Categories
High Holidays Sermons

Make it Meaningful! – Highlighting the Holy Moments – Yom Kippur Day / Yizkor 5782

Before reading this sermon, which is the fourth and final installment in the “Make it Meaningful!” High Holiday 5782 series, you might want to read the first three: Gathering (Rosh HaShanah Day 1), Seeking the Why (Rosh HaShanah Day 2, and Engaging With Israel (Kol Nidre).

As is standard in many workplaces today, I have occasional performance reviews, and I am grateful to all of you for giving me a very positive review this past spring. There were, however, a few minor complaints – no big surprise for a community of Jews, of course; I would have been really surprised if there were NO complaints. 

But one such complaint was that I speak too often about items in Jewish law like kashrut, Shabbat, tefillah, and so forth. I am sure that some of you have heard or read my series of sermons about the fundamentals of Judaism, called, “I’m a Fundamentalist.” I am committed to the idea that the essential pieces of Jewish living are good for us. So thank you for noticing. 

It reminds me of the apocryphal story about the rabbi who is applying for a position at a synagogue, and when the president picks him up at the airport, she starts asking pointed questions about the sermon the rabbi will give on Shabbat.

“Well,” says the rabbi, “I thought I would speak about the value of Shabbat.”

“I don’t know, Rabbi,” says the president. “Many of our folks work in retail – they all have to open their stores after Shabbat services.”

“OK, so then maybe I’ll speak about the importance of keeping kosher.”

“Not such a great idea, Rabbi. One of our major donors is the largest shellfish distributor in the whole state.”

“Well then,” says the rabbi, “What do YOU think I should talk about?”

“You know, Rabbi,” says the president, “something Jewish.”

But of course, I hope you will understand that advocating for Jewish law and customs and learning and tefillah / prayer is exactly what rabbis do! A rabbi, you may recall, is not a priest; the word “rav” in Hebrew literally means “teacher.” My job is to teach you about being Jewish and doing Jewish – you as individuals and as a community.

However, my approach to teaching Judaism is that I want your Jewish engagement to be meaningful! I want you to feel something, to feel a connection, to “use” Jewish life and learning as a way of improving yourself and your world! Even though I am clearly on the cheerleading team for Torah and mitzvot, I am decidedly not in favor of merely fulfilling a mitzvah for the sake of checking a box. That is why our High Holiday theme for this year is, “Make it Meaningful!”

I believe firmly that the real reason to practice Judaism – keeping Shabbat, kashrut, daily tefillah / prayer, digging into our ancient texts – is that they can fill our lives with meaning, that these things create a lens that will help you see the world a little clearer, that they will help bring the important things into focus, that they will teach you how to highlight the qedushah / holiness in your life and in your relationships with the people around you.

Most of us feel that being Jewish is important to our identities; the most recent Pew Research Center study of American Jews showed that about three-quarters of us agree that being Jewish is very or somewhat important to us. Most of us are quite proud to be Jewish. 

So that is good news! But here’s the less-than-stellar news: most of those folks who agree that being Jewish is important do not feel that doing traditional Jewish things is essential to being Jewish. When asked about the essential parts of being Jewish, only 15% (about one in 7) say that observing halakhah / Jewish law is important. By comparison, 76% (three-quarters) cite “Remembering the Holocaust” as essential to being Jewish.

Now, I know that re-interpreting what it means to be Jewish is all the rage right now, and I certainly do not want to throw shade at that idea. I am, however, concerned that, when the vast majority of Jews do not see learning about and practicing Judaism as being an essential aspect to being Jewish, we may be in an unsustainable situation.  

In order to actually pass on Judaism to your children and grandchildren, something which I know many of you are interested in doing, you have to “do” Jewish. You can’t just “be.”  

And yes, “doing” Jewish can take on many forms. It need not look like what Judaism looks like in black-hat Brooklyn, say, or what it looked like to our great-grandparents. But without the practice of Judaism, with only our sense of pride in being Jewish, we will have no basis for why living Jewishly is meaningful, and without meaning, our children and grandchildren will only be puzzled by their Jewish identity.

Here are a few examples of the fundamentals of doing Jewish:

  • Holy eating, also known as keeping kosher or kashrut, is meaningful because it reminds us of our role in the world “to till and to tend,” as the second Creation story in Bereshit / Genesis puts it. When we premise our consumption upon God’s expectation of us to live sustainably in cooperation with the Earth, we have a better chance of handing an unspoiled world to our children and grandchildren.
  • Putting on tefillin on a daily basis is meaningful because it reminds us on a daily basis of the need to connect our hearts and minds with our hands. Would that more of us could be mindful of how our actions affect others and our world! Physical rituals such as tefillin help reinforce our daily mindfulness with a tangible action.
  • Learning the words of our ancient texts – which you can easily do -is meaningful because it teaches us how to be better people, how to improve our lives and our community by understanding ourselves and the holiness embedded in all our relationships. Plus, there is the added bonus of keeping our minds flexible and engaged, something that the medical establishment certainly recommends as we get older.
  • Singing Jewish music, liturgical or otherwise, is meaningful because it brings joy to a world that could really use a whole lot more joy. Sometimes melody can express our deepest emotions, particularly when words alone fail us.

And here is something that we perhaps take for granted, and yet in which many of us participate in greater numbers than most mitzvot: lifecycle events.

Yes, you know what I’m talking about: those things that mark our lives as we saunter through: berit milah (you all know that by the Yiddish term “bris”, but I don’t speak Yiddish! I’m a Zionist – I speak Hebrew), baby-naming, bat mitzvah / bar mitzvah, wedding, pidyon haben (redemption of the first-born), funeral and mourning. Some might add confirmation in there, and of course some might add graduation from medical school as well.

And it is wonderful that so many of us are still doing these lifecycle events. Perhaps more so than most Jewish rituals, people still show up, at least to honor and celebrate with the family. Even during the depths of the pandemic, when travel was nearly impossible, people came to lifecycle events in droves: we had benei mitzvah services here at Beth Shalom that attracted well-wishers from Japan and South Africa and France and England and Israel and Thailand and Australia and probably a bunch of places I’m not even aware of. Berit milah, weddings, funerals, shiv’ah – all continue to bring in family members and friends from far and wide.

And that too, is wonderful. The power of the framework of Jewish lifecycle rituals is great. What is more meaningful to us than celebrating a newborn baby, dancing joyously with newlyweds, or mourning the loss of somebody we loved?

One of the greatest features of living a Jewish life is acknowledging holy moments. We actually have a berakhah, a blessing for that, one which you all know well. It’s the same berakhah – Sheheḥeyyanu – that I have been urging you to recite upon your first opportunity to return to the synagogue space after months of isolation. 

We mark our holy moments, not only with a berakhah, not only with ritual, not only by gathering with friends and family and sharing a meal and good times, but with meaning.

Think back for a moment to an especially meaningful lifecycle event for you. Was it your bat mitzvah? Your wedding? Confirmation? A dear friend’s funeral? (I’m guessing it wasn’t your own bris!)

What made it meaningful? Was it the people there? The words of Torah offered by the rabbi? The food?

Maybe all of these things. But also, perhaps what made it most meaningful was the sense of perspective. The feelings surrounding what it took to, as with the the berakhah, vehiggi’anu lazeman hazeh – to arrive to this moment, the feeling of the ancient hand-off play that we keep playing as Jews, from generation to generation.

Two different young people who recently became bat / bar mitzvah here at Beth Shalom asked me, not long before the ceremony itself, effectively, “Why am I doing this?” It seems that this question had not been answered along the way, perhaps lost in the shuffle of preparation, maybe further obscured by the pandemic. 

Now, I suppose I could have said, “Because it says so in the Mishnah,” but that would not have been an effective answer. “Because your parents want you to,” is also not really satisfactory.

Rather, I said the following: “Because you are the next link in a chain that stretches back thousands of years. You are the inheritor of a rich and valuable collection of wisdom and traditions that has crossed continents and centuries, and survived empires and attempted genocide. This ceremony, when you are called to the Torah as bar/bat mitzvah in the synagogue, in the presence of your family, friends, and community, is a signifier of the fact that you are now carrying the Jewish flame, holding it aloft to illuminate the world as our people have always done and will continue to do. We are handing this tradition to you, and now it is your turn to take care of it, cherish it, continue to deepen your understanding of it, and then pass it along to your children and grandchildren.”

They were speechless, perhaps because it had not yet been presented that way.

We should never take for granted that everybody involved in the holy moment of a lifecycle event appreciates the meaning embedded therein. That is why I am going to offer a pro tip for making your Jewish involvement even more meaningful, and this is something that comes from the author and consultant Priya Parker, who I mentioned on the first day of Rosh HaShanah, when we spoke about the meaning and power of gathering. Ms. Parker’s essential tip for making gathering meaningful is to prepare in advance. And yes, of course that means the food and the chairs and the guest list. But more than that, prepare the content. 

Give your attendees an assignment. For a wedding, for example, you could have them write out messages to the bride and groom to be displayed as part of the ḥuppah, or at the reception. For a baby-naming, have your participants do a little research into their own Hebrew name, to share at lunch. For shiv’ah, you could ask people who did not speak at the funeral to prepare in advance three sentences that describe the deceased, or even (as was fashionable a few years back) a six-word-eulogy.

And similar things can be done for holiday observances: have invitees to your sukkah bring an item that tells a story about their Jewish journey. Before lighting the Hanukkah candles, have everybody gathered around give an example of a way that they feel they have personally cast some light in this world. For Pesaḥ, have each participant prepare in advance a piece of the Exodus story to tell in their own words. And so forth. Your creativity only makes doing Jewish things that much more holy and special, and reinforces that sense of being a link in an eternal chain.

The more meaning we derive from these holy moments, the more powerfully connected we are to our history and culture and tradition, and the stronger the link in that generational chain.

It is the holy moments which frame our lives with meaning, give us structure and support, and help us through the tough times together. Ideally, they reflect our values, teach our wisdom, and connect us with our past and our future. Don’t let them slip by without trying to make them more than just gathering for dinner.

“Make it Meaningful!” conclusion:

I hope that over these High Holidays I have given you a few things to think about regarding making meaning in Jewish life: through gathering, through digging deeper into the Jewish bookshelf to understand the backstory, through engaging with Israel, and through framing holy moments.

It is worth putting a fine point on the message by reminding us all that merely “being Jewish” is unsustainable; it will not last another generation here in America, land of freedom and infinite choice. Rather, if you want your children and grandchildren to be links in the ancient chain, you have to “do Jewish” with them, and frame it properly. Teach them to love our tradition the way you do; show them how meaningful it can be by doing. Frame it with intentionality and love. And of course you can always reach out to me for guidance. It would be my pleasure and privilege to provide support on your journey. That is what I am here for.

Yizkor

And one final, related note before we move on to the Yizkor service.

Since Adar of 5780, also known as March of 2020, we have been subject to a worldwide pandemic that has, in many ways, turned our lives upside-down. The 3-year-olds in our ELC only know a world in which everybody is wearing masks in public; children have suffered from the failure of some schools to provide adequate schooling; in addition to the loss of so many loved ones and the suffering of those with long-Covid symptoms, there is evidence of so much more malfeasance in our society – addiction, abuse in all forms, and so forth, and the economic toll has been devastating.

Even if somehow we were all miraculously vaccinated tomorrow, there would still be so much pain – evictions, homelessness, joblessness, anxiety, and so much suffering.

A young man I know recently lost his father, from whom he had been estranged for a number of years. As you can imagine, he was filled with various types of regrets; his grief was palpable.

A recent column by New York Times columnist David Brooks (if you have been paying attention, you surely know that I am fond of David Brooks), spoke about the rising incidence of estrangement from family members. I have encountered this regularly in my pastoral work, and it is one of a range of social ills to which Brooks points as evidence of what he calls the “psychological unraveling of America.” We are suffering in so many ways, and often we have no salve for our pain, no balm for the many sources of grief we all carry right now. Brooks cites the Franciscan friar Richard Rohr, who said, “If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.”

And we the Jews, of course, have an extra measure of pain – the pain that has been handed to us from our history, from expulsion and pogroms and Holocaust and terrorism and anti-Semitic attacks, one right here in our own neighborhood.

But the silver lining here is that, at least with one kind of pain – the pain that comes from the loss of beloved family members – that we do have a way of transforming that pain: we have the framework of Jewish ritual for grief and mourning, including the Yizkor prayers that we are about to recite. Not only do we have shiv’ah, when we offer comfort to the bereaved for the week after burial, but also sheloshim and a year of mourning and annual yahrzeit observances, and of course Yizkor. 

And all of these are means by which we transform our pain and grief through ritual. By doing traditional Jewish things, we have a mechanism which helps to ease the pain, helps to remember the deceased, helps to remind us all that they are still with us, if not bodily, then at least in spirit. 

If that is not an argument for meaning-making in Jewish life, I do not know what is. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Yom Kippur 5782, 9/16/2021.)

Categories
High Holidays Sermons

Make it Meaningful! – Engaging With Israel – Kol Nidrei 5782

Shalom! Before you proceed, you might want to read the first installment in the “Make it Meaningful!” series, from the first day of Rosh HaShanah and the second day of Rosh HaShanah 5782.

Many of my rabbinic colleagues give a sermon about Israel over the course of the High Holidays. I have generally not done so for two reasons: (א) because I give sermons about Israel from time to time throughout the year, and (ב) because the High Holidays seem like the best time to talk about the ways in which Jewish living can enrich your life and our world. So many of us make it to Jewish adulthood without deriving meaning from our customs and rituals, and since most of us are paying attention on the High Holidays, this is the time when I feel I must teach about the essential value and meaning of our tradition.

However, I noticed an opening this year that needs to be addressed. (Or, “needs addressed,” in local parlance.) Our theme this year is, “Make it Meaningful!” and Israel is very, very meaningful to me as a part of what it means to be Jewish today, and I know that Israel is meaningful to many of you as well. But I am, I must confess, a little concerned that it may not be meaningful enough for some of us. I am concerned that American Jews are drifting away from Israel.

And all the more so for me personally right now, since my oldest son, Oryah, is serving in the Israel Defense Forces, in the Ḥeil haTotḥanim, the artillery brigade. So I have, you might say, quite a bit of skin in the game at this particular moment. It’s worth noting that, come November, we will have two more young members of our congregation serving in the IDF: Naomi Kitchen and Ari Gilboa. That is actually a fairly significant group of ḥayyalim, Israeli soldiers directly connected to Congregation Beth Shalom.

Not only am I the father of an Israeli soldier, I am also a proud Zionist. I fell in love with the State of Israel – the people, the land, the culture, the optimistic idea of a modern Jewish state in the historical land of the Jewish people, built on the yearnings and hope of 2,000 years – I fell in love upon touching down at Ben Gurion Airport for my first visit there in the summer of 1987 when I was a participant in the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program. And that love only deepened when I returned there as an adult to live and study there in 1999. 

Not only am I a proud Zionist, but I am also concerned for the welfare of ALL all the people on that tiny strip of land. I have spent time working as an idealistic volunteer on kibbutz, and climbed Masada multiple times and studied every aspect and angle of the contemporary Israeli story and hiked from the Kinneret  / Sea of Galilee to the Mediterranean. I have also visited Israeli Arab and Druze villages, engaged with light political chatter with Palestinian citizens, been in a forum with Palestinian Authority politicians, been to West Bank locales such as Ḥevron and Mt. Gerizim and Jewish settlements and was once even turned back by Palestinian police at the crossing point while trying to visit Shechem, also known as Nablus. I have been and have experienced, in the words of the Israeli author Amos Oz, פה ושם בארץ ישראל, here and there in the land of Israel.

Not only am I concerned for all the people who live there, but I am also concerned that, according to the most recent Pew Research Center study of American Jews, our engagement with Israel is waning. 

For example:

  • 52% of American Jews over 50 consider “caring about Israel” to be “essential” to being Jewish, while only 35% of those under 30 do.
  • For the over-50 crowd, only 10% say Israel is not important to their Jewish identity, while for those under 30, that figure is 27%, nearly three times as much.

The handful of us in the American Jewish community who remember the 1940s know that we helped make the State of Israel a reality. There were the American fighter pilots who volunteered to serve. The Americans who donated to help build the new state. The Pittsburghers, who, as described in our member Dr. Barbara Burstin’s books on the history of our community, created a major hub of Zionist activity all the way back to the 1890s. Dr. Burstin assures me that Pittsburgh was second only to New York in terms of Zionist fervor and support, with a range of organizations and activities.

That is our legacy here. 

But for many American Jews today, Israel is far away and not so consequential; for some Israel is no longer a source of pride. And that is what I find truly disheartening.

And one more brief “not only”: Not only am I concerned that disengagement of the American Jewish community is a threat to the future of Israel, I am also concerned that whatever I say about Israel, I am going to disappoint a whole bunch of people, and perhaps anger a few as well. While once upon a time, an Israel-based sermon was an easy slam dunk, today many rabbis actually shy away from talking about Israel from the pulpit for that reason. 

Consider the pop singer Billie Eilish, who, in promoting her new album last month, created a series of brief videos on TikTok aimed at her fans in different countries. In the one addressed to her fans in the Israeli market, where there are apparently plenty of Billie Eilish fans, she said, ““Hi Israel, this is Billie Eilish, and I’m so excited that my new album, Happier Than Ever, is out now.” In doing so, a Twitter-storm erupted of people calling her out, for saying nothing more than, “Hi, Israel.” How dare she even attempt to sell albums to Israelis? 

Of course, Billie Eilish is not a rabbi, and the membership of Beth Shalom is hardly akin to a Twitter mob. As one who has had a life-long love affair with Israel, with all its attendant complexity and angst, and as a cheerleader for Jewish tradition, my task is to tell you not only why Israel is so meaningful to me, but why it should be for you as well.

We are going to consider the meaning in our relationship with Israel from three different perspectives: Jewish tradition, Jewish power, and Jewish culture.

Jewish Tradition

At the simplest level, we cannot separate our connection to the land of Israel from our Jewishness. Certainly the arc of the Torah, and indeed the entire Tanakh / Hebrew bible, revolves around getting to or returning to Eretz Yisrael. And from the time that the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE, and hastened the Jewish dispersion all over the world, much of Jewish creativity – the Talmud, midrash, commentaries, liturgy, music and art – has been focused on the yearning for return and rebuilding our land.

On virtually every page of every siddur / prayerbook, including the maḥzor many of you hold in your hand right now, this yearning is evident. Consider what you just recited a few moments ago in the Amidah, words which we recite in every Amidah, at least three times on every day of the year: 

וְתֶחֱזֶֽינָה עֵינֵֽינוּ בְּשׁוּבְ֒ךָ לְצִיּוֹן בְּרַחֲמִים

Veteḥezena eineinu beshuvekha letziyyon beraḥamim.

And may our eyes behold Your merciful return to Zion.

The addressee here is, of course, God; but the implication is that if God returns to Israel, so might we as well. (By the way, I’ll never forget seeing those words inscribed on the wall in the secret synagogue found at Terezin, the Nazi concentration camp not far from Prague.) 

The “secret synagogue” in the Terezin (Theresienstadt) concentration camp

Or, right before the Shema, as we say every morning (we’ll say this tomorrow at about 9:20 AM.:

 וַהֲבִיאֵֽנוּ לְשָׁלוֹם מֵאַרְבַּע כַּנְפוֹת הָאָֽרֶץ וְתוֹלִיכֵֽנוּ קוֹמְ֒מִיּוּת לְאַרְצֵֽנוּ

Vahavienu leshalom me-arba kanfot ha-aretz, vetolikheinu qomemiyyut le-artzeinu.

Bring upon us in peace from the four corners of the Earth, and speedily lead us upright to our land.

And, when we chant the berakhot after the haftarah tomorrow morning:

רַחֵם עַל צִיּון כִּי הִיא בֵּית חַיֵּינוּ. וְלַעֲלוּבַת נֶפֶשׁ תּושִׁיעַ בִּמְהֵרָה בְיָמֵינוּ 

Raem al Tziyyon ki hi beit ayyeinu. Vela’aluvat nefesh toshia bimheira veyameinu.

Have mercy upon Zion, for it is the source of our life; and for the downtrodden of spirit bring salvation speedily in our days.

Zion is not merely some fantastical poetic reference. It is the land of our ancestors. It is the very real place that hosted the establishment of the Jewish people. It was our homeland for a thousand years, thereafter occupied by one empire after another for nearly 2,000 more, with continuous Jewish settlement (at times minimal) throughout that period.

In exile, this yearning for the land of Israel has been our inspiration and salvation and essential Earthly link to our tradition and to God as long as Jews have existed. Our connection to the land is not only inseparable from our tradition, but it has soaked every siddur / prayerbook with tears for two thousand years. 

And, with the modern Zionist movement, which began a century and a half ago in Eastern Europe, the establishment of a Jewish State in that land has become a central plank in what it means to be a contemporary Jew.

Of course, the establishment of this state has come with its share of challenges, some of which the early Zionists anticipated, and some they did not, pre-eminent among them the challenge of creating a respectful living situation for the Arabs who live alongside our people in that land.

Jewish Power

For virtually all of the last two millennia, our people were powerless exiles, and in some cases even refugees. We were subjects of empires, kings and queens, and feudal lords, and lived at their mercy. We survived, but we managed to do so with our wits, while clinging steadfastly to our tradition and to each other.

Our powerlessness enabled the Crusaders’ slaughter, the Expulsion from Spain, the medieval blood libels, and the pogroms. Our powerlessness permitted the Nazis to actually calculate the number of Deutschmarks required to kill each Jew; to realize that one bullet per dead Jew shot by the Einzatsgruppen was too expensive, and hence the use of Zyklon B poison gas and BMW engine exhaust in the death camps.

But, in the wake of the Shoah / Holocaust, in which 6 million of our people were murdered due to their powerlessness, the desperation that our people felt aroused the sympathy of much of the world. Although the return to Zion had begun more than 80 years prior, it was to some extent this sympathy, which played out in the League of Nations partition plan vote on November 29, 1947, that allowed David Ben Gurion to establish the State five and a half months later.

And suddenly the Jews had sovereign state power. But power is complicated. Power requires making ethical choices, sometimes between two bad possible outcomes. The State of Israel is a democracy with a thriving set of checks on power – free elections, a free press, free academia, the rule of law, a court system. Tzahal, the Israel Defense Forces, has a principle of “tohar haneshek,” the purity of arms, that is, the soldier’s obligation to maintain her/his humanity in combat. As a result, there is healthy internal evaluation and criticism of Israel’s military choices.

When I was living in Israel in the summer of 2000, the Camp David Summit broke down with no resolution. The Second Intifada began a few weeks later. In that context, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, speaking to the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities in November, 2000, on “The Ethics of Jewish Power Today,” said the following:

Jewish power is never self-validating, so we have to sit in continual judgment upon ourselves… [And] given the evil that cannot be avoided, there is still some best possible or least evil way of exercising power. 

In an ideal world, all people would be treated absolutely equally. In the real world, you distribute your priorities and in fact it may be that some people will get a shorter stick than others. What makes this moral is you try to do the best you can. 

Secondly, you have a continuous process of correction. In a democracy you have elections or you have a free press or other forms of correction, and therefore whatever flaws there are subject to further improvement and further correction. So you have to have both. And the criteria of the moral person is the one who consciously makes those kinds of choices…

So that means in the real world I may err trying to protect the security, overreact and even inflict pain or damage. The criteria of morality is I try to inflict as little as possible and I try to maximize the good. Keep in mind that’s the balance wheel to the other principle, which is that we are only human and we can’t be perfect, so we are going to make some mistakes, which we are then going to go on and try to correct or try to have some mechanism of correction.  

No, Israel is not perfect. But yes, Israel’s democratic process is trying to do the right thing, balancing all the moral criteria with the fact that sometimes people make mistakes. 

Remember the Nazi calculation of how much it cost to murder each Jew, that one bullet per Jew was too much? How much did the State of Israel pay to bring the Jews of Ethiopia to Israel? By one calculation, $35 million was paid to the leader of Ethiopia in 1991 for 14,000 Jews. That was, to put it bluntly, a bribe, just to allow the Jews to leave, and did not account for the price of the airlift itself, or the resettlement in Israel, or all the other ancillary services required.

Operation Solomon, 1991

That is the meaning of Jewish power. So which would you rather have? A situation in which, at any moment, Jews may need to flee out of fear of persecution or expulsion, and have no place to go, as has happened so many times in our history? Or a reality in which there is a sanctuary, even an imperfect one, where the doors are always open? Medieval powerlessness, or the power to be responsible for our own destiny, for better or for worse?

Jewish Culture

Perhaps the greatest value of the State of Israel, and the easiest for Diaspora Jews to appreciate, is its thriving culture. I hope you are familiar with some of the pop-culture products that Israel has exported to the world, particularly the television series (some of which you can find on various streaming services) and films and music and dance.

When I lived in Israel as an adult, now more than 20 years ago, I discovered that Israel’s culture is not merely thriving, but vital; Hebrew rock blasts from outdoor cafes; the theater and dance scene is fresh and exciting; the contemporary architecture is unique and distinctly Israeli. No Jewish Diaspora subculture, even in the mighty United States, the second-largest Jewish population, has come even close to creating as vibrant and distinctive a culture as Israel has. Israel’s entrepreneurial spirit, hatched by necessity from the hardscrabble existence which new olim / immigrants have always faced, is evident in all the ways that Israelis express their singularly Jewish, home-grown national culture.

The vision of Israel as a cultural center, a merkaz ruḥani, did not belong to Theodor Herzl. Rather, it is the vision of one of Zionism’s earliest and greatest internal critics: the essayist and thinker Ahad Ha’am.

Asher Zvi Hirsch Ginsberg, aka Ahad Ha’am

What is a nation without culture? Ahad Ha’am saw Herzl and some of the other leaders of political Zionism as focused on the wrong thing. In his essay from 1888 (!), Lo zu haderekh (“This is not the way”), he took them to task for focusing merely on bringing people to Israel, and not considering what they would do once they arrived. Rather, Ahad Ha’am was laser-focused on drawing on our history and literature to fashion a contemporary Hebrew culture, and the strength of this culture and its values would ultimately lead them to want to face the much greater challenge of building a Jewish national home in Eretz Yisrael.

Israeli reggae band Hativah 6

And, to some extent, when I look at Israeli culture today, when I listen to Israeli hip-hop or enjoy an Israeli wine, I think of Ahad Ha’am and his idea of the merkaz ruḥani. Israel is my spiritual and cultural center.

***

I could speak all night on Israel (and let’s face it: it’s Yom Kippur – what else are you doing tonight?). But I want to add one final note, from Israel’s Minister of Diaspora Affairs from the Labor Party, Dr. Nachman Shai. In a recent blog post on the Times of Israel website, Dr. Shai suggested that rabbis share with their congregants over these High Holidays that Israel wants to make amends for ways in which it may have failed Diaspora Jews, particularly non-Orthodox Jews like us:

Share with your congregants that we in Israel are slowly but surely taking responsibility for our side of the relationship in a way that you have never seen, that we realize we have disappointed you and are doing teshuvah, repentance, with a sincere desire to make things right in the future. Share with them that this new government is committed to bringing back a Kotel Compromise — that is, formalizing an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall. It is committed to learning and understanding how our actions impact your communities. Tell them that we believe in you and that we are ready for both your critique and your ideas.

Most importantly, share with your communities that Israel desires to be your partner, to not let our politics or diverse identities serve as barriers to our fundamental belief that we are a people with a common fate and destiny.

I am grateful that Dr. Shai is beginning the process of reaching out to the Diaspora, and in particular the American Jewish community, to, I hope, repair the broken aspects of our relationship with the State of Israel. I am also hopeful that the new coalition (still holding together! And including an Arab party for the first time in Israel’s history) will be good for that relationship.

***

How do we make Israel meaningful? Through understanding the lenses of ancient Jewish yearning, the ethical pitfalls of Jewish power, and the joy of resonating with Jewish culture. 

But most importantly, by going there. By experiencing Ahad Ha’am’s merkaz ruḥani personally. 

Go there. See the land, the historical sites. But also, speak to the people. All the people – the Jews (so many varieties of Jews!), the Palestinians, the Druze, the Circassians, the Armenian Christians, the Filipino nurses, the Chinese and Romanian hired laborers, and on and on. Get to know them and understand the challenges that they face on a daily basis. And you will soon see that beyond the spin, beyond the this-side-or-that-side-ism, beyond the seemingly insoluble political challenges, there are 13 million people on that small strip of land trying to make a living, trying to enjoy time with their families, trying to eke out some kind of respectful existence.

If we could only somehow convince all the extremists in our midst to consider the others around them, we would have a chance to make peace blossom and solve the deep, genuine challenges that the region faces. Alas.

We at Beth Shalom put together a congregational trip to Israel three years ago, and it was a fantastic success. We will have another such trip in the next couple of years, but meanwhile, you might also want to consider going on the Federation Mega Mission next June. (If you’re going on that trip, please let me know.)

***

In 1948, David Ben Gurion was faced with the decision of when to declare independence, knowing that in doing so the neighboring Arab armies would invade the new state. He asked his friend and adviser, Yitzḥak Tabenken, what he should do. Tabenken answered that he would respond in a few days, after he consulted a few other people. When he returned, he told Ben Gurion that it was imperative that Ben Gurion declare the new state right now. 

Later, when Ben Gurion asked him whom he had consulted, Tabenken responded, “I spoke to my deceased grandparents, and my as-yet-unborn grandchildren, and asked them, ‘What do I owe you?’”

Seventy-three-and-a-half years later, we owe it to our people, to ourselves, to be in meaningful relationship with Israel. And how do we do that? By knowing and understanding the Jewish state. By engaging with her culture, her politics, her successes and challenges. By being intimately familiar with her people, her history, her complexity. Yes, by appreciating the value and responsibility of Jewish power. And by continuing to yearn through the words of prayer and tradition.

Make it meaningful!

Shanah tovah! May you be sealed for a 5782 that is full of meaning.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, evening of Yom Kippur / Kol Nidrei, 9/15/2021.)

Categories
High Holidays Sermons

Make it Meaningful! – Seeking the Why – Rosh HaShanah Day 2 5782

Shalom! Before you proceed, you might want to read the first installment in the “Make it Meaningful!” series, from the first day of Rosh HaShanah 5782.

I’m starting our discussion today with a simple, highly unscientific poll. Now I want you to be honest:

  1. Raise your hand if you feel that your Jewish education (Hebrew school, day school, or something else) was sufficient for your contemporary needs?
  2. Raise your hand if you wish you had learned more about your tradition and spiritual heritage?
  3. Raise your hand if you really have no clue what this is all about.

Well, I have some good news for you: it’s never too late. And I am going to make the case for  why you should want to learn more.

And the bottom line is this: because understanding what we do and why we do it as Jews will fill your life with meaning. 

Our theme this year is, “Make it Meaningful!” Yesterday, we spoke about how gathering, and in particular on this Rosh HaShanah as we oh-so-gradually emerge from the pandemic, is meaningful to us. Today, we continue the discussion with finding meaning in learning.

But first, a brief correction from last year’s High Holidays sermons. Some of you may recall that, exactly one year ago according to the Jewish calendar, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, I told the following story, which I am going to retell right now to refresh your memory:

There is a classic rabbinic story about the mother who is teaching her son how to make a meatloaf for their Rosh Hashanah lunch. After mixing the ground beef and onion and egg and breadcrumbs and spices, she rolls up the loaf, chops the ends off and throws them away, and places it in the meatloaf pan.

The son notices that she has chopped off the ends, and, concerned about unnecessary food waste in a world in which climate change and sustainability are paramount, asks his mother why she throws the ends away.

“I don’t know,” she says. That’s how my mother, your grandmother did it.

They call the grandmother to ask. She says, “I don’t know. That’s how my mother did it.”

They call the great-grandmother to ask. She is not well; she is weak, and can barely talk. “Why did I chop the ends off?” she asks, reflecting deep into the recesses of her mind. “Why did I chop the ends off? Because the pan was too small.” 

Now, at lunch after services on that day, it was pointed out to me – well, actually, I was mocked – by members of my family because, they said, I screwed up the joke. It should have been brisket, they said, not meatloaf, because of course meatloaf can be shaped into whatever shape you want, whereas if the brisket does not fit in the pan, you’re stuck.

Now, leaving aside the fact that it’s only the Jews whose family members criticize each other for telling a joke wrong, I actually think that it’s funnier if it’s meatloaf, precisely for the reason that it could be shaped, and yet they continued to slice off the ends. But hey, what do I know? I’m a vegetarian! I haven’t eaten either brisket or meatloaf in more than three decades.

I used the story to make a point about minhag, custom, that it is the customs of Jewish life, which enrich our lives as we hand them down from generation to generation. But, in a seemingly-magical feat of rabbinic re-interpretation (don’t try this at home!), I am going to take the very same joke today in another direction. 

There is another angle to the story: it’s that the mother and the grandmother are only going through the motions. They do not even know why they are chopping the ends off the meat. They don’t even really seem to have thought about it. And therein lies an important message:

It’s the reason why we do something, rather than the actual thing that we do, that makes a particular custom meaningful. And in order to really understand and appreciate Jewish life, in order to gain the insight and wisdom and thereby improve ourselves through Jewish engagement, we have to know those reasons. 

Perhaps one of the most depressing moments I have had as a rabbi occurred at my previous synagogue on Long Island, ironically at our annual Comedy Night. It took place on a Saturday evening after Shabbat ended, and the cantor and I had led havdalah before the comedy program, and then we left the havdalah set – the wine, the multi-wicked candle, the spice box – on the bimah. So when the first comedian came up to do his set, he looks at the ritual paraphernalia, picks up the bottle of Manischewitz, and, trying to be funny, says, “I’m not Jewish; I don’t know anything about your traditions.” Somebody in the crowd, most likely a member of the congregation responded by saying, “Neither do we.” 

People laughed. But my heart sank, and although I’m sure there was a little bit of hyperbole in the sarcastic retort from the audience, the kernel of truth embedded therein reminded me of my mission as a rabbi: to teach what we do, why we do it, and how it improves your life.

For example, consider two of the most common Jewish things you do: holding a seder on the first two nights of Pesaḥ and fasting on Yom Kippur. Most likely, if I asked you why you did those things, you would probably say, “To celebrate our freedom from slavery,” and, “To afflict our souls in helping to atone for our sins.” And those would be good answers.

But if I asked, why does our tradition hold daily prayer services three times a day? Why can’t you spend money on Shabbat? Why do we have two loaves of challah on Friday night and sprinkle them with salt before we take a bite? Many of us would have to check with Rabbi Google to come up with answers. Now please believe me when I say that if you do not know the answers to these questions, or many others about why Jews do what we do, there is nothing wrong with you! You are welcome and belong here.

It’s just that the “whys” behind these traditions were not necessarily taught in Hebrew school, or maybe you missed that day because of soccer practice, or your family did not observe them.  Or your family could not afford Hebrew School and shamefully no effort was made to help bridge the financial gap. Really, I barely knew what Shavuot was until I was in my 30s. And Shemini Atzeret? Fugettaboutit!

I have long been a proponent of an incremental entry, or re-entry into Judaism: that while we as a community affiliated with the Conservative movement uphold the whole kit and caboodle of Jewish life, the entire collection of 613 mitzvot / holy opportunities, the way in is clearly not to try to grab everything at once. Rather, if you intend to step up your Jewish game, you should do it a little bit at a time: Say the blessing and light candles on Friday night before sundown, paired with a moment of quiet contemplation as you separate yourself from the chaos of a busy week. Or spend a few moments to say the words of the Shema, just the first line if that’s what you know, before going to sleep, as you reflect on the day.

And why would you want to do that?

Because engaging in Jewish life – observing mitzvot, coming regularly to synagogue, keeping kashrut, setting Shabbat aside as a holy day – can improve your life, your community, and your world. While I would be hard-pressed to make the case that eating brisket, or meatloaf, can do this, I can assure you that the Jewish framework for living certainly does.

But you should not take my word for it. In order to understand this, you’ll have to learn the why.

First of all, you should know that there is a lot of “going through the motions” throughout the Jewish world. There are plenty of Jewish people who are doing Jewish things, even though they may not understand the reasoning behind them or derive any meaning from them. In fact, the Talmud (Pesahim 50b) teaches that learning Torah and the performance of a mitzvah for its own sake is more valuable than doing it for some kind of reward.

דְּאָמַר רַב יְהוּדָה אָמַר רַב: לְעוֹלָם יַעֲסוֹק אָדָם בְּתוֹרָה וּמִצְוֹת אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁלֹּא לִשְׁמָהּ, שֶׁמִּתּוֹךְ שֶׁלֹּא לִשְׁמָהּ בָּא לִשְׁמָהּ

… As Rav Yehuda said that Rav said: A person should always engage in Torah study and performance of mitzvot, even if one does so not for their own sake, as it is through the performance of mitzvot not for their own sake, one gains understanding and comes to perform them for their own sake.

The 13th-century Catalan commentator, Rabbi Menahem Meiri, writes that the one who performs mitzvot for a reward is acting out of fear, and the one who is doing so for its own sake is acting out of love, and love is surely a nobler motivation.

There are plenty of us in the Jewish world who are engaging with Judaism for less-than-ideal reasons: fear, guilt, or out of a sense of duty to one’s parents or grandparents, or without any clear sense of why at all.

Every person’s path to and with Torah is different, and all paths to and with Torah are valid. But if, says the Meiri, you can get to a place where you’re doing it out of love – for Torah, for our tradition, for our community, for yourself, for the world, for God, however you understand God – harei zeh meshubbaḥ. That is worthy of praise.

So how do you get to that place? As the Talmud suggests, the more you do something, like seeking to understand our tradition, or regular tefillah / prayer, or setting aside time to observe Shabbat with family and friends, the more likely you are to see how doing so creates more love in this world. 

But let’s face it: life gets in the way. We are all busy. Tefillah takes time. You might think you need Saturdays to go shopping or mow the grass or respond to work emails that you didn’t get to during the week. It can be hard to carve out time to do Jewish, let alone explore the question of why we should.

So that is why I am going to propose the following: add a little regular Jewish learning to your life. And I’m talking specifically here about Jewish text. Let me tell you why you should do this.

Because this tradition is yours, because it can help improve your life, and most importantly, because you can.

Once upon a time, Jewish text was impenetrable if you had not studied rabbinic Hebrew for years. And Hebrew schools did not have the time or the energy to teach that, so they focused on holidays and lifecycles and prayers and songs. But the real foundation for Jewish life is the Jewish bookshelf, and that was only the domain of the scholars, men with long beards. 

We failed to teach that foundation. We failed to demonstrate not only the rich, scholarly basis for why we do what we do, and the pleasure of arguing over the meaning of our texts and discovering how they can help us be better humans today. 

But we are now living in a period of great democratization of Jewish wisdom. With a few keystrokes, you can learn Torah! Talmud! Midrash! Halakhah / Jewish law! Mussar / ethics! And so forth. All in perfectly readable and in some cases interpreted English! Sefaria.com is probably the best source, available wherever you have access to the Internet, but there are other sources as well. There are podcasts and blogs and Daf Yomi study groups and all sorts of paths into our tradition.

The stunning wealth of information available today is, at least in this case, a blessing! But you might need some help, and that’s what I am here for.  This is what Rabbi Goodman, our interim Director of Derekh and Youth Tefillah, is here for.  This is what Rabbi Freedman, head of our Joint Jewish Education Program (J-JEP) is here for. Rabbi Shugerman, our new Director of Development, is also happy to help.

We are all happy to help guide you through the Jewish bookshelf. We offer many opportunities, through Derekh in particular, to get in touch with our ancient texts, which, once you dig into them, can glow with the contemporary shine of personal meaning today, but are grounded in the weightiness of ancient authority.

And what kind of things might you learn? I’m so glad you asked!

Here are just a few of the things that we have covered in various sessions at Beth Shalom in the past year: 

  • We learned how to manage our anger, and why silence is key to wisdom from one of our greatest thinkers, Maimonides.
Maimonides, from the statue in Cordoba
  • We learned that giving tzedaqah is “psycho-effective,” that is, it not only benefits the receiver in a physical way, but also helps the giver understand that we should all be less attached to our own possessions and moreso to our own spiritual relationships, from 18th-century Rabbis Hayyim Vital and Jonathan Eybeschutz. 
  • We have discussed the importance of speaking up in the face of corruption, and of pursuing justice over material things, from our ancient prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah and Ezekiel.
  • We have explored our need for gratitude for what we have, from the Mishnah.
  • We have learned that the essential goal of prayer is not an empty recitation of words in an ancient language, but rather an opportunity for self-judgment. That is exactly the meaning of the word, tefillah.

George Bernard Shaw is purported to have said, “Youth is wasted on the young.”  It is adults who can truly appreciate how awesome and rich our people’s wisdom is. So you might have missed these things in Hebrew school. But the good news is, as Benjamin Franklin said, “The doors of wisdom are never shut.” We put a lot of emphasis on teaching children, who are not wired to appreciate the complexity of our tradition, and not enough emphasis on initiating adults into the most important mitzvah, the most essential holy opportunity of Jewish life: finding meaningful guidance in our texts. 

One of the great challenges that we face as Americans is what I see over and over as a crisis of guidance. We hold in front of us the principle of freedom, and understand that to mean that everybody is entitled to make their own choices, with no judgment from others allowed. And the challenge that I see, particularly in younger people, is that we are rudderless. We may be taught how to prepare for a career, but we are not taught how to shape our relationships, to live as part of a community, to think about how our actions affect the greater good.

And that is what our tradition offers – guidance on how to be better people, how to improve ourselves and our world. “When I pray,” said Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, former Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, “I speak to God. When I study, God speaks to me.”

Perhaps one of the most tragic things we have experienced over the last year-and-a-half of pandemic has been the resistance by some to effective public health measures such as wearing masks and getting vaccinated. Our tradition, and the framework of mitzvot, is essentially about commitment to one another and to society, of being aware of the common good and pursuing it. 

The essential meaning of living inside the Jewish framework of mitzvot is understanding that we do not function solely as individuals, that we are not merely in this to pursue only our own whims and fantasies, but rather to see ourselves in relationship to the others around us, to act on and elevate the qedushah / holiness in those relationships.

Our actions, our words have meaning; our connection with and respect for others has meaning. And when we seek that meaning through learning and living our tradition, we create a better life for ourselves, with happier, healthier relationships with all the people around us.

My challenge to you on this Rosh Hashanah is to seek meaning. Don’t be a Jew by default.  That is no longer good enough in our modern American context. Seek the “why.” Discover the meaning in Jewish life by learning. Doing so will open up whole new worlds of understanding for you that will help you be a better person, offer guidance at crucial moments, and raise the qedushah around you.

Reach out to me or my colleagues here at Beth Shalom.  We will set you on the path.  But we will also help you take it slow. Set a goal of learning one thing – just one – in the coming year about Judaism that you did not understand: Why we pray, why we read the Torah out loud, why we say berakhot before we eat or drink, why we continue to lament the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, nearly 2,000 years ago, even if we are not expecting it to be rebuilt, and so forth.

And then, when you have learned that one thing, learn another. You’ll be glad you did. Seek the why. Make it meaningful!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Rosh HaShanah Day 2, 9/8/2021.)

Categories
High Holidays Sermons

Make it Meaningful! Gathering – Rosh HaShanah Day 1 5782

First thing, before we go any further: let’s have a moment of gratitude for being able to gather once again. I know that for many of us, this is the first time you have been in this sanctuary for perhaps two years. Probably for many of us as well, this might be the largest gathering you have experienced for almost as much time.*

You’re OK! It’s all good! Take it all in. Let’s say sheheḥeyyanu to acknowledge how awesome this is:

ברוך אתה ה’ א-להינו מלך העולם, שהחיינו וקיימנו והגיענו לזמן הזה

Barukh Attah Adonai, Eloheinu Melekh ha’olam, sheheḥeyyanu, veqiyyemanu, vehigi’anu lazeman hazeh.

Praised are You, God, for giving us life, sustaining us, and for enabling us to reach this extraordinarily holy moment.

Second, I think we need to acknowledge that, even though some of us are here in the Sanctuary, many more are still not, because we are still not free from pandemic anxiety. Even as we gather at this moment, we continue to pray for a time when we can do so without any concern for our health and safety.

I’ll be talking today about what it means to gather as Jews. But first, a brief introduction to this year’s High Holiday theme: Make it Meaningful!

***

When I went to Israel for the first time in the summer of 1987 on the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program, I had a very good friend named Josh Kosoy. We were singing buddies – he wrote songs and played guitar quite well, and I helped sing and harmonize. Josh was from Houston, and although we were both entering 12th grade, he had already been through rehab for drug addiction, so he was a sort of fascinating character to me in that his life had been so challenged in a way that mine had not. 

And he looked the part, too. When we visited the Dead Sea with our group, as we were getting off the bus, two plainclothes Israeli policemen pulled Josh and me to the side and searched us for drugs, paying much more attention to Josh. There were none, of course, but I’ll never forget THAT.

At one point during the summer, Josh adopted a stray kitten that had found its way into our dorm. For several days the kitten and Josh were inseparable. Then one morning, Josh awoke to find the kitten lying on his belly, dead. We were all very upset by the loss of this cute kitten, who had wandered into our lives only to leave abruptly. We gave the cat a very moving funeral.

In retrospect, the story reminds me of the end of the book of Jonah, which we will read on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, in which Jonah feels compassion for a dead squash plant. When he expresses remorse, God rebukes Jonah for caring so deeply for a plant, after failing to have compassion for the people of Nineveh. God, of course, having created both the squash and the Ninevese, correctly framed Jonah’s earlier failure: how could Jonah have felt more for the dead plant than for people?

What made this tiny, homeless cat meaningful to us? It was that it had become part of our lives, part of our story. It had given us partnership, a few hours of cuddly enjoyment. It was a living thing that Josh could care for above and beyond his own needs; make him feel protective and needed and responsible for this life. It gave him, at least for a couple days, a special sense of purpose. And then it was gone.

One of the themes to which I regularly return is how engagement with Jewish life can bring us meaning. My mission as your rabbi is to ensure that Judaism is meaningful to you, that your involvement is never merely “checking the box,” or a mere reflex, or something that you do just to please your parents or grandparents or because you feel guilty. Practicing Judaism actually helps you improve your life, your community, and the world. And the key to making that happen is to find the meaning.

But it’s not like meaning just wanders in, like a stray kitten. Rather, you have to make it happen. To borrow an idea from physics, you have to put a little work into the system, some activation energy. If you just let Yom Kippur go by, or Pesaḥ, or Ḥanukkah or Sukkot or Shavuot or Tish’ah BeAv or your nephew’s berit millah or your friend’s wedding without framing it properly, you will not benefit from the experience.

Yes, I know that is hard, particularly if you do not have the tools with which to frame things Jewishly. But I’ll let you in on a little secret: [stage whisper] that’s why I’m here! I can give you those tools. And not just me: all the people that work here at Beth Shalom. That’s why we are here: to help you make Judaism meaningful. We offer ideas and activities and programs and discussions all the time to help you frame your life with meaning.

And that is what we will be talking about over these High Holidays. Our theme this year is, “Make it Meaningful!” By which I mean, don’t let life go by without paying attention, without putting it all in Jewish perspective, without putting in the activation energy that is the catalyst for change in yourself and the world. That is what our tradition is for. And we are going to look at this idea of making it meaningful through four perspectives:

  • Gathering (today)
  • Finding the Why (Rosh HaShanah Day 2)
  • Engaging With Israel (Kol Nidrei) 
  • Framing Holy Moments (Yom Kippur day)

What I hope you will come away with is new ideas on how our tradition can fill your life with meaning, so that you can improve your outlook and reap the benefits of a purposeful life, and that we as a community and really the whole world may also be improved through your engagement with Judaism.

I reconnected with my friend Josh when I moved to Houston in 1996, back in my engineering days. Almost coincidentally, he was part of a group of friends who were running a ragtag theater troupe with which I had become involved. 

I left Houston in the spring of 1999, returned to Israel for a while, and then ended up in cantorial school in New York. Sadly, Josh die three years later, a victim of his own internal struggles. Reflecting on his tragic life and death, I understand that the meaning embedded in our friendship was, of course, much deeper than what we had with that poor kitten. But the process was the same: time and energy invested in friendship, in singing and traveling together, in being harassed by police together, and all the little experiences and moments that make for the depth in relationships. 

Embedded within those moments, in the interstices of life, we find meaning.

***

I do not think that our ancestors thought too deeply about meaning in being Jewish. They did not have to: Judaism was the scaffolding of their lives. The lifecycle events, the holidays, the laws and customs and foods and all sorts of boundaries. They lived and breathed Judaism, knowing that they were different from their non-Jewish neighbors, but, like the fish who does not see the water, Jewish living was simply the fabric of their lives. It was not “religion,” in the distant, Protestant sense with which we understand it here in America. Rather, being a Jew was to live with Judaism as the spiritual wrapped up in the mundane, while keeping in step with the calendar of our tradition. It’s what made them a people, distinct from the others around them, and connected to each other.

That is not true for us. We can choose to be here or not. We can choose to open the siddur / prayerbook, to belong to a synagogue, to give tzedaqah, to avoid ḥametz on Pesaḥ, and so forth. Or not. Many, many of us have opted out, and of course I find that very sad. That is the great irony of contemporary America: on the one hand, we live here more freely than at any other time in Jewish history, but we also have the freedom to not be Jewish.

But I think the reason that so many Jews have opted out of Judaism is because they were unable to find Jewish engagement meaningful. I cannot count the number of people who tell me about how their grandmother used to make the most wonderful Shabbat and holiday dinners, and how they were so special, but then when grandma died, that custom, which was so meaningful for the whole family, just went away. I cannot count the number of people who remember going to synagogue regularly as a child with their family on Shabbat mornings, but do not bring their own children to shul.

Where did that meaning go? Was it merely eclipsed by pressure to achieve at school or work, social media, travel soccer leagues, stress over government dysfunction and a worldwide pandemic and a myriad other things? Did we check it at the door at Ellis Island? Have we somehow forgotten about the power of Jewish life? 

I do not know. But I will tell you this: we need it. We need meaning. And most of us are probably searching for it in the wrong places.

We need meaning because, unlike our ancestors who swam in a Jewish sea, we have no framework. We have been burdened with the curse of infinite choice. Paper or plastic? Whitening, breath-freshening, cavity-preventing, enamel-restoring, or tartar-fighting toothpaste? Harvard or Yale or CMU or Pitt? Squirrel Hill or Shadyside or Lawrenceville? Brand-name or generic? We are constantly barraged with choices, choices which wear us down, but also have us always second-guessing ourselves. Did I make the right choice?

And ultimately, many of those choices are meaningless, in the Big Picture. But we spend so much energy on them that if we do not have a framework to our lives, guideposts to help us along, most of us just blindly stumble from thing to thing, not framing our direction in a way that is helpful, letting the world act on us without individually acting within the world. This is likely a contributing factor to the epidemics of anxiety, depression, addiction and the like that plague our society.

Not that Judaism is a 100% foolproof cure for all those ills. But there is no question that when one gains spiritual satisfaction from a traditional framework, the positive benefits tend to push some of those other things out of the way.

One of the primary ways in which we derive meaning from our tradition is through gathering. From the moment in Bereshit / Genesis when God takes a piece of Adam’s rib to create Eve, saying, לֹא־ט֛וֹב הֱי֥וֹת הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְבַדּ֑וֹ – Lo tov heyot ha-adam levado – It is not good for this person to be alone, we understand that the fundamental building block of meaning is relationship with others.  

And so we gather. 

***

At the center of virtually every Jewish custom is gathering. We of course gather for tefillah / prayer, as we are doing right now. We gather for holiday meals, particularly on Shabbat and Rosh HaShanah and on Pesaḥ. We gather for lifecycle events – weddings, baby namings, beritot millah (ritual circumcisions), benei mitzvah, funerals, and so forth. We gather to learn and to celebrate. We also love to gather institutionally – there is never a shortage of Jewish organizations, with a palette of alphabet-soup abbreviations: JCC, JAA, JCRC, JFedPGH, JJEP, CDS, USCJ, URJ, HIAS, AJC, and on and on. We are the only people who love gathering so much that the presidents of our organizations have a meta-organization: The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

And we do that gathering pretty well. Yes, I know we like to complain about our organizations and our gatherings, but that only demonstrates how much we care about gathering. The author and consultant Priya Parker, in her book The Art of Gathering, although not herself Jewish, praises the Jews for our gathering talents. In teaching what she calls, “good gathering,” Ms. Parker invokes the “Passover Principle”: that before anyone convenes or participates in any type of gathering, we should ask ourselves, “Why is this gathering different from all my other gatherings?” 

What is it that makes for good gathering? What makes gathering meaningful? Intentionality. Gathering for a specific purpose. This year in particular, following our gradual (and, I hope, ongoing) emergence from the pandemic, our intentionality is a low-hanging fruit. Remember when we said “Sheheeyanu” a few minutes ago? That simple ritual, a well-known berakhah, helped us bring these High Holidays into focus: We are grateful merely for the ability to gather once again.

Intentionality is the key to good gathering. And we have our own word for that: kavvanah. No Jewish gathering, or ritual of any kind, should be lacking in kavvanah. It is the glue that holds our words together, that unites our hearts, minds, mouths, and hands. You may think that tefillah / prayer is a jumble of words in an ancient language which you do not understand, and without kavvanah it is exactly that. But if we have prepared ourselves properly to gather, with kavvanah, with intention, then tefillah becomes not just a jumble, but an opportunity – to check in with ourselves, to take inventory, to meditate, to breathe, to attempt to feel the qedushah / holiness in the air around us and in our lives, to remember the others in our midst and our connection with and obligations to them.

And as far as Ms. Parker’s guidance is concerned, many of the other things we do as Jews are great gathering principles. We have been preparing for these Ten Days of Teshuvah for at least a month, by blowing shofar and reciting Psalm 27 every morning, and over the past nine days as we have recited Seliot, prayers asking for forgiveness, every day. And virtually every Jewish holiday requires preparation, Pesaḥ being perhaps the most physically extensive.

And Ms. Parker also highlights an idea that I think we also do quite well: that the best kinds of gathering transport us to a temporary alternative world.

To go back for a moment to something I mentioned earlier: our lives are not saturated in Judaism like those of our ancestors. We live in multiple worlds, but most of the time we are just Americans, fully integrated into the society around us. The water in which we swim is American culture. So when we take that opportunity to do something Jewish – perform a ritual, go to a synagogue service, enjoy a festive holiday meal, learn a piece of Talmud, and so forth – we are actually doing exactly what Ms. Parker suggests. We set up a kavvanah, an intention; we speak a foreign language, we don special paraphernalia, we use unique choreography, we eat particular foods, we perform certain, curious customs.

You are sitting right now in one corner of this temporary, alternative world. And sure, it does not feel so strange to most of us, because some of us have been doing this all our lives. But think of how unique and powerful this world might seem to others who have not yet experienced it. And consider how fortunate you are to have been given this holy opportunity, by virtue of birth, or by having joined the Jewish people.

And think of how awesome it is that all of us are experiencing this holy moment together, right now. And particularly after a year and a half of isolation, of added anxiety and distance and loneliness. Consider how wonderful it is to gather right now at this moment, even as the pandemic is still not done with us. Consider how meaningful it is to be a part of this community, to be a part of this qehillah qedoshah, this holy congregation.

So here is a brief prayer for this holy moment of gathering, full of meaning:

Modim ananu lakh. Grateful are we to You, God, for endowing human beings with the tools to engage with physics, chemistry, and biology, and the wisdom and ability to manipulate our world, to produce vaccines which have enabled us to gather today. Thank You for giving us the ability to connect with one another, to share stories and celebrations and grief, which help us through our days. Thank You for the gift of family and friends and community, for which we are so grateful as we support each other through these long months of separation. Thank You for the gift of prayer and the framework of tradition, which have enabled us to open our hearts and lend structure to our lives. 

How fortunate are we to have these gifts!

I hope that, as we move forward from this point, that we continue to be grateful not only for being in each others’ presence, but also for the Jewish framework that we have received to help bring meaning to that gathering.

We’ll talk more tomorrow about how digging deep into the Jewish bookshelf can further fill your life with meaning.

Next in the 5782 High Holiday series:
Rosh HaShanah, Day 2: Make it Meaningful! Seeking the Why

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, first day of Rosh HaShanah 5782, September 7, 2021.)

* On the day this sermon was delivered, during a period in which the Delta variant had caused a significant local spike in infections, about 300 people gathered in the Faye Rubinstein Weiss Sanctuary at Beth Shalom, a room that seats about 1600 people. All who were allowed into the Sanctuary were fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, and all were required to wear masks for the entire time that they were there.

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Sermons

The Magic of Camp Ramah – Ki Tavo 5781

My kids went to camp this summer, for the first time in two years. Not just any Jewish summer camp, but Camp Ramah in the Poconos, one of the 15 camps in the Ramah system, which, like Congregation Beth Shalom, is affiliated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. As some of you may know, I am a Ramah alumnus, having been a camper, a counselor, and specialist at Camp Ramah in New England over the space of a couple decades. So I must concede that I am a little biased toward the Ramah camps.

You may also know that Pittsburgh is in the catchment area for Camp Ramah in Canada, but of course due to the whole pandemic business, the Canadian border was closed to Americans at the start of the summer, so two of the American Ramah camps, Wisconsin and Poconos, took in the “Canadian refugees.” So my children, along with our bar mitzvah, Niv, were among the handful of Pittsburghers who spent the summer in the Poconos.

Given camp loyalties, I recall Niv’s mother Shiri (a proud Ramah-Canada alumna) saying early in the summer, that she wanted the Pittsburghers to have fun at Ramah in the Poconos, but not TOO MUCH fun, so that they would want to go back to Canada next summer. 

So that was definitely the case for our daughter – she is ready to head north again next June. Our son might have had too much fun in the Poconos.

But actually, it was something else that Zev said upon returning that made me think that this summer was totally worth the thousands of dollars of investment. He returned from camp with a new sense of excitement about Jewish life, saying, “I really enjoyed tefillah at camp. Doing Jewish stuff is fun when everybody else is excited to be doing it together. You can feel the joy.” He came back with a renewed sense of purpose for the coming year, as he prepares now for becoming bar mitzvah next August.

Cha-ching!

You may not be aware that Jewish summer camps are a relatively new phenomenon in Jewish life. The first, Camp Cejwin, was established in upstate New York in 1919, to help instill Jewish culture and values in urban Jewish youngsters, as well as to get them out of the overcrowded city for some fresh air. To this day, many scholars who study Jewish education agree that Jewish summer camps have been among the best tools that we have in teaching our children Jewish traditions. It is truly the only environment in which children can be immersed in Jewish living and Jewish values all day long, and an incomparable vehicle for creating a sense of connectedness to Jewish life.

One of the things that Zev also mentioned about camp was how much fun it was to chant Birkat HaMazon, the berakhot of gratitude recited after meals, with lots of loud, raucous singing and fellowship and joy in Jewish practice.

Now, you may know that, while I love raucous singing, I also do favor a certain amount of decorum in Jewish life. My wife thinks that I’m generally too serious. 

For a couple of the summers that I spent on staff Ramah-New England, when I was in cantorial school, I held the title of Rosh Tefillah, which roughly translates as, “Director of Prayer Education.” Now, it should be noted that the Rosh Tefillah is among the most despised characters in camp. Whenever you see the Rosh Tefillah coming, you should try to get away as quickly as possible, lest he assign you a Torah reading, or make you schlep siddurim from one end of camp to the other, or some other prayer-related task.

So, here’s me, the too-serious cantorial student in charge of prayer education at camp. And there’s the raucous, table-banging, clapping and gesturing and shouting Birkat HaMazon. You can understand how, on the one hand I was pleased that kids were singing; I was just hoping that they would learn to do so somewhat more respectfully.

One day, Rabbi Gordon Tucker was visiting camp. Rabbi Tucker, now retired, is one of the leading lights of the Conservative rabbinate; at the time he was a pulpit rabbi in White Plains, NY, but who had also already been a dean of the Rabbinical School at JTS. And lunch is over, and Birkat HaMazon is at its full-on raucous maximum. I’m scowling. Rabbi Tucker is shouting along with all the kids, throwing his hands in the air, adding inappropriate English insertions, and then he turns to me and says, “God loves this!”

That is the magic of Camp Ramah.

Ladies and gentlemen, what is the point of Jewish education? My kids may end up being performing artists or attorneys fighting for environmental justice. Why do they need to know about Judaism? Why do they need to know how to lead services, or read Torah, or what the textual basis for giving tzedaqah is, or how we seek teshuvah / repentance on Yom Kippur? Why does anybody need to know Birkat HaMazon, much less to sing it with gusto?

Why do our children need to know how to “do Jewish?” Because this familiarity with Jewish practice and wisdom is the reason that we are still here.

Parashat Ki Tavo opens with a statement that is familiar to most of us from the Pesaḥ seder (Devarim / Deuteronomy 26:5-9):

אֲרַמִּי֙ אֹבֵ֣ד אָבִ֔י וַיֵּ֣רֶד מִצְרַ֔יְמָה וַיָּ֥גׇר שָׁ֖ם בִּמְתֵ֣י מְעָ֑ט וַֽיְהִי־שָׁ֕ם לְג֥וֹי גָּד֖וֹל עָצ֥וּם וָרָֽב׃ וַיָּרֵ֧עוּ אֹתָ֛נוּ הַמִּצְרִ֖ים וַיְעַנּ֑וּנוּ וַיִּתְּנ֥וּ עָלֵ֖ינוּ עֲבֹדָ֥ה קָשָֽׁה׃ וַנִּצְעַ֕ק ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵ֣י אֲבֹתֵ֑ינוּ וַיִּשְׁמַ֤ע ה֙’ אֶת־קֹלֵ֔נוּ וַיַּ֧רְא אֶת־עׇנְיֵ֛נוּ וְאֶת־עֲמָלֵ֖נוּ וְאֶֽת־לַחֲצֵֽנוּ׃ וַיּוֹצִאֵ֤נוּ יְהֹוָה֙ מִמִּצְרַ֔יִם בְּיָ֤ד חֲזָקָה֙ וּבִזְרֹ֣עַ נְטוּיָ֔ה וּבְמֹרָ֖א גָּדֹ֑ל וּבְאֹת֖וֹת וּבְמֹפְתִֽים׃ וַיְבִאֵ֖נוּ אֶל־הַמָּק֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וַיִּתֶּן־לָ֙נוּ֙ אֶת־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַזֹּ֔את אֶ֛רֶץ זָבַ֥ת חָלָ֖ב וּדְבָֽשׁ׃ 

My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us… The LORD freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. God brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.

The context for this statement, however, is not Passover. It is this: in ancient Israel, when you brought the first fruits of your harvest to your local Kohen (priest) on חג הבכורים / Ḥag haBiqqurim, the festival of First Fruits (which we call today Shavuot), you would make this statement, a brief encapsulation of the history of our people, at least up until that point. If you can picture yourself in this situation – you are a farmer, whose life and whose family’s ability to eat depends on the success of this harvest, and you are required not only to bring some to the Kohen as a sacrifice of gratitude, food which could have actually been eaten by your family. So you are making a big sacrifice, but not only that, but also to recite this formula recalling our history, demonstrating the high importance we place on our connection to that story.

From the most ancient beginnings of the people of Israel, we have made knowing and learning and explicitly connecting our tradition to our very livelihoods an essential part of what it means to be Jewish. It is a fundamental plank in our sense of peoplehood: we repeat and share and teach our history, our tradition, our pipeline to the past. When you do anything Jewish today – singing Birkat HaMazon at the top of your lungs, “throwing away your sins” at Tashlikh, learning text, schmoozing with friends in the sukkah – your story, our history, is right there with you.

A little later in Parashat Ki Tavo (Devarim / Deuteronomy 27:1-4), Moshe tells the Israelites furthermore that when they enter the Land of Israel, they have to inscribe אֶֽת־כׇּל־דִּבְרֵ֛י הַתּוֹרָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את “et kol divrei haTorah hazot” – all the words of this Torah – on large stones coated with plaster and set them up on Mt. Ebal, to remind them all of their tradition and obligations, and to do that even BEFORE they build an altar to God. The story, the words of Torah, are not just an integral part of the ritual, they actually PRECEDE it. 

And of course you all know the phrase embedded in the first paragraph of the Shema, which we read from the Torah a few weeks back in Parashat Va-etḥannan: veshinantam levanekha – you shall teach these words to your children. It is up to us to make sure that our children know our history, to know our tradition. It is up to us to pass it on. It is up to us to get their attention, to make sure they are listening, to make sure they hear these words and that they understand them and recite them and teach them to their own children some day.

We send our kids to day schools like CDS and supplementary Hebrew schools like JJEP so that the words of our tradition will be integrated into their daily lives. We bring them to synagogue so that they will know their tradition, that they will not be strangers in their own people’s house.

And we send them to camp to feel the joy, to feel the magic of an environment that is fun and low-stress and raucous, when they can make lots of noise and be together and feel connected to our peoplehood, our traditions.

And there is no place like camp for that. Camp brings together practice and learning, along with some Hebrew and some love of Israel, with sports and art and dance and singing and swimming and all the joy of summer in the woods. 

God loves it; God loves the magic of Jewish camp.

I am best equipped to speak to the minds and hearts of adults more so than children. But I know, and you do as well, that our children need to feel the magic and the joy if they are to continue to cling to our tradition. And if you are committed to a Jewish future, to our children understanding the value our tradition brings to our lives, send them to camp. If you are committed to the values in particular of the Conservative movement – of commitment to an egalitarian environment focused on a zealously contemporary yet traditional approach to Jewish living, send them to Ramah, and let the magic do its work.

(And thank you so much to Ramah Poconos for taking in my refugee children!)

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 8/28/2021.)

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We Need God Right Now – Ki Tetze 5781

Is there any good news in the world?

As I have watched events unfold over the summer – the heartbreaking return of the Taliban, the dramatic spread of the Delta variant, the wrangling over schools and vaccination and masking and the general Covid anxiety which has returned with great aplomb – I must say that I am having a hard time keeping my usually-reliable optimism in front of me. While the early part of the summer made it seem as though everything was moving the right way, those doors seem to have closed, and everything seems suddenly more stressful.

Is anyone else feeling that? Or is it just because I’m preparing for the High Holidays, which is, for rabbis, something like training for a marathon?

When you think about it, Elul is a pretty good month for anxiety. We are supposed to be taking stock of our lives, preparing for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur and the odyssey of teshuvah, of doing the hard work of repentance. We should be a little stressed. Facing our own misdeeds and failures is not meant to be a pleasant experience.

This season is also a time of returning to God, or at least that is how it is framed in our liturgy. We open Rosh HaShanah by saying,  שָׁל֨וֹם ׀ שָׁל֜וֹם לָרָח֧וֹק וְלַקָּר֛וֹב אָמַ֥ר ה / Shalom, shalom, laraḥoq velaqarov, amar Adonai – Peace, peace to those who are near, and to those who are far, says God. We welcome those who feel close to God and to our tradition, as well as those who are returning from having been far off. And just before Kol Nidrei on Yom Kippur, we give ourselves permission to pray amongst the avaryanim, the sinners, that is, those of us who have not been here for a while.

So of course it makes sense for us to be thinking about theology at this time. What do we mean when we invoke the term, “God”? What, or who, is God? How does God function? What is God’s name? Is God with us? Is God controlling anything? Is God actually working in humanity’s interest, or has God quietly exited through the back door? Has God created us or have we created God?

It is with that backdrop that I read with interest a pitch for God by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. Mr. Douthat is a thoughtful political conservative and a faithful adherent of Roman Catholicism, and, as with many people of faith today, he is engaged in the project of promoting religious involvement.

Douthat’s essential argument is one that I have made myself, even from this very pulpit, and it is more or less this: Although scientific achievements have raised challenges to certain features of religion and perhaps to God’s very existence, the basic underpinnings to religious ideas that inspired our ancestors still apply. In other words, although some today might argue that a scientific perspective negates the Torah’s telling of how we came to be, there are many questions that science cannot answer, and it is within that sphere of uncertainty where religious ideas can still flourish and sustain us. And no matter to how many questions scientific inquiry DOES find successful answers, I am certain that there will always be a place for religious inspiration.

Put yet another way, it is perfectly reasonable, for example, to accept that the universe is 14 billion years old rather than 5782, that it was not created ex nihilo in six days, and yet still believe that the essential mitzvot and values of the Torah and rabbinic literature and all the human intellectual creativity that our tradition has yielded are still binding upon us. It is still possible, if we allow ourselves, to accept that our Torah scroll flows originally from God, even though it clearly exhibits the features of a human work. 

I think it is worth remembering on this subject that science and religion offer answers to different questions. Science is trying to answer the question of, “How are we here?”, while religion tackles the “Why?” Science is the realm of cold, hard facts. Torah and all that flows from it is the realm of our spirit and of our origin story as a people. These are not mutually exclusive, but rather different lenses, both of which enable us to put our lives in perspective.

Mr. Douthat anticipates in his introductory remarks that the response to his piece will be something along the lines of, “I am down with the ethical teachings of religion, but I just cannot accept the idea of a personified God, as described in the Bible and in religious prayers.” And, true to form, the readership of the New York Times, at least on-line, responded predictably, with thousands of people “liking” comments that were more or less to that effect, if not openly hostile to the idea of religion.

There is no question that humans have committed all manner of transgressions in the name of religion throughout the ages; I am sure you can think of some contemporary examples, not limited to the extremism of the Taliban. And of course, we the Jews have had a complicated history in our interactions with other religions, from the dhimmi status forced upon our ancestors who lived in Muslim lands, to the slaughter wrought by the Crusades, to the dramatic failure of the Catholic church to attempt to save the Jews of Europe during the Shoah.

And yet, religion and religious involvement have also done so much good for humanity, from the constant reminder of our obligation to see the holiness in others, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and house the homeless, to the inspiration that God’s presence in our lives has offered in challenging times, in times of grief and times of joy. People motivated by those obligations have created hospitals and schools and charities that care for the needy and the wretched, filling the gaps between commercial interest and insufficient government programs. 

What are the mitzvot / holy opportunities of Jewish life for? They are there to provide a framework for holy living, for ensuring that we treat each other with respect, that we treat ourselves with respect and God’s Creation with care and responsibility. They are there to provide shape to our days and our years, to mark the holy moments and bring comfort when we mourn and to give us the words, in God’s own language, to help us express our innermost concerns and desires. When we need to cry out, we have those words; when we need to dance and sing with abandon, we have that language and music and movement. 

Unlike secular law, Jewish law aims to be not only a moral compass, but also a practical guide for maintaining the holiness in our relationships with all those around us, a framework for holy living. No matter how arcane the mitzvah, there is always a fundamental reason behind it which makes our performance of the mitzvah a practical one.

While Ross Douthat sees understanding and relating to God as an essential part of that equation, I must say that I am more laissez-faire when it comes to God. Like Martin Buber, I cannot put any kind of condition on God that diminishes the foundational presence that God plays in our lives, immediately and constantly there and yet completely impossible to define or be limited by the boundaries of human understanding.

Martin Buber, 1878-1965

We should not be so arrogant as to suppose that our brains can actually interpret and quantify the way that God works through us and around us. Rather, we might want to simply respond by throwing up our arms and acknowledging Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “radical amazement” in response to God.

And let’s face it: however we might understand God, right now we need God in our lives more than ever. If not the personal, savior God to which some religious folks appeal, at least the process God, the one who works around and through us to make for good in this world, to help us in our moment of need. When I say, three times per weekday in the Amidah, “Refa-enu Adonai venerafe,” Heal us, Adonai, and we shall be healed, I may not necessarily expect God to personally heal those who are suffering, one patient at a time. Rather, I invoke the God-enabled framework by which we as humans, using the Divine gifts we have received, the intellect and technology at our disposal, do the best we can to heal this world. 

Kabul Airport

When I say, at the end of every Amidah, “Oseh shalom bimromav,” May the One who makes peace in the heavens bring some peace down to all of us, I am hoping that, in partnership with God, we as humans find a way to lay down our swords and shields and to study war no more. God is on our team in both the healing of the world and the pursuit of peace.

And so here is the good news that we can take with us back into the anxiety-inducing, post-Shabbat world: This take on God cuts across all religious, political, social, ethnic, and international lines. We need God right now, perhaps more than ever; let’s stand together and bring those Divine values to all of us down here on Earth. And let us say, Amen.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 8/21/2021.)

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Walking Wholeheartedly, or, the Danger of Winning at All Costs – Shofetim 5781

As you surely know by now, I am not a big sports fan, and the Olympics draw my attention only as much as the spirit of friendly international competition appeals to my love of humanity. The story of the Italian and Qatari high-jumpers agreeing to share the gold medal was heartwarming; Simone Biles’ pulling herself out of some of her events was at turns disappointing and inspiring. In the latter case, and particularly in light of Naomi Osaka’s removal of herself from the French Open earlier this summer due to her own exhaustion, Biles’ predicament brought to light something which we often do not see in these competitions: that even people who display seemingly super-human abilities are still real people with real emotions and physical limitations, who sometimes need to protect themselves.

Last week, the New York Times published an opinion piece by former professional skier Zoe Ruhl entitled, “Our Culture of Winning at All Costs Is Broken. It Almost Broke Me.” Ms. Ruhl, now a medical student, was a member of the United States World Cup Telemark ski team, and at age 16 won a World Cup race. She documents how world-class skiing caused her physical and emotional pain, and that the coaches, doctors, and organizations pushed her to push herself harder, and to push all other concerns – school, health, family, life – out of the way in order to win. 

She quit skiing competitively when she was a freshman at Williams College (located in my home town, of course, which is conveniently located near some very good skiing), citing the costs to her body and mind. She describes her departure as follows:

I learned that the dates for nationals were during a school week and would force me to miss classes. I reached out to the heads of the U.S. Telemark Ski Association and appealed to them. I told them I couldn’t miss more school. The association’s board of directors unanimously denied me a waiver.

Here’s how I heard the board’s response: You either care about this sport or you don’t. It felt to me like a choice between giving up my life and health for skiing or quitting. So I made the choice: I was out. I chose to violate my contract. I chose to give up my spot on the team. But really, I chose myself. I chose my future and my well-being.

Though she enjoyed the competition and of course appreciated winning, Ms. Ruhl realized that the cost to herself – her emotional state, her physical health, even her future – was too high. Winning at all costs was not a good strategy. So she gave it up.

Many of us were surprised and perhaps disappointed when Simone Biles temporarily pulled out of Olympic events. The news of Naomi Osaka’s departure following a win at the French Open, because she was threatened with fines and expulsion after refusing to do a press conference, was also shocking. But these women all made the right choices for themselves. They were honest about their limits; they acknowledged that winning at all costs would not be healthy for them in the long run.

Today in Parashat Shofetim, we encountered the following verse, really quite striking in its simplicity of language as well as its spiritual import (Devarim / Deuteronomy 18:13):

תָּמִ֣ים תִּֽהְיֶ֔ה עִ֖ם ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶֽיךָ׃

You must be perfect with the LORD your God.

What does it mean to be תָּמִ֣ים / tamim / “perfect” with God? I’m so glad you asked!

Judging from its context, adjacent to commandments to avoid fortune-tellers, Rashi, the 11th-century French commentator, glosses this with a midrashic interpretation from Sifrei Devarim:

תמים תהיה עם ה’ אלהיך. הִתְהַלֵּךְ עִמּוֹ בִתְמִימוּת, וּתְצַפֶּה לוֹ, וְלֹא תַחֲקֹר אַחַר הָעֲתִידוֹת, אֶלָּא כָּל מַה שֶּׁיָּבֹא עָלֶיךָ קַבֵּל בִּתְמִימוּת וְאָז תִּהְיֶה עִמּוֹ וּלְחֶלְקוֹ:

You must be perfect: walk before God whole-heartedly, put your hope in God and do not attempt to investigate the future, but whatever it may be that comes upon you, accept it whole-heartedly, and then you shall be with God and become God’s portion.

Rashi suggests that we should go about our lives in humility, understanding that whatever life throws at us, we should try to live with it. It is only in this completely upright approach to life that we can share in the portion of holiness allotted to us.*

Being wholehearted is not about being physically perfect or emotionally flawless, but rather that we can acknowledge and accept our flaws, to take the curveballs as they are launched at us, and handle our lives in a way that reflects who we really are, not the theoretically perfect version of ourselves.

We cannot hold ourselves to some ridiculous high standard of perfection, even those of us who are positively God-like in our abilities. No matter how talented, or athletic, or brilliant we may be, we are still human. To aspire to anything more than that is not just unhealthy, it is foolhardy. It is something akin to the Migdal Bavel, the Tower of Babel, back in Parashat Noah. We cannot aspire to be God-like; the results would be disastrous.

So kol hakavod to Simone Biles, and Naomi Osaka, and Zoe Ruhl, for knowing their limits, for understanding that ultimately their emotional and physical health was more important than winning. The whole-hearted approach to life is to not to push yourself to be something you are not, but rather to push yourself to be exactly who you are at all times.

And this is an especially important thing to remember a few weeks before Rosh HaShanah, as we begin to take inventory in ourselves in preparation for the odyssey of the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the ten days of repentance. 

Reb Zusya of Anapol, who lived in 18th century Ukraine, is perhaps best known for saying, “When I get to olam haba, the world to come, the Qadosh Barukh Hu will not ask me, “Why were you not more like Moshe, or more like Avraham,’ but rather, ‘Why were you not more like Zusya?”

And, lest you think that this principle applies only to world-class athletes, let us also remember that the curse of winning at all costs has infected our world in many areas: in politics, at work, in our families and communities.

In politics, winning at all costs can lead to the collapse of democracy; we have seen it in other nations, and we are seeing hints of it here in America as well.

At work and in business, winning at all costs leads to toxic environments and unethical decisions.

In family life, winning at all costs causes emotional rifts that sometimes result in estrangement from those who love us.

In communal life, winning at all costs creates an environment in which dissent is not tolerated, and organizations descend into chaotic infighting.

I’m sure that many of us could think of specific examples in which we as individuals have been hurt by others who pursue winning to the detriment of the people around them.

I noticed this week on Facebook a former ELC parent lamenting the fact that she could not find a recreational sports option for her 10-year-old. She said the following:

This is what I’m finding as I try to find healthy, ongoing rec sports for kids… you can’t casually join a [swim team], it has to be intense training, with parent involvement, fundraising … and often a major commitment at $300-600 a month. My kids aren’t going to be Olympic athletes or necessarily even high school or college athletes yet it feels like there is only the option to invest and train as if that’s the goal? We need more balanced sport-for-healthy-lifestyle instead of just competition and success.

If we are teaching children that young that training to win, at great expense and with great expectations is the only option, what message is that sending? 

One of the most beloved teachers on my bookshelf is Theodor Geisel, best known as Dr. Seuss. I’ll never forget that, on my last day of undergraduate education, my chemical engineering professor read one of his books to our graduating class, Oh, The Places You’ll Go! In that book are the following lines:

Wherever you fly, you’ll be best of the best. Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.

Except when you don’t. Because, sometimes, you won’t.

Im yotz’im magi’im limqomot niflai’m! – Oh, The Places You’ll Go

We are all so fond of winning that we just cannot bear losing. We award trophies and dessert to all our kids, even as we attempt to teach them about good sportsmanship, so that their feelings will not be hurt if they lose. But perhaps we are doing more damage than good. We need to learn to accept loss, to accept the curveballs that are thrown at us. Because, as you all know, there are lots and lots of them over the course of our lives, and being a good sport – living and interacting graciously – is so much more valuable than merely winning. Loss is a humbling motivator for improving ourselves, for improving our world.

We are whole-hearted, tamim, when we find the balance, the grace, the healthy serenity between winning and losing, between pride and humility, between shameless self-advocacy and exposing our vulnerability. 

As we journey through Elul, we should take our hearts in our hands, our whole hearts, and approach teshuvah with the sense of, I am not whole, but I can be once again. It is in this way that we improve ourselves, that we see ourselves as who we are, flaws and all, in order to build on what we have. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/14/2021.)

* Rashi’s logic seems somewhat opaque here, and his application of the midrash is admittedly murky. Given the context, I think that he is suggesting that if we manage to walk through life wholeheartedly, we will not need to consult mediums and soothsayers to tell us the future, since we will be “God’s portion,” i.e. God will be on our side, and hence no need for those other characters, upon whom the Torah frowns. But the greater point is not merely about fortune-tellers, but about our general approach to life.

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Welcoming Interfaith Families, Maintaining Tradition – Eqev 5781

I recently completed my fourteenth year as a rabbi, since I was ordained at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in New York in 2007. As many of you know, I have been affiliated with the Conservative movement for my entire life. 

The Jewish Theological Seminary of America

But you may not know that in 1994, when I was finishing my Master’s degree in chemical engineering at Texas A&M University, I applied to the rabbinical school at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College, at the urging of the Reform rabbi at the Texas A&M Hillel. When HUC rejected me, Rabbi Tarlow was incensed, and he called the chair of the admissions committee to find out why. He was told that the committee felt that I had difficulty seeing multiple sides to an issue.

Now, it may be that what they saw about me during the interview was engineering clarity: trying to get to an answer as efficiently as possible. In any case, I must say that in retrospect I find it difficult to believe that I ever had such a difficulty, because nowadays I cannot help but see at least a couple of sides to any issue, perhaps to the detriment of that problem-solving clarity that I used to have.

As I grow older, and particularly in observing the deeply polarized society we have become, I must say that I wish that more of us had the humility to see multiple sides to every issue. I feel like the black-and-white oversimplification that is a feature of social media has brought us to this point, where acknowledging and engaging with multiple perspectives around complex issues is not merely frowned upon, but even derided.

Parashat Eqev, which we read from this morning, reminds us not only of the binary theology of Devarim / Deuteronomy – if you, the Israelites follow the mitzvot, you get the land of Israel, and if you do not, you will lose it – but also the need to be humble, because actually it’s not so simple. In particular (Devarim / Deut. 9:4):

אַל־תֹּאמַ֣ר בִּלְבָבְךָ֗ בַּהֲדֹ֣ף ה֩’ אֱ-לֹהֶ֨יךָ אֹתָ֥ם ׀ מִלְּפָנֶ֘יךָ֮ לֵאמֹר֒ בְּצִדְקָתִי֙ הֱבִיאַ֣נִי ה’ לָרֶ֖שֶׁת אֶת־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַזֹּ֑את וּבְרִשְׁעַת֙ הַגּוֹיִ֣ם הָאֵ֔לֶּה ה’ מוֹרִישָׁ֥ם מִפָּנֶֽיךָ׃

And when the LORD your God has thrust [your enemies] from your path, say not to yourselves, “The LORD has enabled us to possess this land because of our virtues”; it is rather because of the wickedness of those nations that the LORD is dispossessing them before you. 

The 15th-century Portuguese commentator, Don Yitzḥaq Abravanel, adds that people tend to attribute their successes to themselves. But the text here says, “Don’t think that you’re getting this land because you’re so perfect.” Rather, says God, I’m only giving this to you because you’re a wee bit better than the surrounding peoples. Don’t think you’re all that special. Be humble.

Humility is an essential Jewish value; it is one reason that our tradition reminds us regularly that we came from slavery, and that we should remember not to oppress the others around us. We have to remember our roots.

It is with this humility, and with an appreciation for multiple perspectives, that we should read the results of the recently-released demographic survey of Jewish Americans by the Pew Research Center. The report came out in May, just before a barrage of Hamas rockets from Gaza provoked an Israeli response that quickly dominated the news cycle, and so those of us who pay attention to the state of Jewish America were distracted by the news from Israel. You might have missed it.

There is a lot to process in this report, but I wanted to zoom in on one particular issue, and that is the state of the Jewish family. One of the findings is that the intermarriage rate among Jews has remained at a consistent rate; about 56% of respondents who are married report that their spouse is not Jewish. Of course that figure varies tremendously with age and affiliation; among Conservative-affiliated Jews, for example, 25% report a non-Jewish spouse, and among the category of people whom Pew describes as “Jews of no religion,” that is, people who were born Jewish but do not practice Judaism, the figure is 79%.

A few decades ago, these numbers would have seemed shocking. The Conservative movement’s reaction to interfaith marriage in the 1980s was to pretend it did not exist: no recognition, no aufruf, and of course no rabbi could preside over such a marriage. At the time, we were so proud as to think that this would lead to greater in-marriage. The approach backfired: many of those Jews who married others, whose rabbis turned them away, left the Conservative movement and did not look back.

We have, thankfully, reached a different place. While I still cannot solemnize a marriage of a Jewish person to one who is not, this is for purely halakhic reasons; we have not yet been able to come up with a halakhic basis on which to perform such a marriage. But of course we welcome these couples into our congregations; we have a number of members of Beth Shalom where one partner is not Jewish, and some of those Jewish-adjacent members of Beth Shalom are among our biggest fans, eager partners in helping to create a Jewish home and provide a Jewish education for their children. 

One of the items that the Pew study presents is that 28% of interfaith parents are raising their children as Jews (compared with 93% of families with two Jewish parents). Now that is not a particularly high number, but I’ll tell you this: if we reach out to those families, if we welcome them into our midst, then we have a much better chance that more of their children and grandchildren will be raised Jewish. 

In some cases, by the way, our embracing the supportive non-Jewish partner has led to that person becoming Jewish through conversion, a testament not only to the appeal and the richness of our tradition, but also to our being open and inviting them in.

Now the challenge here is that, on the one hand, we want those interfaith families to be part of our community. We do not want them to be turned away, such that they will never return. When I was preparing for the Honeymoon Israel trip I took with the Pittsburgh cohort a year and a half ago, I learned that one of the frequent narratives among disaffected Jews in interfaith relationships was about how some of them had been spurned by their communities, and the pain this caused. We do not want to be creating more hurt, and giving people more reasons not to come back to the synagogue.

Of course, the perspective with which I grew up, like most of us here, is that in-marriage is the most desirable outcome. In addition to the halakhic challenges to intermarriage, when two people share similar customs and values, it is a solid foundation on which to build a successful marriage. Also, of course, Jewish home life is centered around family participation, and of course it is ideal for both parents to be steeped in these practices and texts to pass them on to our children and grandchildren.

After so many decades of Jewish hand-wringing over intermarriage, not to mention the centuries of uncomfortable history, our expectation that in-marriage is ideal is so ingrained as to be unavoidable. There are those who say that this expectation implicitly places an interfaith couple in a secondary position, and that is something that we clearly do not want to do. However, I think it is also reasonable to promote in-marriage while welcoming our Jewish-adjacent partners, who have thrown in their lot with our people, who are supportive participants in our Jewish journey.

And, on the third hand, we love it when people who are not Jewish join the ranks of our people. So while I have occasionally crowed that I have created 50 or so new Jews since I’ve been in Pittsburgh, doing so also may seem judgmental to some of the non-Jewish partners in our midst. We must ensure that our message is that anybody who wants to join the Jewish people is welcome, and the doors are always open. But even for those who choose not to, we are still grateful that you are here with us.

So you can see that even discussing this is complicated. On one hand, as ambassadors for Judaism and Jewish life, we need to support our home team and our historical traditions; on the other, as diplomatic contemporary Jews who seek to keep as many of our folks connected, we also must maintain a big, non-judgmental tent. And, as Eqev teaches us, we have to be humble about it: we cannot possibly think that we know all the answers or will succeed in hitting the right notes based on our merits. We need to lean into that humility because we compete not only in the marketplace of ideas, but also in the ocean of disaffection and indifference. 

A curiously hopeful note gleaned from the Pew study, by the way, is that even among the folks who are described as “Jews of no religion,” a healthy fraction of those Jews are practicing some aspects of Jewish life: for example, 30% of them held or attended a Pesaḥ seder last year, 28% observed some kind of life-cycle ritual, and 1 in 5 fasted to some extent on Yom Kippur. I’m not sure why these behaviors place these folks in the “no religion” category, but such is the messy nature of statistics and categories. Nonetheless, it is another reminder that those open doors face multiple directions.

Fortunately for all of us in the Conservative movement, halakhah / Jewish law is not judgmental; we can still welcome all folks into our community, even as we stand by our halakhic principles in Jewish ritual. Just as there is a range of Jewish practices among our people, so too there is a diversity among Jewish families. And we embrace them all, even as we humbly maintain tradition.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 7/31/2021.)

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On Boycotts, Binary Thinking, and Genocide – Vaetḥannan 5781

If you will allow me to take the anachronistic liberty of ascribing a contemporary movement to an ancient text, Devarim / Deuteronomy is easily the most Zionist book of the Torah. Moshe is delivering a series of lectures to the Israelites after they have been wandering through the desert for nearly four decades, and now they are perched on the far side of the Jordan river awaiting for the instruction to cross over and re-enter the land that has been promised to them.

And Moshe’s message is intimately connected to the land, with constant reminders that an essential part of our people’s berit / covenant with God is the inheritance of this land. For example, as we read this morning in Parashat Vaetḥannan (Devarim /Deuteronomy 6:1):

וְזֹ֣את הַמִּצְוָ֗ה הַֽחֻקִּים֙ וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוָּ֛ה ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶ֖ם לְלַמֵּ֣ד אֶתְכֶ֑ם לַעֲשׂ֣וֹת בָּאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַתֶּ֛ם עֹבְרִ֥ים שָׁ֖מָּה לְרִשְׁתָּֽהּ׃ 

This is the mitzvah, the laws and the rules, that God has commanded [me] to impart to you, to be observed in the land that you are about to cross into and inherit.

The land and the mitzvot are intimately connected in that Divine relationship between God and the people of Israel; they go together. And it is this sense of connection which inspired our ancestors over the last 2,000 years, in all their wanderings, to remain loyal to our tradition, to keep the memory of the land of Israel in our hearts and minds and on our tongues. It is the ancient yearning for the perfection of this holy formula which yielded the best-known poem of Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi, who in the 12th century, the story goes, left Spain (“sof ma’arav,” the end of the West, according to him) to journey across the Mediterranean. He certainly arrived in Egypt, and a legend has it that he died in the Land of Israel, trampled by a horse as he kneeled to kiss the holy earth of Jerusalem. 

In more contemporary times, in the middle of the 19th century, before any steel emerged from Pittsburgh factories, this ancient yearning spurred the first wave of our people to escape the misery of the shtetl and move to Ottoman Turkish Palestine.  

And it is this ancient yearning that brought greater numbers of aliyah following the wave of Czarist programs in the early 1880s, and again in the early 1900s. And in particular, after the Shoah, when European Jewish refugees and displaced persons needed a safe haven, there was Palestine. Now in British hands, there was a well-developed economy, agricultural collectives, and bustling cities. Survivors of the European attempt at genocide defied the British blockade to enter the land of their ancestors, and soon fought for and won independence.

It is with great dismay that I read this week of the account in Jerusalem, at the location adjacent to the traditional Kotel / Western Wall that has been set up as a temporary location for egalitarian prayer. A Masorti (that’s the Conservative movement outside of North America) group was holding a service for Tish’ah BeAv, chanting Eikhah, the Book of Lamentations, when a group of zealous Orthodox folks invaded the space and set up a meḥitzah (the separation barrier between men and women found in Orthodox synagogues), shouted and sang and disrupted the Masorti service. It is especially upsetting that on the day on which we commemorate the destruction of the Second Temple due to sin’at ḥinnam, baseless hatred, that at the very spot where the Temple stood until the year 70 CE, that such intolerance would be on display so vividly.

Ezrat Yisrael, the egalitarian prayer space by the Western Wall

And it is with even more dismay that I learned of Ben & Jerry’s decision to suspend sales of their ice cream products in West Bank settlements. It makes me wonder if they have also suspended sales in other disputed territories such as Crimea, North Cyprus, Kashmir, Tibet, and so forth. 

The move is clearly only symbolic – who cares whether or not residents of Ma’ale Adummim have access to Cherry Garcia? And, by the way, you’ll still be able to buy New York Super Fudge Chunk in Jerusalem, a short drive away. But it points to the powerful voices of Israel’s critics in calling attention to who does business in the territories, a plank in the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement.

צ’רי גרסיה

But my greatest and most surprising source of dismay this past week, by far, was from a poll produced by the Jewish Electoral Institute, a non-partisan group which, according to its website, is “dedicated to deepening the public’s understanding of Jewish American participation in our democracy,” primarily through polling. This survey found, among other things, that in a recent poll of 800 Jewish voters, 25% agreed with the statement, “Israel is an apartheid state,” and, more shockingly, 22% agree with the statement, “Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians.” 

In its coverage of the survey, the Forward noted that while the Jewish anti-occupation group IfNotNow is comfortable with the “apartheid” label, even they were surprised by the “genocide” statement.

To be clear, as in all democratic countries with heterogeneous populations, Israel struggles with inequalities within society. But there is no government policy of racial segregation. However, hearing Israel described as “an apartheid state,” or a “colonialist settler state,” as is fashionable in some circles, is like fingernails on a chalkboard to me.

Certainly some of our South African members can reassure us that Israeli society is nothing like the apartheid era in South Africa. Most likely, when I went before an Arab judge in Family Court in Israel for approval for the child support agreement for my Israeli son, that judge would have been very surprised by the “apartheid” descriptor. And so too the Arab doctors and nurses who worked in the hospital in Beersheva where my son was born. And so too the Druze soldiers who bravely and loyally serve in the IDF, and Justice George Karra, the Christian Arab who serves on the Israeli Supreme Court, and of course Member of Kenesset Mansour Abbas, head of the Ra’am party, now the first Arab and the first Islamist party to join the majority coalition of the Israeli government. I don’t think any of those folks can credibly use the word “apartheid” to describe Israel.

But “genocide”? We, the Jews, we know genocide, and however you may feel about Israel and the Palestinians’ failure to come to a negotiated settlement, we know that applying the word “genocide” is obscenely hyberbolic, and plays on anti-Jewish stereotypes. 

My father-in-law survived Auschwitz; many more of my relatives did not. Where are the camps in Israel? Where are the cattle cars delivering non-Jews to the gas chambers? Where are the laws preventing Arabs from going to school, or owning property, or holding government positions, or even dating or marrying Jews? Where are the fields of slaughter, the Einsatzgruppen, the ghettoes?*

There are none of these things, of course. So how could it come to be that 22%, 176 of the respondents to this poll agreed with the statement, “Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians”?

The only possible answer, hevreh, is that we have failed. We have failed in the education of our own people, and we have failed just as much in getting out in front of the message. For people who know only ongoing conflict in the region, and who only see the reported body counts, of course Israel looks like the bad guy. But it is perversely reductive to see the side with the higher body count as the victim and the other as the bad guy.

We have failed when those of us who do not know our history are hornswoggled by extreme voices applying the word genocide to Israel and consequently to Jews. We have failed in relaying the admittedly very complicated history of the establishment of the State of Israel, and the wars and terrorist attacks she has faced.

And of course this challenge is only made worse by the current political climate in America, where it seems that left and right are increasingly living in different worlds. Our political discourse on many issues seems like skewed lines: no chance of intersection, no apparent intention to ever seek common ground. I checked out Twitter this week for the first time in a while, and all I could see, for miles of tweets, was binary thinking. You’re either on this side or that side. There is no middle way. No attempt to reach out, only to score points against the other.

In this environment, we are going to lose the battle for the hearts and minds not only of Americans, but American Jews as well. Certainly, the majority of us still support Israel, and majorities of non-Jewish Americans as well. But the challenge of the binary approach to all things will make this battle even harder.

How might we approach this? I do not think that attempting to label anti-Israel speech as hate speech is the right path. Likewise, Israel advocacy, which is certainly good for Israel at least in the American political arena, will not solve this challenge either. 

Rather, what we need is thoughtful engagement with history and the facts on the ground. And we also need to figure out how to get out in front of the message.

So how do we do that? 

We need to make sure that we are teaching our students about Israel, presenting them with accurate material that gives an unbiased, factual telling of the Zionist project, both its strengths and its pitfalls. Perhaps there are organizations like the Peres Center for Peace in Israel who would be willing to create a curriculum for a broad audience – Jewish and non-Jewish – that would teach that story. We need to lean into the idea of peaceful coexistence – not too long ago that seemed like a nascent reality, and it can be again. We need to support institutions that are bringing people together for positive engagement between people, engagement that will lead to real partnership, and ultimately to peace.

Boycotts – by ice cream companies or against them – will not achieve anything other than more binary thinking, more Twitter-esque polarization. Our ancestral yearning for that land, and our sense of justice as Jews necessitates seeking new, creative approaches. We have the resources. Let’s do it.

בַּקֵּ֖שׁ שָׁל֣וֹם וְרׇדְפֵֽהוּ / Baqqesh shalom verodfehu, says the Psalmist (Tehillim / Psalms 34:15). Seek peace and pursue it.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, morning of Shabbat Naḥamu, 7/24/2021.)

* It has been pointed out to me, subsequent to my delivering this sermon, that genocide can take different forms; the method of the Nazis was not used by the Hutus against the Tutsis in Rwanda, for example. Nonetheless, what unites different forms of genocide, according to the United Nations’ definition, is the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Israel’s military response to Hamas rocket fire, for which she has received much criticism, does not meet that definition. If it were the IDF’s intent merely to kill innocent Palestinians in Gaza, it would certainly not, for example, provide warning signals of various types to residents of targeted buildings which contain terrorist infrastructure.

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Life in the Fast Lane – Shabbat Ḥazon, 5781

As a child, I used to look skyward on clear nights and imagine going to space. I was a fan of science fiction stories and movies; I fell in love with Kirk and Spock and the whole gang on the USS Enterprise at a young age.

But adulthood has the unfortunate tendency to kill many a childhood fantasy, and I must admit that I had not been paying so much attention in recent years to human efforts to conquer space. But something caught my attention this week, and you probably heard about it as well: Sir Richard Branson, English business magnate and founder of Virgin Group, flew into sub-orbital space, about 50 miles up, achieving weightlessness for a few minutes. Among the many companies he controls is Virgin Galactic, a company that promises to be able to provide flights into space for the general public in the near future. 

Sir Richard

Branson just barely edged out Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon, who will also be traveling into space in his own craft in a few weeks. And of course there is investor Elon Musk’s SpaceX project, which has sent a few rockets skyward recently, including partnerships with NASA.

All of these endeavors are the stuff of dreams. And, of course, they are fabulously expensive. These companies are somewhat tight-lipped about how much money they are investing in these flights, but it must be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Bezos will have a companion on his flight who has reportedly paid $28 million for the seat. Three people have paid $55 million each for seats on a SpaceX flight to the International Space Station next year. Virgin Galactic already has 600 people signed up for trips into space that will cost more than $250,000 per seat.

But what about the rest of us here on Earth? As much as I am sure that many of us would love the opportunity to travel into space, I will confess that this strikes me as, in the words of Qohelet / Ecclesiastes, “Hevel havalim.” Vanity of vanities.

After all, if these investors were to take that money and invest it in people here on Earth – education, literacy, health care, clean water, clean energy, democratic governments, solutions for climate change – imagine the good that they could do on the ground. And in particular at this time, when we are still suffering from a worldwide pandemic.

I am certainly not accusing these men of not being charitable. Bezos made the largest charitable gift in the world last year: a $10 billion commitment to fight climate change. According to what I could find on the Interwebs, Musk and Branson have each pledged to give away half of their wealth to charity. I am merely concerned about the optics of this race into the final frontier when so many are suffering down here on Earth. The great ballyhoo surrounding such extravagant projects that will truly only benefit a tiny few seems a bit tone-deaf.

OK, so let’s face it: there is so much to celebrate right now – success in creating vaccines, returning to something approaching normalcy, seeing people again. The rate of joblessness is going down as people return to the workforce. The economy is beginning to move again, particularly in the hospitality and tourism industries, which were devastated by Covid.

But there is also much to mourn. And that brings me to Tish’ah BeAv, the official Jewish day of mourning. Starting this evening and going through tomorrow night, we will fast for 25 hours to remind ourselves that we are a people that is still in mourning, 1,949 years after the Romans laid waste to Jerusalem, destroying the Beit HaMiqdash, the Temple that was the center of Jewish life up until then, for the second and final time. While the Beit HaMiqdash occupies a special place in our hearts and minds, it has never been rebuilt. In recalling this destruction, we chant the book of Eikhah / Lamentations this evening, perhaps the most evocative poetry of desolation ever composed (1:1): 

אֵיכָ֣ה ׀ יָשְׁבָ֣ה בָדָ֗ד הָעִיר֙ רַבָּ֣תִי עָ֔ם הָיְתָ֖ה כְּאַלְמָנָ֑ה

Eikha yashevah vadad ha’ir rabbati am hayetah ke-almanah.

How lonely sits the city, which was once full of people; She who was great among nations, now is like a widow.

Tonight and tomorrow we will mourn not only the destruction of the First and Second Temples, but also many other cataclysmic moments in Jewish life: the Crusades, the Expulsion from Spain, the Shoah, and so forth. We are a people whose paths of exile are wet with tears, whose persecutions and dispersions we carry with us just as much as we carry our words of Torah. We are a people for whom there is little solace in history, not much more comfort in the present, and only a modicum of optimism for the future. Jerusalem, rebuilt though she may be, still vibrates with the rumblings of ancient destructions.

Tish’ah BeAv keeps us close to mourning. And that is a good thing. We should not be so high on ourselves that we forget the misery, the pain of our history. We should not be so proud as to think we can conquer time or space, or be free of anti-Semitism, or be liberated from the woes of human life.

Now, I’m sure that many of you are thinking, “OK, Rabbi, we’ve had nearly a year and a half of isolation, of anxiety, of losing beloved family members to a deadly virus. We have grieved enough. It’s time to party, right? Now is not the right moment to lean into the official Jewish day of mourning.”

But, as with Yom Kippur, the goal of fasting and remembering on this day is not for its own sake; it is not merely a day on which we should be miserable just because. As with Pesaḥ, when we recall being freed from slavery and deny ourselves a whole range of foods, we do not do so merely to encourage constipation.

Rather, we afflict our souls on Tish’ah BeAv because occasionally we need to be humbled, so that we know what it is like to be hungry and miserable. We need to remember that there are people for whom every day is a fast day, who have no luxurious leather shoes, who have no comfortable furniture on which to sit, who have no climate-controlled home in which to live. 

Over our month of sabbatical, Judy and I saw many homeless people in the cities we visited along the Eastern seaboard. I do not know if there has been an uptick in homelessness due to the pandemic, but I certainly would not be surprised if that were the case; the number of people living on the streets is heartbreakingly large.

ט֣וֹב שְׁפַל־ר֭וּחַ אֶת־עֲנָוִ֑ים מֵחַלֵּ֥ק שָׁ֝לָ֗ל אֶת־גֵּאִֽים׃

Better to be humble and among the lowly than to share spoils with the proud. (Mishlei / Proverbs 16:19)

We fast on Tish’ah BeAv to remind ourselves of the most fundamental responsibilities we have as Jews: to take care of the others around us, to remember their suffering, to recall that even as we aim for the stars, we must work hard to provide comfort for those who have none on Earth.

We have to remember the pain. If we do not, we’ll all be in space, and we will lose sight of what is really going on here on the ground.

By the Waters of Babylon, by Evelyn De Morgan, 1855-1919

I mentioned earlier that this is Shabbat Ḥazon, the Shabbat of the vision of Yeshayahu (known in English as Isaiah). Yeshayahu’s vision is one of suffering, of invasion by the Assyrian empire, brought about by the faithlessness of his audience. Echoing the opening of Eikhah, he says (Yeshayahu / Isaiah 1:21-22):

אֵיכָה֙ הָיְתָ֣ה לְזוֹנָ֔ה קִרְיָ֖ה נֶאֱמָנָ֑ה מְלֵֽאֲתִ֣י מִשְׁפָּ֗ט צֶ֛דֶק יָלִ֥ין בָּ֖הּ וְעַתָּ֥ה מְרַצְּחִֽים׃ כַּסְפֵּ֖ךְ הָיָ֣ה לְסִיגִ֑ים סׇבְאֵ֖ךְ מָה֥וּל בַּמָּֽיִם׃

Alas, she has become a harlot, the faithful city that was filled with justice, where righteousness dwelt— but now murderers. Your silver has turned to dross; your wine is cut with water.

Faith has turned to faithlessness; luxuries have been reduced to waste. But, says Yeshayahu, whose very name means “God will save,” we can change that. We return to our holy obligations, and there is redemption. As with the conclusion of Eikhah (5:21),

הֲשִׁיבֵ֨נוּ ה ׀ אֵלֶ֙יךָ֙ וְֽנָשׁ֔וּבָה חַדֵּ֥שׁ יָמֵ֖ינוּ כְּקֶֽדֶם׃

Take us back, O LORD, to Yourself, and let us come back; renew our days as of old! 

If we use this fast to spur us to action, to return to Torah and mitzvot, to remember the needy among us, God will save us from future suffering.

God will surely not, however, save us from our own vanity. That is up to us as individuals, and as a society.

Shabbat shalom, and have a meaningful fast.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 7/17/2021.)