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Sermons

Hope, Ancient and Modern – Emor 5782

Last Wednesday, I was having dinner with my family on our back porch, and we saw our first hummingbird of the season! We have a hummingbird feeder out there that the ruby-throated hummingbirds come to, and since they move fast and do not spend a lot of time at the feeder, you have to be paying attention in order to see them. They return in April, and it is always exciting to see one. We also have a robins’ nest just outside our kitchen door, with four pale blue eggs in it. The birds fill me with hope for an enjoyable summer, but also the hope of return: of the constancy of life, that the Earth wakes up in the spring, that we all feel a little renewed. (The renewal that comes in spring is one reason, by the way, that Nisan is the first month of the year, and Pesaḥ is the actual Jewish new year festival, despite whatever goes on in the fall.)

You might have heard that we passed a grim milestone this week: one million American deaths from Covid-19. It is a lamentable fact that our proud nation has lost the largest absolute number of people to Covid in the world, and among wealthy nations we have the highest per-capita death rate as well, about 300 total deaths per 100,000 people since the start of the pandemic. 

And of course, death and sickness, although perhaps the most easily quantifiable measures of what the pandemic has caused, are not the only tragic outcomes. There is the unemployment, the inflation, the “supply-chain issues,” the rates of depression and anxiety and suicide and drug abuse and overdoses, the disruption of schools and workplaces and houses of worship. The list goes on.

But thank God, despite the persistence of new variants, despite the fact that Pittsburgh Public Schools just reinstated their mask mandate after only two weeks without, we are in a much better place at this moment. Thank God for the human ingenuity which has enabled us to produce effective vaccines in record time. Thank God for the resilience of the human spirit. 

We, the Jews, know something about resilience; we have been on this Earth for a long time, relating our Torah, our Teaching, from generation to generation for thousands of years. And we are still here, having survived centuries of persecution and dispersion and prejudice and genocide.

Why are we still here? Is it something in the smoked fish? Is it because we chant Ashrei responsively in Hebrew every Shabbat morning? Is it because of God?

Perhaps we are still here because of hope. Maybe it is because, despite all that we have been through as a people, we have not abandoned that hope: Hatiqvah bat shenot alpayim, the hope of 2,000 years; hatiqvah hanoshanah, the ancient hope, in the original wording of Naftali Herz Imber.

We are a hopeful people, and we have learned that from the very outset. You may know that there is a midrash, of which I am particularly fond, about the creation of the world – that God created and destroyed many worlds before arriving at the one described in the first chapter of Bereshit / Genesis, at the beginning of the Torah. At some point, and particularly after the flood story of Noaḥ, God realized that no world would be perfect, and that God would therefore have to stick with this one and hope for the best.

And there is evidence of hope in Parashat Emor, from which we read today. Much of the parashah is instructions to the Kohanim, the priestly class of ancient Israelites who performed the sacrifices in the Beit haMiqdash, the Temple in Jerusalem until it was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 CE. In that moment of destruction, the role of the Kohanim as spiritual leaders of the Jews vanished, and for the past 2,000 years, they have had effectively no clear role in Jewish life. (Yes, in some congregations they get the first aliyah to the Torah, and in some they ascend the bimah to recite the Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Blessing, over all the rest of us, although we do not follow either practice here at Beth Shalom.)

And yet, here in Parashat Emor, the Torah is explicit: the Kohanim, in order to maintain their distinctive, holy status, must follow certain laws. Among those things are not being exposed to tum’at met, the ritual impurity that comes from contact with corpses, and a male kohen is forbidden from marrying a divorced woman. (I am not commenting here on how to understand these laws today – that is a subject for another sermon.) If they do not follow these laws, they are not permitted to offer the sacrifices in the Beit haMiqdash, the Temple.

And there are many Kohanim today who continue to practice these mitzvot, even though there is no Beit haMiqdash, and no immediate plans to build it. 

Now, wait a minute. Kohanim are following ancient rules that absolutely no longer apply. Why? Because of hope. Because we know that, as slim as the chances are, they might someday be called upon to serve again, or their children or grandchildren.

And all the more so in the Conservative movement, where we have de-emphasized the idea of rebuilding the Temple and re-establishing the sacrificial cult. We have a better, traditional means of accessing God, that which we are engaged in right now: tefillah / prayer. The recitation of the Amidah three times each day replaces the daily sacrifices in the Beit haMiqdash. And we are OK with that. So we simply are not planning on rebuilding that Third Temple. And yet we also hope that the messianic vision of a peaceful world is still waiting for us. 

The retention of some of the practices of the Kohanim is a reminder that we always hold out hope for the future. We never cut our ties with the past, and we are eternally hopeful that some day we will live in a better world, a time of peace. You can see that vision, the vision of Isaiah (11:6) in the window over here to your right:

וְגָ֤ר זְאֵב֙ עִם־כֶּ֔בֶשׂ וְנָמֵ֖ר עִם־גְּדִ֣י יִרְבָּ֑ץ

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard lie down with the kid;

From the Faye Rubinstein Weiss Sanctuary at Beth Shalom

(Unfortunately, the window misquotes Isaiah, as does popular culture; the text does not say that the “lion will lie down with the lamb.” Oh, well.)

As an expression of hope, we continue to pray for that ultimate peace; that is why we conclude each Amidah with Oseh shalom bimromav… May the One who makes peace on high bring us peace here on Earth.

Consider also the tiqvah bat shenot alpayim, the hope of 2,000 years, the yearning for return that is evident throughout our history, our literature, and our prayer, that led to the establishment of the State of Israel, which has just celebrated its 74th birthday. Zionism is one of many forms of yearning in the Jewish soul, and that tiqvah, that hope, has yielded fruit far beyond the fantasies of any shtetl-dwelling Jew of the 19th century. We continue to hope and pray for peace in that land, for all its inhabitants. 

Consider also that in Emor there is a brief reprise of the essential agricultural laws, which appeared last week in Qedoshim as well: leaving the corners of our fields unharvested to allow people in need to take food (Vayiqra / Leviticus 23:22). We continue to give in the hope that someday there will be no need to do so.

We have our tefillah / our prayer. We have our text. We have our rituals and customs. And we have our hope.

As has been the case throughout much of the Jewish history of the last two millennia, we have many reasons to despair right now. But, as the 20th-century French-Jewish essayist Edmond Fleg once stated so incisively, 

Je suis juif, parce qu’en tous temps où crie une désespérance, le juif espère.

I am a Jew because in every age when the cry of despair is heard, the Jew hopes.

We mourn for those whom we have lost to Covid-19, and we, the living, acknowledge our gratitude that we are still here.

And we also continue to hold out hope that, even as we gather again, even as we move from pandemic to endemic, even as we face all of the challenges of our world, we will someday soon have a better world, one which is untroubled by all of our contemporary scourges, one in which wolf, lamb, leopard, and kid are all dwelling together, and the birds of spring bring renewal of spirit once again.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 5/14/2022.)

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Sermons

How to be Holy in Three Easy Steps – Qedoshim 5782

Some of you have surely heard me say that Qedoshim is truly my favorite parashah (e.g. here). That is not merely because, 39 years ago, I was called to the Torah for the first time as a bar mitzvah, one who has inherited the 613 mitzvot / holy opportunities of Jewish life, to read from this part of the Torah. Rather it is because, and I did not really get this 39 years ago, it contains the most essential line in the Tanakh, the Hebrew bible. I would not even dare to fantasize about correcting the great 1st-century BCE sage Hillel. However, if I were in his shoes 2,000 years ago, when he was asked by a potential convert to teach the whole Torah while standing on one leg (as in the famous midrash), I would have said (Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:2): 

קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

That is how chapter 19 of Vayiqra / Leviticus opens. Now, it is worth pointing out, as one of my teachers from the Jewish Theological Seminary, Dr. Raymond Scheindlin put it: 

But the chapter doesn’t begin “Be moral, for I the Lord your God am moral” or “Be righteous, for I the Lord your God am righteous.” It begins “Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”

Being holy is not necessarily being moral or righteous or socially conscious or politically engaged, although it may include all of those things. Being holy transcends the day-to-day mundane affairs which fill our lives. It is a much higher template for living. And Chapter 19 of Vayiqra / Leviticus, much of which we read today, teaches us how to be holy in three easy steps! I’ll tell you what they are in a moment, but first let me make the case for why you might want to pursue a holy life.

First, let’s face it: we are living in challenging times. (The working title for my book, by the way, is Torah for Tough Times.) Consider the great sense of isolation many people feel today, climate change, a yawning chasm between political factions in this nation which even cleaves families in two, the ongoing scourge of opioid abuse, rising rates of anti-Semitic activity, and throw in two years of pandemic and a senseless war in Eastern Europe, and a leaked document from the Supreme Court threatening abortion rights, just to name a few of the things that are raising our collective blood pressure.

Second, consider the fact that the spiritual framework which nourished our ancestors has gone away. Our forebears faced the challenges in their own lives by leaning into their Jewish practice. What do you lean into? Facebook? Instagram? No solace to be found there, I assure you.

Third, consider how your time has been stolen from you. Not only because the average American adult spends three hours a day staring at a smartphone screen, and the average teen seven hours, but also because work has invaded all the corners of our lives, and the endless options available to us for all kinds of wonderful activities push the possibility for holy, reflective moments off our radar.

Finally, consider how we prize our independence over all else, and how that has gone a long way toward creating a society in which we are all looking out for Number One. I sometimes feel that we have lost the sense of collective, that we can actually accomplish more when we work together to build a better society. Rebuilding that interconnected sense begins with doing things together across racial, ethnic, religious, and social lines – breaking bread, stepping forward to volunteer together, even just speaking with people who are unlike you.

Why should you want to be holy? Because a holy life is one which will make your life better as an individual and will make your neighborhood and your world better for all of us.

So, straight outta Vayiqra chapter 19, here is an easy three-step guide to living a holy life:

  1. Set aside sacred time.

19:30: אֶת־שַׁבְּתֹתַ֣י תִּשְׁמֹ֔רוּ וּמִקְדָּשִׁ֖י תִּירָ֑אוּ. Keep my holy Sabbaths and venerate my holy sanctuary, says God. 

We should read this expansively: by keeping Shabbat and venerating the miqdash, usually understood to be the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, we should understand that we must carve out holy moments in our lives. Now, let’s face it: it’s not so easy to set aside the holy time of Shabbat and holidays to be together with your family and your people and to gather in sacred fellowship with other Jews in our sacred spaces. Our time and by extension, our attention, are precious commodities in high demand; our lives are impossibly crowded with stuff, aided and abetted by the landscape of the Information Age.

Ladies and gentlemen, I shut down all my wired and wireless connections from sundown on Friday evening until dark on Saturday night. I do not spend money. I do not travel anywhere that I cannot get to on foot. I spend quality time with family – meals and games and lounging around, and I most assuredly get more and better sleep in those 25 hours than during the rest of the week.

And you can do that too. Really, you need it. You need the separation from the cut-and-thrust of daily interaction, from the likes and the retweets and your to-do list and schedules and commerce. You will make your life more holy and your weekday more productive if you shut down and spend quality time for those 25 hours as well. 

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously called Shabbat “a palace in time.” It is there for you to enter and to enjoy, and to raise the bar of holiness in your life. This is how we sanctify time rather than idolize things, and that is Step 1.

  1. Remember the other.

There are so many mitzvot here in chapter 19 that speak to this idea. Just a few:

19:18 וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ Love your neighbor as yourself.

19:16 לֹ֥א תַעֲמֹ֖ד עַל־דַּ֣ם רֵעֶ֑ךָ Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.

19:14 לֹא־תְקַלֵּ֣ל חֵרֵ֔שׁ וְלִפְנֵ֣י עִוֵּ֔ר לֹ֥א תִתֵּ֖ן מִכְשֹׁ֑ל Do not curse the deaf, or put an obstacle before the blind.

The essence of living a holy life is to remember that you are not an independent operator, that you function in cooperation with all the others around you, and that each of us contains a spark of the Divine. We honor and elevate that spark when we remember to love our neighbor, when we respect each and every person around us by listening, by trying to appreciate their position, and by greeting everybody with a cheerful countenance. We create a better environment for all when we seek to understand rather than simply dismiss, or God forbid insult, those with whom we disagree. And we bring honor back onto ourselves when we model that behavior for our children and our friends as well as the folks with whom we do not get along.

The Torah wants us to see the humanity, the Divine spark of the other, and seek to connect. It is up to us to raise the bar of holiness in all the ways we interact with the folks around us. Remember the other; that is step 2.

  1. Give.

Arguably the most essential mitzvot in Jewish life, the ones which the Talmud tells us explicitly that you must instruct one who joins our faith to know, are those that require us to set aside some of the produce from our fields to give to those in need. Four of them appear in this Holiness code (19:9-10):

וּֽבְקֻצְרְכֶם֙ אֶת־קְצִ֣יר אַרְצְכֶ֔ם לֹ֧א תְכַלֶּ֛ה פְּאַ֥ת שָׂדְךָ֖ לִקְצֹ֑ר וְלֶ֥קֶט קְצִֽירְךָ֖ לֹ֥א תְלַקֵּֽט׃ וְכַרְמְךָ֙ לֹ֣א תְעוֹלֵ֔ל וּפֶ֥רֶט כַּרְמְךָ֖ לֹ֣א תְלַקֵּ֑ט לֶֽעָנִ֤י וְלַגֵּר֙ תַּעֲזֹ֣ב אֹתָ֔ם אֲנִ֖י ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger. 

Of course, who in Squirrel Hill has a field, or harvests in this way? It is, rather, up to us to apply the spirit of these laws to how we live today, to remember that when we have plenty, we have to remember those who do not, and to give. 

But not only our money. What is our most precious commodity? Our time. Giving generously of your time fulfills these mitzvot as well. Find a charity that needs you; I’m happy to find you some volunteer work here at Beth Shalom. Spending time with others while you perform a mitzvah, in both the halakhic and the idiomatic sense, is a great way to be holy. Give; that is step 3.

***

This is the formula for holiness. It ain’t rocket science, as they say, but it is essential to living a complete life, and for using the traditional Jewish framework to improve yourself and your world. 

  • Set aside sacred time. 
  • Remember the other. 
  • Give. 

Three simple steps for living a holy life, and God knows this world could benefit from a whole lot more qedushah, more holiness. Please come talk to me if you need help in doing so; I would be honored to help you along your journey.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 5/7/2022.)

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Sermons

Faithful Allies – Aḥarei Mot 5782

I went on a kind of pilgrimage this week. No, not a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, as our ancestors made at festival times in the ancient world, when the Temple was still standing. Rather, it was an interfaith trip to our nation’s capital to visit significant religious sites from several different groups. On the itinerary was the National Cathedral, the Latter-Day Saints (Mormon) Washington DC Temple, the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, Washington Hebrew Congregation, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, and the Sri Siva Vishnu Hindu Temple. (Lamentably, there was no mosque on the itinerary, perhaps because it is still Ramadan). 

Inside the Metropolitan AME Church with Rev. William Lamar IV

Our group was mixed – Jewish and Christian clergy of various streams, and part of the experience was the inevitable discussions en route: learning about one another’s traditions, seeking common ground, discovering how we read, for example, the Torah differently. I learned, for example, that Catholics celebrate Shavu’ot, although they refer to it as Pentecost, and for them it is the beginning of the ministry of the Apostles. They actually see it as an analog to our celebration of Mattan Torah, the gift of Torah at Mt. Sinai. And, by the way, it’s exactly seven weeks after Easter!*

Speaking of the Torah, one of the essential pieces of Aḥarei Mot, from which we read today, is a description of the ancient Yom Kippur, when the Kohen Gadol / High Priest would confess the sins of the Israelites onto the “scapegoat” and send it off into the wilderness. 

What is interesting about this, both from a Jewish perspective and from an interfaith perspective is that, while everybody wants to be cleansed of their sins, no major religious tradition as far as I know reads that passage as a literal guide to atonement. We, the Jews, pray and fast and confess our sins in public and ask for forgiveness from each other and from God, and pledge to change our ways. Christians and Muslims and Hindus and so forth all have their own ways of seeking forgiveness from sin, and many of these traditions include some of the aspects of the Kohen Gadol’s Yom Kippur ritual, particularly confession.

But nobody does exactly what is found in the Torah. We rather look back through the unique lenses of each of our respective faiths to relate to what we read in Aḥarei Mot (Vayiqra / Leviticus 16-18) this week. In that sense, we share some sense of common heritage. On this trip, there were multiple times that everybody in the group looked to the Jews as the originators of some of their practices, not in the sense of, “You did it all wrong, and we have fixed it!” But rather with the thrust of, “Thank you for showing us the way.” And frankly, that was somewhat encouraging.

The shrine of Our Mother of Africa, at the Basilica of the National Shrine. That’s a diagram of a slave ship on the floor at the entrance

One of the things that I have come to understand in recent years is that people of faith share quite a bit across religious lines. While I think that many of us grew up with a certain amount of justifiable fear or discomfort around non-Jews, given the complicated and unpleasant history of our people, I feel today a kinship with my non-Jewish colleagues which reflects our shared goals: to encourage mutual respect, to understand that while our religious approaches differ and our interpretations of scripture disagree, our goals are often the same.

We share a common yearning, and a common enemy.

We yearn for God. Yes, each in our own individual way; for some that yearning does not reflect traditional God language. But, as with the words of the Psalmist (Ps. 42:2):

כְּאַיָּ֗ל תַּעֲרֹ֥ג עַל־אֲפִֽיקֵי־מָ֑יִם כֵּ֤ן נַפְשִׁ֨י תַעֲרֹ֖ג אֵלֶ֣יךָ אֱ-לֹהִֽים 

Like a deer crying for water, my soul cries for You, O God.

The 17th-century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal once described this human need as a “God-shaped vacuum in the human soul,” a place inside of us that cries out for the potential that God gives us: for human connection, for doing good works, for elevating the holiness between people. What has continued to cause people to gather in praise of God, as we are doing right now? What has sustained religious engagement into a modernity that refuses to create room for God? It’s not kiddush (collation), and it’s not swimming in the pool at the JCC.

It is that impulse for Divinity, the fundamental human need to seek out the Divine spark in ourselves and others. It is the desire to fill that God-shaped hole. And we do that by building houses of worship; by telling stories and interpreting Scripture and adhering to customs and law and pilgrimage festivals with no pilgrimage and immersion in baptismal fonts and miqva’ot (Jewish ritual baths) and all the things that we do to pursue the Godliness in ourselves and others.

Mosaic at the Basilica in the chapel dedicated by Pittsburgh’s Byzantine Catholic community, showing the Pittsburgh skyline

And what is our  common enemy? It is indifference. It is the disinterested shrug that turns us back to the television, or the outrage machine on our smartphone screens, or intoxicants or shopping sprees or all the ways in which we divert ourselves and avoid facing the things we really need to face.

If we do not fill that vacuum with God, with the values that our tradition teaches us, we fill it with junk. We fill it with all of the myriad things which draw us away from holiness: leshon hara (the evil tongue) and idle pursuits rather than prayer and learning; fear and hatred of the other rather than love and connection and engagement; all of our numerous unhealthy addictions instead of the holy patterns in Jewish time.

Cantor Susan Bortnick at the Washington Hebrew Congregation

But you know better. You know that your religious framework gives you values which shape your life and your environs for the better: family; boundaries; conservation; gratitude; joy; understanding; community; support in times of grief; seeing multiple sides to every argument; respect for our fellow human beings; justice.

If only more people in the world understood the value in our traditions, in our holy books, in our framework. Maybe some of the turmoil in our world would be lessened somewhat. That is where my tefillah, my prayer is focused.

After dinner on Tuesday, when we had visited the LDS Temple, the synagogue, and the AME church, our friend and neighbor from Church of the Redeemer, Rev. Canon Natalie Hall, observed that in each of those places, our tour guides led with their most essential values. For the LDS folks, it was family. For the Jews, it was text, the holy words of our tradition. For the African Methodist Episcopal Church, it was justice.

If we were only to hold up those three things – family, text, justice – dayyenu! It would be enough. But of course that is not exactly how Judaism, or any faith tradition, works. We need to see, in some sense, the richness of our tradition through the lens of all that we do. We need to dig deeper, to climb higher, to keep reading and learning and discussing and arguing. We have to understand that, while we do not have a Kohen Gadol or a scapegoat or an altar on which to sacrifice to God, we do have the words of our tradition and our rituals and our law and our philosophy and the contemporary understandings that make these things meaningful to us today to guide us, in the words of Isaiah (42:21), יַגְדִּ֥יל תּוֹרָ֖ה וְיַאְדִּֽיר, to magnify and glorify God’s teaching.

Spending two days with colleagues from other traditions only reminded me that we are allies in faith, and that we all seek greater connection and a better world. And we can do that, folks. We carry ancient keys to the secrets for a healthier society. We only have to continue to teach them and live them. 

And, let’s face it: given the rising rates of anti-Semitic activity, it is good for us to be wary, and to decry anti-Jewish bias when we encounter it. But we must also seek partners across the aisle – in churches, mosques, and temples of all kinds – so that we might all seek forgiveness for our sins where appropriate; so that we might seek to understand each other and speak the same language, and so that we might be able to fill that God-shaped hole in the world.

Sri Siva Vishnu Temple

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 4/30/2022.)

* Echoing the seven weeks of Sefirat ha’Omer, the counting of the sheaves of barley from the second day of Pesaḥ until Shavu’ot, as described in the Torah. Today, there are no sheaves of barley, but Jews still count the seven weeks.

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Festivals Sermons Yizkor

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

אֲמַר לֵיהּ: מַאן חֲשִׁיב, מַאן סְפִין, מַאן רְקִיעַ

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

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

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

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

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

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

And how do we do that, exactly?

We do it by remembering.

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

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

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

Rosie and Eddie, in an undated romantic moment

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

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

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

And so we remember, and we live for them.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

Categories
Sermons

Time to Gather Again – Shabbat HaGadol 5782

You may know that back in the Old Country, rabbis would only give sermons twice a year: on Shabbat Shuvah, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and on Shabbat haGadol, right before Pesaḥ. (You know who likes to cite this fact frequently? Cantors, who are always hopeful that the rabbi will talk less.)

I think the reason, historically, was that those were times in which the rabbis felt the need to remind their congregations of the important halakhic details surrounding Yom Kippur and Pesaḥ, so they lectured them on the intricacies of fasting and repenting, on ḥametz and matzah and purifying our homes and our lives, and so forth.

So one reason this day is called Shabbat haGadol, which you might translate as “the Big Shabbat,” is that services historically took longer, since the rabbi would be talking extensively about kashering your pots and pans, burning and selling ḥametz, and so forth.

On this Big Shabbat, as we emerge cautiously after two years of pandemic, we have to remember to think big, that is, to think in terms of community, rather than as individuals.

My daughter, who was called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah here in the depths of the pandemic in August 2020 with a few more than a minyan of close relatives in the room, recently told me something that was particularly striking. She sings with the Pittsburgh chapter of HaZamir: The International Jewish Teen Choir. If you are not familiar with HaZamir, you should know that there are 25 chapters in cities across the United States, and eight chapters in Israel, and every spring they gather in New York to perform together – hundreds of American and Israeli teens on stage at Lincoln Center. It is powerful and moving; many young members of Beth Shalom have sung with HaZamir over the years.

HaZamir performing in Pittsburgh at Temple Sinai, 2019

But that concert is only the part that is visible to the public. On the day before the concert, that is, on Shabbat, the participants organize and attend their own services. Now, imagine if you will that you have a population of 400 Jewishly-knowledgeable high school students, who are all talented singers, and you ask them to create Shabbat services? The result, which I have not personally experienced, but my daughter did two weeks ago, is something wonderful. She described it as restoring her faith in the idea of Am Yisrael Ḥai: The people of Israel lives!

https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=979326796024987

I was kind of struck dumb by this remark. All of the investment in her Jewish upbringing – the day school tuition, the bat mitzvah prep, the summers at Camp Ramah, USY conventions, Shabbat and Yom Tov services here at Beth Shalom week after week – and the thing that gives her hope for the Jewish future is an annual Jewish choir convention in New York. I frankly did NOT see that coming.

But it speaks to the idea of thinking big. That is, thinking about community. What made that Shabbat work was the instant-community feel of it: a whole bunch of teens brought together for a particular purpose, thinking not only of themselves, but rather of the entire gathering, of the whole group together.

And you know what? We can think big right here in Pittsburgh. We do not have to head out to Lincoln Center to find community.

On the contrary: we have it right here. And this is not an instant community; it is fashioned from a group of people who have been convening under the banner of Congregation Beth Shalom for more than a century. 

But there is an urgency right now to our being able to think big.

While it is true that the pandemic is not over, we are thankfully in a lull in terms of new infections and hospitalizations. We are now mask-optional here in the building, except for our youngest congregants (with the innovation this week of a mask-required section here in the Sanctuary). 

And looming larger in our midst is the challenge right now of returning to one of the basic principles in Jewish life, that our tefillot, our religious services, take place in person. That is, they require physical proximity, in order to constitute a minyan, a prayer quorum of 10 Jewish people. 

Before I get to how we get there, just a quick review of how we got here.

As you may know, 9 or fewer people praying together are considered individuals, and there are certain parts of the service which may not be performed unless there are at least 10 people present. Those items include reading Torah, reciting the Barekhu, the repetition of the Amidah including the Qedushah, and any form of the Qaddish, including Mourners’ Qaddish. Prior to March 15, 2020, we held fast to the halakhic principle that those people must be in the room.

As the world was shutting down 25 long months ago, we moved our services almost entirely on-line. The Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards issued a teshuvah, a rabbinic response to a halakhic quandary, that in certain circumstances people who are not in the same building but within sight and hearing of the service may be counted in the minyan.

Our new electronic tools have made this possible from a much greater distance than the ancient rabbis of the Talmud could have possibly envisioned. In his teshuvah, my colleague Rabbi Joshua Heller suggested that we apply a hora’at sha’ah, a temporary measure that would apply in this she’at hadeḥaq, this urgent situation brought on by the social distancing requirements of the pandemic. This enabled us to constitute a minyan via Zoom, when we were not in each other’s physical presence, but rather in “virtual” presence, and therefore able to complete our daily tefillot in the usual way.

Prior to two years ago, the Conservative movement did NOT allow this, and we at Beth Shalom would not have accepted a laptop and screens sitting in the middle of the Samuel and Minnie Hyman Sanctuary. But considering the she’at hadeḥaq, this urgent situation, we changed one of the fundamental principles of Jewish life. And for many of us, this was an essential lifeline for the last two years. Many of us were stuck at home for much of that time, with few opportunities to connect with others. Indeed, weekday service attendance over the last two years has actually been higher at times than pre-pandemic, and we have never failed to make a minyan

But, ḥevreh, it is now time to return to where we were before the pandemic. And now is the time to think big: to think beyond ourselves as individuals. To consider the greater needs of this community.

What is the most important part of tefillah, of prayer? Is it fulfilling the mitzvah, the holy opportunity that our people have been practicing for thousands of years? Is it reciting the Shema and the Amidah, the two fundamental building blocks of Jewish services? Is it hearing the Torah read and interpreting it? Is it enabling folks to recite Mourners’ Qaddish?

While all of those things are essential to Jewish life and the keys to our ongoing existence and flourishing, the most important aspect to tefillah is the gathering. It is the banter before, the schmoozing after, the human contact that takes place as we come from our separate directions to form a minyan, interact, even if only briefly, and go our separate ways again.

We need to be around each other, in person. We need to see each other’s faces, to hear each other’s voices in their full, resonant glory, uncompressed by Internet transmission technology. We need to be present for one another, in moments of grief and celebration, pain and joy.

And that is why our Religious Services Committee has set a date: Monday, May 2, three weeks from now. On that morning, we will start serving breakfast after morning minyan once again, as we always used to do (thanks to Dee Selekman and her team of assistants), and both morning and night we will expect that the minyan will have to be 10 people, in person, in the room.

Yes, I know that means you have to leave your home and #ComeBacktoShul in order for us to make a minyan. Yes, we will continue to offer our services via Zoom, but that some of our regular Zoom participants who are in other states and even in other countries will not count toward the minyan. Yes, there are people for whom it is still not safe to come into the building, and that is surely a consideration. 

But we have to think big. We have to think not just about ourselves as individuals, but the greater good as a qehillah qedoshah, a community founded in holiness. And this principle is one which we should not relinquish. 

Congregation Beth Shalom

You may know that there are already synagogues which have entered the so-called “metaverse.” While I admire their willingness to be ahead of the curve, I must emphasize that a synagogue is a fundamentally local institution. I am fairly confident that whatever Mark Zuckerberg creates and however impressive the technology, we are going to need in-person interaction unmediated by Reb Zuckerberg and his platforms. We need to be together.

On this Shabbat haGadol, this Big Shabbat, it is time for us to acknowledge the urgency of restoring this crucial aspect of Jewish life.

And let’s face it: there may be some nights we won’t make a minyan. We have the GroupMe app to help summon others if necessary. But here is where you come in: help us out. Pick one night a week, or one night a month, to help us support one another by being in minyan, in communal relationship together. Think big! Show up.

חג שמח! Ḥag Samea! May we all have a joyous Passover festival, marked by gathering and community and good discussions around the seder table.

Categories
Festivals Sermons

The Most Imperfect Jewish Food – Shemini 5782

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s a curious prayer, isn’t it? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

הָא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא דִּי אֲכָלוּ אַבְהָתָנָא בְאַרְעָא דְמִצְרָיִם

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

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

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

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

So what’s the message? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is the fundamental message of Pesaḥ.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

Categories
Sermons

#ComeBacktoShul – Vayiqra 5782

I was in church last Sunday afternoon. Admittedly, it was the first time I’d been to a church service in a while. 

I participated in an interfaith prayer gathering in support of the people of Ukraine at St. Paul’s Cathedral, presided over by Bishop Zubik of the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese. In attendance were people from across the religious spectrum of the region, including Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, and Christian spiritual leaders, as well as over 500 attendees. While some of the overtly Christian language was uncomfortable to me, the overarching message was a resonant one: we stand with the Ukrainian people. In addition to words of prayer and remarks by some of the clergy participants, including a very moving personal story from Father Ihor Hohosha of St. George Ukrainian Catholic Church, the service was occasionally punctuated by people calling out, “Slava Ukraini!” “Glory to Ukraine!”

It was inspiring to see so many people together in one place – the first indoor gathering of that size that I have attended in two whole years, and all the more so to unite across theological lines in support of a cause.

One might criticize such a gathering by saying, “OK, that’s great. But what the Ukrainians need is actual, material support – arms, military personnel, humanitarian aid, and so forth. What good does having an interfaith prayer service do?”

Actually, ladies and gentlemen, prayer accomplishes a lot. And that’s why we are about to launch Beth Shalom’s #ComeBacktoShul campaign. I’ll come back to that in a few minutes.

What does tefillah / Jewish prayer accomplish? And why engage in it?

Here are the major communal and individual benefits:

  1. Tefillah / prayer brings us physically together. As you know, you have to have a minyan, a quorum of 10 people for it to be a complete service. That means you have to show up, something which is hard enough today even without a worldwide pandemic. And, as we have all learned in abundance over the past two years, being in the same room with other people is much better than seeing your fellow participants on your screen.
  2. Tefillah makes us feel like a community. אל תפרוש מן הציבור, “Do not separate yourself from the community,” says Pirqei Avot. When we have at least 10 people together in a room, we feel interconnected. We understand that we are parts of a greater whole. We build a qehillah qedoshah, a congregation founded in holiness.
  3. Prayer sensitizes us to the needs of the other. If you are doing it right, engaging in tefillah reminds you that, in this solitary moment of ritual, we are connected to God, to each other, to our ancient tradition. It reminds us that connection requires being open to and aware of the people around us. There is a custom that many have of giving tzedaqah during the weekday morning service, because that is a moment in which we are most sensitized to the needy around us. (We cannot pass the tzedaqah box on Shabbat, because handling money is forbidden on Shabbat; nonetheless, even on Shabbat, tefillah should lead us to see the Divine spark in everybody.)

    One of the first things that we say as part of the morning service is from Rabbi Isaac Luria, the 16th-century kabbalist (you can find this on p. 102 in Lev Shalem):

הריני מקבל עלי מצות הבורא: ואהבת לרעך כמוך

I hereby accept the obligation of fulfilling the Creator’s mitzvah: Love your neighbor as yourself. 

We cannot even begin to daven without first acknowledging that we are in relationship with the people around us.

  1. Tefillah is meditation. Jews are never silent, even when they pray. Our meditation is not like Eastern meditation; our mantra is in Hebrew, and has many more words. But if you are truly mindful about your prayer, if you are truly in the moment and successfully let go of the other things that are tugging at your attention during services, our prayer tradition functions the same way. That too is very hard. But if you commit yourself to doing it regularly, you will achieve the same thing that you might achieve in other kinds of meditation. 
  2. Tefillah teaches Torah. The highest ideal in Jewish life is learning; the most essential mitzvah out of all 613 is engaging with words of Torah. If you are paying attention, prayer is study, and study is prayer; they reinforce and build on each other. 
  3. Tefillah means “self-judgment.” If you are doing it properly, prayer is an opportunity to check in with yourself, to evaluate where you are, what you have done right and wrong, and to see if you can tip the scales in the right direction. As with all of the items above, tefillah is a tool for improving yourself and improving your community and your world. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi taught that, as we open our mouths in prayer, we should start by saying, “Dear God, whatever jealousies and resentments I might harbor in my heart, please remove this judgment from me.” Self-judgment.

Yes, for Jewish prayer there is a high bar. Even if you cannot read Hebrew, you still have to be able to manage transliteration. And you have to know when to respond, and when to be silent, when to stand/sit, when to bow, and so forth. And to understand the meaning of the words – to be able to glean something from them, that takes real work. I had many semesters of liturgy and liturgical Hebrew in Cantorial School, and I still encounter words or idioms I do not understand. 

But of course some of those things do not require a deep knowledge. The mere act of gathering as a community so that we can feel connected to one another is an outcome that we can all achieve, even if you don’t know the words, or when to bow.

And yet, every time we gather for a service, we raise the level of qedushah / holiness in ourselves, in our relationships, and in our community. And in doing so, all of the benefits I just mentioned help us work toward improving this world.

So even though Ukraine is very far away, our gathering to say words of prayer on behalf of the Ukrainian people will surely help, even though we might not see the results immediately. Every prayer helps a little bit.

Which brings us back to why we are here. Yes, we are here this morning to celebrate with a bar mitzvah as he is called to the Torah. Yes, we are here to be with each other, to have lunch together. 

But more pointedly, we are here to pray. And we do that every day at Beth Shalom, twice a day, morning and evening.

And we need you to come back to pray with us. In person.

Thank God, our rates of transmission are as low now as they were last summer. Thank God, many of us now are boosted. We hope that soon young children will be able to be vaccinated as well. I am grateful, and I am sure that you are too.

I have heard recently from multiple members of Beth Shalom, in different ways and using different language, that right now, after two years of pandemic, they feel disconnected from our community. Well, folks, there is just one solution to that: #ComeBacktoShul. 

We need you to be here. Physically. In-person. We need you to come back. We are waiting for you.

And we need you to bring a friend. Find the people whom you know have not returned, and invite them to come back as well. We will welcome everybody with group air hugs all around.

So here are a couple of practical considerations:

  1. We are still wearing masks in the building, at least for a couple of more weeks. We want to be sure that everybody feels safe. It’s not going to be so easy for us to simply start to gather again. It still makes me a bit nervous to be around unmasked people right now. But that is a temporary thing. We’ll get used to it again.
  2. We are serving food again, and I hope that we’ll be able to start up our weekday-morning breakfasts soon.
  3. We will continue to make our services available via Zoom. However, within the coming months we will no longer be, as we have been for the past two years, in the mode of “she’at hadeḥaq,” which is rabbi-speak for “an urgent situation.” As the urgency of the moment recedes, we are going to return to the mode where a minyan is constituted only by people in the room, and we will not count Zoom participants toward that minyan. That will be a big change for our weekday minyanim, so you might want to consider helping us out morning and evening, so that we can continue to make a quorum. I anticipate that (if everything continues moving the right direction) this change will be coming around Pesaḥ.

The prophet Isaiah tells us that the Jewish center of worship is an ecumenical space, one that is for everybody. Isaiah says (56:7):

 כִּ֣י בֵיתִ֔י בֵּית־תְּפִלָּ֥ה יִקָּרֵ֖א לְכָל־הָעַמִּֽים׃

For My House shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.

Rabbi David Qimḥi, a late 12th/early 13th c. French commentator, also known by his acronym רד”ק (Radaq), said this about this verse:

וגם אל הנכרי כל שכן לשבים לדת ישראל:

And if Isaiah’s words applies to non-Jews, all the more so to those who are returning to Jewish worship.

This house is open to you, and to everybody. Now is the time to return. We need you to join us in prayer. The world needs you; the people of Ukraine need you. #ComeBacktoShul. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 3/12/2022.)

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Sermons

Israel Is Not an Apartheid State – Vayaqhel 5782

A curious phenomenon emerged a number of years ago, identified by the author Mike Godwin, and ultimately labeled “Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies.” Godwin’s observation is that the longer an online discussion continues, the likelihood that one participant will call another a Nazi or compare them to Hitler goes to one – that is, inevitably that will happen if the argument continues for a while. 

What Godwin was effectively saying was that we have become so accustomed to calling other people Nazis that it has become a standard part of our discourse. Seinfeld’s infamous “Soup Nazi” episode, in 1995, may very well have exacerbated the problem.

The “Soup Nazi”

Really nothing rises to the unique brand of evil that the Nazis created. Has there been attempted genocide? Yes. Have there been anti-Semitic, racist, and fascist-leaning governments, with charismatic authoritarian leaders? Unquestionably.

But let’s face it: applying the “Nazi” label to anyone (except, I suppose, to neo-Nazis who where it proudly) is ridiculously hyperbolic, and also extraordinarily unhelpful. A corollary to Godwin’s Law is that as soon as you have called somebody else a Nazi, you have lost the argument.

In today’s environment, where mind-numbing quantities of information and opinion and spin blur together on our screens, people who are desperate to get their point across can sometimes only succeed in getting your attention by throwing around grossly inaccurate, inflammatory language. 

This phenomenon is truly unfortunate, and Jewish tradition has what to say about this. Just as a starting point, we read a few weeks back in Parashat Mishpatim (Shemot / Exodus 23:7)

מִדְּבַר־שֶׁ֖קֶר תִּרְחָ֑ק וְנָקִ֤י וְצַדִּיק֙ אַֽל־תַּהֲרֹ֔ג 

Midevar sheqer tirḥaq, venaqi vetzaddik al taharog…

Distance yourself from a false matter; and the innocent and righteous you shall not slay …

Connecting the first and second parts of the verse, we should read this as saying that deliberate misrepresentation can kill innocent people. We know the power, and the danger, of words. If a statement is so wildly hyperbolic as to be untrue, we should not repeat it. 

In recent years, you may have heard people applying equally inflammatory language to the State of Israel: “Apartheid.” “Genocide.” “Settler colonialist state.” “Ethnic cleansing.” 

You may have heard that a few weeks back, around the same time as the Whoopi Goldberg debacle, the human rights organization Amnesty International issued a report that declared that the State of Israel is carrying out a campaign of “apartheid” against the Palestinian people. Amnesty is not the first organization to accuse Israel of apartheid crimes – Human Rights Watch issued a similar report last year, as did the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem. And, perhaps most notoriously, President Jimmy Carter published a book in 2006 entitled, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.

Just a brief refresher: “Apartheid,” an Afrikaans word for “separateness,” was the legally-enshrined racial categorization system that functioned in South Africa for nearly five decades in the 20th century. Under apartheid, all citizens were categorized into four distinct races: White, Black, Indian, and Coloured, and laws about whom you could marry, where you could live and work, how you could vote and for whom, were all a part of that system. It was a system that was fundamentally unjust, denying non-white people many of the rights that we all agree should be universal.

According to Amnesty International’s website, the definition of apartheid has been generalized:

The crime against humanity of apartheid … is committed when any inhuman or inhumane act (essentially a serious human rights violation) is perpetrated in the context of an institutionalised regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over another, with the intention to maintain that system.

Now, I’m sure that we do not have to think too hard to come up with other nations that might be guilty of this type of inhumane mistreatment. China is clearly one, and the context of the Olympics has elevated the plight of the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province. According to Amnesty’s definition of apartheid, I can think of some people in this country who might even apply it here in the United States.

The only nation for which Amnesty has used the term “apartheid” other than Israel is Myanmar, a nation that has been in nearly constant civil war and sectarian fighting since its founding in 1948, subjected to coup after military coup, and has meanwhile severely persecuted its Rohingya Muslim population.

The Amnesty report blurs the line between Israel’s Arab citizens, who are of course also ethnically Palestinian, and the residents of the territories of Gaza and the West Bank. 

When I was in an Israeli family court in the Israeli-Arab city of Nazareth in 2006 to resolve an agreement over mezonot (child support) for my Israeli son, the presiding judge was a Muslim Israeli Arab. Arab citizens of the State of Israel participate in Israeli democracy (remember that there is currently an Arab Islamist party in the governing coalition), they attend Israeli universities, serve as doctors and lawyers and academics and musicians and journalists and soccer stars, and some even serve in the IDF. 

Is there discrimination in Israeli society? Yes there is, just like there is here in America, and in France, and in Brazil, and India, and all over the world. But you would have to twist reality to claim that within Israel, there is a system of apartheid, at least by South African standards.

Mansour Abbas, head of the Ra’am party, that Arab Islamist party that is currently a part of the governing coalition, when asked if Israel is an apartheid state, clearly said no, it is not.

Mansour Abbas of the Ra’am Party

The application of that term by those organizations is somewhat akin to Godwin’s Law – it is an attempt to get the world’s attention with language that makes us respond in anger or disgust.

Now, it is true that in the Israeli-controlled territory of the West Bank, Palestinian Arab residents live in vastly different circumstances, and the thorny question regarding how to resolve the challenges posed by Israel’s occupation of territories captured in 1967 continues to roil the region and the world.

But while pointing out the failures of the current approach is essential, some critics of Israel have gone too far. As distant as it may seem right now, the two-state solution is still the best possible option available for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That’s in large part because the alternatives are even less plausible. And of course there is a great deal of fear, anger, intransigence and inertia all around that continue to make the challenge even greater. 

And yes, both Palestinians and Israelis continue to suffer greatly because of these failures. But broadcasting extreme positions help no one – they only exacerbate tensions all around, and cause even more intransigence.

We all know that the situation on the ground for all of the 15 million people in the region is heartbreaking, in so many ways.

But we absolutely cannot give up on finding and building the best solution possible under the circumstances. We cannot allow the failures of the past and the inertia of the present to prevent us from building a sustainable Palestinian state alongside a safe and secure Israel.

And we will never be able to achieve this if we continue to hurl inflammatory language which is meant to inflict spiritual wounds and distort reality. Midevar sheqer tirḥaq. Distance yourself from falsehood.

If we truly want to arrive at an equitable solution, everybody is just going to have to cool it with the extreme rhetoric. Using terms like “apartheid,” and yes, “anti-Semitic” is not helpful. All the more so terms like the completely unsupportable “genocide” or “ethnic cleansing” or the inscrutable “settler colonial state.” (By the way, if you live anywhere in the Western Hemisphere and think that Israel should be dismantled because it’s a “settler colonial state,” you might want to consider moving overseas, because you too are living in a settler colonial state.

It is perfectly reasonable to be critical of Israel, but not in a way that supports those who want to destroy her, and certainly not in a way that just provokes more anger and fear and obstinacy. Our goals should be to bring everybody back to the negotiating table.

One of the principles we encounter in Parashat Vayaqhel, as the Israelites are building the mishkan, is that all of the work and materials are donated by those who are “kol nediv libo” (Shemot / Exodus 35:5). The Sefat Emet, the late 19th-century Torah commentary by the Gerrer Rebbe, teaches us that this means that the Israelites who contributed brought not only the materials, but also their willing hearts.

There are many, many people around the world who care about the future of the State of Israel and the fate of the territories. We all need to bring our willing hearts, so that the State of Israel can continue to thrive, and all those who dwell in that land can be free.

Detail of the Israel window in Beth Shalom’s sanctuary. This window was installed prior to 1967.

We must reject those who place obstacles on the path to peace with flagrant mischaracterizations and distortions of the Israeli and Palestinian reality. Israel is not an apartheid state. Now let’s roll up our sleeves, and in the words of Psalm 34, בַּקֵּ֖שׁ שָׁל֣וֹם וְרׇדְפֵֽהוּ – Baqqesh shalom verodfehu – seek peace and pursue it.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 2/26/2022.)

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Sermons

Maus, Whoopi, and the People of the Book – Terumah 5782

This week, after a few decades, I re-read Maus, the graphic novel by Art Spiegelman which tells the true story of his father’s survival of the Shoah, and it is as powerful as it was when it came out in the ‘80s. And, curiously enough, this was the appropriate week to read it: in volume I, Spiegelman references Parashat Terumah! When his father Vladek is a Polish Army POW, he has a dream in which his grandfather appears, wearing tefillin, repeating “Parshas Truma! Parshas Truma!” over and over, meaning that he will be released from the Nazi prison camp on Shabbat Parashat Terumah. As it turns out, the dream actually comes true. And not only that, but Vladek realizes after the fact that his wedding before the war had occurred during the week of Parashat Terumah, and that his son Art (the author) was born during the week of Terumah after the war in 1948, and thirteen years later was called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah on Shabbat Parashat Terumah.

So it is completely appropriate that Maus hit best-seller lists again this week! Go figure.

That the Pulitzer Prize-winning books were banned from a state-approved eighth-grade curriculum by a 10-0 vote of the McMinn County (Tennessee) Schools Board of Trustees is, of course, laughable, but mostly because of their reasoning. What they found “objectionable” was not the truths of the Nazi horror – rounding up Jews en masse and placing them in concentration camps, mass shootings, public hangings, gas chambers, crematoria and so forth – but a scant few four-letter words and cartoon nudity. Apparently, the ten Tennesseans on this Board were untroubled by the scene depicted in the book, when the Nazis are deporting Jews to Auschwitz, they picked up screaming children by the legs and swung them through the air to slam them into a wall, to stop the screaming. 

In response to the news, Art Spiegelman himself said that it sounded as though the Board was saying, “Why can’t they teach a nicer Holocaust?”

The books are among the best teaching tools that we have regarding the Shoah, and of course by the time I read them I was already well-schooled. Not only did we have a unit on the Shoah in my Hebrew School that was honest and in-depth, but I had also read the diary of Anne Frank, Night by Eli Wiesel, and other titles. And I had discovered the wealth of Holocaust reference material, a full shelf it at the Berkshire County JCC, which included truly disturbing imagery, still imprinted in my head: the piles of naked bodies left behind after the Allied takeover, being bulldozed into mass graves, the Nazis own records of how many Jews they had killed and which lands under their control were already “Judenfrei,” cleaned of Jews, the shots of barbed wire and train depots and piles of shoes and human hair, the people humiliated in the streets, the Torah scrolls desecrated.

And of course, there was my mother, who reminded us all on a regular basis that we must be committed to Judaism and marry Jews and have Jewish children so that we would not “give Hitler a posthumous victory.”

So I did not really need Maus. But there may be millions of people who were exposed to the depth of the Nazi atrocities for the first time through Spiegelman’s work. I suppose the ludicrousness of this particular controversy has yielded the remarkable benefit of a new generation of readers, which will extend its reach to an audience of the likely uninformed. 

And, speaking of uninformed, there’s Whoopi Goldberg, who failed multiple times this week to acknowledge that, while most Jews may be thought of as “white” in today’s world, that was certainly not the case until very recently. Qal vaḥomer, all the moreso, the Nazi understanding of race absolutely put Jews in a distinct racial category which declared them “subhuman”; so too Slavs and Roma. The Nazis even created a whole area of pseudo-scientific inquiry to demonstrate that certain characteristics made so-called “Aryans” superior and everybody else inferior, which of course enabled them to accomplish what they did. In Nazi ideology, the Shoah was absolutely not something that took place between white people, as Goldberg characterized it. It was racialized oppression, dehumanization, and genocide, wherein one group held all the power, and others were annihilated.

Now, I must confess that I have never seen “The View,” which is apparently some sort of topical news discussion program. And I am grateful that Goldberg apologized profusely, and even invited the ADL’s Jonathan Greenblatt onto the show. Nonetheless, she did seem to double-down on the idea that the Shoah was something that was merely between “white” people, and therefore not racialized. But she is incorrect. To this day, I am still not sure whether or not Jews are “white” (you may recall that I spoke about this a few years back, when there was a kerfuffle surrounding the Israeli actress Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman). 

But it seemed to me, in the clips that I saw of Whoopi Goldberg, that she dug herself into a hole out of which she could not gracefully exit. And, while it seems that her intentions were not malevolent (in fact, the ADL issued a statement in which they accepted her apology), she fell into an all-too-easy trap: failing to understand that our concept of race has changed, that while Jews might be perceived as many to be “white” today, they certainly were not in Europe during the middle of the last century. Yes, the Jews lived in Germany, Poland, Hungary, Ukraine, and so forth, and in some places were highly integrated into the non-Jewish population, but they were definitely not German, Polish, Hungarian, Ukrainian, or anything other than Jewish. The Nazis, in defining their racial categorizations, were only building on existing anti-Semitism in European society.

***

Back to Parashat Terumah for a moment. Easily the best-known line in Parashat Terumah is Shemot / Exodus 25:8:

וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם׃

And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.

Here the Torah is referring to building the mishkan, the portable sanctuary and altar, the building of which is described in painstaking detail for almost all of the last third of the book of Shemot / Exodus. 

The mishkan was the focal point of the Israelites for their forty years in the wilderness; the center of ritual, the center of meeting, the place from where God’s voice emanated. It was the physical manifestation of the spiritual glue that held them together as a people as they made their way from slavery in Egypt to freedom in Israel. God’s in-dwelling among the people, as the verse indicates, necessitated a physical building.

Eventually, of course, the mishkan was replaced by the Temple in Jerusalem, which served the same purpose for about one thousand years.

And then, when the Romans destroyed that Temple in the year 70 CE, we had nothing left but books – the Tanakh, the Hebrew bible, of course, and then everything that came from it in subsequent centuries – the Mishnah, the Gemara, the midrashim, the commentaries, the halakhic literature, and so forth. In absence of that physical building at the center, we have carried these books with us for two millennia of exile and dispersion, of expulsions and persecution, of blood libels and pogroms and forced conscription and ultimately attempted genocide.

We have carried these books with us from continent to continent, and they have enabled God to continue dwelling among us, even without a bricks-and-mortar center. Our books have taught us how to live, how to think critically, how to inspire hope for the future when all is lost. They teach us our history and our wisdom, which continues to help us find our way in an ever-changing world. The Muslim world dubbed the Jews, “the People of the Book,” a moniker which we have adopted for ourselves, and wear with honor and pride.

The banning of Maus in McMinn County, Tennessee is only one particularly shocking example of a skyrocketing fervor of attempted censorship which has taken hold in America, sweeping up left and right in an attempt to sanitize, to obfuscate, to control the narrative.

We, the Jews, know just how dangerous this movement is. The 19th-century German-Jewish writer Heinrich Heine said, “Wherever they burn books, in the end they will also burn human beings.” Heine had no idea indeed how prescient he was. Thank God, nobody’s burning copies of Maus, as far as I know. But ladies and gentlemen, we should be listening and watching very carefully to see what happens next. 

I was somewhat surprised that ABC decided to suspend Whoopi Goldberg for two weeks; my sense is that, uninformed as she is, she made an honest mistake. I would hope that, during her two weeks off, she spends some time learning. She might even want to read Maus. (I hope some enterprising fans have sent her copies.) And, given Ms. Goldberg’s ample platform, perhaps she will help many more uninformed people learn about the Nazi horror, so that we can hear the mantra of “Never again” repeated in all quarters of the world. Suspending her, like banning Maus, seems to me the wrong approach, and perhaps might only serve to further divide us.

Veshakhanti betokham, says the Torah. “And I shall dwell among them.” We shall surely continue to fashion the metaphorical mishkan and to build that space that enables God’s presence among us by revisiting our texts, ancient and modern. And we must continue to learn, to teach, and of course to read.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 2/5/2022.)

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More Yir’ah, Less Fear – Yitro 5782

Let’s be honest with each other: We are all a little more fearful right now. Thank God that what happened in Texas last Shabbat ended safely for the four hostages. But it certainly has not helped with our own sense of ease in our own beit kenesset, our house of gathering.

It is OK to be not OK right now. And so I am proud that, particularly for those of us in the building, that you are here despite the fact that we are not necessarily feeling OK. 

So I want to begin by saying, thank you for being here. Thank you for not letting fear keep you away from your community, from engaging with our tradition, from breathing life into words of prayer in public, from being proudly and proactively Jewish.

In particular, having lived through what we have lived through in Pittsburgh, we all know that the fear is not far from the surface. 

Dr. Deborah Lipstadt, the Emory professor who has made a career of studying and writing about anti-Semitism, published an essay in the New York Times this week titled, “For Jews, Going to Services Is an Act of Courage.” 

Of course, it should not be. And yet, here we are.

***

Truth is, I was thinking about fear before I found out after Shabbat last week about the events at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas. 

Fear had crossed my mind when I read a column by David Brooks entitled, “America is Falling Apart At the Seams.” Not the kind of fear you are thinking of, however. Rather I was thinking about yir’at Hashem, which is sometimes translated as “fear of God,” although perhaps is better understood as “awe” or “reverence,” or perhaps even Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “radical amazement.”

Brooks invokes some horrible statistics to show that we are angrier, more anxiety-ridden, more abusive, more irresponsible, more drug-addled, more hostile, and more heavily armed than ever. And even worse, he concludes the column by saying, 

… [T]here must also be some spiritual or moral problem at the core of this. Over the past several years, and over a wide range of different behaviors, Americans have been acting in fewer pro-social and relational ways and in more antisocial and self-destructive ways. But why? As a columnist, I’m supposed to have some answers. But I just don’t right now. I just know the situation is dire.

And that is the end of the column. Not only is his lack of suggestions not particularly reassuring, in my head it only raises more fear.

I read the article in print, and upon reaching Brooks’ non-conclusion, I looked up and sighed. And it occurred to me that an answer that Jewish tradition might offer is yi’rat Hashem, fear of God.

Why? Because I think that it is fear of God – the good kind, not the bad kind – which could save humanity. 

What is the good kind of fear, Rabbi? I’m so glad you asked!

Yir’at Hashem – awe, reverence, radical amazement – these are the good forms of fear, and it is this sense of yir’ah which has driven human beings to treat each other better. If we have no reverent appreciation for what we have, if we feel nothing awesome about this world or our existence or Creation or our fellow human beings, of course we will behave badly. Of course there will be terrorists, even those purported to be driven by religion. Of course there will be more abuse and hostility and, well, the bad kind of fear. Without fear of God, we see only ourselves, a distorted, myopic perspective wherein folks are driven by selfishness, greed, and short-term gratification.

You know the story about the three Ḥasidim who are boasting about how holy their rebbes are? The first one says, “My rebbe is so pious, so filled with yir’at Hashem, that he trembles all the time, knowing that he is constantly in the presence of God.”

The second says, “Well, my rebbe is so holy, that the Qadosh Barukh Hu trembles, for fear of displeasing my rebbe!”

The third says, “At first, my rebbe used to tremble. Then God trembled. And then, my rebbe said to the Qadosh Barukh Hu, ‘Look, why should we both tremble?’”

We are all living in God’s presence. It does not matter how you understand God. God is with us, around us, inside of us, up there, down here. We should all be trembling, just a little, just enough to remind ourselves that our duty on Earth is to fulfill God’s word, to act on the 613 mitzvot – opportunities for holiness – which have been given to us.

And what is that framework of mitzvot and halakhah / Jewish law, if not a fulfillment of this yi’rah? Yes, of course there are mitzvot bein adam lamaqom – the mitzvot between humans and God; to some extent they reinforce that sense of yir’ah

But all the moreso, the mitzvot bein adam leḥavero –  those that apply between human beings – they ensure that we treat each other like people. That we respect everybody around us, whatever their station in life, or however they behave, or which language they pray in, or indeed who they vote for. By seeing the humanity in each other. By understanding that wherever there is pain, it is up to us to try to soothe; wherever there is suffering, it is our job to at least try to mitigate it. Yes, of course we are first obligated to take care of those who are closest to us. But that does not mean that we can give up on everybody else.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is yir’at Hashem. That is fear of God. It is in some sense the glue that binds us together as individuals. We eliminate that glue at our own peril.

A few years back, Rabbi Harold Kushner gave a Rosh Hashanah sermon in which he pointed out that one of the first requests of the High Holiday Amidah, is:

וּבְכֵן תֵּן פַּחְדְּךָ ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵֽינוּ עַל כָּל מַעֲשֶֽׂיךָ וְאֵימָתְךָ עַל כָּל מַה שֶּׁבָּרָֽאתָ

Thus, grant that fear of you, Lord our God, be found among all your creatures.

“The fear of God,” says Rabbi Kushner, “means a sense of morality, an awareness that certain things are wrong and should not be done.” And then he goes on to say:

If I could change one thing about the world for this coming year, that would be it – that every human being come to recognize that certain things are wrong and should not be done, that hurting people is wrong, that cheating people is wrong… that your sense of grievance against society for the way your life turned out does not give you license to strike out in blind rage against that society… That’s what made our first ancestors, Adam and Eve, different from the animals. They acquired a knowledge of good and evil.

A little fear, a little awe, is a fundamental human trait; something that we all need. It maintains our morality.

The scene that we read in Parashat Yitro this morning, the one where God speaks to Moshe face-to-face on Mt. Sinai, is set with fear. There is lightning and thunder; the people are warned to keep themselves pure, not to have sex, not to go near the mountain and touch it.

And then, in the midst of all that fear, just after the Decalogue is completed, and the Israelites are trembling in fear, the following happens:

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֣ה אֶל־הָעָם֮ אַל־תִּירָ֒אוּ֒ כִּ֗י לְבַֽעֲבוּר֙ נַסּ֣וֹת אֶתְכֶ֔ם בָּ֖א הָאֱ-לֹהִ֑ים וּבַעֲב֗וּר תִּהְיֶ֧ה יִרְאָת֛וֹ עַל־פְּנֵיכֶ֖ם לְבִלְתִּ֥י תֶחֱטָֽאוּ׃

Moses answered the people, “Be not afraid; for God has come only in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may be ever with you, so that you do not go astray.”

Al tira-u. Do not fear, says Moshe. (The Israelites are probably thinking, “Well, why didn’t you say that before?!”)

We need a little more yir’at Hashem; the world needs a little more fear of God, so that we do not go astray, so that we can fear each other less. So that we can sit under our own vine and fig tree, and none shall make us afraid.

The very last hemistich of Adon Olam, which most of us are probably not thinking of too much because at that particular moment we’re generally folding up our tallitot, headed for the door, looking forward to lunch, is:

ה’ לִי וְלֹא אִירָא

Adonai li velo ira.

God is with me, and I shall not fear.

It’s a brief, all-too-easy-to-overlook reminder that this is why we are here: to overcome the fear of humans by fearing God. I fear God, therefore I follow God’s laws, therefore I treat others as I wish to be treated, therefore God is with me, and I have no reason to fear my fellow citizens. Adonai li velo ira.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am hurt and upset and more than a little anxious after two years of pandemic and after just about everything that we have experienced in recent times. I am as raw as the rest of you. And I yearn for a better world, one in which David Brooks can write columns with happy endings. I pray that no synagogue-goers should ever have to experience what happened last Shabbat.

And the way to get there is if we all have just a little more humility, a little more reverence for what we have, a little more respect for all of God’s creatures, a little more prayer, and a lot more yir’at Hashem.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 1/22/2021.)