust survivors. When revealing her Jewishness, it was always a toss-up as to whether the response would be, “Funny, you don’t look Jewish,” or “Yeah, I figured.” When she went to Israel as a teenager, she was struck by the wide palette of Jewish looks there, and she realized that there is no single Jewish appearance.

I want to suggest something. No, I want to mandate something. (I know, I cannot really do that, but bear with me here.)

We have to try to strike that idea from our heads, that there is a particular Jewish look. Why? Because it actually causes many Jews very real pain, and very likely has led some people to leave the synagogue and never come back. And yes, even here at Beth Shalom.

Let me explain:

You may have read an opinion piece in last week’s Jewish Chronicle written by a Beth Shalom member, high school senior Naomi Kitchen. I know that Naomi is well-known to many members of our community; she is a CDS alumna, and in fact the first time that I met her was during my first year here on a visit to CDS, Naomi spoke to me as a Student Ambassador.

Naomi’s father is half-Korean, and her mother is of Israeli Ashkesfardi extraction, and in her article, titled “A Message to my Squirrel Hill community, from a Jew with a touch of color,” she documents how she has often been confronted with comments that are related to “Funny, you don’t look Jewish,” although many of them were very unpleasant to endure. In a related article that appeared in eJewishPhilanthropy, which Naomi co-wrote with Makeda Zabot-Hall, who is a Black Jew, the two describe being interrogated, to see if they are “really Jewish.” 

Once in this very building in which I stand, ladies and gentlemen, Naomi became so frustrated at people’s assumption that she is not Jewish that a few years ago she swore to herself that she would never enter this institution again.

That was us. That was you and me. And that hurts.

And of course Naomi is not alone. We have a number of members of this congregation who do not present as stereotypical Eastern European Jews. And frankly, that’s a good thing, and not only because stereotypes are bad. 

It is a sign that we have made it in America. In the five and a half years that I have now been in Pittsburgh, I have helped make more than 50 new Jews through conversion. A decent fraction of them would stand out in a crowd of Eastern Europeans. 

But as you may know, a Jew is a Jew is a Jew, and we are forbidden by halakhah / Jewish law to remind somebody that they were not born Jewish, or question anybody about their background or demean them for what they know or do not know.

We have a member of this congregation who is of Chinese and Japanese extraction whom I have heard reciting Birkat Hamazon / the grace after meals better than the vast majority of members of this congregation, and yet it happened once that when entering Beth Shalom on the High Holidays, she was not handed a siddur, even though the people in front of her and behind her received them.

And of course conversion is only part of the story. There are adoptees. And those born to non-white Jewish father and a Jewish mother. And do not forget that there are many Black Jews in this world, from native populations from Ethiopia and from Uganda. 

Judaism has no requirement for skin color; like Sarah and Avraham, we are only colored with the Divine image.

We all make snap judgments based on the way people look – clothing, hair style, posture, glasses, etc. People are simply wired that way. And we all have biases to which we can either succumb, or try to overlook. And the Jews, at least historically, have a distinctive mistrust of non-Jews, which we have inherited from our ancestors. When we were confined to shtetlakh and subject to blood libel accusations and pogroms and laws applied to dhimmi in Muslim lands, it was hard for Jews to trust strangers. This is a part of the historical burden that has filtered down to us.

But look at us today: we have, the events of two years ago in Pittsburgh notwithstanding, been welcomed into the wider American society with open arms. We have lost many of our number in America to assimilation. That is how successfully the great Jewish-American project has proceeded.

So we should be grateful (א) for those of us who are grandchildren and great-grandchildren of immigrants who are still willing to come into a synagogue, and (ב) for anybody else who wants to join us. And when a young woman tells me that she was so turned off by people’s assuming that she is not Jewish, because of their preconceived notion of what a Jew looks like, that she decided to leave this building and not come back, I am ashamed. I am embarrassed for all of us. And you should be too.

Shomer yisrael, shemor she-erit yisrael. Guardian of Israel, protect the remnant of Israel. That is what we say in tahanun, the brief moment of supplication recited on most weekday mornings. We are but a remnant, a she-erit. And we have to do everything we can to make sure that we cast a wide net, that we share our values and the framework of our tradition with as many as we can. If somebody wants to be a part of us, we have to reach out and embrace them. 

You know, I usually speak about issues of welcoming when we reach Parashat Vayyera, which we will read next week, in which Avraham Avinu rushes to invite three strangers into his home. I know many of you have studied this passage (Genesis 18:1-8) with me.

But how does Avraham become so welcoming? Returning to Lekh Lekha: The Sefat Emet, a 19th-century Chasidic rabbi, suggests that Avraham’s leaving home for Canaan is at least part of it. Avraham travels from the familiar, his home in Haran, to the open-ended, the unfamiliar land of Canaan. The final word in the first verse is “areka,” which is usually read as “I will show you,” that is, God is telling Avraham that he should pack up and leave, and when he gets to the right place, God will tell him when to stop. 

But the Sefat Emet is telling us that we might read this instead as, in leaving your homeland and traveling to this unfamiliar land, I will cause you to see more. I will enlarge your vision. 

We all need to enlarge our vision, to take a step back from our natural biases, and widen our sense of what a Jew looks like. Because none of us really “look Jewish” unless everybody else sees God’s image in your face, and in your words. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 10/31/2020.)

Categories
Sermons

The Kranjec Test – Noah 5781

One of the most obvious missing pieces of the flood story in Parashat Noah is the voice of Noah’s wife. From the building of the ark, through the fortnight of rain, through the months of floating and waiting thereafter, we do not hear a peep out of Mrs. Noah. We know that she is there; the Torah declares that she boards the ark with him, along with his sons and their wives as well. But there is no glimpse of how she is feeling. A midrash (Bereshit Rabba 23:3) declares that her name is Na’amah, meaning “pleasant one,” because she played a drum to accompany idolatrous worship. (Interesting and ironic, but not so helpful.)

So we are left to wonder: did she approve of her husband’s gargantuan task? Did she maintain peace within the family as they were cooped up in this floating zoo? Did she resent having to help shovel manure, or feed the aardvarks? Did she lock herself up in her cabin until the whole ordeal was over?  Or perhaps she was discreetly running the entire operation, according to the principle of the matriarch in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, that Noah was the head, and Na’amah was the neck that turned the head any way she wanted.

For all of its effort to relate a sweeping epic about God’s attempt to fashion a better humanity, the Torah says surprisingly little about the humans who make it possible, and what is said at all only describes the men. You might have thought that the Torah would also give us some kind of hint about the character of the women, particularly if they are to be the mothers of all subsequent people on Earth.

But no. While there are many places in the Tanakh and in later rabbinic literature that mention women and ascribe to them ideas and motives and character, they are, at least compared to the men, few and far between. And that is, of course, a pattern that continues on the Jewish bookshelf until the 20th century. 

Certainly, there are a few shining examples that we highlight: in the Tanakh / Hebrew bible we find the Matriarchs, Miriam HaNev’iah / the prophetess, the Daughters of Tzelofehad (who challenge Moshe on inheritance law because they have no brothers), Devorah the Judge; Ruth actually gets a whole book, although it’s a short one. In the Talmud, there is Beruriah, wife of Rabbi Meir. In the late 17th and early 18th century, there is Glikl, about whom I spoke on Yom Kippur.

Miriam the Prophetess

And the number of female commentators on the Torah that appear alongside Rashi and Ibn Ezra and Ramban in traditional rabbinic commentaries? Frankly, none, unless some of these medieval commentators were actually writing under an assumed, male name (that is, the rabbinic equivalent of George Eliot), although this possibility seems remote. (BTW, while Rashi’s daughters are purported to have donned tefillin, they did not write Torah commentary as far as we know.)

A standard tool that I and all Jewish educators use is the “source sheet”. If I want to teach a certain item in Jewish life or text, I assemble a sheet of sources related to the item, usually starting with a verse of Torah and then followed by  Rashi and other commentators. If there is a modern source that suits my interpretive goals, I will include that, although I don’t always make it to the 20th century. (Rabbis often prefer the company of ancient thinkers to contemporaries.)

We are fortunate today to have the wonderful online resource Sefaria.org, which not only includes many, many works from the Jewish tradition in digital form, but also has an online source sheet builder tool! You just select the sources and add them to your sheet, and then you can edit as desired. It’s truly a gift.

Unfortunately, Sefaria does not pick the sources for you as you are building your argument – that’s up to the user. I curate the sources.

So if you read The Jewish Chronicle (and you should), you might be able to guess at this point where I am heading. A few weeks back, there was an article about The Kranjec Test, named after a member of Beth Shalom, Danielle Kranjec, who serves as the Hillel Jewish University Center’s Senior Jewish Educator. You may recall that Danielle spoke in this space as the featured guest for Sisterhood Shabbat back in February, although I know that anything pre-pandemic seems so far away and dreamlike now… (In the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that Danielle is not just a good friend and fellow alum of the Jewish Theological Seminary, where we used to live across the hall from each other, but I also officiated at her wedding a number of years back. So I know her pretty well.)

Here is The Kranjec Test, in a nutshell:

When building a source sheet with more than two sources, Jewish educators (including, of course, rabbis) should include at least one non-male-identified voice. 

According to Danielle and a few other educators who introduced the test in a blog post on the eJewishPhilanthropy site, the idea is to elevate women’s voices, teach women’s wisdom, and learn what she refers to as “women’s Torah,” that is, perspectives that emerge from women’s lived experience of our tradition.

Austrian-Jewish feminist Bertha Pappenheim posing as Glikl

(It would of course be “cheating” to identify God’s voice as non-male. Although God does not have a gender and is therefore not male, we are going to assume that quoting the Torah itself, if we understand that as Divine in origin, does not qualify because the Qadosh Barukh Hu is just, well, above all that. While the rigidly-gendered Hebrew language almost always refers to God as male, that is more due to the limitations of human language than our understanding of God.)

So, given what I said before about the overwhelming maleness of the Jewish bookshelf, reflecting both a shortage of female characters as well as authors, this is clearly not so easy. The authors of the original blog post concede that they have failed to pass the test consistently.

Speaking from my own experience, of course, I know that when I am assembling a source sheet, my collection of sources is based not on the identity of the authors, but rather on their teaching, and in particular that the teaching fits my agenda. Ideally, a source sheet is tight and focused, so that it does not stray far beyond the matter at hand.

But I must say that Danielle is absolutely right: we are way past the time that women’s voices should always be featured prominently in what we teach as a community. 

As a fully egalitarian congregation, we count women as equals toward the minyan, in leading services and reading Torah and in fulfilling all our ritual roles. The same of course is true for gender non-binary individuals, although of course we are still struggling with liturgy and customs, as many of these include gendered language. (You may have noticed that when our member Debby Gillman chanted the Hineni on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, she used the feminized text of that prayer found in Mahzor Lev Shalem.)

But, as you have heard me say many times in this space, the most important mitzvah among the 613 is not prayer; it’s not keeping Shabbat or kashrut or Pesah, and it for sure isn’t lighting Hanukkah candles or remembering the Sho’ah, although of course all these things are important. The most foundational mitzvah of Jewish life is Talmud Torah, learning the words of Torah.

And if those words of Torah are a male-only sphere, shame on us.

So that brings us back to the humble source sheet. I must say that I have a handful of Torah commentaries written and edited by women that do the work that The Kranjec Test suggests. They take up, admittedly, a much smaller portion of the shelves in my office populated by male commentators, and of course they are all from the last 50 years or so. And while I have made an effort to include women’s voices, I have certainly not made that my primary goal in teaching Torah. So I am going to try to dig a little deeper and work a little harder at that. And I cannot promise that I will pass The Kranjec Test every time. Because I certainly will not.

But I am going to try.

Pulling back the lens a bit, we might consider the following business mantra as a  guiding principle in this regard: Under-promise and over-deliver. It is a rough analog to the ancient wisdom of Shammai found in Pirqei Avot (1:15): אֱמֹר מְעַט וַעֲשֵׂה הַרְבֵּה – say little and do much.

One of the overarching principles of living Jewishly is that we give each other kaf zekhut, the benefit of the doubt – that we assume that one has noble intentions, even if he or she fails. Noah, after all, manages to save humanity and all of God’s creatures, but then suffers from a humiliating episode involving alcohol. We still give credit to Noah for what he accomplished; the Torah judges him to be at least somewhat righteous. 
So during this transition period as we strive to elevate women’s voices in teaching and learning Torah, let’s under-promise and over-deliver, and give one another a bit of kaf zekhut.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 10/24/2020.)

Categories
Sermons

We Are Not Originalists – Bereshit 5781

I have always been a fan of the original Star Trek series, and not just because the two leads, Captain Kirk and Spock, were played by Jewish actors. As you may recall, the show began each episode with what used to be considered a grammatical faux pas, boldly splitting an infinitive: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” 

And so too does the Torah open with a grammatical “oopsie.” The very first words of the Torah are (Gen. 1:1)

בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃

Bereshit bara Elohim et hashamayim ve-et ha-aretz

Most of us, when we hear these words, we think, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth.”

But that is not actually what the text says. Actually, we cannot really understand this line, because it is clearly missing at least one word. That is because the word “bereshit” does not mean “In the beginning,” but rather, “In the beginning of…” If you were to translate directly, the verse as it appears in the Torah reads, “In the beginning of…, God created the heavens and the Earth.” 

Now, that sounds a little funny, right? Well, it sounded funny to Rashi, too, in 11th-century France. And so Rashi proposed that the text could possibly be read as

בְּרֵאשִׁית בְּרִיאַת שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ

Bereshit beri-at shamayim va-aretz

“In the beginning of creating heavens and Earth, …”

or,

בָּרִאשׁוֹנָה בָּרָא אֶת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ

Barishonah bara et hashamayim ve-et ha-aretz

“At first, [God] created the heavens and the Earth.”

But of course, that is not what we have. Every single Torah scroll in the world opens with what cannot be described as anything other than a grammatical error. A typo. (Except, of course, that Torah scrolls are never typed.)

Rashi himself, in surveying this problem, says, אֵין הַמִּקְרָא הַזֶּה אוֹמֵר אֶלָּא דָּרְשֵׁנִי! “This passage only tells us, ‘Interpret me!’” And he offers two plausible suggestions. Of course, it is completely possible that neither of these may be the original intent of the text. 

And what might we learn from this? Two possibilities, in my mind:

  1. We should never be so sure of ourselves or our opinions. We might be wrong! Always an excellent lesson.
  2. The plurality of voices in interpreting Torah, both ancient and contemporary, heighten our relationship with the text. 

****

If you were paying attention this past week to events on the national stage, you probably heard the term “originalism” thrown around a lot. Originalism is an idea held by some interpreters of constitutional law that the United States Constitution should be interpreted and applied as it was intended when it was written in 1787.

In terms of Jewish life and Jewish law, we are not and cannot be originalists. That ship sailed about 2,000 years ago. If we take the Torah as our analog to the Constitution, let’s say, and the rabbinic interpretation of the Torah – the Talmud, midrash, the Shulhan Arukh, etc. – as the way we understand how the Torah applies to us today, then we are definitely not originalists. 

For example, the Torah says that the primary means of worship is by sacrificing some of our livestock and our produce by Kohanim (priests) on an altar. Do we do that? No. Rather, we have prayer, an idea more or less created by the rabbis, because the altar in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans two millennia ago. Our tefillah / prayer, is actually a substitute offering, in place of the agricultural sacrifices that our ancestors gave. Although the original intent of the Torah is for us to sacrifice, changes in our circumstances have made it impossible to fulfill that, so we do something else.

The Torah says that we should not do melakhah / work on the Shabbat, but does not define the word melakhah. In this case, we do not even know what the intent of the text is. How do we know, for example, that spending money on Shabbat is prohibited, but peeling an orange is not? That is because the rabbis defined 39 categories of work, ל”ט אבות מלאכה, and created a system by which those categories could be managed and expanded to suit any new type of technology that came along.

The Torah, by the way, does not even mention one of the most popular holidays of the Jewish year: Hanukkah. Hanukkah does not even appear in the entirety of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. It is, rather, also a rabbinic innovation.

And I could go on. We do not practice the ancient Israelite religion described in the Torah. We practice a rabbinic Judaism that is flexible, that is constantly reinterpreted for the moment and the place in which we live.

And that is true of all movements within Judaism. We may disagree on the interpretation, but none of us are originalists. And that, by the way, is exactly the reason that we the Jews are still here, despite the Romans’ best efforts to destroy us. Had we been limited to the Judaism extant in 70 CE, as originalists, we would have disappeared as soon as Titus’s legions razed the Beit HaMiqdash, the Temple in Jerusalem.

And sure, the rabbis of the Talmud argued that their innovations came from Mt. Sinai, nearly a millennium-and-a-half prior, and that they were originally intended in the unadorned Torah text even though you cannot find them there. This explanation is an attempt to legitimize rabbinic Judaism, which is, after all, what we call “Judaism” today. We are rabbinic Jews, but you cannot really find most of our practices today in the words of the Torah as they appear in the scroll.

This highlights, by the way, one of the primary distinguishing features between Orthodoxy and Conservative Judaism. We understand that the rabbinic interpretation of the Torah came much later, and although Divinely inspired, it was not the way the Torah was read prior to the destruction of the Temple. It is this subsequent interpretation that allows us to incorporate new ideas and more flexibility into our understanding of the Torah, and really to helping frame our lives in meaning. Consider, for example, contemporary understandings of God which do not reflect the Torah’s traditional views, or the full equality between men and women in our worship spaces, which we base on the reinterpretation of traditional sources.

Now, there is a certain strain of originalism that I learned while studying at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where I was ordained as a rabbi and invested as a cantor. That type of originalism is found primarily in the Department of Bible and Ancient Semitic Languages, wherein the scholarly study of Scripture devotes most of its energy into trying to determine exactly what the Torah meant when it was written. To do so, scholars in the field of Biblical studies use the tools of archaeology and literary analysis and comparison to literature contemporary to its time and so forth. Modern Jews sometimes also use these tools to interpret Torah as well; they are welcome addition to the שבעים פנים לתורה, shiv’im panim laTorah, the 70 faces of Torah.

So, turning back to Bereshit, we know what the author meant, right? In this case, yes, and that understanding is not likely to change. The originalists in all of us are struggling right now: on the one hand, we know what the Torah implied, even if that is not what it says. On the other hand, there is something that looks conspicuously, to us at least, like a flaw! 

Or perhaps what looks like a typo is just an opening into a richer, more varied palette of understanding?

Right up front, from the very beginning, the Torah gives us insight into an absolutely human trait: the potential to screw up. We should never be so sure of ourselves that we think we are immune to being wrong. 

And that leads us to the second lesson: in the completely human realm of interpreting the text, we can guard against our own hubris by using every tool at our disposal to try to understand it. We may not know the original meaning of this or of many other parts of the Torah; we may not know what God’s intent was in gifting these words to humanity. But we do know that we are obligated to draw on our own intellect, on the range of human creativity and potential, to continue to seek answers. In some sense, it is that absolute unknowability, the obligation to pursue answers while acknowledging that not a single one of them may actually be “right,” which helps us maintain our own humility.

However the Torah came down to us, whether in a moment of fiery dictation on Mt. Sinai or through the hands of many ancient, anonymous scholars channeling Divine wisdom, it is our ongoing willingness to plumb its depths that will continue to fill our lives with meaning and a sense of purpose, and keep us away from the arrogance that comes with declaring our own correctness.

We are not originalists, and we are definitely not perfect. But we are committed to serious and varied inquiry into the Jewish bookshelf, to all the words and ideas which flow from the Torah, even as we acknowledge that we do not have all the answers. And we continue to draw on all of those ideas in seeking meaning for today, for how we live and how we can live better.

Shabbat Shalom! Live long and prosper.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 10/17/2020.)

Categories
Festivals Sermons

Making Peace Between People: An Essential Jewish Goal – Shemini Atzeret 5781

A few weeks back, New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo wrote a compelling piece titled, Go Live in Another Decade. I Recommend It, about comparing our current moment to the past. In trying to understand how we got here, to this moment of deep division, of people marching in the streets for racial justice and militia groups brandishing rifles and plotting the kidnapping of a governor, of casting doubt on the reliability of our election process and the politicization of public health, Mr. Manjoo chronicles his deep dive into the chaos of the 1960s. He discovered the wealth of video available on YouTube of news coverage and pop culture from the second half of the 20th century, and zooms in on one speech given by President Lyndon Johnson, his first address of Congress five days after the assassination of JFK and his having been sworn in as president aboard Air Force One in Dallas.

If you listen to the speech, you can feel the heaviness in the room as the Congress applauds the new president, who concedes his reluctance at having to take on the duties of the highest office in the land at such a soul-crushing moment. Johnson speaks of unity in the task of righting wrongs, in improving the lot of people around the world and at home, at facing the challenges of racism, of “poverty, misery, disease, and ignorance.” He reinforces the idea that the “strong can be just in the use of strength, and the just can be strong in the defense of justice.” 

And, pointing to the divisiveness of that decade, President Johnson says the following:

The time has come for Americans of all races and creeds and political beliefs to understand and to respect one another. So let us put an end to the teaching and the preaching of hate and evil and violence. Let us turn away from the fanatics of the far left and the far right, from the apostles of bitterness and bigotry, from those defied of law and those who pour venom into our nation’s bloodstream.

I profoundly hope that the tragedy and the torment of these terrible days will bind us together in new fellowship, making us one people in our hour of sorrow.

It brought tears to my eyes.

A question that we must ask ourselves at this moment, as Jewish Americans, is, “What is our role in seeking the unity that we need right now?” 

As you might expect, I find those answers in the framework of Jewish tradition, starting with a quote from the Talmud (BT Kiddushin 39b):

אלו דברים שאדם אוכל פירותיהן בעולם הזה והקרן קיימת לו לעולם הבא אלו הן כבוד אב ואם וגמילות חסדים והכנסת אורחים והבאת שלום בין אדם לחבירו ותלמוד תורה כנגד כולם

These are the matters that a person engages in and enjoys their benefits in this world, and the principal reward remains for the World-to-Come, and they are: Honoring one’s father and mother, acts of loving-kindness, hospitality toward guests, and bringing peace between one person and another; and Torah study is equal to all of them.

Yes, you have heard me say that last one many times as a foundational statement of Jewish life, that Torah study is equal to the weight of all other mitzvot combined.

But go back one, to “hava-at shalom bein adam lehavero.” Making peace between one person and another. Quite high up on this list of essential mitzvot is the obligation to repair relationships, to bring people together, to heal interpersonal wounds. Ladies and gentlemen, we are all failing at this task. 

In 1963, President Johnson was speaking to a nation doubled over in pain, not only from the assassination of JFK, but also from protests over racial injustice, Cold War fears of communism spreading abroad and possibly infiltrating at home, American military involvement in distant lands, and of course political division.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is OK to disagree. It is not OK to denigrate people on the other side. It is worth remembering that, while there are certainly bad actors in this world, there are always going to be honest people, good, well-intentioned people, people of faith, with whom you will disagree vehemently. And their opinion, no matter how offensive or ridiculous or oppositional to everything that you believe, if it is based on reasonable, factual assumptions and honest assessment of the situation, is just as valid as yours.

Political division is creating personal rifts between people. I know of people in the same family who cannot even speak to each other and friendships that have been broken as a result.

And, lest you think that electing one person over another in a few weeks will change that, please allow me to burst your bubble. We are going to have to work very hard if we are going to find our way out of this morass. It is not as simple as casting a ballot, or posting a meme on Facebook, or putting a sign in your front yard.

I would rather refocus our energies on fulfilling the spirit of Exodus 23:5:

כִּֽי־תִרְאֶ֞ה חֲמ֣וֹר שֹׂנַאֲךָ֗ רֹבֵץ֙ תַּ֣חַת מַשָּׂא֔וֹ וְחָדַלְתָּ֖ מֵעֲזֹ֣ב ל֑וֹ עָזֹ֥ב תַּעֲזֹ֖ב עִמּֽוֹ׃ 

If you see the donkey of your enemy lying under its burden, and you might be inclined not to help him, you must make every effort to help him.

Should you help your enemy if he votes for a different party than you? Of course. But what if there is a Confederate flag flying in his front yard? What if he was recently released from prison after serving time for a murder or rape conviction? What if he is the head of the local chapter of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement against Israel?

Not so easy, right?

I would love to hear a leader stand up in front of the American people and speak about love, about loving your neighbor, about working together, even when we disagree, to solve the big challenges we know we all face: the challenges of education, of health care, of unemployment, of mass incarceration, of the ongoing scourge of mass shootings, of the abuse of opioids, of the challenges posed by a warming climate.

I would be happy to see our leaders choosing country over party, understanding that it’s not all about winning, and that they are elected not to throw mud at the other guy, but rather to reach out across the aisle in partnership.

I would be overjoyed to see our journalists and media outlets help us all to understand that the truth cannot be reduced to a soundbite or a tweet, that patience and intellectual engagement are necessary to help find the solutions to the challenges we face.

Tomorrow, hevreh, is Simhat Torah, the day on which we complete the cycle of reading the Torah and go back to the beginning again. And in rejoicing with the Torah (which we will of course be doing, albeit a little subdued from our ordinary celebration; we will just have to remember to dance and sing twice as hard and twice as loud in 5782), we remember that Torah is long form. 

Yes, if you unroll a sefer Torah, you’ll see that it does not even reach half the circumference of the Beth Shalom Ballroom. But all the “Torah” in the more general sense, all of the Torah that flows from it, fills not a room or a building, but our entire lives. It is a lifetime’s worth of learning, of reflecting, of growth and change and reading again and revisiting and re-interpreting. Learning that Torah never ends, just as our own individual pursuits of self-discovery and self-improvement never end.

Torah is long form. We cannot ignore or erase the verses we do not like, but we must contend with them on the page. 

And the same is true for being a good citizen, for making a functioning democracy, for building a just society, as our tradition commands us; we work together, even with those with whom we disagree, to improve our world, to solve the big challenges. Total ideological purity is not a reasonable goal.

There is another tradition that we will perform tomorrow, one that may be familiar to some of you. The Hatzi Kaddish before Musaf on Simhat Torah is often sung to a series of holiday melodies from throughout the Jewish year – tunes from Hanukkah and Purim, the Three Festivals, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and even Tish’ah BeAv. It is referred to as the “Yahres Kaddish,” the Kaddish of the whole year. 

It is a musically frivolous moment, coming at the end of a raucous service at the end of a long holiday season. But there is also a reflective quality to it – a reminder that this is the end of the holiday season, as we enter Marheshvan, the bitter month of Heshvan in which there are no joyous days, 

and we look back to the year that has passed, 

and we look forward to the one that we have just begun, 

and we consider our joy and our grief and our pleading to be sealed in the Book of Life and our remembrance of those who have passed, 

and we sense the cool wind of fall and smell the fallen leaves, 

and we remember that we are frail, that we are older, that we have suffered loss even as we move from strength to strength.

And we remember that one of our fundamental duties, as we look to the next holiday and begin the cycle anew, drawing on our memories and what we have learned and our apprehension of what is to come, and the inexorable march of time, is the obligation to make peace between people. That is an essential role that we the Jews aspire to fulfill on this Earth. 

President Johnson’s words were prophetic. As we mourn the 213,000+ fellow citizens who have died needlessly, and we remember all those for whom we grieve today during the Yizkor service, I too hope “that the tragedy and the torment of these terrible days will bind us together in new fellowship, making us one people in our hour of sorrow.” 

Amen.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, morning of Shemini Atzeret 5781, 10/10/2020.)

Categories
Festivals Sermons

Fantasy Ushpizin: The Seven Guests I Would Love to Have in My Sukkah This Year – Sukkot 5781

Do you remember how, when you were very young, your mother could make everything better? She had magical powers. When you got hurt playing with other kids down the block; when you had a stomach ache; when you saw a really scary movie and couldn’t sleep; when you were devastated by a horrible grade or being teased or when the president encouraged a white nationalist group to “stand by,” (OK, so just kidding about that last one), your mother would give you a hug and make it all go away.

America needs a mom right now. 

One of the traditions of Sukkot is that of Ushpizin, the custom of inviting our tribal ancestors to come dwell with us in the sukkah at evening meals. The custom is a kabbalistic one, apparently derived from a statement in the Zohar:

Zohar 3:103b:8

תָּא חֲזֵי, בְּשַׁעֲתָא דְּבַר נָשׁ יָתִיב בְּמָדוֹרָא דָּא, צִלָּא דִּמְהֵימְנוּתָא, שְׁכִינְתָּא פַּרְסָא גַּדְפָהָא עָלֵיהּ מִלְּעֵילָּא, וְאַבְרָהָם וַחֲמִשָּׁה צַדִּיקַיָּיא אָחֳרָנִין שַׁוְיָין מָדוֹרֵיהוֹן עִמֵּיהּ

“Come and see: When one sits in this dwelling, the shade of faith, Shekhinah spreads Her wings over him from above, Abraham and five other righteous heroes come to dwell with him!”

Maybe the Shekhinah, God’s presence, is the mother who is going to spread her wings over all of us as we dine in our sukkot this year. Wouldn’t that be nice? 

The Aramaic term “ushpizin,” you may have heard me say in the past, is a Hebraicization of the Medieval Greek word hospition, meaning an inn, also connected to the Latin root hospes, which is the source of our English words hospitality, host, and hospital. The custom is that each night of Sukkot, for seven nights, we welcome Sarah and Avraham, Rivqah and Yitzhaq, etc. (You can see the whole egalitarian list in Siddur Lev Shalem, pp. 424-5)

OK, so the Zohar did not include the women, only men. But we know better.

But it is also an interesting exercise, as we are inviting towering figures from the Tanakh into our sukkot, to also ask ourselves, if we could invite any person into the sukkah as a guest, whom would we invite?

And to keep this focused, I have picked Jewish values for each of the seven nights, so each of the ushpizin will represent a certain value. The values are: Hemlah / compassion, nedivut / generosity, redifat shalom / seeking peace, anavah / humility, adivut / civility, manhigut / leadership, and Talmud Torah / learning the wisdom of the Jewish bookshelf.

And since we are all nervous this year about having guests (or being guests) in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, the idea of spiritual guests rather than physical guests is a welcome practice! 

Caveat: it would be impossible for me to come up with a list of names about whom all would agree. Most likely someone on this list will be objectionable because of something in their history: something unsavory they did, but as with the Biblical characters of the classical ushpizin, the people we admire from more recent history are complex and sometimes in the wrong, and that does not necessarily detract from their accomplishments or the values they lived.

And for sure, I know that you could come up with a better list than I can. But that’s what makes this exercise so much fun! 

  1. Hemlah / Compassion – German Chancellor Angela Merkel

Chancellor Merkel is our ushpizah for compassion. Back in 2015, a month or so after I moved to Pittsburgh, there was a huge migrant crisis in Europe, people flowing through Turkey, primarily from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. As you may recall, European nations responded differently. While Hungary’s autocratic prime minister Viktor Orban threw up fences and confined thousands of refugees to a Budapest train station, Merkel and her government took in over a million people. They resettled them, arranged housing and job training and language instruction. This was a stunning act of unparalleled compassion and generosity. While there was of course a political backlash and no shortage of cultural issues surrounding the resettlement, the overarching message was clear: asylum seekers are people, and we have to be responsible for our fellow human beings.

  1. Nedivut / Generosity – Bill and Melinda Gates

Say what you will about the founder of Microsoft, but it is undeniable that Bill Gates is generous. The foundation that he and his wife created invests nearly $5 billion per year in international programs that focus on poverty, hunger, and public health, among other things. Now, if Bill and Melinda were actually in my sukkah, I of course would use it as an opportunity to vent about why he let Windows push out DOS, which was just fine with me. But among the people in their tax bracket, they have been a model of generosity. And all the more so in the time of this pandemic, when the resources and leadership regarding public health and vaccines that the Gates Foundation supplies are more important than ever.

  1. Redifat shalom / pursuit of peace – Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin  

Rabin was a soldier, a man of war who commanded forces in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948-49. And yet, over the course of his life, he became a man of peace. Yes, it was the Norwegians who coordinated the Oslo Accords. But in order to make peace actually happen, Rabin and Shimon Peres had to agree to talks with the PLO, then clearly understood to be the mortal enemy of Israel. When Rabin found himself shaking the hand of Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn, he could not even believe such a thing had happened. 

Wherever you stand on the Oslo process and its tragic failure, there is no question that Rabin taught us all an essential message: you cannot make peace without talking to your enemy.

  1. Anavah / Humility – Rosa Parks

Yes, what Rosa Parks did on a Montgomery, Alabama bus in 1955 by not relinquishing her seat was an act of defiance, but her action was a humble one. Three months after the brutal murder of Emmett Till, Ms. Parks, a seamstress for a local department store, exerted her will not by marching, not with a bullhorn, but by sitting down, one of the more humble human activities. Her action led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott a few days later, a seminal moment in the nascent civil rights movement. Ms. Parks later described what she did, somewhat ironically as, “an opportunity to take a stand,” a proud description of a humble moment.

  1. Adivut / Civility – President Abraham Lincoln

So you think the United States is divided today? When Abraham Lincoln accepted the Illinois Republican Party’s nomination for Senate in 1858, he began by paraphrasing the assertion from the Christian Bible: “A house divided against itself, cannot stand.” Through the deep division that led to and continued after the bloody Civil War, Lincoln stood eloquently and steadfastly for the abolitionist cause. As president, he emancipated the enslaved people in this nation, and as the war drew to a close, he stated in his Second Inaugural Address: 

“Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.” 

To understand one’s enemy as a human being, something that the Torah exhorts us to do in multiple ways, is a challenge that we all have; Lincoln (for whom, by the way, there is a street named in Tel Aviv), rose to that challenge with grace, even as he sent Union troops to quash the Confederacy.

  1. Manhigut / leadership –  Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand

Not even a month after the brutal massacre by a white supremacist at a Christchurch mosque, Prime Minister Ardern managed to compel the New Zealand parliament ban most semi-automatic weapons. She is only the second head of state to give birth in office, and her successful management of the coronavirus pandemic embarrasses the rest of the developed world: 19 New Zealanders have died, out of a population of 5 million. By comparison, the per capita rate of death in the United States is 165 times higher. I would say that Ms. Ardern has been a model leader.

  1. Talmud Torah – Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

Rabbi Steinsaltz passed away in August, and there has been no other contemporary rabbi whose authority and knowledge is as respected across the Jewish world. His father, although descended from the first Slonimer rabbi, was a Communist Zionist and had no interest in religion; young Adin Steinsaltz not only excelled in secular studies, but also became a ba’al teshuvah, and ultimately accomplished what may be the most important Jewish task of the current age: popularizing the study of Talmud by translating it into contemporary Hebrew and English. He wrote many other books for popular consumption, and was at one point the head of a (failed) effort to re-establish the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem.

***
That is my list; I strongly encourage you to play this “fantasy ushpizin” game with your family as you gather in your own sukkah this year. America may not have a mom to give us a hug, but we do have the Shekhinah, and perhaps these illustrious guests will bring us all some comfort.

Mo’adim lesimhah! Haggim uzmanim lesasson!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, first day of Sukkot 5781, 10/3/2020.)

Categories
High Holidays Sermons Yizkor

Back to Basics: Our Story Will Save Us – Yom Kippur 5781 / Yizkor

בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן וּבְיוֹם צוֹם כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן

Berosh hashanah yikatevun, uvyom tzom kippur yehatemun.

On Rosh Hashanah their decree is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.

That is our traditional story surrounding Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – the Book of Life. As our tefillot / prayers continue throughout the day, we will continue to invoke this story.

This is the fourth and final installment in the “Back to Basics” series, inspired by the limited nature of our lives due to the pandemic. On Day One of Rosh Hashanah, we covered halakhah (Jewish law), on Day Two we discussed minhag (Jewish custom), and last night we spoke about Jewish values. (You can also listen to these as podcasts.) The final installment is about the Jewish story. Halakhah, minhag, values, story. These are the basic elements of Jewish life.

You might have thought that this piece of the basics of Judaism would come first. After all, the first thing we learn about being Jewish is that our heritage comes with a story. We learn stories from the Torah in Hebrew school. We remember the Exodus from slavery in Egypt at the Pesah seder table. We light Hanukkah candles to remember that a small band of Jewish rebels fought off the idolatrous invaders and restored the Temple in Jerusalem, and so too do we have an obligation to enlighten the world. We get a day off every seven days because God rested after six days of Creation. Even those of us with zero formal Jewish education know the stories about the Garden of Eden, Joseph (thanks to Andrew Lloyd Webber), Moses (thanks to Hollywood). The Torah and pop culture are intertwined in ways we do not even notice.

On the other hand, story serves as a beginning, and also the end; I have heard that Jewish life is something like a Moebius strip – as you follow its path, you always return to where you started. In engaging with our tradition, we always return once again to our story, our history, our culture, and we are reminded that sharing our story with others will lead to a better world: Wouldn’t it be awesome if the whole world observed Shabbat? Wouldn’t it be absolutely amazing if everybody were to gather around a holiday table and say, “Let all who are hungry come and eat”? 

And let’s face it: story is the most interesting part. For most of us, that is.

I have a slight confession to make here, although many of you probably have noticed this already. I’m not really a story-telling rabbi. Some rabbis are more inclined to pepper their sermons with good stories that lead to a moral. I am more cut-and-dried, more inclined to lay down the brief, pithy Talmud Torah than long form stories. (If you were on our Zoom service on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, you may have noticed that I tried to tell a joke and totally bungled it.)

But I am very fond of the fact that, no matter how we break down theologically or sociologically or demographically, we, the Jews, are still united by our stories. Even though we approach many things differently, the Torah is the Torah; the Talmud is the Talmud, and disagreeing over the meaning of a phrase or the halakhic import of a certain read comes with the territory. As fractious as we are, we still share our stories.  

And you know what? As long as we continue to tell our stories, they will protect and save us, just as they always have.

Think about this: what is it that enabled Jewish people to survive the destruction of the First and Second Temples, the Inquisition, the Shoah? What enabled Jews to manage being alternately exiled and welcomed, dispersed and ghettoized, massacred and delegitimized? What empowered us to look past the anti-Semitism, century after century, land after land? What encouraged the Zionists to build a modern nation in an ancient land? What has enabled this very community to pick itself up from its grief and move forward, after 11 of our friends and neighbors were brutally murdered by a white supremacist with an assault rifle?

Not history. If it were up to mere history, the Jews would have disappeared thousands of years ago. Our history is littered with destruction, dispersion, forced conscription, pogroms, and disillusionment.

No, what gave us the strength to survive was that these stories fill our lives with meaning. We mustered the courage to press on by the promises given to Avraham and Sarah, Rivkah and Yitzhaq, Rahel and Ya’aqov and Leah and Yosef. We have continued to teach our stories to our children, so that, generation after generation, their eyes were lit with the richness of our wisdom, the power of our tales, the inspiring personalities of our bookshelf.

One of the more curious things that we do as Jews, on the festival of Sukkot, is to parade around the room holding aloft the four plant species identified in the Torah as the symbols of the season: willow, myrtle, palm, and citron, also known as the lulav and etrog. And what do we do whilst parading?

We say, “Save us.” “Hosha’na.” And we say that over and over and over, and in between chanting “hosha’na,” we add tiny story fragments, a couple of words each. They always go by so quickly, because the piyyutim are long, and late in the service so everybody’s hungry and wants to get to lunch. But they include reference after reference to the Torah and to midrashim. Just a few brief examples:

We chant this on the second day of Sukkot:

הוֹשַׁע נָא אֶֽבֶן שְׁתִיָּֽה, הוֹשַׁע נָא

Hosha’na even shetiyyah, hosha’na.

Save us, Foundation Stone, save us!

The Even Shetiyyah / Foundation Stone was the mythical piece of rock, located at the top of Mt. Moriyah, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, from which, according to midrash, the world was created. It holds a special power that we continue to invoke to this day.

Here is another one: 

כְּהוֹשַֽׁעְתָּ טְבוּעִֽים בְּצֽוּל גְּזָרִֽים. יְקָֽרְךָֽ עִמָּֽם מַֽעֲבִירִֽים. כֵּן הוֹשַׁע נָא

Kehosha’ta tevu’im betzel gezarim, yeqarekha ‘imam ma’avirim, ken hosha’na.

As you rescued this people from drowning by splitting the deep sea, Your glory crossing with them, so save us!

This is a clear reference to the Israelites crossing the Sea of Reeds, accompanied by God, an example of how God has saved us in the past.

There are literally hundreds of these types of references, some more deeply coded than others, in endless liturgical poems used over the holidays, not just for Sukkot, but around every holiday.

The message is clear: our stories save us. When we are in trouble, when we need something to hold onto, we lean into the rich assortment of tales that have inspired us and given us a meaningful framework for thousands of years. 

Now, I know I have a few armchair skeptics out there in Zoom-Land right now (and you may actually be seated in armchairs!) who are thinking, or perhaps even remarking out loud, “Come on, Rabbi. The stories of the Torah are not true. They conflict with the scientific record. There’s no archaeological evidence of the Exodus, or that the Israelites were actually enslaved. Do you really think that Moshe took dictation from God on Mt. Sinai?!”

To you I say, “I’m happy you’re listening!” and then, “So what? That is not the point.” History and story are not the same thing. Scientific truth and the foundational stories of an ethnic or religious group are not in the same category; they answer different questions. Science tells us that the universe is 14 billion years old, following a Big Bang in which all matter was violently expelled from a single, infinitely dense point, and ultimately cooled to the point where atoms and molecules and (at least in the case of one particular planet) life formed through a series of fascinating phenomena. 

But science does not tell us that we need a day off every seven days, because God rested on the seventh day of Creation. And science does not provide us with the wisdom to raise our children to be human beings, or to seek the common good, or to behave with integrity, or to remember the needy, or to pursue justice. Science teaches us facts; our stories teach us not only how and why to be Jewish, but also how and why to aspire to be the best humans we can be.

Our story, the Jewish story, may not meet the standard of scientific fact, but they are ours. My teacher at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Neil Gillman, taught me the value of what he referred to us as “myth.” Not myth in the sense of falsehood, but the series of stories that help us explain our world, the lens that helps us make sense of the information we take in. Every nation, every ethnicity has its own myths. 

That is why the contemporary tools of biblical criticism, which cast doubt on some of our stories, do not trouble me. No matter what scholars may say about our foundational myths, they continue to frame my life and yours in holiness.

Some of you may be aware that there is a new translation out of the memoirs of Glikl, a Jewish woman who lived in Germany in the 17th and 18th centuries. I’ve been captivated by her story for many reasons, among them the fact that stories of and by women are too few and far between on the Jewish bookshelf. Glikl was born in the 17th century to a wealthy family, and she is not only literate in the sense that she can write her own memoirs in Old Yiddish, but also she is Jewishly literate, peppering her language with quotes from the Torah and rabbinic text. She writes about her family’s ups and downs, about intrigue and marriage and of course anti-Semitism, which is very much a part of her world. 

One of the captivating aspects of her work is the way in which the Jewish story nourishes Glikl. 

Throughout the seven books of her memoirs, which cover 28 years from 1691 until 1719, she weaves Yiddish folktales, Talmudic stories, and personal anecdotes into the details of her family life. She unspools lengthy yarns to teach us a moral, like the value of patience, and then she tells the tale of how she and her mother both gave birth around the same time, and one night their babies were confused and the entire household was in an uproar. She expands the story from the Talmud about Alexander the Great’s search for the Garden of Eden, to teach us that we should be satisfied with what we have. And she urges us to settle our personal accounts during our lifetime, a notion particularly salient for these days of teshuvah, repentance. 

Glikl’s memoir is not only a fascinating slice of history, a particular moment captured in remarkable prose, but also a testament to the power of story. As we listen to her unspool her tales, we also see how the Jewish story supports and nourishes her and her family, how Jewish rituals and holidays, drawn of course from our story, are very much a part of her everyday existence.

Ladies and gentlemen, I know that right now, things might seem much worse than they have ever been. I know that these Ten Days of Teshuvah / repentance, starting with Rosh Hashanah and concluding today (at 7:47 PM) have been nerve-wracking for reasons I do not need to enumerate. But underlying the threat of chaos and anxiety about the future, I know that over the past week, in the back of my head, I have been praying for life. Zokhreinu lehayyim. Remember us for life, God. And even though the story of the Book of Life should also fill us with awe, I must say that it has been comforting to me to be able to share these melodies and stories, these High Holiday sounds and ideas, with all of you, even virtually, over these days. 

Our story, the Jewish story, offers us comfort and meaning and protection. It holds us together in a way that halakhah cannot. It continues to brighten the eyes of our children and inspire all those who listen of all ages. And our rituals and customs and values bring us back again and again to our story.

Yizkor Coda.

What do we do when we recall a loved one? We recall their story.

It has often been observed that the hyphen on a memorial stone or plaque stands for a whole lot. A short, straight line. But none of our stories are straight; they contain twists and turns and loops and dead-ends. And it is up to us, the living, to recall all of those twists and turns in the lives of those whom we remember.

In the context of this pandemic, we have lost 1,000,000 people worldwide, including over 200,000 here in the United States, including members of this community and even a past president of Beth Shalom. And millions of people have lost their jobs; many more are living with less. The spiritual and economic pain from which we are all suffering is immeasurable; the deep frustration at our elected officials, and our fellow citizens, for their various failures is palpable.

When all is said and done, many, many people around the world will have died alone; many will be buried in overwhelmed cemeteries without any kind of funeral or eulogy. Many will have left this world in a way that their story remains unfinished, or untold.

Back in August, the city of Detroit memorialized its coronavirus victims by putting up huge photos of them in a city park, so that people could drive through and see their faces. There were 900 portraits in the exhibition, accounting for more than half of the 1,500 city residents who had by then died of the virus.

The photographic memorial drive in Detroit

A face is not a story, but in its lines and contours you can perceive quite a bit about a person. It was a moving tribute; the very idea brings tears to my eyes.

Ladies and gentlemen, we will likely have many months to go of isolation, of sickness and death. But we also have the gift of memory – remembering those we have lost; remembering our lives before the pandemic, remembering that humans are awfully clever, and will ultimately turn this time of sadness into one of rejoicing.

Although Yom Kippur is a Yizkor day, a day on which we remember those whom we have lost, and a day of gravitas as we seek repentance, rabbinic tradition tells us it is also a day of rejoicing; rejoicing at the fact that we know that if we work hard at the former, we will achieve the latter.

It is memory which may bring us salvation. It is memory which will bring us joy.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, morning service of Yom Kippur 5781, 9/28/2020.)

Categories
High Holidays Sermons

Back to Basics: Values / Integrity – Kol Nidrei 5781

As I hope you have noticed by now, the theme for this High Holiday sermon series is “Back to Basics.” In the context of the pandemic, our options for Jewish engagement have been somewhat limited (as with every other sphere of life, of course). As such I am taking this opportunity to go “Back to Basics”: to consider the essential items of Jewish life. These essential items are halakhah (Jewish law), minhag (customs), values, and story. We spoke about halakhah and minhag on Rosh Hashanah, and this evening’s subject is values. (If you missed them, you can read them on this blog, and you can also hear them on our podcast, the Beth Shalom Torah-Cast.)

Once upon a time, American Jews loved to play the game, “Who is a Jew?” We were filled with pride to see Dinah Shore or Kirk Douglas on our screens, looking so beautiful and strong and goyish, but we knew the truth. “He’s one of us,” we would boast to each other. I know that many of us are bursting with pride, alongside the grief, as the first Jewish female Supreme Court justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, lay in state last week. 

But then there are plenty of Jewish people of whom we are not proud, members of our tribe who are among the highest-profile criminals and detestable public figures today. I won’t mention any names, but I am sure you can come up with a list in your own head.

(BTW, Christians have it easier in this regard: they generally only count church-goers as Christians. But we count people differently: once a Jew, always a Jew. We could excommunicate these people, like we did with Barukh Spinoza (actually, we lifted the herem / excommunication on Spinoza a few years back), but we cannot deny the Jewishness of people whom we would rather not claim.)

And that hurts. Because we like to think that our Jewish values are universal; that somehow we all acquire them in Hebrew school or they are instilled in us by our parents; that even if we eat treyf (non-kosher food) and proudly violate Shabbat in public that the pintele yid, the tiny spark of Jewishness within us, will somehow keep us connected to the fold.

But it does not work that way. Our values will only hold if we act upon them, if we teach them to our children, if we model them for each other, if we remember that the Qadosh Barukh Hu is paying attention to our behavior.

I think it is very hard right now, six-and-a-half months into a worldwide pandemic, with maybe another year of isolation in front of us, and then coupled with all of the other chaos in the world, political and social and economic and spiritual, to be optimistic about the future. Many of you know that I am a self-described optimist, and yet I have found myself severely challenged by our current predicament. Everything is not OK.

And then I remember that we have a spiritual framework. Our Jewish heritage of learning, of action, of values is there to uphold us in times of trouble. Our ancestors, who survived many centuries of turbulence and upheaval, pogroms and genocide and dispersion, did so by leaning into their tradition. Etz hayyim hi, they sang, lamahazikim bah. The Torah is our Tree of Life if we reach out and grasp it. Our great-great-grandparents grasped and grasped and held on for dear life, and as a result, we are still here.

Part III: ערכים / Arakhim / Values

So tonight’s subject is values. Upholding our values at this time is more important than ever. If we are going to pull through this pandemic as a society, we have to remember that we have guardrails on our choices and behavior, not only from halakhah (Jewish law) and minhag (Jewish custom), but also drawn from our values. Values like:

  • Honesty
  • Empathy
  • Compassion
  • Taking care of the needy among us
  • Gratitude for what we have
  • Justice
  • Seeking peace
  • Pursuing the common good
  • Seeing the Divinity in all of Creation, including all people and all of God’s creatures

All of these have sources in Jewish text, in the Tanakh or in rabbinic literature. I am going to focus on one essential value this evening, one that I think is absolutely the key to all of them: integrity. While there are many sources on integrity from the Jewish bookshelf, here are a few that resonate with me:

Micah 6:8

הִגִּ֥יד לְךָ֛ אָדָ֖ם מַה־טּ֑וֹב וּמָֽה־ה’ דּוֹרֵ֣שׁ מִמְּךָ֗ כִּ֣י אִם־עֲשׂ֤וֹת מִשְׁפָּט֙ וְאַ֣הֲבַת חֶ֔סֶד וְהַצְנֵ֥עַ לֶ֖כֶת עִם־אֱ-לֹהֶֽיךָ׃

God has told you what is good, And what the LORD requires of you: Only to do justice And to love goodness, And to walk modestly with your God.

Some of you may know that this one is on my list of “refrigerator-magnet” texts – those that are just so pithy and essential that you should have them on your fridge. The prophet Micah tells us that the most essential path is that of acting from a place of justice and hesed, lovingkindness, but also to approach life modestly, that is, to approach all of your interactions with others from a place of holy humility.

Devarim / Deuteronomy 25:16

אֶ֣בֶן שְׁלֵמָ֤ה וָצֶ֙דֶק֙ יִֽהְיֶה־לָּ֔ךְ אֵיפָ֧ה שְׁלֵמָ֛ה וָצֶ֖דֶק יִֽהְיֶה־לָּ֑ךְ לְמַ֙עַן֙ יַאֲרִ֣יכוּ יָמֶ֔יךָ עַ֚ל הָֽאֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לָֽךְ׃

You must have completely honest weights and completely honest measures, if you are to endure long on the soil that the LORD your God is giving you.

The key to a long and happy life, says the Torah, is to deal with all others fairly. The essence of living a just life is treating everybody equally, not only measuring out your goods in the marketplace in an honest way, but also by measuring out your love and deeds and favor honestly and fairly.

Pirqei Avot 4:1 

אֵיזֶהוּ מְכֻבָּד, הַמְכַבֵּד אֶת הַבְּרִיּוֹת

Who is honored? The one who honors all of God’s creatures.

The way that we gain honor is not by expecting others to submit to you, but exactly the opposite. If you interact with the people around you from a place of respect, from honesty and good intentions, then those things will come back to you.

What does it mean to act with integrity? It means that we treat all people fairly and respectfully, regardless of who they are. It means that we are honest with ourselves and others in all our dealings. It means that we model upright behavior for others, and understand that the image of ourselves that we put out into the world should be one that others want to emulate.

Some of you may know that the Kol Nidrei prayer is among the more controversial pieces of liturgy in our tradition. Yes, we the Jews like to argue, even over what’s in the siddur / prayerbook. 

But Kol Nidrei is one of the few prayers in the Jewish canon that was controversial from the outset. It first appeared, as far as we know, in the 10th century, and its purpose was originally to nullify vows that one made with oneself and did not fulfill in the past year, vows like, “I’m going to learn to speak French this year,” or “I’m going to go on a diet, right after Simhat Torah.” A few centuries later, the renowned scholar Rabbenu Tam, one of Rashi’s grandchildren, changed the tense from past to future, making Kol Nidrei a pre-emptive nullification of such vows. 

Vows, promises that we make to ourselves, to others, or to God, are important; in addition to passages in the Torah about various types of vows, there is a whole tractate of the Talmud, Nedarim, devoted to issues surrounding vows. Right up there with being a person of integrity is the principle of keeping one’s word.

However, Kol Nidrei also provided material for anti-Semites. Misunderstanding the point of the prayer, which nullifies only those vows that we make with ourselves, the Jew haters of this world took Kol Nidrei as evidence that you can’t trust a Jew. And some rabbis railed against Kol Nidrei for centuries, because they thought that the less-scrupulous among us would take it as license not to live up to one’s word with impunity.

But you might think of Kol Nidrei today as a kind of relief valve, in particular for the very difficult kinds of resolutions we make with ourselves on Yom Kippur, like, “This year I’m really going to make peace with my estranged sibling,” or, “I’m going to give more tzedaqah.” The promises that we might make to ourselves, when we know that the Book of Life is closing, and we know that we really should do these things, but maybe we have tried and failed at self-improvement in the past. And we might very well fail again.

Keeping your word is very much a part of the value of integrity. And our tradition wants you to keep your word, especially to the others around you. Kol Nidrei does not excuse you from that.

OK, Rabbi, that all sounds very interesting. I want to act on this Jewish value of integrity. How do I do this?

I’m so glad you asked! Here are some ways we can act on this value:

In the personal sphere, that is, in your most immediate relationships, with your children, family and friends:

  • Do what you say you’re going to do.  Be the parent/friend/sibling/spouse that everybody can count on.
  • Follow through on promises, both the good (“I’ll be there to see your baseball game / play”) and the bad (“If you do that again, you’ll be punished.) The Talmud teaches us (BT Bava Metzia 49a) “Let your yes be yes, and your no be no.”
  • Model the behavior you know is best for the others around you. Teach integrity by acting with integrity.

In the communal sphere, that is, in interacting with the people in your neighborhood, your synagogue, your school, your workplace:

  • Decide what are the three characteristics for which you want to be eulogized.  Then consider if your actions and words reflect those characteristics.
  • Integrity means respecting your interlocutor and trusting that reasoned arguments are the only honorable way to have discourse. It is very easy in today’s world for disagreements to devolve into insults. Remember the spark of qedushah/holiness in all people when engaging in this way.
  • Do not criticize unless you are willing to be part of the solution. Always be prepared to offer up suggestions alongside criticisms, and be prepared for the possibility that others may not want your suggestions.

As a citizen of this nation and of the world:

We may not be able to solve all of the complicated problems in the world right now (I do not need to enumerate them for you), but if we were all to take a leap forward on the integrity scale, I think there is a good chance we could at least ease some of the pain. The world needs a good deal of healing right now, and although you might feel quite small, remember that you have real power, which you exercise every time you interact with somebody, whether it is your neighbor, a store clerk, or a stranger on the street. 

You have the potential, with your words and your deeds, to make someone’s day brighter or darker, to build up another’s confidence or to destroy it, to lift up your community by working for the common good or tear it down in your own self-interest. This power demands that we always act with integrity. 

At least three times per day in Jewish prayer tradition, we say, “Elohai netzor leshoni mera, usfatai middabber mirmah.” God, keep my tongue from evil, and my lips from deceit. The Talmud (BT Berakhot 17a) tells us that we should conclude every Amidah with these words. It is a reminder that our words count as much as our actions in creating a world based on integrity.  This is an effective daily meditation on our potential to impact others.

The Zen Buddhist priest, angel Kyodo williams, says the following in her book, Radical Dharma

We cannot have a healed society, we cannot have change, we cannot have justice, if we do not reclaim and repair the human spirit.

If we model integrity in the personal, communal, national and worldwide realms, we have the potential to heal and uplift the human spirit. If we act out of selfishness, deception, bias, prejudice, and fear, we will only continue to see our world crumble. 

The choice is ours. Pick the road of integrity, for the benefit of all of our fellow people. Remember your obligation to raise the level of qedushah / holiness in this world. Seek the betterment of yourself and others. I am confident that, by acting on the Jewish value of integrity, we can regain a more civilized world. We are all in this together.

Shanah tovah! 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, evening service of Yom Kippur 5781, 9/27/2020.)