Categories
High Holidays Sermons

Being There: It’s a Continuum – Rosh HaShanah 5783, Day 2

This is the second in the “Being There” 5783 High Holiday series. You might want to start with the first one: You Need a Minyan.

***

The Big Book of Jewish Humor is one of the most-beloved items on my bookshelf. My copy was in fact a bar mitzvah present in 1983, and I have managed to hold onto it now for nearly four decades. Rabbi Goodman and I, in fact, are both so familiar with the material in that book that we occasionally walk by each other’s office and just recite a punch line, which sends us both into stitches.

The book includes a few faux-Hasidic tales by Woody Allen (pp. 200-201), including the following:

Rabbi Tzvi Hayyim Yisroel, an Orthodox scholar of the Torah and a man who developed whining to an art unheard of in the West, was unanimously hailed as the wisest man of the Renaissance by his fellow Hebrews, who totaled a sixteenth of one percent of the population. 

Once, while he was on his way to synagogue to celebrate the sacred Jewish holiday commemorating God’s reneging on every promise, a woman stopped him and asked the following question: “Rabbi, why are we not allowed to eat pork?”

“We’re not?” the rabbi said, incredulously. “Uh-oh.”

What’s funny and ridiculous, of course, is that it is clearly impossible that this Hasidic rabbi could have missed the memo on pork. 

And yet, I must say that it is surprisingly easy for even deeply-committed members of our community to miss things that are going on here at Beth Shalom. Yes, it is true that there are many, many things happening. 

But I am often surprised when, for example, a few months after returning from our last synagogue trip to Israel in 2018, a member said to me, “Gee, Rabbi, wouldn’t it be great if we could organize a congregational trip to Israel?”

It is true that we are not always paying attention. Not just to Beth Shalom events, of course, but to lots and lots of things. Part of the challenge is that there are so many more means of distraction today, and you all know what I am talking about. 

But of course there are many other reasons for this as well. Many of us are squeezed for time, as our work has invaded all corners of our lives thanks to the digital leashes that most of us are carrying around in our pockets. Many of us are pulled in so many different directions, between child-rearing or taking care of aging parents or trying to scrape together a living or just trying to find a few moments of peace. 

But the greater challenge regarding our ongoing connection to Jewish life is the disconnection from the institutions which have shaped our lives. Not just organizations like synagogues, but some of the essential ways that our contemporary society has structured itself. 

We are all, it seems, compelled to be independent operators; we are all, to some extent, “bowling alone.” And this disconnection from the established organizing principles of society and religion and culture threaten the foundations of our lives.

Our theme over these High Holidays is “Being There.” And the angle I am taking today is Beit Kenesset – the synagogue, the traditional “place of gathering” of the Jews. What I mean by that is that our Beit Kenesset, Beth Shalom, is here all the time – standing not only at the corner of Beacon and Shady, but also in our hearts. And most of us only set foot in it once in a while: on holidays, on benei mitzvah, or perhaps for a yahrzeit (that is, saying qaddish on the Hebrew date commemoration of a loved one’s death). 

But whether you come here regularly or not, Beth Shalom is always here, and Jewish life is a continuum marked by a set of rituals and traditions and halakhah / Jewish law. And those items, in particular those distinctly Jewish actions, are essential to being Jewish. Without them, without that continuum of practice, Judaism cannot provide the framework that makes you a better person and this world a better place.

I recently heard about a fascinating new book by University of Connecticut sociology professor, Dr. Dimitris Xygalatas. It is called Ritual: How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living

In it, Dr. Xygalatas describes how rituals “help individuals through their anxieties, they help groups of people connect to one another, [and] help people find meaning in their lives.” He describes how, when he was a child growing up in Greece, he was forced to attend church and participate in rituals that did not seem to have any immediate, tangible result. He did not appreciate the rituals, or understand why he had to perform them.

But academic studies have shown that all types of rituals provide a benefit to people, just not necessarily what they are ostensibly for. Fisherman in Papua New Guinea, for example, who perform a ritual before going out to fish in the open sea, cannot prove that the ritual actually helps them catch more fish. But it certainly helps them cope with the stress of open-sea fishing, which can be dangerous, and provides them a framework into which they can lean for support.

But here is the thing about rituals: you actually have to perform them regularly and consistently for them to have that kind of effect. And Judaism goes even one better than this, because if you are performing our rituals properly, and you are paying attention, you also know the textual basis from which they come, and that adds even more meaning and guidance.

evreh, you have heard me speak fairly frequently about the value of our ritual framework. About the value of prayer, of tallit and tefillin, of Shabbat and our holidays and kashrut and studying our ancient holy texts. 

So here’s the thing: I want you to make your Jewish connection less sporadic. Jewish life, Judaism, is not just something that you do on Shabbat morning, or on the High Holidays, or Purim or Ḥanukkah.

Rather, if you are doing it right, Jewish life is a thread that weaves through all the pieces of the fabric of your life. And it is up to us, following the model of Avraham Avinu / our father Abraham, to say, Hinneni! Here I am, as we read in the Torah this morning. To show up. To be present. To be there.

Consider, for example, a line which my son chanted on the day he was called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah a month ago, in Parashat Re’eh. It is a line that you may know from the Passover haggadah:

Devarim / Deuteronomy 16:3

לְמַ֣עַן תִּזְכֹּ֗ר אֶת־י֤וֹם צֵֽאתְךָ֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם כֹּ֖ל יְמֵ֥י חַיֶּֽיךָ׃

Lema’an tizkor et yom tzetkah me-eretz mitzrayim kol yemei ayyekha.

In order that you remember the day of your departure from the land of Egypt all the days of your life.

It appears in the Maggid / storytelling section of the seder, in the bit that you may know as follows (although it’s originally from the Mishnah, Berakhot 1:5):

אָמַר רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן־עֲזַרְיָה הֲרֵי אֲנִי כְּבֶן שִׁבְעִים שָׁנָה וְלֹא זָכִיתִי שֶׁתֵּאָמֵר יְצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם בַּלֵּילוֹת עַד שֶׁדְּרָשָׁהּ בֶּן זוֹמָא, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר, לְמַעַן תִּזְכֹּר אֶת יוֹם צֵאתְךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ. יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ הַיָּמִים. כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ הַלֵּילוֹת

Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said, “Behold I am like a man of seventy years and I have not merited [to understand why] the Exodus from Egypt should be said at night until Ben Zoma explained it, as it is stated (Deuteronomy 16:3), ‘In order that you remember the day of your departure from the land of Egypt all the days of your life;’ ימי חייך – ‘the days of your life’ [indicates that the remembrance be invoked during] the days, כל ימי חייך – ‘all the days of your life’ [indicates that the remembrance be invoked also during] the nights.” 

The Torah tells us that we should remember the Exodus every day and every night of our lives. This should be read as not just once a day and once per night, but of course we should hold that idea with us at all times. 

There are good reasons for this: they are among the reasons that Pesa is among the most resonant holidays of the Jewish year, still observed by most of us: 

  1. We should never be so proud of ourselves that we forget our origins; our peoplehood was founded in slavery, and we remember what it means to be a slave.
  2. This collective memory should guide us in our interactions with others: recalling our historical oppression guides us to stand up for justice wherever we can.
  3. The redemption from Egypt also reminds us that we can bring future redemption: if we remain faithful to our tradition and to God, that holy partnership will ultimately yield a time of peace for the whole world.

We should remember the Exodus, and all of the symbolism and meaning thereof, all the time. And those of us who attend synagogue on a daily basis know that remembering the Exodus pops up in all sorts of places: in the third paragraph of the Shema, for example, so if you are saying it evening and morning (as mandated in the first paragraph), you are remembering the Exodus every day and every night at Ma’ariv and Shaarit. And we also mention it in the Friday night qiddush. And certainly we should remember the Exodus when we sit in the Sukkah. And, well, on every Festival. And it appears multiple times in the scrolls found in every set of tefillin. And so on.

So, if you’re doing Judaism right, the lessons learned from our having left slavery are with us every day, not just for a night or two in the spring. And the daily rituals which frame our lives in the continuum of Jewish practice give us the strength and resilience to appreciate and act on the meaning embedded therein.

But not just that: kashrut, the set of Jewish dietary principles, reminds us every time we put food into our mouths that we have an obligation to be holy. And that what comes out of our mouths should be at least as holy as what goes in. And those two activities, eating and talking, take up much of our days.

And there is more: the Jewish principles of business law which should guide our work activities, principles like not withholding wages from a day laborer (Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:13) and using honest measures in the marketplace (Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:35-36). This is the sort of guidance our tradition offers, and these principles guide us in making just choices every day.

I could cite many more examples of how the nexus of practice and text, of ritual and the Jewish bookshelf, help us be better people. But we cannot just cite them and be done with them; we have to perform these rituals. We have to live by them.

If our Jewish connection is always there, always present with us through our customs and values and text, it will help us through our days.

Yehoshua / Joshua 1:8

לֹֽא־יָמ֡וּשׁ סֵ֩פֶר֩ הַתּוֹרָ֨ה הַזֶּ֜ה מִפִּ֗יךָ וְהָגִ֤יתָ בּוֹ֙ יוֹמָ֣ם וָלַ֔יְלָה לְמַ֙עַן֙ תִּשְׁמֹ֣ר לַעֲשׂ֔וֹת כְּכׇל־הַכָּת֖וּב בּ֑וֹ כִּי־אָ֛ז תַּצְלִ֥יחַ אֶת־דְּרָכֶ֖ךָ וְאָ֥ז תַּשְׂכִּֽיל׃

Let not this Book of the Torah cease from your lips, but recite it day and night, so that you may observe faithfully all that is written in it. Only then will you prosper in your undertakings and only then will you be successful.

… says the book of Joshua, a verse which we read during the haftarah on Simhat Torah. Repeat these words day and night, and live by them, so that you may receive the benefits that our ancient tradition affords us. We recite tefillah / prayer and study and argue over our ancient texts so that we might prosper – not only financially, of course, but in our relationships with the people around us, which of course are far more important than money.

If you’re doing it right, the sense of connection to our tradition, to our text, to our rituals, to our values, should be with you all the time. Try to cut through all the noise in your life to keep these things in front of you all the time.

Think of your beit kenesset, Congregation Beth Shalom, which has been perched up here at the top of Squirrel Hill for an entire century. Stable, solid, consistent – standing here as a reminder to come back. We are the continuous beacon on Beacon Street, symbolizing and promoting what we have done for thousands of years, that ancient continuum of ritual and wisdom.

That is the principle of Being There. In order to reap the benefits, you have to show up. You have to be present. You cannot phone it in, or be using your phone while you are engaging with our tradition. Don’t let all of that day-to-day hustle crowd out the essential pieces of our tradition, the continuum of Jewish life.

And here is something else: the stakes are high. As we read in Pirqei Avot (2:15): 

רַבִּי טַרְפוֹן אוֹמֵר, הַיּוֹם קָצָר וְהַמְּלָאכָה מְרֻבָּה, וְהַפּוֹעֲלִים עֲצֵלִים, וְהַשָּׂכָר הַרְבֵּה, וּבַעַל הַבַּיִת דּוֹחֵק

Rabbi Tarfon said: the day is short, and the work is plentiful, and the laborers are indolent, and the reward is great, and the master of the house is insistent.

Somewhere along the way, in our embrace of modernity, we have forgotten that Judaism is not a “religion” in the Western sense, but a mode of living. That is, you cannot just show up sporadically or include little pieces or symbols here and there. Rather, we should always be striving to do more, to reach higher, to fill our lives with our tradition and its teaching. “Religion” is something you do in church; Judaism colors our lives with meaning.

Because the value is infinite, and our future as a people as well as the future of this world depend on our daily choices.

Rabbi Mark Goodman pointed something out to me recently: that the Zoom participants in our weekday morning services were not able to hear the shofar being blown. Apparently, Zoom’s noise-canceling software heard the shofar and immediately assumed that it was unpleasant background noise that needed to be eliminated, so the folks tuning in via Zoom could not hear it. Yes, indeed: Zoom canceled the shofar.

Now, there are two possible lessons to be gleaned here:

  1. That being in person for services is better. OK, so I certainly agree with that, and I am grateful that the vaccines have enabled us to do so safely, but of course there are still some people who have reason to be concerned due to their compromised immunity, and others who simply cannot physically make it into the building for other reasons, so of course we will continue offering services by Zoom. Nonetheless, it is better to be here in person!)
  2. The other lesson has nothing to do with Zoom, but rather is a question of really hearing the shofar, and everything else that we do. If your world is filtering out the content and meaning of Jewish life, if you find yourself unable to hear the words of the ancient bookshelf, then you are missing something. 

The solution to hearing the shofar over Zoom, by the way, is actually to turn on a setting called “Original Sound.” This setting turns off that technology that mutes the shofar.

I am going to suggest the following: find the settings in your life that will enable you to hear more, to do more, to derive more meaning from what we do. I understand that you may not be able to show up for every service, every program, every type of gathering (and we do offer many, many opportunities to gather). But the only way to keep that thread of Jewish connection flowing through the fabric of your life is to refresh the connection every day and every night. Don’t miss a note of the shofar, or a word of Jewish learning; it is through that continuum of practice, of Being There, that we can all truly benefit from our tradition.

The key to finding the meaning in Jewish life is Being There. And this place, the synagogue, the beit kenesset, both stands for that idea, and serves as the place in which we make it happen. So keep coming back.

On Yom Kippur we will talk about being part of our world-wide qehillah qedoshah, sacred community, and the true value of ḥevruta, partnership.

~

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, second day of Rosh HaShanah 5783, 9/27/2022.)

Categories
High Holidays Sermons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Judaism has some essential principles regarding Being There:

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Williamstown, Massachusetts, where I grew up

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

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

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

That is why you need a minyan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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


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

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

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

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

Mark Spitz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rashi pulls a qal vaomer on this verse:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

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Dreams of Your Future – Re’eh 5782

Some of you know that I was invited to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at the Pirates game against the Red Sox on Jewish Heritage Night at PNC Park on August 16th. I’m happy to say that I did not embarrass myself (or you). However, as I’m sure many of you know, it was a lackluster game – the Red Sox scored four runs in the first inning, and the Pirates never quite recovered.

You might have heard that at one point during the game, Dennis Eckersley, a color analyst for NESN, and hall-of-fame pitcher, described the Pirates’ team as “a hodgepodge of nothingness.”

However, I’m told that when the mic was off, he added, “They should send these guys to rabbinical school.”

***

It was almost two years ago to the day that we called my daughter Hannah to the Torah in this sanctuary, with barely a minyan in the room; everybody else was on Zoom. It was a fearful time, still the depths of the pandemic. We had at that point been in high-anxiety mode for less than half a year; vaccines were still many months away; the murder of George Floyd was still fresh in the American consciousness; anti-Semitic conspiracies were being spread by QAnon. I spoke on that day about facing the future without fear, quoting Rabbi Naḥman of Bratzlav’s most famous quotable: כל העולם כולו גשר צר מאוד, והעיקר לא לפחד כלל / Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar me’od. The whole world is a very narrow bridge, and the most important principle is not to fear at all.

On this day, on which my son was called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah, we are at least in some ways in a different place. Thank God! I am certainly grateful that Divinely-inspired human ingenuity has yielded vaccines which keep us safe. I am certainly grateful that our children have returned to school, that we can safely gather, that we can see one another again in person, if not entirely fearlessly, at least with somewhat reduced anxiety.

Parashat Re’eh, which Zev read from earlier, is, like the rest of Devarim / Deuteronomy, one long soliloquy by Moshe as his final act before he dies. It opens with, 

רְאֵ֗ה אָנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם בְּרָכָ֖ה וּקְלָלָֽה׃

See, this day I set before you blessing and curse.

That first word, the imperative רְאֵ֗ה / re’eh, is curious language. It literally means, “see,” from the common Hebrew verb, לראות “lir’ot,” but of course you cannot actually command a person to see. “Look!” or “Behold!” are appropriate imperatives. But “see” is not.

Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, the 16th century physician and commentator from Italy, reads this as a suggestion regarding the importance of discernment:

ראה הביטה וראה שלא יהיה ענינך על אופן בינוני כמו שהוא המנהג ברוב

Pay good attention so that you will not be like most people who relate to everything half-heartedly, always trying to find middle ground.

You cannot merely look, says Seforno. Rather, you must see. Moshe is telling the Israelites, you have a choice, and it is a choice of extremes: blessing and curse. This is serious. Your discernment is essential. Don’t just have a glance at the future; read the trends now. Understand the consequences of your actions. Take corrective steps now if necessary. 

Now, you may not know this about Zev, but he is something of a seer. That is, he has very vivid dreams, and he likes to tell us about them, at great length, and with a level of detail which I cannot comprehend (I rarely remember dreams, and if I do, only fragments remain). And I must say, we have often been amused and impressed by the high resolution and, well, fantastic nature of Zev’s dreams.

As you know, our tradition takes dreams very seriously. They feature heavily in the tales of our ancestors, particularly those of Ya’aqov and Yosef, who are both dreamers; the Yosef narrative, in particular, turns on his ability to interpret dreams.

The Talmud (Berakhot 55b) actually suggests a certain prayer that should be said if you have a dream that you cannot understand:

הַאי מַאן דַּחֲזָא חֶלְמָא וְלָא יָדַע מַאי חֲזָא, לִיקוּם קַמֵּי כָּהֲנֵי בְּעִידָּנָא דְּפָרְסִי יְדַיְיהוּ וְלֵימָא הָכִי: ״רִבּוֹנוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם, אֲנִי שֶׁלָּךְ וַחֲלוֹמוֹתַי שֶׁלָּךְ, חֲלוֹם חָלַמְתִּי וְאֵינִי יוֹדֵעַ מַה הוּא. בֵּין שֶׁחָלַמְתִּי אֲנִי לְעַצְמִי וּבֵין שֶׁחָלְמוּ לִי חֲבֵירַי וּבֵין שֶׁחָלַמְתִּי עַל אֲחֵרִים, אִם טוֹבִים הֵם — חַזְּקֵם וְאַמְּצֵם כַּחֲלוֹמוֹתָיו שֶׁל יוֹסֵף. וְאִם צְרִיכִים רְפוּאָה — רְפָאֵם כְּמֵי מָרָה עַל יְדֵי מֹשֶׁה רַבֵּינוּ, וּכְמִרְיָם מִצָּרַעְתָּהּ, וּכְחִזְקִיָּה מֵחׇלְיוֹ, וּכְמֵי יְרִיחוֹ עַל יְדֵי אֱלִישָׁע. וּכְשֵׁם שֶׁהָפַכְתָּ קִלְלַת בִּלְעָם הָרָשָׁע לִבְרָכָה, כֵּן הֲפוֹךְ כׇּל חֲלוֹמוֹתַי עָלַי לְטוֹבָה״. וּמְסַיֵּים בַּהֲדֵי כָּהֲנֵי דְּעָנֵי צִבּוּרָא ״אָמֵן״ 

One who had a dream and does not know what he saw should stand before the priests when they lift their hands during the Priestly Blessing and say the following:

Master of the Universe, I am Yours and my dreams are Yours, I dreamed a dream and I do not know what it is. Whether I have dreamed of myself, whether my friends have dreamed of me or whether I have dreamed of others, if the dreams are good, strengthen them and reinforce them like the dreams of Yosef.

And if the dreams require healing, heal them like the bitter waters of Mara by Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our teacher, and like Miriam from her leprosy … [and then there are a few more examples of healing from the Tanakh]

The gemara then goes on to add that if you cannot say that whole thing, you should say merely:

וְאִי לָא, לֵימָא הָכִי: ״אַדִּיר בַּמָּרוֹם, שׁוֹכֵן בִּגְבוּרָה, אַתָּה שָׁלוֹם וְשִׁמְךָ שָׁלוֹם. יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶיךָ שֶׁתָּשִׂים עָלֵינוּ שָׁלוֹם״ 

Majestic One on high, Who dwells in power,
You are peace and Your name is peace.
May it be Your will that You bestow upon us peace.
That is, we should all see our dreams as entreaties to peace.

If we were to dream about our future right now, what would we see? If we pause for a moment to think seriously now about the blessings and curses which face us, what might our trend lines indicate?

Do we see a future in which people care about their neighbors, in which we understand that the only way we can successfully navigate the challenges that face our society is by working together for the common good?

Do we accept that it is our responsibility, as Zev read for us from the Torah this morning, to ensure that the needy people around us have food and shelter? כִּֽי־פָתֹ֧חַ תִּפְתַּ֛ח אֶת־יָדְךָ֖ ל֑וֹ וְהַעֲבֵט֙ תַּעֲבִיטֶ֔נּוּ דֵּ֚י מַחְסֹר֔וֹ אֲשֶׁ֥ר יֶחְסַ֖ר לֽוֹ׃. Rather, you must open your hand and lend whatever is sufficient to meet the need.

Do we see a world in which democracy continues to flourish and guarantee freedoms – freedom of speech, freedom of religion, of movement, of belief – for Americans and people around the world?

Do we see a future where all people have enough to eat? Where resources are equitably distributed? Where our wise use of God’s Creation leads not to environmental destruction, but rather to sustainability in holy partnership?

Do we see a world in which discrimination of all types is a thing of the past? In which nobody will feel targeted for their religion, their race, their gender? In which the anti-Semites have returned, cowering, to their holes of hatred?

Can we discern that the future will feature shared truths, or will we all be in our own individual “fact” bubbles, in which the only actual truth is the one that I alone perceive? Or will we acknowledge and maintain the reality that sometimes there are undebatable truths, which cannot be obscured with spin?

Do we see a future in which the digital tools we have created with our God-given ingenuity are used only for the betterment of humanity, and not to harm?

When I stand here, before all of you, before God, and most importantly before my son, who has been called to the Torah today in the context of his family and friends as a bar mitzvah, can I see a future for Zev in which all his dreams lead to peace?

We can create that future by seeing, and not merely looking.

By beholding the people around us. ALL the people around us, and particularly the ones with whom we disagree. By not treating everybody else like a faceless, personality-less other. By not lending ourselves to the tyranny of the majority, the minority, or any sort of orthodoxy. 

By understanding that the true curse of society comes when we look, but do not see. 

“Rabbi” Robert Zimmerman, the 20th century poet and philosopher from Minnesota, had something to say about looking vis-a-vis seeing:

How many times can a man look up, before he can see the sky?
Yes, and how many ears must one man have, before he can hear people cry?

And to echo another one of our 20th-century “rabbis,” “Rabbi” Martin Luther King, Jr., I too, have a dream today. I dream that the world that my son enters as an adult at this moment regains its ability to see, to discern blessing from curse, to understand the consequences of our actions. 

I dream that we do not merely look at the others in our midst, but see them. I dream that the peace of which the Talmud speaks, the peace we invoke at the conclusion of every Amidah, of nearly every recitation of the Qaddish in pleading Oseh Shalom bimromav – May the One who makes peace on high bring some peace to all of us down here on Earth – be fulfilled. I dream that that peace will become a reality, not just in Ukraine and Myanmar, in Yemen and Syria and Afghanistan, on the bullet-riddled streets of America and of course in Israel. 

And I dream further that we find peace in our own hearts, and in those of our neighbors; that we find a way out of the culture wars that continue to rattle us all; that we seek to understand and not merely revile those with whom we disagree.

And I give this dream to you, my son, as you enter Jewish adulthood and inherit this ancient framework of mitzvot. As you have shared with me your dreams, I share this one with you.

Do not merely look, or regard the future with indifference. Rather, you must see. And work toward reaching the fabled blessings of which our Torah speaks.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 8/27/2022.)

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Why Fast on Tish’ah BeAv?

One of my favorite places in Israel is the Israel Museum, the sprawling art complex located on one of the hills of Jerusalem, not far from the Knesset. When I was living in Jerusalem in the year 2000, I was studying at Machon Schechter, the property of which abutted the back end of the Israel Museum, and I periodically visited the museum to stroll its galleries. The Israel Museum possesses significant collections of some Jewish artists, and one in particular that I recall is Camille Pissarro, whose birth name was Jacob Abraham Camille Pissarro; his parents were of Portuguese and French Jewish ancestry.

Pissarro is primarily known as an Impressionist, although he also spent a few years in the late 1880s painting in the Pointillist style, a technique which uses carefully-placed dots of individual colors which, when seen from a distance, create a cohesive image. Today we might think of this style as “pixelated,” although of course that term did not exist in the 19th century.

One such painting of Pissarro’s is found in the Israel Museum: Sunset at Eragny, which he painted as he was emerging from this Pointillist period:

Sunset at Eragny – Camille Pissarro

If you zoom into the upper part of the painting, you see dots of blue, purple, green, red, and yellow, swirling around each other in a kind of trippy miasma. When you pull back, it is clear that you are looking at a sunset. 

Which leads me, of course, to Tish’ah BeAv, the saddest day of the Jewish calendar, the only day other than Yom Kippur on which we fast for a full 25 hours. This is the day on which we recall the destruction of the First and Second Temples, and a long list of other calamities which have befallen the Jewish people on this date. (Why is the sunset a good transition to Tish’ah BeAv? Because there is no other day of the year on which those of us who fast look forward so desperately to sunset.)

We might ask ourselves, why should we continue to fast on this day? Why should Tish’ah BeAv still be the day of mourning it has been for our people for 2,000 years? Why should we continue to afflict ourselves on this day? After all, we have the State of Israel, built on the national yearning of two millennia.

Furthermore, despite the current spike in anti-Semitism, most of us still live quite comfortably here in America. And let’s face it, at least those of us in the non-Orthodox quarters of the Jewish world are not exactly eager to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, reinstall the hierarchical kohanic priesthood, and resume animal sacrifices. I’ll stick with Rabbinic Judaism, which is far more democratic (with a small “d”), and involves far less bovine blood, thank you very much.

So why fast? Should not the Ninth of Av be instead a day of joy, a day of triumph? They tried to kill us; we won; let’s eat!

It’s a fair question. Let’s leave aside the Holocaust – we have Yom HaShoah for that. But mourning for the Temple, which represents an ancient Jewish practice that is more or less completely alien to how we live and worship as Jewish today? Do we really need to do that?

And the answer, of course, is yes. Absolutely. But it is not really about the Temple and the kohanim and the sacrifices. Really, it is about the arc of Jewish history, and the precariousness of life. This day of mourning and fasting stands in contrast to Yom Kippur, the other 25-hour fast, which is about our own personal development.

The challenge, ḥevreh, is one of context. How do we understand what is going on around us without the bigger picture? How can we make sense of current events without seeing them in relation to everything else?

At any given moment, we might be experiencing one particular dot in a Pointillist painting. One pixel. Now we are in a blue dot; next month we’ll be in a red dot, and so forth. We cannot fully grasp the wider significance of our current circumstances until they are long past, until we have the gift of context, which in some cases takes many, many years. 

Surely our ancestors in Jerusalem, in the year 70 CE, could see that the Romans had laid waste to the city, toppled the Temple, killed some of their fellow Jews, and forced those who remained out of the city limits. From their perspective, Judaism was done. It was over. With no Temple, no kohanic hierarchy, no levitical choir, no Sanhedrin, and no Holy City, there was no future to Judaism. Or so they thought from their vantage point, in the immediate moment.

Detail from the Arch of Titus in Rome, showing Roman soldiers carrying away implements from the Second Temple in 70 CE

And yet, out of the chaos and destruction came this, what we know as Judaism, the way that we practice our faith today. And while the prior form of Judaism, the Temple-centric, sacrificial cult lasted for more than a thousand years, Rabbinic Judaism has now been around for nearly twice that time. 

The book of Eikhah, Lamentations, tells the story not of that destruction, but the one at the hands of the Babylonian Empire seven centuries earlier. It is notable for its structure: four out of the five chapters have exactly 22 verses, and chapter 3 has 66; four out of the five chapters are “aleph-betical,” that is, the first letter of each verse follows the pattern of the Hebrew aleph-bet. The impression one gets, when pulling back the lens, is that as the book tells the tale of Jerusalem laid waste and desolate, that Eikhah itself is trying to bring some sense of order to the chaos of the Babylonian Exile.

Like Pissaro’s Sunset at Eragny, we cannot see the full context of a particular moment in time or an event until we are far removed from it. And how far removed must we be? Tish’ah BeAv allows us to focus on essential moments in Jewish history and recall our fundamental vulnerability; we fast on this day not to remember the Temple or call for its rebuilding but to remind ourselves that what we have right now can be taken away. Our safety, our comfort, our wealth could all evaporate.

Let us hope that is not the case. Nonetheless, we know that the world is changing. We know that as we Jews have wandered through history, situations and events and empires have come and go, and our rituals and text have sustained us. We celebrate freedom on Pesaḥ and Ḥanukkah and Purim; we pray for atonement on Yom Kippur; we celebrate the bounty of life on Sukkot and the gift that keeps on giving, the gift of Torah on Shavu’ot. And on Tish’ah BeAv we remind ourselves of human frailty, that any moment a great wind could knock the fiddler off the roof.

And yet, there is something of a hopeful note to Tish’ah BeAv as well. As the day progresses, the affliction gets lighter. Those who sit on the floor in the evening and at Shaarit move up to the chairs at minah. The nusa becomes less despondent, the scriptural readings less dire. We recite the berakhot of personal gratitude that we omit in the morning. Our historical context has also shown us, over and over again, that in the wake of loss and destruction there is hope. Grief and mourning will eventually yield to joy. 

At the southern end of the Western Wall, rocks that fell during the Roman destruction of Jerusalem

Tish’ah BeAv is a yearly reminder to re-examine our lives, to take the long view of the context in which we find ourselves, and to hope for a better future. We cannot know what current events will bring us; we can only see our immediate circumstances. And as our history has taught us over and over, just because we are relatively comfortable right now does not mean that it will still be true next year, or in a decade or a century. It’s our communal way of guarding against complacency, a psychological exercise in being prepared.

So take a day and be uncomfortable. As we listen to the mournful tones of Tish’ah BeAv, perhaps we will all gain a little perspective.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 8/6/2022.)

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Sermons

On Being a Patriotic Jewish American – Mattot / Mas’ei 5782

Judy and I were at the Jersey Shore for a few days this week. The kids are safely ensconced at Camp Ramah in Canada, so we have had some time to ourselves, which is nice, but of course it reminds us of how much we love and appreciate and miss our children! 

One evening, we had a very patriotic experience. I find that as I get older, these things are much more moving than they were when I was younger. Nowadays, I tear up when veterans are honored for their service to our country, or at any ceremony for those who “paid the ultimate price” to defend our freedom. I have performed many funerals, but generally the only moment I lose control of my own emotions is when, at the funeral of a veteran of the armed forces, the honor guard removes the flag from the casket, folds it, and presents it to a member of the family. 

So we had taken a bike ride late in the afternoon to Sunset Beach, a lovely point with a nice view to the west of Delaware Bay. Unbeknownst to us, the tradition at Sunset Beach in the summer months is that, every day, they fly a different American flag, which had been draped on the casket of an armed-forces veteran during his/her funeral. As the day draws to a close, they lower the flag. So we stuck around for the ceremony.

Lowering the flag at Sunset Beach, NJ

When the time came, we sang “God Bless America,” and “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and then as “Taps” was played, the flag was lowered and folded, and returned to the family of the deceased veteran.

And, sure enough, the tears came. 

This does not happen to me on Independence Day, or on Memorial Day, or when we sing the National Anthem before a ball game, although a room full of Jews singing Hatikvah always gets me right here. But I think that ceremonies that are deeply personal, that tell one person’s story of dedication and service, are in some ways much more powerful than the general, national stories and commemorations.

And yet, the idea of peoplehood is extraordinarily important to me. I am proud, as I know you are as well, to be a member of the Jewish people; I am strongly connected to our history and traditions, and of course to other Jews, even those with whom I disagree deeply about how we interpret our text and our rituals. 

And of course, the vast majority of Jews throughout history have lived under non-Jewish rule. We have been mobile people, often against our will, often fleeing persecution, for thousands of years. A week from tonight we will observe Tish’ah BeAv, on which we commemorate oppression and destruction at the hands of ancient, medieval, and modern empires. And the Torah foreshadows this mobile history in Parashat Mas’ei, from which we read this morning. “Elleh mas’ei benei Yisrael,” it begins. “These are journeys of the Israelites, who started out from the land of Egypt, troop by troop, in the charge of Moses and Aaron.” (Bemidbar / Numbers 33:1). In fact, the book of Bemidbar begins by counting the people, and concludes with recounting the journey; the suggestion is that our peoplehood and our journeys are deeply intertwined. Our ability to journey is predicated upon our peoplehood.

And our ability to live among and subject to others who are not Jews is also made possible by our connection to one another. How did we survive 2,000 years of dispersion and exile? By sticking together. By reading and re-reading and re-interpreting our holy, ancient texts. By maintaining our traditions, distinct from the majority culture around us.

And yet, I am also a proud American, in many ways fully integrated into our society, celebrating American values and lamenting American woes. I am grateful to this nation, which provided a haven to my great-grandparents, which does not restrict our ability to practice freely our customs and traditions, which guarantees me many rights which my ancestors did not have.

The challenges of living as a distinct people and in the context of a wider, non-Jewish nation were well-known to the rabbis of the Talmud. They were, after all, living under Roman rule in ancient Palestine as the Mishnah was written and compiled (1st c. CE), and the Babylonian Gemara was completed under Persian rule in the yeshivot of Babylon (modern-day Iraq). Talmudic statements about the relationship between the Jews and the non-Jewish leadership of their jurisdiction are mixed. Consider, for example, conflicting statements in Pirqei Avot:

Avot 3:2

רַבִּי חֲנִינָא סְגַן הַכֹּהֲנִים אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי מִתְפַּלֵּל בִּשְׁלוֹמָהּ שֶׁל מַלְכוּת, שֶׁאִלְמָלֵא מוֹרָאָהּ, אִישׁ אֶת רֵעֵהוּ חַיִּים בְּלָעוֹ

Rabbi Ḥanina, the vice-high priest said: pray for the welfare of the government, for were it not for the fear it inspires, every man would swallow his neighbor alive.

Avot 2:3

הֱווּ זְהִירִין בָּרָשׁוּת, שֶׁאֵין מְקָרְבִין לוֹ לָאָדָם אֶלָּא לְצֹרֶךְ עַצְמָן. נִרְאִין כְּאוֹהֲבִין בִּשְׁעַת הֲנָאָתָן, וְאֵין עוֹמְדִין לוֹ לָאָדָם בִּשְׁעַת דָּחְקוֹ

Be careful [in your dealings] with the ruling authorities for they do not befriend a person except for their own needs; they seem like friends when it is to their own interest, but they do not stand by a man in the hour of his distress.

Not exactly a comforting vision of government, right? There is a strong sense of suspicion of the non-Jewish authorities in rabbinic literature, perhaps largely because the Romans had destroyed the Temple and forbidden Jews from living in Jerusalem, but also because the rabbis of this period knew that in order to keep Judaism alive, they would have to prevent the Jews from pursuing the practices of the non-Jews around them. And so the rabbis inveighed against idolatry, of course, but also the bathhouses and the circuses and the other aspects of Greco-Roman culture. They forbid the consumption of foods and wine produced by non-Jews, because sharing these things would lead to fraternization, which would lead to intermarriage.

Perhaps the best-known and most essential statement of the relationship of Judaism and Jewish law to the non-Jewish authorities is the principle, cited four times in the Talmud, of dina demalkuta dina, or “the law of the land is the law.” The idea is that, even though Jews are subject to Jewish law, the non-Jewish law of the land applies in some cases as an extension of halakhah. So if the government requires you to pay taxes, for example, that would be effectively sanctioned by Jewish law as well.

And it makes a certain amount of sense. Had our ancestors not observed the laws of the lands in which they lived, they would surely not have been welcomed (not that they were honestly welcome in many places in which they had lived, of course, but all the more so). We have always had to see ourselves, at least minimally, and often uncomfortably, as subject to the laws and customs around us, even as we practice our own set of laws and customs. And that implies not only the innocuous things like getting a marriage license, for example, but also the more serious things, like serving your country in the armed forces and potentially giving your life in doing so.

One of the people at the flag ceremony in New Jersey was wearing a hat with a political statement on it with which I find myself severely at odds. He was standing with the family of the deceased veteran whose flag was being lowered, so I presume he was a relative. I found myself singing the National Anthem along with him, hands on our hearts, and respectfully observing together as the flag was folded. I am grateful that this man and I each have the ability to believe freely, to express our opinions freely, to practice our religion freely, and to vote freely, even though I am fairly certain that we do not see eye-to-eye on too many things. And I am, of course, deeply concerned that our tendency today to revile one another across the political aisle might eventually lead to curtailing those freedoms.

Which of course brings me to the final Jewish principle which we should consider in our context as Jewish Americans, and that is derekh eretz.

Derekh eretz, which has often been translated as, “respect,” is actually a wide-ranging term in rabbinic literature that might be better defined as, “the way things are done,” although literally, of course, it means, “the way of the land.” That is, derekh eretz is a set of societal norms that are connected to the land which we all share, and not limited to a specific sub-culture or ethnicity or religion. We are connected to the others around us, who may not share our Torah or our language or holidays or rituals, with some basic elements of human decency. 

“This land is your land / this land is my land,” sang Woody Guthrie*. We share the land through derekh eretz, and the way that we keep the land for us, for all Americans, is that we treat each other with respect and dignity and equality. We learn that from our tradition, and I hope that we can continue to spread that word, so that all might hear it.

Woody Guthrie

Although our journeys as a Jewish people will likely never be complete, we continue to, in some sense, be a part of the land wherever we reside. I hope that we all remember that during those moving, patriotic moments, whether personal or national.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 7/30/22.)

* I read online (FWIW) that Guthrie wrote this song, arguably his best-known, in reaction to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.”

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Sermons

They Can’t Curse Us – Balaq 5782

I followed President Biden’s visit to Israel this past week with keen interest, and I am sure many of you did as well. Upon arrival, he reminded the assembled folks on the tarmac at Ben Gurion Airport that “You don’t have to be Jewish to be a Zionist,” and that the two-state solution “remains… the best way to ensure the future of equal measure of freedom, prosperity, and democracy for Israelis and Palestinians alike.”

President Biden flanked by PM Yair Lapid (right) and President Isaac “Buzhi” Herzog

It was a relief for me to hear both statements. For those of us who are committed to the State of Israel, it is so important for us to be reminded of our nation’s steadfast alliance with the Jewish state as well as our responsibility to help build a sustainable future there.

Meanwhile, his trip followed an unfortunate event that occurred in Jerusalem two weeks ago, at a bar mitzvah, no less.

There were actually three benei mitzvah ceremonies taking place at the egalitarian prayer site by the Kotel, the Western Wall, which is run by the Israeli Masorti (Conservative) movement, on Thursday, June 30. That morning, a group of young Haredi men, in their teens and early twenties, were sent by their rabbis to disrupt the services. They displayed signs decrying Reform Judaism (despite the fact that the site is run by the Masorti movement), called a bar mitzvah boy a “Christian” and a “Nazi,” and actually tore pages out of the Masorti siddurim / prayer books. A video shows one of the disrupters actually WIPING HIS NOSE with a page torn out of the siddur.

Haredi disrupter wiping his nose with a page torn from the Masorti / Conservative siddur

To explain this monstrous behavior requires some context:

In 2013, the Netanyahu government reached a deal whereby they agreed to create a space at the southern end of the Kotel, the Western Wall of the Temple Mount complex, that would be set aside for egalitarian prayer. This is important because more than 80% of American Jews are most comfortable holding services in an egalitarian fashion, where men and women stand and sit together. As you may know, I cannot hold a service like this one at the established Kotel not only because there is a meḥitzah / wall dividing men and women, but also even in the open plaza behind the meḥitzah’ed-off area, if a mixed group prays there, they will be harassed and shouted down by Haredi onlookers. The same is true even for a group of women who hold a traditional service in that area, as has been demonstrated over and over by the activist group Women of the Wall

Following that so-called “Kotel agreement,” the Israeli authorities built a temporary platform at the south end of the Kotel. The original intent was to complete this area and make it permanent, raising up the egalitarian area, known as “Ezrat Yisra’el,” to the height of the rest of the Kotel plaza and extending it to the wall itself. But at some point later, the Netanyahu government, bowing to pressure from Haredi parties in its coalition, put the project on hold. So the temporary platform erected in 2014, where I celebrated the bar mitzvah of my own son in March of that year, is still there, and is showing signs of wear and tear.

A family celebrating a bar mitzvah at Ezrat Yisrael

And, to draw a fine point on this, I was at this area a week and a half earlier, celebrating with Simon Braver, the grandson of Beth Shalom members Marian and Stan Davis, as we called him to the Torah as a bar mitzvah. We were not on the platform, but by the south wall around the corner. But we were still in the same category of egalitarian prayer that the Haredi world deems unacceptable.

And that could very well have been Simon’s bar mitzvah that was disrupted. And he might have been the one to be called a Nazi.

Now, you might naturally ask, why do they care? Why can’t these folks just live and let live? Why can’t they just leave us alone and let us pray the way we are accustomed to doing?

I concede that I have not actually spoken to any particular Haredi person about this. However, my sense is that their justification in breaking up egalitarian services, and perhaps calling 13-year-olds “Nazis” and tearing up siddurim as well, is that this behavior will ultimately prevent other Jews from transgression. 

And what is that transgression? Participating in non-Orthodox services, with men and women standing together, and using non-Orthodox siddurim, which are doubly unholy because not only do they lead people astray with slight textual changes from Orthodox siddurim (e.g. not saying “shelo asani ishah” – gratitude for not being created a woman), but also because they print God’s name in vain.

Let me rephrase that: Some of our fellow Jews believe that the type of prayer in which we are engaging right now, and every morning and evening here at Beth Shalom, is an egregious sin, one from which we should be physically and legally restrained from doing.

All the more so, the way in which I serve you as your spiritual leader, is leading you astray. I am committing the unforgivable sin of החטאת הרבים / haḥta’at harabbim – causing many others to sin as well by participating in our services.

Now, of course, one of the most wonderful features of Judaism is that we have no equivalent of the Pope – no single human authority who has the final say about what is “the right way” to do anything in Jewish life. What’s more, we thrive on disagreement; rabbinic Judaism is an ongoing conversation around different opinions regarding the same texts. 

We in the Conservative movement know that what we do is authentic Jewish practice. We are committed to the traditional approach to halakhah / Jewish law, even as we acknowledge that halakhah must change as the world changes. We are dedicated to daily tefillah / prayer, conducted with traditional modes and customs. We strive to learn the words of the Jewish bookshelf and apply the lessons and values therein to improve ourselves and our world.

We are Jews who know and practice Judaism. And, like most of the Jewish world, including some quarters of Orthodoxy, we are also pluralists, who believe that even within Judaism there are multiple paths and perspectives.

And we will not be dissuaded from our contemporary approach by those who behave badly and destructively in public.

Today in Parashat Balaq, we read about how the Moabite king of that name hires Bil’am, a non-Israelite would-be prophet, to curse the Israelites. When Bil’am opens his mouth to do so, only flowery words of praise emerge. Bil’am defends his actions by explaining to Balaq that he can only do what God makes him do (Bemidbar / Numbers 23:8):

מָ֣ה אֶקֹּ֔ב לֹ֥א קַבֹּ֖ה אֵ֑-ל וּמָ֣ה אֶזְעֹ֔ם לֹ֥א זָעַ֖ם ה’׃

How can I damn whom God has not damned,
How doom when Adonai has not doomed?

We in the non-Orthodox world cannot be cursed by zealots because we are not cursed! Nor can they prevent us from practicing Judaism. Let them behave badly; it only reflects poorly on themselves and their spiritual leaders who have put them up to it.

Let me be clear on this point: we are as authentically Jewish as they are. Nowhere in the Torah or Talmud does it say that thou shalt wear a black hat to be truly Jewish. And we must remember that our traditions are as holy and legitimate and deeply rooted in Jewish life and text as theirs. 

While some in the Jewish world might be overwrought about how we are apparently doing it all wrong, the overarching concern here is sin’at ḥinnam: causeless hatred. 

Three weeks away from Tish’ah BeAv, the most mournful day in the Jewish calendar, which commemorates the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, we should remember that the latter was destroyed due to sin’at ḥinnam (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma 9b). That Temple will surely never be rebuilt if we continue to revile each other.

I should add here that we, the non-Orthodox community, have to step up to the plate as well. If we want our needs and desires met by the State of Israel, we have to have a greater voice. If we want our Orthodox cousins to respect our authenticity, we have to demonstrate our commitment to Jewish life and practice, and to the State of Israel. One of the criticisms of the Ezrat Yisrael is that, if not for the benei mitzvah services, there would be no services there at all. On the Mega Mission, I brought a small group to that space for a Friday night service; it should have been much larger.

And the best way to demonstrate our commitment is to go there – both to the State of Israel and Ezrat Yisrael – more often: not just for benei mitzvah, not just for Federation Mega Missions, but for vacations, for visiting friends and family, for business if we can arrange it. We need to continue to show that we are there for Israel, and that we stand for serious Jewish practice in a non-Orthodox style in the Jewish state.

Yes, it’s expensive and getting more so. Yes, it’s far away. But I have traveled to Israel more times than I can count, and I can assure you that on virtually every flight, the fraction of non-Orthodox Jews is vastly under-represented. We need to change that.

Beth Shalom will certainly be putting together another trip to Israel within the next few years. But don’t wait: go now. And then go again with us. Let’s pre-empt the curses, and shower those who despise what we do with love.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 7/16/2022.)

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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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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?

Categories
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.)