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Sermons

The Hope that Overcomes Fear – Shelaḥ Lekha 5782

It is always an interesting time to be in Israel! You probably heard that the governing coalition fell apart while we were there, meaning that they will go to elections for the fifth time in three years. This coalition actually held together longer than anybody expected – about a year – and they at least passed a budget, which the State desperately needed. But the likelihood is that the next round will yield a right-wing government, and perhaps the return of Bibi as PM, despite his ongoing corruption trial.

But this was a particularly appropriate time to be in Israel, if not simply because the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Mega Mission was the first large group (about 240 strong, on seven buses!) to come to Israel since before the pandemic. It seemed that the whole nation was grateful that we were there, touring Israel, visiting people and museums and organizations and of course contributing to the tourist economy.

Bike trip with fellow Pittsburghers between Rosh HaNikra and Nahariya

It was also appropriate because of a curious calendrical phenomenon: that while we were there, Israeli synagogues read Parashat Shelaḥ Lekha, and upon our return, here we are again. This is due to the fact that, since Israel only observes seven days of Pesaḥ and we observe eight, and the eighth day this year was on Shabbat, we in the Diaspora have been one week behind Israel in the Torah-reading cycle since the week after Pesaḥ. (Don’t worry – it will all be resolved again in a few weeks!)

But two weeks of Parashat Shelaḥ Lekha is particularly appropriate because it opens with – get this – a bunch of chieftains sent to tour the Land of Israel. As you may recall, ten come back with a bad report (i.e. There are giants there who will squash us like bugs!), and the other two, Kalev and Yehoshua, report their modest confidence in being able to successfully enter and conquer the land. (It is worth noting here that the ten fearful reporters cause Moshe great anguish, such that he later refers to them as הָעֵדָ֤ה הָֽרָעָה֙ הַזֹּ֔את, “that evil community” (Num. 14:27), considered one of the sources identifying a minyan, a prayer quorum, as 10 people, according to the Talmud, Tractate Megillah 23b).

OK, so we know the end of the story: ultimately, the Israelites end up in Israel. But the problem at this particular moment in the Torah’s narrative is that this inaccurate, inflammatory report generates fear among the people. They are suddenly not so sure that they want to inherit the land which has been promised to them, particularly if doing so will guarantee that they will be squashed like bugs. 

On Shabbat afternoon in Jerusalem, after I had attended a spirited service at Shira Hadasha, had a lovely picnic lunch with some other trip participants, and managed a wee Shabbat shlof (nap), I attended a shi’ur with Rabbi Danny Schiff, who spoke about the themes of optimism and hope as presented in this tale from Shelaḥ Lekha, and seasoned with yet another great passage from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. This one is from his book, To Heal a Fractured World:

A morality of hope lives in the belief that we can change the world for the better, and without certain theological beliefs it is hard to see where hope could come from, if not from optimism. Optimism and hope are not the same. Optimism is the belief that the world is changing for the better; hope is the belief that, together, we can make the world better. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope an active one. It needs no courage to be an optimist, but it takes a great deal of courage to hope. The Hebrew Bible is not an optimistic book. It is, however, one of the great literatures of hope.

Kalev and Yehoshua are agents of hope. They know that, although there are certainly perils which await the Israelites in the land, they are still hopeful that they can overcome them. 

The extraordinarily timely question before us is, what is the story we tell about Israel? Do we tell the fearful story, the one about all the existential challenges facing the Jewish state, or do we tell the hopeful one? Do we expect that the political landscape of the Middle East will somehow change for the better, or do we rise to the challenge of making it change? Do we speak of Israel’s failures, and there are many, or do we catalog her hopes and dreams and successes?

Pride flag displayed by the American consulate in Jerusalem

On the last day of the mission, we heard a lecture by the journalist and author Matti Friedman, whose credits include five years working for the Associate Press bureau in Jerusalem until he became disillusioned with what the AP does in Israel. Friedman spoke about the perception that the AP and other media outlets create due to their hyper-focus on the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Among the items he pointed out was the fact that the journalistic presence in Israel is much higher than in most places. The AP, for example, has about 40 staff members on the ground in Israel, a nation which, including the Palestinian territories, contains about 14 million people. That staffing figure is not too different from the number of AP employees in China, a nation that has roughly 100 times as many people. Meanwhile, the number of homicides in Jerusalem, including terrorist activity, is roughly one-tenth that of Indianapolis, a city about the same size as Jerusalem.

So our perception of how dangerous Jerusalem is, for example, or the human toll of the conflict there is blown vastly out of proportion merely by the number of AP stories generated in that city, while by comparison the world is not too concerned about violence in Indianapolis, which is far more dangerous.

This is of course not to say that we should not be concerned about the political situation in Jerusalem, or in Israel vis-a-vis the Palestinian territories and a final-status agreement there, or the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, and so forth. To be sure, we should be aware of and engaged with those issues, and of course make our voices heard where appropriate. But it is worth remembering that the way we speak of Israel, like the story of the ten “bad” chieftains following their reconnaissance mission, shape our understanding of and our relationship to the State of Israel today. 

***

I have often described myself as an optimist. And I still am. But given R. Sacks’ definition, I think I might be more hopeful than optimistic. It is up to us not to wait for Mashiaḥ, to wait for peace to happen by itself, to wait for an equitable solution for all the 14 million people living on that tiny strip of land, but actually to make it happen.

And one way we act on that hope, according to Rabbi Sacks, is by committing ourselves to details of Jewish life, the mitzvot, the holy opportunities of our tradition. These details – actions, learning, ritual – not only sensitize us to the needs of others around us and to the values which we uphold, but also remind us of our essential connection to that land, even from so far away in the Diaspora. And they also teach us that hope requires us to be involved, not merely playing armchair philosopher or engaging in online back-and-forth, but actually doing something: being involved with a community, with other people, visiting the land of Israel, committing our resources through charitable contributions or other means.

I have hope for Israel. I have hope which overcomes fear. 

And I have the mitzvot, the details of Jewish life, which continue to keep us engaged and active, and maintain that hope.

And I have hatiqvah bat shenot alpayim, the hope that comes from 2,000 years of yearning within the Jewish soul, which helped to create the State of Israel and so too will ultimately forge a better world.

Graffiti in Jerusalem

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 6/25/2022).

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Sermons

Don’t Be Judgy – Naso 5782

I do not read Twitter very frequently – I find that the platform often reflects what is essentially wrong with everything in American society: no depth, no sense of history, no respect, virtually no guard-rails, nothing but an eternal present of often toxic non-dialogue.

Nonetheless, I peeked at it briefly this week, and found myself face-to-face with an interesting, if disheartening thread. It featured a rabbi I follow asking effectively, “If you do not belong to a congregation, please tell me why.” 

The answers ranged from “it’s too expensive” to “I cannot find the kind of community I need/want” to “I am uncomfortable with my local congregation’s embrace of Zionism / Israel” to “I feel judged by people in the congregation for my gender identity / sexuality / skin color / age / family status / financial wherewithal / insufficient knowledge, etc.”

Now, of course, it is extraordinarily easy on Twitter to create a group of malcontents on any particular subject. This is a platform that excels in “broken-tile syndrome” – the tendency to find and highlight flaws.

Nonetheless, it is that last complex of issues surrounding judgment that I find particularly troubling, because I know people that have felt turned away by this congregation for feeling judged. Any new person that walks into a synagogue and feels judged is pretty much going to walk out and never come back. And that has happened here as well.

So we have a problem. A kind of ancient problem, which is that religious traditions are historically “judgy.” Not only do our traditional texts speak of a the God of judgment, not only do we refer to Rosh HaShanah, the day when there are the most people in synagogues, as “Yom haDin,” the Day of Judgment, but the very foundation of an originally tribal religion such as ours is that there is always the in-group, that is, the people who are following our tradition, or at least are members of the tribe, and the out-group: everybody else. That kind of judginess is hard-wired into humanity, as well as Jewish, Christian, and Muslim tradition. (I cannot really speak from an informed perspective on the Eastern traditions, although I cannot believe that there is really any group that does not have at least a modicum of that dynamic.)

And actually, Parashat Naso includes one of the judgiest of judgy passages in the Torah. It’s the ordeal of the Sotah, to which the Torah commanded our ancestors to perform upon a woman suspected of cheating on her husband. Now, thankfully, this ordeal is not considered a legitimate ritual today, and even in the time of the Talmud the rabbis effectively claimed that nobody practiced it.* Nonetheless, there it is in the Torah, so of course we have to wrestle with it.

The ordeal is judgy because (א) the woman is subject to it merely if her husband suspects her; it does not matter what the reality is or if she strenuously denies her guilt; (ב) because it relies on an apparently supernatural judgment that is rendered in her taking a reaction to the potion that is prepared; and (ג) because there is no parallel ordeal for anything that a man might do outside of marriage, although of course “adultery” in the Biblical sense only applied to married women. To contemporary readers, this passage is absolutely unconscionable for many reasons.

So we have judginess in our roots. And add to that our centuries of legitimate mistrust and fear of outsiders: fear of pogroms, of genocide, of anti-Semitic actors and actions in all their various pernicious forms, fear of assimilation. Our history has taught us to be wary of those who are different, who do not fit into our expectations or follow our rules or suit our platonic ideal of who is a Jew. And even within the Jewish community, among committed Jews, we have the tendency to judge the choices of our co-religionists to the right and the left as well as the people within our own midst. 

And it is hard not to do.

But here we are in Pride Month, in case you missed all the rainbow signs on the way into the building. And here we find ourselves in the midst of culture wars over race and gender identity and political division over guns and abortion and voting rights and insurrection. And it is really hard not to judge the people with whom you vehemently disagree. We are living in fundamentally judgy times.

But we are going to have to learn not to be judgy if we are to keep this congregation going. Because today’s Jewish world is quite different from that of the past. Few of us grew up with immigrant parents who were steeped in Old World customs. We have far fewer children than in previous generations. People’s priorities in charitable giving have shifted. Virtually none of us feel like we have time to spare volunteering to help make synagogues run. And of course there are so many more choices today, including, of course, the choice not to participate at all, not to raise our children with Jewish knowledge or values or tradition.

And perhaps the greatest challenge that a large legacy institution such as this one faces is the desire that we all have to meet our individual needs exactly as we want them. Synagogues cannot please everybody, as much as we may try.

And so, with all of that stacked against us, any potential new member who walks in and feels judged for whatever reason is never coming back in. 

Let me be clear on this. It is very simple: we have to welcome everybody who walks in. It does not matter what their knowledge is, who their spouse or partner is, whether they are dressed appropriately, even if they are clearly eating a ham and cheese sandwich. (Well, we would kindly ask them to finish it outside and then warmly welcome them back in.) 

Of course, we must emphasize our engagement with and teaching of halakhah / Jewish law in the building and as a community, and continue to teach the Conservative movement’s contemporary approach. Nonetheless, we cannot judge anybody for their individual choices.

But Rabbi, aren’t there limits? OK, so if they are wearing Nazi symbols or carrying an AR-15 (God forbid!), we should refuse them entry. But otherwise, everybody here should bend over backwards to make sure that folks who walk in are greeted warmly, are treated with respect and dignity, are given honors where appropriate, and not judged for any of their personal choices.

And that means, ladies and gentlemen, sometimes going out of your comfort zone. It means expanding your circle to talk to somebody at kiddush whom you do not know. It means trying to not make somebody feel embarrassed or ashamed about what they know or don’t know about Jewish life and text and practice. It means sharing your enthusiasm for Jewish life and learning and community and Beth Shalom openly and genuinely, without in any way implying that if they do not live like you, they are somehow lacking. We should, as Pirqei Avot teaches us, greet every person with “sever panim yafot,” a cheerful countenance.

On Saturday night at the JCC, during the first real community Tiqqun Leil Shavu’ot that we have had in three years, Rabbi Danny Schiff led a wonderful talk about the oeuvre of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l, the former Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth. One passage that Rabbi Schiff shared was striking in its power and resonance. It is drawn from his 2007 book, The Home We Build Together. Rabbi Sacks wrote the following:

Covenants and contracts are different things and address different aspects of our humanity. In a contract, what matters is that both gain. In a covenant, what matters is that both give. Contracts are agreements entered into for mutual advantage… on the basis of self-interest… By contrast, covenants are moral commitments, and they are open-ended. They are sustained not by letter of law or by self-interest but by loyalty, fidelity, faithfulness. In fact the key word of Judaism, emunah, usually translated as ‘faith’, is better translated as faithfulness. 

Social contract creates a state; social covenant creates a society. Social contract is about power and how it is to be handled within a political framework. Social covenant is about how people live together despite their differences… Social contract is about the use of potentially coercive force. Social covenant is about moral commitments, the values we share and the ideals that inspire us to work together for the sake of the common good.

A qehillah qedoshah, a congregation founded in holiness, is established within the framework of covenant: our covenant with God, and our covenant with each other. And those covenants should lead us to give, not to take.

So if a synagogue sets out to try to meet everybody’s needs, we will fail. That is a contractual relationship that will be impossible to fulfill for 600+ families.

But rather, if we emphasize the covenantal relationship which we all share – the values of gratitude and family and generosity and prayer and learning and humility and halakhah – and strive to be the place that welcomes all with open arms, turning nobody away, then we will continue to grow and thrive. And Rabbi Goodman and I cannot do that alone. That is up to you.

Further along in Parashat Naso, we read the so-called Birkat Kohanim, the priestly blessing that has been bestowed upon our people for literally thousands of years. These are the same words we often hear during the repetition of the Amidah, and they are also traditionally used to bless our children at Shabbat dinner on Friday night (Bemidbar / Numbers 6:24-26):

יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ ה’ וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ׃ יָאֵ֨ר ה’ ׀ פָּנָ֛יו אֵלֶ֖יךָ וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ׃ יִשָּׂ֨א ה’ ׀ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם׃   

May Adonai bless you and protect you!
May Adonai’s face shine upon you and favor you!
May Adonai’s Divine countenance be lifted up to you and grant you peace!

The simple, almost haiku-like nature of this trifold blessing suggests that every one of us deserves God’s blessing, Divine light, favor, and peace, and that this desire is for all of us without any judgment. Nobody is excluded from this blessing. 

And perhaps we should take our cue from God and the Torah in this regard: Our social covenant requires that we offer blessing to all who seek it. Our values mandate that we extend a loving, accepting hand to all who come in. And our future peace depends upon our willingness to be a beacon for that light, as individuals and as a community.

~ Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 6/11/2022.)

*Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sotah 47b. The Mishnah states that the ritual only worked if the husband himself was free of transgression, and for whom can that be true?

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Festivals Sermons Yizkor

Consider Your Mortality – Shavu’ot Day 2 / Yizkor 5782

I heard a particularly inspiring story recently. It is the story of Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds, from Knoxville, Tennessee, who enlisted in the United States Army in 1941 and was sent to serve in Europe in the 106th Infantry Division. During the Battle of the Bulge in December, 1944, Sgt. Edmonds was taken by the Nazis as a prisoner of war, along with over 1,200 other American soldiers. As it turns out, Edmonds was the senior non-commissioned officer in the group, and was therefore the leader of the prisoners. The Battle of the Bulge, for those who do not know, was the Nazis’ last major offensive, and from the American perspective was the largest single battle in WWII, yielding 89,000 casualties, including 19,000 deaths over a period of about 6 weeks.

American troops during the Battle of the Bulge

Late in January of 1945, when the Nazis saw that they were losing the battle, the prison camp commandant instructed Sgt. Edmonds to order all the Jewish American soldiers to appear outside their barracks the following morning. The next day, all 1,275 American prisoners of war in the camp assembled outside the barracks.

The commandant was furious, and held a gun to Sgt. Edmonds’ head, demanding that he identify the Jews. Now, Jewish soldiers had been warned that if they were taken prisoner, they would likely be separated from the non-Jews and sent to death camps or slave labor camps, so they should destroy their dog tags if captured. Edmonds, knowing that if he identified the Jews, he would be signing the death warrant of up to 300 American Jews, responded by saying, “We are all Jews here.”

The Nazi commandant pushed him again to reveal the Jews, claiming that they could not all be Jewish. But Sgt. Edmonds knew that the Geneva Convention required that he give only name, rank, and serial number; religion was not a piece of information he would volunteer. He responded by saying, “If you are going to shoot, you are going to have to shoot all of us because we know who you are and you’ll be tried for war crimes when we win this war.” 

Roddie Edmonds was a humble man; he never told his family this story, but made a brief mention of it in his own diary. After he died in 1985, his son, a Baptist minister, discovered the entry, and managed to get in touch with a few of the Jewish survivors of the POW camp to uncover the whole story.

In 2015, Edmonds was posthumously honored by Yad Vashem as the fifth American, and only American serviceperson to be dubbed one of the Righteous Among the Nations, the title bestowed on non-Jews who rose above the Nazi horror, putting their lives at risk to save members of our tribe.

Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem

If you imagine yourself in Edmonds’ place for a moment, you have to wonder: Could I have been so brave? Could I have done the same thing? Would I have dared the Nazis to kill me to save a few of my comrades?

In that moment, he must have contemplated his own death. He must have thought, “I am ready to die to protect my Jewish fellow soldiers, who have put their own lives on the line for our nation. I will take this Nazi bullet if I have to, in order to save their lives and my own dignity.”

And of course, Sgt. Edmonds made the honorable choice.

How many of us have thought about our own death? I certainly have. Not in a bad way, mind you, but more from the practical perspective. If, God forbid, I were to be taken from this world tomorrow, how would life change for my family? What would my funeral look like? What would be my legacy on this Earth? Will somebody post something on my Facebook profile explaining that I will no longer be responding to direct messages? Will Judy find a new home for all of my suits?

Will my children remember me by reciting Yizkor prayers on the second day of Shavu’ot?

Bhutan

There is a Bhutanese folk saying that in order to be a happy person, you must contemplate your own death five times a day.

In order to enjoy the present, we have to remember that life is a finite gift. We only have so many days on this Earth, and it is up to us to use them as best we can. We only have so many opportunities to connect with others, to share our love with family and friends, to do good works in our community and for the world.

We only have so many opportunities to save a life.

We have to remember that we are going to die, so that we can appreciate the precious few years we have been given.

In a few minutes, we will recite one of the key passages of the Yizkor service, Psalm 16:8-9 (p. 331 in Lev Shalem):

שִׁוִּ֬יתִי ה’ לְנֶגְדִּ֣י תָמִ֑יד כִּ֥י מִֽ֝ימִינִ֗י בַּל־אֶמּֽוֹט׃ לָכֵ֤ן ׀ שָׂמַ֣ח לִ֭בִּי וַיָּ֣גֶל כְּבוֹדִ֑י אַף־בְּ֝שָׂרִ֗י יִשְׁכֹּ֥ן לָבֶֽטַח׃ 

God is always before me, at my right hand lest I fall.

Therefore I am glad, made happy, though I know that my flesh will lie in the ground forever.

We tend to think of Yizkor, more properly called Hazkarat Neshamot, remembering the souls, as recollection of those who have passed. But it is just as much a recollection of our own souls; a reminder to those of us who are alive that we can be happy now despite our mortality. Just like the Bhutanese, who derive their daily happiness from contemplating death, we, the Jews, understand that life is meant to be enjoyed, and that joy is heightened by its natural limit.

The quote from Psalms compels us to consider our mortality in a healthy way. And as we remember our parents and grandparents, spouses and siblings and children and aunts and uncles and cousins and dear friends whom we have lost, we have to remember the ways in which they used their time not only to give us life, but to make our lives better, to make our world better.

There has been, of late, a lot of public death and mourning in the news; three major mass shootings in three weeks, and a great deal of soul-searching and of course posturing about how to respond.

If I had one wish for our society, it would be that we value our precious few moments of our collective life so much that we do everything in our power to prevent others from taking it away. I will know that God truly is at my right hand if, when we as a nation stumble, we remember that our first task on this Earth is to do no harm, and indeed to stop others from harming if we can. 

And perhaps if we remember God’s presence, if we can center the imperative of, “Va-anaḥnu kore’im umishtaḥavim umodim,” that we bow, bend our knees in solidarity, and give thanks before the King of Kings, or Ruler of Rulers, and we recall our essential duty to conserve the life we have been graciously loaned from on high, we might as a society be able to pull ourselves out of the depths.

As we turn now to the service of Hazkarat Neshamot, of recalling those souls, I call on you now to reflect not only on those who gave you life, on those whom we remember, but also to take this opportunity to reflect on our own mortality, to remember our holy imperatives given to us by God, to remember the heroism of those who have saved lives, and of course to consider how we might save even more. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, second day of Shavu’ot, 6/6/2022.)

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Sermons

Hope, Ancient and Modern – Emor 5782

Last Wednesday, I was having dinner with my family on our back porch, and we saw our first hummingbird of the season! We have a hummingbird feeder out there that the ruby-throated hummingbirds come to, and since they move fast and do not spend a lot of time at the feeder, you have to be paying attention in order to see them. They return in April, and it is always exciting to see one. We also have a robins’ nest just outside our kitchen door, with four pale blue eggs in it. The birds fill me with hope for an enjoyable summer, but also the hope of return: of the constancy of life, that the Earth wakes up in the spring, that we all feel a little renewed. (The renewal that comes in spring is one reason, by the way, that Nisan is the first month of the year, and Pesaḥ is the actual Jewish new year festival, despite whatever goes on in the fall.)

You might have heard that we passed a grim milestone this week: one million American deaths from Covid-19. It is a lamentable fact that our proud nation has lost the largest absolute number of people to Covid in the world, and among wealthy nations we have the highest per-capita death rate as well, about 300 total deaths per 100,000 people since the start of the pandemic. 

And of course, death and sickness, although perhaps the most easily quantifiable measures of what the pandemic has caused, are not the only tragic outcomes. There is the unemployment, the inflation, the “supply-chain issues,” the rates of depression and anxiety and suicide and drug abuse and overdoses, the disruption of schools and workplaces and houses of worship. The list goes on.

But thank God, despite the persistence of new variants, despite the fact that Pittsburgh Public Schools just reinstated their mask mandate after only two weeks without, we are in a much better place at this moment. Thank God for the human ingenuity which has enabled us to produce effective vaccines in record time. Thank God for the resilience of the human spirit. 

We, the Jews, know something about resilience; we have been on this Earth for a long time, relating our Torah, our Teaching, from generation to generation for thousands of years. And we are still here, having survived centuries of persecution and dispersion and prejudice and genocide.

Why are we still here? Is it something in the smoked fish? Is it because we chant Ashrei responsively in Hebrew every Shabbat morning? Is it because of God?

Perhaps we are still here because of hope. Maybe it is because, despite all that we have been through as a people, we have not abandoned that hope: Hatiqvah bat shenot alpayim, the hope of 2,000 years; hatiqvah hanoshanah, the ancient hope, in the original wording of Naftali Herz Imber.

We are a hopeful people, and we have learned that from the very outset. You may know that there is a midrash, of which I am particularly fond, about the creation of the world – that God created and destroyed many worlds before arriving at the one described in the first chapter of Bereshit / Genesis, at the beginning of the Torah. At some point, and particularly after the flood story of Noaḥ, God realized that no world would be perfect, and that God would therefore have to stick with this one and hope for the best.

And there is evidence of hope in Parashat Emor, from which we read today. Much of the parashah is instructions to the Kohanim, the priestly class of ancient Israelites who performed the sacrifices in the Beit haMiqdash, the Temple in Jerusalem until it was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 CE. In that moment of destruction, the role of the Kohanim as spiritual leaders of the Jews vanished, and for the past 2,000 years, they have had effectively no clear role in Jewish life. (Yes, in some congregations they get the first aliyah to the Torah, and in some they ascend the bimah to recite the Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Blessing, over all the rest of us, although we do not follow either practice here at Beth Shalom.)

And yet, here in Parashat Emor, the Torah is explicit: the Kohanim, in order to maintain their distinctive, holy status, must follow certain laws. Among those things are not being exposed to tum’at met, the ritual impurity that comes from contact with corpses, and a male kohen is forbidden from marrying a divorced woman. (I am not commenting here on how to understand these laws today – that is a subject for another sermon.) If they do not follow these laws, they are not permitted to offer the sacrifices in the Beit haMiqdash, the Temple.

And there are many Kohanim today who continue to practice these mitzvot, even though there is no Beit haMiqdash, and no immediate plans to build it. 

Now, wait a minute. Kohanim are following ancient rules that absolutely no longer apply. Why? Because of hope. Because we know that, as slim as the chances are, they might someday be called upon to serve again, or their children or grandchildren.

And all the more so in the Conservative movement, where we have de-emphasized the idea of rebuilding the Temple and re-establishing the sacrificial cult. We have a better, traditional means of accessing God, that which we are engaged in right now: tefillah / prayer. The recitation of the Amidah three times each day replaces the daily sacrifices in the Beit haMiqdash. And we are OK with that. So we simply are not planning on rebuilding that Third Temple. And yet we also hope that the messianic vision of a peaceful world is still waiting for us. 

The retention of some of the practices of the Kohanim is a reminder that we always hold out hope for the future. We never cut our ties with the past, and we are eternally hopeful that some day we will live in a better world, a time of peace. You can see that vision, the vision of Isaiah (11:6) in the window over here to your right:

וְגָ֤ר זְאֵב֙ עִם־כֶּ֔בֶשׂ וְנָמֵ֖ר עִם־גְּדִ֣י יִרְבָּ֑ץ

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard lie down with the kid;

From the Faye Rubinstein Weiss Sanctuary at Beth Shalom

(Unfortunately, the window misquotes Isaiah, as does popular culture; the text does not say that the “lion will lie down with the lamb.” Oh, well.)

As an expression of hope, we continue to pray for that ultimate peace; that is why we conclude each Amidah with Oseh shalom bimromav… May the One who makes peace on high bring us peace here on Earth.

Consider also the tiqvah bat shenot alpayim, the hope of 2,000 years, the yearning for return that is evident throughout our history, our literature, and our prayer, that led to the establishment of the State of Israel, which has just celebrated its 74th birthday. Zionism is one of many forms of yearning in the Jewish soul, and that tiqvah, that hope, has yielded fruit far beyond the fantasies of any shtetl-dwelling Jew of the 19th century. We continue to hope and pray for peace in that land, for all its inhabitants. 

Consider also that in Emor there is a brief reprise of the essential agricultural laws, which appeared last week in Qedoshim as well: leaving the corners of our fields unharvested to allow people in need to take food (Vayiqra / Leviticus 23:22). We continue to give in the hope that someday there will be no need to do so.

We have our tefillah / our prayer. We have our text. We have our rituals and customs. And we have our hope.

As has been the case throughout much of the Jewish history of the last two millennia, we have many reasons to despair right now. But, as the 20th-century French-Jewish essayist Edmond Fleg once stated so incisively, 

Je suis juif, parce qu’en tous temps où crie une désespérance, le juif espère.

I am a Jew because in every age when the cry of despair is heard, the Jew hopes.

We mourn for those whom we have lost to Covid-19, and we, the living, acknowledge our gratitude that we are still here.

And we also continue to hold out hope that, even as we gather again, even as we move from pandemic to endemic, even as we face all of the challenges of our world, we will someday soon have a better world, one which is untroubled by all of our contemporary scourges, one in which wolf, lamb, leopard, and kid are all dwelling together, and the birds of spring bring renewal of spirit once again.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 5/14/2022.)

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Sermons

How to be Holy in Three Easy Steps – Qedoshim 5782

Some of you have surely heard me say that Qedoshim is truly my favorite parashah (e.g. here). That is not merely because, 39 years ago, I was called to the Torah for the first time as a bar mitzvah, one who has inherited the 613 mitzvot / holy opportunities of Jewish life, to read from this part of the Torah. Rather it is because, and I did not really get this 39 years ago, it contains the most essential line in the Tanakh, the Hebrew bible. I would not even dare to fantasize about correcting the great 1st-century BCE sage Hillel. However, if I were in his shoes 2,000 years ago, when he was asked by a potential convert to teach the whole Torah while standing on one leg (as in the famous midrash), I would have said (Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:2): 

קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

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

That is how chapter 19 of Vayiqra / Leviticus opens. Now, it is worth pointing out, as one of my teachers from the Jewish Theological Seminary, Dr. Raymond Scheindlin put it: 

But the chapter doesn’t begin “Be moral, for I the Lord your God am moral” or “Be righteous, for I the Lord your God am righteous.” It begins “Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”

Being holy is not necessarily being moral or righteous or socially conscious or politically engaged, although it may include all of those things. Being holy transcends the day-to-day mundane affairs which fill our lives. It is a much higher template for living. And Chapter 19 of Vayiqra / Leviticus, much of which we read today, teaches us how to be holy in three easy steps! I’ll tell you what they are in a moment, but first let me make the case for why you might want to pursue a holy life.

First, let’s face it: we are living in challenging times. (The working title for my book, by the way, is Torah for Tough Times.) Consider the great sense of isolation many people feel today, climate change, a yawning chasm between political factions in this nation which even cleaves families in two, the ongoing scourge of opioid abuse, rising rates of anti-Semitic activity, and throw in two years of pandemic and a senseless war in Eastern Europe, and a leaked document from the Supreme Court threatening abortion rights, just to name a few of the things that are raising our collective blood pressure.

Second, consider the fact that the spiritual framework which nourished our ancestors has gone away. Our forebears faced the challenges in their own lives by leaning into their Jewish practice. What do you lean into? Facebook? Instagram? No solace to be found there, I assure you.

Third, consider how your time has been stolen from you. Not only because the average American adult spends three hours a day staring at a smartphone screen, and the average teen seven hours, but also because work has invaded all the corners of our lives, and the endless options available to us for all kinds of wonderful activities push the possibility for holy, reflective moments off our radar.

Finally, consider how we prize our independence over all else, and how that has gone a long way toward creating a society in which we are all looking out for Number One. I sometimes feel that we have lost the sense of collective, that we can actually accomplish more when we work together to build a better society. Rebuilding that interconnected sense begins with doing things together across racial, ethnic, religious, and social lines – breaking bread, stepping forward to volunteer together, even just speaking with people who are unlike you.

Why should you want to be holy? Because a holy life is one which will make your life better as an individual and will make your neighborhood and your world better for all of us.

So, straight outta Vayiqra chapter 19, here is an easy three-step guide to living a holy life:

  1. Set aside sacred time.

19:30: אֶת־שַׁבְּתֹתַ֣י תִּשְׁמֹ֔רוּ וּמִקְדָּשִׁ֖י תִּירָ֑אוּ. Keep my holy Sabbaths and venerate my holy sanctuary, says God. 

We should read this expansively: by keeping Shabbat and venerating the miqdash, usually understood to be the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, we should understand that we must carve out holy moments in our lives. Now, let’s face it: it’s not so easy to set aside the holy time of Shabbat and holidays to be together with your family and your people and to gather in sacred fellowship with other Jews in our sacred spaces. Our time and by extension, our attention, are precious commodities in high demand; our lives are impossibly crowded with stuff, aided and abetted by the landscape of the Information Age.

Ladies and gentlemen, I shut down all my wired and wireless connections from sundown on Friday evening until dark on Saturday night. I do not spend money. I do not travel anywhere that I cannot get to on foot. I spend quality time with family – meals and games and lounging around, and I most assuredly get more and better sleep in those 25 hours than during the rest of the week.

And you can do that too. Really, you need it. You need the separation from the cut-and-thrust of daily interaction, from the likes and the retweets and your to-do list and schedules and commerce. You will make your life more holy and your weekday more productive if you shut down and spend quality time for those 25 hours as well. 

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously called Shabbat “a palace in time.” It is there for you to enter and to enjoy, and to raise the bar of holiness in your life. This is how we sanctify time rather than idolize things, and that is Step 1.

  1. Remember the other.

There are so many mitzvot here in chapter 19 that speak to this idea. Just a few:

19:18 וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ Love your neighbor as yourself.

19:16 לֹ֥א תַעֲמֹ֖ד עַל־דַּ֣ם רֵעֶ֑ךָ Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.

19:14 לֹא־תְקַלֵּ֣ל חֵרֵ֔שׁ וְלִפְנֵ֣י עִוֵּ֔ר לֹ֥א תִתֵּ֖ן מִכְשֹׁ֑ל Do not curse the deaf, or put an obstacle before the blind.

The essence of living a holy life is to remember that you are not an independent operator, that you function in cooperation with all the others around you, and that each of us contains a spark of the Divine. We honor and elevate that spark when we remember to love our neighbor, when we respect each and every person around us by listening, by trying to appreciate their position, and by greeting everybody with a cheerful countenance. We create a better environment for all when we seek to understand rather than simply dismiss, or God forbid insult, those with whom we disagree. And we bring honor back onto ourselves when we model that behavior for our children and our friends as well as the folks with whom we do not get along.

The Torah wants us to see the humanity, the Divine spark of the other, and seek to connect. It is up to us to raise the bar of holiness in all the ways we interact with the folks around us. Remember the other; that is step 2.

  1. Give.

Arguably the most essential mitzvot in Jewish life, the ones which the Talmud tells us explicitly that you must instruct one who joins our faith to know, are those that require us to set aside some of the produce from our fields to give to those in need. Four of them appear in this Holiness code (19:9-10):

וּֽבְקֻצְרְכֶם֙ אֶת־קְצִ֣יר אַרְצְכֶ֔ם לֹ֧א תְכַלֶּ֛ה פְּאַ֥ת שָׂדְךָ֖ לִקְצֹ֑ר וְלֶ֥קֶט קְצִֽירְךָ֖ לֹ֥א תְלַקֵּֽט׃ וְכַרְמְךָ֙ לֹ֣א תְעוֹלֵ֔ל וּפֶ֥רֶט כַּרְמְךָ֖ לֹ֣א תְלַקֵּ֑ט לֶֽעָנִ֤י וְלַגֵּר֙ תַּעֲזֹ֣ב אֹתָ֔ם אֲנִ֖י ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger. 

Of course, who in Squirrel Hill has a field, or harvests in this way? It is, rather, up to us to apply the spirit of these laws to how we live today, to remember that when we have plenty, we have to remember those who do not, and to give. 

But not only our money. What is our most precious commodity? Our time. Giving generously of your time fulfills these mitzvot as well. Find a charity that needs you; I’m happy to find you some volunteer work here at Beth Shalom. Spending time with others while you perform a mitzvah, in both the halakhic and the idiomatic sense, is a great way to be holy. Give; that is step 3.

***

This is the formula for holiness. It ain’t rocket science, as they say, but it is essential to living a complete life, and for using the traditional Jewish framework to improve yourself and your world. 

  • Set aside sacred time. 
  • Remember the other. 
  • Give. 

Three simple steps for living a holy life, and God knows this world could benefit from a whole lot more qedushah, more holiness. Please come talk to me if you need help in doing so; I would be honored to help you along your journey.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 5/7/2022.)

Categories
Sermons

Faithful Allies – Aḥarei Mot 5782

I went on a kind of pilgrimage this week. No, not a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, as our ancestors made at festival times in the ancient world, when the Temple was still standing. Rather, it was an interfaith trip to our nation’s capital to visit significant religious sites from several different groups. On the itinerary was the National Cathedral, the Latter-Day Saints (Mormon) Washington DC Temple, the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, Washington Hebrew Congregation, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, and the Sri Siva Vishnu Hindu Temple. (Lamentably, there was no mosque on the itinerary, perhaps because it is still Ramadan). 

Inside the Metropolitan AME Church with Rev. William Lamar IV

Our group was mixed – Jewish and Christian clergy of various streams, and part of the experience was the inevitable discussions en route: learning about one another’s traditions, seeking common ground, discovering how we read, for example, the Torah differently. I learned, for example, that Catholics celebrate Shavu’ot, although they refer to it as Pentecost, and for them it is the beginning of the ministry of the Apostles. They actually see it as an analog to our celebration of Mattan Torah, the gift of Torah at Mt. Sinai. And, by the way, it’s exactly seven weeks after Easter!*

Speaking of the Torah, one of the essential pieces of Aḥarei Mot, from which we read today, is a description of the ancient Yom Kippur, when the Kohen Gadol / High Priest would confess the sins of the Israelites onto the “scapegoat” and send it off into the wilderness. 

What is interesting about this, both from a Jewish perspective and from an interfaith perspective is that, while everybody wants to be cleansed of their sins, no major religious tradition as far as I know reads that passage as a literal guide to atonement. We, the Jews, pray and fast and confess our sins in public and ask for forgiveness from each other and from God, and pledge to change our ways. Christians and Muslims and Hindus and so forth all have their own ways of seeking forgiveness from sin, and many of these traditions include some of the aspects of the Kohen Gadol’s Yom Kippur ritual, particularly confession.

But nobody does exactly what is found in the Torah. We rather look back through the unique lenses of each of our respective faiths to relate to what we read in Aḥarei Mot (Vayiqra / Leviticus 16-18) this week. In that sense, we share some sense of common heritage. On this trip, there were multiple times that everybody in the group looked to the Jews as the originators of some of their practices, not in the sense of, “You did it all wrong, and we have fixed it!” But rather with the thrust of, “Thank you for showing us the way.” And frankly, that was somewhat encouraging.

The shrine of Our Mother of Africa, at the Basilica of the National Shrine. That’s a diagram of a slave ship on the floor at the entrance

One of the things that I have come to understand in recent years is that people of faith share quite a bit across religious lines. While I think that many of us grew up with a certain amount of justifiable fear or discomfort around non-Jews, given the complicated and unpleasant history of our people, I feel today a kinship with my non-Jewish colleagues which reflects our shared goals: to encourage mutual respect, to understand that while our religious approaches differ and our interpretations of scripture disagree, our goals are often the same.

We share a common yearning, and a common enemy.

We yearn for God. Yes, each in our own individual way; for some that yearning does not reflect traditional God language. But, as with the words of the Psalmist (Ps. 42:2):

כְּאַיָּ֗ל תַּעֲרֹ֥ג עַל־אֲפִֽיקֵי־מָ֑יִם כֵּ֤ן נַפְשִׁ֨י תַעֲרֹ֖ג אֵלֶ֣יךָ אֱ-לֹהִֽים 

Like a deer crying for water, my soul cries for You, O God.

The 17th-century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal once described this human need as a “God-shaped vacuum in the human soul,” a place inside of us that cries out for the potential that God gives us: for human connection, for doing good works, for elevating the holiness between people. What has continued to cause people to gather in praise of God, as we are doing right now? What has sustained religious engagement into a modernity that refuses to create room for God? It’s not kiddush (collation), and it’s not swimming in the pool at the JCC.

It is that impulse for Divinity, the fundamental human need to seek out the Divine spark in ourselves and others. It is the desire to fill that God-shaped hole. And we do that by building houses of worship; by telling stories and interpreting Scripture and adhering to customs and law and pilgrimage festivals with no pilgrimage and immersion in baptismal fonts and miqva’ot (Jewish ritual baths) and all the things that we do to pursue the Godliness in ourselves and others.

Mosaic at the Basilica in the chapel dedicated by Pittsburgh’s Byzantine Catholic community, showing the Pittsburgh skyline

And what is our  common enemy? It is indifference. It is the disinterested shrug that turns us back to the television, or the outrage machine on our smartphone screens, or intoxicants or shopping sprees or all the ways in which we divert ourselves and avoid facing the things we really need to face.

If we do not fill that vacuum with God, with the values that our tradition teaches us, we fill it with junk. We fill it with all of the myriad things which draw us away from holiness: leshon hara (the evil tongue) and idle pursuits rather than prayer and learning; fear and hatred of the other rather than love and connection and engagement; all of our numerous unhealthy addictions instead of the holy patterns in Jewish time.

Cantor Susan Bortnick at the Washington Hebrew Congregation

But you know better. You know that your religious framework gives you values which shape your life and your environs for the better: family; boundaries; conservation; gratitude; joy; understanding; community; support in times of grief; seeing multiple sides to every argument; respect for our fellow human beings; justice.

If only more people in the world understood the value in our traditions, in our holy books, in our framework. Maybe some of the turmoil in our world would be lessened somewhat. That is where my tefillah, my prayer is focused.

After dinner on Tuesday, when we had visited the LDS Temple, the synagogue, and the AME church, our friend and neighbor from Church of the Redeemer, Rev. Canon Natalie Hall, observed that in each of those places, our tour guides led with their most essential values. For the LDS folks, it was family. For the Jews, it was text, the holy words of our tradition. For the African Methodist Episcopal Church, it was justice.

If we were only to hold up those three things – family, text, justice – dayyenu! It would be enough. But of course that is not exactly how Judaism, or any faith tradition, works. We need to see, in some sense, the richness of our tradition through the lens of all that we do. We need to dig deeper, to climb higher, to keep reading and learning and discussing and arguing. We have to understand that, while we do not have a Kohen Gadol or a scapegoat or an altar on which to sacrifice to God, we do have the words of our tradition and our rituals and our law and our philosophy and the contemporary understandings that make these things meaningful to us today to guide us, in the words of Isaiah (42:21), יַגְדִּ֥יל תּוֹרָ֖ה וְיַאְדִּֽיר, to magnify and glorify God’s teaching.

Spending two days with colleagues from other traditions only reminded me that we are allies in faith, and that we all seek greater connection and a better world. And we can do that, folks. We carry ancient keys to the secrets for a healthier society. We only have to continue to teach them and live them. 

And, let’s face it: given the rising rates of anti-Semitic activity, it is good for us to be wary, and to decry anti-Jewish bias when we encounter it. But we must also seek partners across the aisle – in churches, mosques, and temples of all kinds – so that we might all seek forgiveness for our sins where appropriate; so that we might seek to understand each other and speak the same language, and so that we might be able to fill that God-shaped hole in the world.

Sri Siva Vishnu Temple

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 4/30/2022.)

* Echoing the seven weeks of Sefirat ha’Omer, the counting of the sheaves of barley from the second day of Pesaḥ until Shavu’ot, as described in the Torah. Today, there are no sheaves of barley, but Jews still count the seven weeks.

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Festivals Sermons Yizkor

We Live For Them – Yizkor / 8th Day Pesaḥ 5782

I saw a particularly moving video this week. It captured an installation by the artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg that appeared on the National Mall in Washington, DC last fall. It included 143 square sections of ground in which a total of 620,000 small white flags had been planted, one flag for each of the 620,000 Americans who had died of Covid-19 as of September, 2021. (You may be aware that we are now approaching 1 million official deaths, although the actual toll is surely higher.)

The video showed people strolling through this huge field of flags, writing names of loved ones they lost and messages about them on the flags, reflecting on the immensity of grief, hugging each other and crying and trying to make sense of it all. It was quite painful and very moving. (It might have been coincidental that the installation opened to the public two days after Yom Kippur, and remained open until just after Shemini Atzeret, two days of the Jewish calendar on which we remember those whom we have lost with prayers of Yizkor, prayers of remembrance for those who are no longer with us. But maybe it was not a coincidence.)

For a long time to come, we will be trying to wrap our heads around these two years of grief and pain and loss and anxiety and sickness and death. We will continue to feel the after-effects – the economic fallout, the political consequences, the social ills – perhaps for decades.

But those whom we have lost will always be remembered. We, the Jews, are good at memory. We are especially good at navigating the moments of grief that we face; through mourning and bringing comfort; through the framework of our tradition, our liturgy, our ancient texts. 

And we remember those who gave us life by completing their work on Earth, by honoring their best qualities, making them our own.

***

My grandfather, my mother’s father, grew up in poor circumstances. His father abandoned him and his brothers, and his mother was sickly and not capable of caring for them, so my grandfather was taken in by a foster family. He worked a couple of different jobs in his life: at various points he drove a taxi, worked as a salesman, and during the Depression he had a candy store, which he lost (according to my grandmother) because he would give away freebies to every soul who came in with a sob story.

Despite the hardships he faced, my grandfather was a sweet man who never let his circumstances bring him down. And my mother reminds me occasionally that he always complimented my grandmother after dinner. She had not always been a great cook, but no matter the quality of the meal, my grandfather, without fail, had words of praise for his wife. 

It’s a small thing: consistent gratitude. Everyday thankfulness. A simple, “That was wonderful, dear! Thank you.” My grandfather knew that, although he did not have a lot, he certainly appreciated what he did have.

And it is a lesson that I carry with me, even though my grandfather passed away 16 years ago, even though the last years of his life were marked by dementia, during which he did not even recognize his own family. I try to uphold that consistent sense of being grateful for what I have.

Back in January I was at a rabbinic retreat, and learned about a so-called “story cycle” in the Talmud (Moed Qatan 28a) about ancient rabbis trying to avoid the Mal’akh haMavet, the Angel of Death. A story cycle is a collection of related stories which are collected in one place in the Talmud. Sometimes they are the same story retold multiple times with different details and elaborations in each version; sometimes they are only loosely connected with a shared theme.

Most of us probably think of the Mal’akh haMavet in the context of the Passover story, which we all reviewed a week ago for the first nights of Pesaḥ: for the tenth and final plague to which the Egyptians are subjected, the Mal’akh haMavet passes over the homes of the Israelites, on the way to take the first-born children of the Egyptians, including that of the Pharaoh himself. (That is, of course, where we get the name “Passover.”)

But the Mal’akh haMavet is a familiar character in rabbinic literature, appearing in many places. And in this story cycle, it is clear that he has a certain code: he cannot take the souls of people who are engaged in righteous acts. So, for example, Rav Ḥisda is so pious that the words of Torah never depart from his lips; he is constantly studying and reviewing and repeating our ancient holy texts. And so when the Mal’akh haMavet comes to take him, he is foiled by the continuous flow of holy words from Rav Ḥisda’s mouth. So the Mal’akh haMavet sits down on a cedar bench nearby, and the bench cracks, making a loud noise. Rav Ḥisda is momentarily distracted, pauses in his recitation of holy words, and so the Mal’akh haMavet takes his soul.

Other stories on the page make it clear that all the ancient rabbis for whom the Mal’akh haMavet comes are trying to avoid death. And even though one, Rav Naḥman, concedes that death is painless, nonetheless Rav Naḥman also adds that the living world is better, because, in his words, in the world-to-come, 

אֲמַר לֵיהּ: מַאן חֲשִׁיב, מַאן סְפִין, מַאן רְקִיעַ

Rav Naḥman said to Rava, “[In the world-to-come], who is important? Who is honorable? Who is complete?”

Put another way, we are all equal in death, and the world of the dead is unremarkable. Life is where it’s happening; all of the good stuff is here on Earth, not in the afterworld.

Now that is interesting, because some religious traditions, and even some Jews, think that the afterlife is the goal. That better living in “Olam haBa,” the world-to-come, is our goal here on Earth. That the reason we keep the mitzvot, the 613 holy opportunities of Jewish life, is so that we can merit a place in Olam haBa.

So one implicit message of this passage is, “not so much.”

Truth is, normative Judaism does not have a lot to say about Olam haBa. Yes, it is certainly mentioned as a desirable destination. But let’s face it folks: the bottom line of Jewish living, of the mitzvot and our rituals and our dietary guidelines and our holidays and our prayer and our values is to ensure that we act as holy people, that we elevate the holiness in all our relationships right here on Earth, in the world of the living. We learn Torah and act on its imperatives for Olam haZeh: this world. Not for Olam haBa, the world-to-come.

To paraphrase Rav Naḥman, it is in this world that we can be important, honorable, and complete. In this world we can attain these things by valuing what is truly important, by maintaining the honor of others, by helping to complete God’s work here on Earth.

And how do we do that, exactly?

We do it by remembering.

We remember our story. We tell it over and over to our children, just as we all did one week ago at the Pesaḥ seder.

We remember our ancestors, Avraham and Sarah, Rivqah and Yitzḥaq, Raḥel and Ya’aqov and Leah, and Moshe Rabbeinu and Miriam haNevi’ah (the prophetess) and Eliyahu haNavi and on and on. We remember their values and deeds, and we act on them.

And we remember our parents and grandparents and spouses and aunts and uncles and cousins and children and teachers and friends and neighbors. We remember what they taught us. We remember what they valued. We even remember when they failed us, because we learned from those failures as well.

Rosie and Eddie, in an undated romantic moment

You know why life is better than death? Because we carry all of those things with us, and we can act on them. We take the wisdom of those who came before us to help improve ourselves, to intensify the holiness in our marriages, to teach our children to be better people, to do good works for others.

We, the living, remember those who came before us so that we can carry out the good deeds of the dead. We live to maintain their honor. We live to complete them. To express gratitude; to praise others; to be friendly and personable and affectionate; to pick up others when they fall, and occasionally to right their wrongs.

To be alive is to remember, and to act on what has been handed to us.

And so we remember, and we live for them.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning / eighth day of Pesaḥ, April 23, 2022.)

Categories
Sermons

Time to Gather Again – Shabbat HaGadol 5782

You may know that back in the Old Country, rabbis would only give sermons twice a year: on Shabbat Shuvah, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and on Shabbat haGadol, right before Pesaḥ. (You know who likes to cite this fact frequently? Cantors, who are always hopeful that the rabbi will talk less.)

I think the reason, historically, was that those were times in which the rabbis felt the need to remind their congregations of the important halakhic details surrounding Yom Kippur and Pesaḥ, so they lectured them on the intricacies of fasting and repenting, on ḥametz and matzah and purifying our homes and our lives, and so forth.

So one reason this day is called Shabbat haGadol, which you might translate as “the Big Shabbat,” is that services historically took longer, since the rabbi would be talking extensively about kashering your pots and pans, burning and selling ḥametz, and so forth.

On this Big Shabbat, as we emerge cautiously after two years of pandemic, we have to remember to think big, that is, to think in terms of community, rather than as individuals.

My daughter, who was called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah here in the depths of the pandemic in August 2020 with a few more than a minyan of close relatives in the room, recently told me something that was particularly striking. She sings with the Pittsburgh chapter of HaZamir: The International Jewish Teen Choir. If you are not familiar with HaZamir, you should know that there are 25 chapters in cities across the United States, and eight chapters in Israel, and every spring they gather in New York to perform together – hundreds of American and Israeli teens on stage at Lincoln Center. It is powerful and moving; many young members of Beth Shalom have sung with HaZamir over the years.

HaZamir performing in Pittsburgh at Temple Sinai, 2019

But that concert is only the part that is visible to the public. On the day before the concert, that is, on Shabbat, the participants organize and attend their own services. Now, imagine if you will that you have a population of 400 Jewishly-knowledgeable high school students, who are all talented singers, and you ask them to create Shabbat services? The result, which I have not personally experienced, but my daughter did two weeks ago, is something wonderful. She described it as restoring her faith in the idea of Am Yisrael Ḥai: The people of Israel lives!

https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=979326796024987

I was kind of struck dumb by this remark. All of the investment in her Jewish upbringing – the day school tuition, the bat mitzvah prep, the summers at Camp Ramah, USY conventions, Shabbat and Yom Tov services here at Beth Shalom week after week – and the thing that gives her hope for the Jewish future is an annual Jewish choir convention in New York. I frankly did NOT see that coming.

But it speaks to the idea of thinking big. That is, thinking about community. What made that Shabbat work was the instant-community feel of it: a whole bunch of teens brought together for a particular purpose, thinking not only of themselves, but rather of the entire gathering, of the whole group together.

And you know what? We can think big right here in Pittsburgh. We do not have to head out to Lincoln Center to find community.

On the contrary: we have it right here. And this is not an instant community; it is fashioned from a group of people who have been convening under the banner of Congregation Beth Shalom for more than a century. 

But there is an urgency right now to our being able to think big.

While it is true that the pandemic is not over, we are thankfully in a lull in terms of new infections and hospitalizations. We are now mask-optional here in the building, except for our youngest congregants (with the innovation this week of a mask-required section here in the Sanctuary). 

And looming larger in our midst is the challenge right now of returning to one of the basic principles in Jewish life, that our tefillot, our religious services, take place in person. That is, they require physical proximity, in order to constitute a minyan, a prayer quorum of 10 Jewish people. 

Before I get to how we get there, just a quick review of how we got here.

As you may know, 9 or fewer people praying together are considered individuals, and there are certain parts of the service which may not be performed unless there are at least 10 people present. Those items include reading Torah, reciting the Barekhu, the repetition of the Amidah including the Qedushah, and any form of the Qaddish, including Mourners’ Qaddish. Prior to March 15, 2020, we held fast to the halakhic principle that those people must be in the room.

As the world was shutting down 25 long months ago, we moved our services almost entirely on-line. The Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards issued a teshuvah, a rabbinic response to a halakhic quandary, that in certain circumstances people who are not in the same building but within sight and hearing of the service may be counted in the minyan.

Our new electronic tools have made this possible from a much greater distance than the ancient rabbis of the Talmud could have possibly envisioned. In his teshuvah, my colleague Rabbi Joshua Heller suggested that we apply a hora’at sha’ah, a temporary measure that would apply in this she’at hadeḥaq, this urgent situation brought on by the social distancing requirements of the pandemic. This enabled us to constitute a minyan via Zoom, when we were not in each other’s physical presence, but rather in “virtual” presence, and therefore able to complete our daily tefillot in the usual way.

Prior to two years ago, the Conservative movement did NOT allow this, and we at Beth Shalom would not have accepted a laptop and screens sitting in the middle of the Samuel and Minnie Hyman Sanctuary. But considering the she’at hadeḥaq, this urgent situation, we changed one of the fundamental principles of Jewish life. And for many of us, this was an essential lifeline for the last two years. Many of us were stuck at home for much of that time, with few opportunities to connect with others. Indeed, weekday service attendance over the last two years has actually been higher at times than pre-pandemic, and we have never failed to make a minyan

But, ḥevreh, it is now time to return to where we were before the pandemic. And now is the time to think big: to think beyond ourselves as individuals. To consider the greater needs of this community.

What is the most important part of tefillah, of prayer? Is it fulfilling the mitzvah, the holy opportunity that our people have been practicing for thousands of years? Is it reciting the Shema and the Amidah, the two fundamental building blocks of Jewish services? Is it hearing the Torah read and interpreting it? Is it enabling folks to recite Mourners’ Qaddish?

While all of those things are essential to Jewish life and the keys to our ongoing existence and flourishing, the most important aspect to tefillah is the gathering. It is the banter before, the schmoozing after, the human contact that takes place as we come from our separate directions to form a minyan, interact, even if only briefly, and go our separate ways again.

We need to be around each other, in person. We need to see each other’s faces, to hear each other’s voices in their full, resonant glory, uncompressed by Internet transmission technology. We need to be present for one another, in moments of grief and celebration, pain and joy.

And that is why our Religious Services Committee has set a date: Monday, May 2, three weeks from now. On that morning, we will start serving breakfast after morning minyan once again, as we always used to do (thanks to Dee Selekman and her team of assistants), and both morning and night we will expect that the minyan will have to be 10 people, in person, in the room.

Yes, I know that means you have to leave your home and #ComeBacktoShul in order for us to make a minyan. Yes, we will continue to offer our services via Zoom, but that some of our regular Zoom participants who are in other states and even in other countries will not count toward the minyan. Yes, there are people for whom it is still not safe to come into the building, and that is surely a consideration. 

But we have to think big. We have to think not just about ourselves as individuals, but the greater good as a qehillah qedoshah, a community founded in holiness. And this principle is one which we should not relinquish. 

Congregation Beth Shalom

You may know that there are already synagogues which have entered the so-called “metaverse.” While I admire their willingness to be ahead of the curve, I must emphasize that a synagogue is a fundamentally local institution. I am fairly confident that whatever Mark Zuckerberg creates and however impressive the technology, we are going to need in-person interaction unmediated by Reb Zuckerberg and his platforms. We need to be together.

On this Shabbat haGadol, this Big Shabbat, it is time for us to acknowledge the urgency of restoring this crucial aspect of Jewish life.

And let’s face it: there may be some nights we won’t make a minyan. We have the GroupMe app to help summon others if necessary. But here is where you come in: help us out. Pick one night a week, or one night a month, to help us support one another by being in minyan, in communal relationship together. Think big! Show up.

חג שמח! Ḥag Samea! May we all have a joyous Passover festival, marked by gathering and community and good discussions around the seder table.

Categories
Festivals Sermons

The Most Imperfect Jewish Food – Shemini 5782

Do you like matzah? I do not. (There are many people who eat it year round – I have never understood this.)

There is a certain irony to the Passover season. Those of us who prepare for it in a traditional way are already working hard at cleaning and “kashering” (making kosher) our homes in preparation for the holiday, or at least working hard to gobble up all our mishloaḥ manot packages in time. In these weeks before Pesaḥ, the tradition is to seek a kind of impossible perfection in dutifully removing every microscopic bit of ḥametz, the five species of prohibited grains: wheat, oats, barley, rye, and spelt. 

Every surface must be scrubbed; every drawer emptied; old food products discarded. The gunk at the bottom of the fridge is banished. In Sephardic homes, where they eat rice, there is a custom of checking each individual grain of rice to make sure that there is no ḥametz hiding in the bag. We replace our dishes and silverware with those reserved just for the eight days of Pesaḥ. We sell the expensive stuff (whiskey and large stashes of unopened pasta, e.g.) to somebody who is not Jewish so that we do not own it during the holiday. And if all that is not enough, we search our homes on the night before, with a candle and a feather, to ensure no errant crumbs are hiding. And as we burn our last bits of ḥametz, completing the process of ḥametz eradication, we say an ancient Aramaic formula that declares any remaining hametz that we somehow missed null and void, like the dust of the Earth.

We seek perfection in the removal of ḥametz from our lives, a kind of ideal, flawless, ḥametz-less state.

And then something really strange happens. As soon as we perfect our lives in this regard, we eat the most imperfect bread-like substance in “celebration” of what is supposed to be a joyous holiday. 

Some of our ancient commentators try to explain this Torah-mandated complete removal of ḥametz from our lives as an attempt to rid ourselves of arrogance or the evil inclination. The Talmud tells us (BT Berakhot 17a) of a prayer offered by Rabbi Hamnuna:

רִבּוֹן הָעוֹלָמִים, גָּלוּי וְיָדוּעַ לְפָנֶיךָ שֶׁרְצוֹנֵנוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת רְצוֹנֶךָ, וּמִי מְעַכֵּב? — שְׂאוֹר שֶׁבָּעִיסָּה

Master of the Universe, it is revealed and known before You that our will is to perform Your will, and what prevents us? The yeast in the dough…

That’s a curious prayer, isn’t it? 

Rabbi Hamnuna’s point is that what prevents us from being the best people we can be, in holy relationship with God and the others around us, is the arrogance within us that puffs us up, makes us feel bigger than we are. That is the ḥametz in our hearts, the leavening of the soul.

Jews like this idea of physical-action-as-metaphor. A few other examples: We tear an article of clothing while in mourning, and wear it during shiv’ah to demonstrate physically how our insides are torn by the loss. We wear white on High Holidays and throw bread into running water to reflect our desire to be cleansed of sin. We eat cheesecake on Shavu’ot to remind us of the sweet, richness of Torah in our lives. At the seder table, we recline as we drink our four cups of wine, to enjoy the luxury of dining as people set free from slavery.

Likewise, our physical removal of ḥametz from our homes reflects our desire to uproot the arrogance in our souls.

The 18th-century Hasidic Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk cautioned against feeling too confident in our great talents at avoiding transgression. Don’t walk around feeling you are so perfect, he said, just because you have not sinned lately. Most likely, you have not been challenged appropriately to find the distasteful trait within yourself that leads you astray.

And that is exactly the message of the first night of Pesaḥ. We have dutifully expunged every crumb of arrogance, of puffed-up pride in ourselves, of leavened ego, and then at the seder we say the berakhah al akhilat matzah” and take a first bite of matzah, at least a kezayit, the size of an olive. For many of us it will be the first matzah we have consumed in about 376 days (leap year!); for most of us, this moment is a major letdown.

You worked hard to get there. You scrubbed the floors and the counters, searched corners and cabinets, burned bread and leftover babka. You prepared food that is 100% ḥametz-free. 

And then, meh! For this we left the fleshpots of Egypt?

The Torah (Deut. 16:3) calls matzah “leḥem ‘oni.” The bread of poverty. Poor bread. We use that term in the haggadah, right up front in the Maggid section, when we say in Aramaic,

הָא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא דִּי אֲכָלוּ אַבְהָתָנָא בְאַרְעָא דְמִצְרָיִם

This is the bread of poverty which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.

This bread is meant to be imperfect. It is meant to remind us that, no matter how hard we might seek perfection, we are never going to achieve it. Humans are simply not intended to be perfect.

And, by the way, what is that matzah made from? Exactly the same stuff that we have been trying to get rid of for weeks. We often miss the even greater irony that matzah, according to halakhah / Jewish law, is the one form of those five grains that we can eat. Not allowed to rise, not allowed to get fluffy or tasty or glutinous; merely baked quickly, within 18 minutes of having contacted water. It is not just imperfect, not only flawed, but rather it is BY DESIGN unpalatable! You should not enjoy it! 

Ramban, AKA Naḥmanides, the 13th-century Spanish commentator, tells us that leḥem ‘oni cannot be fancy, rich bread that is otherwise unleavened, if there is such a thing. It has to be meager. It has to be tasteless.

So what’s the message? 

In the next three weeks, you should absolutely seek out and destroy the ḥametz in your life. Find the arrogance, the inclination to do wrong, the jealousy, the impatience with others, whatever it is that you are holding onto that is preventing you from being a holy person.

But know also that you will fail at this task, that no matter how hard you try, the results will be imperfect. You will be imperfect. We are fundamentally flawed beings. 

And yet, matzah is still bread. We move forward, imperfectly, with adequate nourishment, aware of the tasks ahead of us.

Some of you know that I have a thing for old Israeli tunes. There is something in the popular music of the British mandate period and the early decades of the Jewish state that is so emotionally powerful; it is filled with melodies and Hebrew lyrics that just tug at your heart-strings.

I was reminded of one of those old tunes this week, a song by the greatest Israeli pop composer of all time, Naomi Shemer. The song is החגיגה נגמרת / HaḤagigah Nigmeret, from 1976. It’s a song that was often sung at the end of festive evenings of the widespread Israeli pastime of שירה בציבור / shirah betzibbur, group singing. 

The song reminds us that, when the party is over, it is up to us to pick ourselves up and start again mibereshit, from the beginning. The refrain is as follows:

לקום מחר בבוקר עם שיר חדש בלב
לשיר אותו בכח, לשיר אותו בכאב
לשמוע חלילים ברוח החופשית
ולהתחיל מבראשית

Laqum maar baboqer, im shir adash belev
Lashir oto bekhoa, lashir oto bikh’ev
Lishmoa alilim berua haofshit
Ulehatil mibereshit

To get up in the morning, with a new song in your heart
To sing it with strength, to sing it in pain
To hear flutes in the free wind
And to start over from the beginning.

There is no perfection; the battle for purity of our souls is endless. We just have to get up the next day and give it another shot.

After the cleaning and scrubbing of ametz from our lives, and after the subsequent disappointment by that infamous bread of poverty, and after the eight days of the holiday are over and the Pesa dishes and pots and pans are put away, the next task is to try again. Your mission, imperfect from the outset, is to keep that spiritual ḥametz at bay; to face the world without arrogance, without holding onto what leads us astray.

That is the fundamental message of Pesaḥ.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 3/26/2022.)

Categories
Sermons

#ComeBacktoShul – Vayiqra 5782

I was in church last Sunday afternoon. Admittedly, it was the first time I’d been to a church service in a while. 

I participated in an interfaith prayer gathering in support of the people of Ukraine at St. Paul’s Cathedral, presided over by Bishop Zubik of the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese. In attendance were people from across the religious spectrum of the region, including Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, and Christian spiritual leaders, as well as over 500 attendees. While some of the overtly Christian language was uncomfortable to me, the overarching message was a resonant one: we stand with the Ukrainian people. In addition to words of prayer and remarks by some of the clergy participants, including a very moving personal story from Father Ihor Hohosha of St. George Ukrainian Catholic Church, the service was occasionally punctuated by people calling out, “Slava Ukraini!” “Glory to Ukraine!”

It was inspiring to see so many people together in one place – the first indoor gathering of that size that I have attended in two whole years, and all the more so to unite across theological lines in support of a cause.

One might criticize such a gathering by saying, “OK, that’s great. But what the Ukrainians need is actual, material support – arms, military personnel, humanitarian aid, and so forth. What good does having an interfaith prayer service do?”

Actually, ladies and gentlemen, prayer accomplishes a lot. And that’s why we are about to launch Beth Shalom’s #ComeBacktoShul campaign. I’ll come back to that in a few minutes.

What does tefillah / Jewish prayer accomplish? And why engage in it?

Here are the major communal and individual benefits:

  1. Tefillah / prayer brings us physically together. As you know, you have to have a minyan, a quorum of 10 people for it to be a complete service. That means you have to show up, something which is hard enough today even without a worldwide pandemic. And, as we have all learned in abundance over the past two years, being in the same room with other people is much better than seeing your fellow participants on your screen.
  2. Tefillah makes us feel like a community. אל תפרוש מן הציבור, “Do not separate yourself from the community,” says Pirqei Avot. When we have at least 10 people together in a room, we feel interconnected. We understand that we are parts of a greater whole. We build a qehillah qedoshah, a congregation founded in holiness.
  3. Prayer sensitizes us to the needs of the other. If you are doing it right, engaging in tefillah reminds you that, in this solitary moment of ritual, we are connected to God, to each other, to our ancient tradition. It reminds us that connection requires being open to and aware of the people around us. There is a custom that many have of giving tzedaqah during the weekday morning service, because that is a moment in which we are most sensitized to the needy around us. (We cannot pass the tzedaqah box on Shabbat, because handling money is forbidden on Shabbat; nonetheless, even on Shabbat, tefillah should lead us to see the Divine spark in everybody.)

    One of the first things that we say as part of the morning service is from Rabbi Isaac Luria, the 16th-century kabbalist (you can find this on p. 102 in Lev Shalem):

הריני מקבל עלי מצות הבורא: ואהבת לרעך כמוך

I hereby accept the obligation of fulfilling the Creator’s mitzvah: Love your neighbor as yourself. 

We cannot even begin to daven without first acknowledging that we are in relationship with the people around us.

  1. Tefillah is meditation. Jews are never silent, even when they pray. Our meditation is not like Eastern meditation; our mantra is in Hebrew, and has many more words. But if you are truly mindful about your prayer, if you are truly in the moment and successfully let go of the other things that are tugging at your attention during services, our prayer tradition functions the same way. That too is very hard. But if you commit yourself to doing it regularly, you will achieve the same thing that you might achieve in other kinds of meditation. 
  2. Tefillah teaches Torah. The highest ideal in Jewish life is learning; the most essential mitzvah out of all 613 is engaging with words of Torah. If you are paying attention, prayer is study, and study is prayer; they reinforce and build on each other. 
  3. Tefillah means “self-judgment.” If you are doing it properly, prayer is an opportunity to check in with yourself, to evaluate where you are, what you have done right and wrong, and to see if you can tip the scales in the right direction. As with all of the items above, tefillah is a tool for improving yourself and improving your community and your world. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi taught that, as we open our mouths in prayer, we should start by saying, “Dear God, whatever jealousies and resentments I might harbor in my heart, please remove this judgment from me.” Self-judgment.

Yes, for Jewish prayer there is a high bar. Even if you cannot read Hebrew, you still have to be able to manage transliteration. And you have to know when to respond, and when to be silent, when to stand/sit, when to bow, and so forth. And to understand the meaning of the words – to be able to glean something from them, that takes real work. I had many semesters of liturgy and liturgical Hebrew in Cantorial School, and I still encounter words or idioms I do not understand. 

But of course some of those things do not require a deep knowledge. The mere act of gathering as a community so that we can feel connected to one another is an outcome that we can all achieve, even if you don’t know the words, or when to bow.

And yet, every time we gather for a service, we raise the level of qedushah / holiness in ourselves, in our relationships, and in our community. And in doing so, all of the benefits I just mentioned help us work toward improving this world.

So even though Ukraine is very far away, our gathering to say words of prayer on behalf of the Ukrainian people will surely help, even though we might not see the results immediately. Every prayer helps a little bit.

Which brings us back to why we are here. Yes, we are here this morning to celebrate with a bar mitzvah as he is called to the Torah. Yes, we are here to be with each other, to have lunch together. 

But more pointedly, we are here to pray. And we do that every day at Beth Shalom, twice a day, morning and evening.

And we need you to come back to pray with us. In person.

Thank God, our rates of transmission are as low now as they were last summer. Thank God, many of us now are boosted. We hope that soon young children will be able to be vaccinated as well. I am grateful, and I am sure that you are too.

I have heard recently from multiple members of Beth Shalom, in different ways and using different language, that right now, after two years of pandemic, they feel disconnected from our community. Well, folks, there is just one solution to that: #ComeBacktoShul. 

We need you to be here. Physically. In-person. We need you to come back. We are waiting for you.

And we need you to bring a friend. Find the people whom you know have not returned, and invite them to come back as well. We will welcome everybody with group air hugs all around.

So here are a couple of practical considerations:

  1. We are still wearing masks in the building, at least for a couple of more weeks. We want to be sure that everybody feels safe. It’s not going to be so easy for us to simply start to gather again. It still makes me a bit nervous to be around unmasked people right now. But that is a temporary thing. We’ll get used to it again.
  2. We are serving food again, and I hope that we’ll be able to start up our weekday-morning breakfasts soon.
  3. We will continue to make our services available via Zoom. However, within the coming months we will no longer be, as we have been for the past two years, in the mode of “she’at hadeḥaq,” which is rabbi-speak for “an urgent situation.” As the urgency of the moment recedes, we are going to return to the mode where a minyan is constituted only by people in the room, and we will not count Zoom participants toward that minyan. That will be a big change for our weekday minyanim, so you might want to consider helping us out morning and evening, so that we can continue to make a quorum. I anticipate that (if everything continues moving the right direction) this change will be coming around Pesaḥ.

The prophet Isaiah tells us that the Jewish center of worship is an ecumenical space, one that is for everybody. Isaiah says (56:7):

 כִּ֣י בֵיתִ֔י בֵּית־תְּפִלָּ֥ה יִקָּרֵ֖א לְכָל־הָעַמִּֽים׃

For My House shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.

Rabbi David Qimḥi, a late 12th/early 13th c. French commentator, also known by his acronym רד”ק (Radaq), said this about this verse:

וגם אל הנכרי כל שכן לשבים לדת ישראל:

And if Isaiah’s words applies to non-Jews, all the more so to those who are returning to Jewish worship.

This house is open to you, and to everybody. Now is the time to return. We need you to join us in prayer. The world needs you; the people of Ukraine need you. #ComeBacktoShul. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 3/12/2022.)