Category Archives: High Holidays

All of This Belongs to You: Finding Resilience in Jewish Tradition – Yom Kippur Day 5780

This is the fourth and final installment in the “All of This Belongs to You” High Holiday sermon series. You may want to read the first three:

The Greatest Jewish Hand-Off Play Ever – Rosh Hashanah 5780, Day 1

Be a Jewish Superhero! – Rosh Hashanah 5780, Day 2

Do Not Be Indifferent – Kol Nidrei 5780

***

One of my favorite books from childhood was The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster. In it, there is a wonderful story about a city where somebody discovers that if you walk while looking only at your feet, you get to your destination much more quickly. Soon everybody in the city is looking down at their feet as they are walking from place to place. And nobody is talking to each other, and nobody is noticing the trees and the buildings and the birds and the flowers. Soon enough, the city starts to disappear.

Our tradition, Jewish tradition, is like a beautiful city, with the most wonderful, architecturally stunning buildings. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel spoke about Shabbat as a “palace in time.” That palace is at the center of this city.

I am not suggesting that Judaism is disappearing, because it certainly is not. But I am suggesting that we all take a better look at what it has to offer. Because there is much more there than what you might think. And if we are only looking at the things with which we are already familiar – the comfortable, the expected – we are missing a whole lot of scenery. And that is what I want you to see more of: the value that Judaism can bring to your life, our community, and the world.

Our theme over these High Holidays, as you really should know by now, is, “All of this belongs to you.” My goal is to remind all of us that, in the wake of the completion of Project Assimilate, it is up to us to reclaim our tradition, to make it ours once again. To make it yours once again, because it belongs to you.

And how will we reclaim it? That can be summed up in one word: meaning. We have to seek out and find meaning in our tradition. And that means looking beyond where you usually look. That means stretching yourself a little bit, to perhaps show up for a different service, for a new program, for a Talmud discussion, for a cultural event, for something that you have not sought out before. Because I’ll tell you this, folks: what we teach can change your life.

And today, in particular on one of the four days of the Jewish calendar in which we actively remember those whom we have lost, there is something that our tradition stands for that is tremendously valuable at this particular moment, in this particular place, and that is resilience.

5779 was a year of grieving. We will continue to grieve, of course, but this new year, 5780, will have to be one of looking forward.

Consider the great catastrophes of Jewish life. The destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. The destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE. The crushing of the Bar Kokhba revolt in 136 CE. The massacres at the hands of the Crusaders in the 11th century. The Expulsion from Spain in 1492. The Sho’ah / Holocaust. And so many other mini-exiles and dispersions and destructions and pogroms and so forth along the way.

And in each case, what have the Jews done? We have buried our dead. We have mourned. We have grieved. And then we got up from shiv’ah and continued doing what we do: worshipping the one true God; learning and teaching and debating about our tradition; supporting each other in times of need; yearning for freedom and working for the freedom of others; finding ways to illuminate this world based on Jewish texts and wisdom.

Many of you probably know journalist Bari Weiss, whose family belongs to Beth Shalom, and who became bat mitzvah in the context of this community in 1997. Her bat mitzvah service was held at the Tree of Life building, because that is where Beth Shalom services were located following the fire in 1996. Ms. Weiss just published a book titled How to Fight Anti-Semitism. In it, she describes the various expressions that anti-Semitism takes. But more importantly, Bari makes the case for how to respond to it.

Among the strategies that she suggests (with an assist from Rabbi Danny Schiff) is that the way we have always overcome anti-Semitism is by doubling down on our identity, and by turning back to tradition. The haters win, she says, when we take our kippot off and try to hide. She points to the statement by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, who said, “Non-Jews respect Jews who respect Judaism, and they are embarrassed by Jews who are embarrassed by Judaism.”

She cites the case of Theodor Herzl, who grew up in a secular Hungarian-Jewish family that was barely connected to Jewish tradition. At one point, young Herzl even made the case for why Jews should convert en masse to Christianity.

And then, while he was working as a journalist in Paris, he had a front-row seat to the trial of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish captain in the French army who was falsely accused of treason. Herzl witnessed the anti-Semitic mobs in Paris chanting “Mort aux juifs!” “Death to the Jews!”, and concluded that the only safe future for the Jews lay in the Zionist imperative to build a Jewish state in Palestine.

When faced with existential threats, we have responded by looking inward, by embracing our peoplehood, our traditions, our community. As Bari wrote in a New York Times op-ed, “The long arc of Jewish history makes it clear that the only way to fight [anti-Semitism] is by waging an affirmative battle for who we are. By entering the fray for our values, for our ideas, for our ancestors, for our families, and for the generations that will come after us.”

Her solution is to “build, without shame, a Judaism and a Jewish people and a Jewish state that are not only safe and resilient but also generative, humane, joyful and life-affirming.”

Must say, I could not have said that better myself! Remember that city? The better we know it, the more familiar we are with its alleyways and architecture, the less likely it is to disappear. The more we own our heritage, the more we claim our Jewishness, the more resilient we will be as individuals and as a people.

The key to fighting anti-Semitism is to lean into tradition. Our resilience in the face of hatred comes from knowing and loving and acting on what is distinctly ours.

And let me tell you something, folks: ours is a rich heritage, one with a pedigree that stretches back thousands of years. And our strength is derived from knowing our tradition, and practicing it. It is a framework that has always nourished us, in times of persecution and in times of freedom.

Has anybody here been to Terezin? It’s the location of the “model” concentration camp, which the Germans called Theresienstadt, about an hour northwest of Prague. If you have been on a tour there, you may have seen the “secret” synagogue, tucked into a hidden basement behind a house. It was created by Jewish prisoners interned at Terezin. On the wall in this otherwise nondescript room, written in 80-year-old, flaking paint, there is a quote that we recite three times every day in the Amidah: “Vetehezenah eineinu beshuvekha letziyyon berahamim” “May our eyes envision Your return to Zion in mercy.” It was a plea for better times, an acknowledgment of the fact that despite this low point of Jewish existence, we as a people, and maybe even as individuals, will soon see better days.

That kind of statement is hard-wired into who we are. The resilience that is in our DNA is found all over our liturgy, our siddur.

In a recent episode of the renowned radio show This American Life, the show’s host and creator Ira Glass reflects on going to synagogue for the first time in many years, to say qaddish on the occasion of his mother’s yahrzeit. And although he admits that he does not really believe in aspects of our tradition, particularly the idea of God, he confesses that the words of Jewish prayer nonetheless hold a very strong power for him:

I always liked going to synagogue as a kid. We went a lot. And so it was nice going back. I know all the Hebrew prayers by heart. And [LAUGHS] I don’t know if this is good or bad, but not having sat in a synagogue in over a decade, it really hit me how every day is a rerun.

Do you know what I mean? They never do a new episode. Every day, the same words, same songs in the same order, stretching back hundreds of years. They read a new part of the Bible, part of the Torah some days. So there’s that, but all the rest is basically exactly the same every day.

And everybody is singing and chanting… And I really was struck at how many of [the prayers] — the Amidah, the Ashrei– are about praising God at length. That’s what the words mean. Even the Kaddish, which you say over and over during services.

יתגדל ויתקדש שמיה רבא

… “May His great name be exalted and sanctified. Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One.” That is what they have you say when your mom dies. Comforting, huh? It’s basically God is great over and over, building up to this beautiful line, really beautiful, that’s basically God is so great. It’s beyond the power of any prayer, or word, or song, or praise. It’s beyond the power of language to capture it…

But weirdly, even… without believing any of the words, I do find it’s a comfort to say the prayer. It’s just– it’s familiar. It’s familiar as the nursery rhymes my mom sang to me as a kid, as the Shema, the prayer that she had me and my sister say every night before we went to sleep. It’s comforting.

Despite the fact that it’s in another language and part of a doctrine I don’t believe anymore, just the fact of it handed to me by my parents and to them by their parents– Frida, and Lou, and Melvin, and Molly– and their parents before them– David, and Elizabeth, and Isidore, and people whose names I don’t even know– and before them, their parents for hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds of years and standing in synagogue that day, standing and saying these words in unison with other mourners, it was comforting.

***

I know that Ira Glass thinks like a radio producer rather than a shul-going Jew, but it’s neither fair nor accurate to say that it’s a rerun every day. Yes, the words may be similar from day to day, and with the appropriate seasonal changes for holidays and so forth, but what makes tefillah / prayer interesting is that every day, month, and year, we are different. What changes is the kavvanah, the intention, the mind-set, what’s on your plate. We change, we grow, we celebrate and we mourn, and our traditions are there as a framework to support us. The liturgy may be set, but as we change, the words of our tradition continue to reveal new things to us – about ourselves, about our community, about life.

Regardless, Mr. Glass gets it: our tradition brings us comfort and strength and resilience, even if you do not entirely buy into it. Or, as the modern Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig would have put it, even if you do not buy into it yet.

Many of us gathered on a Saturday night two and a half weeks ago for the first recitation of Selihot, traditional prayers in which we ask for forgiveness in preparation for this day. At that time, I read a commentary that appears on the pages of your mahzor, p. 298 in the margin if you would like to see it. It comes from Rabbi Rob Scheinberg, a very good friend of mine, whom I have known since my first summer at Camp Ramah in New England in 1980. (Some of you may know that Rabbi Scheinberg was among a handful of rabbis who came to Pittsburgh to help out New Light Congregation in the months after the shooting. Rob was also among the founders of Pizmon, the Jewish a capella group from Columbia University that performed here at Beth Shalom last November.)

Rabbi Scheinberg’s commentary refers to the line that we say every time we put the Torah away. It is the next to last verse in Eikhah (5:21), the book of Lamentations, which we read on Tish’ah Be’Av, the day on which we commemorate all the destructions in Jewish history:

 הֲשִׁיבֵנוּ ה’ אֵלֶיךָ וְנָשׁוּבָה, חַדֵּשׁ יָמֵינוּ כְּקֶדֶם

Hashiveinu Adonai elekha venashuvah; hadesh yameinu kekedem.

Return us to You, O God, and we shall surely return; renew our days as of old.

It is the only hopeful note in the entire book of Eikhah, which is a litany of the destruction of Jerusalem and Israel wrought by the Babylonians 2600 years ago. A midrash (Eikhah Rabba) interprets this verse as referring back to Adam haQadmon, the first humans, following their exile from Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden. Rabbi Scheinberg explains the midrash as follows:

“It means, ‘Renew our lives, as you renewed our lives after we were exiled from the Garden of Eden.’ Hadesh yameinu kekedem is then not a plea for restoration of a formerly perfect condition, but rather it is a plea for resilience, a plea for the ability to renew ourselves after future crises and dislocations, just as our lives have been renewed before.

In other words, the verse is not about requesting to take us back to Eden. It is, rather, about pleading for the capacity to recover quickly from dire circumstances. As Elie Wiesel said, “God gave Adam a secret – and that secret was not how to begin, but how to begin again.”

Ledor vador, from generation to generation, we have begun again and again and again, packing up in one place and unpacking in another; leaving behind the old synagogues and cemeteries and building new ones; starting over in a new culture with a new language. We have been doing it for thousands of years. And what has maintained us, then as now, is our tradition.

And now, in 5780, we have an opportunity to begin again. Only this time we do not need to pack our bags and move.  We have to unpack our emotional suitcases and take stock in what we, the Jews, have, what belongs to us that is unique.  What belongs to you.

And the way to do that is to stare proudly in the direction of the anti-Semites who have crawled out of their holes, put on a kippah, and dive right in.

And we at Beth Shalom give you so many opportunities to do so. We will never be rid of anti-Semitism; but the way to respond, ladies and gentlemen, is to know what we stand for. Nothing suits an anti-Semite more than a Jew who cannot defend the value of his/her own tradition.

So before you leave today, pick up a Derekh High Holiday Guide, which we have lovingly produced to make it easy for you to find your way into Jewish learning. Peruse the offerings. And pick one.

And let me assure you, there are lots of things to choose from. In 2018-19, Derekh hosted 168 events, yielding nearly 2900 encounters in five areas, empowering many members of this community not only to learn, but to take leadership roles in this community.

And if you do not see something you like, do this: come up with your own idea, find two friends, and then drop in on Rabbi Jeremy Markiz to make it happen. That is what Derekh is set up to do.

The response to hatred, to persecution, to anti-Semitism, to grief, and even to cold-blooded murder, ladies and gentlemen, is to double down on Judaism. It is not to hide our kippot and cower behind armed guards. It is, rather, to be loud, proud, and informed. To be the Jewish superhero, with the big red alef on your chest, as I described on Rosh Hashanah. To dwell in that beautiful city, the one with Heschel’s Palace in Time at the center. To know our tradition and to live it. To share it with others. To act on Jewish values and do so boldly.

The anti-Semites won’t like it, of course, but, y’know, haters gonna hate.

This is yours, and if you take the ball and run with it, Jewish wisdom and ritual and prayer and text and community will continue to nourish our people and the world forever.

All of this belongs to you. Ta shema! Come and learn.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Yom Kippur day 5780, October 9, 2019.)

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under High Holidays, Sermons

All of This Belongs to You: Do Not Be Indifferent – Kol Nidrei 5780

This is the third installment in the “All of This Belongs to You” High Holiday sermon series. You may want to read the first two:

The Greatest Jewish Hand-Off Play Ever – Rosh Hashanah 5780, Day 1

Be a Jewish Superhero! – Rosh Hashanah 5780, Day 2

***

Have you seen the TV show, “The Good Place”? It is a sharp and witty comedy about the afterlife, and conceptions of “heaven” (i.e. the Good Place) and “hell” (the Bad Place). [MILD SPOILER ALERT!] In the most recent season, the characters on the show discovered a flaw in the algorithm that determines to which place people go when they die. What they found is that life today is so complicated that none of our decisions can be completely, decisively good or bad.

Buying an organic tomato, for example, is better for the Earth in some respects and maybe better for you. But if it was picked by underpaid migrant workers, shipped on a diesel truck from California, sold in a store where there is no gender parity in their pay-scale, placed in a single-use plastic bag, and then driven home in a large gas-guzzling vehicle, then you’ve racked up exponentially more negative points. And so they determined that nobody was getting into the Good Place anymore, because life has become so perpetually fraught.

(It’s worth noting here that Judaism is not so hung up on the afterlife – we are more about the here and now than about what comes after. Our reward for doing the right thing is found in the quality of our personal and communal relationships. But although that is an excellent sermon for Yom Kippur, that is not the direction we are going this evening.)

Let’s face it: we are all overwhelmed. Overwhelmed with all that needs fixing in our world.  Overwhelmed with emails, texts and notifications. Overwhelmed with the pace and complexity of contemporary life. Overwhelmed by so many choices, and so little reliable guidance. We have difficulty prioritizing our time, particularly because it seems that there is just not enough of it. And who has any time left over for volunteering, let alone doing things that are good for your soul, like daily tefillah / prayer?

Given the above, how can we possibly be the best versions of ourselves?  If the demands on our attention continue to grow, how can we hope to ensure a just society, one in which everybody gets a fair shake?

As many of you already know, the theme of this year’s High Holidays is, “All of this belongs to you.” My plea for you for the 80s, the 5780s, is to acknowledge that the great project of assimilation into American society is done, and that we now need to consider how we can reclaim our tradition.

Too many of us have taken Judaism for granted for too long; we have reduced it to a day or two per year in synagogue, a few home-based rituals, and lifecycle events. But if that is the extent of your Jewish engagement, you are missing most of the richness and value of our heritage, of our customs and rituals, of our ancient wisdom.

To that end, I am going to address this evening an essential message that Judaism offers us and our world, a message that our texts return to over and over. (Get ready – I’m about to do some text, then follow that with a story that drives the point home.)

The Torah teaches us that all of us are responsible for members of society that are less fortunate than ourselves.  Here is just one example (Deut. 15:11):

כִּ֛י לֹֽא־יֶחְדַּ֥ל אֶבְי֖וֹן מִקֶּ֣רֶב הָאָ֑רֶץ עַל־כֵּ֞ן אָֽנֹכִ֤י מְצַוְּךָ֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר פָּ֠תֹחַ תִּפְתַּ֨ח אֶת־יָֽדְךָ֜ לְאָחִ֧יךָ לַֽעֲנִיֶּ֛ךָ וּלְאֶבְיֹֽנְךָ֖ בְּאַרְצֶֽךָ׃

For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.

God expects us to take care of the poor, and the Torah refers more than thirty times to all those in ancient Israelite society who were likely to be destitute: the widow, the orphan, the foreigner, the Levites (who in ancient Israel did not own land, and were therefore among the poor).  The reasons for doing so may be obvious, but just for good measure, and also in multiple places, the Torah gives us a justification based on our national history (Exodus 23:9):

וְגֵ֖ר לֹ֣א תִלְחָ֑ץ וְאַתֶּ֗ם יְדַעְתֶּם֙ אֶת־נֶ֣פֶשׁ הַגֵּ֔ר כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃ 

Do not oppress the stranger, for you know the soul of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

As Jews, we must have compassion for others in difficult situations, because we know, as a people, what that feels like.  This is so important that we commemorate our slavery in Egypt for eight days out of every year by retelling the story and eating the “bread of poverty,” the matzah of Pesah. And to some extent, that is also the message of Sukkot, when we are commanded to leave our comfortable, climate-controlled homes to live in ramshackle huts.

Thank God, most of us have never known true hardship. But our tradition urges us to at least consider it.

In the 19th century, there was an intellectual movement among Lithuanian Jewish thinkers called mussar, meaning “moral conduct.” An important figure in the mussar movement was Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, leader of the famed Slabodka Yeshivah in Lithuania. He took that verse about not oppressing strangers a little further. Rabbi Finkel reads it as requiring us not only to sympathize with others, but to make an effort to feel their joy and their suffering.  Referring to our obligation not to oppress gerim, strangers, he writes:

Please do not explain these words according to their plain meaning, that we are forbidden to oppress a stranger because we too have been strangers and have been oppressed, and thus know the taste of oppression.

Rather, the reasoning behind it is that a person is obligated to feel and to participate in the happiness of his/her fellow, and also their troubles, as if they had afflicted him as well. ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18) – truly just like yourself. One’s relationships to others are not found to be complete unless one can feel oneself and one’s fellow person as being in the same situation, without any separation.

If we feel neither the joy nor the suffering of our neighbors, says Rabbi Finkel, we ourselves are not complete.

It is all too easy to ignore the plight of others around us, particularly people we do not personally know. And yet, says the Torah, for our own welfare, we cannot afford to ignore others in need.  A few weeks ago, in Parashat Ki Tetze, we read about returning lost items to your neighbor (Deut. 22:3):

וְכֵן תַּעֲשֶׂה לַחֲמֹרוֹ, וְכֵן תַּעֲשֶׂה לְשִׂמְלָתוֹ, וְכֵן תַּעֲשֶׂה לְכָל-אֲבֵדַת אָחִיךָ אֲשֶׁר-תֹּאבַד מִמֶּנּוּ, וּמְצָאתָהּ, לֹא תוּכַל לְהִתְעַלֵּם

You shall [also return your neighbor’s] donkey; you shall do the same with his clothes; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent.

Rashi, writing in 11th-century France, tells us that “lehit’alem,” to remain indifferent, means “To conquer your eye, as if you do not see it.”  That is, to actively choose to overlook human loss or suffering that is directly in front of you.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are exposed to poverty, suffering, and the needs of others every day, and we usually do not see it.  Yes, these are complex, multi-faceted issues, and it is easy to be indifferent, particularly in the face of intractable problems.  However, it is incumbent upon us as Jews not to allow ourselves to “conquer our eyes.” We cannot ignore others in need, whoever they are.

The following is a true story that appeared in the New York Times Magazine eight years ago. It speaks volumes about the positions of Rabbi Finkel and Rashi. It’s called, The Tire Iron and the Tamale, by Justin Horner, a graphic designer from Portland, Oregon.

During this past year I’ve had three instances of car trouble: a blowout on a freeway, a bunch of blown fuses and an out-of-gas situation. They all happened while I was driving other people’s cars, which for some reason makes it worse on an emotional level. And on a practical level as well, what with the fact that I carry things like a jack and extra fuses in my own car, and know enough not to park on a steep incline with less than a gallon of fuel.

Each time, when these things happened, I was disgusted with the way people didn’t bother to help. I was stuck on the side of the freeway hoping my friend’s roadside service would show, just watching tow trucks cruise past me. The people at the gas stations where I asked for a gas can told me that they couldn’t lend them out “for safety reasons,” but that I could buy a really crappy one-gallon can, with no cap, for $15. It was enough to make me say stuff like “this country is going to hell in a handbasket,” which I actually said.

But you know who came to my rescue all three times? Immigrants. Mexican immigrants. None of them spoke any English.

One of those guys stopped to help me with the blowout even though he had his whole family of four in tow. I was on the side of the road for close to three hours with my friend’s big Jeep. I put signs in the windows, big signs that said, “NEED A JACK,” and offered money. Nothing. Right as I was about to give up and start hitching, a van pulled over, and the guy bounded out.

He sized up the situation and called for his daughter, who spoke English. He conveyed through her that he had a jack but that it was too small for the Jeep, so we would need to brace it. Then he got a saw from the van and cut a section out of a big log on the side of the road. We rolled it over, put his jack on top and we were in business.

I started taking the wheel off, and then, if you can believe it, I broke his tire iron. It was one of those collapsible ones, and I wasn’t careful, and I snapped the head clean off. Damn.

No worries: he ran to the van and handed it to his wife, and she was gone in a flash down the road to buy a new tire iron. She was back in 15 minutes. We finished the job with a little sweat and cussing (the log started to give), and I was a very happy man.

The two of us were filthy and sweaty. His wife produced a large water jug for us to wash our hands in. I tried to put a 20 in the man’s hand, but he wouldn’t take it, so instead I went up to the van and gave it to his wife as quietly as I could. I thanked them up one side and down the other. I asked the little girl where they lived, thinking maybe I’d send them a gift for being so awesome. She said they lived in Mexico. They were in Oregon so Mommy and Daddy could pick cherries for the next few weeks. Then they were going to pick peaches, then go back home.

After I said my goodbyes and started walking back to the Jeep, the girl called out and asked if I’d had lunch. When I told her no, she ran up and handed me a tamale.

This family, undoubtedly poorer than just about everyone else on that stretch of highway, working on a seasonal basis where time is money, took a couple of hours out of their day to help a strange guy on the side of the road while people in tow trucks were just passing him by.

But we weren’t done yet. I thanked them again and walked back to my car and opened the foil on the tamale (I was starving by this point), and what did I find inside? My $20 bill! I whirled around and ran to the van and the guy rolled down his window. He saw the $20 in my hand and just started shaking his head no. All I could think to say was, “Por favor, por favor, por favor,” with my hands out. The guy just smiled and, with what looked like great concentration, said in English: “Today you, tomorrow me.”

Then he rolled up his window and drove away, with his daughter waving to me from the back. I sat in my car eating the best tamale I’ve ever had, and I just started to cry. It had been a rough year; nothing seemed to break my way. This was so out of left field I just couldn’t handle it.

In the several months since then I’ve changed a couple of tires, given a few rides to gas stations and once drove 50 miles out of my way to get a girl to an airport. I won’t accept money. But every time I’m able to help, I feel as if I’m putting something in the bank.

What an inspiring story!  Would that we all could have such heart-warming interactions!  Better yet, may we all be blessed with finding opportunities to create them.  When Mr. Horner was in need, he was helped by those who clearly understood what it means to need help.  He learned to appreciate those who are willing to help others, and translated that into his own willingness to reach out to strangers in their time of need. And when the family returned his $20 in the tamale, he surely learned that acts of kindness are, in fact, their own reward, a particularly Jewish concept.

These are the principles that the Torah is trying to teach us.  As a people, we must not remain indifferent to the needs of others, because we, the children of Israel, not only know what it’s like to be strangers in a strange land, but that our tradition requires us to participate in their joy and in their suffering. And we also understand the value that action for the benefit of others brings us in the here and now.

Ladies and gentlemen, the essential message of the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance that include Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, is that we have the power to change ourselves for the better.  We can become more compassionate, more understanding, more forthcoming in our outward relationships. 

Fasting and afflicting our souls through abstention from physical pleasures on this day is not for its own sake. Yom Kippur is not some kind of macho endurance test, or an opportunity to lose weight.  It is to remind us that we have obligations to everybody else, that the hunger we experience today is the hunger that too many experience every day, that we may not remain indifferent in the face of suffering. 

Although some have the custom, before Yom Kippur to greet others with, “Tzom qal,” “Have an easy fast,” I do not say this. It is more appropriate to say, “Have a meaningful fast.” But here is another suggestion: Have a challenging fast.”  This day should be, in fact, a challenge to our values, a challenge to our daily routine, to our modes of comfort. To face the challenge of fasting for 25 hours, and yet remain unchanged by that challenge, that would be an embarrassment before God.

Tomorrow morning, we will read the words of Isaiah in the haftarah (58:6-7):

This is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke.  It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe them, and do not ignore your own flesh.

We cannot ignore the hungry, the poor, or the naked, says Isaiah.  I would extrapolate Isaiah’s line of thinking to include the homeless, the neglected, the abused, the emotionally and physically wounded.

Just a few quick statistics:

Did you know that more black children in Pittsburgh grow up in poverty than black children in 95% of similar American cities? That black infant mortality puts Pittsburgh in the 6th percentile? That’s not compared to white people – that’s only compared to black people.

Did you know that the food insecurity rate in Allegheny County is 14.2% overall, but for children it is 17.8%? That means that nearly 1 in 5 kids go hungry regularly.

Did you know that at any given time, there are a couple of thousand homeless people in Allegheny County? Some of them can even be found in our own neighborhood.

We are surrounded by people in need, and we cannot remain indifferent. 

Why are we here this evening?  On this, the holiest night of the year, a night on which we focus on improving ourselves, a night on which we pre-emptively invalidate frivolous vows (that is the purpose of the Kol Nidrei prayer), we should consider making some vows that we will strive to keep:

  • To be aware of those around us who are in need
  • To reach out to them, whether directly, in person, or through all the various charitable organizations that do so
  • To think pro-actively about how we can make a difference in the lives of others

And you can turn that awareness into actual deeds right now: you can fill up those bags for the Squirrel Hill Food Pantry. You can donate to any number of organizations that help those in need. You can volunteer to work in a shelter or soup kitchen.

And, as with Justin Horner and his flat tire, you do not even have to look very far to find somebody in need of help. The point, ladies and gentlemen, is to be aware of others, to think beyond yourself, and to stop and give aid.

On this day of teshuvah / repentance, of self-denial and self-judgment, our task is to challenge ourselves not to succumb to information overload, not to tune out the ever-present challenges of poverty, of suffering, of those who have less than we do.

Rather, this is the essential message of our tradition: we must surmount our indifference and to turn it into action. This is a fundamental value of Judaism. All of this belongs to you. Now go out there and make 5780 a year that counts.

Gemar hatimah tovah.  Have not an easy fast, but a challenging fast.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, evening of Yom Kippur 5780, October 8, 2019.)

Continue reading the final installment in the “All of This Belongs to You” series: All of This Belongs to You: Finding Resilience in Jewish Tradition – Yom Kippur Day 5780

3 Comments

Filed under High Holidays, Sermons

All of This Belongs to You: Be a Jewish Superhero! – Rosh Hashanah 5780, Day 2

(This is the second in the “All of This Belongs to You” series of High Holiday sermons. You may want to read the first before this one: The Greatest Jewish Hand-Off Play Ever)

While I was in Philadelphia with my Israeli son this summer, we stumbled across an exhibit of Marvel characters and memorabilia at the Franklin Institute. And I thought, OK, it’s wonderful that Stan Lee, born Stanley Lieber, a nice Jewish boy from New York, created these characters and this universe and the tremendous wealth of entertainment value that they have all produced, but a museum exhibit? Really?

Now you may know that I am not the most avid consumer of pop culture. I have no clue who Lizzo is. But something that this exhibit made me suddenly aware of was the great power and cachet that the very idea of superheroes has today. On some level, we all wish that we had some superheroes today. Since we’re entering the year 5780, that means we’re back in the ’80s, people! Here’s an appropriate musical cue:

Consider the milieu in which the first contemporary superheroes emerged. American Jewish kids, children of immigrants from Europe, hatched the first comic-book based superheroes because the Jews needed them. Hitler was murdering our people in Europe; Jews in America and elsewhere seemed powerless to convince their governments to stop the transport of Jews to camps, to halt the Nazi death machine. They needed help, help which they did not have. Help which was greater than any government or law-enforcement agency.

And so Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel created Superman in 1933. And Bob Kane (Kahn) and Bill Finger created Batman in 1938. And Joe (Hymie) Simon and Jack Kirby (Jacob Kurtzberg) created Captain America in 1941. And so forth. These, and many others, were the fantasy heroes who would save the Jews.

And there was even precedent for this in Jewish folktales of the middle ages: the golem, a mythical defender of the Jews fashioned out of clay, most famously put into action by the Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Yehuda Leib ben Bezalel, in the 16th century. As some versions of the story go, the clay form would come to life when the Maharal would inscribe the letters of alef-mem-tav, emet, the Hebrew word for “truth,” into its forehead, and then would return to a clay mass when the alef was removed, leaving the word met, dead, in its place.

So it seems that the alef was the animating letter, the one that held the power, the silent letter that carries far more than its own linguistic weight.

And it is the same alef that begins the Hebrew word for love: ahavah. And it is also the same letter with which God speaks to the Israelites en masse at Mt. Sinai, opening the words of the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, with the silent alef of the word Anokhi, I, the letter that speaks volumes without making a sound.

If I were a Jewish superhero, I would certainly wear an alef on my chest.

***

If you were here yesterday, you know that our theme for 5780 is, “All of This Belongs to You.” Now that the American-Jewish project of assimilation has run its course, the outstanding question is, “How might we reclaim our tradition for the needs of American Jews today?”

The welcoming gate pictured here is a typical “sha’ar” – the illustration found in the front of all printings of the traditional Vilna layout of the Talmud, dating to the 1870s. It is an invitation into the text.

My appeal to you today is as follows: be a Jewish superhero! Proud, committed, open, willing to go the extra distance, maybe even bend the rules a bit to get the job done; not limited by convention – the Jewish world needs you!  

The folks who attend services on the second day of Rosh Hashanah are the more committed folks – the ones who are more likely to show up for synagogue events, who are more likely to participate in many of the aspects of Jewish life, to be more engaged.

So I am going to make the pitch to you to stand up for a new American Judaism – to be the superheroes who will forge that path of the Jewish future, the one that maintains and modernizes our heritage and highlights it for generations to come.  

We need a Beth Shalom, a Conservative movement, an American Judaism that reflects who we are and how we live right now. Yes, to some extent Judaism tells us how to live. But we must acknowledge that today, people relate very differently to Judaism, and to religion in general. While at one time, religion was an organizing principle that helped create a society in which you could trust people whom you did not know, our data-saturated and secular law-infused age has, to some, made this type of organizing principle unnecessary.

But that does not mean that Judaism is irrelevant. Quite the contrary! I think that the numbers of high-profile criminals with Jewish names that have floated across our screens in the past few years are only a symptom of what we have lost along the way to complete assimilation.

You have probably heard me say that Judaism, Jewish life, Jewish practice, Jewish learning offer us real value: they help make us better people and help build a better world. 

If only more Jews were to learn and live Jewish values! If only more Jews were to seek out and engage with Jewish practices – halakhah, learning the words of the Jewish bookshelf, and so forth – then perhaps, just perhaps we would not have had the likes of Bernie Madoff, Harvey Weinstein, Michael Cohen, Jeffrey Epstein. 

If more Jews knew their heritage and engaged with it, then maybe we would have a better chance of truly repairing the world.

So that is where you come in.

I recently heard a wonderful interview (On Being with Krista Tippett) with Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, a well-known Reform rabbi and author. He told the following story about the time he gave a tour of his synagogue’s sanctuary to children in the pre-school, and they theorized about what might be behind the curtain in the aron hakodesh, the ark:

One kid, obviously destined to become a professor of nihilistic philosophy at a great university, opined that behind that curtain was absolutely nothing. Another kid, less imaginative, thought it had a Jewish holy thing in there. A third kid, obviously a devotee of American game show television subculture, guessed that behind that curtain was a brand new car.

And the fourth kid said “No, you’re all wrong. Next week when that rabbi man comes and opens that curtain, behind it, there would be a giant mirror.” From a four-year-old. Somehow, that little soul knew that through looking at the words of sacred scripture, he would encounter himself in a new and heightened and revealing way.

Torah, by which I mean not just the scrolls behind the curtain but all of accumulated learning and commentary and argument and behaviors it has yielded over the last three millennia, is not an old, dusty collection of obscure literature. It is us. It is a reflection of who we are and how we live. It is an assessment of our lives, an opportunity to consider who we are and how we can improve ourselves.

It IS a mirror.

But when we truly pay attention, when we embrace and commit ourselves to learning the wisdom of our tradition, we see who we are. It is a mirror that reflects not our outsides, but our insides.

And, truth be told, not everybody wants to stand in front of that kind of mirror. We do not want to be judged. We usually do not want to have to think too deeply about our own shortcomings.

But I want you stand before that mirror and think, How can I infuse my life with just a little more qedushah, more holiness? How can I teach Torah through my words, through my consumption choices, through my philanthropic donations? How can I bring a little more Torah to the world in how I interact with all the people around me? How can the awareness of myself and the world that Torah brings me shed a little more light on us all? 

Can I imagine myself with a giant, red alef on my chest, bringing my whole self into the synagogue, and then out into the world, armed with Torah? Heck – we already have the cape…

And the answer is, yes. Yes you can. You are going to be the alef.

And as a Jewish superhero, you’re going to need a mission. You know, “Fighting for truth, justice, and the American way!” Or “Here I come to save the day!” And here it is: Positive Judaism.

I have recently read a book that provides a blueprint for how to do that. It’s called The Happiness Prayer, by Rabbi Evan Moffic, who is a Reform rabbi who leads Congregation Solel, in Chicago. The premise of the book is that, drawing on the principles of positive psychology, Judaism can be a force for good in our lives and the world. I’m not going to go deep into the background on positive psychology – you can feel free to do that on your own time. 

Rabbi Moffic derives the principles of “Positive Judaism” from a well-known passage in the Talmud that he calls, “The Happiness Prayer.” It goes like this:

אֵלּוּ דְבָרִים שֶׁאָדָם אוכֵל פֵּרותֵיהֶם בָּעולָם הַזֶּה וְהַקֶּרֶן קַיֶּמֶת לו לָעולָם הַבָּא. וְאֵלּוּ הֵן. כִּבּוּד אָב וָאֵם. וּגְמִילוּת חֲסָדִים. וְהַשְׁכָּמַת בֵּית הַמִּדְרָשׁ. שַׁחֲרִית וְעַרְבִית. וְהַכְנָסַת אורְחִים. וּבִקּוּר חולִים. וְהַכְנָסַת כַּלָּה. וּלְוָיַת הַמֵּת. וְעִיּוּן תפילה. וַהֲבָאַת שָׁלום בֵּין אָדָם לַחֲבֵרו וּבֵין אִישׁ לְאִשְׁתּו. וְתַלְמוּד תּורָה כְּנֶגֶד כֻּלָּם:

These are the deeds that yield immediate fruit in this world and continue to yield fruit in the World to Come: honoring parents; doing deeds of lovingkindness; arriving at the beit midrash / house of study early–morning and evening; providing hospitality; visiting the sick; helping the needy bride; attending to the dead; probing the meaning of prayer; making peace between one person and another, and between husband and wife. And the study of Torah outweighs them all.

This prayer appears in many traditional siddurim / prayerbooks, and it is based on passages found in the Talmud (Mishnah Peah 1:1, BT Shabbat 127a). 

Rabbi Moffic universalizes the language somewhat while preserving the prayer’s original intent. He interprets them as follows:

כִּבּוּד אָב וָאֵם / Honor those who gave you life.
גְמִילוּת חֲסָדִים / Be kind
הַשְׁכָּמַת בֵּית הַמִּדְרָשׁ, שַׁחֲרִית וְעַרְבִית / Keep learning
הַכְנָסַת אורְחִים / Invite others into your life
בִקּוּר חולִים / Be there when others need you
הַכְנָסַת כַּלָּה / Celebrate good times
לְוָיַת הַמֵּת / Support yourself and others during times of loss
עִיּוּן תפילה / Pray with intention
הֲבָאַת שָׁלום בֵּין אָדָם לַחֲבֵרו וּבֵין אִישׁ לְאִשְׁתּו / Forgive
תַלְמוּד תּורָה כְּנֶגֶד כֻּלָּם / Look inside and commit

Now, this is a really fabulous template for finding happiness in Judaism, but I really do not have time to explain each of these. You might want to check out Rabbi Moffic’s book. But among these ten items, I think the most important ones are as follows:

גְמִילוּת חֲסָדִים / Be kind

Practice random acts of kindness and senseless beauty, says the bumper sticker. Well, yeah. (They do not have to be random or senseless.) Find ways to do good works for others and for society, because that is how we make this world a better place while endowing our own lives with a sense of meaning. The 20th century Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas explained that suffering is the root of kindness – understanding that we all suffer in one way or another, this suffering is always an opportunity to provide comfort through deeds of kindness. That, says Levinas, is God’s vector in the world; we become God’s hands.

הַשְׁכָּמַת בֵּית הַמִּדְרָשׁ. שַׁחֲרִית וְעַרְבִית / Keep learning

An 80-year-long monumental study of life satisfaction began at Harvard University in 1938. One of the study’s key findings was that the happiest people were the ones who pursued and shared wisdom, which they attained through a lifetime of learning: from travel, from classes, from new experiences, from other people. The Jewish value of learning is not just about the Beit Midrash, the traditional study hall, but also that as we walk through life, we should always strive to acquire more knowledge, more wisdom, more experience. 

הַכְנָסַת אורְחִים / Invite others into your life

One of the major challenges that we face as a society is isolation. Thanks to our newfangled digital devices, it is possible for us to feel connected even when we are not. I’m not judging our use of technology, but I think there are reasons to be concerned. The antidote to this isolation is to reach out to others any way you can. Perhaps the most powerful connector in Jewish life is the Shabbat meal at home, or a festive meal in the Sukkah, and we should all be hosting more of them and inviting more people. But gathering in synagogue is also a powerful tool. I am especially grateful that Beth Shalom is attracting many new members nowadays, and that is due to your talent at hakhnasat orehim. But there is always room to grow – to reach out to somebody else, to get to know someone whom you do not. The power of community is found in the sharing of stories and experiences. By this time next year you I hope for you to count how many times and how many people you’ve hosted, and take stock of the ways in which these instances impacted and enriched your life.  

הֲבָאַת שָׁלום בֵּין אָדָם לַחֲבֵרו וּבֵין אִישׁ לְאִשְׁתּו / Forgive

Related to the challenge of isolation is the fact that all of what we learn about the world through online platforms – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, etc. – is curated to do one thing: keep your eyeballs on that platform as long as possible. And so these platforms are constantly putting in front of you items that they already know you love. The difficulty here is that the algorithms are effectively constantly telling us, “You’re right,” continuously affirming our perspective. How much harder, then, is it for us to excuse the people around us for viewing the world in a way we feel is 100% wrong? And how much easier is it, then, to dig in our heels, even when doing so pushes us apart?

One of the most essential things that we should be thinking about, as we consider the brokenness of the world, is how to bring people together. And the key to doing so, to repairing the world, ladies and gentlemen, is forgiveness. And that does not mean overlooking the misdeeds of others who have treated you badly; it means reaching deep within yourself to find the intestinal fortitude to let go of the animosity and the desire for revenge. 

Forgiveness, says Rabbi Moffic, is actually a form of revenge – “a favor we do ourselves because it releases the energies we would have expended in feeling hurt and aggrieved.” Letting go of the anger we hold onto can be tremendously liberating. I have seen this happen.

עִיּוּן תפילה / Pray with intention

You all know that I pray regularly, and that daily prayer brings real value to my life. And it can bring real value to yours as well, if you commit to it. However, tefillah / prayer is simply not one of those things that you can enter lightly. You really have to be intentional about it, and that is hard. In fact, it does not necessarily get easier the more you do it. But once you get the rhythm, the choreography, the themes, the language, it allows you to access yourself in a way that is unlike any other. It’s like yoga for your head and heart, soothing your soul and sensitizing you to the others around you. You cannot be a part of a minyan, a quorum of ten, without the others in the room, and that is by design. That magic combination of doing something good for your soul, reflecting quietly, reciting ancient words of tradition from a place of humility, and doing it in fellowship with others is healthy for your body, your mind, and your community.

תַלְמוּד תּורָה כְּנֶגֶד כֻּלָּם / Look inside and commit.

As a Jewish superhero, you have to be committed to the prime directive of the Jews, and that is to spread light in a too-dark world. And the way to do this is to know and understand the range of wisdom found on the Jewish bookshelf, and to use it to locate that mirror that Rabbi Kushner described. Our ancient wisdom is our stock-in-trade, the Jewish gift to the world. And you need to know more of it, so that you can bring out the best in yourself and in others. Pirqei Avot (6:1) teaches that the one who learns Torah for its own sake is clothed in humility, reverence, and modesty, and is slow to insult. If only more of us carried those qualities with us at all times!

***
Those are the pieces of the Happiness Prayer that I find most appealing, but you should not take my word for it. If you are going to be a Jewish Superhero, if you’re going to help create the Judaism of the 21st century, to help us reclaim our spiritual heritage, you are going to have to investigate some of this for yourself.

So find a big alef, whether physical or metaphorical, and pin it to your chest. Without the alef, we are met / dead. With the alef, we are emet / truth.

You are the alef. You are the superhero. All of this belongs to you! Now go out and make it happen.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, second day of Rosh Hashanah, 10/1/2019.)

Continue reading the next installment in the “All of This Belongs to You” series: All of This Belongs to You: Do Not Be Indifferent – Kol Nidrei 5780

6 Comments

Filed under High Holidays, Sermons

All of This Belongs to You: The Greatest Jewish Hand-Off Play Ever – Rosh Hashanah 5780, Day 1

Some of you may know that I am a big fan of the old comedy troupe from England, Monty Python, and spent (or arguably wasted) a good chunk of my adolescence memorizing some of their routines. 

There is a scene in their classic 1975 movie, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” when a feudal lord is preparing his son’s wedding, and is trying to explain to his adult son the importance of marrying the young woman that the father has chosen, because her father owns a lot of property. The son, who does not seem to care for property or farming or being a feudal lord, is completely disinterested. He only wants to sing, and the father is intent on stopping him from doing so, so that he can focus on the wedding.

At one point, the father gestures to the window dramatically, as if to survey all of his fields, and says, “One day, lad, all this will be yours.”

The son, regarding the window, says, “What, the curtains?”

The young man does not see the huge tracts of land that his father wants to bestow upon him. He does not see the legacy he is poised to inherit. He would rather just sing.

****

Ladies and gentlemen, we are in the middle of a paradigm shift in Jewish history. We are witnesses to the one of the most dramatic changes in Jewish life that has ever occurred. Let me explain.

Do you remember Abe Salem, alav hashalom / May peace be upon him? Abe was a key figure in this congregation, the Ritual Director, Torah reader and service leader for nearly a quarter-century. He was a survivor who spoke a barely-understandable patois of Yiddish and English, told nearly- unbelievable stories, like how he had once personally received a pistol from David Ben Gurion, and how in 1939, after fleeing the Nazis in Poland, he was imprisoned in a Soviet labor camp because the Russians suspected him to be a spy.

Abe is gone. He passed away two years ago at the age of 97. Zikhrono livrakhah. May his memory be for a blessing.

Ladies and gentlemen, the texture of the Jewish world is not what it was in the 1950s and 1960s, when synagogues were run by scrappy survivors like Abe. Gone are the Old World sensibilities which drove the community of the past. Gone are the classic bubbies, who devoted their lives to cooking and doling out often-unwanted advice. Gone are many of the institutions that sustained Jewish life: the kosher butchers and bakers that once populated Murray Ave., the daily Yiddish papers. Gone are the Bundists, the Hebraists, the proto-Zionist veterans who left their comfortable lives in America to go serve in the Israeli War of Independence in 1948. 

All that is left is us, ladies and gentlemen. We are the inheritors of our millennia-old tradition. And we are woefully ill-equipped to inherit it.

Because the top of the agenda for our parents and grandparents was assimilation. It was to be American. It was to fit in, not to stick out, not to be a greenhorn. When my grandmother, my mother’s mother, Pinia Reyzl Bronstein, arrived at Ellis Island in 1921, at age 8, speaking not a word of English, she decided that she was going to acquire a perfect American accent, and she quit speaking Yiddish. And when she was raising my mother and her siblings on the North Shore of Boston, they would go to the neighbors’ apartment when they wanted to eat clams, like Americans; she would not dare cook them in her own kitchen while her mother, my great-grandmother Hannah was alive; after she was gone, kashrut disappeared as well.

My grandmother was not so moved by her Jewish heritage. She may as well have left that back in her shtetl, in what is today Ukraine. She knew that to be an American meant that she did not need to keep kosher or to fast on Tish’ah Be’Av.

Did you know that it was not uncommon for American Jews to celebrate Christmas in the first half of the 20th century? Families had trees and even hosted Christmas dinners: 

“In his 1958 study of second-generation immigrant Reform Jews on Chicago’s South Side, clinical psychologist and rabbi Milton Matz revealed that in the second generation parents often agreed that a Jewish child might need a Christmas tree to “hyphenate the contradiction between his Americanism and his Jewish ethnicism.” (Rabbi Joshua Plaut, myjewishlearning.com)

In subsequent generations, parents realized that there might be a contradiction here, and today there are very few Jews who celebrate Christmas. But no matter: the project of assimilation was deeply entrenched.

And in the course of this great project, what did we lose? I’ll tell you:

  • We lost the deep knowledge and familiarity with Jewish living. 
  • We lost the sense of the synagogue as an extension of our living rooms. 
  • We lost the sense of love and appreciation for the text of our tradition, the value of prayer and indeed the value of having a regular prayer practice. 
  • We lost the sense of deep interconnectedness and interdependence within our community. 
  • We lost the sense of the extended family as the essential unit. 
  • We lost almost all of the close neighborhoods in which the people knew and trusted each other and the businesses that depended on proximity. 
  • We have reduced our Judaism to lip-service: many of us declare proudly that we are Jewish without knowing what exactly our tradition teaches us.

It is undeniable that we have also gained: we gained more freedom, more independence. We moved out of cramped, urban environments into leafy, roomy suburbs. We gained entree into all quarters of American society, including into the exclusive clubs and law firms and echelons of government. And still, despite current trends, obvious signs of anti-Semitism are the exception rather than the norm.

Get ready, folks; I am about to do something I almost never do: use a sports analogy:

We are witnesses to the greatest Jewish hand-off play ever. What do I mean?

The American Jewish project of assimilation has run its course. We are done. We are as American as every other immigrant group.

And I am in fact concerned. But I am also hopeful.

Why? Because the receivers of that heritage, that handed-off football, are reclaiming it. Our parents and grandparents carried it for some time, and now it will be ours. Not mine; not the rabbis and the historians and the Judaic Studies professors, but ours as a community.

****

As you probably know about me by now, my primary goal is not only to teach Judaism, but to make the case for why you need it. I’m not so convinced that everybody in the room is on board. Because, if you were, you would be here more often! You may find this hard to believe, but we almost never fill the sanctuary on Shabbat morning even though there are only 1600 seats. 

But my intent is not to make you feel guilty. It’s rather to inspire you to to be a student of your own heritage, work harder and, to reach a little higher in giving shape to your spirituality, to dip maybe a second toe into the water of Jewish life beyond the lifecycle events of baby namings, ritual circumcisions, benei mitzvah, marriage and death. Because doing so will ultimately be repaid to you in ways that you may not yet appreciate.

Nobody had to make this case a half-century ago. Why? Because the Jews were just showing up.

Today is different. The Jews do not just show up. A piece of conventional wisdom says that Jews used to come to synagogue because they were Jewish. Today, Jews come to synagogue to feel Jewish. We are fully-assimilated Americans. When I feel the need to “get my Jew on,” I go to synagogue. Maybe.

Over these days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I am going to give you reasons to show up, to find meaning, to enrich your life and your relationships and to improve the world through Jewish life, learning, and ritual. Now that the project of assimilation is complete, we can, and we must reclaim what is ours, and take our wisdom to make our lives and our world better. All of this belongs to you – now take that football and run with it.

The welcoming gate pictured here is a typical “sha’ar” – the illustration found in the front of all printings of the traditional Vilna layout of the Talmud, dating to the 1870s. It is an invitation into the text.


Perhaps one of the greatest and best-known stories in the Talmud (found in tractate Bava Metzia 59b) is that of the Tanur Shel Akhnai, the oven of Akhnai. It’s about an argument that some rabbis are having about whether the Tanur shel Akhnai is kosher. The halakhic particulars of the oven do not matter, but what does matter is that one rabbi, Rabbi Eliezer, believes the oven is kosher, and so, apparently does God. But all the other rabbis disagree.

On that day, R. Eliezer answered all the answers on Earth (i.e. the halakhic objections) and they did not accept it from him. He said, “If the law is as I say, that carob tree will prove it”; the carob tree was uprooted from its place one hundred cubits, some say four hundred cubits. 
The other rabbis said: “We do not allow proof from a carob tree.” 
R. Eliezer then said, “If the law is as I say, the river will prove it”; the river flowed in reverse direction.
They said: “We do not allow proof from a river.”…
R. Eliezer then said, “If the law is as I say, a voice from Heaven will prove it”; a heavenly voice [i.e. God’s] said, “Why do you disagree with R. Eliezer, who is correct in every way?” 
R. Yehoshua stood on his feet and said, “Lo bashamayim hi.” “[The Torah] is not in heaven,” (Deuteronomy 30:12)…
R. Natan met Eliyahu haNavi and said to him, “What did the Qadosh Barukh Hu / Holy Blessed One do?” Eliyahu said to him: “God smiled and said, “My children have defeated Me, My children have defeated Me.” 

What does this story teach us? For one thing, that the tradition is ours. We received some initial, Divine communications, however they came down to us, and thereafter, we took the tradition and made it our own. And ultimately, we make the tradition. It belongs to us.  We interpret it in each generation as we carry it.

It belongs to us because the tradition of Jewish learning and teaching across the ages is unique in the world. Our “religion” (and I use that in quotes because it is an inadequate term) is not only arcane rituals and mumbling ancient words in synagogue, but rather as much about the body of wisdom called “Torah,” which we continue to learn.

It belongs to us because we all understand and relate to the concept of God differently: some of us understand God as a law-giving being; some of us understand God as a force in nature that works in and around us; some of us understand God as the human imperative to do good for others in this world, and the theological palette is truly limitless. And all of these conceptions of God belong to us as well.

It belongs to us because there is no single right answer on virtually anything in Jewish life. There is no single way to be Jewish. There is no single, correct answer for most questions in Jewish law. We have no pope; there is no single commentator who has a monopoly on interpreting our tradition. Torah, our textual basis is flexible enough to tolerate a wide range of understandings. 

And how do we make it ours today? By re-interpreting once again. By taking the football and running with it.

By acting on the ways that our tradition brings us value today. Here are some examples:

Our tradition teaches us how to be a family: Dine together, particularly on Shabbat. Express gratitude together, with the words of our tradition as well as your own words. Come to Beth Shalom, where we have services and activities for the whole family.

Our tradition teaches us how to be good parents: Bless your children and hold them tight, like each of the Matriarchs and Patriarchs did. Guide them with the wisdom that our ancestors gave us. Teach them the values of derekh eretz / treating others with respect, hesed / acts of lovingkindness, and hakarat hatov / recognition of the good that we have been given. 

Our tradition teaches us how to be good citizens: Seek to understand the people around us; do not swindle or deceive others, do not curse the deaf or put obstacles in front of the blind; share our wisdom and our joy with our fellow human beings, and greet everybody with sever panim yafot / a pleasant face.

Our tradition teaches us how to be an authentic person: Act on the statement of the sage Hillel: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?

Our tradition teaches us how to maintain holiness in all our relationships: Remember that every person on this Earth has within them a spark of the Divine, a modicum of holiness. Never forget that. Strive to seek the holiness in each other in all your dealings, whether in business or in encounters with strangers or in matters of the heart.

And the ritual aspects of Judaism support all of those things. That is why we have them. That is why what we do in the Conservative movement is an excellent approach to being Jewish: we maintain our traditions while acknowledging that the world has changed and we must change incrementally along with it. 

Why do we do what we do?

Because tefillah / prayer gets us in touch with ourselves and sensitizes us to the world around us.

Because observing Shabbat allows us the physical and emotional space to let go of our anxiety and just live in the moment, not swept up in commerce or politics or work.

Because kashrut / the dietary laws remind us on a daily basis of our responsibility not to cross certain lines in God’s Creation. We were not given this world so we can abuse it. And not only that, but it’s worth remembering that what comes out of our mouths should be as pure as what goes in.

Because qehillah / community provides the framework of support that we all need, in times of grief and joy, mourning and depression and celebration and hanging out and schmoozing, and everything in-between. And all the more so in the past year, in the context of what happened a few blocks away from here on the 18th day of Heshvan in the past year. We were there for each other.

Because Talmud Torah / Jewish learning teaches us that all of these things are found on the Jewish bookshelf in abundance. It’s all there, ladies and gentlemen. You just have to reach out and grab it.

I know. You’re thinking, there is so much to Judaism, and I’m so busy, and Beth Shalom offers so many portals into Jewish life. Where can I possibly start? 

Here’s an easy one: host a Shabbat dinner. Look, you’re going to be eating dinner on Friday night anyway – just make it a wee bit more special. I am happy to help you out with home rituals if you need. Invite guests. Enjoy! Then do it again. 

Then consider an online study group – Derekh, our targeted programming arm, is now coordinating them via Zoom. Or drop into Rabbi Jeremy’s Talmud class, or my Lunch and Learn. Stop by the monthly Shabbat morning Discussion service, where we get into the “whys” of what we do. The bar is not as high as you think.

***

Ladies and gentlemen, every time the Torah is put away, we sing, Ki leqah tov natati lakhem, torati al ta’azovu. For I [God] have given you a good heritage; do not forsake My Torah.

We sympathize with the young man in the Holy Grail, who only wants to sing. But we need to see the land, not just the curtains. And we need to dedicate ourselves to that property, the rich heritage of which we are the inheritors, even as we sing.

We take the tradition that our ancestors received at Mount Sinai, and we are still fashioning it to suit our needs today. We continue to make an ancient tradition new. We continue to make it ours. Lo bashamayim hi – it is not in the heavens. It’s down here with us, it’s fourth down and three yards to go. Take the hand-off.

All of this belongs to you. As they say in the Talmud as an invitation into the text: Ta shema. Come and learn.

Shanah tovah!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, first day of Rosh Hashanah, 9/30/2019.)

Continue reading the next installment in the “All of This Belongs to You” series: All of This Belongs to You: Be a Jewish Superhero! – Rosh Hashanah 5780, Day 2

4 Comments

Filed under High Holidays, Sermons

All Of This Belongs To You – High Holidays 5780

Leave a comment

Filed under High Holidays, Video

Increase the Love: Ha’Olam / The World – Yom Kippur 5779

Wait! You might want to read the first three items in the series before you read this one:

Increase the Love: Ani / The Self – Rosh Hashanah 5779, Day 1

Increase the Love: HaMishpahah / The Family – Rosh Hashanah 5779, Day 2

Increase the Love: Beyahad / Community – Kol Nidrei 5779

***

In the final installment of this High Holiday sermon cycle, we are widening the circle a whole lot more today. Beyond ourselves, beyond our family, beyond our community, it is upon us to love the world. Today we address the fourth letter in אהבה / ahavah / love: the second heh is for העולם / ha’olam / the world. The idea that I am trying to keep in front of us all this year, this prime year of 5779, is to increase the love.

Because the world needs some lovin’. Think of where we are right now. Think of all the tumult going on in the world. Forget American politics: think of how Great Britain has been torn apart over Brexit. Think of natural disasters – hurricanes and typhoons. Think of the Rohingya Muslims who have been slaughtered by the Buddhist population of Myanmar. Think of the violence that has erupted in India because of fake news stories shared on social media. Think of nationalist governments in Russia and Hungary that are busy eroding freedoms and judicial authorities, and the other nations like Italy and Sweden and Poland that are moving that way. Think of the tidal wave of refugees around the world, people uprooted from their homes by war and malfeasance. Think of the mess that is Syria.

Something that we say when we enter the Ten Days of Teshuvah / Repentance (of which today is the tenth day) is a line from the prophet Isaiah: “Shalom, shalom larahoq velaqarov.” Greetings, greetings to all who are far and all who are near. In this season of teshuvah, repentance, and renewal, we see ourselves as connected to everybody, be they close or far away geographically or spiritually. We remember them all; we welcome them all.

love lady bugs

We, the Jews, have been on this planet for thousands of years. For much of this time we have lived as strangers in strange lands, sometimes at peace with our neighbors, sometimes not.

But at this particular moment in time, when there are 7.6 billion people on Earth, far more than it can handle; when sin’at hinnam / baseless hatred is running high all over the world; when political rifts divide us so angrily, and social media bubbles and algorithms exacerbate those rifts; when terrorism and war and displacement have ruined so many lives and upended stable political orders, there is only one thing that can save us:

Ahavat olam. Love of the world.

We invoke love explicitly in tefillah / Jewish prayer in the paragraph right before we say the Shema, the essential credo of Judaism. In the morning, we remember that the gift of Torah is the essential statement of God’s love for us Jews; in the evening, we mention God’s eternal love for the people of Israel: Ahavat olam beit Yisrael ammekha ahavta. With an eternal love have You loved the house of Israel.

And yet, that phrase, ahavat olam, can also be translated as “love of the world.” The suggestion then would be that God loves us with the same love with which God loves the entire world. All people. I like that reading.

And just as God loves the whole world, so should we. It is the farthest reach of Maimonides’ concentric circles of caring. And even though all love must start within us and flow outward, even though Maimonides tells us that our first obligation to perform tzedaqah / acts of righteousness is for those closest to us, we cannot neglect the rest of the world.

In Israeli scholar Yuval Harari’s take on the cognitive history of humanity called Sapiens, he tells the following story:

On 20 July 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the surface of the moon. In the months leading up to their expedition, the Apollo 11 astronauts trained in a remote moon-like desert in the western United States. The area is home to several Native American communities, and there is a story – or legend – describing an encounter between the astronauts and one of the locals.

One day as they were training, the astronauts came across an old Native American. The man asked them what they were doing there. They replied that they were part of a research expedition that would shortly travel to explore the moon. When the old man heard that, he fell silent for a few moments, and then asked the astronauts if they could do him a favor.

‘What do you want?’ they asked.

‘Well,’ said the old man, ‘the people of my tribe believe that holy spirits live on the moon.  I was wondering if you could pass an important message to them from my people.’

‘What’s the message?’ asked the astronauts.

The man uttered something in his tribal language, and then asked the astronauts to repeat it again and again until they had memorized it correctly.

‘What does it mean?’ asked the astronauts.

‘Oh, I cannot tell you. It’s a secret that only our tribe and the moon spirits are allowed to know.’

When they returned to their base, the astronauts searched and searched until they found someone who could speak the tribal language, and asked him to translate the secret message. When they repeated what they had memorized, the translator started to laugh uproariously. When he calmed down, the astronauts asked him what it meant. The man explained that the sentence they had memorized so carefully said, ‘Don’t believe a single word these people are telling you. They have come to steal your lands.’

moon

Human history has demonstrated over and over that the members of Homo Sapiens do not love each other enough. And we have certainly not loved God’s Creation. Another poignant detail that Harari includes in his book is that wherever humans have lived, they have more or less destroyed the natural environment – the flora and fauna, the topography, the rivers and lakes and oceans.

Our member Jordan Fischbach spoke about this at a Lox & Learning session this past Sunday morning: Pittsburgh currently averages zero days per year where the temperature is over 95 degrees F; in 30 years, the average will be 20 days/yr over 95 degrees. Sea levels are rising, and they may rise as much as eight feet by the end of this century. Remember when the flooding like we are seeing right now in North Carolina and in Houston last year was unusual? Given all the data, we know that we are responsible for climate change, yet are failing to address the challenge.

But maybe – just maybe – we are at a moment in which we can change. That is, after all, the whole point of these days, the Ten Days of Teshuvah / Return, beginning with Rosh Hashanah and concluding today.

At the Rabbinical Assembly convention last April, a rabbinic colleague of mine, Rabbi Susan Grossman in Columbia, MD, spoke about how she had found that some members of her community were unable to talk to each other in today’s political climate: people were not going to Thanksgiving dinners with their family because of deep ideological disagreements. (I have heard of similar cases here in PGH.) So she developed a plan to work on this – she brought in a group that helps facilitate conversations that bring people together.

She also told the following story, which I found particularly moving:

During one of our many interfaith programs, I met a woman wearing a hijab and a beautifully embroidered Bedouin dress. I complimented her on her dress and we got to talking. She was a Palestinian pediatrician, the grandmother of two little boys, one of whom was playing on the beach when he was hit and killed by an Israeli rocket during the Gaza War a few years ago. She stood stiffly before me, clearly bitter and angry. My heart broke for her. How could it not? I opened my hands, palms up, inviting her to take them. She did. We took a step toward each other; two mothers sharing tragic news. I looked into her eyes and said truthfully, deeply, that I was so sorry; losing a child, a grandchild, is the worst thing that can happen to anyone; what a tragedy it is that we haven’t found a way for both Israelis and Palestinians to live in their own states in peace.

Her stance softened, sadness replaced the anger I first had seen. She looked at me, gauging me, and I, her. I acknowledged how I could not compare my experience to hers and began to share how Hamas rockets had rained down on me and the families with me when we were in Israel in the days leading up to the Gaza War. I asked her if perhaps we could work together for all our children’s sake. She squeezed my hands, gave a small nod, and said, ‘You are a good Jew.’ I replied, ‘There are many.’ We returned together to the program. I doubt I changed this woman’s attitude about Israel at all. But perhaps next time she meets a Jew she won’t automatically see an enemy.

Every Shabbat morning, and on all holidays here at Beth Shalom, when we recite our Prayer for the Country, we invoke the messianic vision of Isaiah: “Lo yisa goi el goi herev, velo yilmedu od milhamah / Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they anymore learn war.”

Now, while many of you know me to be an optimist, I am not a Pollyanna, a naif who believes that Isaiah’s vision can be implemented overnight. Although once upon a time, John Lennon’s lyric, “Imagine all the people, sharing all the world” lit a fire in my idealistic teenage soul, in the decades since I have come to understand that everything is a little more complicated than that. Humanity will always be a work in progress.

But I do know this: an essential question of the current moment is this: How can we all live here together without destroying each other and the planet?

It might be easy to throw up our hands and say, the world is a lost cause. There is no way that anything I can do can change the trajectory of all the forces in play. I can’t solve climate change. I can’t stop the Iranians or the North Koreans from producing nuclear weapons. I can’t even get people who are driving by on my street to slow down for the sake of children playing nearby.

But everything that we can do to take even simple steps toward increasing the love in this world might help.

Do you remember the Lorax?  The book by Dr. Seuss?  “I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees.”  It contains a powerful message about the use and abuse of God’s creation for selfish purposes.

lorax1

The book concludes by highlighting a word that is absolutely perfect for Yom Kippur.  One word: “Unless.”

This day of prayer, fasting, and self-denial can come and go, and we can be unchanged; we can fail to be transformed by it, unless:

  • Unless we commit ourselves to being responsible for one another.
  • Unless we learn to be sensitized to the needs of others, and step out of our own worlds into theirs.
  • Unless we understand that the long-term needs of the wider society are more important than our own short-term personal needs or desires, and that working for the benefit of the community and the world not only benefits us as individuals but is vital in the long term.
  • Unless we internalize that all of our choices matter – paper or plastic, wind or solar or coal, incandescent, CFL, or LED, and on and on.
  • Unless we see ourselves as connected to the entire world: to the 12-year-old sewing sneakers in Vietnam, to the denizens of Brazilian favelas, to starving Yemeni victims of that country’s civil war, to those terrorized by Boko Haram in Nigeria, to undocumented immigrants in our own neighborhood.
  • Unless we look past ourselves, past our families, and past our own immediate Jewish community to the greater challenges that we face on our planet.

unless

And yes, that’s what this day is all about: increasing the love by improving ourselves, by taking the next step forward.

So given that Judaism is a tradition of action, and that our goal is to increase the love, what can we do?

We can follow the advice of our rabbis on this day. In a little while, when we recite the Untaneh Toqef prayer, we will conclude by saying, “Utshuvah utfillah, utzdaqah ma’avirin et ro’a hagezerah.” Repentance, prayer, and charity will annul the severity of the decree.

  1. Teshuvah / Repentance: we need to look seriously at how we have behaved – as individuals, of course, but also as a nation, as a people, as a species – and determine how to move forward in a way that is healthier for all of us. That might mean working on behalf of fair wages for migrant workers in America, or working toward finding a cure for Zika, or considering the relationship between our economy and our carbon footprint.
  2. Tefillah / Prayer: There is nothing wrong with actually praying, of course, but perhaps we might read this as awareness: be aware of what is going on in the world, and try to figure how your actions might affect people in your neighborhood or far away. Check out the damage that meat consumption causes to the environment. Google the true cost of cheap clothing. Consider how refugees are turning European politics upside-down.
  3. Tzedaqah / Acts of righteousness: Put your money and your time where your mouth is. Find a charity that is doing something good in the world. There are many. You have to do some research first (always a good idea to check out any charity on the website charitynavigator.org), but there is so much to be done, so many ways to love this world.

Love of the world has the power to lessen the severity of the decree, to strengthen bonds between people, to change the outcomes for the better. And you might not be able to love the world enough by yourself, but if we all commit to doing just a little something, imagine the power that we all have together. As Pirkei Avot, the 2nd-century collection of Jewish wisdom tells us, “Lo alekha hamelakhah ligmor, velo atah ben horin lehibbatel mimmena.” It’s not up to you to finish the task, but neither are you free to give up on it. Consider the following:

One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed a boy picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean.

Approaching the boy, he asked, “What are you doing?”

The youth replied, “Throwing starfish back into the ocean.  The surf is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they will die.”

“Son,” the man said, “don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and thousands of starfish?  You can’t make a difference!”

After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the surf.  Then, smiling at the man, he said. “I made a difference for that one.”

Think about it, ladies and gentlemen. You can leave this service today unmoved by our ancient liturgy and the words of our tradition. You can break the fast tonight and be exactly the same person tomorrow that you were yesterday.

Or you can use this day, this holiest day of the year, to figure out how to increase the net love in the world. You can figure out a new way to reach out. Maybe you’d like to volunteer in helping refugee families here in Pittsburgh adapt to a new life. Maybe you can advocate on behalf of those who need food or shelter. Maybe, if you have the means, can help fund a charitable organization to help children in Africa get access to better nutrition.

All you have to do to act on ahavat olam, love of the world, is to step forward, to pick up a starfish, and toss it into the water.

Love. Ve-ahavta lere’akha kamokha. Love your neighbor as yourself; increase the love.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Yom Kippur day, 9/19/2018.)

 

 

3 Comments

Filed under High Holidays, Sermons

Increase the Love: Beyahad / Community – Kol Nidrei 5779

Wait! You might want to read the first two items in the series before you read this one:

Increase the Love: Ani / The Self – Rosh Hashanah 5779, Day 1

Increase the Love: HaMishpahah / The Family – Rosh Hashanah 5779, Day 2

****

Remember the movie Avatar, from 2009? It was about a tribe known as the Na’vi, who worship an invisible-yet-omnipotent god named Eywa, and draw their support from a gigantic tree. If it did not occur to you when you saw it that the writers were drawing on some aspects of Jewish tradition, let me explain: “navi” is Hebrew for “prophet,” Eywa is a simple rearrangement of Yahweh, the ancient name of our one, true God, and the Hometree is a likely reference to the “Etz Hayyim,” the “Tree of Life,” i.e. the Torah. Na’vi society is marked by interconnectedness, with Eywa and with each other through the Hometree. What makes their society seem so seductive is the deep, mystical connection that they all share with all living things in their world, plant and animal – a kind of universal, communal love.

Pandora-HomeTree

We do not generally think of Judaism as a religion of love. That is a theme that, it seems, is usually left to Christians, who often tout the idea that “Jesus loves you.” Nonetheless, those of you who were here for Rosh Hashanah certainly know that love is actually a foundational principle in Judaism, promoted by none other than Rabbi Akiva, the greatest sage of the Talmudic period.

We in the Jewish world could benefit from a greater emphasis on love. That is why the overarching theme of these High Holidays has been ahavah / love – because one of our primary goals today should be to increase the love in this world. We spoke on the first day of Rosh Hashanah about love of self, and on the second day about love of family.

And I hope that by the time this sermon cycle is complete, you will feel the same way. Love will be our theme for 5779, and I am hoping that you will find this theme emerge in the various ways that we at Beth Shalom approach Judaism.

Here is another piece of Jewish wisdom that I want you to have in your list of go-to, pithy Jewish statements on love. It is found in every siddur / prayerbook, right up front. You’ll find it in your Mahzor Lev Shalem on p. 35, and also in the High Holiday Guide on p. 5. It’s known as Mitzvat HaBorei, and it is a unique kind of blessing created by Rabbi Isaac Luria, the 16th-century creator of Lurianic Kabbalah, a branch of Jewish mysticism. Rabbi Luria said that we should begin every day by saying the following:

הריני מקבל עלי מצוות הבורא: וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ

Hareini meqabbel alai mitzvat haborei: Ve-ahavta lereiakha kamokha.

I hereby take upon myself the mitzvah / commandment of my Creator: love your neighbor as yourself.

In other words, says Rabbi Luria, we should start every day not only by expressing our gratitude to God for waking up healthy and capable (which is the first thing that happens in every morning service at Beth Shalom, every day of the year), but also by remembering our love for the people around us. In fact, this is so essential that Rabbi Luria’s framing suggests that this love is kind of encoded into us. God’s primary reason for creating the world, you might say, is so that we might love our neighbors.

And we say that before we emphasize the requirement to love God, which is in the Shema. So what is the message? We need to love each other before we experience Divine love. Not just our family members, mind you, but our neighbors.

Continuing the theme from Rosh Hashanah, Maimonides’ concentric circles of responsibility continue to radiate outward; today we are going to talk about love of community. That’a a loosely-defined word, of course, but since we are in Mr. Rogers’ hometown, let’s go with his definition: the people in your neighborhood.

Let’s face it, folks: this is probably the hardest type of love. We can learn to love ourselves. Love of our families is kind of a given. Love of the world in general (which we will discuss tomorrow) might be easier in the abstract. But loving the people in your neighborhood, with whom you might fundamentally disagree about important, personal issues? People with whom you most likely occasionally argue with over taxes or city services or synagogue budgets? People who might drive you nuts because they throw their leaves in your yard or fail to shovel the snow off the sidewalk in front of their houses? Can you love the jerk who clearly could have let you take a Pittsburgh left but didn’t? That’s hard.

I want you to consider, for a moment, a Pittsburgher whom you may have heard of, named Bill Strickland. He is probably best known among the Jews for being a driving force in founding the Akko Center for Arts and Technology (“A-CAT”), a career-training center for Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs in northern Israel.

(We will be visiting A-CAT on Beth Shalom’s trip to Israel, which departs Oct. 28th. I am leading this trip, and 25 members of our neighborhood will be joining us.)

But what Bill is best known for is creating the Manchester Bidwell Corporation, which began with a school in the disadvantaged neighborhood in which he grew up on the north side of Pittsburgh, and has now expanded to similar schools around the country and in a few international locations as well.

Bill tells his story in a TED Talk, which I highly recommend that you watch some time in 5779:

His odyssey began in high school, where he was on his way to failing out, and he met a teacher who taught him how to make pottery. This teacher cared about Bill, and Bill soon discovered that learning how to throw pots gave him something to latch onto, something that made him proud of himself. His schoolwork improved enough for him to get into the University of Pittsburgh, and while he was still an undergraduate there, he launched a vision that would take him decades to build.

His vision was this: if you demonstrate to kids in poor neighborhoods that you care about them – create for them a learning environment that is well-appointed and respectful, with teachers that show their appreciation – then those kids will respond by working harder, pursuing careers, and generally becoming productive members of society. He started by creating the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, an after-school program to teach children in Manchester about pottery, but continued to build until his programs, primarily focused on job training, now reach thousands of people, adults and children, giving them a range of skills they need to make it in today’s world. In Bill’s own words:

My view is that if you want to involve yourself in the life of people who have been given up on, you have to look like the solution and not the problem. As you can see, [the center I built in Pittsburgh] has a fountain in the courtyard. And the reason it has a fountain in the courtyard is I wanted one and I had the checkbook, so I bought one and put it there… [I was] on the board of the Carnegie Museum. At a reception in their courtyard, I noticed that they had a fountain because they think that the people who go to the museum deserve a fountain. Well, I think that welfare mothers and at-risk kids and ex-steel workers deserve a fountain in their life. And so the first thing that you see in my center in the springtime is water that greets you — water is life and water is human possibility — and it sets an attitude and expectation about how you feel about people before you ever give them a speech. So, from that fountain I built this building.

In 1996, he was awarded the very prestigious MacArthur Genius Fellowship award.

I met Mr. Strickland a few months back at the Pursuer of Peace dinner at Rodef Shalom, and he is every bit as warm and genuine as he appears in his TED Talk. I remember thinking at the time, this is a man who has found a solution to one of the most challenging, intractable problems of our society. I’m shaking the hand of a true inspiration. How powerful is that? Better than meeting just about any celebrity.

Because what he did was truly an act of love, paid forward from the love shown to him by his first pottery teacher. Bill could have taken the opportunity before him by earning his degree at Pitt and headed off into the world to make a good living in business or law or medicine or finance, and never even consider looking through the rear-view mirror to the blighted neighborhood in which he grew up.

But he didn’t do that. Instead, he did exactly the opposite. And that was truly an act of ve-ahavta lereiakha kamokha, loving your neighbor as yourself. And what he created continues to give back, to radiate love within the community.

****

So how do we act on this love of your neighbor? How do we create a community based on love with people whom we may not necessarily like, or even know?

Most of us think of Judaism as a tradition of law. In fact, many of us understand that our relationship with God is based on our fulfillment of halakhah, which is usually translated as “Jewish law,” although a more accurate translation is “going” or “walking.” That is, halakhah is how we walk through life – including the obligations not only to keep Shabbat or kashrut / dietary laws, but also keeping the responsibility to tzedaqah / charity, or to learn the words of our tradition, or to teach our children how to be people, as we discussed on Rosh Hashanah.

How does a tradition of laws guide us to be better people? How does it help shape our interactions with others to benefit the community?

Well, some of our mitzvot, our holy opportunities, are directly about helping others: giving tzedaqah, that is, performing righteous acts, is an obvious one. But did you know that our tradition requires you to build a railing on your roof (if you have a flat roof that people walk on) to prevent people from falling off? How about the obligation to use fair weights and measures in the marketplace? What about the obligation to bury an unclaimed corpse, the highest form of hesed / loving-kindness? Did you know its against our law to withhold earnings from a day laborer lest they go home empty-handed?

By the way, my very favorite mitzvah in the entire Torah is this: If you find your enemy’s ox or donkey in your yard, you must return it! (Exodus 23:4) Think of how ironic and yet essential that particular opportunity is: the person who might very well be inclined to kill you – his is the one whose donkey the Torah tells you to return. Now, probably most of our neighbors do not own donkeys, but the same would be true with your enemy’s wallet or cellphone. Think about that: the Torah expressly protects your enemy’s possessions.

Maimonides, at the end of his famous text, Guide for the Perplexed, insists that the fulfillment of mitzvot, the meticulous attention to halakhah / Jewish law are not, in fact, the ultimate objective. Rather, these things are the means to an end. The line of intent that the 613 mitzvot form is meant to be extrapolated, such that we go beyond the letter of the law, lifnim mishurat hadin, in rabbinic-speak, to do those things for others that are not mandated by the Torah, but rather are the right things to be done. So, while it is a mitzvah to honor your parents and to give tzedaqah, it is an extrapolation, for example, to volunteer your time at a homeless shelter, or to build gardens in impoverished neighborhoods so that people in food deserts can get some good produce.

And yet, I think that the way we live today has made it even harder to connect in a way that enables us to build an interdependent community, one in which we support each other in love. Although more wired than ever, from my perspective we are, ironically, living more isolated lives. The challenges here are great, but, I think, not insurmountable.

Dr. Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (my rabbinic and cantorial alma mater) and a scholar of American Judaism, recently wrote a trenchant article on the role that our tradition can play in the revitalization of community in America.  The article is entitled, “Are We Witnessing the End of Enlightenment?” His opening observation is that the current moment seems to be characterized by a “wholesale retreat from values of human dignity, thoughtful rationality and tolerance of difference—values that Jews, most other Americans, and many individuals and peoples around the world, have long held dear.” He points to suspected culprits like technology that is moving faster than our interpersonal relationships can keep pace with, globalization that is causing rapid economic upheaval, and the various forms of anxiety caused by the Information Age.

It seems undeniable… that all is not well in 21st century North America at the apex of Enlightenment. Social theorists have long worried that the breakdown of traditional communities and roles would cast many of us adrift in multiple ways, and it seems that that in fact has occurred.

The challenge that we have as contemporary Jews is how we take our traditional values and apply them in a way that works today. The entire world is struggling with the challenges posed by modernity; at least we the Jews have our traditional framework to hold onto.

Our ancient wisdom, Eisen says, which we continue to study and and act upon – gives us guidance today, to wit, “concrete laws governing daily human interaction.” He cites the “Holiness Code” of Leviticus (that is, Parashat Qedoshim, my bar mitzvah parashah) and Maimonides as proponents of societal transformation through traditional Jewish behaviors.

We in the Conservative movement, who balance tradition and change, are exceptionally well-placed to assist this transformation, and Dr. Eisen envisions more such communities. He suggests that we build communities marked by “face-to-face relations,” shared experiences, shared celebrations and shared grief, and we endeavor to affirm all members of the community as valued and needed. These communities “teach via experience that differences of politics and generation need not stand in the way of cooperation and mutual respect… [enabling us to] work in the larger, ever-contentious world.”

In short, we need communities based on love. And furthermore, when you consider that today fewer and fewer Americans belong to organizations of any kind, religious or otherwise, our synagogues still stand for building an interconnected society. Our berit, our covenant, helps us to stand against the isolation of the contemporary American landscape; we lead in partnership and dialogue.

We know what it means to go through life with a community of capital-M Meaning, and face up to illness and death with the support of such a community. The deep satisfaction of singing “etz hayyim hi” (“it is a tree of life”) as we return the Torah to the ark is not just a function of the music, or the power of shared voices. The words conjure up gratitude at the life that Torah makes possible for us. We cannot imagine living without this Torah. We gratefully choose to walk these paths of peace again and again.

What is the foundational principle of a qehillah qedoshah, a sacred community like this one? It is love. Love of our neighbors, love of family, love of self.

We need, our society needs strong communal centers that give back to the community. Our future as Americans depends on the sustainable future of this synagogue. Because here, we teach Mitzvat haBorei every single day: It is our daily obligation to love our neighbors as ourselves.

And that is why we need, as a synagogue, to tackle our future strategically. That is why we are currently engaged in United Synagogue’s SULAM for Strategic Planners program, and are working on our strategic plan (did you fill out the survey??). That is why we are working on building solar panels on our roof, to emphasize both physical and environmental sustainability. That is why we in the past year we joined the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, enabling us to be in partnership with Jewish, Christian, and Muslim organizations all over Western Pennsylvania. That is why we are taking journeys to Israel and to the scene of the civil rights struggle in the South. That is why we are here in times of joy and times of grief, in prayerful moments and social moments. That is why we continue to rethink what we do and how we do it.

That is a vision of love of community: ensuring the ongoing strength and viability of not only Congregation Beth Shalom, but all the houses of faith in our neighborhood, so that we all can continue to function in bringing people together in this ever-more-disconnected world.

Now is the time to integrate, to cooperate, to reach out, to walk the paths of peace, to recall that we are all connected through our Etz Hayyim / Tree of Life, to prevent further unraveling of community. That is the daily imperative that we invoke when we recall Rabbi Isaac Luria’s Mitzvat HaBorei, the essential obligation of our creator: love your neighbor as yourself.

Shanah tovah!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Yom Kippur evening, 9/18/2018.)

 

The final installment:

Increase the Love: Ha’Olam / The World – Yom Kippur 5779

3 Comments

Filed under High Holidays, Sermons