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Festivals Sermons Yizkor

Once You Learn How to Die, You Learn How to Live – Shavuot / Yizkor 5781

Do we truly understand the value of life? The value of our lives? Do we really appreciate the gift we have been given, while we still have it?

One of the things that the pandemic has taught is just how frail we all are. Think about this for a moment: millions of people around the world taken too soon; young, healthy people suffering from virus effects long after regaining health, the so-called “Covid long-haulers;” the economic fallout – the jobs lost, the industries disrupted, the evictions and lives put on hold, and so forth. All of this due to a tiny piece of RNA wrapped in a protein shell. This microscopic thing, which can barely be called alive, has caused so much damage. It is hard to wrap your brain around. 

And the fallout that it has caused is primarily due to fear of death. We have spent 14 months staying away from people – from loved ones, from strangers in the supermarket, even passing people on sidewalks (I have found myself walking out into the road, perhaps unsafely so, many times) – out of respect, yes, but more essentially out of fear.

And with good reason, of course. 14 months later, nearly 600,000 of our fellow citizens are confirmed to have succumbed to that strand of RNA, and perhaps the figure is even closer to one million. Based on CDC statistics, this virus is about as deadly, per capita, as heart disease and cancer, and far more deadly than auto accidents and Americans with guns. Somehow, however, death seemed so much more close this year, so much more present. 

And we fear death.

A congregant who recently lost his grandfather (not due to COVID-19) asked me for suggestions on the topic of books that deal with death from a Jewish perspective. I came up with a few myself, but I also posed the question to fellow Conservative rabbis, and one suggested the 1997 memoir by Mitch Albom, Tuesdays With Morrie, a book that was on best-seller lists for four years. Probably some of you have read it. I never had, until I stumbled across a copy in one of the Beth Shalom libraries a few weeks back. I figured, maybe I should read this.

In case you do not know, the book is about Brandeis sociology professor Morrie Schwartz, with whom Albom had a close relationship while studying there as an undergraduate. Upon graduation, Albom wandered off into the world to seek his fortune, and did not stay in touch with Schwartz. Instead, he worked hard at building a career as a sports journalist, until one evening he was watching Nightline, and he saw his old professor and friend being interviewed by Ted Koppel (remember Ted Koppel?) about dying of a terminal disease. Morrie had ALS, and was at that point already unable to move his legs. Albom reconnected with him, and then went to visit him at his home outside of Boston over a series of 14 Tuesdays. During each of his visits, Morrie Schwartz unloaded wonderful bits of wisdom – about death, yes, but all the more so about life.

Although Albom is Jewish and so was Schwartz, the book is not really drawn from traditional Jewish ideas about death. While there is one brief moment in which Schwartz, a self-declared agnostic, looks heavenward and suggests that his life is in God’s hands (“I’m bargaining with Him up there now,” he says, p. 163), there is otherwise no reference to any of the things that Jews associate with death and mourning. Nonetheless, it is a very Jewish book, primarily because Morrie’s approach to dying of a terminal illness is to talk about it, to make Albom and the reader aware of their own mortality.

That is what we do. We are not only the people of the book; we are also the people of the schmooze. (Most of you know that I grew up in WASPy, stiff-upper-lip New England; I have never been much of a talker. Somehow, going to rabbinical school changed all that.)

You might make the case that Morrie’s essential argument is that we have no need to fear death, because we are all going to die. Death is an essential feature of life. During one of their early visits, Morrie offers one of his most impactful statements. “The truth is, Mitch, once you learn how to die, you learn how to live.” (p. 82) What he means by “learning how to die” is to be prepared for it, to be aware that it is coming. Once you have done that, you can appreciate life in a much more complete way.

I became aware just this weekend, through an article in the New York Times about a nun, that Catholics have a practice known as “memento mori,” Latin for “remembering death.” The idea is to “intentionally think about your own death every day, as a means of appreciating the present and focusing on the future.” Sister Theresa Alethia Noble of the Daughters of St. Paul convent in Boston has made it her mission to raise the profile of this somewhat obscure practice. Her argument is that we are too focused on the superficial and the inauthentic, the “bright and shiny” things that are constantly occupying space on our screens and in our consciousness.

The article notes that Buddhist mindfulness meditation tries to achieve the same thing, and Morrie Schwartz also invokes the Buddhists. 

But we, the Jews, have our own traditions that keep our mortality in front of us on a regular basis.

You may never have thought about this in these terms, but that is what we do every time we observe Yizkor, when we take a few moments to recall those whom we have lost. One of the traditional things we say during Yizkor are the words from Psalm 16: 

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

Adonai is always before me, at my right hand, lest I fall. Therefore I am glad, made happy, though I know that my flesh will lie in the ground forever.

As ironic as this statement sounds – happiness and death in the same verse – it is absolutely the feeling one gets in reading Tuesdays with Morrie. Teacher and student are united in their joy of connecting and reconnecting, even though one will soon be gone. They enjoy food together; they exchange powerful hugs.

And every time we respond to one reciting the Mourner’s Qaddish, we are doing the same thing. The text of the Qaddish is not even about death, but even though it is an essential part of mourning, it promises life and joy in our praise of God. And every time we celebrate any life cycle event – berit milah, baby naming, bat/bar mitzvah, wedding, etc., we are reminded that life is a cycle – a cycle of joy and grief and loving and loss and thriving and languishing and beginning and ending. 

Why is a Jewish wedding ring a perfect, simple circle, with no stone? Because life is a circle, one in which we all experience all of those beginnings and endings every single day, as we wind our way around.

Elsewhere, Morrie adds, “The most important thing in life is to learn how to give out love, and to let it come in.” (p. 52) As we turn around and around, the way we make our lives full, the way we fill in that circle, is by giving out love, and maybe getting some of it back.

Death is always there. We hear it intoned in our rituals. We bring comfort to those who are approaching death, and when they are gone we are there for those who mourn. We know that we can be happy today, because we also know that there is an endpoint. And we will be remembered by those to whom we gave love.

Perhaps one of the most striking lessons that Morrie Schwartz offers, and one which living a life committed to Judaism also gives us, is the following:

“So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They seem half-asleep, even when they’re busy doing things they think are important. This is because they’re chasing the wrong things. The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.” (p. 43)

Jewish lifecycle events, Jewish holidays, Jewish ritual and song and story and text and halakhah and customs, are primarily focused on connecting us to each other and offering us meaning. While we know where we are headed, we understand that the most important thing that we can do before we get there is to connect, and to re-connect, and to love. That is our purpose; that is what gives our lives meaning.

As we emerge from this pandemic, let us not only remember those whom we have lost, but let us also recommit ourselves to living better, to finding meaning, to engaging with the words of our tradition, to loving more.

That is how we may truly appreciate the gift of life.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, second day of Shavuot, 5/18/2021.)

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Festivals Sermons Yizkor

The Original Non-Fungible Token – Eighth Day Pesaḥ / Yizkor 5781

You might have heard a curious news blip a few weeks back about an extraordinarily unusual art auction. The artwork, by the American artist known as Beeple, was a collage of 5,000 individual digital images, assembled over nearly 14 years. Beeple, whose birth name is Mike Winkelmann, made one image each day, beginning on May 1, 2007, and the collage, entitled “Everydays: The First 5,000 Days” sold for an astonishing $69.3 million, the third-highest price paid for the work of a living artist.

Now, what is most curious about this? That the purchaser has nothing to show for his $69.3 million other than a JPEG file, about 21,000 x 21,000 pixels, with a size of about 320 megabytes. No canvas, no paint, not even a carved, gilt frame. Theoretically, anybody with a computer could easily make and distribute innumerable copies of the file and share it online with a few clicks.

You heard that right: the owner paid nearly $70 million for a computer file.

So how is it that this work could be sold for such an exorbitant sum? Because it is a so-called “non-fungible token,” or NFT.

What’s a non-fungible token, you ask? You’re not alone. Saturday Night Live actually put together a musical skit about it last week, in which a befuddled Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen (played by Kate McKinnon) seems to be at a loss to explain it

As briefly and as simply as I can explain it, an NFT is any unique item of digital content – art, tweets, music, etc. – that can be verified as the original version through a series of secure, verifiable, time-stamped files that attest to its legitimacy. And why the need for this verifiability? So that the creator can sell the original digital content, and its ownership, or transfer of ownership, can therefore be proven. Many people can possess a digital copy, but there is only one non-fungible token of any digital content that exists anywhere, and the proof of that ownership is entrusted to thousands of computer servers, scattered around the world, so that the ownership can always be proven. (Some of you may have heard of Blockchain – NFTs use that technology.)

In short, this enables people to assign a dollar value to something that is effectively a set of ones and zeros that only computers can translate for us. Completely intangible. And the records that make it “real” are entrusted on a whole bunch of secure servers, ostensibly forever.

Other items that have sold as NFTs are the first tweet by Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter, for nearly $3 million, and a digital picture of a column by New York Times Technology columnist Kevin Roose, which netted $560,000, which is I presume far more than Mr. Roose earns in a year. (He donated the money to a charity.)

Now, why is this interesting, other than the absurd amounts of money involved?

First, because it means that art, and specifically ownership of art, has moved beyond the physical product into a kind of spiritual state. It effectively means that you can own an idea, and not just the Earthly manifestation of that idea. (I suppose that the concept is not too different from the principle of intellectual property, except that usually people want to own their intellectual property because it can be used to create physical things of value. That does not seem necessarily to be the situation here. Hence the novelty.)

But second, as curious as the principles behind non-fungible tokens may seem,  the concept suggests something very powerful: that intangible items are truly valuable. And, particularly relevant on a Yizkor day, that our relationships, our sets of memories of those whom we recall today, are something like NFTs in that they are unique, real, and non-fungible. But these relationships are much richer, and effectively priceless.

Let me explain:

When I was in graduate school at Texas A&M University, I recall a discussion with some fellow Jewish grad students over a Shabbat dinner at the Hillel building there. One of my colleagues opined that it was essential to publish academic papers, because it meant that when we were gone, there would be something tangible to show that we had made an impact on the world, in print and therefore “official.” (Since he was a grad student, I’m guessing that he was also trying to rationalize what he was doing in graduate school.)

You could extend this to any particular product: inventing a gadget, say, or building a house. When we create tangible things in this world, we can point to them and say, “Aha! I have left something for the world that will remain after my death.”

But I must say that I disagree with my grad school buddy. An object is just an object; it will eventually crumble and return to dust. A paper in a journal, no matter how essential it might seem right now, will ultimately become obsolete. Yes, it is true that we read words from the Torah today, a book that is still with us after over 3,000 years, but how many other books can you name that are that old? (The Torah is clearly exceptional, for several reasons.)

Rather, I am convinced that the greatest impact that we can have on the world is to place a little bit of the intangible pieces of ourselves – our wisdom, our love, our emotional support, our humor, our personality – into all the people we know. 

And, in fact, that is what every single person on this Earth fundamentally creates during our lifetimes: the intangible dust of relationships. Memories, sentiments, shared experiences, wisdom, cherished moments, expectations fulfilled, or not, and so forth. That is the content of our relationships, much more comprehensive than the pixels arranged on a screen by a digital artist. 

And, almost miraculously, we give out these bits of ourselves to others every time we interact, every time we speak, every moment we share with others. Taken together, all of those create a unique, non-fungible collection of us as individuals, a collection that will remain long after we have departed our physical bodies.

And, unlike an NFT, the content of these vouchsafed bits of ourselves is much more rich. My relationship with my wife, for example, is quite different than my relationship with my 6th-grade teacher, Mr. Welsh. OK, so Beeple spent 5,000 days creating the piece that sold for $69 million. But I have spent already more than 18,000 days on this planet, and within that over 300,000 waking hours, much of that time engaging with others in all the ways that people interact. And nobody can ever take that away from me. Or from you. Or from all the people we know.

The total value of the unique relational moments of my life, if it could be sold, would easily eclipse any NFT by an infinite number of orders of magnitude. 

And that is precisely the point. Our relationships are priceless, and they are forever. Even if one cannot recall a specific interaction, it leaves an emotional residue – cumulative and integrated into the totality of relationship. Even when all those who knew us personally are gone, the dust of our relationships continues to echo in all relationships, in all the collective facets of humanity. 

In a commentary on Shir HaShirim, Song of Songs, from which we read this morning, Rav Avraham Yitzḥaq Kook (1865-1935), the first Chief Rabbi of Mandate Palestine, teaches us that, “Each worldly song is linked to all other songs, and their totality expresses the supernal harmony of the divine whole.” That is, the songs of our individual lives are interconnected. The relational dust that we all leave is a part of the greater song of humanity.

That is, I think, the very meaning of the term “Tzeror haḥayyim,” the bond of life, which appears in the El Male Raḥamim memorial prayer, which we will recite in a few minutes. We are all tzerurim bitzror haḥayyim, bound up in the bond of life together, inextricably interconnected in all the relational material that we share and re-share.

On this day of hazkarat neshamot / remembrance of souls, we recall those whom we have lost by singing their songs, by recalling the holy moments we spent with them, by engaging with that relational residue. We understand that our lives were not only enriched, but in fact defined by those pieces of themselves that they placed in us. Those memories are unique, and together they define those whom we remember today.

We carry them with us. We attest to not only their existence, not only the non-fungibility of their lives, not only how very real they surely still are, but how those relationships shape our lives, our world, our outlook, and our ongoing relationships, which we continue to share with others.

And that, hevreh, is truly priceless.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Eighth Day of Pesaḥ, 4/4/2021.)

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Festivals Sermons

As God is My Editor – Pesaḥ Day 1, 5781

The past year, in addition to facing all of the various physical, social, and economic ills caused by the coronavirus pandemic, we have also had a sort of national reckoning on race, and we continue to look deep inside ourselves as we wrestle with the biases and prejudices that we all have. As a part of this process, we have continued the public struggles over symbols of the racism of American history. And this has not been an easy or comfortable conversation.

Right now, we are celebrating one of the most essential festivals of the Jewish year, a holiday that marks our freedom from slavery and our freedom to worship as we please. And yet, in more than one passage in the Torah, it is clear that some of our ancestors, thousands of years ago, owned slaves. Now, the slavery described in the Torah seems to be largely an economic arrangement born of bankruptcy, in which one who could not repay debts could effectively sell him/herself as a slave, although there are also arrangements for enslaving those captured in war. And it is worth pointing out that the Torah requires slave owners to let slaves go free, if the the slaves desire, after 7 years.

How can the Torah permit something which it elsewhere decries?

Of course, the very idea of slavery of any kind is detestable to us today as Jews, and as Americans. And yet, of course, as with all the other passages in the Torah that make us uncomfortable, we continue to read them, albeit with the disclaimer which I find myself making whenever explaining these thorny parts of the Torah, that although this was permissible in ancient times, we no longer do this. That’s the thing about the Torah – we read it all, out loud, every year (well, every three years at Beth Shalom, where we follow the triennial cycle). We cannot edit out passages that we do not like.

And let’s face it: as an ancient tradition that unfolded over centuries, there are plenty of things in Jewish life that we have received from our ancestors which today we find uncomfortable. And we must wrestle with those things.

The traditional Pesaḥ haggadah, for example, includes a passage that I find particularly objectionable. You can find it in your haggadah right after the berakhah for the third cup of wine, which is in the “Barekh” section (most of which is Birkat haMazon). 

 It is the following:

שְׁפֹךְ חֲמָתְךָ אֶל־הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יְדָעוּךָ וְעַל־מַמְלָכוֹת אֲשֶׁר בְּשִׁמְךָ לֹא קָרָאוּ. כִּי אָכַל אֶת־יַעֲקֹב וְאֶת־נָוֵהוּ הֵשַׁמּוּ 

שְׁפָךְ־עֲלֵיהֶם זַעֲמֶךָ וַחֲרוֹן אַפְּךָ יַשִּׂיגֵם 

תִּרְדֹף בְּאַף וְתַשְׁמִידֵם מִתַּחַת שְׁמֵי ה

Pour your wrath upon the nations that did not know You and upon the kingdoms that did not call upon Your Name! Since they have consumed Ya’aqov and laid waste his habitation (Psalms 79:6-7). 

Pour out Your fury upon them and the fierceness of Your anger shall reach them (Psalms 69:25).

You shall pursue them with anger and eradicate them from under the skies of the Lord (Lamentations 3:66)

These are a relatively late addition to the haggadah, probably from the 12th century, in the context of the Crusades, which were particularly painful to the Jews of early Ashkenaz: four verses saturated with anger and grief and pain. They were chosen because they are an obscene gesture to our non-Jewish enemies, a reflection of the powerlessness of our medieval ancestors in response to their horrible condition, maintained by anti-Semitic oppression.  

And what do we do when we recite these verses? We open the door, ostensibly to welcome Eliyahu HaNavi, the Prophet Elijah. Yes, I know that is what they told you in Hebrew school. 

A cup for Miriam the Prophetess, which some put out in addition to a cup for Elijah

But what are we saying as we do this? May God slaughter our enemies, in anger.

One theory about why we open the door is that our ancestors in these troubled times were demonstrating to our non-Jewish neighbors that nothing nefarious was going on, to show that we were not, as we had been accused, using blood of murdered Christian children to make matzah. So the irony here is that we open the door for all to see our innocence, and yet at the same time we are calling on God for vengeance.

I have often been at a loss to try to square these verses, their origin and context, with my own outlook on American Jewish life in the 21st century. On the one hand, anti-Semitism is, lamentably, still thriving here and around the world. On the other, is cursing our neighbors and calling for their destruction the right response? So, when leading a seder, I have tried to put these in context, to rationalize their presence in my haggadah, or to lean into the Eliyahu haNavi bit rather than the pouring out of Thy wrath.  

But that is what we do: when faced with rituals or text that challenge our contemporary sensibilities, we do not merely take them out. We modify them slightly (for example, adding the Imahot, the matriarchs to the opening paragraph of the Amidah), or we put them in context. The Conservative movement has historically been the home of Tradition and Change. We do not gloss over the ugly parts; rather, we seek context, meaning and intent in every generation, as our world evolves.

And we must do the same as Americans.  We are struggling right now with symbols of our past that are fraught with the sting of racism. 

You may recall that the wider movement to remove some of these symbols, like statues of Confederate generals and Confederate flags, gained a new urgency following the mass shooting at an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina by an avowed white supremacist in 2015. You may also recall that the shocking march of white supremacist groups in Charlottesville, Virginia in August of 2017 was precipitated by a public debate in that city about whether to take down a monument of Robert E. Lee.

Some symbols, like those of Confederate generals, are too painful to remain in public places. Mississippi, the state with the highest percentage of African-Americans, only removed the Confederate emblem from its flag last June. I cannot even imagine how it must have felt to the 40% of Mississippi that is Black to live in a state that flew that flag; picture having to tolerate veneration of Nazis in your neighborhood.

But while Confederate symbols and statues are clearly unacceptable, all cultures have heroes, and heroes are never saints; they are human. Their achievements can be admired while also giving context and even speaking of their failings. Presidents Washington and Jefferson, for example, were slave owners. Should we remove the statues of these icons of American democracy?

We the Jews are all too familiar with the danger of words and images. We understand where the constant denigration of others can lead. We are all too familiar with the grief and suffering caused by ancient hatreds – the pogroms, the forced exiles, the forced conscriptions, the genocide.

When we look deep into our own tradition, there are clearly troubling items to be found there. But our response is always to teach, to argue with ourselves, to write commentaries and fiery sermons and opinion pieces and critical editions of ancient texts. And, of course, around Purim time, we remember to forget Amaleq, who sought to destroy us.

In short, the remedy to these things is education. We do not edit out the bad parts; we teach them! And we teach that hatred is wrong, that oppression and slavery are wrong.

And so too as Americans. We have to teach the shameful parts of our past, and help our coming generations wrestle with our own internal demons to lead us all to live in harmony with each other, to understand that we are all in this together, that nobody is truly free until all are free. We have to make sure that the commentaries are there, the explanations that say, “This is not who we are. We are better than this.” 

We, the Jews, have to share a little bit of the seder with our non-Jewish neighbors, a different part, the passage that is, I think, the most important one in the whole book: Check out the beginning of “Maggid”: Kol dikhfin yeitei yeikhul. Let all who are hungry, come and eat. I am going to break these down, Rashi-style:

Kol dikhfin / All who are hungry: This refers to all who suffer in any way, whether through physical or spiritual deprivation. It includes the homeless as well as the oppressed, the abused, the victims of grinding poverty, baseless hatred, and corrupt governments.

Yeitei / Let them come: Open our doors with love, honesty, and compassion.

Veyeikhul / And let them eat: We are obligated to take care of one another, to make sure that all are welcome, all are fed and clothed and housed and all have access to health care and justice. We should incline toward building a better society, one in which nobody falls through the cracks. The work of repairing this world is not yet done.  

If you want to reinterpret “Shefokh ḥamatekha” / pouring out God’s wrath a different way, that’s fine. Perhaps you’d like to interpret this passage as directed at the enemies within ourselves, the parts of our personalities that resist God’s holiness. Maybe right afterward, you could reprise Kol dikhfin yeitei veyeikhul. But just make sure that we know why we are saying what we say. Teach our values, so that we may live them, and that our children may live them, and all of us may live together.

חג שמח / Ḥag sameaḥ!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, first day of Pesa , 3/28/2021.)

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Festivals Sermons

Next Year in Jerusalem – Shabbat HaGadol, 5781

Leading up to Pesaḥ / Passover, I always try to remind anybody who will listen that the most important part of the seder experience is not the meal, but the discussion surrounding the meal. I know – eating is more fun than talking about tradition and history and customs and ideas and holiday themes and slavery and freedom. But I want to try to give you a discussion topic today that I think you will really WANT to have with your family, whether they are there in person or meeting via Zoom or however you are gathering.

It is this: Lashanah haba-ah biyrushalayim. The last three words in the haggadah: Next year in Jerusalem. That should be our mantra this year.

Because this year, this Pesaḥ, we can see Jerusalem from a distance.

What do I mean by that? First, let’s consider the role of Jerusalem in Jewish life.

In the year 70 CE, the Romans destroyed the Second Beit haMiqdash / Temple in Jerusalem. The Beit haMiqdash was the center of Jewish life up until that time – it was where the kohanim (Jewish priests) sacrificed animals to God, according to the instructions found in the Torah, some of which were described in Parashat Tzav, which we read from this morning. Following this destruction, the Beit haMiqdash has never been rebuilt. 

(As you have heard me argue before, the Romans actually did the Jews a kind of favor; Maimonides makes the case, more than a millennium later, that it was ultimately God’s intent to bring us to tefillah / prayer as our primary form of worship in lieu of sacrificing animals. Not everybody agrees with Maimonides, but that is a subject for another day.)

About 65 years after the Roman destruction, following the Bar Kokhba rebellion of 132-135 CE, the Roman authorities banned Jews from living in Jerusalem and its outskirts. 

(Another aside: when you read tonight about the five rabbis – R. Eliezer, R. Yehoshua R. El’azar ben Azariah, R. Aqiva, and R. Tarfon – who gathered at Benei Beraq to discuss the Exodus all night long, that may be a description of an all-night Bar Kokhba rebellion planning session. When one of their students pops in to say, Rabbeinu, higi’a zeman qeri’at Shema shel shaḥarit / “Our teachers, the time has come to recite the morning Shema,” that may have been the sentry’s code for, “Hide the maps! The Romans are coming!”)

From the early 2nd century forward, the entirety of the rabbinic enterprise was dedicated not only to creating a religious system to replace the kohanic / sacrificial system, but also to remember and highlight the grandeur of the Beit haMiqdash, and the “good ol’ days” of its existence, even as they replaced its centralized, hierarchical system with the democratic, decentralized system of Rabbinic Judaism that we have today.

In doing so, the rabbis elevated Jerusalem, also known as Tziyyon / Zion, as the focal point of our yearning. We find this throughout rabbinic literature, manifest in the messianic desire of rebuilding Jerusalem and the Beit haMiqdash of course, but also in passages like this from the Talmud, Massekhet Qiddushin 49b:

עשרה קבים חכמה ירדו לעולם תשעה נטלה ארץ ישראל ואחד כל העולם כולו עשרה קבים יופי ירדו לעולם תשעה נטלה ירושלים ואחד כל העולם כולו …

Ten kavim of wisdom descended to the world; Eretz Yisrael took nine of them and all the rest of the world took one. Ten kavim of beauty descended to the world; Jerusalem took nine and all the rest of the world in its entirety took one.

90% of the world’s beauty is in Jerusalem, and 90% of the world’s wisdom is in Israel. This yearning continues until this very day; you can find it on many pages of the siddur, including multiple berakhot in the weekday Amidah, which we recite three times per day, while facing, and bowing in the direction of Jerusalem.

The medieval Spanish poet, Yehudah haLevi, who lived in the 11th/12th century, captures this ancient desire so beautifully in his primal poem, Libi vemizrah

לִבִּי בְמִזְרָח וְאָנֹכִי בְּסוֹף מַעֲרָב
אֵיךְ אֶטְעֲמָה אֵת אֲשֶׁר אֹכַל וְאֵיךְ יֶעֱרָב
אֵיכָה אֲשַׁלֵּם נְדָרַי וֶאֱסָרַי, בְּעוֹד
צִיּוֹן בְּחֶבֶל אֱדוֹם וַאֲנִי בְּכֶבֶל עֲרָב
יֵקַל בְּעֵינַי עֲזֹב כָּל טוּב סְפָרַד, כְּמוֹ
יֵקַר בְּעֵינַי רְאוֹת עַפְרוֹת דְּבִיר נֶחֱרָב

My heart is in the East, and I in the uttermost West–
How can I find savor in food? How shall it be sweet to me?
How shall I render my vows and my bonds, while yet
Zion lieth beneath the fetter of Edom, and I in Arab chains?
A light thing would it seem to me to leave all the good things of Spain —
Seeing how precious in mine eyes to behold the dust of the desolate sanctuary.

In some sense, Yehudah haLevi is yearning not for the rebuilt Beit haMiqdash, but rather the idea of returning to this “precious” jewel of a ruined city. Were it not for the desire to see Jerusalem, his exile in Spain would be impossible to bear.

An essential destination in the Earthly Jerusalem: Marzipan.

And furthermore, the Talmud tells us that there are really two Jerusalems, and our yearning is arguably greater for the heavenly Jerusalem, Yerushalayim shel Ma’alah (BT Ta’anit 5a):

וַאֲמַר לֵיהּ רַב נַחְמָן לְרַבִּי יִצְחָק מַאי דִּכְתִיב בְּקִרְבְּךָ קָדוֹשׁ וְלֹא אָבוֹא בְּעִיר מִשּׁוּם דִּבְקִרְבְּךָ קָדוֹשׁ לֹא אָבוֹא בְּעִיר אָמַר לֵיהּ הָכִי אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן אָמַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לֹא אָבוֹא בִּירוּשָׁלַיִם שֶׁל מַעְלָה עַד שֶׁאָבוֹא לִירוּשָׁלַיִם שֶׁל מַטָּה

Rabbi Yitzḥak said to Rav Naḥman that Rabbi Yoḥanan said … The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: I shall not enter Jerusalem above, in heaven, until I enter Jerusalem on earth down below at the time of the redemption, when it will be sacred in your midst.

Rabbi Yoḥanan’s suggestion is that the heavenly Jerusalem is the greater prize; that will not be rebuilt until the Earthly Jerusalem, Yerushalayim shel Matah, is rebuilt.

So why am I telling you all of this today? What does it mean for us at this particular moment?

When we say, Lashanah Haba-ah Biyrushalayim tonight and tomorrow night, we should lean into our own immediate yearning. We have been in exile for more than a year; we have been yearning for the East, our hearts at the end of the West, since Adar of 5780.  

Yes, I know that is not a long time, compared to the nearly two millennia that our ancestors waited for the opportunity to rebuild Yerushalayim shel Matah / Earthly Jerusalem. 

Yes, I know that even with all the grief that the virus has caused – the sickness, the death, the anxiety, and all the various socio-economic consequences – these things are still small compared to the way our people have suffered throughout the centuries of displacement. 

And yes, I know that it does not really help to look at one’s predicament and say, “Oh, but it could be so much worse.”

Nonetheless, the point at which enough of us will have been vaccinated such that we can begin to gather safely again, to re-open businesses, to see our families and friends, will actually feel to many of us like a major redemption. People have told me that they have cried when receiving their shots; many, I know, are saying a berakhah. I certainly recited sheheheyyanu when I got my first dose two weeks ago. This is my Jerusalem right now.

So as we all gather this evening, here are a few discussion questions you can ask:

  • Why do we say, “Lashanah haba-ah biyrushalayim,” if most of us are not actually planning to move to Israel in the next year?
  • What might “Yerusahalayim” represent this year?
  • What might we do to make sure we get there more quickly?

You might guide the discussion by seasoning it with the difference between the Earthly and Heavenly Jerusalems, and while we can all visit and/or move to the Earthly Jerusalem, the Heavenly one is more of an idea that encompasses our yearning, our individual goals of freedom at this moment.

And, by the way, you do not have to wait until the end of the seder to discuss this, because right up front in the “Maggid” section, in which we tell the story, when we say, “Ha laḥma anya,” this is the bread of poverty that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt, it also says, a little further into that Aramaic passage:

הָא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא דִּי אֲכָלוּ אַבְהָתָנָא בְאַרְעָא דְמִצְרָיִם. כָּל דִכְפִין יֵיתֵי וְיֵיכֹל, כָּל דִצְרִיךְ יֵיתֵי וְיִפְסַח. הָשַּׁתָּא הָכָא, לְשָׁנָה הַבָּאָה בְּאַרְעָא דְיִשְׂרָאֵל. הָשַּׁתָּא עַבְדֵי, לְשָׁנָה הַבָּאָה בְּנֵי חוֹרִין

This is the bread of poverty that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat; let all who are in need come and partake of the Pesaḥ sacrifice. Now we are here, next year we will be in the land of Israel. ​​​​​​​This year we are slaves, next year we will be free people.

Let me rephrase that for you:

Now we are living apart; in the coming year, with the help of the Qadosh Barukh Hu, we will be free once again to greet each other, to hug each other, to dine together, to worship together, to sing and dance together. That is freedom; that is a vision of Yerushalayim shel Ma’alah for which I am yearning right now.

Shabbat shalom, and ḥag sameaḥ!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 3/27/2021.)

Categories
Festivals High Holidays music Sermons

Sermon in Song: A Musical Journey Through Jewish Ritual Melodies – Shabbat Shirah 5781

Shabbat Shirah, the “Shabbat of Song,” is the day on which we chant Shirat HaYam (the Song of the Sea, which the Israelites chanted upon having crossed the Sea of Reeds on dry land, Shemot / Exodus 15:1-21) as well as Shirat Devorah (the song chanted by Devorah the Prophet following victory over the Canaanite commander Sisera, Shofetim / Judges 5:1-31). In honor of Shabbat Shirah 5781, I created this musical explanation of the nusah (prayer-chant melody), musical modes and motifs, and congregational melodies used in the synagogue and in home rituals throughout Jewish life.

Enjoy!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally chanted at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 1/30/2021.)

Categories
Festivals Sermons

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

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

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

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

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

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

It brought tears to my eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not so easy, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and we look back to the year that has passed, 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

Categories
Festivals Sermons

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

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

America needs a mom right now. 

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

Zohar 3:103b:8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Hemlah / Compassion – German Chancellor Angela Merkel

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

  1. Nedivut / Generosity – Bill and Melinda Gates

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

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

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

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

  1. Anavah / Humility – Rosa Parks

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

  1. Adivut / Civility – President Abraham Lincoln

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Talmud Torah – Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

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

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

Mo’adim lesimhah! Haggim uzmanim lesasson!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

Categories
Festivals Sermons Yizkor

The Dead Support the Living – Yizkor / Shavu’ot 5780

You may know that I love to hike, and during this pandemic, I have been spending more time walking outside than I ordinarily do, particularly in the heavily-wooded Frick Park. That’s a good thing – particularly now that the weather is nice. Good for the spirit, good for the body. 

Red-tailed hawk in Frick Park (photo credit: me)

Judy and I were in the park a few weeks ago, and we noticed a couple of tall trees that looked dead, sort of intertwined with each other. And upon looking closer, we saw that the situation was much more interesting: one of the trees, standing upright, was clearly dead – no leaves, no bark in many places, minimal branches still remaining on its tall trunk. But the other tree was leaning over heavily onto the dead one, and it was still alive. It looked as though the live tree had been knocked over in a storm, and the dead tree had somehow “caught” it, and prevented it from falling.

The dead tree was actually holding up the living one.

We generally think of dead natural things – trees, animals, etc. – as being past their point of usefulness. That is, they are no longer part of the system. But of course that is not true. On the contrary: as you walk around a forest, for example, and you see plenty of dead things on the ground – leaves and tree trunks and occasionally animal carcasses – it is worth remembering that those things are essential parts of the circle of life. They serve as homes to insects, food for fungi, and of course when they break down into nutrients and reenter the soil, they continue to nourish the living plants around them by fertilizing the ground once again.

That is the cycle of life. Life yields death, which yields life again. 

And, in some sense, the same is true for people. Not in physical sense, of course, and not in the sense of death and resurrection, although for sure there are some Jews who believe in that sort of thing. But rather, I would like to propose that the dead nourish and sustain the living, sort of like that dead tree holding up the live one.

How can that be? Lo hameitim yehallelu Yah (Psalm 115:17), we chanted in Hallel earlier today. The dead do not praise God; that is only for the living. Being able to sing words of praise together with our community, that is a sure sign of life.

And yet, those of us who have passed from this world into the next are not only very much here with us, but they support us, the living as well. Let me explain, with an assist from the following midrash:

Moshe Rabbeinu is at the end of his life, and has ascended Har Nevo (Mt. Nebo), as God instructed him to do. God reminds Moshe that, even though he will not enter the Promised Land, he can see it from the mountain.

Moshe appeals to God, saying that it is not fair that he, Moshe Rabbeinu, who took the people out of the Land of Egypt, bringing them forth from slavery, cannot enter the Land of Israel. “I should be the first to cross the Jordan River,” he pleads. “I should lead them into the Land. Why won’t you let me? Why do you not favor me with love, as you favor the rest of Benei Yisrael (the Israelites)?”

“I have favored you with love,” says God. “I gave the Aseret HaDibberot, the Ten Commandments to the people through you. I gave the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, to them through you. That is how I have expressed my love for you.”

“Who, then, will lead the people, if not me?” says Moshe.

“Yehoshua (Joshua) will lead them. It is time for the people to find the courage to travel on without you, Moshe. But you will die knowing that they will never forget you. You will always be an essential part of them. You will be constantly invoked, in song and story, in learning and teaching, in repeating the words of Torah for millennia to come. You will continue to support them after you die, and your words will bring them strength.”

Moshe thinks about this, and then goes back down from Har Nevo to give a final blessing to Benei Yisrael. He climbs the mountain a final time, and, as he is looking out over the Land of Israel, spread out before him to the west across the Jordan River, God kisses his soul, taking his life. 

As a final act of God’s love, God buries Moshe on top of Har Nevo, in a location that has remained secret to this day.

***

How do the dead support the living? In the same way that Moshe Rabbeinu does: through the words that they said; through the actions that they took to sustain us in life; through the inspirations and memories fixed in our hearts and minds, that lead us to seek peace between people and care for those in need and comfort those who grieve. 

We carry them with us, just as we carry with us the Torah that Moshe gave us. When we get to Simhat Torah, the other celebration of Torah, half a year away, we will read, “Torah tzivvah lanu Moshe; morashah qehillat Ya’aqov.” (Devarim / Deuteronomy 33:4) Moses charged us with Torah, as the heritage of the congregation of Jacob. Our heritage includes not only Torah, but also the pieces of our ancestors that we contain: their good deeds, their wisdom, their reputations.

And how will we, the living, support those who will someday remember us when we are gone? By being the best people that we can be in life. By drawing on the Jewish values of learning, of compassion, of gratitude, of community-building, of remembrance. By fulfilling the mitzvot, the holy opportunities communicated to us through Moshe Rabbeinu and upheld by generations. By committing ourselves, every day, to making this world a slightly better place.

Three times a day in Jewish life, and sometimes four, we recite the berakhah Barukh Attah Adonai, mehayyeh hameitim.” Praised are You, God, who gives life to the dead. I know that it’s a not-so-coded reference to the Messianic resurrection of the dead that our ancestors yearned for. The Amidah (standing, silent prayer that is a part of every Jewish service) says, God keeps faith even with those who sleep in the dust: umqayyem emunato liysheinei afar, we sing ever-so-joyously. (BTW, that well-known melody, ubiquitous in American synagogues, was written by Cantor Max Wohlberg for a Junior Congregation service in the middle of the 20th century. He later regretted its spread to the entire Jewish world, because it just did not quite fit the meaning of that paragraph.)

But the berakhah is incomplete. It was liturgy that served a particular purpose at one time, and there are some who feel it has outlived its usefulness (the Reform and Reconstructionist movements changed the language; the Conservative movement left the language but tinkered with the translation). 

How it should be read is not only about God giving life to the dead, but also as the dead giving life back to us. Mehayyeh hameitim. We are in a circle of mutual support: God sustains the dead, who sustain us, who praise God. It’s an eternal loop of life. 

I would be remiss not to mention today that we passed an abominable statistic in America this week. The number 100,000 means nothing in relative terms; our per capita death rate in America due to the coronavirus is lower than many nations. 

But in very real terms, it is a staggering number, more than the number of American soldiers who died in the Korean War and Vietnam conflict combined, and all in the space of a couple of months.

I find myself coming back to the words of President Abraham Lincoln, delivered a little to the east of here, after the battle at Gettysburg in 1863:

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain…

We the living, said President Lincoln, continue the work of those who gave their lives to give us life. They sustain us through their devotion. And as we recall not only our parents and grandparents and spouses and siblings and children who are no longer with us, we also recall those who gave up their lives to this disease, and we too resolve that they shall not have died in vain.

The dead give us life. They hold us up like strong, tall tree trunks. And we continue to remember them, to live their words and their deeds and their wisdom. That is the cycle of life, in which we are all bound.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning / Second day of Shavu’ot, May 30, 2020.)

Categories
Festivals Sermons Yizkor

Ephemeral Joy and the Bond of Life – Pesah Day 8 / Yizkor 5780

The end of Pesah is, to me, always quite anti-climactic. We put the Passover dishes away, toss out foodstuffs that we would never consider eating during the rest of the year, and then life sort of shambles on as normal, as if these eight obsessively, gastronomically limited days were a brief lull. This year, of course, the usual lull will linger longer

My attention was recently captivated by an interview I heard on public radio, on the show On Being with Krista Tippett. She spoke with author and poet Ross Gay, who is also a professor of English at Indiana University. He said something that struck me for its paradoxical insight: that human joy is intimately tied to the operating principle that we are mortal. Let me just share with you how he put it:

… Joy has everything to do with the fact that we’re all going to die. When I’m thinking about joy, I’m thinking about — that at the same time as something wonderful is happening, some connection is being made in my life, we are also in the process of dying. That is every moment… 

The connection between the dying and the joy…  is just the simple fact of the ephemerality of [life] … if you and I know we’re each in the process, [of dying], there is something that will happen between us. There’s some kind of tenderness that might be possible…

… [J]oy is the moments — for me, the moments when my alienation from people — but not just people, from the whole thing — it goes away. And it shrinks. If it was a visual thing, everything becomes luminous. And I love that mycelium, forest metaphor, that there’s this thing connecting us. And among [that] is that we have this common experience — many common experiences, but a really foundational one is that we are not here forever.

And that’s a joining — a “joy-ning.” So that’s sort of how I think about it.

Tippett:

But joy is — our capacity for joy, despite and through that, the fact that we’re all gonna die and that things are going wrong all the time, is also something that joins us together. It’s leveling, in a way.

Gay:

Totally… [I]t is joy by which the labor that will make the life that I want, possible. So it is not at all puzzling to me that joy is possible in the midst of difficulty.

***

These are exceptionally prophetic words, which, like words of Torah, we can only hear and interpret in our current context. The interview was recorded in July of 2019, however, long before COVID-19 was a thing.

Matters of life and death are shared between all of us. I think what Ross Gay is trying to say is that we all carry with us the potential to create joy, to increase happiness in this world, and we also all share the fact that we are going to die. So the potential for joyful living is predicated by the fact that we need it – that in all human relationships there is an implicit shared imperative to foster joy, since our time on Earth is limited.

The first thought that occurred to me as I was listening to this interview was, What a dreadful idea! How can reminding myself of my mortality possibly bring joy?

And then upon second thought, Wait a minute! He’s right. I share that with every other human on the planet. We may speak different languages, have absolutely orthogonal political outlooks, practice different religions, and so forth. But for every single one of us, the clock is ticking. It’s a jumping-off point for every relationship.

Death is, as Krista Tippett suggests, the great leveler, and arguably a cause for joy. And particularly when we lose somebody, it is the motivator for remembering to live. That is precisely the reason we mourn, the reason we say the Mourners’ Qaddish, which is not at all about death – to remember to live, to remember that, in our limited time, we must bring joy.

As I was listening to this a few weeks back, I was making breakfast for my family, whole-grain waffles with maple syrup, a joyful Sunday-morning move, and of course I was not thinking about dying. (I miss waffles. Only one more day of Pesah!)

But living, truly living, is in the joy that we bring to others – by preparing and sharing food with them, for example. And by talking. And by hugging. And by being there in times of need. And by being there for the happy times. And sometimes just by being present, or even present from a distance.

Because, when we are gone, we can no longer really create joy.

My teacher, Rabbeinu (“our teacher”) Neil Gillman, in his 1997 work, The Death of Death, points out that it is death that makes us fully human. “Death,” he says,” is not punishment for disobedience, but rather the inevitable result of the full flowering of our humanity.” He cites the Creation story from Bereshit / Genesis of Gan Eden / the Garden of Eden, as launching human-ness in its complete form; Adam and Eve were in some sense required to understand their mortality before they could be considered fully formed. He cites Martin Buber’s interpretation of the Gan Eden story as an act of compassion on humans by God, avoiding subjecting them to “aeons of suffering.” 

But life, thank God, is not merely suffering. It is all-encompassing, and in remembering to live, we also remember to seek pleasure and company and good times and love. And what makes the joy ultimately overpower the suffering is that we know that our time is fleeting.

We all carry with us a certain number of memories of people who are now gone. We all carry with us what made them who they were. And we remember them when we act in their memory, when we carry on with life, when we bring joy to ourselves and others.

Something that I am trying to do during this pandemic is to be positive. Yes, I think you know by now that I am an optimist. But I have been trying to draw on that well of optimism now more than ever. 

Let’s face it – our options for being joyful right now are somewhat limited, particularly if we live alone. And the entirety of the festival of Pesah, the festival of freedom, the festival of spring, the major holiday that kicks off the cycle of the Jewish year, has had a kind of pall over it. We have not been able to visit with family; we have not been able to exchange hugs and share food and stories with many people with whom we would ordinarily do so.

And yet, we also know that this will come to an end, and when it does, I know we will all be truly joyful.

But I think we have also been given a sort of gift by the pandemic, and that is a glimpse of our own mortality, and that reminder that death makes us human. We are all bound together in life – those of us who are still breathing, and those of us whom we remember on days like these. 

Because, as we will say in a few minutes when I recite the El Male Rahamim prayer, utzror bitzror hahayyim et nishmoteihem. May the souls of those whom we recall today be bound up in the tzeror hahayyim, the bond of life. You will also see a variant form of this written as an abbreviation on some Jewish gravestones, in the form of an acronym: תנצב”ה, which stands for “Tehi nishmatah/nishmato tzerurah bitzror hahayyim .” May her/his soul be bound up in the bond of life. 

We are intimately connected, living and dead, through this bond of life. And although the dead do not give us joy, they certainly give us life through that connection, which enables us to go on seeking and giving joy to others.

And qal vahomer,  all the more so in this time of an afflicted world, we remember not only those who gave us life, but also those who died or are dying at the hands of this vicious virus, which does not discriminate with respect to age, race, gender, religion, socioeconomic status, and so forth. We are reminded that we are all in this together – as Jews, as American citizens, and as human beings, interconnected with all others around the world. 

On this day of Yizkor, of calling to mind those whom we have lost, we must acknowledge our condition: that our lives are ephemeral, and that the joy that we share with others in the brief time that we have been granted is invaluable. We sink or swim not as individuals, but as a community, as a society, as a world.

We are deeply interconnected, mournful and joyful and distant and close all at the same time, all together, bound in that bond of life that makes us human, that calls us back to our shared mortality.

May we all be bound together in that tzeror hahayyim. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, eighth day of Pesah 5780, 4/16/2020.)

Categories
Festivals Sermons

Redemption from (Love-)Sickness – Shabbat Hol HaMo’ed Pesah 5780

It’s been at least a month now, maybe even six weeks, since I have shaken anybody’s hand, and that is probably true for just about all of us. (My wife and kids have kept me adequately supplied with hugs, but we don’t generally shake hands with each other around the house.)

I am going to tell you something about myself, something which some of you may have trouble believing, and that is this: I am NOT a people person. I am a classic introvert, one who draws energy from being alone, rather than from socializing with others. I am no fun at parties – I tend to be checking out the bookshelves and the artwork while others are chattering. Yes, I cover that well – an essential part of my work as a rabbi is to be social. To paraphrase Pirqei Avot (3:17), Im ein schmooze, ein Torah. Without schmoozing, there’s no Torah. We, the Jews, are a sociable people, and rabbis are not monks.

But, if you can believe this, it’s hard for me. There are times, particularly at the end of the day, when I just want to crawl into a hole and listen to NPR, or silence.

The Rothko Chapel in Houston. A great place to appreciate silence.

However, I have found the time at home in the last month harder than I anticipated. Something I have learned about myself in recent weeks is that I need to see people, to chat with them, to relate in person. And I am sure that many of us are feeling that need as well right about now.

A little earlier we read some of Shir HaShirim, one of the most curious and intriguing books of the Tanakh. Some of the questions that might arise about Shir HaShirim are:

  1. This is clearly ancient erotic poetry. What’s it doing in the Tanakh?
  2. Where is God?
  3. Why on Earth do we read this on Shabbat Hol HaMoed Pesah?

Addressing the more obvious challenge, which unites the first two questions, Shir HaShirim is understood in the rabbinic mind as being about the relationship between God and Israel as lovers. There is, indeed, romantic and sexual tension found in the contortions of this relationship; from the Sinai moment until today, God is continually being spurned and then sought again by Israel. (The prophet Hosea, who, if you survey all the haftarot of the year, is the most-read of the minor prophets, allegorizes exactly this relationship in his description of his own faithless marriage.) 

The lovers in Shir HaShirim face a kind of disconnect; while they speak of touching one another, they are often distant, missing each other’s overtures, seeking each other. I must say that this describes to some extent my own personal God experience, and maybe yours as well. 

For example:

2:14

יוֹנָתִ֞י בְּחַגְוֵ֣י הַסֶּ֗לַע בְּסֵ֙תֶר֙ הַמַּדְרֵגָ֔ה הַרְאִ֙ינִי֙ אֶתּ־מַרְאַ֔יִךְ הַשְׁמִיעִ֖ינִי אֶת־קוֹלֵ֑ךְ כִּי־קוֹלֵ֥ךְ עָרֵ֖ב וּמַרְאֵ֥יךְ נָאוֶֽה׃

“O my dove, in the cranny of the rocks, Hidden by the cliff, Let me see your face, Let me hear your voice; For your voice is sweet And your face is comely.”

3:1-2

עַל־מִשְׁכָּבִי֙ בַּלֵּיל֔וֹת בִּקַּ֕שְׁתִּי אֵ֥ת שֶׁאָהֲבָ֖ה נַפְשִׁ֑י בִּקַּשְׁתִּ֖יו וְלֹ֥א מְצָאתִֽיו׃

Upon my couch at night I sought the one I love— I sought, but found him not.

אָק֨וּמָה נָּ֜א וַאֲסוֹבְבָ֣ה בָעִ֗יר בַּשְּׁוָקִים֙ וּבָ֣רְחֹב֔וֹת אֲבַקְשָׁ֕ה אֵ֥ת שֶׁאָהֲבָ֖ה נַפְשִׁ֑י בִּקַּשְׁתִּ֖יו וְלֹ֥א מְצָאתִֽיו׃

“I must rise and roam the town, Through the streets and through the squares; I must seek the one I love.” I sought but found him not.

I spend a great deal of time in tefillah / prayer, lavishing praise upon God (which is what the majority of our statutory prayers consist of). Just as the lover in Shir HaShirim describes the object of her desire in rich, hyperbolic prose, so too do we whenever we open the siddur / prayerbook.

And yet, when we seek, we often do not find God. We yearn, we plead, our mouths overflow with litanies of praise. Some Mizrahi (Eastern) traditions chant Shir HaShirim before Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday evenings; that is not our custom, but we do sing Yedid Nefesh, which draws heavily on imagery from Shir HaShirim: “Nafshi holat ahavatakh,” wrote the poet Rabbi Elazar Azikri in the 16th century. My soul is sick from your love, riffing on 2:5.

It is this unquenched desiring for God’s presence, to find our Eternal Lover, that keeps us connected to our tradition, that reminds us of the ongoing potential for redemption. Rambam describes this imperative in the Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 10:3: 

And what is the proper love? One shall love the Lord with an exceeding great and very strong love so that one’s soul be tied to the love of the Lord, finding oneself in a constant tremor, as if suffering of lovesickness, … This is what Solomon allegorically said: Ki holat ahavah ani / “For I am love-sick” (Songs 2.5). And, the whole book, Shir HaShirim, is an allegory on this subject.

And it is through this love that we are redeemed. The Exodus story is the foundational moment of the loving relationship between Israel and God. The relationship that is defined in the revelation of Torah at Mt. Sinai, a climactic moment that effectively consummates the relationship. Integral to this loving relationship is the idea that God will complete the redemption of Israel: having been brought forth from slavery and brought into the covenantal relationship with Torah, the final stage of redemption is bringing the Israelites into the land promised to them, the land of Israel. 

What happened at Sinai was a wee bit more than a handshake. And that love continues to this day. The Exodus story looms large in Jewish thought and ritual because it is the template for future redemption; love and redemption are intimately intertwined.

Some of you have probably heard me speak about my own personal theology, which dwells heavily on finding God in the interstices of our lives, in the cosmic glue which holds us all together, both from the perspective of physics and of human relationships. 

However, in this particular time, I must say that I want to lean into the traditional understanding of God as the one who, having redeemed us in the past, exemplified by the loving redemption story that Pesah commemorates, will redeem us once again. And I am not hoping for a big Redemption (with a capital R) right now, but rather, just the opportunity to spend time with friends and family again, for my kids to be able to go to the playground again, for me to be able to meet with congregants again and shake hands, as I always do. 

We read Shir HaShirim on Pesah as a sign not only of that great Redemption, but also of the little redemptions that we experience every day. Shir HaShirim reminds us that love is that cosmic glue, and that the minor redemptions on which we depend are never too far away, even if we cannot see them, even as we seek God and do not find.

You are loved, not only by God, of course, but also by the others around you. And although we may not feel their touch right now, although we may not be able to physically reach out, we should take some comfort in knowing that, when we are redeemed, that this brief period of separation, of seeking, of yearning, will heighten the experience of being with each other, in each other’s physical presence once again. 

I eagerly await that day, that redemption. Shabbat shalom and Hag Sameah!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat Hol HaMo’ed Pesah, 4/11/2020.)