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Festivals Sermons Yizkor

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

אֲמַר לֵיהּ: מַאן חֲשִׁיב, מַאן סְפִין, מַאן רְקִיעַ

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

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

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

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

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

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

And how do we do that, exactly?

We do it by remembering.

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

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

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

Rosie and Eddie, in an undated romantic moment

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

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

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

And so we remember, and we live for them.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

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Festivals Sermons

The Most Imperfect Jewish Food – Shemini 5782

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s a curious prayer, isn’t it? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

הָא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא דִּי אֲכָלוּ אַבְהָתָנָא בְאַרְעָא דְמִצְרָיִם

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

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

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

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

So what’s the message? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is the fundamental message of Pesaḥ.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

Categories
Festivals Sermons

What’s Wrong With Ecclesiastes (aka Qohelet)? – Shabbat Hol HaMoed Sukkot 5782

הֲבֵ֤ל הֲבָלִים֙ אָמַ֣ר קֹהֶ֔לֶת הֲבֵ֥ל הֲבָלִ֖ים הַכֹּ֥ל הָֽבֶל׃
מַה־יִּתְר֖וֹן לָֽאָדָ֑ם בְּכׇ֨ל־עֲמָל֔וֹ שֶֽׁיַּעֲמֹ֖ל תַּ֥חַת הַשָּֽׁמֶשׁ׃
דּ֤וֹר הֹלֵךְ֙ וְד֣וֹר בָּ֔א וְהָאָ֖רֶץ לְעוֹלָ֥ם עֹמָֽדֶת׃
וְזָרַ֥ח הַשֶּׁ֖מֶשׁ וּבָ֣א הַשָּׁ֑מֶשׁ וְאֶ֨ל־מְקוֹמ֔וֹ שׁוֹאֵ֛ף זוֹרֵ֥חַֽ ה֖וּא שָֽׁם׃
הוֹלֵךְ֙ אֶל־דָּר֔וֹם וְסוֹבֵ֖ב אֶל־צָפ֑וֹן סוֹבֵ֤ב ׀ סֹבֵב֙ הוֹלֵ֣ךְ הָר֔וּחַ וְעַל־סְבִיבֹתָ֖יו שָׁ֥ב הָרֽוּחַ׃
כׇּל־הַנְּחָלִים֙ הֹלְכִ֣ים אֶל־הַיָּ֔ם וְהַיָּ֖ם אֵינֶ֣נּוּ מָלֵ֑א אֶל־מְק֗וֹם שֶׁ֤הַנְּחָלִים֙ הֹֽלְכִ֔ים שָׁ֛ם הֵ֥ם שָׁבִ֖ים לָלָֽכֶת׃
כׇּל־הַדְּבָרִ֣ים יְגֵעִ֔ים לֹא־יוּכַ֥ל אִ֖ישׁ לְדַבֵּ֑ר לֹא־תִשְׂבַּ֥ע עַ֙יִן֙ לִרְא֔וֹת וְלֹא־תִמָּלֵ֥א אֹ֖זֶן מִשְּׁמֹֽעַ׃ מַה־שֶּֽׁהָיָה֙ ה֣וּא שֶׁיִּהְיֶ֔ה וּמַה־שֶּׁנַּֽעֲשָׂ֔ה ה֖וּא שֶׁיֵּעָשֶׂ֑ה וְאֵ֥ין כׇּל־חָדָ֖שׁ תַּ֥חַת הַשָּֽׁמֶשׁ׃

Utter futility!—said Qohelet— Utter futility! All is futile!
What real value is there for a person / In all the gains one makes beneath the sun?
One generation goes, another comes, But the earth remains the same forever.
The sun rises, and the sun sets— And glides back to where it rises.
Southward blowing, Turning northward, Ever turning blows the wind;
On its rounds the wind returns.
All streams flow into the sea, Yet the sea is never full;
To the place from which they flow / The streams flow back again.
All such things are wearisome: No man can ever state them;
The eye never has enough of seeing, Nor the ear enough of hearing.
Only that shall happen / Which has happened,
Only that occur / Which has occurred;
There is nothing new / Beneath the sun!

Qohelet / Ecclesiastes 1:2-9

***

What’s the problem with Qohelet?

First, while some might point to this passage and see nihilism, that is, the idea that everything is meaningless, that our actions do not matter, that there are no objective truths or morality or values, that is actually not Qohelet’s philosophy. 

Others have suggested that Qohelet is the original existentialist, meaning that our individual choices are solely ours, the responsibility and consequences thereof are solely ours, and the universe is more or less indifferent to them. This is also not an accurate description of Qohelet’s world view.

When Qohelet says, “Havel havalim, hakol havel,” Utter futility! All is futility, he is not saying that everything is meaningless. What he is saying, rather, is that our actions matter, but not in a way that we could possibly understand. And for sure, we will be called to account for our actions, but we may not ever know why, so we should be grateful for what we have and enjoy it, even as life continues to slip past unnoticed.

He is actually in good company with the anonymous author of the book of Iyyov / Job, who, when he finally challenges God, gets the most unsatisfying response ever. God’s retort to Job is effectively, “Be quiet! Who are you to tell Me what I can do or not do? Who are you to decide what is right and wrong?”

I have never been a “The-Lord-works-in-mysterious-ways” kind of rabbi, nor have I ever really sought any kind of consistent understanding of God. 

However, the approach of Qohelet and Iyyov, which further obscure the way that God works, is especially problematic. It flies in the face of the most prominent piece of practical theology in Jewish life: the framework of 613 mitzvot, the berit, the covenant we have with God, in which we keep those mitzvot, and God provides us with life and sustenance and joy and love and meaning. If our job, at least according to how we read the book of Deuteronomy, is to keep those mitzvot, then it cannot be that our actions are not at all related to our fates.

Right?

Didn’t we just get through Yom Kippur, pouring our hearts into our fervent prayer and pursuing teshuvah because, as Rambam tells us (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 3:4), we are supposed to see our lives in this period as hanging in the balance? That we have a number of merits, that is, mitzvot completed properly in their time and place, in the “black” column that is exactly equal to the number of transgressions indicated in the “red” column? That all we need to do is one more mitzvah than sin during the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance, to get a tiny nudge into the Book of Life?

That is why the ancient rabbis did not like Qohelet. There is actually a debate in the Talmud about whether or not Qohelet is actually a holy book (Mishnah Yadayim 3:5), compared to all the other books of the Tanakh.

But I am of the opinion that Qohelet is not only essential to Jewish life, it might actually be the most important work in the entire Tanakh.

Why? Because, while Qohelet might appear to contradict some other essential principles of Jewish life, he is also one voice out of many. And that is essential because we are not, and never have been, completely unified on any particular matter, including our understanding of how God functions. On the contrary: Qohelet provides a needed contrarian voice, one that subverts the “party line.” 

One of the traditions we have on Sukkot is that of Ushpizin, inviting ancient guests into our sukkah during our meals every evening. It is a kabbalistic tradition which draws on our understanding of the positive traits of our classical forebears, traits which we desire to emulate. Qohelet is not typically one of them. But consider this picture of some of those Biblical characters (although perhaps this is the wrong image, but I’m kind of picturing a Jewish version of da Vinci’s The Last Supper)*:

  • At the table we find Avraham, who is faithful enough to very nearly sacrifice his own son when God demands this. And yet he also challenges God, when God intends to destroy Sedom and ‘Amorah. 
  • And here is Sarah, who, though righteous and wise, laughs when she receives a divine message that she will have a child. 
  • Here is clever Rivkah, who carries out God’s word through deception. 
  • And here is hapless Isaac, who never takes the initiative and is always acted upon. 
  • And here is Moshe Rabbeinu, who receives the Torah on Mt. Sinai, has an anger management problem, and also argues with God not to destroy the Israelites following the Molten Calf episode. 
  • Here is Miriam, who finds water whenever the Israelites are wandering in the desert, and leads the women in song, but also engages in slander of her brother Moshe and is punished for it. 
  • Here is Devorah the Judge, who leads the troops in battle, 
  • And here is Yael, a brutal assassin masquerading as a gentle homemaker. 
  • Here is Yonah, who runs away from God but is given a second chance, and still doesn’t quite “get it.” 
  • And here is David Melekh Yisrael, who captures Jerusalem, but steals the wife of Uriah and then has him killed.

And over at the far end, Qohelet. Sitting there, wearing a beret and smoking a Gauloises while looking all smug, saying, Ein kol ḥadash taḥat hashemesh. There’s nothing new under the sun. We’ve seen this movie before. Don’t think you’re all so holy. Qohelet is really the only philosopher in the whole Tanakh. He does not care for dogma – he’s really all about the questions of why we do the things we do, a completely understandable Jewish activity.

And by the way, the JPS commentary tells me that Qohelet is likely not even a name, but rather a title, something like the town crier. The word is related to the Hebrew root q-h-l, meaning to gather or convoke, just like the titular word in Parashat Vayaqhel, in which Moshe convokes the Israelites for instruction on how to observe Shabbat. So this Qohelet, our Qohelet, is this figure that brings the Israelites together to discuss the transience of life and the futility of understanding God, as if in some ancient intellectual salon.

You see? Qohelet fits right in. He is as complicated as all the other human characters in the Jewish bookshelf. Why is he not in the regular list of Ushpizin invitees? Sure, so his philosophy is not necessarily what we want to hear, and contradicts in some sense the standard theology of the Torah. But when have you known the Jews to agree on anything, particularly God?

We need Qohelet because his voice is actually, sometimes, our voice. Maybe that is where we are today, with the sense of futility that occasionally marks our lives. No matter how good or bad our behavior, no matter our choices, we cannot deny that the sun will come up tomorrow, that some people will be born and some will die, that some of us will thrive and some will suffer. And no matter how pious or skeptical we are, we understand that we have no control.

I would like to think that just as there is a little Avraham, a little Moshe, a little Miriam and a little Yael in all of us, so too is there a generous portion of Qohelet. This town crier might just be crazy, but he might also be onto something: that as we go from holiday to holiday, from year to year, keeping mitzvot or missing the mark, expressing gratitude or asking for forgiveness or watching our children and grandchildren grow and learn and struggle and succeed, that we remember that this is how life goes, and we have to enjoy it if we can, while we can.

And I am grateful for his presence in my Tanakh.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 9/25/2021.)

* Not all of these characters appear in all Ushpizin lists (and I don’t think Yonah appears in any). Nonetheless, they might all be included as potential Sukkot invitees.

Categories
Festivals Sermons Yizkor

Make Our Garden Grow – Shemini Atzeret 5782 / Yizkor

As I have shared with you on multiple occasions, I am an optimist. And yet, these 18 months of pandemic have tested my optimism severely.

At one point during the last eighteen months of pandemic-induced isolation — it was sometime last winter, during the coldest, darkest, most isolated period — I found myself looking for a good recording online of a song that I had once sung for a concert with my synagogue choir at Congregation Brith Shalom in Houston when I lived there in the late 1990s. The song was “Make Our Garden Grow,” the finale of Leonard Bernstein’s operetta, Candide, which was based on the novel of French writer and philosopher, Francois-Marie Arouet, best known by his pen name, Voltaire. I probably spent 45 minutes listening to various versions.

And I found myself crying. 

Crying from the pain of isolation, from the gnawing feeling of all of the missed opportunities for teaching, for celebrating together, for being unable to gather our community in person for all the things that we do. I was crying for what seemed at the time a lost world. 

And the song is just so darned beautiful. If you are unfamiliar with Candide, you might want to check it out:

And you know how some songs are just so appealing, so powerful that they give you the shivers, or that they make you cry? Well, I’m a sucker for a gorgeous song.

But even more so, what got me more than Bernstein’s music (the sextet, choir, and orchestra) was Voltaire’s message. Candide, published in 1759, was primarily a rejection of the philosophy of optimism, and in particular the school of thinking headed by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the German Christian polymath of the late 17th / early 18th century. Leibniz believed that we are living in the best of all possible worlds that God could have created. Voltaire clearly abhorred this philosophy, and set out to lampoon Leibnizian optimism by making Candide and his teacher, Dr. Pangloss, seem like utter fools for believing in it. As the book draws to a close, they realize the error of their ways. And so the operetta concludes thus:

Let dreamers dream
What worlds they please
Those Edens can’t be found.
The sweetest flowers,
The fairest trees
Are grown in solid ground.

We’re neither pure, nor wise, nor good
We’ll do the best we know.
We’ll build our house and chop our wood
And make our garden grow.
And make our garden grow!

“Let dreamers dream what worlds they please / those Edens can’t be found.”

The lyrics, written by American poet Richard Wilbur, include what might be a hidden nod to a well-known midrash about Creation: that God created and destroyed many worlds before creating this one. That is, the creation of the world that is described in Bereshit in the story which we will read tomorrow morning as we start the cycle of Torah once again is only the last one in a whole line of less-than-perfect worlds. (I do not think that Wilbur was Jewish, although of course Bernstein was.) 

A few chapters later in Parashat Noaḥ, God acknowledges that life on Earth has become corrupt, and destroys virtually all living things in the flood. The implicit message of the midrash and the subsequent flood story is that, although many worlds came before and God settled on this one, the world that we are in is clearly NOT perfect. We cannot be living in the best of all possible worlds, but God had effectively given up on trying to create that world.

Dr. Pangloss, and hence Leibniz, were absolutely wrong, in Voltaire’s opinion. And so when Candide and his friends sing these words at the end, they are confessing to the failure of optimism. We do not live in the best of all possible worlds, but we have this world, and it is up to us to live and do the best we can, given that reality. We should, therefore, build our house and chop our wood and make our garden grow, and not be deluded into thinking too optimistically about our lives. Life is ultimately about the hard work of taking it day by day, of not necessarily expecting the best possible outcome, but rather accepting the routine ups-and-downs.

Voltaire’s language even echoes that of Bereshit / Genesis 2:15, which tells us that God put humans in the Garden of Eden le’ovdah ulshomerah, to till it and to tend it, or in Latin, ut operaretur.

“I know also,” said Candide, “that we must cultivate our garden.”

“You are right,” said Pangloss, “for when man was first placed in the Garden of Eden, he was put there ut operaretur eum, that he might cultivate it; which shows that man was not born to be idle.”

“Let us work,” said Martin, “without disputing; it is the only way to render life tolerable.”

This conclusion is not far from that of Qohelet / Ecclesiastes, which we read on Shabbat morning. And I suppose that is why it was so cathartic when I played and replayed Bernstein’s musical take on Voltaire’s rejection of optimism.

The holidays of Tishrei run through a whole palette of emotions: from the foreboding and triumphant grandeur of Rosh HaShanah, to the gravitas and genuflection of Yom Kippur, to the pure family-centric joy of Sukkot, to the statement of vulnerability as we beat willow branches on the floor Hoshana Rabba, to the wild dancing and singing with abandon of Simhat Torah. Oh yeah, and then there’s Shemini Atzeret, whatever THAT’S about.

Well, actually, although the origin of Shemini Atzeret is as the eighth day of Sukkot, it is probably most associated today as a day of Yizkor, a day of remembrance of those whom we have lost. This is, of course, a Yom Tov day, a day of happiness and family meals (although eating in the sukkah is considered optional today), but the inclusion of Yizkor guarantees that this is a day of reflection, of perspective.

For Shemini Atzeret and Simḥat Torah, at the very end of a long and grueling holiday run, I often find myself feeling a lingering sense of eternity, of looking at this snapshot of our lives as we begin 5782, and thinking, where was I last year, spiritually speaking, and what does this year hold for me? And it makes sense that on this day of reflection, we might flip back in our minds to both the good and the not-so-good times. 

That is why tomorrow, just before Musaf, when I chant the Ḥatzi Qaddish, I will use melodies from throughout the Jewish year in a relatively obscure, yet interesting cantorial tradition known in Yiddish as the Yahres Kaddish, the Kaddish of the full year. It is a reminder not only of these holidays, but the entire spiral of the Jewish year, as we continue onward and upward, around and around as we grow and mature and learn and fail and succeed.

These are days on which we remember not only grief and loss, but also joy and happiness and celebration. And we also remember to keep in perspective what enables us to keep going around in that upward spiral, that sense of taking each day as it comes, trying to do the right thing for ourselves and each other, working and learning and playing and spending time with friends and family. Good things will happen in the coming year: people will get married; babies will be born; children will graduate from high school; there will be moments of joy. And so too will beloved family members die, and get divorced, and projects will fail and people will have financial hardships, and there will be bored moments and suffering and of course more disease and corruption and malfeasance.

And all those things are features of the jumble of our lives. As Qohelet / Ecclesiastes (1:9) tells us, “Ein kol ḥadash taḥat hashamesh.” There is nothing new under the sun. Put another way, Pirqei Avot (5:22) says, “Hafokh ba vahafekh ba dekhola ba.” Turn it over and over, because everything is in it. “It” of course, is the Torah, but Torah is likewise a reflection of the complex tapestry of our lives.

On this day of Yizkor, this day of remembrance, let us not forget that those whom we remember in these moments, who gave us life and nurtured us and gifted us their talents and wisdom and yes, sometimes even their flaws, are still a part of the weave of that tapestry.

And as we conclude this holiday season, we also remember that, in the words of Candide, we’re neither pure, nor wise, nor good, but we will do the best we know. We will try to be satisfied with sacrificing the perfect for the sake of the good enough. And that is perhaps the most valuable message we might take away from right now, as we add another year, another layer.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shemini Atzeret 5782, Tuesday morning, 9/28/2021.)

Categories
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.)

Categories
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.)

Categories
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.)

Categories
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.)