One of the things that this season does to me is to remind me to read the small print in the siddur, to pay attention to details that my eye is trained to ignore during much of the year.
Since most siddurim / prayerbooks are used for a variety of days – weekdays, Shabbat, holidays – they are designed to reflect the changes in our daily tefillah routine. During the holiday month of Tishrei in particular, there are changes almost every day, which require you to pay careful attention to the smaller print.
If one goal of the Tishrei holidays is to make us all pay more attention, then for sure these subtle changes in our daily prayer are helpful. Even the extra le’eila which we say from Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur manages to keep me just a wee bit more focused for some time.
And that, of course is a good thing: tefillah / prayer should never be by rote. As we read in Pirqei Avot (2:13):
Rabbi Shim’on said: Be careful with the reading of Shema and the Amidah, And when you pray, do not make your prayer something automatic, but a plea for compassion before God.
In tefillah, as in life, it’s the details that are important. While it is easy to think that the essential part of tefillah is the recitation of the words, the mishnah suggests that we have to actually be paying attention. True tefillah requires pouring our souls into the pages of the siddur, such that the yearning for compassion, the honest gratitude, the heartfelt praise and requests which are the building blocks of tefillah come from an honest place and can actually be felt by the davener.
It is not the outward symbolism which matters; not the broad strokes of being in shul (synagogue) and standing in silence and reciting the words; rather, it is the internal details. It is the richness of the ancient Hebrew idiom and how it lands on our souls which drive honest prayer. It is, in fact, the small print, laden with the special features of the season, which matters most.
And when we recall beloved family members and friends who are no longer with us, on days of reciting Yizkor prayers, the details of their lives are the most essential items.
What makes a person special and unique? It is not their appearance, or what car they drive or the color of their kippah. It is the intangible details: their deeds, their sayings, their values, their relationships.
You might have heard recently about so-called “click chemistry,” because three biochemists just received the Nobel Prize for their work in the area. Click chemistry is a relatively new chemical process which allows us to build new molecules with particularly desirable functionality using small, organic building blocks, somewhat akin to molecular Lego pieces.
Without getting too technical, the research of these Nobel laureates has made it possible to reliably build new molecules from these building blocks in a way that is cost-effective and has a high rate of success. The process will supplant older, more cumbersome and expensive methods of synthesizing such molecules. This will enable chemists to easily produce and test a whole new range of pharmaceuticals, polymers, proteins and other organic compounds. It is truly a remarkable breakthrough.
Now, the chemical engineer in me is inspired by this new molecular technology.
But I also find the idea of being able to assemble easily new molecules from building blocks appeals to me from, shall we say, a more homiletical perspective. As people, we are more than the sum of our parts; and yet we are constructed from the very same types of molecules that can be easily assembled through click chemistry.
We are, of course, exceedingly complex creatures. We are shaped by all of the forces around us: the people we meet, the books we read, the experiences we share with others, the love we receive and give, and all of the other tiny ways we fill our days and our lives. And all of these things, all of these minuscule moments and interactions are sifted through our basic structure, coloring all of the intricate pieces of our personalities.
With human personalities, of course, it is the details that matter. Our external features are not so different from one another; our internals are much more complicated. We have different strengths and creativities, different talents and hobbies and favorite foods and leisure activities. We are drawn to a range of entertainments and political pursuits, tastes in clothes and art and philosophy. We each have individual ways in which we express ourselves and fashion our lives.
A lazy search of the Internet led to somebody else’s back-of-the-envelope calculation of how many molecules there are in the human body, and that answer is perhaps on the order of 1027, or a one followed by 27 zeroes.
Much of that is water, but a good chunk of them are organic molecules, of the sort that are put together with the basic building blocks, the simplest Legos, of life.
But that is what makes us human: the great complexity of the chemical system of which we are made. Our memories, our knowledge, our experiences, remembered and forgotten, are all encoded into that organic soup of tiny, encrypted chunks of living matter. The variation of these codes, which make up our genetic material, yield people who may indeed look quite similar, but are vastly different in behavior and thought.
A friend recently reminded me that the events from our past which we remember are not necessarily those things which others remember about us. That is, the picture of our lives is far more complex than what we see. This also suggests that all of those details, all of those interactions which we can recall are probably less than half of the story of our lives.
That is what makes those who were special to us so memorable; why they take up so much of our brain space and emotional energy: the great complexity of our parents and grandparents, the mysteries of our siblings, the tender mercies of our spouses.
Tomorrow morning, we start reading Parashat Bereshit, the beginning of the Torah once again. We return to Creation ex nihilo, when God begins to speak, and the whole world comes into existence, from a point of light to the full flowering of Earthly bounty. You may recall that at the end of each day, the Torah tells us that God saw that what He had created was good.
It’s almost dismissive in its simplicity. Of course the creation of the sun and moon and stars was good. Naturally the flowering plants and trees and birds and bees and alligators and capybaras were good. But they were also incredibly complicated.
The creation of humans, male and female, on the sixth day is described as tov me-od, very good, something which might make us raise our eyebrows, given what we know about humanity.
Life, Creation, cannot be merely good or bad, but rather full of contradiction and complexity and an unfathomable myriad of details. The Torah (or, one might say, the Priestly author to whom scholars attribute the first chapter of Bereshit) seems to fail here in its terseness. It merely gives a social-media “like” when an encyclopedic excursus is called for.
And as we turn now to the service of Hazkarat Neshamot, the recalling of the souls, I hope that we can endeavor to remember not just the broad strokes of their lives, but also the details, all the ways in which they were special.
We should remember the parts of their personality that they gave us: the empathy he showed an elderly neighbor when inviting him for a meal, the pride she took in tending to her garden, the loyalty he had to his barber, her attention to detail, like ensuring the brass banister was always polished to a shine.
We should remember the ways in which they provided for us: the household economy, the food, the gatherings, in setting a beautiful table for the celebrations / semaḥot he arranged, all of the schlepping she did from school to game to recital and on and on.
We should remember the things that they said when we need to be uplifted: the words of encouragement and inspiration, the moment of shared joy when you got that acceptance letter and the tears during your bad breakup, the hugs and the kisses and sometimes the little push out the door that we needed.
We should remember the values they taught us, the Jewish rituals they loved, how he would make his special haroset recipe, how she loved to sing and tell stories and family lore. We should remember those times around the seder table, or in the kitchen, or in the Sukkah, or in the synagogue.
And we should remember that, as much as we recall of those who are no longer with us, there was ever so much more about them than we could possibly ever have known. All those many, many details encoded into who they were; all of the small-print details which made them special to others and to all those who knew them.
In broad strokes, we all had parents, and people whom we have loved but are no longer with us. But it is the details of who they were which made them special and unique. And those are the things which we should recall at this time.
Once upon a time, in a distant empire, the royal fisherman was out on the lake and caught a huge fish. “This is wonderful!” he said aloud. “The Queen loves fish!” The fish thought, “OK, then! I’m going to get to see the Queen.”
The fisherman took the fish to the kitchen of the castle, and presented it to the royal chef. “Ah, such a beautiful fish! Ze Queen, she loves fish. I will prepare zis fish in ze most perfect way.” The fish thought, “Ooh, I’m going to get special treatment! Maybe a massage…?”
Before preparing the fish, the chef and the fisherman brought her to the Queen to show off such a perfect specimen of fish, arrayed on a gorgeous silver platter. The Queen beheld the fantastic fish, and her eyes widened. “Such a beautiful fish!” she said. “I love fish! I simply cannot wait to eat it! Go broil it immediately!”
At this point, the fish realized what was happening, jumped up and blurted out, “You don’t love fish! You love yourself!”
What does it mean to be in a loving relationship with the people around us? As we gradually emerge from the pandemic, many of us are still re-learning to be around people once again, to be in public spaces with lots of others, to feel like part of a community. Now is the time, as we have entered 5783, for us to reconsider how we can be better partners, spouses, community members, and citizens of the world.
This is the fourth and final installment in the “Being There” series. We have up to this point discussed our ḥavurah, program, which we will be rolling out in the coming months; we have discussed the beit kenesset, the synagogue, as a symbol of the continuum of Jewish life; we have considered our relationship with the qehillah qedoshah, the sacred community of Jews around the world, and particularly with those in Israel.
Today, the theme is ḥevruta / partnership. Ḥevruta usually refers to the traditional Jewish mode of study, native to the beit midrash / study hall, and also refers to the person you study with. Your study-buddy for Jewish text is your ḥevruta.
A well-known slogan about learning in ḥevruta comes from the Talmud, in one of the stories of Ḥoni the Circle-Maker, who is perhaps best known for his talent at being able to draw circles within which rain will fall. But he was also known in his beit midrash as the wisest person, who could answer any question.
The story (BT Ta’anit 23a), in brief, is that Ḥoni falls asleep for 70 years, and upon waking he goes to his beit midrash to learn some Torah. But now, since he has been gone for 70 years, nobody recognizes him, and they do not treat him with respect, so he dies.
In responding to the story of his death, the sage Rava declares, “O ḥevruta o mituta.” “Partnership or death.” If we do not commit to ḥevruta, partnership, we might as well be dead. We need ḥevruta. We need partners. We need to be in relationship with others.
There are two essential messages of the concept of ḥevruta:
We all learn more effectively when we have a partner.
I cannot learn and be completely satisfied with myself until I have also made sure that my ḥevruta has learned as well. That is, we cannot move on until we both “get it.” So I am not in this just for myself – I am also doing it to help my colleague and friend. A good ḥevruta feels something like mountain climbers tethered to one another, so both can reach the top of the mountain together.
Ultimately, to be in relationship with others means that we give out at least as much love as we receive. And I am not speaking only of romantic relationships, or friendships, or family bonds. Rather, we have to strive to understand that we are in relationship with everybody around us – neighbors, business partners, strangers on the street, even with our perceived enemies.
What, after all, is society, if not simply a diverse, complex web of interpersonal relationships? Every group, every organization, every institution consists of people in relationship with one another.
Every other person around you is a potential ḥevruta. And Being There for those beyond our family and friends, for those whom we do not know, or come from a different culture, for people with whom we do not see eye-to-eye, for people with whom we might greatly disagree, is very difficult. Eizehu ḥakham? Who is wise, asks Pirqei Avot (4:1)? Halomed mikol adam. The one who learns from every person.
Each person with whom we interact is a potential partner. Each person has the potential to broaden our knowledge and our opinions to help us improve ourselves and our world.
There is a wonderful tale in the Talmud about ḥevruta. The story (BT Bava Metzia 84a) features the greatest ḥevruta pair ever: Rabbi Yoḥanan and Resh Laqish, who lived in 3rd-century northern Israel. Rabbi Yoḥanan was one of the most highly-regarded scholars of his age, diligently studying from a very young age and ultimately opening a yeshivah / academy in Tiberias to which students flocked. Resh Laqish came from a more nefarious background: he was a former thief and gladiator. Rabbi Yoḥanan agrees to let Resh Laqish marry his daughter if Resh Laqish commits to studying Torah, which he does.
What makes their ḥevruta so vaunted is that they came from such vastly different backgrounds and had such fundamentally divergent perspectives that they helped each other greatly in their learning. Rabbi Yoḥanan describes their learning relationship as follows:
בר לקישא כי הוה אמינא מילתא הוה מקשי לי עשרין וארבע קושייתא ומפריקנא ליה עשרין וארבעה פרוקי וממילא רווחא שמעתא
In my discussions with Resh Laqish, when I would state a matter, he would raise twenty-four difficulties against me in an attempt to disprove my claim, and I would answer him with twenty-four answers, and the halakhah by itself would become broadened and clarified.
In other words, when they studied together, Rabbi Yoḥanan would make some kind of pronouncement about the text, and Resh Laqish would push back with numerous ways in which Rabbi Yoḥanan might actually be wrong. Rabbi Yoḥanan knew that in order to actually understand the Torah, he needed a ḥevruta who would widen his perspective, and thus better interpret what God expects of us.
Learning Torah, just as with learning about life, requires that our perception be challenged, that we have others pushing back at us, respectfully, to show us a wider picture.
When Resh Laqish died, Rabbi Yoḥanan was bereft; his students suggested that he study with El’azar ben Pedat, but Rabbi Yoḥanan found that El’azar was simply a yes-man: he would always agree with R. Yoḥanan, and Yoḥanan found this useless and frustrating. He missed his ḥevruta so much, that
הוה קא אזיל וקרע מאניה וקא בכי ואמר היכא את בר לקישא היכא את בר לקישא והוה קא צוח עד דשף דעתיה מיניה בעו רבנן רחמי עליה ונח נפשיה
Rabbi Yoḥanan went around, tearing his clothing, weeping and saying: Where are you, son of Laqish? Where are you, son of Laqish? Rabbi Yoḥanan screamed until he went insane. The Rabbis prayed and requested for God to have mercy on him and take his soul, and Rabbi Yoḥanan died.
O ḥevruta o mituta. Partnership or death.
It is through opposition that we learn. It is by being challenged in our views that we broaden our minds. It is by engaging with the other side with love and respect that we develop nuanced perception which enables us to moderate ourselves.
The principle of ḥevruta is a means to work through differences in order to reach a meaningful understanding of the other’s point of view. Being There, using the ḥevruta model therefore means seeing the humanity of your interlocutor so that you infuse the argument, and indeed the relationship, with respect.
Pulling back the lens, the only way humanity can function sustainably is if we understand that we have to find common ground with others, particularly our rivals in thought, in religious practice, in politics; that we are in relationship with them as well; that we cannot only love ourselves and those like us. We must broaden our perspectives, and for that we need ḥevruta.
I often feel, ladies and gentlemen, that we have reached a place in our society in which many of us are not listening to one another, in which virtually all of the messages we hear are from those like us, people with whom we find it easy to talk to and to agree. Our media environment has become fractured and even atomized, such that we tune into the outlets which tell the story the way we want to hear it. Our social media platforms enable us to be surrounded by voices that sound just like our own, and we pile on with likes and comments which reinforce our own views.
We are all out for self-affirmation, for having our perceptions of the world constantly reinforced as the only possibly believable thing. Everybody else is crazy or dangerous. And everybody is angry; we all just want to tear down everything that does not fit our world view, to see only the broken tiles and not the larger mosaic.
The story of Rabbi Yoḥanan and Resh Laqish reminds us that a good ḥevruta is also a bar plugta, a partner with whom you stand in opposition, and yet you both understand that you need each other.
But many of us today are not seeing that need.
And in this environment, our institutions are losing out. Schools, houses of worship, social groups, families, professions, governments, and so forth – all are suffering from the sentiment that my opinion trumps yours, that my picture of the world is the only legitimate one. Libraries must kowtow to demands for books to be removed due to content which is objectionable to some; Zionists on college campuses are likened to Nazis. Politicians speak only to their base, and believe that they represent and must respond only to the people who voted for them.
We are quick to jump to conclusions and assume ill will; we are quick to be offended and not generous enough in spirit to give kaf zekhut, the benefit of the doubt.
And if I don’t like your position, I’ll berate you in public with a tweet or an Instagram post. That is much easier than calling you up and discussing our disagreement and seeking common ground, and it gets a whole lot more attention.
The author and scholar Yuval Levin, in his recent (2020) book, A Time to Build, describes the value of institutions, and how their declining influence is a great challenge to our society.
Institutions are by their nature formative. They structure our perceptions and our interactions, and as a result they structure us. They form our habits, our expectations, and ultimately our character. By giving shape to our experience of life in society, institutions give shape to our place in the world and to our understanding of its contours. They are at once constraining and enabling. They are the means by which we are socialized, and so they are crucial intermediaries between our inner lives and our social lives.
We need institutions, says Levin, even when they are somewhat flawed, because they shape us; they help us react to events in our world in a way that is healthy; they guide us in our interactions with others. But we are not using institutions the way we used to, allowing them to mold us into better people, according to Levin. Institutions, he says, have ceased to be formative, and have become performative. That is, we are using them as platforms through which we can advance ourselves, effectively through public performance, mostly via social media.
Without the institution of democracy guiding us, how will we ensure that we have a truly representative government? Without the institutions of religion and medicine and law guiding us, how will we ensure that people will make good choices for themselves, for their families, for their neighborhoods? How will we prevent our society from breaking down into a murderous free-for-all?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once pointed out that the Hebrew word for responsibility, אחריות / aḥarayut, includes the word אחר / aḥer, other. For us to be responsible human beings, said Rabbi Sacks, we must incorporate the other.
Healthy institutions help create an environment in which the sense of aḥarayut helps to guide our discourse across ethnic or racial or religious or ideological lines, and also guides our public and private behavior. These are the spaces in which ḥevruta flourishes, in which civility is fostered, in which true dialogue triumphs over mere shouting.
Yuval Levin’s solution to our society’s challenge in this regard is to recognize that our institutions need us to Be There.
What’s required of each of us is devotion to the work we do with others in the service of a common aspiration, and therefore devotion to the institutions we compose and inhabit. That kind of devotion calls for sacrifice and commitment. It calls on each of us to pledge ourselves to an institution we belong to unabashedly. To abandon ironic distance and dispassionate analysis and jump in.
So instead I will suggest the following: consider the ways in which you can bring the spirit of ḥevruta to the world. Think about how you can be in relationship with others who are not like you, to broaden your perspective and theirs. Consider how your group of friends might engage with others for the benefit of everybody.
Your online social network is not your ḥevruta. Your smartphone is not a bar plugta. Your aḥarayut, your responsibility to this world is to be in dialogue with real people, people who are not like you. You don’t need yes-men.
OK, Rabbi. So how about some specifics? How can I commit myself in 5783 to Being There for a better society and a better world? How can I act on the principle of ḥevruta?
Bring your energy and your resources in a positive way to the institutions that shape your world.
Join and financially support those organizations that reflect the values of a healthier society.
Volunteer with organizations that provide social services.
Get involved in the bodies of civic life: school boards, community organizations and partnerships, and make sure you do so while honoring the principles of ḥevruta – of listening and helping your partners along, of being open to the possibility that you might be wrong, that there might be a better way.
Try to spend less time letting yourself be angered by all the dysfunction of this broken world, particularly as concentrated in toxic online spaces.
Instead, focus on Being There for others, in person, whenever possible. Muster your love of people, and share it with them.
And, of course, come and daven and learn with us at Beth Shalom. By Being There for synagogue life, your involvement will pay off in many ways: in your personal spiritual satisfaction, but also in helping to foster an environment of ḥevruta which permeates the entire world.
In August, the Presbyterian minister turned novelist Frederick Buechner died at age 96. In an appreciation of his life and work, New York Times Columnist David Brooks said the following:
“Buechner’s vocation was to show a way to experience the fullness of life. Of death, he wrote, “What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.”
What we yearn for, when we remember those whom we have lost, is not the pain of their absence. It is rather who they were in life, what they meant to us, how they made us who we are.
“What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, said Buechner. What we find in the context of death and mourning is the accumulation of a lifetime of memories, of moments when your parents were there for you, when your brother made you smile, when your sister offered comfort, when your spouse gave you a hug and made all of the day’s troubles go away.
The people who are now no longer with us, they are the ones who gave us their life. All of that life is now ours. We do not carry their death; we carry their life.
First, a brief review: our theme for this year is “Being There” – being physically connected, being here, being present in both mind and body, and in particular how we need this especially right now as the pandemic is winding down and many of us are reconnecting to Jewish life.
I spoke on the first day of Rosh Hashanah about having your own minyan, that is, joining a ḥavurah, which is a small-group program that we at Beth Shalom will be rolling out in the coming months, and we hope you will participate.
On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, I spoke about the fact that Jewish tradition expects you to Be There, to show up. This is a continuum, and the synagogue has always been the primary place of gathering for the Jewish people. We are here for you at the corner of Beacon and Shady all the time, all the days of your life, and the nights as well. Come be here with us.
Tonight the theme is qehillah qedoshah, sacred community. Most of us may not be familiar with this term, but it is the universal Hebrew designation for “congregation.” Not synagogue, mind you (that, of course, is beit kenesset, “house of gathering”), but congregation, which is more a statement about relationship than about a particular building or location. A synagogue is a place. Qehillah qedoshah refers to the people.
While most of us gathered here tonight are members of this qehillah qedoshah, this sacred community of Beit Shalom, we are also part of a sacred community which extends to all Jewish people around the world. You might call that Qehillah Qedoshah Am Yisrael. The Sacred Community of the People of Israel.
That sense of interconnection has been a part of the Jewish people as long as there have been Jews. Sure, we disagree with each other, and we certainly do not all see eye-to-eye about theology or halakhah / Jewish law or even who is a Jew. Our world-wide community is marked by a great palette of variation in practices and customs, foods and unique rituals, music, and stories. But we are all connected within this community of Jews around the world.
What does that mean, exactly? It means that when you meet another Jewish person from somewhere else, that you know that you share certain things: our Torah, our rituals, our Shabbat and holidays, our Jewish values, our mitzvot, our history. There are certain terms and ideas which transcend language and local culture.
Years ago, I was at a Shabbat morning service at the Dohány Street synagogue in Budapest, the largest synagogue building in Europe, and I somehow managed to get an honor: hagbahah, lifting the Torah. So I’m sitting in the front row, and there is an older Hungarian gentleman sitting next to me, and he attempts to greet me. Now, my wife, being the daughter of Hungarian Shoah survivors, speaks reasonably decent Hungarian, but I know a few key words and nothing more.
It became immediately obvious to me and this older gentleman that we had no common language. But there we were, sitting in the front row in this 5,000-seat synagogue. And we shared that moment together, appreciating our mutual membership in the qehillah qedoshah, sacred community of our people.
Some of you know that Rabbi Shugerman and I participated in the Federation’s Mega Mission to Israel in June, along with about 240 other Pittsburghers, including about 25 who are members of Beth Shalom. Among the many things that we did was to visit the organizations and communities which our Federation supports, places like Beit Issie Shapiro in Ra’anana, which provides education and therapy services for people with disabilities of all ages, the United Hatzalah center in Jerusalem, where we dedicated a new motorcycle ambulance, and of course our partnership region in Karmiel and Misgav, all the way up north, where we not only celebrated with new teenage immigrants from the former Soviet Union, but also packed supplies for the hundreds of Ukrainian refugees that the region has taken in.
It is something we might occasionally miss, sitting here in Pittsburgh, far away from such communities: we are part of an extended qehillah qedoshah. Our sacred community reaches around the world.
Last year at this time, I gave an emotional appeal for the State of Israel, about our connections to the people and land of Israel through the lenses of tradition, of culture, and of the issues surrounding Jewish power. I spoke of the philosopher Aḥad HaAm’s concept of the merkaz ruḥani, of Israel as the “spiritual center” of the Jewish world.
This evening, I would like to remind us all about some fundamental truths about the State of Israel, things that we all should know. And I want you all to recall that Being There, that is, being a part of our qehillah qedoshah, our sacred community, includes feeling connected to and supporting our Israeli cousins. And all the more so right now, as American public opinion, and to some extent American Jews, are turning away from the State of Israel.
You may have seen the recent CNN Special Report on anti-Semitism in America, in which the CNN reporter Dana Bash, who is Jewish, covered several stories about the return of Jew hatred here.
“Jews are an ethnic group who come from Israel. This is proven by genealogical, historical and archeological evidence. Israel is not a ‘colonial’ state and Israelis aren’t ‘settlers.’ You cannot colonize the land your ancestors are from.”
As a result, other members of the NPA group began to call for her removal from the group, because, in their opinion, anybody who is a Zionist is not welcome in the group, because Zionism is “racist” and “white supremacist” and that Zionists promote “genocide.” Members of the group accused her online of condoning oppression and violence against Palestinians, which she does not.
The NPA’s Instagram account featured a post stating that, “The origins of sexual violence are rooted in colonialism… Colonialism uses sexual violence as a tool to uphold white supremacy and conquer stolen land,” and that any justification of “the occupation of Palestine” is therefore effectively condoning rape.
Blotner and another member of the group, Ofek Preis, who is a Jewish Israeli, soon became victims of online harassment, including anonymous death threats. They filed a civil-rights complaint against SUNY New Paltz, claiming that the university failed to protect them from harassment and threats.
What is especially disturbing about this episode is that Ms. Blotner, a sexual-assault survivor who was seeking to help others like her by creating a support group, was further victimized by others who implied that her pro-Israel views were effectively causing sexual violence. If that is not an example of blaming the victim, I don’t know what is.
Along those lines, if you have not seen the new Ken Burns documentary, The US and the Holocaust, it is certainly worth the 6 hours or so of your time. The series deftly defuses the mistaken belief that the United States did not intervene to stop the Nazi horror because Americans were unaware of what was happening in Nazi-occupied Europe. This is a myth with which many of us were raised here in America.
On the contrary: Burns shows in abundance that the whole world knew, and even though President Franklin Delano Roosevelt personally felt that the US should intervene to save Jews, American public opinion was that our country should not open its doors to Jewish refugees. Sadly, this opinion was even espoused by some American Jews as well.
In one episode, the Holocaust historian Daniel Greene points out that a poll taken in 1938 showed that two-thirds of Americans believed that Jews in Nazi-controlled areas were either partially or completely responsible for their own persecution. Let that sink in for a moment.
Ḥevreh, I cannot stand before you and say with a straight face that all criticism of the State of Israel is rooted in anti-Semitism. I have lived in Israel, and my oldest son is currently serving in the Israel Defense Forces. There is plenty to criticize, with regard to the State’s historical treatment of Mizraḥi Jews, Jews from Arab countries, with regard to recent governments’ poor handling of issues surrounding freedom of Jewish practice for non-Orthodox Jews like us, and of course regarding aspects of the treatment of Palestinians in the territories. Israel is a real nation with real problems, governed by real people; she is also a thriving democracy, with a healthy free press. Citizens of China and Russia and Iran, and really much of the world would be envious of the robust debate and criticism of government policy found in Israel’s public discourse if they were aware of it.
But we as American Jews must also acknowledge that our Israeli cousins are part of our greater qehillah qedoshah, and in doing so we have to call out unfair criticism, particularly when it veers into anti-Semitic territory.
To that end, there are three things that you may hear some critics of Israel say which should make you very, very uncomfortable:
Calling Israel an “apartheid” state.
Labeling Israel a “colonial” enterprise, or a “settler-colonial” state.
Accusing Israel of genocide.
Apartheid, the Afrikaans word for “separateness,” was the legally-enshrined racial categorization system that functioned in South Africa for nearly five decades in the 20th century. Under apartheid, all citizens were categorized into four distinct races: White, Black, Indian, and Coloured, and laws about whom you could marry, where you could live and work, how you could vote and for whom, were all a part of that system. It was a system that was fundamentally unjust, denying non-white people many of the rights that we all agree should be universal.
The application of this term to Israel is not only inaccurate, it also diminishes the suffering of Black South Africans under apartheid, and demeans their struggle and loss of life in defeating that system. In Israel, there are Arab doctors and lawyers and professors and judges, and for the last year even an Israeli Arab party in the governing coalition. While Israeli Arabs certainly face discrimination and inequities, many also thrive within Israel and are loyal citizens.
It is certainly true that the Palestinian Arabs of the West Bank live in much worse circumstances, and the failures and intransigence among multiple parties involved in attempting to resolve these challenges continues to extend their predicament, including high unemployment and other serious social ills. And while Israel is certainly a part of this situation, it is not solely the fault of the Israeli government. And even in the Palestinian territories, applying the term “apartheid” is clearly only an attempt to unfairly characterize the situation to make Israel and Jews look bad.
It has become fashionable in some circles to refer to Israel as a “settler-colonial” state, meaning a place where a foreign power sent settlers to colonize the state and establish an outpost of that foreign power. All of the nations in North and South America, and many other places around the world, would fall into that category. But Israel does not, for a few reasons:
There has been a continuous Jewish presence in the land of Israel for at least 2500 years.
The Jews who left other countries in the waves of Zionist migration from the 1860s and onward were not sent by Russia or Poland or Germany or England or Yemen or Iran to establish outposts of those countries; on the contrary, those folks who relocated saw themselves as returning to the historical home of the Jewish people, and in many cases, were of course fleeing the native anti-Semitism in their former lands.
In doing so, they rejected the cultures of their former countries, reviving the Hebrew language, adopting Middle Eastern foods and cultural norms. No other settler movement has done so.
One can only conclude that the terms “colonial” or “settler-colonial,” when applied to Israel, are meant as a slur to delegitimize her, and deny that Jewish people have a right to live there.
There is no statute of limitations on ancestral land, and we, the Jewish people are entitled to the self-determination that all other nations enjoy.
This is an especially flagrant distortion. We, the Jews, know what genocide is: we still have living witnesses among us to the Shoah.
Genocide, as attempted by the Ottoman Turks against the Armenians, by the Nazis, in Burma and Bosnia and Rwanda and Cambodia, is deliberate and systematic, and the intent is to destroy the targeted group.
After Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, the terrorist group Hamas took control of the territory. Whenever there is fighting between Israel and Hamas, and of course this has continued to happen from time-to-time due to Hamas’ continued attempts to kill Israeli civilians, the number of Palestinians killed is always dramatically higher than the number of Israelis. In May of 2021, in eleven days of Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians, followed by Israeli reprisals to dismantle terrorist infrastructure, 14 Israelis died, and 256 Palestinians.
We should never dismiss the loss of any human life, and the pain of loss on both sides of the Gaza border is truly awful. But the asymmetric body count does not make Israel guilty of genocide. On the Israeli side, this is a fight for defensible borders, so that she can protect her people. But for Hamas, the stated goal is, in fact, Israel’s annihilation.
There are no roving Israeli killing gangs deliberately targeting Palestinians. There are no concentration camps, no transports to death camps, not even attempts to physically relocate the Palestinian population to Jordan or somewhere else.
The accusation of Israeli genocide is outrageously hyperbolic, and we should decry it as such.
OK, Rabbi. Even if those characterizations are inaccurate or unfair, why should we support the State of Israel if we have to constantly defend her actions? And why should we care, here in Diaspora? Should we not focus more energy on our spiritual needs here?
As tempting as it may be, we cannot look away. We cannot stand idly by while fellow members of our qehillah qedoshah, our sacred community, are slandered. It is up to us, the second-largest Jewish community in the world, to stand with Israel.
And I want to reinforce that that does not mean we cannot be critical. But we should do so in a way that does not amplify the voices of those who want to see Israel just go away. We cannot give ammunition to Israel’s enemies, and she has very real enemies, who are armed and dangerous and located very close by. On the contrary, the only way we are going to guarantee a sustainable future for all the people who live on that tiny strip of land, is to be in conversation with all those who are willing to work toward that future together. Coexistence is the only possible solution.
We cannot turn our backs. We cannot disengage. We cannot afford to do so.
On the contrary, we have to work harder to connect with and understand Israel and Israelis.
As for the question of, “Why should we care?” Two generations ago I would not have had any reason to even address the question. But given some of the statistics which I have shared with you in the past about American Jews’ gradual disengagement with Israel, I find myself making this case again and again: Israel is worth defending.
The idea of a Jewish homeland is worth defending, even for those of us who are perfectly happy living here in America. And Israel the country – with all her imperfections – is worth defending.
One of those reasons is that of which we should never lose sight: had Israel existed in the 1930s, it is quite likely that six million souls would not have succumbed to the brutality of the Nazis and their willing collaborators. The Burns documentary makes that abundantly clear, when he reminds us that at the Evian Conference in July, 1938, 32 nations in attendance from around the world all expressed sympathy for the plight of German and Austrian Jews seeking refuge, but only the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica agreed to raise their immigration quotas. Hitler saw that as a green light to dispose of his Jews any way he wanted to; nobody else wanted us.
God forbid we should need Israel for that purpose. But there is a better reason for us to remain firmly connected to Israel: and that is that she is, increasingly, a source of inspiration for contemporary Jews around the world, not only as a tech powerhouse or a proud center of secular Jewish culture, but she is also rethinking Judaism for modern Jews.
In recent years, new batei midrash / houses of study have popped up in Israel, created by and aimed at secular and non-Orthodox Jews, where Israelis from diverse backgrounds are learning Talmud and midrash and other Jewish text. New egalitarian and contemporary congregations have formed, headed by a generation of young, native rabbis, who are re-envisioning what it means to be Jewish. Modern Jewish identity is changing. Rabbi Rinat Safania Schwartz, who leads a congregation in Shoham, recently wrote the following:
I want everyone to feel that the very fact of being Jewish confers both the privilege and the responsibility to take personal and communal ownership of their Judaism – of our language, tradition, culture, literature, and all aspects of Jewish creativity. It’s critical that we move people away from relating to their Judaism as if it were in a museum. People must feel that they can “touch,” feel, renew, and create from within.
From “From the Fruit of the Land: Ten Israeli Spiritual Leaders Reflect on the Budding Opportunities for Israeli Judaism Today,” The Honey Foundation for Israel, 2022.
Rabbi Schwartz’s language is quite different than that of most Orthodox Israeli rabbis; she is not alone in finding new ways for Jewish Israelis to express their Judaism.
The members of our extended Qehillah Qedoshah in Israel will help us all build the new Judaism of the 21st century. It is Israel which will be the Diaspora’s partner in maintaining a healthy non-Orthodox Judaism for the future.
So what can you do?
Get to know our four shinshinim, young Israelis who are between high school and army service, who are with us in Pittsburgh for the year
Spend some time learning the history of how and why this patch of land passed from one empire to the next. Learn how the modern state of Israel came to be.
Become familiar with Israeli politics. This is an exciting time – the fifth round of parliamentary elections in three years, coming up in a few weeks.
Go there! We’ll have another congregational trip, probably in 2024
Send your kids to Israel! There are so many options now: Ramah, USY, HSI, Nativ, and of course Birthright.
It is up to us to recognize the bonds that tie each and every one of us people together around the world, and to acknowledge that Israel is the gravitational center of our peoplehood, Qehillah Qedoshah Am Yisrael.
Tomorrow, for our fourth and final installment in the Being There series, we will speak about ḥevruta, the essential Jewish concept of partnership.
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.
Ḥevreh, 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:
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 Pesaḥis among the most resonant holidays of the Jewish year, still observed by most of us:
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.
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.
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 Shaḥarit. 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.
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):
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:
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!)
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.
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.
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 piqquaḥ 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:
Minyan – The principle that daily synagogue services and certain other rituals require a quorum of ten people physically present
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.
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.
Ḥevruta – 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 Ḥevruta 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.
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 ḥavurot.
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 ḥavurah, and people who are interested in social action might form another. Our intent is that these ḥavurot 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 ḥavurah. 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 ḥavurah 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.
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.
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 ḥavurah 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 ḥavurah 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 ḥavurah, 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.
* 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.
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.
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 vaḥomer, 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 vaḥomer, 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 shilluaḥ haqen, sending the mother bird from the nest (Devarim / Deuteronomy 22:6-7):
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.
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 shilluaḥ 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 vaḥomer, 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 vaḥomer, 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 vaḥomer 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 vaḥomer.
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.
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,
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:
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:
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.
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:
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.
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 Shaḥarit move up to the chairs at minḥah. The nusaḥbecomes 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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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):
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.