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Sermons

We Are Not Originalists – Bereshit 5781

I have always been a fan of the original Star Trek series, and not just because the two leads, Captain Kirk and Spock, were played by Jewish actors. As you may recall, the show began each episode with what used to be considered a grammatical faux pas, boldly splitting an infinitive: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” 

And so too does the Torah open with a grammatical “oopsie.” The very first words of the Torah are (Gen. 1:1)

בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃

Bereshit bara Elohim et hashamayim ve-et ha-aretz

Most of us, when we hear these words, we think, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth.”

But that is not actually what the text says. Actually, we cannot really understand this line, because it is clearly missing at least one word. That is because the word “bereshit” does not mean “In the beginning,” but rather, “In the beginning of…” If you were to translate directly, the verse as it appears in the Torah reads, “In the beginning of…, God created the heavens and the Earth.” 

Now, that sounds a little funny, right? Well, it sounded funny to Rashi, too, in 11th-century France. And so Rashi proposed that the text could possibly be read as

בְּרֵאשִׁית בְּרִיאַת שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ

Bereshit beri-at shamayim va-aretz

“In the beginning of creating heavens and Earth, …”

or,

בָּרִאשׁוֹנָה בָּרָא אֶת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ

Barishonah bara et hashamayim ve-et ha-aretz

“At first, [God] created the heavens and the Earth.”

But of course, that is not what we have. Every single Torah scroll in the world opens with what cannot be described as anything other than a grammatical error. A typo. (Except, of course, that Torah scrolls are never typed.)

Rashi himself, in surveying this problem, says, אֵין הַמִּקְרָא הַזֶּה אוֹמֵר אֶלָּא דָּרְשֵׁנִי! “This passage only tells us, ‘Interpret me!’” And he offers two plausible suggestions. Of course, it is completely possible that neither of these may be the original intent of the text. 

And what might we learn from this? Two possibilities, in my mind:

  1. We should never be so sure of ourselves or our opinions. We might be wrong! Always an excellent lesson.
  2. The plurality of voices in interpreting Torah, both ancient and contemporary, heighten our relationship with the text. 

****

If you were paying attention this past week to events on the national stage, you probably heard the term “originalism” thrown around a lot. Originalism is an idea held by some interpreters of constitutional law that the United States Constitution should be interpreted and applied as it was intended when it was written in 1787.

In terms of Jewish life and Jewish law, we are not and cannot be originalists. That ship sailed about 2,000 years ago. If we take the Torah as our analog to the Constitution, let’s say, and the rabbinic interpretation of the Torah – the Talmud, midrash, the Shulhan Arukh, etc. – as the way we understand how the Torah applies to us today, then we are definitely not originalists. 

For example, the Torah says that the primary means of worship is by sacrificing some of our livestock and our produce by Kohanim (priests) on an altar. Do we do that? No. Rather, we have prayer, an idea more or less created by the rabbis, because the altar in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans two millennia ago. Our tefillah / prayer, is actually a substitute offering, in place of the agricultural sacrifices that our ancestors gave. Although the original intent of the Torah is for us to sacrifice, changes in our circumstances have made it impossible to fulfill that, so we do something else.

The Torah says that we should not do melakhah / work on the Shabbat, but does not define the word melakhah. In this case, we do not even know what the intent of the text is. How do we know, for example, that spending money on Shabbat is prohibited, but peeling an orange is not? That is because the rabbis defined 39 categories of work, ל”ט אבות מלאכה, and created a system by which those categories could be managed and expanded to suit any new type of technology that came along.

The Torah, by the way, does not even mention one of the most popular holidays of the Jewish year: Hanukkah. Hanukkah does not even appear in the entirety of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. It is, rather, also a rabbinic innovation.

And I could go on. We do not practice the ancient Israelite religion described in the Torah. We practice a rabbinic Judaism that is flexible, that is constantly reinterpreted for the moment and the place in which we live.

And that is true of all movements within Judaism. We may disagree on the interpretation, but none of us are originalists. And that, by the way, is exactly the reason that we the Jews are still here, despite the Romans’ best efforts to destroy us. Had we been limited to the Judaism extant in 70 CE, as originalists, we would have disappeared as soon as Titus’s legions razed the Beit HaMiqdash, the Temple in Jerusalem.

And sure, the rabbis of the Talmud argued that their innovations came from Mt. Sinai, nearly a millennium-and-a-half prior, and that they were originally intended in the unadorned Torah text even though you cannot find them there. This explanation is an attempt to legitimize rabbinic Judaism, which is, after all, what we call “Judaism” today. We are rabbinic Jews, but you cannot really find most of our practices today in the words of the Torah as they appear in the scroll.

This highlights, by the way, one of the primary distinguishing features between Orthodoxy and Conservative Judaism. We understand that the rabbinic interpretation of the Torah came much later, and although Divinely inspired, it was not the way the Torah was read prior to the destruction of the Temple. It is this subsequent interpretation that allows us to incorporate new ideas and more flexibility into our understanding of the Torah, and really to helping frame our lives in meaning. Consider, for example, contemporary understandings of God which do not reflect the Torah’s traditional views, or the full equality between men and women in our worship spaces, which we base on the reinterpretation of traditional sources.

Now, there is a certain strain of originalism that I learned while studying at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where I was ordained as a rabbi and invested as a cantor. That type of originalism is found primarily in the Department of Bible and Ancient Semitic Languages, wherein the scholarly study of Scripture devotes most of its energy into trying to determine exactly what the Torah meant when it was written. To do so, scholars in the field of Biblical studies use the tools of archaeology and literary analysis and comparison to literature contemporary to its time and so forth. Modern Jews sometimes also use these tools to interpret Torah as well; they are welcome addition to the שבעים פנים לתורה, shiv’im panim laTorah, the 70 faces of Torah.

So, turning back to Bereshit, we know what the author meant, right? In this case, yes, and that understanding is not likely to change. The originalists in all of us are struggling right now: on the one hand, we know what the Torah implied, even if that is not what it says. On the other hand, there is something that looks conspicuously, to us at least, like a flaw! 

Or perhaps what looks like a typo is just an opening into a richer, more varied palette of understanding?

Right up front, from the very beginning, the Torah gives us insight into an absolutely human trait: the potential to screw up. We should never be so sure of ourselves that we think we are immune to being wrong. 

And that leads us to the second lesson: in the completely human realm of interpreting the text, we can guard against our own hubris by using every tool at our disposal to try to understand it. We may not know the original meaning of this or of many other parts of the Torah; we may not know what God’s intent was in gifting these words to humanity. But we do know that we are obligated to draw on our own intellect, on the range of human creativity and potential, to continue to seek answers. In some sense, it is that absolute unknowability, the obligation to pursue answers while acknowledging that not a single one of them may actually be “right,” which helps us maintain our own humility.

However the Torah came down to us, whether in a moment of fiery dictation on Mt. Sinai or through the hands of many ancient, anonymous scholars channeling Divine wisdom, it is our ongoing willingness to plumb its depths that will continue to fill our lives with meaning and a sense of purpose, and keep us away from the arrogance that comes with declaring our own correctness.

We are not originalists, and we are definitely not perfect. But we are committed to serious and varied inquiry into the Jewish bookshelf, to all the words and ideas which flow from the Torah, even as we acknowledge that we do not have all the answers. And we continue to draw on all of those ideas in seeking meaning for today, for how we live and how we can live better.

Shabbat Shalom! Live long and prosper.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 10/17/2020.)

Categories
Festivals Sermons

Making Peace Between People: An Essential Jewish Goal – Shemini Atzeret 5781

A few weeks back, New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo wrote a compelling piece titled, Go Live in Another Decade. I Recommend It, about comparing our current moment to the past. In trying to understand how we got here, to this moment of deep division, of people marching in the streets for racial justice and militia groups brandishing rifles and plotting the kidnapping of a governor, of casting doubt on the reliability of our election process and the politicization of public health, Mr. Manjoo chronicles his deep dive into the chaos of the 1960s. He discovered the wealth of video available on YouTube of news coverage and pop culture from the second half of the 20th century, and zooms in on one speech given by President Lyndon Johnson, his first address of Congress five days after the assassination of JFK and his having been sworn in as president aboard Air Force One in Dallas.

If you listen to the speech, you can feel the heaviness in the room as the Congress applauds the new president, who concedes his reluctance at having to take on the duties of the highest office in the land at such a soul-crushing moment. Johnson speaks of unity in the task of righting wrongs, in improving the lot of people around the world and at home, at facing the challenges of racism, of “poverty, misery, disease, and ignorance.” He reinforces the idea that the “strong can be just in the use of strength, and the just can be strong in the defense of justice.” 

And, pointing to the divisiveness of that decade, President Johnson says the following:

The time has come for Americans of all races and creeds and political beliefs to understand and to respect one another. So let us put an end to the teaching and the preaching of hate and evil and violence. Let us turn away from the fanatics of the far left and the far right, from the apostles of bitterness and bigotry, from those defied of law and those who pour venom into our nation’s bloodstream.

I profoundly hope that the tragedy and the torment of these terrible days will bind us together in new fellowship, making us one people in our hour of sorrow.

It brought tears to my eyes.

A question that we must ask ourselves at this moment, as Jewish Americans, is, “What is our role in seeking the unity that we need right now?” 

As you might expect, I find those answers in the framework of Jewish tradition, starting with a quote from the Talmud (BT Kiddushin 39b):

אלו דברים שאדם אוכל פירותיהן בעולם הזה והקרן קיימת לו לעולם הבא אלו הן כבוד אב ואם וגמילות חסדים והכנסת אורחים והבאת שלום בין אדם לחבירו ותלמוד תורה כנגד כולם

These are the matters that a person engages in and enjoys their benefits in this world, and the principal reward remains for the World-to-Come, and they are: Honoring one’s father and mother, acts of loving-kindness, hospitality toward guests, and bringing peace between one person and another; and Torah study is equal to all of them.

Yes, you have heard me say that last one many times as a foundational statement of Jewish life, that Torah study is equal to the weight of all other mitzvot combined.

But go back one, to “hava-at shalom bein adam lehavero.” Making peace between one person and another. Quite high up on this list of essential mitzvot is the obligation to repair relationships, to bring people together, to heal interpersonal wounds. Ladies and gentlemen, we are all failing at this task. 

In 1963, President Johnson was speaking to a nation doubled over in pain, not only from the assassination of JFK, but also from protests over racial injustice, Cold War fears of communism spreading abroad and possibly infiltrating at home, American military involvement in distant lands, and of course political division.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is OK to disagree. It is not OK to denigrate people on the other side. It is worth remembering that, while there are certainly bad actors in this world, there are always going to be honest people, good, well-intentioned people, people of faith, with whom you will disagree vehemently. And their opinion, no matter how offensive or ridiculous or oppositional to everything that you believe, if it is based on reasonable, factual assumptions and honest assessment of the situation, is just as valid as yours.

Political division is creating personal rifts between people. I know of people in the same family who cannot even speak to each other and friendships that have been broken as a result.

And, lest you think that electing one person over another in a few weeks will change that, please allow me to burst your bubble. We are going to have to work very hard if we are going to find our way out of this morass. It is not as simple as casting a ballot, or posting a meme on Facebook, or putting a sign in your front yard.

I would rather refocus our energies on fulfilling the spirit of Exodus 23:5:

כִּֽי־תִרְאֶ֞ה חֲמ֣וֹר שֹׂנַאֲךָ֗ רֹבֵץ֙ תַּ֣חַת מַשָּׂא֔וֹ וְחָדַלְתָּ֖ מֵעֲזֹ֣ב ל֑וֹ עָזֹ֥ב תַּעֲזֹ֖ב עִמּֽוֹ׃ 

If you see the donkey of your enemy lying under its burden, and you might be inclined not to help him, you must make every effort to help him.

Should you help your enemy if he votes for a different party than you? Of course. But what if there is a Confederate flag flying in his front yard? What if he was recently released from prison after serving time for a murder or rape conviction? What if he is the head of the local chapter of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement against Israel?

Not so easy, right?

I would love to hear a leader stand up in front of the American people and speak about love, about loving your neighbor, about working together, even when we disagree, to solve the big challenges we know we all face: the challenges of education, of health care, of unemployment, of mass incarceration, of the ongoing scourge of mass shootings, of the abuse of opioids, of the challenges posed by a warming climate.

I would be happy to see our leaders choosing country over party, understanding that it’s not all about winning, and that they are elected not to throw mud at the other guy, but rather to reach out across the aisle in partnership.

I would be overjoyed to see our journalists and media outlets help us all to understand that the truth cannot be reduced to a soundbite or a tweet, that patience and intellectual engagement are necessary to help find the solutions to the challenges we face.

Tomorrow, hevreh, is Simhat Torah, the day on which we complete the cycle of reading the Torah and go back to the beginning again. And in rejoicing with the Torah (which we will of course be doing, albeit a little subdued from our ordinary celebration; we will just have to remember to dance and sing twice as hard and twice as loud in 5782), we remember that Torah is long form. 

Yes, if you unroll a sefer Torah, you’ll see that it does not even reach half the circumference of the Beth Shalom Ballroom. But all the “Torah” in the more general sense, all of the Torah that flows from it, fills not a room or a building, but our entire lives. It is a lifetime’s worth of learning, of reflecting, of growth and change and reading again and revisiting and re-interpreting. Learning that Torah never ends, just as our own individual pursuits of self-discovery and self-improvement never end.

Torah is long form. We cannot ignore or erase the verses we do not like, but we must contend with them on the page. 

And the same is true for being a good citizen, for making a functioning democracy, for building a just society, as our tradition commands us; we work together, even with those with whom we disagree, to improve our world, to solve the big challenges. Total ideological purity is not a reasonable goal.

There is another tradition that we will perform tomorrow, one that may be familiar to some of you. The Hatzi Kaddish before Musaf on Simhat Torah is often sung to a series of holiday melodies from throughout the Jewish year – tunes from Hanukkah and Purim, the Three Festivals, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and even Tish’ah BeAv. It is referred to as the “Yahres Kaddish,” the Kaddish of the whole year. 

It is a musically frivolous moment, coming at the end of a raucous service at the end of a long holiday season. But there is also a reflective quality to it – a reminder that this is the end of the holiday season, as we enter Marheshvan, the bitter month of Heshvan in which there are no joyous days, 

and we look back to the year that has passed, 

and we look forward to the one that we have just begun, 

and we consider our joy and our grief and our pleading to be sealed in the Book of Life and our remembrance of those who have passed, 

and we sense the cool wind of fall and smell the fallen leaves, 

and we remember that we are frail, that we are older, that we have suffered loss even as we move from strength to strength.

And we remember that one of our fundamental duties, as we look to the next holiday and begin the cycle anew, drawing on our memories and what we have learned and our apprehension of what is to come, and the inexorable march of time, is the obligation to make peace between people. That is an essential role that we the Jews aspire to fulfill on this Earth. 

President Johnson’s words were prophetic. As we mourn the 213,000+ fellow citizens who have died needlessly, and we remember all those for whom we grieve today during the Yizkor service, I too hope “that the tragedy and the torment of these terrible days will bind us together in new fellowship, making us one people in our hour of sorrow.” 

Amen.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, morning of Shemini Atzeret 5781, 10/10/2020.)

Categories
Festivals Sermons

Fantasy Ushpizin: The Seven Guests I Would Love to Have in My Sukkah This Year – Sukkot 5781

Do you remember how, when you were very young, your mother could make everything better? She had magical powers. When you got hurt playing with other kids down the block; when you had a stomach ache; when you saw a really scary movie and couldn’t sleep; when you were devastated by a horrible grade or being teased or when the president encouraged a white nationalist group to “stand by,” (OK, so just kidding about that last one), your mother would give you a hug and make it all go away.

America needs a mom right now. 

One of the traditions of Sukkot is that of Ushpizin, the custom of inviting our tribal ancestors to come dwell with us in the sukkah at evening meals. The custom is a kabbalistic one, apparently derived from a statement in the Zohar:

Zohar 3:103b:8

תָּא חֲזֵי, בְּשַׁעֲתָא דְּבַר נָשׁ יָתִיב בְּמָדוֹרָא דָּא, צִלָּא דִּמְהֵימְנוּתָא, שְׁכִינְתָּא פַּרְסָא גַּדְפָהָא עָלֵיהּ מִלְּעֵילָּא, וְאַבְרָהָם וַחֲמִשָּׁה צַדִּיקַיָּיא אָחֳרָנִין שַׁוְיָין מָדוֹרֵיהוֹן עִמֵּיהּ

“Come and see: When one sits in this dwelling, the shade of faith, Shekhinah spreads Her wings over him from above, Abraham and five other righteous heroes come to dwell with him!”

Maybe the Shekhinah, God’s presence, is the mother who is going to spread her wings over all of us as we dine in our sukkot this year. Wouldn’t that be nice? 

The Aramaic term “ushpizin,” you may have heard me say in the past, is a Hebraicization of the Medieval Greek word hospition, meaning an inn, also connected to the Latin root hospes, which is the source of our English words hospitality, host, and hospital. The custom is that each night of Sukkot, for seven nights, we welcome Sarah and Avraham, Rivqah and Yitzhaq, etc. (You can see the whole egalitarian list in Siddur Lev Shalem, pp. 424-5)

OK, so the Zohar did not include the women, only men. But we know better.

But it is also an interesting exercise, as we are inviting towering figures from the Tanakh into our sukkot, to also ask ourselves, if we could invite any person into the sukkah as a guest, whom would we invite?

And to keep this focused, I have picked Jewish values for each of the seven nights, so each of the ushpizin will represent a certain value. The values are: Hemlah / compassion, nedivut / generosity, redifat shalom / seeking peace, anavah / humility, adivut / civility, manhigut / leadership, and Talmud Torah / learning the wisdom of the Jewish bookshelf.

And since we are all nervous this year about having guests (or being guests) in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, the idea of spiritual guests rather than physical guests is a welcome practice! 

Caveat: it would be impossible for me to come up with a list of names about whom all would agree. Most likely someone on this list will be objectionable because of something in their history: something unsavory they did, but as with the Biblical characters of the classical ushpizin, the people we admire from more recent history are complex and sometimes in the wrong, and that does not necessarily detract from their accomplishments or the values they lived.

And for sure, I know that you could come up with a better list than I can. But that’s what makes this exercise so much fun! 

  1. Hemlah / Compassion – German Chancellor Angela Merkel

Chancellor Merkel is our ushpizah for compassion. Back in 2015, a month or so after I moved to Pittsburgh, there was a huge migrant crisis in Europe, people flowing through Turkey, primarily from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. As you may recall, European nations responded differently. While Hungary’s autocratic prime minister Viktor Orban threw up fences and confined thousands of refugees to a Budapest train station, Merkel and her government took in over a million people. They resettled them, arranged housing and job training and language instruction. This was a stunning act of unparalleled compassion and generosity. While there was of course a political backlash and no shortage of cultural issues surrounding the resettlement, the overarching message was clear: asylum seekers are people, and we have to be responsible for our fellow human beings.

  1. Nedivut / Generosity – Bill and Melinda Gates

Say what you will about the founder of Microsoft, but it is undeniable that Bill Gates is generous. The foundation that he and his wife created invests nearly $5 billion per year in international programs that focus on poverty, hunger, and public health, among other things. Now, if Bill and Melinda were actually in my sukkah, I of course would use it as an opportunity to vent about why he let Windows push out DOS, which was just fine with me. But among the people in their tax bracket, they have been a model of generosity. And all the more so in the time of this pandemic, when the resources and leadership regarding public health and vaccines that the Gates Foundation supplies are more important than ever.

  1. Redifat shalom / pursuit of peace – Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin  

Rabin was a soldier, a man of war who commanded forces in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948-49. And yet, over the course of his life, he became a man of peace. Yes, it was the Norwegians who coordinated the Oslo Accords. But in order to make peace actually happen, Rabin and Shimon Peres had to agree to talks with the PLO, then clearly understood to be the mortal enemy of Israel. When Rabin found himself shaking the hand of Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn, he could not even believe such a thing had happened. 

Wherever you stand on the Oslo process and its tragic failure, there is no question that Rabin taught us all an essential message: you cannot make peace without talking to your enemy.

  1. Anavah / Humility – Rosa Parks

Yes, what Rosa Parks did on a Montgomery, Alabama bus in 1955 by not relinquishing her seat was an act of defiance, but her action was a humble one. Three months after the brutal murder of Emmett Till, Ms. Parks, a seamstress for a local department store, exerted her will not by marching, not with a bullhorn, but by sitting down, one of the more humble human activities. Her action led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott a few days later, a seminal moment in the nascent civil rights movement. Ms. Parks later described what she did, somewhat ironically as, “an opportunity to take a stand,” a proud description of a humble moment.

  1. Adivut / Civility – President Abraham Lincoln

So you think the United States is divided today? When Abraham Lincoln accepted the Illinois Republican Party’s nomination for Senate in 1858, he began by paraphrasing the assertion from the Christian Bible: “A house divided against itself, cannot stand.” Through the deep division that led to and continued after the bloody Civil War, Lincoln stood eloquently and steadfastly for the abolitionist cause. As president, he emancipated the enslaved people in this nation, and as the war drew to a close, he stated in his Second Inaugural Address: 

“Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.” 

To understand one’s enemy as a human being, something that the Torah exhorts us to do in multiple ways, is a challenge that we all have; Lincoln (for whom, by the way, there is a street named in Tel Aviv), rose to that challenge with grace, even as he sent Union troops to quash the Confederacy.

  1. Manhigut / leadership –  Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand

Not even a month after the brutal massacre by a white supremacist at a Christchurch mosque, Prime Minister Ardern managed to compel the New Zealand parliament ban most semi-automatic weapons. She is only the second head of state to give birth in office, and her successful management of the coronavirus pandemic embarrasses the rest of the developed world: 19 New Zealanders have died, out of a population of 5 million. By comparison, the per capita rate of death in the United States is 165 times higher. I would say that Ms. Ardern has been a model leader.

  1. Talmud Torah – Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

Rabbi Steinsaltz passed away in August, and there has been no other contemporary rabbi whose authority and knowledge is as respected across the Jewish world. His father, although descended from the first Slonimer rabbi, was a Communist Zionist and had no interest in religion; young Adin Steinsaltz not only excelled in secular studies, but also became a ba’al teshuvah, and ultimately accomplished what may be the most important Jewish task of the current age: popularizing the study of Talmud by translating it into contemporary Hebrew and English. He wrote many other books for popular consumption, and was at one point the head of a (failed) effort to re-establish the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem.

***
That is my list; I strongly encourage you to play this “fantasy ushpizin” game with your family as you gather in your own sukkah this year. America may not have a mom to give us a hug, but we do have the Shekhinah, and perhaps these illustrious guests will bring us all some comfort.

Mo’adim lesimhah! Haggim uzmanim lesasson!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, first day of Sukkot 5781, 10/3/2020.)

Categories
High Holidays Sermons Yizkor

Back to Basics: Our Story Will Save Us – Yom Kippur 5781 / Yizkor

בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן וּבְיוֹם צוֹם כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן

Berosh hashanah yikatevun, uvyom tzom kippur yehatemun.

On Rosh Hashanah their decree is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.

That is our traditional story surrounding Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – the Book of Life. As our tefillot / prayers continue throughout the day, we will continue to invoke this story.

This is the fourth and final installment in the “Back to Basics” series, inspired by the limited nature of our lives due to the pandemic. On Day One of Rosh Hashanah, we covered halakhah (Jewish law), on Day Two we discussed minhag (Jewish custom), and last night we spoke about Jewish values. (You can also listen to these as podcasts.) The final installment is about the Jewish story. Halakhah, minhag, values, story. These are the basic elements of Jewish life.

You might have thought that this piece of the basics of Judaism would come first. After all, the first thing we learn about being Jewish is that our heritage comes with a story. We learn stories from the Torah in Hebrew school. We remember the Exodus from slavery in Egypt at the Pesah seder table. We light Hanukkah candles to remember that a small band of Jewish rebels fought off the idolatrous invaders and restored the Temple in Jerusalem, and so too do we have an obligation to enlighten the world. We get a day off every seven days because God rested after six days of Creation. Even those of us with zero formal Jewish education know the stories about the Garden of Eden, Joseph (thanks to Andrew Lloyd Webber), Moses (thanks to Hollywood). The Torah and pop culture are intertwined in ways we do not even notice.

On the other hand, story serves as a beginning, and also the end; I have heard that Jewish life is something like a Moebius strip – as you follow its path, you always return to where you started. In engaging with our tradition, we always return once again to our story, our history, our culture, and we are reminded that sharing our story with others will lead to a better world: Wouldn’t it be awesome if the whole world observed Shabbat? Wouldn’t it be absolutely amazing if everybody were to gather around a holiday table and say, “Let all who are hungry come and eat”? 

And let’s face it: story is the most interesting part. For most of us, that is.

I have a slight confession to make here, although many of you probably have noticed this already. I’m not really a story-telling rabbi. Some rabbis are more inclined to pepper their sermons with good stories that lead to a moral. I am more cut-and-dried, more inclined to lay down the brief, pithy Talmud Torah than long form stories. (If you were on our Zoom service on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, you may have noticed that I tried to tell a joke and totally bungled it.)

But I am very fond of the fact that, no matter how we break down theologically or sociologically or demographically, we, the Jews, are still united by our stories. Even though we approach many things differently, the Torah is the Torah; the Talmud is the Talmud, and disagreeing over the meaning of a phrase or the halakhic import of a certain read comes with the territory. As fractious as we are, we still share our stories.  

And you know what? As long as we continue to tell our stories, they will protect and save us, just as they always have.

Think about this: what is it that enabled Jewish people to survive the destruction of the First and Second Temples, the Inquisition, the Shoah? What enabled Jews to manage being alternately exiled and welcomed, dispersed and ghettoized, massacred and delegitimized? What empowered us to look past the anti-Semitism, century after century, land after land? What encouraged the Zionists to build a modern nation in an ancient land? What has enabled this very community to pick itself up from its grief and move forward, after 11 of our friends and neighbors were brutally murdered by a white supremacist with an assault rifle?

Not history. If it were up to mere history, the Jews would have disappeared thousands of years ago. Our history is littered with destruction, dispersion, forced conscription, pogroms, and disillusionment.

No, what gave us the strength to survive was that these stories fill our lives with meaning. We mustered the courage to press on by the promises given to Avraham and Sarah, Rivkah and Yitzhaq, Rahel and Ya’aqov and Leah and Yosef. We have continued to teach our stories to our children, so that, generation after generation, their eyes were lit with the richness of our wisdom, the power of our tales, the inspiring personalities of our bookshelf.

One of the more curious things that we do as Jews, on the festival of Sukkot, is to parade around the room holding aloft the four plant species identified in the Torah as the symbols of the season: willow, myrtle, palm, and citron, also known as the lulav and etrog. And what do we do whilst parading?

We say, “Save us.” “Hosha’na.” And we say that over and over and over, and in between chanting “hosha’na,” we add tiny story fragments, a couple of words each. They always go by so quickly, because the piyyutim are long, and late in the service so everybody’s hungry and wants to get to lunch. But they include reference after reference to the Torah and to midrashim. Just a few brief examples:

We chant this on the second day of Sukkot:

הוֹשַׁע נָא אֶֽבֶן שְׁתִיָּֽה, הוֹשַׁע נָא

Hosha’na even shetiyyah, hosha’na.

Save us, Foundation Stone, save us!

The Even Shetiyyah / Foundation Stone was the mythical piece of rock, located at the top of Mt. Moriyah, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, from which, according to midrash, the world was created. It holds a special power that we continue to invoke to this day.

Here is another one: 

כְּהוֹשַֽׁעְתָּ טְבוּעִֽים בְּצֽוּל גְּזָרִֽים. יְקָֽרְךָֽ עִמָּֽם מַֽעֲבִירִֽים. כֵּן הוֹשַׁע נָא

Kehosha’ta tevu’im betzel gezarim, yeqarekha ‘imam ma’avirim, ken hosha’na.

As you rescued this people from drowning by splitting the deep sea, Your glory crossing with them, so save us!

This is a clear reference to the Israelites crossing the Sea of Reeds, accompanied by God, an example of how God has saved us in the past.

There are literally hundreds of these types of references, some more deeply coded than others, in endless liturgical poems used over the holidays, not just for Sukkot, but around every holiday.

The message is clear: our stories save us. When we are in trouble, when we need something to hold onto, we lean into the rich assortment of tales that have inspired us and given us a meaningful framework for thousands of years. 

Now, I know I have a few armchair skeptics out there in Zoom-Land right now (and you may actually be seated in armchairs!) who are thinking, or perhaps even remarking out loud, “Come on, Rabbi. The stories of the Torah are not true. They conflict with the scientific record. There’s no archaeological evidence of the Exodus, or that the Israelites were actually enslaved. Do you really think that Moshe took dictation from God on Mt. Sinai?!”

To you I say, “I’m happy you’re listening!” and then, “So what? That is not the point.” History and story are not the same thing. Scientific truth and the foundational stories of an ethnic or religious group are not in the same category; they answer different questions. Science tells us that the universe is 14 billion years old, following a Big Bang in which all matter was violently expelled from a single, infinitely dense point, and ultimately cooled to the point where atoms and molecules and (at least in the case of one particular planet) life formed through a series of fascinating phenomena. 

But science does not tell us that we need a day off every seven days, because God rested on the seventh day of Creation. And science does not provide us with the wisdom to raise our children to be human beings, or to seek the common good, or to behave with integrity, or to remember the needy, or to pursue justice. Science teaches us facts; our stories teach us not only how and why to be Jewish, but also how and why to aspire to be the best humans we can be.

Our story, the Jewish story, may not meet the standard of scientific fact, but they are ours. My teacher at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Neil Gillman, taught me the value of what he referred to us as “myth.” Not myth in the sense of falsehood, but the series of stories that help us explain our world, the lens that helps us make sense of the information we take in. Every nation, every ethnicity has its own myths. 

That is why the contemporary tools of biblical criticism, which cast doubt on some of our stories, do not trouble me. No matter what scholars may say about our foundational myths, they continue to frame my life and yours in holiness.

Some of you may be aware that there is a new translation out of the memoirs of Glikl, a Jewish woman who lived in Germany in the 17th and 18th centuries. I’ve been captivated by her story for many reasons, among them the fact that stories of and by women are too few and far between on the Jewish bookshelf. Glikl was born in the 17th century to a wealthy family, and she is not only literate in the sense that she can write her own memoirs in Old Yiddish, but also she is Jewishly literate, peppering her language with quotes from the Torah and rabbinic text. She writes about her family’s ups and downs, about intrigue and marriage and of course anti-Semitism, which is very much a part of her world. 

One of the captivating aspects of her work is the way in which the Jewish story nourishes Glikl. 

Throughout the seven books of her memoirs, which cover 28 years from 1691 until 1719, she weaves Yiddish folktales, Talmudic stories, and personal anecdotes into the details of her family life. She unspools lengthy yarns to teach us a moral, like the value of patience, and then she tells the tale of how she and her mother both gave birth around the same time, and one night their babies were confused and the entire household was in an uproar. She expands the story from the Talmud about Alexander the Great’s search for the Garden of Eden, to teach us that we should be satisfied with what we have. And she urges us to settle our personal accounts during our lifetime, a notion particularly salient for these days of teshuvah, repentance. 

Glikl’s memoir is not only a fascinating slice of history, a particular moment captured in remarkable prose, but also a testament to the power of story. As we listen to her unspool her tales, we also see how the Jewish story supports and nourishes her and her family, how Jewish rituals and holidays, drawn of course from our story, are very much a part of her everyday existence.

Ladies and gentlemen, I know that right now, things might seem much worse than they have ever been. I know that these Ten Days of Teshuvah / repentance, starting with Rosh Hashanah and concluding today (at 7:47 PM) have been nerve-wracking for reasons I do not need to enumerate. But underlying the threat of chaos and anxiety about the future, I know that over the past week, in the back of my head, I have been praying for life. Zokhreinu lehayyim. Remember us for life, God. And even though the story of the Book of Life should also fill us with awe, I must say that it has been comforting to me to be able to share these melodies and stories, these High Holiday sounds and ideas, with all of you, even virtually, over these days. 

Our story, the Jewish story, offers us comfort and meaning and protection. It holds us together in a way that halakhah cannot. It continues to brighten the eyes of our children and inspire all those who listen of all ages. And our rituals and customs and values bring us back again and again to our story.

Yizkor Coda.

What do we do when we recall a loved one? We recall their story.

It has often been observed that the hyphen on a memorial stone or plaque stands for a whole lot. A short, straight line. But none of our stories are straight; they contain twists and turns and loops and dead-ends. And it is up to us, the living, to recall all of those twists and turns in the lives of those whom we remember.

In the context of this pandemic, we have lost 1,000,000 people worldwide, including over 200,000 here in the United States, including members of this community and even a past president of Beth Shalom. And millions of people have lost their jobs; many more are living with less. The spiritual and economic pain from which we are all suffering is immeasurable; the deep frustration at our elected officials, and our fellow citizens, for their various failures is palpable.

When all is said and done, many, many people around the world will have died alone; many will be buried in overwhelmed cemeteries without any kind of funeral or eulogy. Many will have left this world in a way that their story remains unfinished, or untold.

Back in August, the city of Detroit memorialized its coronavirus victims by putting up huge photos of them in a city park, so that people could drive through and see their faces. There were 900 portraits in the exhibition, accounting for more than half of the 1,500 city residents who had by then died of the virus.

The photographic memorial drive in Detroit

A face is not a story, but in its lines and contours you can perceive quite a bit about a person. It was a moving tribute; the very idea brings tears to my eyes.

Ladies and gentlemen, we will likely have many months to go of isolation, of sickness and death. But we also have the gift of memory – remembering those we have lost; remembering our lives before the pandemic, remembering that humans are awfully clever, and will ultimately turn this time of sadness into one of rejoicing.

Although Yom Kippur is a Yizkor day, a day on which we remember those whom we have lost, and a day of gravitas as we seek repentance, rabbinic tradition tells us it is also a day of rejoicing; rejoicing at the fact that we know that if we work hard at the former, we will achieve the latter.

It is memory which may bring us salvation. It is memory which will bring us joy.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, morning service of Yom Kippur 5781, 9/28/2020.)

Categories
High Holidays Sermons

Back to Basics: Values / Integrity – Kol Nidrei 5781

As I hope you have noticed by now, the theme for this High Holiday sermon series is “Back to Basics.” In the context of the pandemic, our options for Jewish engagement have been somewhat limited (as with every other sphere of life, of course). As such I am taking this opportunity to go “Back to Basics”: to consider the essential items of Jewish life. These essential items are halakhah (Jewish law), minhag (customs), values, and story. We spoke about halakhah and minhag on Rosh Hashanah, and this evening’s subject is values. (If you missed them, you can read them on this blog, and you can also hear them on our podcast, the Beth Shalom Torah-Cast.)

Once upon a time, American Jews loved to play the game, “Who is a Jew?” We were filled with pride to see Dinah Shore or Kirk Douglas on our screens, looking so beautiful and strong and goyish, but we knew the truth. “He’s one of us,” we would boast to each other. I know that many of us are bursting with pride, alongside the grief, as the first Jewish female Supreme Court justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, lay in state last week. 

But then there are plenty of Jewish people of whom we are not proud, members of our tribe who are among the highest-profile criminals and detestable public figures today. I won’t mention any names, but I am sure you can come up with a list in your own head.

(BTW, Christians have it easier in this regard: they generally only count church-goers as Christians. But we count people differently: once a Jew, always a Jew. We could excommunicate these people, like we did with Barukh Spinoza (actually, we lifted the herem / excommunication on Spinoza a few years back), but we cannot deny the Jewishness of people whom we would rather not claim.)

And that hurts. Because we like to think that our Jewish values are universal; that somehow we all acquire them in Hebrew school or they are instilled in us by our parents; that even if we eat treyf (non-kosher food) and proudly violate Shabbat in public that the pintele yid, the tiny spark of Jewishness within us, will somehow keep us connected to the fold.

But it does not work that way. Our values will only hold if we act upon them, if we teach them to our children, if we model them for each other, if we remember that the Qadosh Barukh Hu is paying attention to our behavior.

I think it is very hard right now, six-and-a-half months into a worldwide pandemic, with maybe another year of isolation in front of us, and then coupled with all of the other chaos in the world, political and social and economic and spiritual, to be optimistic about the future. Many of you know that I am a self-described optimist, and yet I have found myself severely challenged by our current predicament. Everything is not OK.

And then I remember that we have a spiritual framework. Our Jewish heritage of learning, of action, of values is there to uphold us in times of trouble. Our ancestors, who survived many centuries of turbulence and upheaval, pogroms and genocide and dispersion, did so by leaning into their tradition. Etz hayyim hi, they sang, lamahazikim bah. The Torah is our Tree of Life if we reach out and grasp it. Our great-great-grandparents grasped and grasped and held on for dear life, and as a result, we are still here.

Part III: ערכים / Arakhim / Values

So tonight’s subject is values. Upholding our values at this time is more important than ever. If we are going to pull through this pandemic as a society, we have to remember that we have guardrails on our choices and behavior, not only from halakhah (Jewish law) and minhag (Jewish custom), but also drawn from our values. Values like:

  • Honesty
  • Empathy
  • Compassion
  • Taking care of the needy among us
  • Gratitude for what we have
  • Justice
  • Seeking peace
  • Pursuing the common good
  • Seeing the Divinity in all of Creation, including all people and all of God’s creatures

All of these have sources in Jewish text, in the Tanakh or in rabbinic literature. I am going to focus on one essential value this evening, one that I think is absolutely the key to all of them: integrity. While there are many sources on integrity from the Jewish bookshelf, here are a few that resonate with me:

Micah 6:8

הִגִּ֥יד לְךָ֛ אָדָ֖ם מַה־טּ֑וֹב וּמָֽה־ה’ דּוֹרֵ֣שׁ מִמְּךָ֗ כִּ֣י אִם־עֲשׂ֤וֹת מִשְׁפָּט֙ וְאַ֣הֲבַת חֶ֔סֶד וְהַצְנֵ֥עַ לֶ֖כֶת עִם־אֱ-לֹהֶֽיךָ׃

God has told you what is good, And what the LORD requires of you: Only to do justice And to love goodness, And to walk modestly with your God.

Some of you may know that this one is on my list of “refrigerator-magnet” texts – those that are just so pithy and essential that you should have them on your fridge. The prophet Micah tells us that the most essential path is that of acting from a place of justice and hesed, lovingkindness, but also to approach life modestly, that is, to approach all of your interactions with others from a place of holy humility.

Devarim / Deuteronomy 25:16

אֶ֣בֶן שְׁלֵמָ֤ה וָצֶ֙דֶק֙ יִֽהְיֶה־לָּ֔ךְ אֵיפָ֧ה שְׁלֵמָ֛ה וָצֶ֖דֶק יִֽהְיֶה־לָּ֑ךְ לְמַ֙עַן֙ יַאֲרִ֣יכוּ יָמֶ֔יךָ עַ֚ל הָֽאֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לָֽךְ׃

You must have completely honest weights and completely honest measures, if you are to endure long on the soil that the LORD your God is giving you.

The key to a long and happy life, says the Torah, is to deal with all others fairly. The essence of living a just life is treating everybody equally, not only measuring out your goods in the marketplace in an honest way, but also by measuring out your love and deeds and favor honestly and fairly.

Pirqei Avot 4:1 

אֵיזֶהוּ מְכֻבָּד, הַמְכַבֵּד אֶת הַבְּרִיּוֹת

Who is honored? The one who honors all of God’s creatures.

The way that we gain honor is not by expecting others to submit to you, but exactly the opposite. If you interact with the people around you from a place of respect, from honesty and good intentions, then those things will come back to you.

What does it mean to act with integrity? It means that we treat all people fairly and respectfully, regardless of who they are. It means that we are honest with ourselves and others in all our dealings. It means that we model upright behavior for others, and understand that the image of ourselves that we put out into the world should be one that others want to emulate.

Some of you may know that the Kol Nidrei prayer is among the more controversial pieces of liturgy in our tradition. Yes, we the Jews like to argue, even over what’s in the siddur / prayerbook. 

But Kol Nidrei is one of the few prayers in the Jewish canon that was controversial from the outset. It first appeared, as far as we know, in the 10th century, and its purpose was originally to nullify vows that one made with oneself and did not fulfill in the past year, vows like, “I’m going to learn to speak French this year,” or “I’m going to go on a diet, right after Simhat Torah.” A few centuries later, the renowned scholar Rabbenu Tam, one of Rashi’s grandchildren, changed the tense from past to future, making Kol Nidrei a pre-emptive nullification of such vows. 

Vows, promises that we make to ourselves, to others, or to God, are important; in addition to passages in the Torah about various types of vows, there is a whole tractate of the Talmud, Nedarim, devoted to issues surrounding vows. Right up there with being a person of integrity is the principle of keeping one’s word.

However, Kol Nidrei also provided material for anti-Semites. Misunderstanding the point of the prayer, which nullifies only those vows that we make with ourselves, the Jew haters of this world took Kol Nidrei as evidence that you can’t trust a Jew. And some rabbis railed against Kol Nidrei for centuries, because they thought that the less-scrupulous among us would take it as license not to live up to one’s word with impunity.

But you might think of Kol Nidrei today as a kind of relief valve, in particular for the very difficult kinds of resolutions we make with ourselves on Yom Kippur, like, “This year I’m really going to make peace with my estranged sibling,” or, “I’m going to give more tzedaqah.” The promises that we might make to ourselves, when we know that the Book of Life is closing, and we know that we really should do these things, but maybe we have tried and failed at self-improvement in the past. And we might very well fail again.

Keeping your word is very much a part of the value of integrity. And our tradition wants you to keep your word, especially to the others around you. Kol Nidrei does not excuse you from that.

OK, Rabbi, that all sounds very interesting. I want to act on this Jewish value of integrity. How do I do this?

I’m so glad you asked! Here are some ways we can act on this value:

In the personal sphere, that is, in your most immediate relationships, with your children, family and friends:

  • Do what you say you’re going to do.  Be the parent/friend/sibling/spouse that everybody can count on.
  • Follow through on promises, both the good (“I’ll be there to see your baseball game / play”) and the bad (“If you do that again, you’ll be punished.) The Talmud teaches us (BT Bava Metzia 49a) “Let your yes be yes, and your no be no.”
  • Model the behavior you know is best for the others around you. Teach integrity by acting with integrity.

In the communal sphere, that is, in interacting with the people in your neighborhood, your synagogue, your school, your workplace:

  • Decide what are the three characteristics for which you want to be eulogized.  Then consider if your actions and words reflect those characteristics.
  • Integrity means respecting your interlocutor and trusting that reasoned arguments are the only honorable way to have discourse. It is very easy in today’s world for disagreements to devolve into insults. Remember the spark of qedushah/holiness in all people when engaging in this way.
  • Do not criticize unless you are willing to be part of the solution. Always be prepared to offer up suggestions alongside criticisms, and be prepared for the possibility that others may not want your suggestions.

As a citizen of this nation and of the world:

We may not be able to solve all of the complicated problems in the world right now (I do not need to enumerate them for you), but if we were all to take a leap forward on the integrity scale, I think there is a good chance we could at least ease some of the pain. The world needs a good deal of healing right now, and although you might feel quite small, remember that you have real power, which you exercise every time you interact with somebody, whether it is your neighbor, a store clerk, or a stranger on the street. 

You have the potential, with your words and your deeds, to make someone’s day brighter or darker, to build up another’s confidence or to destroy it, to lift up your community by working for the common good or tear it down in your own self-interest. This power demands that we always act with integrity. 

At least three times per day in Jewish prayer tradition, we say, “Elohai netzor leshoni mera, usfatai middabber mirmah.” God, keep my tongue from evil, and my lips from deceit. The Talmud (BT Berakhot 17a) tells us that we should conclude every Amidah with these words. It is a reminder that our words count as much as our actions in creating a world based on integrity.  This is an effective daily meditation on our potential to impact others.

The Zen Buddhist priest, angel Kyodo williams, says the following in her book, Radical Dharma

We cannot have a healed society, we cannot have change, we cannot have justice, if we do not reclaim and repair the human spirit.

If we model integrity in the personal, communal, national and worldwide realms, we have the potential to heal and uplift the human spirit. If we act out of selfishness, deception, bias, prejudice, and fear, we will only continue to see our world crumble. 

The choice is ours. Pick the road of integrity, for the benefit of all of our fellow people. Remember your obligation to raise the level of qedushah / holiness in this world. Seek the betterment of yourself and others. I am confident that, by acting on the Jewish value of integrity, we can regain a more civilized world. We are all in this together.

Shanah tovah! 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, evening service of Yom Kippur 5781, 9/27/2020.)

Categories
High Holidays Sermons

Back to Basics: Gather. Customize. Listen. (Minhag) – Rosh Hashanah 5781, Day 2

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

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

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

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

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

***

We are a people who are committed to tradition. “Tradition!” calls Tevye the Milkman in Fiddler on the Roof. It’s a word that captures a whole lot of things in three short syllables.

Our theme for these High Holidays is “Back to Basics.” Yesterday, we spoke about the ongoing value of halakhah, usually translated as “Jewish law,” although that is at best an approximation. More accurately, halakhah is “the way to walk through life while acting on the imperative to be holy people.” In particular, we spoke about the Conservative movement’s role in conserving halakhah by occupying the central area between tradition and change. 

But another essential aspect of tradition, and indeed a basic feature of Jewish life, is the area of Jewish behaviors that are not halakhah, not based in Jewish law from the Torah or Talmud, but rather in the area of minhag, custom. Customs are not mandatory, and can in fact be easily changed, but stripped of customs, Judaism is not recognizable. Medieval rabbis, when describing ancient minhagim that did not rise to the level of halakhah, would say, “Minhag avoteinu beyadeinu.” Our ancestors’ customs are in our hands.

Part II. Minhag / Custom

Our ancestors’ customs are in our hands.

So what are these minhagim / customs? Some, like the wearing of a kippah or the recitation of kaddish while in mourning are so ubiquitous and so long-standing that they seem like they should be halakhah. Some are instantly recognizable as symbols of the richness of Jewish life, like braiding hallah or singing songs at Shabbat dinner. Some are deeply personal and spiritual, like immersing in the mikveh before Yom Kippur (something which I am going to deeply miss this year, because I am not convinced that I can do it safely). Some are family things, like that special dish (meatloaf, maybe?) that your grandmother made for holiday meals, and some are regional, like the Persian-Jewish custom of whipping each other with scallions while singing Dayyenu.

Melodies. Clothes. Foods, Ritual objects. Holiday practices. Many of these things fall into the area of minhag, and it is the minhagim / customs of Jewish life that make Judaism interesting. Think of it this way: you have to wear clothes in public. If you do not, you are violating the law (and risk being arrested). But the law does not dictate the color of your clothes, or whether you wear a tie or a hat or a dress, or who designed the clothes. The variety and palette of clothing options are what allow us to express either our individuality or our commitment to a group, on a sliding scale therein, and this variety is what makes clothing appealing.

Some minhagim are ubiquitous throughout the Jewish world, and some are particular to a family or a small town in Poland or a region of North Africa. 

These minhagim are in our hands.

They are in our hands in the sense that we can carry them and give them to our children and grandchildren. They are in our hands in the sense that we can acknowledge the power of minhagim only if we act on them. They are in our hands in the sense that it is up to us to choose to continue them or not.

How many of us occasionally think about something our parents or grandparents used to do that we do not? How many of us have discovered our grandfather’s tallit, for example, and wistfully recalled playing under its folds and fringes, but would never consider taking our own grandchildren to synagogue to do the same? How many of us have tried to recall the tasty dishes of past Passovers (in my house, for example, it’s my Grandma Rosie’s stuffed cabbage recipe, which my mother affectionately describes as a “patshke,” a messy bother, that may not survive to my children’s generation), or the familiar holiday melodies that we cannot quite remember, or that game that we used to play with cousins on Rosh Hashanah, but we haven’t done so in years because everybody lives so far apart now? 

One of the things that we continue to lose, generation after generation in America, is what Brandeis Jewish studies professor emerita Sylvia Barack Fishman has identified as the “thick relationship” with Jewish life. You know, the fact that there used to be something like 12 kosher butchers on Murray Avenue, and how at one time all your neighbors were Jewish. You knew where everybody was on the first day of the month of Tishrei, because who didn’t go to shul on Rosh Hashanah? And you knew that a certain product in the grocery store was kosher because, as my father has told me about his own mother’s shopping habits, “everybody else was buying it.”

Murrau Avenue, Squirrel Hill, 1932

We have clearly lost that sense of “thickness,” that constant connection and reinforcement of Jewishness in America, even here in the shtetl of Squirrel Hill. There are many sociological factors in play here, and these things are far too complex to discuss here.

But the greater point is this: it is the customs of Jewish life that give it its ongoing appeal from generation to generation, and we let go of them at our own peril. So as much as halakhah is foundational to what we do, so too is the varied tapestry of minhag that seasons our Jewishness. And we need that thickness, that rich range of customs to ensure that Judaism continues to enrich our lives and our world. We need to be in the thick of it, in thick relationship with Jewish life, culture, ritual, and of course custom.

So how do we do this, given that our world has changed so dramatically in the past few decades? I am going to suggest three actions that are rooted in Jewish minhag:

You know how cool businesses have one word names? I’m going to give each of these ideas a cool name. Imagine them written in a simple, bold typeface, with a period at the end.

Gather.

Gathering as a family, gathering with friends, gathering as a community in a Jewish context – this is the most fundamental Jewish minhag. Yes, gathering is a little fraught right now, but we are still doing it, even if this virtual connection is somewhat tenuous and woefully unsatisfying. And I assure you that when this whole pandemic is over, we will surely gather once again.

For this to work, however, gathering in this sense needs a Jewish ritual to frame it. Gather for Shabbat meals. Gather for a brief havdalah candle-lighting with cocktails. Gather for services via Zoom at Beth Shalom (and some day, bimherah beyameinu, speedily in our days, we will be able to gather again for services in person on a large scale). Gather for singing niggunim, which we have done both virtually and in-person.

And a subset of gathering is tefillah, prayer, although not in the way you might think.

Look, I know that synagogue services are not for everybody; they are something of an acquired taste. I know that if you do not read Hebrew, or if the melodies are unfamiliar, or if you just cannot quite stomach classical descriptions of God (yeah, BTW, I can’t either. Let’s talk!), if those things do not work for you, then tefillah does not work.

Also, I know that Jewish prayer takes a long time. Even on a weekday, in a Zoom service that is traditionally complete yet also short and to the point, I spend about 70 minutes in prayer. That’s actually a significant chunk of my day. 

But let’s face it: despite our halakhic obligations, tefillah, that is, the recitation of liturgy in an ancient language that we do not understand is not really why we gather in synagogues. OK, so your friends will NOT believe you if you tell them your rabbi said this, but let me be clear about this: Fulfilling our obligation for daily prayer might be the nominal reason why we have synagogue services, but there are a host of implicit reasons for gathering in synagogue that have nothing to do with halakhah: among them, seeing your friends, meeting new people, learning, schmoozing, eating, comforting those who mourn, celebrating lifecycle events, etc., etc.

Ladies and gentlemen, even during these COVID-19 times, we have strong daily minyanim, every morning and every evening, and even without breakfast, or the opportunity to walk up and down kibitzing in the chapel (not mentioning any names here, but this is a long-standing Jewish minhag), we are still gathering, because it is just so powerful. 

Next: Customize.

Creatively redesign your Jewish practice; that is, making new customs. 

We gave you tools in the High Holiday Guide to hold a Rosh Hashanah seder, wherein before you start eating in earnest, you spend a few minutes discussing symbols of the holiday season, like a fish head (so you should be like the head of the year and not the tail), or beets (a Hebrew pun that plays on the word for beet, seleq, sounding like the word for to scatter one’s enemies).

But you can also be creative on Pesah: there are online tools for making your own haggadah, so go for it.

And Sukkot is a wonderful holiday for creativity – build a sukkah and make it your own!

I’m guessing that there is not enough singing in your life right now. Make a songbook to share with your family. Who cares if you’re all tone deaf! Seek out new melodies; there are plenty of resources for this online.

Finally, Listen.

The third action that you can take is to pay attention. There are so many ways of connecting to Judaism and Jewish life right now, in addition to synagogue offerings: websites, blogs, podcasts, social media, and so forth and so on. It is so easy not to pay attention, because we have so many things vying for our eyeballs. But you should fight this inclination: Instead of tuning out, tune in by curating. Listen by creating a bookmark folder on your browser of favorite go-to Jewish sites: One for ideas about Jewish religion, one for your favorite rabbi’s blog (you should definitely bookmark themodernrabbi.com), one for your favorite Jewish news source, etc. 

But make it your custom to put some daily effort into finding out what’s going on in the Jewish world. As you have heard me say before, it’s not assimilation or intermarriage which are threats to the Jewish future; it’s indifference. Listen. Make paying attention your minhag.

The kosher butchers of Murray Avenue are not coming back; they will not be able to compete with Costco. But you can create the thick relationship of Jewish life in your own home. Gather, customize, listen. That is the secret “minhagic,” not halakhic, key to living a Jewish life. Minhag avoteinu beyadeinu – our parents’ customs are in our hands. And so too are our own customs. 

I am hoping that I or somebody else in my family will someday come up with a vegetarian version of my Grandma Rosie’s stuffed cabbage. And I look forward to hearing about your innovations as well, as we gather and listen to one another. 

Shanah tovah.

~

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, second day of Rosh Hashanah, 9/20/2020.)

Categories
High Holidays Sermons

Back to Basics: Halakhah / Reach Higher – Rosh Hashanah 5781, Day 1

OK, so let’s face it: we are missing right now the most valuable thing that synagogues offer: the opportunity to meet in person, to sing together with your community, to rub elbows at kiddush as you crowd around the last remaining slices of lox. We are missing the glue that holds us all together, the social capital that the synagogue experience is all about.

So what remains? That is the subject of this High Holiday sermon series for the new year of 5781: the essentials. The social shell of shul (say that ten times fast) has been stripped away, and what is left is, well, Judaism. It’s back to basics, folks.

Instead of dwelling on what we do NOT have at this time, I have been trying to lean into what we do have: Jewish tradition, that is, law, custom, values and story. While a synagogue thrives as a beit kenesset, a house of gathering, the synagogue also plays a role as the symbolic center of what we do in our homes as well. 

My central function as a rabbi is not to run services. It is not to give eulogies at funerals or give a charge to a bat mitzvah, although these are clearly things that I do. Rather, I see my role as a rabbi is to inspire you while using the words and history and customs of Jewish life and tradition, and to be as creative as possible, so that you will actually perk up your ears and listen. While the shofar’s job is to wake you up, my job is to get your attention now that you’re awake, so that you might go out into the world and act.

And these six months of pandemic isolation have been difficult for all of us. In the wake of so much sickness and death, unemployment and economic devastation, our collective emotional health is not good. Statistics are telling us that more of us are experiencing anxiety and depression than before, that one in four young people are experiencing suicidal ideation. And then there is everything else going on in the world: the public clashes over racism, the anxiety surrounding the coming national election, hurricane season, devastating, record-setting wildfires out west, and so forth.

We need something to hold onto, emotionally and spiritually. We need basic, foundational principles that will firm up the earth beneath our feet. And that is why this series of sermons features the essential pieces of what it means to be Jewish today. 

The framework I will be following for the four sermons of High Holidays 5781 is: Halakhah / Jewish law, Minhag / Jewish custom, Jewish values, and the Jewish story. Here are the basics.

***

Part 1 – Halakhah

Over the summer, I read for the first time a wonderful novel: Things Fall Apart, by the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, a staple of contemporary African literature that captures the disintegration of traditional Igbo society in Nigeria under British colonialism in the 19th century. The title of the book, as you may know, comes from a poem by the Irish poet W. B. Yeats: 

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Yeats, and indeed Achebe, were convinced that human beings cannot successfully maintain traditional ways in the face of a new construct. In Achebe’s novel, the Igbo’s way of life is upended when the British colonizers demean their customs and beliefs and kill or jail those who speak out against them. The rich sphere of Igbo tradition and hierarchy was no match for the invaders’ firepower and courts and prisons.

We the Jews are trying to maintain our own traditions while balancing lives that bear little resemblance to those of our ancestors. We have been doing this for 2,000 years, but in particular since the French Revolution in 1789, when Napoleon granted citizenship to the Jews of France, the struggle between tradition and modernity began in earnest. When Jews were allowed to live among their non-Jewish neighbors and attend their schools and universities and mingle in non-Jewish society, they were faced with the question of, “How do I maintain my Jewishness while also joining the wider society?”  

And we continue to face this question today. Let’s face it: many of us have given up the struggle. We all have relatives and Jewish friends who no longer belong to synagogues, who no longer participate in Jewish life. And the pandemic has, I know, only exacerbated this situation.

But you’re still here. The very fact that you are participating in this service right now is a strong indicator that you have not yet given up. And that has everything to do with the resilience of the Conservative movement, the ideological center of American Jewish life. Perhaps defying Yeats and Achebe, the center can hold! Let me explain.

 Judaism has many, many features. Law, customs, stories, values, practices, wisdom, rabbinic argument, and so forth. But the essential feature of Judaism is doing. Yes, belief is important, but it actually takes a back seat to behavior. And there is real wisdom in that: simply being Jewish will not pass Judaism on to the next generation. So too thinking Jewish thoughts. Only doing Jewish will keep the flame of Judaism alive.

And since our subject is “Back to Basics,” what are those essential Jewish actions?

It all comes down to halakhah. That is a word that is often translated as “Jewish law,” although that is an inadequate translation. Halakhah is, as many of you know, derived from the Hebrew verb, “Lalekhet,” to go. It is the way we go through life as we pursue being holy, an analog of the Chinese philosophy of Tao, the Way. A better definition of halakhah is “the way to walk through life while acting on the imperative to be holy people.” 

And we still need halakhah. Trust me on this: our world is more fragmented than ever. The information age has not made us smarter, nor more interconnected in a meaningful way. On the contrary: social media has enabled us to divide more easily, to always see ourselves in opposition. Ever tried to follow an argument in a Facebook thread?

Halakhah is how we connect to other people and to God. We have a need to be connected to each other right now through low-tech, traditional means. We need traditional structures for communal support. We need guideposts to assist us in making good choices. And the best way to do that is to engage with Judaism’s traditions, to walk through life in the way that our ancestors have handed down to us. And we can still do that without compromising our contemporary existence.

Yes, halakhah has many intricacies, and applies to all facets of our lives, from how we eat to how we speak to how we interact with others. But the most essential aspects of halakhah are those that enable us to frame our lives in qedushah, holiness. And the most enduring, regular features of halakhah, the three that are most beneficial, are Shabbat, kashrut / mindful eating, and tefillah / prayer.

  1. Tefillah: I spend at least an hour in prayer every day. It not only connects me to my community, it also connects me to myself. I wrap myself in tallit and tefillin every morning, and I am energized by being literally swaddled in our tradition, and asking myself the hard questions as I start my day: Who am I? What is my life? What are the acts of hesed / lovingkindness I perform every day? My life is enriched by these self-reflective moments. 

    And, yes, there are days when my mouth utters the words but my mind wanders, allowing mental space and time for reflection, which are also healthy and stimulate my creativity. 

    Whether you do it every day or just a few times a year, tefillah is an essential Jewish act.
  1. Kashrut: Mindful eating. You are what you eat. Paying attention to what we eat, to the lines drawn in Creation, to the limits set on our behavior, ensures that our sensitivity to what we have been given by God and how we should respect it rises dramatically. 

    We have so much choice, and it is killing us. Not every option is a good one. Furthermore, making good choices about what I put into my mouth also reminds me that what I say, i.e. what I do with my mouth when I am not eating, must be just as holy. Kashrut.
  1. Shabbat: Respect yourself; respect your neighbor; respect the world. You need a day off, a separation from all of the craziness of the week. Shabbat helps me tune out the anxiety, reconnect with family, reconnect with myself. Those magical 25 hours are a gift that restore the soul. Take that break every week; you need it.

Three things – a simple halakhic formula for improving your life and our world.

Those are the fundamentals. But what about the ideological center of Jewish life? How does our being affiliated with Conservative Judaism help us act on these imperatives?

In 1950, the Conservative movement made the halakhic decision that if you lived too far to walk to the synagogue on Shabbat, that it was better that you should drive than (a) stay at home or (b) be so ashamed of driving on Shabbat that you have to park three blocks away. The whole raison d’etre of the Conservative movement was to enable traditional Jews, many of whom were immigrants or the children of immigrants, to adhere to halakhah while living as proud, integrated Americans. The intent was and still is to conserve halakhah by occupying the central area between tradition and change. That is a principle that has held now for more than a century. 

The fact that you are participating in this service right now, in this virtual space, is the best example of why you, and the Jewish world, need the Conservative movement. At the beginning of the pandemic, way back in March, synagogues all over the world shut down for in-person services. Most Orthodox congregations could not meet for services at all. Most Reform congregations do not have daily services. So the overwhelming majority of synagogues that continued meeting for daily tefillah / prayer were Conservative-affiliated. And Conservative rabbis paved the way for a halakhically-acceptable way of conducting these services online, to both protect the health of our participants and still make it possible for people to grasp the daily framework of Jewish tradition that is tefillah, Jewish prayer, to enable folks to get that daily jolt of energy and mindfulness that tefillah gives.

One of the hallmarks of my own approach to halakhah, and the one that I think is most important for our community, is that I acknowledge that we have a range of practices within our own congregation: some folks who are very traditional, and some who are not at all. And I do not believe in shaming anybody for what they do or do not do in a Jewish framework, but I do want you to reach higher. 

Your commitment to halakhah, to engaging in the traditional way of living Jewishly, will be paid back to you in the form of more sanctified relationships, a better sense of self, and a healthier world. We at Beth Shalom strive to give you the space and the tools you need to reach higher. That is why we still do many things the traditional way; that is why we adhere to halakhic principles surrounding Shabbat, kashrut, and tefillah.

We in Conservative Judaism have held the center of American Jewish life for more than a century. Despite Yeats’ assertion that the center cannot hold, we are still here, providing a space for tefillah, a means of pursuing the benefits of a life lived in a halakhic context while accounting for how substantially the world has changed since the creation of the halakhic system.

And you know what? We need this, now more than ever. I cannot even imagine what it must be like to be part of a congregation that does not offer live services for their people on this day. You are here because you need this, because we need this; this virtual gathering space, a testament to the strength of the idea of “Tradition and Change,” is a sign of the vitality of the Conservative movement, and the ongoing value of halakhah, the way that we go.

The center must hold. We are it. The world needs tradition, and the Jewish world needs the flexibility of Conservative Judaism.

Tomorrow, we will talk about the rich palette of minhag, customs which illuminate and flavor Jewish life.

Shanah Tovah! A healthier 5781 to all.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, first day of Rosh Hashanah 5781, 9/19/2020.)

Categories
Sermons

Prepare For High Holidays This Year Like Never Before – Ki Tavo 5780

You are walking through the world half asleep. It isn’t just that you don’t know who you are and that you don’t know how or why you got here. It’s worse than that; these questions never even arise. It is as if you are in a dream.

Then the walls of the great house that surrounds you crumble and fall. You tumble out onto a strange street, suddenly conscious of your estrangement and your homelessness.

A great horn sounds, calling you to remembrance, but all you can remember is how much you have forgotten. Every day for a month, you sit and try to remember who you are and where you are going. By the last week of this month, your need to know these things weighs upon you. Your prayers become urgent.

So begins my go-to book at this time of year, Rabbi Alan Lew’s This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared. The book is filled with stories that help illustrate the journey of this part of the Jewish year, the arc that begins with destruction, Tish’ah Be’Av, and spirals upward through rebuilding, coronation, repentance, and celebration.

Rabbi Lew’s essential message is this: if you pay attention, if you are in fact prepared, the holiday odyssey is so much more powerful. We have the opportunity before us to change our behavior for the better, and in doing so change the world for the better.

The key to this betterment is preparation. Being ready. God tells Moshe to be ready before he ascends Mt. Sinai to get the tablets. (Ex. 34:2):

וֶהְיֵ֥ה נָכ֖וֹן לַבֹּ֑קֶר וְעָלִ֤יתָ בַבֹּ֙קֶר֙ אֶל־הַ֣ר סִינַ֔י

Vehyeh nakhon laboqer, ve’alita vaboqer el har sinai.
Be ready by morning, and in the morning you shall ascend Mt. Sinai.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are something like Mt. Sinai. That is the gravity with which we should approach these days. And we have to be prepared, just like Moshe. 

I know that the young woman whose bat mitzvah we celebrated today prepared extensively for this day; she read the entirety of today’s Torah reading. (Kol hakavod!)

What does it take to make a Jewish adult?

No bat mitzvah or bar mitzvah happens without extensive preparation. Learning to read from the Torah, learning to chant parts of the service, preparing a devar Torah to deliver to the congregation. 

However, that is really only the icing on the cake, the finished product, as it were. In order to reach that point, a child must spend years learning Hebrew, learning about Jewish practices and customs and law and holidays and values and texts. A Jewish child learns from her or his parents, watching them engage with Jewish life, participating in preparing Shabbat and holiday meals, helping to put up a sukkah, searching for hametz, coming to synagogue with them, observing them acting on Jewish values of gratitude and humility and compassion. A Jewish child learns to question: Why do we do this? What does this mean? Why is this night different from all other nights? Didn’t we say, “Next year in Jerusalem” last year? 

In all, 13 years of preparation, of investment of time and money and will, go into making a Jewish adult. And then she is not even really an adult yet. There are still more years of learning and growing to do. A lifetime, in fact; I’m still not sure if I have made it to adulthood.

It can be very easy, too easy to merely roll up to the High Holidays, to the Ten Days of Teshuvah, without preparing. Sure, you figure, we have a family meal, my suit is dry-cleaned, we have our High Holiday tickets, and so forth.

But those things are not so important. What is really important for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? Three simple things – items that you know because they are identified in what you might call the centerfold of RH and YK services: the Untaneh Toqef prayer, right after we ask the grave question of “Who will live and who will die in the coming year?” 

Utshuvah, utfillah, utzdaqah ma’avirin et ro’a hagezerah
But repentance, prayer, and charity remove the severity of the decree

And I think that this year, knowing that we will not all be gathered together with our collective energy in the same physical space, we need this preparation more than ever. More than any High Holiday cycle in your lifetime. We need it to ensure that this High Holiday season will have meaning. We need it because the world seems so off-kilter right now, and we are going to be really grateful for the spiritual framework of this time. So I give you these three things to think about in the two weeks you have left before Rosh Hashanah:

Teshuvah / Return or Repentance

Rambam, arguably (everything in Judaism is “arguably”) the greatest single interpreter of Jewish life. He writes the tractate Hilkhot Teshuvah (the laws of repentance) as a part of his halakhic compendium Mishneh Torah while serving as a court physician in Cairo in the 12th century. Among the ideas about teshuvah that he emphasizes is the idea that our lives are in the balance in this season. We must look back on our deeds of the past year, and consider that we have equal amounts of merits and transgressions; they balance each other out. And it is our task at this time to ensure that we are working a little harder than usual to make sure that we lean into the “merits,” to make sure that the balance tips the right way.

That is why, Rambam says, we begin sounding the shofar in the month of Elul. We do it every weekday morning at the end of our Shaharit service (if you need a little more shofar in your life right now, you can tune in on this Zoom link every weekday morning at about 8:10 to hear it). I’m also blowing it on the roof of Beth Shalom during ELC pickup.

The shofar’s call, says Rambam, cries, עוּרוּ יְשֵׁנִים מִשְּׁנַתְכֶם! Uru yeshenim mishenatkhem! Wake up from your slumber, you who sleep! The shofar reminds us that we have to be prepared; to stretch ourselves, to do better in this season.

Now is the time to reflect on your actions in the last year. To ask for forgiveness where necessary. To attempt to mend broken relationships. To work a little harder at living Jewishly, at pursuing Jewish values, at fulfilling mitzvot, the holy opportunities of Jewish life.

And that, of course, leads us to…

Tefillah / Prayer

Folks, I have to remind you all of something extraordinarily important about this season: even though we are meeting virtually, even though this may not feel like being in synagogue, it absolutely is. This is real prayer. I know, it’s not ideal, but it is what we have right now. 

So make it real prayer. Daven. Shuckle. Meditate. Sing. Do it all in earnest this year. Even if you feel like you have never successfully prayed before. Now is the time. I am proud, and you should be too, that Beth Shalom’s services have remained uninterrupted since March. You can join us every day, so that you can be a little bit more prepared.

Tzedaqah / Charity

This past week there was a powerful article in the New York Times about how the pandemic recession has impacted families.

A government survey in late July revealed that nearly 30 million Americans claimed that they did not have enough to eat. Those households include one in three of those with children. A food bank in Memphis reported that they had served 18,000 families between March and August, ten times more than in the same period last year.

There is a need right now, more so than in recent memory. The virus has caused a tidal wave of unemployment, and people are hungry. Fortunately, there is a temporary halt on evictions, but with family budgets stretched thin, there are many who may not be able to buy food. 

Give to charities now, particularly food banks. It’s good for those who need to eat, and it’s good for your soul as well.

This is really a simple formula: teshuvah, tefillah, tzedakah. But investing in those three things will help you be ready.

***

Bat mitzvah is not just about showing everybody that you can read Torah or lead services or give a credible devar Torah. It is about being ready, about paying attention, about acting on the holy imperatives of Jewish life. We celebrate with our bat mitzvah family today, but we also acknowledge that the task before us, in this season in which we really need some teshuvah / return, in which we crave normality, for a return to something resembling life as we used to know it, that task is harder than ever.

But you can make it happen. You just have to pay attention, listen to the sounding of the shofar waking us up from our slumber, seek forgiveness, pray, and commit some of your economic resources to the benefit of others if you can. 

And then you’ll be ready. And God knows that we need to be prepared this year as we enter 5781.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 9/5/2020.)

Categories
Sermons

No Fear – Ki Tetze 5780

As I stand here today, filled with pride as my daughter was called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah, I cannot help but think about how, just a few weeks after you were born, we were at a Shabbat dinner at Temple Israel of Great Neck, and I was leading the song based on the words of Rabbi Nahman of Breslov, “Kol ha’olam kulo, gesher tzar me-od, veha’iqqar lo lefahed kelal.” The whole world is a narrow bridge, and the most essential thing is not to fear at all. She was so tiny; I was actually holding her in one hand.

Our lives are, in fact, moving forward along that narrow bridge. And nothing has reminded me of the precarious nature of human life more than the coronavirus pandemic, which has brought a new level of fear back into our day-to-day existence like no other experience in recent memory.

But you, Hannah, you hold the future in your hands, along with all your peers. And we will depend on you lo lefahed – not to be afraid. 

When Hannah and I sat down back in the winter to start working on her devar Torah, we reviewed the entirety of Parashat Ki Tetze, which she chanted this morning, we encountered the mitzvah, the holy opportunity, that is referred to in rabbinic literature as “shilluah haqen.” If you find a mother bird in a nest with her chicks, and you want to take the chicks as food, the Torah requires us to shoo away the mother bird, so she will not see you taking her chicks. If you perform this mitzvah, the Torah says, you will be rewarded with long life. 

I reminded Hannah that this is my favorite mitzvah. “I know, Abba,” she said.

So why is this my favorite mitzvah? Many of you know that I am a vegetarian, and I certainly do not go about looking for nests and chicks to eat. Rather, it is because the mitzvah of shilluah haqen speaks to so much of what we value as Jews.

First, it relates to a principle that Hannah spoke about earlier: that of tza’ar ba’alei hayyim, the prevention of cruelty to animals. We value the life of all of God’s creatures: maintain life, says the Torah, and you are rewarded with life. Compassion even for God’s smallest creatures is a reflection of the qedushah, holiness in the human spirit. 

Closely tied to that is the sense of wise use and respect for the resources that have been given to us. We do need to eat, and many people like to eat animals. So we can do that, provided that (a) we ensure that the mother bird lives to create more life, and (b) that she does not suffer the emotional stress of watching her children taken from her. 

And the third item is related to a story that the Talmud tells about this mitzvah. A character named Elishah ben Avuyah, who receives the finest rabbinic education from the best teachers of the ancient world, including Rabbi Akiva, loses his faith. He witnesses a young boy climbing up into a tree to get some chicks from a nest. The boy shoos away the mother bird, fulfilling the mitzvah of shilluah haqen, and then falls from the tree and dies. He does not receive the Torah’s promised reward of long life. Elishah’s entire theological framework falls apart. He becomes the most famous apostate in Jewish tradition, referred to often only as Aher, “the other,” because he othered himself.

What value comes from this story? Why did the rabbis include this and other tales of a famous apostate?

The value is that Elishah ben Avuyah is the outlier. That we can, in fact, maintain faith even in the face of evidence that shakes our understanding of the world. Despite what it says all over the Torah, we know that sometimes bad things happen to good people. And vice versa.  Jewish theology (and I am saying this in full acknowledgment that Rosh Hashanah is three weeks from today) is not so simplistic. 

Our tradition still holds a great appeal for many of us. Why? Because even though we often understand that literal readings of our text do not always hold up, nonetheless, this ancient framework, which we have upheld for a couple thousand years, is still quite valuable in nurturing and sustaining us. 

Hevreh, we are facing challenges unlike any seen before in my lifetime. The pandemic, of course. The resurgence of anti-Semitism, which yielded the bloodiest attack on a synagogue in American history, just a few blocks from where I stand. The ongoing scourge of racism, coded and overt.

And, thrown into the mix is the ability that bad actors possess today to spread falsehood so easily.

Many of you may have heard of QAnon for the first time in recent weeks. I am actually ashamed and embarrassed that this deliberate attempt to manipulate people with the most outrageous types of conspiratorial falsehoods has made it to this level of visibility. 

QAnon is an online conspiracy theory that claims that a cult of pedophiles is controlling our government; it also includes anti-Semitic accusations against “the Rothschilds” and of course, Hungarian Holocaust survivor and financier George Soros. A community of followers of QAnon has grown around the conspiracy, and soon a congressional district in Georgia will likely be represented by a woman who has publicly stated her support of the QAnon conspiracy

(BTW, a JTA article this week pointed out that two years ago she shared a video that indulges in the horrible anti-Semitic Great Replacement Theory, which posits that Jews are actively recruiting brown-skinned migrants to replace white people in Europe and North America; this is the idea that motivated David Bowers to attack the synagogue here in Pittsburgh.)

In a related vein, I am concerned that when a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available (bimherah beyameinu / speedily in our days), many people will not receive it due to misinformation. A recent poll indicated that 40% of Americans say they will not get the vaccine; some will refuse it because of their concerns around vaccine safety, which have been thoroughly debunked, and some are convinced that the coronavirus is just a hoax.

And, lest you think that online falsehoods are limited to a gullible American audience, you might be surprised to know that in the United Kingdom, people are attacking telecom workers who are putting up infrastructure for the new 5G data network, because manipulators online have convinced many that 5G technology actually causes COVID-19 sickness.

We the Jews know the dangers of the widespread dissemination of such falsehoods. The infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a Russian forgery originally published in 1903 that supposedly documented the Jewish conspiracy for world domination, was a pretext for state-sponsored Russian pogroms. (It was later published by Henry Ford in the US, by the way.)

It was the falsehoods that Adolf Hitler published in Mein Kampf, and later screamed into a microphone, that enabled the Sho’ah, the Nazi Holocaust that murdered nearly a third of our people during World War II.

It’s easy to lose hope, like Elishah ben Avuyah. This is not the way the world is supposed to work. This is not what God promised us.

But I am going to remind us all that Elishah is an outlier. He succumbed to the fear that God is not with us. We must remember that the forces of lies and chaos have always been there, and it is up to us, to the righteous ones, not to lose faith, not to succumb.

The real value of our tradition is not the literal reward of “long life.” Rather, the real value of our tradition, as well as that of Christianity and Islam and really every other major religious tradition, is the essential behavioral values that are held up by our traditional texts for us to pursue:

  • The value of compassion, as exemplified by shilluah haqen.
  • The value of truth (Exodus 23:7):  מִדְּבַר־שֶׁ֖קֶר תִּרְחָ֑ק / Middevar sheqer tirhaq. Distance yourself from falsehood.
  • The value of humility (Isaiah 57:15, which appears in the haftarah on Yom Kippur morning) : מָר֥וֹם וְקָד֖וֹשׁ אֶשְׁכּ֑וֹן וְאֶת־דַּכָּא֙ וּשְׁפַל־ר֔וּחַ לְהַחֲיוֹת֙ ר֣וּחַ שְׁפָלִ֔ים וּֽלְהַחֲי֖וֹת לֵ֥ב נִדְכָּאִֽים׃

… I dwell on high, in holiness; Yet with the contrite and the humble — Reviving the spirits of the humble, Reviving the hearts of the contrite.

  • The value of community: Kol Yisra’el arevim zeh bazeh (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 27b). All of us are guarantors for each other. We are interdependent, and we must behave as such. And that goes not only for our Jewish neighbors, but for all of them.
  • The value of freedom, and we have a whole 8-day holiday dedicated to that (Pesah): the responsibility not only to protect our own safety and freedom, but to guarantee those things for others. 
  • The value of tzedakah / charitable giving, for which the Talmud tells us that there is no limit.

And so forth. You know, some people might criticize religious practice as arcane at best, and irrelevant or potentially dangerous at worst. You might have heard people say that all wars have been caused by religion, etc.

But I’ll tell you this: if we follow it, if we commit ourselves to performing the mitzvot, our tradition drives us to be better people. Religious practice, and Jewish practice in particular, living Jewish values, will help create a better world, one marked by the “long life” of which the Torah speaks. And if we lose our faith to the forces of lies and chaos, the world will descend into an unholy pit, from which humanity may never emerge.

So I turn to my daughter Hannah on this day, and implore you thus:

The world that we need you and your peers to create is the one that is hopeful, not hopeless. That is filled with compassion; in which we act with humility; in which we strive for truth and justice in all our dealings; in which we always remember that our essential task in life is to remember the qedushah, the holiness of the other, and act on the Divine imperative to raise the total amount of holiness in this world. 

והעיקר לא לפחד כלל

Veha’iqqar lo lefahed kelal. And the most essential thing is not to fear at all. Now build that world.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 8/29/2020.)

Categories
Sermons

How to Leave a Better World for Our Children in Five Easy Steps – Re’eh 5780

One of the most challenging things for me right now, in this pandemic time, is the deep dissatisfaction I am feeling; I am living with a gnawing sense that whatever I do, it is not enough. Yes, to some extent I have that feeling in “normal” times as well – it’s a rabbinic affliction. But something about the isolation and limitations on human interaction in this time has vaulted that feeling of “It’s not enough” to the top of my list of regular anxieties. 

My work, which, you may know, is mostly NOT leading services and giving sermons, but rather talking with people and teaching, is not particularly satisfying right now, because I know that no matter how much I do, no matter how well we at the synagogue plan for High Holidays or JJEP or benei mitzvah celebrations, no matter how many people I call, it will not be enough. And so too at home. No matter how much time I spend with my family, it is not enough. No matter how awesome it was to go tent camping out in the woods this summer, it is not enough.

A recent family dinner, cooked over a campfire in Laurel Hill State Park

And I am continually asking myself, “When this is all over, will I be able to look back and say, did I use this time as best as I could? Could I have done better? Could we have done better?”

As you know, we have been learning some great midrashim / rabbinic stories between minhah and ma’ariv on Shabbat afternoon, in a series I have titled, “My Favorite Midrash.” One that we covered recently, certainly a favorite midrash of mine, is about one of the more curious characters of rabbinic literature, a fellow who is known as “Honi haMe’aggel,” Honi the Circle-Maker. He is so called because of his unique talent of drawing circles in which rain falls. Seemingly unrelated to this remarkable gift, the following midrash is also told (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ta’anit 23a):

יומא חד הוה אזל באורחא חזייה לההוא גברא דהוה נטע חרובא אמר ליה האי עד כמה שנין טעין אמר ליה עד שבעין שנין אמר ליה פשיטא לך דחיית שבעין שנין אמר ליה האי [גברא] עלמא בחרובא אשכחתיה כי היכי דשתלי לי אבהתי שתלי נמי לבראי

One day, Honi was walking along the road when he saw a certain man planting a carob tree. Honi said to him: This tree, after how many years will it bear fruit? The man said to him: It will not produce fruit until seventy years have passed. Honi said to the tree-planter: Is it obvious to you that you will live seventy years, that you expect to benefit from this tree? He replied to Honi: I myself found a world full of carob trees. Just as my ancestors planted for me, I too am planting for my descendants.

Carob

The midrash does not tell us about how many carob trees the man found, nor how many he planted. He was probably not too concerned about whether or not he had planted enough trees; the larger point is that he made an effort to ensure that there would be some for his grandchildren.

While my first inclination is to read this story as referring to our responsibility to take care of God’s Creation, such that we can bequeath it in good condition to those who come after us, I think it is also possible to read this as a metaphor not only for our physical environment, but for our spiritual milieu as well. 

The beginning of Parashat Re’eh is very concerned about the idea of the Land of Israel as the yerushah, the inheritance of the Israelites. Various forms of the Hebrew word “lareshet” / to inherit appear five times in the first two aliyot we read this morning. It is clear that the Torah wants us to see Israel as the reward; it is the gift for being party to the covenant, for fulfilling the mitzvot. It is what the Torah’s original audience needed to hear; that they would inherit this land as a sign of God’s love to them.

And so, as I am thinking about the emotional state of the world, the divisive nature of American politics right now, and the numbers of people we have lost unnecessarily to the pandemic, and the grief and pain that this loss as well as the economic devastation it has caused, I am left with the following question:

What do we want our children to inherit? What will their spiritual inheritance be?

Do we want them to inherit a polarized world, one in which people not only cannot see the other side of an argument, but openly denigrate those who hold opposing views? Do we want them to inherit a world in which coarse language is the norm, that prevarication goes unpunished, that advocacy for your team always wins out over thoughtful, considered positions? In which news is not fact, but merely spin? In which people on different sides of any particular issue cannot even speak to each other or break bread together, because they view the other as stupid or heartless?

I come back to the line at the end of today’s reading (Devarim / Deuteronomy 12:28):

שְׁמֹ֣ר וְשָׁמַעְתָּ֗ אֵ֚ת כָּל־הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה אֲשֶׁ֥ר אָנֹכִ֖י מְצַוֶּ֑ךָּ לְמַעַן֩ יִיטַ֨ב לְךָ֜ וּלְבָנֶ֤יךָ אַחֲרֶ֙יךָ֙ עַד־עוֹלָ֔ם כִּ֤י תַעֲשֶׂה֙ הַטּ֣וֹב וְהַיָּשָׁ֔ר בְּעֵינֵ֖י ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶֽיךָ׃

Be careful to heed all these commandments that I enjoin upon you; thus it will go well with you and with your descendants after you forever, for you will be doing what is good and right in the sight of the LORD your God.

How do we plant the carob trees for our grandchildren? How do I use this pandemic time to create a foundation for a better world, so that my children’s spiritual inheritance will be tov veyashar, good and right?

Hevreh, the framework of mitzvot that God has given us is the formula by which we can live better. It was given to us a long time ago, and if more of us were to follow it, the world we will leave to our children will be a much better one. Here is, if you will, a simplified formula for success:

  1. Keep Shabbat. Doing so encourages respect for yourself and those close to you. Keep your conversations and your activities local and low-key. Be with your nearby family and friends. Don’t spend money; avoid technology. Connect with the here and now, and leave behind the elsewhere and the later.
  1. Keep kashrut (the Jewish dietary laws). It encourages respect for God’s Creation. The lines in what we can or cannot consume are there to remind us that there are limits to what is Divinely-acceptable behavior. Maintain the holiness in the natural world.
  1. Pray daily. Connect with yourself; hold your mind and your heart in self-judgment, and leave room for doubt. You may not be right about every single thing.  Introspection leads to intentionality, which leads to patience, planning, and presence of mind in all the spheres of life.
  1. Observe Jewish holidays, and make sure you know why. Yom Kippur teaches us humility. Pesah teaches freedom for all. Hanukkah teaches enlightenment. Sukkot teaches simplicity. Simhat Torah celebrates learning. Purim celebrates standing up for what is right.
  1. Learn Torah. The wisdom of the ancient Jewish bookshelf teaches us how to be human beings, not cogs in a machine. It sensitizes us to the needs of others, and forces us to consider how our behavior impacts this world.

It is a simple formula. But of course you are thinking, “Rabbi, I’ve been Jewish all my life and while I may do some of those things, it’s just too much for me to take on something that I’m just not used to doing.”

Let me tell you why you need to reach higher: because the world depends on your mitzvot. Because our heritage – the world our children inherit – depends on your willingness to think and behave for the benefit of the common good. And that is what every single one of those things is about.

What kind of world do you want our children to inherit? One in which everybody is looking out for themselves, seeking personal gratification at any cost? Or one in which we cooperate to solve the big problems, in which we acknowledge the humanity in each other and the Divinity of Creation, in which we seek the holiness that is waiting for us under the surface of every relationship?

The choice is yours. Reach higher. Think of those carob trees, bearing fruit 70 years hence.

And I know this is hard, but try not to worry too much about whether you have done enough. If you take on this formula of five things, I am certain that you will be able to look back and say, “Yes. That was good and right.”

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 8/15/2020.)