Categories
High Holidays Kavvanot

Today the World is Pregnant

Hayom harat olam. Today the world is pregnant, as we will recite six times on Saturday and Sunday. Not the traditional translation, I know, but a more accurate one. The world is pregnant with a new year, one upon which we will place our hopes and our dreams.

As I scramble with last-minute Rosh Hashanah preparation, I am placing a whole lot of pressure on 5781 to be a better year. And as all parents know, you cannot force your children to be better; you can only love them and nurture them and provide the environment in which you hope they will thrive.

That environment is the one that we create. If we want an environment of health, we have to create that. If we want happiness, we must work to make others happy. If we want truth and justice and fair treatment for all people, we need to foster that atmosphere in the neighborhoods and cities and nations in which we live.

So yes, on Rosh Hashanah we celebrate God’s coronation with the sounding of a horn and music and liturgy of depth and grandeur. But we must also focus on working harder, even in the diminished capacity in which we find ourselves, to nurture 5781 and greet her in a way that reflects our highest values. Hayom harat olam.

Join me at all of Congregation Beth Shalom’s services at https://zoom.us/j/896828166. Schedules and much more information may be found at https://bethshalompgh.org/high-holidays-5781/.

שנה טובה / Shanah tovah! A happy new year to you.

(BTW, the photo above was taken by Jim Busis, publisher of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle. The sock at the end was an experiment – it actually makes it much more difficult to blow.)

Categories
Kavvanot

Desperately Seeking Catharsis – Huqqat/Balaq 5780

Purity and purification were of utmost importance to our ancient Israelite ancestors, and for good reason. Theirs was a world of many dangers: marauding wildlife, uncontrollable diseases, bloodthirsty enemies, lawless bandits, the merciless forces of nature, and so forth. Purity was an ideal that they held out before themselves, that through various rituals they could achieve a pure state, in which God would favor them and lessen the danger.

Not much has changed. With COVID-19 potentially lurking in every corner, police brutality on display for all to see, racial injustice revealed in all its ugliness, anti-Semitism gathering steam, and governmental dysfunction of cataclysmic proportions, it is easy to feel like we are floundering in chaotic currents of human failure.

I could use a good cleanse right now. 

And so it almost makes sense to read the passage in Parashat Huqqat about the parah adumah, the notoriously elusive “red heifer” used in preparing a magic potion that would cleanse anybody of tum’at met, ritual impurity that came from exposure to a corpse. Almost, because to contemporary ears this passage is inscrutable. And not only contemporary: a midrash (Bemidbar Rabbah 19:3) has the wise King Solomon declaring, “I have labored to understand the word of God and have understood it all, except for the ritual of the parah adumah.”

Nonetheless, one does see the appeal in achieving purity through curious rituals. I want all of this to be over. I want resolution. I want purity. And I want to be able to sit on my porch on a summer evening, survey the world, and think, All is right once again. 

I want catharsis. 

One of the greatest challenges that we see right now is that none of these things have a simple, sweet resolution. The virus is not going to magically disappear. The problematic political actors are not simply going to pick up their toys and go home. The system that reinforces racial injustice at many levels in American society is not going to fix itself. The Jew-haters are not going to crawl back into their holes. The Internet will not suddenly only speak the polite truth. The Earth’s atmosphere is not going to stop its steady warming. There is no magic potion. There is no parah adumah.

There is only us. And we are going to have to work together to solve these problems. But the good news is that we have solved many such challenges before, and we have the ability to do so again. But it will require that we listen to one another and to the words of professionals, that we act from a place of respect for each other rather than “winning.” 

Perhaps what this passage teaches us is that the details and complexity of the parah adumah ritual, and indeed the impossibility of finding the right cow for the job, suggest that the easy way out does not exist; that although absolute purity is unattainable, we should nonetheless push ourselves to find it. 

Lo alekha hamelakhah ligmor, velo attah ben horin lehibbatel mimmena, says Pirqei Avot. It is not up to you to finish the task, but neither can you let it go. We may not find either a red heifer nor that much-needed catharsis, but if we do not even seek to unite to solve big problems, then nothing will be solved. It is through cooperation and commitment that we will ultimately achieve purity.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally published in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, July 3, 2020.)

Categories
Kavvanot

All of This Belongs to You – Hanukkah 5780

On October 29, 2018, I went to Presbyterian Hospital to visit a congregant who was near death, unrelated to the shooting that had occurred two days earlier. I parked my car on the street, and when I stepped out, an African-American woman, who had been sitting in her car eating lunch, approached me. She was wearing a green outfit that is common for hospital employees. “Are you Jewish?” she asked. Intuitively wary of that particular question, I tentatively nodded. “Can I give you a hug?” she said. “Absolutely,” I replied, and received what was among the warmest hugs that I have ever experienced. Nothing needed to be said; the comfort that she offered was overwhelming and implicit. It spoke silently of shared persecution, of historical wrongs and overcoming prejudice.

I went upstairs to visit our congregant, who, entirely coincidentally, was in the room next door to Dan Leger, who had been grievously wounded by the hate-filled shooter. His wife Ellen spotted me in the hallway, and took me in to see him. I offered words of prayer and comfort, and I am so grateful that Dan is still with us today.

More than a year on from those days of acute pain and anguish and confusion, these two little bits of memory have become intertwined. The hug gave me hope that we can and will spread more light and love into the dark corners of this world if we work together, across racial and ethnic and other meaningless boundaries. The holy moment in the hospital reminded me not only of the great need for that light and love, but also the urgency of the task before us.

As you kindle the lights of Hanukkah for eight nights with family and friends, hold them all tightly together, admire the way that the light shines out through the window into the dark, and consider how we all can push back against the forces of hatred. Find an action, even a small one, that will illuminate this world just a little more. Let the warm glow of the hanukkiah be a beacon that drives us all to make this a safer, brighter, more loving place for all of God’s Creation. All of this belongs to you.

Happy Hanukkah! 

Categories
Kavvanot

The Eternal Why

On this Shabbat, one year after the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, we might turn our eyes heavenward once again and call out, “Why?” Why must we mourn for murdered high school students? Why must we remove our shoes at airports, but tolerate the sale of assault rifles? Why must we grieve for the memory of our beloved Pittsburgh neighbors, felled in hatred a few short months ago? The opening verses of Parashat Tetzaveh describe the burning of a “ner tamid” in the mishkan, the portable desert tabernacle, an eternal flame that indicated to our ancestors the constant presence of God in the center of their encampment. When we look to our ner tamid, our eternal light today in our sanctuary, we are reminded not only of our need for constant vigilance, but also of our burning desire to make this a safe world, a world where we need not ask these questions of “why.”

May this Shabbat be a Shabbat Shalom, one in which we all get a little more peace.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

Categories
Kavvanot

Praying for Our Country: A Thanksgiving Thought

If you have been to Congregation Beth Shalom in the last few years, you might have heard me say this: Tefillah is not intended to be rushed through, intoned meaninglessly. Pirkei Avot (2:13) tells us that our words of prayer should not be rote recitation, but rather pleas for mercy and supplication before God. It should never be that we mumble empty words of tefillah, trying to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible, without connecting those ancient words with ourselves.

The same is true for the English “Prayer for Our Country” that we recite each Shabbat morning (p. 177 in Siddur Lev Shalem). There is a good case to be made that the words of this prayer are arguably more essential right now than ever before, as our nation faces great challenges:

  • The challenge of division, wherein people on opposite sides of the aisle cannot speak to each other civilly, or at all;
  • The challenge of distinct narratives, in which online echo chambers reinforce that division;
  • The challenge of hatred of those not like us; of hatred of all kinds; of fear of the immigrant and refugee;
  • The challenge of race; of fashioning a just society in which all are given a fair shot in life regardless of the color of their skin; and
  • The challenge posed by the erosion of our democratic ideals and the diminishing respect for scientific inquiry.

Jasper_Johns's_'Map',_1961
Jasper Johns, Map, 1961.

As we pray now for an end to hatred and bigotry, to poverty and racism, let us remember that we all need each other; that we cannot sing together until all voices join in. We have no choice but to rise above party and group identity, to reach beyond boundaries of religion and race and ethnicity for the sake of the common good.

We celebrate Thanksgiving this week, a holiday on which we as a nation recall our gratitude for what we have. Perhaps on this Thanksgiving, we will all spend some time reflecting on those things that still connect us, be grateful for them, and consider what we need to do to build on those connections.

Let this Thanksgiving be a prayerful one.

 

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 11/17/2018.)

 

Categories
Kavvanot

Love, Tenderness, and Peaceful Co-Existence: A Thought from Mr. Rogers

While I was on the plane to Ben Gurion Airport on Wednesday morning, feeling a whole lot of ambivalence about leaving Squirrel Hill, I was fortunate to watch for a second time parts of the recent documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” about our neighborhood’s most famous resident, Fred Rogers, zikhrono livrakhah (may his memory be for a blessing).

When Mr. Rogers testified before a Senate committee in 1969 to argue for funding for public broadcasting, he said that among his essential principles was the idea that children’s feelings were always OK.

… I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health.

We are all filled with emotion today. We are raw, sad, angry, distraught, anxious, worn-out, and a whole range of other feelings. Although I am physically far away from all of you, in Jerusalem, I and the rest of our Beth Shalom group here feel the same things.

Mr. Rogers did not shy away from facing difficult, emotional situations on his show. In fact, in the first week it aired, he tackled the war in Vietnam, by having King Friday XIII declare war on people who “want to change things.” The residents of the Neighborhood of Make Believe were all upset and fearful, and tried to convince the king to back down from his aggression. Daniel Striped Tiger said, “I want there to be peace in this neighborhood. It’s been a hard time for everybody.” Together, they crafted a plan to influence the king: they tied messages like “Love” and “Tenderness” and “Peaceful co-existence” to balloons, and floated them up to the king’s castle, and ultimately the king relented.

Right now, I want all of us to remember that if Mr. Rogers were here, he would tell us that it is perfectly normal to be upset. Let the tears flow; let the emotions run. And think of the balloons that you would send up right now. If all of us take our desires for love and tenderness and peaceful co-existence, and saturate them with those tears, and cause them to radiate outward from Squirrel Hill to the rest of the world, we will all help each other manage that pain. And while we may not repair the hole in our communal heart, we just might help repair the world.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered by Rabbi Jeremy Markiz at Congregation Beth Shalom, 11/3/2018.)

Categories
Kavvanot

A Shabbat of Comfort

This has been perhaps the most challenging week that many of us have ever lived through. Right now, we all need a little comfort, and a little qedushah, an extra measure of holiness in our lives. When we gather together as a community, there is strength and comfort in that.

In the context of shiv’ah, the seven-day period of mourning following burial, it is customary to say to those who mourn, Hamaqom yenaḥem etkhem betokh she-ar aveilei tziyyon viyrushalayim. May God comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Hamaqom” is an infrequently-used euphemism for God. Literally, it means, “the place.” It sounds nonsensical if you translate the saying as, “May the place comfort you…” But the suggestion is very clear: we do not count only on God for comfort; we as individuals are as much a part of this place as God is. It reads as a kind of unity of us and God. Together in partnership we comfort those who mourn. And in this place, in this time, we are all mourning. Right now, we are all in shiv’ah.

Join us Friday evening at 6 PM and Shabbat morning at 9:30 AM, and every evening and morning at Beth Shalom as we not only offer words of tefillah / prayer in solidarity with each other and with God, but also moments of holiness, togetherness, and comfort. Although I am in Jerusalem with Beth Shalom’s congregational trip, in spirit I will be in our place, in our synagogue, with you in solidarity. Come be with your community this Shabbat, and stay strong.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

 

Categories
Kavvanot

A Post-Shooting Thought

During the minhah service at Beth Shalom this afternoon, we read the beginning of Parashat Hayyei Sarah, which recounts in its second verse the death of Sarah Imeinu, our mother Sarah:

וַיָּבֹא֙ אַבְרָהָ֔ם לִסְפֹּ֥ד לְשָׂרָ֖ה וְלִבְכֹּתָֽהּ

Vayavo Avraham lispod leSarah velivkotah.

Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her (Genesis 23:2).

You can’t see this above, but in the Torah, the letter kaf (כ) in velivkotah is smaller than the other letters; it is an ancient scribal tradition. We read this small kaf as suggesting that Abraham, in losing Sarah, felt a little smaller as he wept for his wife.

The events of this tragic Shabbat in Pittsburgh have made me feel a little smaller, a little more powerless, a little more anxious. I wept at multiple points today as I began to comprehend the way our community’s soul was torn by a killer with an assault rifle who was spitting anti-Semitic slurs, for the synagogue-goers who had to run and hide as holy words of tefillah / prayer trailed from their mouths, for the families of those who are still awaiting confirmation of their loved one’s status.

Nonetheless, our community is a strong one, and I hope that at this time we continue to draw strength from our tradition and from each other as we grieve. Our people have survived millennia of persecution, oppression, displacement, pogroms, and genocide; Jewish Pittsburgh will overcome this tragedy as well. Even as we are all made smaller today, we pray for those whom we have lost, and we recall that it is our duty as Jews to continue proudly doing what we do and being who we are.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

Categories
Kavvanot

Rabbi Heschel on Religion and Race

My ancestors were not from Norway, but they were slaves in Egypt.

It is this simple, foundational story in Jewish tradition that reminds us on a daily basis to remember the stranger, to lift up the oppressed, to do good works for the widow and the orphan and the homeless and the hungry.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907 Poland – 1972 US), one of the most important theologians of the 20th century, was perhaps best known for marching with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma in 1965. At the National Conference on Religion and Race in Chicago in 1963, Rabbi Heschel said the following (as reprinted in his 1967 collection of essays, The Insecurity of Freedomp. 89):

It is not within the power of God to forgive the sins committed toward men. We must first ask for forgiveness of those whom our society has wronged before asking for the forgiveness of God.

Daily we patronize institutions which are visible manifestations of arrogance toward those whose skin differs from ours. Daily we cooperate with people who are guilty of active discrimination.

How long will I continue to be tolerant of, even a participant in, acts of embarrassing and humiliating human beings, in restaurants, hotels, buses, or parks, employment agencies, public schools and universities? One ought rather be shamed than put others to shame.

Our rabbis taught: “Those who are insulted but do not insult, hear themselves reviled without answering, act through love and rejoice in suffering, of them Scripture says: ‘They who love the Lord are as the sun when rising in full splendor’ (Judges 5:31).”

Let us cease to be apologetic, cautious, timid. Racial tension and strife is both sin and punishment. The Negro’s plight, the blighted areas in the large cities, are they not the fruit of our sins?

By negligence and silence we have all become accessory before the God of mercy to the injustice committed against the Negroes by men of our nation. Our derelictions are many. We have failed to demand, to insist, to challenge, to chastise.

In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.”

(Although Rabbi Heschel used the terms “men” and “Negroes,” we should feel free to mentally substitute more inclusive/appropriate language and not be distracted by outmoded terms.)

As Heschel moves smoothly from the Talmud to Thomas Jefferson, I too tremble for our country when I recall that one of our primary imperatives as Jews is to fulfill the Torah’s words: “Tzedeq, tzedeq tirdof” – “Justice: you shall pursue justice” (Deuteronomy 16:20). The vision shared by Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel is still alive, but far from completion; let us keep tzedeq / justice in front of us as we continue to not be silent, to not be complacent, to not let the strife of the moment prevent us from working toward a better society, a better United States of America, and a better world.

Categories
Kavvanot

Gandhi on Prayer

A friend recently forwarded this quote, attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, about prayer. Gandhi came from a prayer tradition quite different from the Jewish one, and yet his words speak powerfully about our own experience with tefillah (prayer). I have appended comments, Rashi-style:

Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.

ghandi

“A longing of the soul

We need to express that longing, to acknowledge the need to heal our spirits, to seek wholeness in a fragmented world.

The soul does not speak English or Hebrew or Aramaic. It speaks yearning. It speaks prayer wordlessly.

“Admission of one’s weakness”

We go through life trying to demonstrate to everybody else and to ourselves how strong we are, how resilient we are, how talented we are.

We do not willingly admit weakness.

It is only through prayerful moments that we allow ourselves to admit even privately that we are vulnerable, that we are broken, that we need more from God or from others or from the universe.

“Better to have a heart without words than words without a heart”

Tefillah / prayer is not intended to be an empty recitation of words in a language we do not understand.

Rather, the ancient yearnings of our ancestors, found on the pages of the siddur, transport our own longing; those words provide a conduit for the heart, a tap into the soul.

As we learn in Pirkei Avot (2:18), Al ta’as tefilatekha qeva, Do not make your prayer a prescribed routine, but a plea for mercy and grace before God. Your words of tefillah should not be fixed, but filled with kavvanah: intention, spontaneity, honesty to yourself.

So as we sing / chant / mumble / meditate on the words of our own tradition, as we let the longing of our souls flow, remember that the kavvanah, the heart behind the words, matters more than the words themselves.

Shabbat shalom.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson