Category Archives: Sermons

The Sinkholes of Grief and the Ponds of Hope – Toledot 5779

If you have been to the area around the Dead Sea in the last few years, you may have noticed a relatively new phenomenon: large sink-holes have appeared close to the current shoreline. Our guide told us that there are as many as 6,000 of them.

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As our Beth Shalom group was on the bus this past Tuesday, headed from Jerusalem to Masada, we saw many such sink-holes. They are the result of the Dead Sea’s rate of evaporation, abetted by the rate of consumption of water by both Israel and Jordan. Areas from which the water has receded have underground pockets of salts, and when it rains, fresh water dissolves those salts, leaving empty holes under the exposed area, and then the ground above collapses. There is an area near Ein Gedi where the road actually collapsed into a sink-hole. Israeli transportation engineers anticipated it and built a bypass before it collapsed, and are apparently monitoring the rest of the road for similar problems.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are celebrating today that a young woman has come into direct relationship with the mitzvot of Jewish life. As she stood here today and demonstrated her entry into Jewish adulthood by being called to the Torah in the presence of her family, friends, and community, we are all filled with joy and pride. The cycle of life continues.

But we are also still in sheloshim, the 30-day mourning period following burial, and our community is still grieving today, and we must acknowledge that. Even though sheloshim is a less-intense time than shiv’ah, many of us are nonetheless still wrought with emotion.

Something has become quite clear to me in the past two weeks, and that is that we all respond to grief differently.

Some respond by wailing.

Some respond in anger.

Some respond in panic.

Some respond by clamming up.

Some respond by calling out.

Some respond by pointing fingers.

Some respond with a call to action, and some retreat.

Some of us fell into sink-holes two weeks ago, and have not yet emerged. And some of us are still waiting on the loose ground on top, not knowing when it will collapse. Some of us have already crawled out onto safe, stable land.

Our responses vary with our personalities, of course. Parashat Toledot, which Elana taught us something about earlier, details ways in which Ya’aqov and Esav are quite different: Ya’aqov is mild-mannered; he likes to cook, to hang around in the tent. He’s something of a homebody, his mother’s son. He is reasoned and strategic, and willing to deceive to get his way.

His brother Esav, meanwhile, is described in almost brutish terms; he is a hunter who likes meat, he’s covered with hair, he is impulsive. Esav is favored by their father Yitzhaq. With Esav, what you see is what you get. Elsewhere, the Torah reveals to us traits of other main characters: Moshe is a strong leader who has anger management issues; Abraham is a gracious and faithful host who argues with God; Sarah is brave and tenacious, but laughs at the wrong time; Aaron is holy and speaks well, yet he acquiesces when he should stand up strong.

These characters are templates for humanity; we see in ourselves, and in the palette of human expression, many of these personality features. And many of them are present in how we have responded to the attack of two weeks ago.

The Jewish mourning customs are the best around for managing grief, however it is expressed, because they acknowledge that our responses to grief reflect our personalities. One of the customs of shiv’ah is that, when visiting avelim, mourners, in their homes, we do not address them directly; we wait for the bereaved person to speak first. That way, we give space for the avelim to do what’s best for them. If they want to talk, they talk. If they want to sit there in silence, then we let them do that, and sit by patiently. If they want to cry, they cry. If they want comfort, we hold them tight. If they want to be alone, we leave them alone. It is within that framework of allowing the avel to fashion his or her own response to grief that we acknowledge their humanity.

I want to share with you a piece of wisdom that Rabbi Yolkut at Congregation Poale Zedeck brought to his community last Shabbat. It’s from the Shulhan Arukh, the authoritative 16th-century codification of Jewish law.

Last week, we visited the synagogue and beit midrash / study hall of Rabbi Yosef Karo, the primary author of the Shulhan Arukh, in the northern city of Tzfat. In his portion of the book, Rabbi Karo documents the Sephardic practice of his time. Rabbi Moshe Isserles, living contemporaneously in Poland, inserted into Rabbi Karo’s text clarifications when the Ashkenazic practice differed with Karo’s. Rabbi Isserles, known by his acronym, the Rama, had been working on a similar codification, but Rabbi Karo beat him to publication.

In the context of laws about mourning, the Shulhan Arukh addresses the question about whether or not one may cry on Shabbat. Shabbat is, of course, a day on which we are happy; we gather with friends and family to celebrate, to eat festive meals, to sing joyful songs. Those who are in shiv’ah generally do not mourn publicly on Shabbat by wearing torn clothing or sitting on a low seat or receiving guests in their homes. But is it permissible to cry? The Rama says the following: (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim רפח:ב)

If it brings one pleasure to cry on Shabbat, such that the sorrow may be lifted from his heart, then one may cry.

Crying in pain may bring you pleasure, and we give space to the avel to cry as necessary on Shabbat. I’m thinking here of Rosey Grier singing on the classic children’s album from 1972, Free to Be You and Me:

It’s alright to cry
Crying gets the sad out of you
It’s alright to cry
It might make you feel better

Raindrops from your eyes
Washing all the mad out of you
Raindrops from your eyes
It’s gonna make you feel better

How many of us have felt really wounded, and found that a good cry made at least some of the pain go away? That has certainly happened to me, and perhaps the Rama as well.

There is a hopeful note about the sink-holes: some of them have trapped water that has run off the mountains, and are now little ponds surrounded by new growth, new trees and bushes and reeds. As you drive by, these look like little oases in the otherwise barren landscape. These ponds, unlike the water of the Dead Sea itself, have a salinity content that is apparently low enough for things to grow around them.

And you know what that looks like? It looks to me like hope. The rings of greenery in the desert around these new ponds are sort of like the proverbial cloud with the silver lining. if you’ll allow me to mix metaphors.

On our final day in Israel, we visited the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, what is effectively the Louvre of Israel. It’s a fantastic museum, ranging from antiquities to modern art; I can get my Kandinsky fix not far from the 10th-century Aleppo Codex, which is one of the two oldest existing Masoretic* manuscripts in the world; the volume was consulted by Maimonides himself in 12th-century Cairo. Among the items we saw together included synagogues and Judaica from all over the Jewish world, from China to Poland to Suriname. And I remembered that the cataclysm of the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE did not bring Judaism and Jewish life to an end. Rather, it fundamentally changed it, and strengthened our tradition for the millennia of dispersion that lay ahead. And the Jews responded by carving ornate arks and covering with gold leaf in the 16th century in Italy, and crafting spice boxes in the shape of windmills in 18th-century Holland; by producing polished-silver Torah tikkim (that the Sephardic cabinet that houses a Torah) in India and illuminated Esther scrolls in Iran and bowls made of crystalline sugar for wedding celebrations in Afghanistan.

The richness of Jewish life continues even after tragic events. Just as our people responded to destruction and dispersion with artistic creativity and continuing to embrace the richness of Jewish life, so too will we. While there will always and forever be a before and after in the Pittsburgh Jewish community, I am certain beyond a shadow of a doubt that the after will be even more vibrant.

But there is still grieving to be done, and we will continue to do so, each in our own way, even as we celebrate all the other joyous moments: benei mitzvah, weddings, births, holidays, and so forth. So please continue to give yourself space for that, even as we seek joy and pleasure. And if you can’t get out of your sink-hole, or you were on stable ground and you suddenly find yourself falling, please come see me or one of the other rabbis in the neighborhood. We are here to help, to listen, to give you the space to cry if necessary.

We will continue to grieve in all the ways that we do, and we will never forget those whom we lost. But we will emerge stronger together.

stronger together

Shabbat shalom.
* The Tiberian Masoretes were Jewish scholars living in the north of Israel in the 6th-9th centuries; they were responsible for, among other things, creating an authoritative, vocalized text of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. The Aleppo Codex and the Leningrad Codex are the two existing texts that are closest to the original Masoretic manuscript.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

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Widening Our Vision – Lekh Lekha 5779 / National Refugee Shabbat

(NOTE: Congregation Beth Shalom was a participating synagogue in HIAS’ National Refugee Shabbat on Oct. 19-20, 2018.)

There is a whole lot of crazy going on in the world right now, but there are two things in particular that I want to draw your attention to. One is a new story, and unfortunately, the other is not.

But first, a word of Torah. Parashat Lekh Lekha sets forward the premise that we, the Jews, are a mobile people, and we have throughout our history, from the very beginning, had to pick up and move. That idea is embedded into one word for our people, ‘ivri, which appears first in this parashah.

Lekh Lekha begins with an imperative to Avraham Avinu (our father Abraham; Bereshit / Genesis 12:1):

לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ

Loosely translated: “Get up and get out of your land, the place of your birth, your father’s house, and go to someplace else, a place that is as yet unfamiliar. When you get there, says God, I’ll let you know.”

The last word in that verse, אראך (ar-ekka), is generally translated as, “I [God] will show you.”

Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, the 19th-century leader of the Ger rabbinic dynasty, usually referred to by the name of his major Torah commentary, the Sefat Emet, suggests that Avram’s departure from the familiar to the open-ended will enlarge his vision. That is, this is a journey about increasing Avraham’s field of vision, widening his perspective, by showing him a new land, a foreign land, where he would start again among different people who spoke a different language.

And we might read from this that we too, should always seek to broaden our perspectives, to reconsider ourselves and our place in relation to the others around us.

Back to the present day. The first item to consider is the tragic killing in Israel two weeks ago of two employees in a factory in the West Bank.

29-year-old Kim Levengrond-Yehezkel and 35-year-old Ziv Hajbi, employees at a factory in the Barkan Industrial Park, were murdered by a Palestinian electrician, a fellow employee.

victims

Now, of course this is shocking for the simple fact that it was apparently pre-meditated murder in cold blood. Our hearts go out to the families who are still in sheloshim, and (the 30-day mourning period following burial). But there is an even more tragic loss looming here, and that is the peaceful coexistence model that exists in places like Barkan, where Jews and Palestinians work side-by-side and enjoy the economic benefits of cooperation. The New York Jewish Week’s reporter, Nathan Jeffay, when interviewing another Palestinian employee at Barkan about the attack, managed to get him to open up about the tragedy:

The Palestinian worker digesting news of this week’s terror attack didn’t have much to say — until I touched a nerve. How can it be, I asked, that two young people are dead and some in Gaza are handing out candies to celebrate?

Suddenly impassioned, he tried to put his finger on it. “You know why they behave like this?” he asked rhetorically, sitting in the Barkan Industrial Park, not far from the terror scene. “Because they don’t work in a place like this. If Gazans worked here they’d feel differently.”

Jeffay’s article goes on to describe the ways in which the local Palestinian economy benefits from Israeli investment in industrial parks like Barkan: salaries are double or triple what they are elsewhere in the West Bank, and each Palestinian employee is supporting an average of 10 other family members. A manager at one of the factories, Moshe Lev-Ran, explains that from where he sits, he believes that “economics will bring peace.”

While we mourn for the loss of those murdered, I hope that the greater picture of stability and growth through investment will not also be shattered. I pray that those whose perspectives are wide enough to understand the value of cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians will not be eclipsed by those who merely want to kill the other.

The second story is the ongoing refugee crisis around the world. Here are some statistics (from HIAS’ website):

  • There are now 68.5 million people worldwide who have been forcibly displaced due to persecution and violence. 25.4 million of those are refugees in foreign countries, the highest number in human history.
  • 85% of refugees are being hosted in developing countries. This is largely due to geography; these countries are closest to the conflict zones people are fleeing. Turkey is the country that hosts the most refugees (3.5 million).
  • 57% of the world’s refugees come from just three countries: South Sudan (2.4 million), Afghanistan (2.6 million), Syria (6.3 million).
  • Over half of refugees are under the age of 18.
  • During 2017, conflict and persecution forced an average of nearly 44,000 individuals per day to leave their homes and seek protection elsewhere.

refugees

There are a handful of refugees here in Pittsburgh, although we know that the numbers of refugees that the United States has offered to take has been minuscule compared to those absorbed in Turkey, Jordan, and Europe.

How are the first story and the second story related, you ask?

We are living in a time of great social change. Many around the world want to protect their nations from an influx of outsiders. There is no question that this sentiment has driven Brexit, the rise of the nationalist parties in Europe, and of course the chaos of the American political scene.

Why should we care about this?

Shortly after Avraham relocates to Canaan, that land that will widen his vision, the Torah refers to him (Bereshit / Genesis 14:13) as Avraham ha’Ivri, the “Hebrew.” Rashi tells us that this moniker is drawn from the verb לעבור / la’avor, that is, to cross over, because Avraham came from ever hanahar, the far side of the Euphrates river.

Built into our very identity is the notion that we came from somewhere else, from the very beginning. And even more so, throughout our history, we have continually moved – from Canaan to Egypt to Israel to Iraq to Rome to Spain and France and Poland and to Iran and Yemen and Morocco and the United States and back to Israel. ‘Am Yisrael, the people of Israel, has been permanently on the move for much of the last 2,000 years.

And each time we picked up and left our birthplaces and our parents’ homes, we had to start over, building a new life, fitting into a new economy, new social structures, and so forth. And we gained new perspectives, many of which are recorded in Jewish text.

The Torah wants us to understand the plight of people who are compelled, whether by God or other people, to leave their homes and start anew somewhere else. The Torah wants us to broaden our perspective, to understand the challenges that others face.

And all the more so here in America, the nation that took in my grandmother when she arrived here in 1921, from what is today Ukraine, fleeing anti-Semitism and poverty.

Now you might be inclined to say, “But are Afghans my brothers? Are Syrians, many of whom are sworn enemies of the State of Israel and who are known to have high rates of anti-Semitic opinions*, are they my sisters?”

My guess is that when my grandmother arrived, she was not warmly welcomed by the citizens of Boston with open arms. We are a nation of immigrants which has long had an uncomfortable relationship with the idea of immigration. Ask the Chinese, the Irish, and those of African descent about becoming Americans. And let’s not forget the plight of the St. Louis in 1939.

hungarian border

The larger point is that wherever fear of the other reigns, we, the Jews, suffer.

How do we counter this fear? We need to promote Avram ha’ivri’s wider perspective to the world. We have to stand up against those who raise flags and claim Germany only for the Germans, France only for the French, America only for the “Americans” (I do wonder how the native peoples of this land feel about that one), Israel only for the Jews, and Palestine only for the Palestinians. 20% of the Israeli population (inside the Green Line) is not Jewish; they are citizens who work and vote pay taxes and conduct their business in the language of the Torah. One of the justices on the Israeli Supreme Court is an Arab Christian; there are 13 Arab members of the Knesset. They may not be happy about it, but they do participate in Israel’s democracy.

As Jews, we must stand for ‘Am Yisrael, the people of Israel, and Medinat Yisrael, the State of Israel. As American Jews, we must also stand for being Jewish and American. But our being Jewish and American and supporters of Israel does not mean that we should exclude from our vision those who are none of those things.

Just as Israeli investment in the West Bank helps foster a respectful environment for Palestinians to make a decent living and support their families, it also creates opportunities for Jews and Arabs to rub shoulders with each other. Peace will be won through planting the prophetic vine and fig tree (Micah 4:4) for everybody.

We cannot stand for the kind of nationalism that kills, that denies the humanity of the other. On the contrary: we must acknowledge that in supporting the refugee, we are actually performing multiple mitzvot: welcoming the stranger, making peace between people, and of course the mitzvah of tzedaqah.

And likewise, welcoming refugees here and around the world will create a world of better opportunity for all. It will infect us all with the wider vision of Avram ha’ivri.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 10/20/2018.)

 

* In the ADL’s sweeping international survey of anti-Semitic attitudes in 2014, Syrians were not polled, perhaps due to the unrest in that country. Nonetheless, rates of anti-Semitism throughout the Arab world indicate that about 4 in 5 citizens of those countries harbor some anti-Semitic ideas, compared with only 1 in 3 in Eastern Europe, and 1 in 10 in the United States.

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I’m a Fundamentalist: Shabbat – Bereshit 5779

Usually, when I return to the beginning of the Torah, my thoughts turn to the aspects of Creation that concern our relationship with and responsibility to it. That is, our obligation “le’ovdah ulshomerah,” “to till it and to tend it,” (Gen. 2:15).

But one of the best things about Parashat Bereshit (the first weekly reading in the Torah) is that there is just so much to talk about! So something else occurred to me this week.

Rashi asks the essential question up front about Bereshit: Why start here? Why didn’t the Torah begin with the lawgiving parts of Shemot / Exodus, specifically 12:2:

הַחֹ֧דֶשׁ הַזֶּ֛ה לָכֶ֖ם רֹ֣אשׁ חֳדָשִׁ֑ים רִאשׁ֥וֹן הוּא֙ לָכֶ֔ם לְחָדְשֵׁ֖י הַשָּׁנָֽה׃

This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.

(That’s Parashat Bo – not quite the end of the Exodus narrative, but more or less the first passage of the Torah which is a series of laws.)

And Rashi answers himself by saying that the reason the Torah starts with Bereshit is that it is of utmost importance for all of us to know that God created the world.* That is a fundamental aspect of our existence, and what amounts to a postulate for all that follows. I must say that, although Rashi and I would most likely disagree on the precise meaning of “God created the world,” or for that matter, the meaning of the word “God,” Rashi is definitely onto something here. The premise that God’s metaphorical hand is active in the world, in its creation and ongoing functioning, is clearly a cornerstone of Jewish tradition, no matter how we understand this parashah.

the earth

As you are surely aware by now, we are in the early stages of a process that will ultimately yield a new strategic plan, and there are plenty of good reasons for why now is the time for Congregation Beth Shalom to do so. I was able this week to see some of the data collected so far by the congregational survey that many of you filled out. We have now received about 220 of them, which is wonderful. One of the things that is instantly clear from some of the data is that the principles of Conservative Judaism are important to a majority of the respondents, and that many believe that a focal point for our activities should be teaching those principles and how to fulfill them.

Now, as you can imagine, this is very good news to me, because that is what I do all day long, and most evenings as well. And, as you know, there is a lot of stuff to teach in Judaism. The question always comes down to this: In the limited time that we all have, what are the essential things upon which we should focus?

I have to concede that I am a fundamentalist. No, not like what you’re thinking of when you hear that word: I am clearly not a literalist, not an extremist, not an ultra-nationalist, not one who shuns modernity. Rather I am a fundamentalist in that I believe that what we need to focus on, in this world of infinite choice and limited time, are the fundamental aspects of Judaism. So what are the fundamentals? In my humble opinion, they are these:

  • Shabbat / Sabbath
  • Kashrut / Holy eating
  • Talmud Torah / Learning the words of our tradition and making them come alive today
  • Ritual / Connecting our actions and thoughts and feelings with our tradition
  • Community

(No promises, but I am going to try to make this a series.)

Let’s talk about Shabbat. This is first on the list for so many reasons, not the least of which is that it is “created” in Parashat Bereshit. When we read the beginning of the Torah on Simhat Torah Tuesday morning, right after we finished the end of Devarim / Deuteronomy, the first aliyah ended with the following (and, by the way, the custom is for the whole congregation to recite this first, because it’s so essential):

וַיְכֻלּ֛וּ הַשָּׁמַ֥יִם וְהָאָ֖רֶץ וְכָל־צְבָאָֽם׃

The heaven and the earth were finished, and all their array.

וַיְכַ֤ל אֱ-לֹהִים֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔י מְלַאכְתּ֖וֹ אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֑ה וַיִּשְׁבֹּת֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔י מִכָּל־מְלַאכְתּ֖וֹ אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשָֽׂה׃

On the seventh day God finished the work that God had been doing, and God ceased on the seventh day from all the work that God had done.

וַיְבָ֤רֶךְ אֱ-לֹהִים֙ אֶת־י֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔י וַיְקַדֵּ֖שׁ אֹת֑וֹ כִּ֣י ב֤וֹ שָׁבַת֙ מִכָּל־מְלַאכְתּ֔וֹ אֲשֶׁר־בָּרָ֥א אֱ-לֹהִ֖ים לַעֲשֽׂוֹת׃

And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation that God had done. (Gen. 2:1-3)

We also chant this, of course, twice every Friday evening: once in the synagogue service and once at home right before reciting qiddush. You might read from this that the framers of our tradition thought it to be fairly important.

And they were right. Shabbat is not just important: it’s essential. It’s the keystone of Jewish life.

And we need Shabbat more than ever. One of the biggest impediments to greater involvement in synagogue activities cited in the responses to the survey was time. We don’t have enough time.

And you know how unhealthy that is. I don’t need to quote you any academic studies or articles to tell you that we are all overworked, under-slept, overtired; that we don’t spend enough time with our family; that we don’t have time to eat properly; that we feel overwhelmed by the constant noise, the constant feeling of go-go-go; that we are constantly assaulted with paid messages vying for our attention: buy this, vote for that one, eat here, and on and on and on.

I am as busy as anybody here who is busy. My family is as crazed as yours, with pickups and dropoffs and instrument lessons and dance lessons and Back to School Night and everything else. And my family and I all manage to shut down for Shabbat. No appointments. No shopping. No Facebook. No television. And you know what? It’s fantastic.

(BTW, from time to time you see people who take “vacations” from social media. You can absolutely do that every 7th day. I highly recommend it.)

Our ancestors knew this, and even though they didn’t have Facebook or TV or cars or smartphones, they understood the value of shutting down every seventh day.

And what is the Shabbat dinner table, if not the altar on which we build family and community?

shabbat dinner

One of the most dismal numbers in the Federation’s community study, which came out at the beginning of 2018, was the number of Conservative-identified Jews who had been to a Shabbat meal in the past year. Do you want to guess what that number was?

It was 44%. That to me is shockingly low. But it is also an opportunity – an opportunity to teach the fundamentalist value of Shabbat: of dining together with friends and family, of shutting down and reconnecting in real time, of learning a little something of Jewish tradition, of holy eating, of expressing gratitude for what we have.

So in this regard, I have some wonderful news: We can do something about that. We are in fact doing something about that figure. And by we, I mean, all of us.

I would make a reasonable guess that most of us in this room are in that 44%. Part of the reason that you are here this morning is that you “get” Shabbat. You understand the value that it brings to you and your family. You understand how it shapes your week, how it gives you some time to unwind, to do something heady and holy and healthy.

You know that, to quote Ahad Ha-Am, “More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews. You know that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his infinitely ethereal prose, called Shabbat a “palace in time” and you can feel the power in his observation that (The Sabbath, p. 93):

On the Sabbath it is given us to share in the holiness that is in the heart of time. Even when the soul is seared, even when no prayer can come out of our tightened throats, the clean, silent rest of the Sabbath leads us to a realm of endless peace, or to the beginning of an awareness of what eternity means. There are few ideas in the world of thought which contain so much spiritual power as the idea of the Sabbath.

You know that God’s having rested on the seventh day is as meaningful as God’s having created the world in the first six.

And that’s why you have to help us out in creating a Shabbat meal program.

A few brave volunteers have planned a pilot program for members of Beth Shalom inviting others into their homes for a Shabbat dinner on October 19th. The ultimate goal, and it might take a couple of years for us to do this, is to personally invite all of the other members of this congregation into our homes.

This is the realization of a fantastically fundamentalist move. If done properly, it will hit all five of the fundamentalist buttons: Shabbat, kashrut, Talmud Torah, ritual, and community.

But we need you to make it happen. We need you to be a part of it, you who “get” Shabbat. Here’s the link:

bethshalompgh.org/shabbatdinners/

Be a fundamentalist with me! Shabbat shalom!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 10/8/2018.)

 
* What Rashi says is a little more complicated: “If the nations of the world should say to Israel, ‘You are thieves! You have conquered the land belonging to the seven nations of Canaan,’ they can reply, ‘The whole world belongs to the Holy One. He created it and gave it to whomever He wanted to. He first willed to give it to them, and then He willed to take it from them and give it to us.’” (Translation from The Commentators’ Bible by Michael Carasik.)

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Virtual Visitation – Shemini Atzeret 5779 / Yizkor

We, the Jews, are good at memory. It’s an essential part of our tradition. What are the ways that we remember people who have passed from this world?

  • Reciting Qaddish / other Yahrzeit (anniversary of death) observances
  • Yizkor (memorial services observed four times per year)
  • Book of Remembrance
  • Plaques

We are thorough at remembering. I think that might have something to do with our history. For much of the last two millennia, the Jews have moved around a lot, and every time we had to pick up and move to a new locale, we had to leave the cemetery behind. (Yes, the book of Shemot / Exodus records how the Israelites took Yosef’s bones with them as they fled Egypt, but that was an unusual circumstance.) It could be that we developed these regular rituals for remembrance.

When I look through our list of yahrzeit names, I often see that those who are observing yahrzeits are far away – who have since moved to Florida or Texas or New York – but their mother or sister or cousin is buried here in Pittsburgh. My grandparents are all buried in the Boston area; I don’t know if I will ever get to their graves again to visit. But I of course carry my memories of them, and I have shared some of those memories with my children. My grandmother, who, when she left her shtetl at the age of 8 in 1921, left her grandparents behind in the earth of Volhynia, Ukraine, could never have even thought about going back to visit them after she arrived in Boston. (For years, my mother and I have been thinking about traveling to the Ukraine to see if we can find them. BTW, I am captivated by the fact that I can see my grandmother’s little town on Google Maps. It’s nothing more than an agrarian crossroads, and the likelihood that the Ukrainians have maintained the Jewish cemetery there seems pretty slim.)

As the Jews were uprooted throughout history and went from Israel to Iraq, to Rome, to Spain, to France, to Germany, to Iran, to Yemen, to Morocco, to India and China and Jamaica and Chile and the Lower East Side and all the other places they went, they did not have the luxury of going back to visit.

So we developed virtual visitation. We carry the names, the faces, the memories of our departed loved ones wherever we go. We carry with us at all times those who have left us behind, and we take those memories down from our mental shelves from time to time. One of the great things about how we Jews mourn is that we force ourselves to remember. We are never entirely healed by a loss, but all that active remembering brings us comfort.

A couple of weeks ago on Yom Kippur, as we dedicated the new memorial plaques to be placed on the walls of Beth Shalom, a name caught my eye: Melaku Allen. Usually, the names that I see enshrined on plaques are drawn from the traditional Eastern European canon of names: Bernstein, Cohen, Levine, Shapiro, and so forth. Lots of Irvings and Idas and Morrises and Minnies. Not too many Melakus.

I actually wasn’t sure even how to pronounce the name.** The plaque was being dedicated by our member Dan Schwarcz. So I asked him about it at kiddush on the Shabbat between Yom Kippur and Sukkot. This is the story he told me.

Melaku Allen was the son of an Ethiopian Jewish father and a Christian, African-American mother, and he grew up in New Jersey. His father returned to Ethiopia when he was young, but Melaku, captivated by the traditions of his absent father, was drawn to Judaism, and underwent no less than three conversions: first by a Reform rabbi, then a Conservative rabbi, and then an Orthodox rabbi. He met Dan when they became roommates; Dan was in graduate school, and Melaku worked for NJ Transit. That was in the mid-1980s, and Melaku was not young then – he had already served his country in Vietnam, where, among his tasks was the spraying of the toxic defoliant Agent Orange. Melaku told Dan that he had been regularly covered with the stuff.

Dan and Melaku became very good friends, although they came from very different cultural backgrounds. Melaku occasionally referred to the two of them, jokingly, as the Schwarcz brothers. And they used to daven together at a little shul called the New Freedom Synagogue, so named because it was sponsored by an organization that was helping to resettle Jews from the Soviet Union, who were arriving in greater numbers in the 1980s.

But eventually, the Agent Orange exposure caught up with Melaku, and in 1987 he died of cancer. His funeral, Dan said, was unusually awkward, because his mother’s family was Christian, but it was a Jewish service. The synagogue members wanted to physically bury him, according to Jewish practice, but Melaku’s mother’s family was shocked by the practice. The officiating rabbi, who must have been a skilled communicator, explained gently that this was Melaku’s wish, to be buried according to Jewish tradition, and that the Jews consider it one of the highest forms of hesed, loving-kindness, to bury our deceased loved ones as a community, each of the assembled mourners helping out. So the Jews began the process of burying Melaku, and the assembled group seemed very tense and awkward, until Melaku’s mother stepped forward, picked up the shovel, and put some earth into his grave. There was a feeling of relief, and the Jews and the Christians all buried Melaku together, shoveling the earth together in fellowship while they remembered this man who died too young.

Dan did not have to take upon himself the obligation for remembering Melaku. He was not a relative.

But Melaku did not have anybody else to recall him in the Jewish way. So Dan took the virtual visitation upon himself. And then he went a step further to recall him with a plaque, which will now sit on the wall in Beth Shalom as long as this building stands.

One of the wonderful things about Judaism is that remembrance is all-encompassing. We remember and grieve for all those whom we have lost. The sibling from whom one was estranged. The abusive parent. The stillborn child*. Those that perished in the Shoah, and of course for many of them there is nobody to mourn. Those that gave their lives to defend their country, and in particular those who gave their lives for the state of Israel.

That is one reason that I urge people not to follow the old Ashkenazi custom of not staying in the room for Yizkor. We need more remembrance. We can always offer words of Yizkor. The need for recalling those for whom there is nobody saying qaddish is far greater than old-world superstitions.

And even for those for whom there is no plaque, and no living relative, we continue to recall them. Just as Moshe fulfilled the promise that the Israelites made to Yosef, hundreds of years prior, to take his remains up from Egypt with him, we fulfill that obligation to all who came before us, carrying the spiritual remains, if you will, of all Jews who came before.

There is a Jewish cemetery in Berlin, which I once visited on a tour of Jewish sites there, where Moses Mendelssohn is buried. Mendelssohn, of course, is the father of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment that began in the 18th century, as Jews stepped out of the shtetl and into Western society. Mendelssohn was, arguably, the first modern Jew: he lived an observant life and wrote extensively on Jewish topics, but also entered the salon culture of Berlin, wherein he schmoozed and sparred with non-Jewish German philosophers of the time, most notably Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. He is one of the three great Moseses invoked in the piece of Jewish intellectual folk wisdom: From Moses [the biblical one] to Moses [Mendelssohn], there is none like Moses [Maimonides].

The Nazis destroyed the cemetery, and as you walk through it you see fragments of the matzevot (gravestones) in the ground. But when I visited in 2001, there was one matzevah standing: that of Mendelssohn. It’s a recreation, of course – it’s not the original. But it’s a stark, powerful statement of memory.

MosesMendelssohn 2

Does Mendelssohn need a marker? No. We recall him every time a contemporary Jew acts like a citizen of the world: dressing like an American, or studying at a French university, or voting in a democratic election in the State of Israel, or recording a hit rap album (with a nod to Mac Miller, z”l). Our virtual visitation of Mendelssohn consists of living proudly as Jews who are welcomed into the broader society.

We continue to mark Moses Mendelssohn’s passing, and Melaku Allen’s, and all those whom we recall today, as we make our way through life, virtually and physically. But the essence of remembrance is not what’s on the wall, or in the Book of Remembrance that you all hold, or even in reciting Qaddish or lighting a candle. It is in what is in our hearts as we remember them, the things that they gave us, the moments we shared, the times we hear their voices coming out of our own mouths. Those are the items that sustain and honor our beloved parents, sisters and brothers, wives and husbands and partners, our sons and daughters and friends and all those whom we recall, as we continue through life.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shemini Atzeret 5779, 10/1/2018.)

* Yes, some have the custom not to mourn children who do not live past 30 days. But first of all, that is because in the pre-modern world, many, many children died this way. Also, it’s just a custom. If it helps you heal to mourn for a miscarriage, a stillbirth, a baby who died soon after birth, then you have every right to do so.

** Dan tells me that while his mother accented the first syllable, “MEL-a-ku,” his Jewish friends accented the second and turned the k into a khaf: “mel-A-khu.” I cannot confirm this, but my suspicion is that it is an Amharic (Ethiopian) cognate of the Hebrew melekh, meaning “king.” Amharic and Hebrew are both in the Hamito-Semitic family of languages.

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Un-Defaulting the Default – Shabbat Hol Hamo’ed Sukkot 5779

A powerful public figure – a politician, a comedian, a big-shot producer, a judge – attracts our attention. Somebody, or perhaps several somebodies, usually people of whom we have never heard, publicly accuse this person of horrible things. These are deplorable, unimaginable things – actions that we really don’t want to picture the people who lead us doing. And these allegations are splayed across our screens, coming out of our radios, shouting at us from print headlines, such that we cannot avoid them. Our children ask us: Why? What? How? We struggle to answer.

This detestable ritual has long played itself out in the American public square. It’s not new, although it is happening much more frequently. And nearly every time, the accused is a man, and the accusers are women.

I cried this week. I cried in particular yesterday when I heard this, a female protester addressing a male senator of the United States:

I was sexually assaulted and nobody believed me… and you’re telling all women that they don’t matter, that they should just stay quiet because if they tell you what happened to them you are going to ignore them. That’s what happened to me, and that’s what you are telling all women in America, that they don’t matter. They should just keep it to themselves because if they have told the truth you’re just going to help that man to power anyway.

I struggled greatly this week to balance the joy of Sukkot with our collective national anxiety. Sukkot is the most joyous festival of the year (even as we remind ourselves of our vulnerability by living in temporary shacks). It’s referred to rabbinically as “hehag” – i.e. THE festival. The pre-eminent festival. The one that will still be observed even after the mashiah / messiah arrives.

And yet, Rabbi Jeremy Markiz and I were trying to make sense of the news on Thursday. And he gave me a useful framing of our current predicament.

Sukkot is a festival of invitation, one in which we invite holy guests into our sukkah. This ceremony, known as Ushpizin, is derived from the Zohar; it’s a mystical custom that welcomes guests from the Tanakh / Hebrew Bible into the sukkah to dine with us each night.

The challenge facing our nation at this precise moment, said Rabbi Jeremy, is one of invitation. It is only relatively recently that women have been welcomed into certain quarters of society – voting rights, some professions, positions of power, and so forth.

sarah verivqa

And yet, even when women are invited, are they actually allowed in on the same terms as men? Is the invitation extended to men somehow more forgiving? Are we hearing women’s voices the same way we hear those of men? And who is actually doing the inviting, anyway?

Let’s consider the Jewish world.

Rabbi Regina Jonas (1902-1944) was the first woman ordained as a rabbi in 1935, her semikhah (ordination) granted by Rabbi Max Dienemann, the head of the German Liberal Rabbis’ Association. Following Rabbi Jonas, the next woman to be ordained was Rabbi Sally Priesand in 1972, ordained by Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, and the first woman ordained as a Conservative rabbi was Rabbi Amy Eilberg, in 1985.

220px-ReginaJonas

Rabbi Regina Jonas

So let’s run the numbers here for a moment: let’s say that rabbinic Judaism, that is, what we call Judaism, has been around since the redaction of the Mishnah, roughly the end of the 2nd century CE. So from the year 200 until the year 1935, the only rabbis were men. That’s more than seventeen centuries. The first bat mitzvah was in 1922 (Judith Kaplan, the daughter of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan). While the practice of mixed seating was common in liberal American synagogues from the first half of the 20th century, counting women in a minyan did not become widely practiced until the 1970s.

Yes, the Talmud, written entirely by men and concluded by the 5th century, did not seek to include women. Despite the towering presence of Rabbi Meir’s wife Beruriah in the pages of the gemara, she of great learning and quick wit, the overarching theme in the Talmud is that free, adult Jewish males are the highest form of person. All others are in lesser categories, obligated to fewer mitzvot, and excluded from some of the central rituals and activities of Jewish tradition. And that is the way things remained until the late 20th century, even in the most liberal quarters of the Jewish world.

I was not too far into my journey to the rabbinate when I realized that female rabbis and cantors were judged by a totally different standard. A married cantorial classmate was regularly hit on by male congregants at a student pulpit. A rabbinical classmate was told that her outfits were unacceptable. Though they could not state it explicitly, some congregations made it clear that they were not interested in female applicants for clergy positions. And that was, by the way, a full 20 years after Amy Eilberg was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

And maybe you heard about my colleague Rabbi Keren Gorban’s tale, delivered at Temple Sinai over the High Holidays, about her being targeted by a teacher and mentor at Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary.

So even though it has been almost a century since men invited women into the same rituals and positions of authority that they have enjoyed for two millennia, we have still failed to see them as equals; perhaps they have not truly, honestly been invited.

There is of course nothing new here; men have done horrible things to women as long as people have walked this Earth. Several women that I have known, including some very close to me, have told me about being raped. It’s impossible to know exactly how many incidents of sexual violence take place in this country, since estimates suggest that at least 60% of them go unreported, but one common figure I have seen quoted is that 1 in 3 women will be victims of sexual violence in their lifetime (see, for example, http://www.cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/pdf/NISVS_Report2010-a.pdf).

Is it a good thing that we are hearing more such stories, particularly the high-profile ones come to our attention? Unquestionably yes. As uncomfortable as it is for all of us to hear, we have to acknowledge that there is a serious problem in human society – that some people can and do abuse dynamics of power, both power of position as well as physical power, and inflict intense pain and suffering on others.

How on Earth can we expect to change that dynamic if we do not hear these stories? How can we teach our boys not to accept the old, lascivious standard of “boys will be boys”? How can we invite all in equally? How can we create a new “normal,” one that represents a step forward as a species, wherein every boy or man will understand that power is not to be abused? Wherein we will no longer laugh away the sexist remark, the demeaning gesture, the dismissive rolling of the eyes?

To be sure, society is changing, gradually. We are moving to a position in which the male-centered default of old is being abrogated. I am sure that you have heard that there are many more female candidates for public office running this year than in past years. Thank God, we have three women on the Supreme Court, but of course we can do better.

Sukkot is about un-defaulting the default. We take ourselves out of our climate-controlled, comfortable homes; we spend the week living (or “living”) in a temporary shack that, if we’re lucky, has electric lighting, but not much of a roof. It’s meant to be a reminder that all of what we have is temporary. Don’t forget where you came from, where you’re going, and before Whom you will be required to give an accounting (Pirqei Avot 3:1). It reminds us not only of our own vulnerability, that no matter how much we try to insulate or cloister ourselves, we can always be stripped of our stuff, but also of the imperfection of this world, of how much work there is to be done to right the wrongs and feed the hungry and roof the roofless.

How much more so, then, in this season of joy, to remember that we still have a long way to go before a woman is invited in, with equal force and equal attitude to the man who is already there.

Some of you may recall that two years ago on Sukkot, I spoke about the egalitarian Ushpizin found in our siddur. (If you want to check it out, it’s on p. 424). While the medieval kabbalistic tradition highlighted Avraham, Yitzhaq, Ya’aqov, Yosef, Moshe, Aharon, and David, our Conservative siddur lists seven women whom we invite in as well: Sarah, Rivqah, Rahel, Leah, Miriam,  Devorah, and Ruth. And so we invite them, women and men as equals to join us in the sukkah.

rahel veleah

It’s an esoteric custom, not well known in the non-Orthodox Jewish world. But it’s essential today – just as we invoke the Imahot / matriarchs every time we say an Amidah here at Beth Shalom, just as we count women as equals under halakhah / Jewish law, just as we call a bride and groom to the Torah before their wedding, just as we celebrate bat mitzvah and bar mitzvah with no distinction between them, just as we welcome girl babies into the world with a ceremony that parallels the boys (with just one small omission…), we must continue to invite women into the sukkah, into the synagogue, and into all spheres of society as equals. We have to listen to and elevate their voices. And we as a society need to do some serious teshuvah regarding the realities of sexual violence. We need to un-default the default. That is the lesson of this Sukkot.

Shabbat shalom. Mo’adim lesimhah, haggim uzmanim lesasson.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 9/29/2018.)

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

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

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

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

Increase the Love: Beyahad / Community – Kol Nidrei 5779

***

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

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

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

love lady bugs

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

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

Ahavat olam. Love of the world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What do you want?’ they asked.

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

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

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

‘What does it mean?’ asked the astronauts.

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

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

moon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

lorax1

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

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

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

unless

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

 

 

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Increase the Love: Beyahad / Community – Kol Nidrei 5779

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

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

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

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

Pandora-HomeTree

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

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

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

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

הריני מקבל עלי מצוות הבורא: וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shanah tovah!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

 

The final installment:

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

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