Category Archives: Sermons

The Dead Support the Living – Yizkor / Shavu’ot 5780

You may know that I love to hike, and during this pandemic, I have been spending more time walking outside than I ordinarily do, particularly in the heavily-wooded Frick Park. That’s a good thing – particularly now that the weather is nice. Good for the spirit, good for the body. 

Red-tailed hawk in Frick Park (photo credit: me)

Judy and I were in the park a few weeks ago, and we noticed a couple of tall trees that looked dead, sort of intertwined with each other. And upon looking closer, we saw that the situation was much more interesting: one of the trees, standing upright, was clearly dead – no leaves, no bark in many places, minimal branches still remaining on its tall trunk. But the other tree was leaning over heavily onto the dead one, and it was still alive. It looked as though the live tree had been knocked over in a storm, and the dead tree had somehow “caught” it, and prevented it from falling.

The dead tree was actually holding up the living one.

We generally think of dead natural things – trees, animals, etc. – as being past their point of usefulness. That is, they are no longer part of the system. But of course that is not true. On the contrary: as you walk around a forest, for example, and you see plenty of dead things on the ground – leaves and tree trunks and occasionally animal carcasses – it is worth remembering that those things are essential parts of the circle of life. They serve as homes to insects, food for fungi, and of course when they break down into nutrients and reenter the soil, they continue to nourish the living plants around them by fertilizing the ground once again.

That is the cycle of life. Life yields death, which yields life again. 

And, in some sense, the same is true for people. Not in physical sense, of course, and not in the sense of death and resurrection, although for sure there are some Jews who believe in that sort of thing. But rather, I would like to propose that the dead nourish and sustain the living, sort of like that dead tree holding up the live one.

How can that be? Lo hameitim yehallelu Yah (Psalm 115:17), we chanted in Hallel earlier today. The dead do not praise God; that is only for the living. Being able to sing words of praise together with our community, that is a sure sign of life.

And yet, those of us who have passed from this world into the next are not only very much here with us, but they support us, the living as well. Let me explain, with an assist from the following midrash:

Moshe Rabbeinu is at the end of his life, and has ascended Har Nevo (Mt. Nebo), as God instructed him to do. God reminds Moshe that, even though he will not enter the Promised Land, he can see it from the mountain.

Moshe appeals to God, saying that it is not fair that he, Moshe Rabbeinu, who took the people out of the Land of Egypt, bringing them forth from slavery, cannot enter the Land of Israel. “I should be the first to cross the Jordan River,” he pleads. “I should lead them into the Land. Why won’t you let me? Why do you not favor me with love, as you favor the rest of Benei Yisrael (the Israelites)?”

“I have favored you with love,” says God. “I gave the Aseret HaDibberot, the Ten Commandments to the people through you. I gave the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, to them through you. That is how I have expressed my love for you.”

“Who, then, will lead the people, if not me?” says Moshe.

“Yehoshua (Joshua) will lead them. It is time for the people to find the courage to travel on without you, Moshe. But you will die knowing that they will never forget you. You will always be an essential part of them. You will be constantly invoked, in song and story, in learning and teaching, in repeating the words of Torah for millennia to come. You will continue to support them after you die, and your words will bring them strength.”

Moshe thinks about this, and then goes back down from Har Nevo to give a final blessing to Benei Yisrael. He climbs the mountain a final time, and, as he is looking out over the Land of Israel, spread out before him to the west across the Jordan River, God kisses his soul, taking his life. 

As a final act of God’s love, God buries Moshe on top of Har Nevo, in a location that has remained secret to this day.

***

How do the dead support the living? In the same way that Moshe Rabbeinu does: through the words that they said; through the actions that they took to sustain us in life; through the inspirations and memories fixed in our hearts and minds, that lead us to seek peace between people and care for those in need and comfort those who grieve. 

We carry them with us, just as we carry with us the Torah that Moshe gave us. When we get to Simhat Torah, the other celebration of Torah, half a year away, we will read, “Torah tzivvah lanu Moshe; morashah qehillat Ya’aqov.” (Devarim / Deuteronomy 33:4) Moses charged us with Torah, as the heritage of the congregation of Jacob. Our heritage includes not only Torah, but also the pieces of our ancestors that we contain: their good deeds, their wisdom, their reputations.

And how will we, the living, support those who will someday remember us when we are gone? By being the best people that we can be in life. By drawing on the Jewish values of learning, of compassion, of gratitude, of community-building, of remembrance. By fulfilling the mitzvot, the holy opportunities communicated to us through Moshe Rabbeinu and upheld by generations. By committing ourselves, every day, to making this world a slightly better place.

Three times a day in Jewish life, and sometimes four, we recite the berakhah Barukh Attah Adonai, mehayyeh hameitim.” Praised are You, God, who gives life to the dead. I know that it’s a not-so-coded reference to the Messianic resurrection of the dead that our ancestors yearned for. The Amidah (standing, silent prayer that is a part of every Jewish service) says, God keeps faith even with those who sleep in the dust: umqayyem emunato liysheinei afar, we sing ever-so-joyously. (BTW, that well-known melody, ubiquitous in American synagogues, was written by Cantor Max Wohlberg for a Junior Congregation service in the middle of the 20th century. He later regretted its spread to the entire Jewish world, because it just did not quite fit the meaning of that paragraph.)

But the berakhah is incomplete. It was liturgy that served a particular purpose at one time, and there are some who feel it has outlived its usefulness (the Reform and Reconstructionist movements changed the language; the Conservative movement left the language but tinkered with the translation). 

How it should be read is not only about God giving life to the dead, but also as the dead giving life back to us. Mehayyeh hameitim. We are in a circle of mutual support: God sustains the dead, who sustain us, who praise God. It’s an eternal loop of life. 

I would be remiss not to mention today that we passed an abominable statistic in America this week. The number 100,000 means nothing in relative terms; our per capita death rate in America due to the coronavirus is lower than many nations. 

But in very real terms, it is a staggering number, more than the number of American soldiers who died in the Korean War and Vietnam conflict combined, and all in the space of a couple of months.

I find myself coming back to the words of President Abraham Lincoln, delivered a little to the east of here, after the battle at Gettysburg in 1863:

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain…

We the living, said President Lincoln, continue the work of those who gave their lives to give us life. They sustain us through their devotion. And as we recall not only our parents and grandparents and spouses and siblings and children who are no longer with us, we also recall those who gave up their lives to this disease, and we too resolve that they shall not have died in vain.

The dead give us life. They hold us up like strong, tall tree trunks. And we continue to remember them, to live their words and their deeds and their wisdom. That is the cycle of life, in which we are all bound.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning / Second day of Shavu’ot, May 30, 2020.)

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Names, Not Numbers – Bemidbar 5780

When I was a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, students would make funny videos for Purim that we would share at the Purim se’udah, the festive daytime Purim meal. One that I will never forget featured a rabbinical student stuck in the beit midrash, the big study hall where students would gather to learn traditional texts together. The doors are locked and he cannot get out, and it’s time to daven minhah (recite the afternoon service). So he gathers together a minyan (prayer quorum) of familiar, well-loved books: the dictionary of rabbinical Hebrew and Aramaic by Rabbi Marcus Jastrow, the book of Talmudic terminology by Rabbi Yitzhak Frank, a volume of Talmud edited by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and so forth. He stands them up in a circle, as if they are davening with him. These books were so familiar to all of us that we referred to them not by their titles, but by the names of their authors. Rabbi Jastrow, z”l, although he passed away in 1903, was a dear friend to all of us through his dictionary.

Rabbi Marcus Jastrow

Parashat Bemidbar begins with a census. (A particularly hot topic right now, of course, because 2020 is a census year here in America.) Bemidbar is the first Torah reading in the book of the same name, which is called “Numbers” in English. Why Numbers? Because it begins with a whole lot of census data. (Hebrew names of the books and the parashiyyot / weekly Torah readings are derived from the first significant Hebrew word at the beginning of the book or parashah; the English names, mostly Greek, are thematic.)

We, the Jews, have been obsessed with numbers (not the book, but the concept) particularly since the late 19th century, when Jewish historians and demographers in Eastern Europe began the enterprise of studying their people. And yet, as you can see, there is a basis for this obsession in the Torah; this is one of a few passages that counts the Israelites. 

And yet, I am drawn to the fact that immediately after God gives Moshe the imperative to count the people, the Torah then launches into names. “Ve-eleh shemot ha-anashim asher ya’amdu ittekhem.” (Bemidbar / Numbers 1:5) “And these are the names of the people that will stand with you.” And because of this passage, the Torah preserves not only the names of Moshe and Aharon and Miriam, not only the names of the twelve tribes, that is, the twelve sons of Ya’aqov, but also such names as Shelumiel ben Tzurishaddai and Elishama ben Ammihud, two of the tribal chieftains that were identified this morning. And let’s face it: I’m sure Shelumiel and Elishama were great guys, along with Pagi’el ben Okhran and Gamaliel ben Pedahzur, but they are not exactly well-known figures in Jewish life. 

The 16th-century Italian commentator Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, noting the presence of this list of names up front in a passage primarily about numbers, tells us that there is a reason that the names are mentioned here, instead of merely the numbers. Everyone of that generation, he says, was identified individually by a name that expressed his/her personal character. Not all of those names are in the Torah, of course, but Seforno wants us to think of them as individuals, not merely numbers.

Other commentators observe that the census was completed, to use contemporary parlance, with non-anonymized data, i.e. they counted the people by name, not merely by numbers. And why? The 14th-century Provençal commentator Rabbi Levi ben Gershom points to a traditional Jewish superstition about counting people: if they do it by name, rather than number, he suggests, it would not bring a plague upon the Israelites. 

(You may know that there are a few related customs when trying to figure out how many people are in the room to make a minyan, a quorum of ten people, like using a scriptural verse that contains ten words, or the tremendously charming and somewhat confusing, “Not one, not two,” method. My father, the mathematician, really likes that one.)

Indeed, even the commandment from God to count the people suggests the personal nature of the count. The text uses the idiom, “Se’u et rosh kol adat benei Yisrael.” (Bemidbar 1:2) “Lift up the head of each of the Israelites.”

We do not merely count people. We recognize their names; we lift up their heads, as if to see their faces, as if to acknowledge their humanity.

Perhaps some of us have known people with numbers tattooed on their arms. My father-in-law’s number was A-7082; his name was Ervin Hoenig. Part of the Nazi system of dehumanization was to replace names with numbers. 

At this time, when we mourn so many that our nation has lost due to the mishandling of the virus response by our authorities, we might remember that each of the roughly 100,000 dead Americans each had a story, each had people who loved them, each had lives in which they sought meaning and love and companionship.

From the New York Times’ listing of names of 100,000 COVID-19 victims, 5/24/2020

People are kind of hard-wired to count ourselves. The Zoom software that many of us are using now tells us exactly how many devices are connected.

But the value of gathering – for prayer, for learning, for mourning, for celebrating – is not how many people showed up to a service or a program or how many times an online video was streamed.  Rather, it is whether or not lives were touched by the content. Dr. Ron Wolfson, professor of education at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, who has dedicated much of his recent work to helping synagogues improve themselves, points out that it does not matter how many people show up to a class or a program or even a service, but rather, how many relationships were made or strengthened.

I suppose that is the essential challenge that we face right now as a community. How do we build or enhance relationships when we are so far apart from each other? Do online minyanim, for example, reinforce personal connections?

Building relationships is an essential part of Jewish community, of course. But the most valuable thing, and the foundation of all relationships, is Torah. That is why our tradition suggests that the depth of commitment to learning Torah is so great. That is why Rambam (Mishneh Torah Hilkhot Talmud Torah 3:10-11) teaches us that Torah cannot be acquired if you are well-fed, or during the day, when there are too many distractions. One must be hungry and focused to truly learn Torah.

Rambam, writing in the 12th century, was mostly drawing on early rabbinic literature from a millennium earlier. In the wake of the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, these ancient rabbis turned Judaism from a centralized, hierarchical, sacrificial worship system into a portable, democratic, knowledge-based system that depended on teaching and learning and passing on that knowledge from generation to generation. (If you’re interested in learning more about this, please come to my session via Zoom at the Pittsburgh community’s Tikkun Leil Shavuot on Wednesday evening, 5/27.)

This is what these rabbis said in the 2nd century:

Pirqei Avot 6:4

כַּךְ הִיא דַּרְכָּהּ שֶׁל תּוֹרָה, פַּת בְּמֶלַח תֹּאכַל, וּמַיִם בִּמְשׂוּרָה תִשְׁתֶּה, וְעַל הָאָרֶץ תִּישַׁן, וְחַיֵּי צַעַר תִּחְיֶה, וּבַתּוֹרָה אַתָּה עָמֵל, אִם אַתָּה עֹשֶׂה כֵן, (תהלים קכח) אַשְׁרֶיךָ וְטוֹב לָךְ. אַשְׁרֶיךָ בָּעוֹלָם הַזֶּה וְטוֹב לָךְ לָעוֹלָם הַבָּא

Such is the way [of a life] of Torah: you shall eat bread with salt, and rationed water shall you drink; you shall sleep on the ground, your life will be one of privation, and in Torah shall you labor.

Pirqei Avot 6:5

[This mishnah identifies the forty-eight ways in which Torah is acquired]

בְּתַלְמוּד, בִּשְׁמִיעַת הָאֹזֶן, בַּעֲרִיכַת שְׂפָתַיִם, בְּבִינַת הַלֵּב, בְּשִׂכְלוּת הַלֵּב, בְּאֵימָה, בְּיִרְאָה, בַּעֲנָוָה, בְּשִׂמְחָה, בְּטָהֳרָה, בְּשִׁמּוּשׁ חֲכָמִים, בְּדִקְדּוּק חֲבֵרִים, וּבְפִלְפּוּל הַתַּלְמִידִים, בְּיִשּׁוּב, בַּמִּקְרָא, בַּמִּשְׁנָה, בְּמִעוּט סְחוֹרָה, בְּמִעוּט דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ, בְּמִעוּט תַּעֲנוּג, בְּמִעוּט שֵׁינָה, בְּמִעוּט שִׂיחָה, בְּמִעוּט שְׂחוֹק, בְּאֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם, בְּלֵב טוֹב, בֶּאֱמוּנַת חֲכָמִים, וּבְקַבָּלַת הַיִּסּוּרִין

… by study, attentive listening, proper speech, by an understanding heart, by an intelligent heart, by awe, by fear, by humility, by joy, by attending to the sages, by critical give and take with friends, by fine argumentation with disciples, by clear thinking, by study of Scripture, by study of mishnah, by a minimum of sleep, by a minimum of chatter, by a minimum of pleasure, By a minimum of frivolity, by a minimum of preoccupation with worldly matters, by long-suffering, by generosity, by faith in the sages, by acceptance of suffering…

[…and that’s only 24 of the 48!]

How do we learn Torah and apply it to our lives? Through serious, hard work and dedication, with a minimum of qalut rosh – lightness of the head. And why is this so important? So that we do not become numbers. So that we are names. We are people, with a history, and a past, and a nation, and a homeland, and a whole lot of ancient yearnings.

What is really of value? Not how many of us there are, but rather our stories, our laws, our values, our interpretations, yes, even our holy disagreements. Those are the things that make us human. Those are the things that make us Jewish.

Let the numbers be for the people who are interested in things.

We understand the value of people, of names, of stories, and in telling and re-telling our national saga. Forget the Romans; that is why we, the Jews, are still here. Torah has sustained us until this very moment. Torah gives our names meaning; Torah fills our lives with context and depth.

Numbers? No thanks. As a former engineer, I’ve had my fill of numbers. I’ll take the names instead.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 5/23/2020.)

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Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land (Maybe?) – Behar/Behuqqotai 5780

I had a good cry last week. I guess you might say that I hit a wall: the wall of frustration, anxiety, and yearning for things to just be “normal.” It felt good to sob openly. My wife Judy, God bless her, held me tight and reassured me.

It’s been nine weeks of staying mostly at home; nine weeks of uncertainty, of loneliness, of a whole range of unusual emotions. Nine weeks of looking at the same walls. Nine weeks of despairing for the world – for people suffering from and dying from the virus, for people suffering from the side effect of economic implosion – joblessness, product shortages and in some cases higher prices, loan applications and fear of a looming economic depression.

I am sorry to report that it’s going to get worse. Now we are in a phase of “should we or shouldn’t we?” And there is already a diverse, discordant chorus of voices on all sides. There will be much disagreement, and collective agonizing about the activities of the near future. Can we open? What can we open? Can we see our friends again? Will I have to wear a mask forever? There will be much speculation and analysis of infection rates, comparing places that have reopened to those that have not. And, of course, the hand-wringing will go on about testing – where are all those tests that should be widely available?

Add to all this that around the world, we may in fact be facing a mental illness crisis. The uncertainty and isolation and poverty caused by this pandemic are causing increased rates of depression and anxiety, domestic violence and a whole range of other effects, according to Devora Kestel, the director of the World Health Organization’s mental health department.

All of this is particularly challenging for Americans, because we are, as you know, the Land of Liberty, a beacon of freedom to the world. Our conception of freedom, alien in many places in the world, has made it more difficult for us to limit our behaviors in order to stop the disease. As a nation, we clearly do not like being told what to do, particularly by our government.

A year and a half ago, I traveled with a bunch of members of Beth Shalom to Israel. We stayed in Jerusalem at a hotel across the street from “Gan HaPa’amon,” Liberty Bell Park, which contains at its center a replica of, you guessed it, the Liberty Bell. Strangely enough, when I was living in Jerusalem 20 years ago, I walked past this park and even through it many times, but never bothered to check out its namesake. One evening, our Beth Shalom group paid the bell a visit.

Liberty Bell Park, Jerusalem

And there it was, a little smaller than the original, embossed with the line from up front in Parashat Behar, which we read this morning, Vayiqra / Leviticus 25:10: Uqratem deror ba-aretz, lekhol yosheveha. Proclaim liberty throughout all the land, unto all the inhabitants thereof. (That translation is the King James Version; the Jews read it a little differently. The New JPS translation is “You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants.” It is a reference not to personal freedom per se, but freedom from the economic bondage of indebtedness that occurred in the yovel, the jubilee year, every 50 years, in which all debts were forgiven and land that had been sold to others due to economic hardship reverted to its original owner.)

The verse was appropriated by the designers of the Liberty Bell in 1752, and some time later the quote from Vayiqra came to symbolize the spirit of this new nation, and, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Now, we the Jews know a few things about freedom and bondage. It is of course no coincidence that the Torah dedicates a fair amount of ink to the idea of freedom from slavery: the entirety of the Exodus story, of course, but also providing the freedom from work that is Shabbat, and setting limitations on Israelite ownership of slaves (not that we permit or endorse that today, of course), and even providing not only a Shabbat to people but to animals and agricultural land as well.

But in the Exodus tale, Moshe’s call to arms is not actually freedom in the American sense. It is, rather, freedom from serving a human, God-like character, that is, the Egyptian Pharaoh, in favor of serving the one, true God. As you may have heard me point out before, the slogan that Moshe recites in front of Pharaoh is not, “Let My people go,” but rather, “Let My people go so that they can worship Me.” The journey of the Exodus is not, therefore from slavery to freedom, from avdut to herut, as our liturgy puts it, but from avdut to avdut: from slavery to Pharaoh (think: avadim hayyinu lefar’oh bemitzrayim / we were slaves in Egypt to Pharaoh, from the Pesah haggadah) to avodat Hashem, the service of God. It’s an exchange of one type of service for another, much better one.

What is freedom, really? Is it blanket permission to do whatever you want with no concern for the consequences? Clearly, no. On the contrary, freedom must have a structure. My “unalienable rights” do not permit me to infringe on yours. Freedom requires responsibility; it requires a legal framework that sets limits on behavior. Freedom from slavery for our ancestors was immediately shaped, 50 days after the departure from Egypt, with Torah. 

What is the period of the sefirat ha’omer, connecting Pesah and Shavuot, if not a reminder that freedom requires a code that protects and strikes the balance between the personal and the common good? Without Torah, without a constitution, we have chaos.

You might by now have detected where I might be headed. (I detest being predictable.)

We are living in a time when chaos threatens the structure that freedom requires. We are living in a time when people believe anything they read on the Internet, particularly if it reflects their worldview. And, given the very real hazard of infection and the fact that COVID-19 actually kills people, chaos right now can actually kill. That is not freedom.

I know that we are balancing health and economic welfare. On the one hand, preventing the spread of the new coronavirus is essential to protecting lives. We have already lost nearly 90,000 Americans to the disease; over 300,000 people worldwide. On the other hand, the economic devastation that has been wrought in trying to stop the spread of the virus is absolutely unfathomable. Over 36 million people have applied for unemployment since the middle of March. 

We are now caught in a truly mind-bending conundrum, the most challenging political question of our time: when can we open for business again?

Let’s take it as a given that we are not going to have a safe, reliable vaccine for COVID-19 for at least a year, and even that is a remarkably optimistic figure. Let’s also assume that we will not have an effective “herd immunity” for many more months. Particularly here in Pittsburgh, where (thank God) we have had a relatively low infection rate, since we have been pretty good here at preventing the spread of the virus. Thank God. But of course, that means that the vast majority of us have not been exposed, and are therefore susceptible.

If we reopen businesses and camps and schools and yes, synagogues, will we be able to rely on people’s ability to actually keep their distance from one another? Will we be able to count on people wearing masks in public? Will singing together in public, even at reasonable distances, be at all safe? Will people who work with or are otherwise in proximity to older people and others with compromising conditions manage to keep themselves separate from others who are exposed? 

And if we do reopen some things, what is the smart way to do it? Even in countries where widespread testing and contact tracing have been implemented successfully (as far as I can tell, we have not done either here on a suitable scale), there are still pockets of reinfection. Consider the episode two weeks ago in South Korea, which had managed to contain the virus early with lots of testing, and then one infected person went out to night clubs in Seoul, and authorities had to track down 7,200 exposed individuals in the following days.

To make matters even more anxious, I am concerned that, to help stem the rising tide of suffering caused by job loss, governments will willfully disguise the numbers, undercounting infections or deaths, to justify their reopening. Russia is reporting over a quarter of a million confirmed cases, second in the world after the US, but less than 3,000 deaths from the virus. Can anybody seriously believe that they are accurately reporting the death toll? We know from statistics that our own is undercounted by a significant fraction already, because people died and laid to rest before being tested.

We love our freedom, and we particularly desire it right now, after two months of enforced isolation. So you can see why I am a little worried. I am concerned that the data will be fudged. I am concerned that we will lose sight of the disenfranchised in a rush to satisfy our own wants. I am concerned that your liberty will tread on mine.

Rambam (aka Maimonides, 1135-1204 Spain-Egypt) teaches us about concentric circles of charitable responsibility. When giving tzedakah, we are responsible first for those closest to us: our family, then our neighbors, then the residents of the same city, and so forth. While we must clearly be concerned with ourselves and the people closest to us, we must also be concerned about those who might be a little further away, and yet in danger. Being negligent at this time will certainly be deadly; and I am fairly certain that Dr. Rambam would not be pleased.

We cannot merely proclaim liberty;  we cannot simply open our workplaces and schools and camps without any real planning for potential consequences; we cannot fantasize about some alternate reality in which the virus just stops itself. Just as our ancestors needed Torah, so too do we need reasonable measures that will keep the lives of all members of our society, particularly the most vulnerable, safe and holy. Let’s please make sure that we do that. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 5/16/2020.)

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Wants vs. Needs: A Pandemic Primer – Aharei Mot/Qedoshim 5780

Last Tuesday, on the night of Yom HaAtzma-ut, Israel’s Independence Day, we sang a song composed by Hayim Hefer and Moshe Vilensky, two of the greatest Israeli pop music composers, called Hayu Zemanim. It is an Israeli classic from 1948, originally sung by Shoshanna Damari (the Chizbatron, a group of performers who emerged from the Palmach, sang it in 1949). The song is about young soldiers, already veterans of Israel’s War of Independence, envisioning themselves sitting around the fireplace as grandparents, reminiscing and telling war stories about 1948 to their grandchildren about their time serving in the Palmach:

יָבוֹא הַיּוֹם וְעוֹד תֵּשֵב אֶל מוּל הָאָח
וְגַם הַגַּב יִהְיֶה כָּפוּף כַּחֲטוֹטֶרֶת
וְתִזָּכֵר אָז בְּיָמֶיךָ בַּפַּלְמָ”ח
וּתְסַפֵּר עַל זֹאת אַגַּב עִשּׁוּן מִקְטֶרֶת
וּמִסָּבִיב, וּמִסָּבִיב יֵשֵׁב הַטַּף
וְאִשְׁתְּךָ גַּם הִיא מֻפְלֶגֶת בַּשָּׁנִים
תַּזִּיל דִּמְעָה וּתְקַנֵּחַ אֶת הָאַף
וְתֵאָנַח: הָיוּ זְמַנִּים, הָיוּ זְמַנִּים

הָיוּ זְמַנִּים
אָז בַּמִּשְׁלָט יָשַׁבְנוּ
הָיוּ זְמַנִּים
לָחַמְנוּ וְאָהַבְנוּ
עַכְשָׁו דָּבָר אֵין לְהַכִּיר
עַל הַמִּשְׁלָט יוֹשֶׁבֶת עִיר
אוּלַי בִּזְכוּת אוֹתָם זְמַנִּים

The day will come when you will sit by the fireplace
When your back will be bent like a camel’s hump
And you will remember your days in the Palmach
And you will tell about this while smoking a pipe
And around you will sit all the little children
And your wife will also be distinguished in years
A tear may fall and you will wipe your nose
And you will sigh, “Those were the days, those were the days.”

Those were the days
When we sat in the army fortification
We fought and we loved
Now there is nothing left to recognize
Where the fort was stands a city
Perhaps because of those days

The Chizbatron, with Hayim Hefer front center, September 1949.

Of course, it made me think of the times we are in right now. Not like war, of course (there is only one person in America who thinks we are at war), but rather, like being cooped up with people whom we love and strive with in a kind of fortification.

And I hope that one day, in the distant future, we will look back on these times, and we will ask ourselves, what did we learn? How did we manage being apart from so many friends and family and workplaces and favorite haunts? What did we learn about the value of things we had always taken for granted?  

It has now been seven weeks since the Men’s Club Shabbat here at Beth Shalom, which was the last time the Faye Rubinstein Weiss Sanctuary was populated with Shabbat morning service attendees. Seven weeks of social distancing, of face masks and hand sanitizer and not hanging around with your friends on lazy Shabbat afternoons. And I must say that, while my family and I are long past stir crazy, I have settled into a kind of routine – davening via Zoom morning and evening, online meetings, frequent trips to the fridge, making pastoral phone calls, occasionally a walk outside, meals with the whole family, trying to find a quiet place in the house to write sermons, and so forth. The time is moving faster than I would have figured – strangely enough, even though I rarely leave the house, there are not enough hours in the day.

But I’ll confess something that I did not expect: I do not miss my weekly shvitz.

On my day off, up until 7 weeks ago, I would go to the gym to work out, after which I “rewarded” myself with a good shvitz, that is, sitting in the steam room, followed by a few minutes in the jacuzzi. Made me feel all loose and relaxed and calm. For years now, I have been looking forward to this routine; my shvitz time has been essentially sacred. 

Now I must say that up until perhaps this week, for some reason, I had not actually noticed that I had not thought about the shvitz in seven weeks. It simply got pushed down on my list of priorities. While we were trying to cope with the new reality, suddenly other things became more important. 

Now some of you may recall that Qedoshim is probably my favorite parashah (OK, so Aharei Mot comes along for the ride most years – they were together when I became bar mitzvah 37 years ago this week – but Aharei Mot simply doesn’t have the cachet that Qedoshim has.) So why is Qedoshim my favorite? Because it opens with what is essentially the most important piece of guidance from the Torah that we have:

קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

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

And then what flows from that statement is a whole bunch of laws, which scholars refer to as the “Holiness Code,” that guide us in proper behavior. Examples: honoring your parents, leaving some of your produce for the poor to glean, being honest, not bearing a grudge, not mistreating a stranger, having honest business practices, and so forth. What we learn from Parashat Qedoshim, writ large, is that being holy mandates treating others with respect. We must respect their livelihoods, their feelings, their families, their citizenship status, their essential needs. That is what it means to be holy.

In this parashah, Jewish values are on display in abundance. How do we live our values? By acting on them; by walking through life with respect for others; by understanding that every human has fundamental needs, and that we should not stand in the way of the needs of others.

So the challenge we always have, and the challenge that is perhaps most easily answered in the current moment, comes down to two questions: “What do I need?” vs. “What do I want?”

Ours is a society that is saturated with want. Virtually every sponsored message of any kind out there is trying to tell us what we want. Think of the most “sticky” ad jingles that your brain is filled with – here are some that will be forever stuck in mine: “You deserve a break today.” “Have a Coke and a smile.” “Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t,” “Have it your way,” etc. Selling a product is all about telling you not what you need, but what you want.

המבין יבין

One of the things that is truly remarkable, and truly foreboding about this time is how much of the American economy depends on want, rather than need. At least 30 million Americans are now jobless; 1 in 4 workers in Pennsylvania. And that is due to the fact that we have closed non-essential businesses – one might presume that most of those closed businesses serve wants, rather than needs. And let us not forget that all of those newly-jobless people have actual needs, and now no means to pay for them; we should not discount the grave situation which we are now in as a society.

So what do we need? Obviously, food and shelter and clothing and healthcare. (And, as we all know now, you don’t really need that much clothing to attend Zoom meetings. And, BTW, do we really need the Internet? It’s hard to believe, of course, but it was not so long ago that we all managed without it. Not too much before that, at least in historical terms, humanity even survived without electricity.)

But all the more so, we need the intangibles, the things you cannot buy, which are just as essential. “I’ll buy you a diamond ring, my friend, if it makes you feel alright,” sang Paul McCartney a long time ago. “But I don’t care too much for money / for money can’t buy me love.”

We need love. We need companionship. We need friendship. We need family. We need spiritual structure. We need intellectual stimulation. We need meaning. 

Dr. Viktor Frankl, noted psychologist and survivor of Auschwitz and three other camps, documented in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, the ways in which the Nazi operation dehumanized people, taking away their spirit and ultimately their will to live. Frankl observed that the feature shared by those who survived was that they made the active choice to seek some future goal, to put their current context into perspective and not allow the despair and pain and deprivation of bodily needs sap their desire to look to the future. He describes how he arrived at Auschwitz carrying the manuscript of his unpublished book, which at the time he felt was the most important thing in his life, the thing that he needed the most, hidden in his coat. It was promptly taken away from him and destroyed. His coat and manuscript are replaced by:

… the worn-out rags of an inmate who had already been sent to the gas chambers immediately after his arrival… Instead of the many pages of my manuscript, I found in a pocket of the newly-acquired coat one single page torn out of a Hebrew prayer book, containing the most important Jewish prayer, Shema Yisrael. How should I have interpreted such a “coincidence” other than as a challenge to live my thoughts instead of merely putting them on paper?

Frankl sees the Shema as a kind of divine message: keep these words upon your lips at all times, says the Shema. Speak them, teach them to your children. Live them. It is a sign that daily prayer, that seeking meaning through a spiritual framework, maintains the will to live, the intangible sense that our lives have value, that we are here for a purpose. It is a sign that the constancy of that spiritual framework, uniting past, present, and future, gives us life. He would not survive Auschwitz by lamenting the loss of his book, upon which he had worked so hard; rather, he would survive by knowing that he would write an even better book after the camps, after the Shoah.

Yes, the life-sustaining things are important: the food, the shelter, maybe even the internet. But what ultimately will enable us, as Jews, as a community, and as a nation, to survive is our drive to find meaning in our current predicament, to use it as an opportunity to hone our sense of ourselves and our values, to strive to be better people when we get to the other side.

Right now, we must mourn those whom we have lost, stay home and stay healthy, and look to the future, when we will treasure that much more our sense of respect for one another, our obligation to fashion a society that cares about the neediest among us, our drive for personal enlightenment as individuals and as a qehillah, a community.

I do not miss the shvitz, but I do miss all of you. And someday, far in the future, we will sit around and tell our grandchildren about 2020, about how we survived by learning about our values, about what we really need. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered via Zoom to Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh PA, Shabbat morning, 5/2/2020.)

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A Plague of Misinformation – Tazria-Metzora 5780

One of the key principles in Jewish life is that words have power. That is why we recite certain sets of liturgy three times every day. That is why the Torah itself urges us to recite the Shema before going to sleep and when we wake up in the morning. That is why the pre-eminent mitzvah in Jewish life is Talmud Torah, the study of the words of Torah. And that mitzvah does not just mean “study,” as in, read them and/or commit them to memory. Talmud Torah is about elevating the words of the Jewish bookshelf by interpreting, re-interpreting, disagreeing and yes, even arguing about the meaning of our ancient texts, and of course applying them to our lives.  Everything is under scrutiny; slight nuances of individual words, or even single letters or vowels, can lead us to different interpretations. And that is really the essential holy act of Judaism.

That is why, as you have definitely heard me say before, we are still here: because we have been using our words – living them and revisiting them again and again – for literally thousands of years.

And it is this essential devotion to words – written, printed, spoken, and so forth – that makes us understand all the more so the essential value of using words with care.

Just a few examples of ways through which we demonstrate on a regular basis the high stakes with respect to the use of words: 

  1. Whoever leads services in a Jewish context, a sheliah tzibbur (literally, “emissary of the community”) must be skilled at pronouncing the words of tefillah / prayer correctly. The one who mispronounces words, whether accidentally or deliberately, should be replaced.
  2. Whenever we read from the Torah, there are two people standing on either side of the reader to correct her or him in the event of a mispronunciation that changes the meaning of the word.
  3. We have in our tradition strict halakhah / law about what is acceptable vs. unacceptable speech. Just a few examples:
    1. Lashon hara. “The evil tongue.” We are forbidden, according to Vayikra / Leviticus 19:16, which read in Parashat Qedoshim next week, from being rekhilim, people who tell tales about one another, whether true or false.
    2. Nibbul peh. “Lewdness of the mouth.” The Talmud (Yerushalmi Terumot 1:6) tells us that the use of foul language is prohibited. The words that come out of our mouth should be as pure as the food that we put in.
    3. Motzi shem ra. Slander. Our bar mitzvah mentioned this earlier in his devar Torah. A subset of gossip, this is the spreading of malicious falsehoods.
  4. We have an obligation to speak the truth, for example from Shemot / Exodus 23:7: מדבר שקר תרחק / Midevar sheqer tirhaq. Distance yourself from falsehood. 

Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, a rabbi from Belarus who lived in the 19th and early 20th century, is best known for the name of the book he wrote about lashon hara, called “Hafetz Hayyim.” The title is a reference to a line that we sang earlier this morning in Pesuqei DeZimra, from Psalm 34:13-14:

מִֽי־הָ֭אִישׁ הֶחָפֵ֣ץ חַיִּ֑ים אֹהֵ֥ב יָ֝מִ֗ים לִרְא֥וֹת טֽוֹב׃ נְצֹ֣ר לְשׁוֹנְךָ֣ מֵרָ֑ע וּ֝שְׂפָתֶ֗יךָ מִדַּבֵּ֥ר מִרְמָֽה׃

Who is the person who desires life, who desires years of good fortune? Guard your tongue from evil, your lips from deceitful speech.

If we truly desire life, says Rabbi Kagan, we will guard our tongues, and not spread falsehoods.

According to our tradition, we have a tremendous responsibility to make sure that our words reflect the qedushah, the holiness to which we aspire in all of our relationships. To do so reflects an honest desire to pursue life. Those that lie cause pain, suffering, and death.

And all of this is why the current moment is just so disturbing to me.

Let’s face it. We are all really, really anxious right now. Some of us are going a bit stir crazy, stuck in our homes, with few options for getting out of the house, other than to take a walk or go food shopping, the latter of which, in my experience, only causes more anxiety. (Nothing wrong with taking walks, of course; those of us who have dogs know that the dogs are clearly grateful for our presence around the house to take them for lots of walks.)

And aside from being cooped up in the house, everybody is anxious about the state of the world. As we watch the numbers of people with confirmed infections rise, and with them the number of people hospitalized, and those who die from the disease, we are all wondering: When will we see the peak? Will there be a second wave? What about all the people who have lost their jobs, their source of income? And perhaps most heartbreakingly, When can we resume our lives or reclaim some semblance of normalcy?

I, of course, have no answers to these questions, or even educated guesses. I certainly wish I did, but epidemiology was not included in my rabbinical school curriculum. Perhaps the closest approach I have to any knowledge of the spread of infectious diseases comes from the parashah that we read today, Tazria-Metzora, which of course describes the spread of an infectious disease, and frankly, it’s not so helpful (even though it does speak of regular testing and quarantine).

That disease, called in Hebrew tzara’at, has often historically been translated as “leprosy,” although I am told that anybody who knows anything about leprosy knows that the disease described in this part of Vayiqra / Leviticus cannot be leprosy, based on its description.

Nonetheless, there is an essential message here, related not to epidemiology but about a public health issue of another sort: that of misinformation.

You probably know what I’m talking about. There are many people spreading misinformation. Whether through malicious intent, or because they might be able to profit off people’s gullibility, or because they just do not know any better, repeating outright lies on social media is a transgression of the highest order. A few of the kinds of things that you might find out there are (a more extensive list of these things, courtesy of Ryerson University Ted Rogers School of Management Social Media Lab, is found here):

  • Promoting fake tests or cures. As of right now, there is no cure. Do not believe anything that presents as such.
  • Speculation on the origin. The virus was not created in a lab by some country to use as a weapon.
  • Dismissing the severity of the virus. Clearly a political move that comes from the honest desire that many of us have to see our businesses reopened and our jobs returned as soon as possible.
  • Racial, religious, or ethnicity-baiting. Perhaps the most tragic, because it demonstrates how easily many of us fall into blaming others for our situation. This type of malicious falsehood appeals to our basest fears.

And there are more. Ladies and gentlemen, this stuff is dangerous. Lies kill, just like some viruses do.

Unfortunately, one piece of news out there related to COVID-19 is that at a few of the anti-government protests intended to end state shutdowns, there were people displaying openly anti-Semtic signs. One, at a protest in Ohio, featured a cartoon of a blue rat with a Jewish star and a kippah on its head, flanked above and below by blue stripes similar to those on the Israeli flag, with the caption, “The Real Plague.”

Straight-up anti-Semitism aside, the danger here is simple: any kind of information that misleads people, whether intentional or unintentional, has the potential to cause more people to die. There has been dangerous misinformation about the malaria treatment, hydroxychloroquine, which in preliminary studies has not shown any effectiveness in curing people of the virus. The FDA on Friday (April 24th) issued a warning that this drug may cause heart arrhythmia in people with COVID-19.

And this should go without saying, but of course taking disinfectants internally is dangerous and ineffective. (And it’s just a little ridiculous that the company who manufactures Lysol had to issue a public statement to that effect.)

Part of the challenge here is the ease with which we can spread falsehoods today. While it used to be that you needed a printing press to promote misinformation, today anybody with a smartphone can put out lies to the entire world with a few finger taps. 

And that, in my mind, simply elevates the reasons that Jews have always been so invested in our words. Words can give life, as we have seen here today. But they can also, in fact, kill. 

And social media, when misused by anybody to promote misinformation, can kill as well. 

Hevreh, we have a responsibility right now, more than ever, to the truth – to scientific inquiry, to actual medical knowledge, to responsible, sober advice from people that actually know something. Drawing on Jewish tradition, please be discerning regarding what you post/repost. If you read something on Facebook or wherever that sounds like a cure, perhaps you should check it out before spreading it. Because, like the guy with the feather pillows, once it is out there, it cannot be taken back.

We who desire life must commit over and over to highlighting the importance of truth. And right now, anything less than truth can kill. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 4/25/2020.)

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Ephemeral Joy and the Bond of Life – Pesah Day 8 / Yizkor 5780

The end of Pesah is, to me, always quite anti-climactic. We put the Passover dishes away, toss out foodstuffs that we would never consider eating during the rest of the year, and then life sort of shambles on as normal, as if these eight obsessively, gastronomically limited days were a brief lull. This year, of course, the usual lull will linger longer

My attention was recently captivated by an interview I heard on public radio, on the show On Being with Krista Tippett. She spoke with author and poet Ross Gay, who is also a professor of English at Indiana University. He said something that struck me for its paradoxical insight: that human joy is intimately tied to the operating principle that we are mortal. Let me just share with you how he put it:

… Joy has everything to do with the fact that we’re all going to die. When I’m thinking about joy, I’m thinking about — that at the same time as something wonderful is happening, some connection is being made in my life, we are also in the process of dying. That is every moment… 

The connection between the dying and the joy…  is just the simple fact of the ephemerality of [life] … if you and I know we’re each in the process, [of dying], there is something that will happen between us. There’s some kind of tenderness that might be possible…

… [J]oy is the moments — for me, the moments when my alienation from people — but not just people, from the whole thing — it goes away. And it shrinks. If it was a visual thing, everything becomes luminous. And I love that mycelium, forest metaphor, that there’s this thing connecting us. And among [that] is that we have this common experience — many common experiences, but a really foundational one is that we are not here forever.

And that’s a joining — a “joy-ning.” So that’s sort of how I think about it.

Tippett:

But joy is — our capacity for joy, despite and through that, the fact that we’re all gonna die and that things are going wrong all the time, is also something that joins us together. It’s leveling, in a way.

Gay:

Totally… [I]t is joy by which the labor that will make the life that I want, possible. So it is not at all puzzling to me that joy is possible in the midst of difficulty.

***

These are exceptionally prophetic words, which, like words of Torah, we can only hear and interpret in our current context. The interview was recorded in July of 2019, however, long before COVID-19 was a thing.

Matters of life and death are shared between all of us. I think what Ross Gay is trying to say is that we all carry with us the potential to create joy, to increase happiness in this world, and we also all share the fact that we are going to die. So the potential for joyful living is predicated by the fact that we need it – that in all human relationships there is an implicit shared imperative to foster joy, since our time on Earth is limited.

The first thought that occurred to me as I was listening to this interview was, What a dreadful idea! How can reminding myself of my mortality possibly bring joy?

And then upon second thought, Wait a minute! He’s right. I share that with every other human on the planet. We may speak different languages, have absolutely orthogonal political outlooks, practice different religions, and so forth. But for every single one of us, the clock is ticking. It’s a jumping-off point for every relationship.

Death is, as Krista Tippett suggests, the great leveler, and arguably a cause for joy. And particularly when we lose somebody, it is the motivator for remembering to live. That is precisely the reason we mourn, the reason we say the Mourners’ Qaddish, which is not at all about death – to remember to live, to remember that, in our limited time, we must bring joy.

As I was listening to this a few weeks back, I was making breakfast for my family, whole-grain waffles with maple syrup, a joyful Sunday-morning move, and of course I was not thinking about dying. (I miss waffles. Only one more day of Pesah!)

But living, truly living, is in the joy that we bring to others – by preparing and sharing food with them, for example. And by talking. And by hugging. And by being there in times of need. And by being there for the happy times. And sometimes just by being present, or even present from a distance.

Because, when we are gone, we can no longer really create joy.

My teacher, Rabbeinu (“our teacher”) Neil Gillman, in his 1997 work, The Death of Death, points out that it is death that makes us fully human. “Death,” he says,” is not punishment for disobedience, but rather the inevitable result of the full flowering of our humanity.” He cites the Creation story from Bereshit / Genesis of Gan Eden / the Garden of Eden, as launching human-ness in its complete form; Adam and Eve were in some sense required to understand their mortality before they could be considered fully formed. He cites Martin Buber’s interpretation of the Gan Eden story as an act of compassion on humans by God, avoiding subjecting them to “aeons of suffering.” 

But life, thank God, is not merely suffering. It is all-encompassing, and in remembering to live, we also remember to seek pleasure and company and good times and love. And what makes the joy ultimately overpower the suffering is that we know that our time is fleeting.

We all carry with us a certain number of memories of people who are now gone. We all carry with us what made them who they were. And we remember them when we act in their memory, when we carry on with life, when we bring joy to ourselves and others.

Something that I am trying to do during this pandemic is to be positive. Yes, I think you know by now that I am an optimist. But I have been trying to draw on that well of optimism now more than ever. 

Let’s face it – our options for being joyful right now are somewhat limited, particularly if we live alone. And the entirety of the festival of Pesah, the festival of freedom, the festival of spring, the major holiday that kicks off the cycle of the Jewish year, has had a kind of pall over it. We have not been able to visit with family; we have not been able to exchange hugs and share food and stories with many people with whom we would ordinarily do so.

And yet, we also know that this will come to an end, and when it does, I know we will all be truly joyful.

But I think we have also been given a sort of gift by the pandemic, and that is a glimpse of our own mortality, and that reminder that death makes us human. We are all bound together in life – those of us who are still breathing, and those of us whom we remember on days like these. 

Because, as we will say in a few minutes when I recite the El Male Rahamim prayer, utzror bitzror hahayyim et nishmoteihem. May the souls of those whom we recall today be bound up in the tzeror hahayyim, the bond of life. You will also see a variant form of this written as an abbreviation on some Jewish gravestones, in the form of an acronym: תנצב”ה, which stands for “Tehi nishmatah/nishmato tzerurah bitzror hahayyim .” May her/his soul be bound up in the bond of life. 

We are intimately connected, living and dead, through this bond of life. And although the dead do not give us joy, they certainly give us life through that connection, which enables us to go on seeking and giving joy to others.

And qal vahomer,  all the more so in this time of an afflicted world, we remember not only those who gave us life, but also those who died or are dying at the hands of this vicious virus, which does not discriminate with respect to age, race, gender, religion, socioeconomic status, and so forth. We are reminded that we are all in this together – as Jews, as American citizens, and as human beings, interconnected with all others around the world. 

On this day of Yizkor, of calling to mind those whom we have lost, we must acknowledge our condition: that our lives are ephemeral, and that the joy that we share with others in the brief time that we have been granted is invaluable. We sink or swim not as individuals, but as a community, as a society, as a world.

We are deeply interconnected, mournful and joyful and distant and close all at the same time, all together, bound in that bond of life that makes us human, that calls us back to our shared mortality.

May we all be bound together in that tzeror hahayyim. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, eighth day of Pesah 5780, 4/16/2020.)

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Redemption from (Love-)Sickness – Shabbat Hol HaMo’ed Pesah 5780

It’s been at least a month now, maybe even six weeks, since I have shaken anybody’s hand, and that is probably true for just about all of us. (My wife and kids have kept me adequately supplied with hugs, but we don’t generally shake hands with each other around the house.)

I am going to tell you something about myself, something which some of you may have trouble believing, and that is this: I am NOT a people person. I am a classic introvert, one who draws energy from being alone, rather than from socializing with others. I am no fun at parties – I tend to be checking out the bookshelves and the artwork while others are chattering. Yes, I cover that well – an essential part of my work as a rabbi is to be social. To paraphrase Pirqei Avot (3:17), Im ein schmooze, ein Torah. Without schmoozing, there’s no Torah. We, the Jews, are a sociable people, and rabbis are not monks.

But, if you can believe this, it’s hard for me. There are times, particularly at the end of the day, when I just want to crawl into a hole and listen to NPR, or silence.

The Rothko Chapel in Houston. A great place to appreciate silence.

However, I have found the time at home in the last month harder than I anticipated. Something I have learned about myself in recent weeks is that I need to see people, to chat with them, to relate in person. And I am sure that many of us are feeling that need as well right about now.

A little earlier we read some of Shir HaShirim, one of the most curious and intriguing books of the Tanakh. Some of the questions that might arise about Shir HaShirim are:

  1. This is clearly ancient erotic poetry. What’s it doing in the Tanakh?
  2. Where is God?
  3. Why on Earth do we read this on Shabbat Hol HaMoed Pesah?

Addressing the more obvious challenge, which unites the first two questions, Shir HaShirim is understood in the rabbinic mind as being about the relationship between God and Israel as lovers. There is, indeed, romantic and sexual tension found in the contortions of this relationship; from the Sinai moment until today, God is continually being spurned and then sought again by Israel. (The prophet Hosea, who, if you survey all the haftarot of the year, is the most-read of the minor prophets, allegorizes exactly this relationship in his description of his own faithless marriage.) 

The lovers in Shir HaShirim face a kind of disconnect; while they speak of touching one another, they are often distant, missing each other’s overtures, seeking each other. I must say that this describes to some extent my own personal God experience, and maybe yours as well. 

For example:

2:14

יוֹנָתִ֞י בְּחַגְוֵ֣י הַסֶּ֗לַע בְּסֵ֙תֶר֙ הַמַּדְרֵגָ֔ה הַרְאִ֙ינִי֙ אֶתּ־מַרְאַ֔יִךְ הַשְׁמִיעִ֖ינִי אֶת־קוֹלֵ֑ךְ כִּי־קוֹלֵ֥ךְ עָרֵ֖ב וּמַרְאֵ֥יךְ נָאוֶֽה׃

“O my dove, in the cranny of the rocks, Hidden by the cliff, Let me see your face, Let me hear your voice; For your voice is sweet And your face is comely.”

3:1-2

עַל־מִשְׁכָּבִי֙ בַּלֵּיל֔וֹת בִּקַּ֕שְׁתִּי אֵ֥ת שֶׁאָהֲבָ֖ה נַפְשִׁ֑י בִּקַּשְׁתִּ֖יו וְלֹ֥א מְצָאתִֽיו׃

Upon my couch at night I sought the one I love— I sought, but found him not.

אָק֨וּמָה נָּ֜א וַאֲסוֹבְבָ֣ה בָעִ֗יר בַּשְּׁוָקִים֙ וּבָ֣רְחֹב֔וֹת אֲבַקְשָׁ֕ה אֵ֥ת שֶׁאָהֲבָ֖ה נַפְשִׁ֑י בִּקַּשְׁתִּ֖יו וְלֹ֥א מְצָאתִֽיו׃

“I must rise and roam the town, Through the streets and through the squares; I must seek the one I love.” I sought but found him not.

I spend a great deal of time in tefillah / prayer, lavishing praise upon God (which is what the majority of our statutory prayers consist of). Just as the lover in Shir HaShirim describes the object of her desire in rich, hyperbolic prose, so too do we whenever we open the siddur / prayerbook.

And yet, when we seek, we often do not find God. We yearn, we plead, our mouths overflow with litanies of praise. Some Mizrahi (Eastern) traditions chant Shir HaShirim before Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday evenings; that is not our custom, but we do sing Yedid Nefesh, which draws heavily on imagery from Shir HaShirim: “Nafshi holat ahavatakh,” wrote the poet Rabbi Elazar Azikri in the 16th century. My soul is sick from your love, riffing on 2:5.

It is this unquenched desiring for God’s presence, to find our Eternal Lover, that keeps us connected to our tradition, that reminds us of the ongoing potential for redemption. Rambam describes this imperative in the Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 10:3: 

And what is the proper love? One shall love the Lord with an exceeding great and very strong love so that one’s soul be tied to the love of the Lord, finding oneself in a constant tremor, as if suffering of lovesickness, … This is what Solomon allegorically said: Ki holat ahavah ani / “For I am love-sick” (Songs 2.5). And, the whole book, Shir HaShirim, is an allegory on this subject.

And it is through this love that we are redeemed. The Exodus story is the foundational moment of the loving relationship between Israel and God. The relationship that is defined in the revelation of Torah at Mt. Sinai, a climactic moment that effectively consummates the relationship. Integral to this loving relationship is the idea that God will complete the redemption of Israel: having been brought forth from slavery and brought into the covenantal relationship with Torah, the final stage of redemption is bringing the Israelites into the land promised to them, the land of Israel. 

What happened at Sinai was a wee bit more than a handshake. And that love continues to this day. The Exodus story looms large in Jewish thought and ritual because it is the template for future redemption; love and redemption are intimately intertwined.

Some of you have probably heard me speak about my own personal theology, which dwells heavily on finding God in the interstices of our lives, in the cosmic glue which holds us all together, both from the perspective of physics and of human relationships. 

However, in this particular time, I must say that I want to lean into the traditional understanding of God as the one who, having redeemed us in the past, exemplified by the loving redemption story that Pesah commemorates, will redeem us once again. And I am not hoping for a big Redemption (with a capital R) right now, but rather, just the opportunity to spend time with friends and family again, for my kids to be able to go to the playground again, for me to be able to meet with congregants again and shake hands, as I always do. 

We read Shir HaShirim on Pesah as a sign not only of that great Redemption, but also of the little redemptions that we experience every day. Shir HaShirim reminds us that love is that cosmic glue, and that the minor redemptions on which we depend are never too far away, even if we cannot see them, even as we seek God and do not find.

You are loved, not only by God, of course, but also by the others around you. And although we may not feel their touch right now, although we may not be able to physically reach out, we should take some comfort in knowing that, when we are redeemed, that this brief period of separation, of seeking, of yearning, will heighten the experience of being with each other, in each other’s physical presence once again. 

I eagerly await that day, that redemption. Shabbat shalom and Hag Sameah!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat Hol HaMo’ed Pesah, 4/11/2020.)

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