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Israel Is Not an Apartheid State – Vayaqhel 5782

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

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

The “Soup Nazi”

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

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

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

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

מִדְּבַר־שֶׁ֖קֶר תִּרְחָ֑ק וְנָקִ֤י וְצַדִּיק֙ אַֽל־תַּהֲרֹ֔ג 

Midevar sheqer tirḥaq, venaqi vetzaddik al taharog…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mansour Abbas of the Ra’am Party

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

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Sermons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם׃

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

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Sermons

More Yir’ah, Less Fear – Yitro 5782

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ה’ לִי וְלֹא אִירָא

Adonai li velo ira.

God is with me, and I shall not fear.

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

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

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

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

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music Sermons Video

What Is Jewish Music? – Shabbat Shirah 5782

For Shabbat Shirah / the Shabbat of song 5782, I covered a musical topic featured in my current Derekh Lunch & Learn series, “Make a Joyful Noise! Jewish Music Past and Present.” The boundaries of Jewish music are occasionally unclear, but there is a lesson to be found in that. This is the second such musical sermon; my Musical Crash Course in Synagogue Song from Shabbat Shirah 5781 can be found here.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally chanted at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 1/15/2022.)

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Sermons

For All Time – Bo 5782

There is a standard rabbinic story about three rabbis, Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox, who, in a spirited attempt at pluralistic cooperation, decide to meet to discuss issues of halakhah / Jewish law. At their first meeting, they find that they all agree that smoking cigarettes is clearly assur / forbidden. It is damaging to your health, and since we are forbidden from causing deliberate damage to our bodies, God has therefore prohibited smoking.

The following week, they arrive at their meeting, and each of them is smoking. They regard each other with curiosity.

The Reform rabbi says, “Halakhah is a system that was intended for an ancient audience, and this particular aspect holds no meaning for me today.”

The Conservative rabbi says, “Halakhah has continued to develop and change throughout our history, and although we are bound by it, that was last week, and this is this week. Times have changed.”

The Orthodox rabbi shrugs nonchalantly, and offers, “I sold my lungs.”

***

A few years ago, when we asked members of Beth Shalom to answer a survey question about potential adult learning topics, the topic that was most frequently suggested was effectively, “What are the principles of Conservative Judaism?” That is something that I do try to include in many of my sermons and classes.

So it seemed to me like a natural opportunity to come up with a Conservative response to a recent back-and-forth on a halakhic issue that appeared in the pages of the Jewish Chronicle. A few weeks back, Rabbi Barbara Aiello, who is originally from Pittsburgh but now serves a congregation in Italy, wrote an opinion piece that suggested that the ancient Jewish calendar, set up during Talmudic times, is an “obstacle” to greater Jewish observance of holidays, and we should therefore set up a “Diaspora calendar” which would fix holiday dates to the Gregorian calendar. For example, Rosh Hashanah would always begin on the third Friday evening of September, and Hanukkah would always be December 21-28.

Not surprisingly, a more traditional, presumably Orthodox Squirrel Hill resident, Reuven Hoch, wrote a response for the Chronicle, in which he calls her suggestion “odd” and “upsetting,” and declares that making changes to suit contemporary patterns of observance is detrimental to Judaism and Jewish life.

The forces of current Western culture — social, political and ideological — that operate against authentic Jewish values and beliefs, can be alluring and overwhelming. These forces must be confronted and met head-on, with a confidence and determination that can only exist in concert with a commitment to a life permeated with traditional Jewish values and allegiance to the Jewish people.

I agree with Mr. Hoch about maintaining the Jewish calendar. To change up the Jewish year according to Rabbi Aiello’s suggestion seems to me such a dramatic break with Jewish tradition that it would sever us from our past in an irreparable way. We have been doing it this way for thousands of years. The Jewish calendar depends on the cycles of the moon; it would make no sense for Rosh Hashanah to be separated from the new moon, and for the Pesaḥ seder not to take place when the moon is full. 

The mosaic floor of the ancient synagogue at Beit Alfa in northern Israel, 5th-6th c. CE. The mosaic depicts the signs of the zodiac with their names in Hebrew, four seasonal quadrants of the year denoted by their Babylonian / Hebrew names, as well as the Greek sun god, Helios.

Where I disagree with Mr. Hoch, however, is in his reasoning. His argument is that trying to accommodate contemporary secular values by forcing Judaism to adapt has failed repeatedly throughout our history.

So, as you might expect from a Conservative rabbi, I am going to propose that the answers to the future of Judaism lie somewhere in between. We are, in fact, called “Conservative” because the original intent of this movement was to conserve Jewish practice, to be conservative in the slight changes that we make as we adapt. That is the intent of the unofficial slogan of the Conservative movement in the last century: “Tradition and Change.”

Because, of course, Judaism and halakhah / Jewish law have always changed and will continue to change. One does not have to dig too deeply into the subjects of kashrut / dietary laws or Shabbat observance to find a rich history of development and disagreement among our sages over centuries and continents. What it says in the Torah (e.g. “Do not boil a calf in its mother’s milk” – Shemot / Exodus 23:19) is interpreted by the rabbis in the Talmud, and then further in medieval codes, and to the point today where we debate whether a pareve dessert cooked in a pan used in the past for dairy may be served following a meat meal. And God forbid you should use the wrong spoon!

Jews have, by necessity, always grappled with how to treat new technologies, new ideas, and new environments. The Jewish calendar itself is an example of an innovation due to changed circumstances. Prior to the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and the dispersion of Jews throughout the world, the date of Pesaḥ was determined by specially-trained witnesses who could tell, at the beginning of the month of Adar, whether the wheat would be ready to harvest in time for Pesaḥ and bake matzah, six weeks later. If it would not be ready in time, they would add in an extra month of Adar. When the Jews were no longer living in the land of Israel, there had to be another way to determine that extra Adar. Hence the system of adding seven such extra months over a fixed 19-year cycle, which we continue to this day. This system keeps the lunar year more or less aligned with the solar year, and Pesah therefore always falls in the spring.*

So the issue with change is not that it detaches us from our roots; some change is necessary. But change should come slowly and thoughtfully and even somewhat reluctantly. You are probably aware of the liturgical changes in our siddur to reflect our egalitarian outlook; thank God, no Conservative siddur opens the morning service with “Praised are You, God, who did not make me a woman.” We say instead, “Praised are You, God, who created me in Your image,” acknowledging that every person is created with a spark of the Divine. It’s a subtle change that you have to know to look for, and you would have to be here at 7:30 AM Monday through Friday, or 9:30 on Shabbat to hear it, but it’s quite meaningful nonetheless.

We in the Conservative movement have a body of rabbis, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which meets regularly to discuss issues in halakhah / Jewish law, using principles that date back to Talmudic times. We live within the halakhic system, and it is up to this body to think about change very carefully, not only to ensure that such change is permitted according to traditional sources, but also that its consequences are considered.

In Parashat Bo, from which we read today, there is a passage that resonates through this process. The Exodus narrative takes a brief break for an aside about how to celebrate Pesaḥ, including instructions on preparing and eating the Paschal lamb, along with matzah and maror, bitter herbs. And then the Torah says the following (Shemot / Exodus 12:24-27):

וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־הַדָּבָ֣ר הַזֶּ֑ה לְחׇק־לְךָ֥ וּלְבָנֶ֖יךָ עַד־עוֹלָֽם׃ …וְהָיָ֕ה כִּֽי־יֹאמְר֥וּ אֲלֵיכֶ֖ם בְּנֵיכֶ֑ם מָ֛ה הָעֲבֹדָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לָכֶֽם׃ וַאֲמַרְתֶּ֡ם זֶֽבַח־פֶּ֨סַח ה֜וּא לַֽיהֹוָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר פָּ֠סַ֠ח עַל־בָּתֵּ֤י בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם בְּנׇגְפּ֥וֹ אֶת־מִצְרַ֖יִם וְאֶת־בָּתֵּ֣ינוּ הִצִּ֑יל 

You shall observe this as an institution for all time, for you and for your descendants… And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’ you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to the LORD, because He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses.’

Ad olam, for all time. We have carried this story, this ritual, this Torah / instruction with us for millennia, and we have retold it in many languages and contexts. And whether we are reading from a manuscript, a printed book, or sharing it over the Internet, the Torah still inspires us to be better people. It is because of these verses that we ask the questions at the Pesaḥ seder, and all the other questions we ask and answer throughout the Jewish year, as we go about teaching our children.

We cannot live in a sealed Jewish bubble; we have to be in multiple worlds. While some quarters of the Jewish world believe that they have shut out secular influences, they are kidding themselves. The Hasidic movement and the other right-wing quarters of Orthodoxy are as much a response to modernity as Reform. The Jewish world continues to reshape itself again and again.

And those of us in the middle, who clearly embrace and live in the contemporary world while upholding Torah and mitzvot, the holy opportunities of Jewish life, the challenge is upon us to prevent Judaism from becoming a secondary pursuit, squeezed in between school, work, soccer practice and bingeing TV series, but rather a constant force in our lives and our world for good.  

It might seem like a good idea to lower certain temporal barriers to Jewish life. But the fact that you have to take time off to observe Yom Tov days is a testament to your commitment to our tradition, and doing so only strengthens our tradition for future generations. Contrary to Rabbi Aiello’s assertions, there is research that shows that the higher the expectations of a religious group, the stronger the adherence of its members.  

Ad olam, for all time.

And when your children ask you, why do you cling to this ancient lunar calendar, or this or that quaint custom that my non-Jewish friends do not do, you should tell them that it is because these rituals not only saved us from slavery in Egypt, but they continue to keep us healthy and safe and strong today, even as we live as citizens of the contemporary world.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 1/8/2022.)

* The Muslim calendar is also lunar, but does not correct for the approximately 11-day difference between 12 lunar months (354 days) and the solar cycle of 365 days. So Ramadan, for example, the month during which Muslims fast every day, precesses, each year falling 11 days earlier according to the Gregorian calendar. It’s much less burdensome when it falls in the winter, when fasting ends at about 5 in the afternoon, than when it falls in the summer.

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Sermons

The Trust Deficit – Va-era 5782

Like so many other people I tested positive this week, and I am fortunate that due to the fact that I am vaccinated and boosted, I have experienced a mild case of Covid-19 – a sore throat and some congestion. Thank God for the human ingenuity that has produced vaccines. (And it’s worth it to remind you all that if you are not boosted, you really should be: Friday mornings – walk-in at the JCC in Squirrel Hill.)

A curious bit of fake news came across my computer screen this week. It was an article about a fake New York Times headline, which read, “Teachers Should Tolerate Bullying Towards Unvaccinated Students.” It seems that somebody out there with nefarious intent wanted to rile up people who are anti-vaccine, and produced a mock-up of a NYT opinion piece suggesting violence against the unvaccinated. 

Now, of course, there are people out there who will believe anything that they see on the Internet, and of course will repost or retweet extreme content. So as ridiculous as this sounds, the fake headline traveled far enough, provoking its intended reaction, for there to be a genuine news article about it.

The challenge here is that we have reached a point where many of us are willing to believe anything that fits our particular worldview, and not to trust anything that does not. The entire world, it seems, is having trust issues. 

Whom do we trust?

I feel this affecting my own behavior: I was recently shopping online for KN95 masks, and I found myself thinking, how do I know that these are really manufactured to the N95 standard, meaning that it filters out 95% of airborne particles? I certainly cannot test that myself. Am I buying a genuine product?

I read elsewhere that a survey determined that 1 in 5 Americans say that it is acceptable to fake one’s vaccination status to keep a job. One might extrapolate that, kal vaḥomer, all the more so for people who are out for a night on the town, where the stakes might be even lower. This does not breed confidence in our fellow human beings.

Maybe the reason I contracted the virus is because the KN95 that I have been wearing in public is not legit, and the people around me who claim to be fully vaccinated are not. Who knows?

Parashat Va-era, from which we read today, includes a handful of questions surrounding trust. As God gives Moshe his mission to liberate the Israelites from the grip of Egyptian slavery, the text challenges us to wonder, does Moshe trust God? Does Pharaoh trust Moshe and Aharon? Does Moshe trust in himself? Will the Israelites trust Moshe, or God? And so forth.

Tied into all of this are the questions surrounding God’s name. Last week, in Parashat Shemot, we encountered in the burning bush episode one take on the name when Moshe seeks to be reassured about the trustworthiness of this whole operation. He asks God directly (Shemot / Exodus 3:13), “When I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?”

Exodus: Moses and the Burning Bush, Marc Chagall, 1966

God answers, “Ehyeh asher ehyeh.” Not easily translatable, we might read this as “I am what I am.” Not so reassuring, right? 

And this week in Va-era, God does not wait to be asked. The parashah opens with, (Shemot / Exodus 6:3)

וָאֵרָ֗א אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֛ם אֶל־יִצְחָ֥ק וְאֶֽל־יַעֲקֹ֖ב בְּאֵ֣ל שַׁדָּ֑י וּשְׁמִ֣י י-הֹוה לֹ֥א נוֹדַ֖עְתִּי לָהֶֽם׃

I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name י-הוה [YHWH].

In both cases, the names given are apparently conjugations of the verb, “to be.” That is, God’s very name is a form of existence. 

And, as you may have heard me mention before, all of those forms of God’s name, and in particular the Hebrew yod/heh/vav/heh which we often express as YHWH, consist of consonants that are formed only from breath. (In ancient Hebrew, as with contemporary Arabic, the “vav” is actually a “w” – hence “waw”.) With all of those letters, no part of the tongue or lips or teeth obstruct the flow of air to create a percussive sound. In fact, all of these letters, alef heh waw yod, serve as so-called matres lectionis, the fancy Latin term that Bible scholars use to describe consonants that sometimes serve as vowels. 

If God’s name consists solely of breath, then, how indeed might we be able to trust this mysterious character who somehow surfaces in an inflamed shrubbery in the desert?

Perhaps that is the point. Perhaps the point is that trust in God is elusive. There will never be a hard consonant in God’s name because you will never be able to see God, to touch God, to perceive a solid surface or a concrete hint of God’s existence. Maybe the point is that the Torah wants us to take the proverbial leap of faith, to trust in something ethereal, because that is sometimes how life works. 

It is, after all, trust in the unseen which has held people together throughout our history. In his monumental review of human history, Sapiens, the Israeli author Yuval Noah Harari points out that basic trust between people erodes in groups larger than 150, since that is the human limit on close acquaintances, and therefore the only way to create trust between people in any larger group is by sharing a common story: 

Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination. Churches are rooted in common religious myths. Two Catholics who have never met can nevertheless go together on crusade or pool funds to build a hospital because they both believe that God was incarnated in human flesh and allowed Himself to be crucified to redeem our sins.  

Harari is an atheist; he pointedly denies the existence of God. But he speaks to the power which the very idea of God has. Or the ideas of a specific shared culture, or state, or peoplehood, or judicial system, or currency. 

Harari’s observation implies that trust in God yields trust in each other. If I know that you are an observant Jew, even if you are from far away and speak a different language and prefer ghormeh sabzi to gefilte fish, then we share a common bond. We adhere to the same traditions, we trust in the same God, and therefore I can trust you.

A fundamental challenge that we are facing today, particularly with the decline of religion, is a decline in trust. In a world that is rapidly transcending statehood, peoplehood, and shared theological principles, how will we trust one another? Will we be able to maintain nation-states, let alone synagogues, if we cannot trust the information we receive? Without a shared story, we have chaos.

The cynics among us will say that it is the bad actors in our world who are creating the trust deficit: Russian or Chinese or Iranian spies, or evil politicians or corrupt public health officials or mad scientists or soulless corporations. But consider how we live today: We are all living in our own silos. We are far removed from where our food is produced, from where our clothing is manufactured, from where our policies are made. And, of course, we are far removed from where our information is emanating, and we often lack the skill, the time, and the patience to verify it. So how can we trust anything?

There will not be a burning bush to show us the truth. 

I look out at the future, at the potentially untrustworthy landscape before us, and I can see only one thing that can help us return to a state of trust. And this may be because I am a rabbi, but we have to lean into the traditional institutions that we have, ailing though they are: religious observance. Trust in and fear of God. The democratic processes of our nation. Our sense of shared peoplehoods – the Jewish one, of course, but also the American one, and all the ways we express those relationships. Our sense of the common good. 

As much as the forces of chaos want to tear these institutions down, as much as each of those institutions are flawed in their own way, a future without them seems bleak indeed.

We need to support, and likely re-imagine, the institutions that we still have, while we still can. We need to uphold the principles we have received: of democracy, of learning and teaching our tradition, of prayer and academic inquiry and shared culture and music and all the things that build trust between people. 

It is inscribed on every dollar bill, a reminder that trust intersects with theology, commerce, and nation at every turn, the official motto of the United States of America: In God We Trust. You won’t find that on any cryptocurrency.

If we cannot live by that motto, I am not sure we can live together at all. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 1/1/2022.)

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Sermons

You Be the [Bad] Judge – Vayḥi 5782

Do you feel that you are a good judge of people? Personality, potential effectiveness at work, ability to get along with other folks, and so forth?

I do not have much confidence in my own ability to judge people, and I have been thinking about this lately, mostly in the abstract, because of our search for an Assistant Rabbi.

I tend to see the good in everybody, and I assume the best of intentions even when evidence is clearly to the contrary. It might be because I grew up in a small town in rural New England, where we just sort of assumed that the people around us were all good and well-intentioned. Or maybe it’s just my personality – I am a naturally trusting person. Or perhaps I should thank my parents for raising me to be non-judgmental.

Fortunately, seeing the good in everybody, and a willingness to overlook deficiencies in others comports well with rabbinic wisdom on the subject. In Pirqei Avot, for example, a second-century CE collection of rabbinic wisdom, we read the following:

1:6

יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן פְּרַחְיָה אוֹמֵר, … הֱוֵי דָן אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם לְכַף זְכוּת

Yehoshua ben Peraḥiah taught:.. When you judge others, tip the balance in their favor.

2:5

הִלֵּל אוֹמֵר, … אַל תָּדִין אֶת חֲבֵרְךָ עַד שֶׁתַּגִּיעַ לִמְקוֹמוֹ

Hillel taught: … Do not judge another until you stand in her/his situation.

When we are assessing the character or choices of others, it is upon us to do so generously, to understand that we might only see a part of the story, that we might misinterpret their motivations, and that we should therefore put a finger on the scale in their favor. The rabbinic shorthand invoked by Pirqei Avot is “kaf zekhut” – literally the pan of a metaphorical scale containing one’s merits, as opposed to the one containing the liabilities, when those characteristics are being evaluated. It is our obligation to incline toward kaf zekhut where possible.

Humans are complicated; even those who are generally good-natured can make mistakes, or can be swayed by the forces and situations around them. We all have the potential to make the wrong choices, and sometimes we do, but those errors in judgment do not necessarily crowd out one’s overall good intentions.

And, of course one of the other features of rabbinic Judaism is that our tradition provides us avenues for self-improvement: teshuvah, of course, repentance, but also guides for living such as the framework of mitzvot and the ethical considerations that come with them. Our tradition, and our people, are naturally self-reflective, perhaps in a way that does not comport with contemporary society and the current rapid pace of life, and the reduction of human communications to two-dimensional, 280-character  pronouncements.

The complexity of humanity, it seems, is getting harder for us to wrap our brains around, when our only choices are to “like” or “not like” something. You have to be for or against, yes or no, vaccinated or unvaccinated, etc.

But we are not binary creatures, limited to ones and zeroes. And that is surely true of the Avot and Imahot, the patriarchs and matriarchs of the dysfunctional family featured in the book of Bereshit / Genesis. 

Parashat Vayḥi, which concluded that book this morning, includes the captivating scene just prior to Ya’aqov’s death, when he poetically addresses his 12 sons. Most are pleasant words, blessing-like descriptors, which bode well for the tribes they represent.

But given the idea of kaf zekhut, of judging others with a generous eye,  there is one passage that has long captured my attention, when Ya’aqov actually distances himself, on his deathbed, from Shim’on and Levi. (You may recall that I am descended from the tribe of Levi, and so Ya’aqov’s words sting with an ancient, generational pain.)

שִׁמְע֥וֹן וְלֵוִ֖י אַחִ֑ים כְּלֵ֥י חָמָ֖ס מְכֵרֹתֵיהֶֽם׃
בְּסֹדָם֙ אַל־תָּבֹ֣א נַפְשִׁ֔י בִּקְהָלָ֖ם אַל־תֵּחַ֣ד כְּבֹדִ֑י כִּ֤י בְאַפָּם֙ הָ֣רְגוּ אִ֔ישׁ וּבִרְצֹנָ֖ם עִקְּרוּ־שֽׁוֹר׃
אָר֤וּר אַפָּם֙ כִּ֣י עָ֔ז וְעֶבְרָתָ֖ם כִּ֣י קָשָׁ֑תָה אֲחַלְּקֵ֣ם בְּיַעֲקֹ֔ב וַאֲפִיצֵ֖ם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

Simeon and Levi are a pair;
Their weapons are tools of lawlessness.
Let not my person be included in their council,
Let not my being be counted in their assembly.
For when angry they slay men,
And when pleased they maim oxen.
Cursed be their anger so fierce,
And their wrath so relentless.
I will divide them in Jacob,
Scatter them in Israel.

This is, really, a shocking passage. These are Ya’aqov’s final words to two of his sons. Where is the kaf zekhut? What on Earth could Shim’on and Levi have done that warranted such harsh words from their father? 

Well, it ain’t pretty. They slaughtered the family of Hamor and his son Shekhem, members of the Hivite tribe (one of several Canaanite tribes).

In brief, Shekhem took Ya’aqov’s daughter Dinah* by force. When he subsequently asks for her hand in marriage, Ya’aqov and family insist that Hamor agrees to circumcise all of the adult males in their clan. On the third day following the circumcision, when the men are all in pain, in come Shim’on and Levi to kill them all, claiming that they are defending the honor of their sister. It is a brutal, shocking story on all fronts, and their actions are difficult to defend. (Bereshit chapter 34, Parashat Vayyishlaḥ)

Did you miss that one in Hebrew school? Yeah, I thought so. It doesn’t make for good family discussions in the car ride home.

Was Ya’aqov justified in cursing two of his sons? Was it the right thing to effectively estrange himself from them, saying, “Let not my being be counted in their assembly”? Could he not have allowed for the possibility that they have done teshuvah, that they have repented? To me this is quite jarring. It seems exactly the opposite of the principle of kaf zekhut. Could he not, on his deathbed, have found at least something positive to say?

So he must have had a reason for doing so, and also for promising that these two tribes (and particularly the Levites) would be spread among the other tribes. In later centuries, the tribe of Levi had no tribal land of their own, but as religious functionaries lived throughout the region, so at least this aspect of the backstory checks out.

The 15th-century Spanish commentator Yitzḥaq ben Moshe Arama (who, by the way, fled the Inquisition in 1492 and died two years later in Naples) teaches us that 

Ya’aqov here utters a truth which Aristotle has publicized in his Ethics. Anger and temper, though undesirable qualities, may sometimes prove useful in arousing heroism in people. Soldiers in battle are spurred to bravery and courage by anger and indignation… [Ya’aqov believed that] it was advisable that the qualities of anger and passion that had been concentrated in Shim’on and Levi should be dispersed among all the tribes of Israel… A little spread everywhere would prove useful, but if concentrated in one place, would be dangerous.

Arama’s theory is that too much anger is extreme, but a little bit is helpful. It seems as though Ya’aqov, in acknowledging the complexity of human personalities and emotion, is distancing himself from two of his sons as a protective measure. He wants their characteristic anger distributed throughout the Israelite nation, dilute enough to be safe, but nonetheless available when warranted.

How might we interpret this for us today?

Each of us reflect, in some sense, the range of personality that Ya’aqov sees in his sons. We are sometimes happy, sometimes angry, sometimes down, sometimes yearnful, and so forth. None of us are entirely angry, or entirely happy, or 100% of any particular aspect of humanity.

In assessing others with kaf zekhut, giving the benefit of the doubt, we should do our best to remember that sometimes we are ruled by our emotions, and hope that the Shim’ons and the Levis within us are kept at bay, and that we see instead the lion of Judah, the fair judgment of Dan, the richness of Asher, the natural beauty of Naftali.

So, whether you are inclined to see the good or the bad in people, it is worth remembering that all of us are blessed with a rich variety of traits, not easily separated from one another, or discerned at first glance. When we are judging others, we should keep this in mind while trying to view the entire picture. That is what Ya’aqov teaches us with his final words. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 12/17/2021.)

* Despite her hardship, long-suffering Dinah does not get a deathbed blessing from her father. *sigh*

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You Need Your People, and We Need You – Vayyiggash 5782

A funny thing happened a few nights ago here at Beth Shalom: a meeting. An actual, in-person, meeting of members of the congregation. And it was, in fact, a good meeting.

It was actually an open forum to inform members of the congregation regarding the process for hiring an Assistant Rabbi, a process in which we are already engaged. You may know that we held two such congregational forums – the first was Sunday evening, via Zoom, and the second on Tuesday evening, right here in the Faye Rubinstein Weiss Sanctuary. The Zoom meeting attracted three times as many people. But the in-person meeting was SO MUCH BETTER.

Not better in the sense that the meeting content was better – it was exactly the same material. I think Tuesday’s meeting ran a little shorter, but that’s not why it was better.

The in-person meeting was better because of the chatter beforehand, the chatter afterward, and the actual give-and-take that can happen when people are there with each other in the room, reading each other’s body language, having multiple conversations at once, enjoying a three-dimensional human experience. The incidental, unofficial parts of gathering – the pre-meeting, the post-meeting, the parking-lot meeting, are all an essential part of the picture. And those simply can’t take place on your computer screen in an organic way.

Tuesday’s meeting was, I think, the first official in-person meeting of any lay committee at Beth Shalom in about 21 months. And it felt good, because we need to be together. We need to see each other, unmediated by any technology. People in community with each other belong together.

In fact, what is it that connects people with each other? It is not merely belonging to the same institution, like a synagogue. It is not necessarily living in the same neighborhood. It is not voting for the same party, or sending your children to the same school. 

What connects us one to the other is sharing stories. Being in each other’s presence, and telling our personal stories to one another.

One reason that Jewish people feel connected to each other, all over the world, is our collection of shared stories, to wit, the Torah, the Talmud, the midrash, the medieval commentaries, all of the material on the Jewish bookshelf. But that is a macro-level connection. What connects us as individuals on a local basis is our knowledge of each other’s personal stories. 

In Parashat Vayyiggash, which we read from today, we are reminded of this to great effect. When Yosef is standing before his brothers, who have come to him in Egypt due to a famine in Israel, they do not yet know that the Egyptian vizier who stands before them is the brother who they sold to Ishmaelite traders many years earlier. But Yosef recognizes them, and is yearning painfully to see his father. As he finally reveals himself, you can almost hear his voice tremble in love and anticipation (Bereshit / Genesis 45:3)

אֲנִ֣י יוֹסֵ֔ף הַע֥וֹד אָבִ֖י חָ֑י

Ani Yosef. Ha’od avi ḥai?

I am Yosef. Is my father still well?

Note that our translation (New JPS) says “well,” because the brothers have told him already that Ya’aqov is alive; the word “ḥai” many of us know as “life / lives.” But the suggestion is that he will not be “alive” for Yosef until he can see him once again with his own eyes.

Later (45:28), his father Ya’aqov echoes Yosef’s language:

עוֹד־יוֹסֵ֥ף בְּנִ֖י חָ֑י אֵֽלְכָ֥ה וְאֶרְאֶ֖נּוּ בְּטֶ֥רֶם אָמֽוּת׃

Od Yosef beni ḥai; elekha ve-er-enu beterem amut!

My son Yosef is still alive! I must go and see him before I die!

There is such a strong need for them to see each other, to behold each other, to be in each other’s presence. It is not enough for them to simply know that the other is alive; it is, rather, essential, for them to be physically together again. Rashi interprets Ya’aqov’s words to mean that since Yosef is alive, and they will see each other once again, that he will have so much joy and happiness. (Never mind the whole “before I die” business…)

Yosef too is overjoyed to be reunited with his family, even though they mistreated him horribly decades before. Despite his fabulous success in Egypt as the head of food distribution for the years of famine, despite his having become the Pharaoh’s right-hand man, despite his fine Egyptian clothes and his successful integration into Egyptian society, signified by his having been given an Egyptian name (Tzafnat Pa’aneaḥ), he yearns for the ones with whom he shares a personal story. He yearns for his people, his family.

And we need that as well. We need the others with whom we share stories.

We have just completed the celebration of Ḥanukkah, the most observed Jewish holiday of the year. It feels to me like only a few weeks ago we were dancing with the scrolls on Simḥat Torah, and even though the 100% holiday-free month of Ḥeshvan was there in-between, my pandemic-induced time myopia has made all these holidays kind of blur together.

And now there is a long time before Pesaḥ, especially since 5782 is a leap year and there will be an extra month of Adar in there. So considering that the holidays of Yom Kippur, Ḥanukkah, and Pesaḥ are the three most-observed holy moments of the Jewish year, the coming months will be a long stretch for many of our people. Some of us may not see each other again for some time. 

And so this is a good time to remind you of the following: you need your community. You need the Beth Shalom community. And we need to see more of each other.

Coming up on two years of separation and isolation and anxiety, I want to remind you of the value of community, of the power of being in deep relationship with the people around you. And the synagogue is an essential part of that picture.

This is not just a place where folks mumble prayers in an ancient language and go home. It is a place where we see each other, where we appreciate being in each other’s presence, where we share stories. This is a place where community is fashioned, and we need to behold each other and be together for that to happen.

So come back to shul! As you know, we have been very conservative in our Covid safety protocols, to make sure that everybody feels comfortable. We are meeting in-person twice every day, morning and evening. We are having kiddush – with food! – on Shabbat mornings after services. We have many things going on now; yes, some of them are still via Zoom. But as more of us are vaccinated, we will continue to gather, to build community, to share our stories with each other in-person, in real time, in glorious physical proximity.

And, while we are on the subject, let me point out that we as a community need one more thing (aside from an Assistant Rabbi). One thing that you could help us build.

We need an effective Membership Committee, and in particular a chair of that committee. If there is one thing that the pandemic has taught us, it is that we need to work harder to fight against the isolation of these times. We need to bring people together for social purposes, not just for ritual activities, and a solid Membership Committee will help make that happen. 

In Hebrew, the word for “member,” as in the member of a synagogue or a member of Knesset, is  חבר / ḥaver. And, curiously enough, the same word is used to mean a friend, and can also mean a lover. That is what it means to be a member of a synagogue, a חבר בית כנסת / ḥaver beit kenesset*: that we are in deep, loving relationship with one another. And if we are to continue to build as a community, if we are to continue to be a more sustainable congregation, we need to lean into that loving feeling for the חברים / ḥaverim who are with us here in the pews today, tomorrow, and moving forward.

So, if you are ready to help build and connect synagogue membership, please let me know, or speak to our VP of Member Engagement, Mindy Shreve.

And if you’re ready to share more stories, to see your people, to behold and break bread with your ḥaverim once again, come back to shul. I hope to see you in person, maybe even before Pesaḥ, maybe even at a meeting, or in the parking lot after.

~

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 12/11/2021.)

* The literally meaning of “beit kenesset,” like the English term synagogue (derived from Greek), is “place of gathering.”

Categories
Sermons

The Two Sides of Ḥanukkah – Shabbat Ḥanukkah / Miqqetz 5782

Although I have been a rabbi for more than 14 years, I have never delivered a sermon on Shabbat Ḥanukkah, because I am almost always in Israel at this time, visiting my Israeli son. And, by the way, I am happy to report that he has been granted leave from the IDF to come visit us in Pittsburgh in a little more than a week. I have not seen him in nearly two years.

Something that I’ve noticed in Israel during Ḥanukkah is that the popular messaging there about the holiday is a little different than it is here. In America, Ḥanukkah is about candles and presents. There, it’s more about the historical victory over Greek culture. Not the military aspect, so much as the Maccabees’ success in taking back Jewish life from the Hellenistic influence of the Seleucid Empire and the Hellenized Jews who were in favor of assimilation. That is, the celebration of Ḥanukkah is a statement of, “We are the Jews who lean into our history and tradition, and do not seek to assimilate into the surrounding culture.”

It’s a theme that I think tends to get lost in America, when the very celebration of Ḥanukkah here derives so much from its overbearing Christian cousin. Ironically, we mark Ḥanukkah here with practices born of assimilation.

I am reading right now author Dara Horn’s new book, People Love Dead Jews, a collection of essays about the fascination that we and the rest of the world have with the tales of Jewish persecution, murder, and genocide. 

In her chapter on the anti-Semitism of the Soviet Union, she distinguishes between what she calls “the Ḥanukkah version of anti-Semitism” and “the Purim version of anti-Semitism.” Ḥanukkah anti-Semitism is that which destroys Jewish civilization from the inside by pressuring Jews to gradually become non-Jews, while Purim anti-Semitism is a little bit more direct: kill all the Jews. 

The Ḥanukkah version, perhaps more subtle, is accomplished by what is described in the first chapter of the I Maccabees (1:14-15). The Hellenized authorities convinced some of the Jews to build a gymnasium in Jerusalem (according to the gentile custom, notes the book), and some Jewish men reversed their circumcisions so they could compete at the gym, and spurned the Torah and its berit, our covenant with God.

So amidst all of the fun we have here, imitating our Christian neighbors by layering gift upon gift (as, I am told, some do for “eight crazy nights”), one might see how this message gets lost. (Not that I am impugning this practice – I’m mostly just bitter because my parents never gave me gifts for Ḥanukkah.) 

But Ms. Horn is not far off: assimilation has, throughout history, created a powerful gravitational force that has pulled many Jews away from Judaism and out of Jewish life. While we have signed up eagerly for this kind of assimilation here in the Land of the Free, the Soviet Union, and the czars before it employed this sort of anti-Semitic tactic to solve what they perceived to be their Jewish problem.

So that’s one side of Ḥanukkah. But then there is the other side, one that perhaps we might have a better feel for in this corner of the world: the symbol of light, and our duty, while we are busy not assimilating ourselves out of existence, to make sure that we act in a way which illuminates the world.

On the Tuesday evening before Thanksgiving, we held the annual Interfaith Thanksgiving service here at Beth Shalom, and I am happy to say that a handful of Beth Shalom members were there, along with folks from many other local faith communities. 

Rabbi Mark Goodman, in his role as the Director of Derekh, coordinated the service with some of our interfaith partners, but this year’s program was much less a religious ceremony and much more an opportunity to learn about all sorts of local social service organizations that are performing good works in our city. 

Among the fourteen organizations represented were such groups as 

  • the Alliance for Humanitarian Initiatives, Nonviolence and Spiritual Advancement 
  • Repair the World 
  • Days for Girls 
  • Foundation of Hope 
  • Global Links 
  • Casa San Jose 
  • JF&CS 

and so forth. Each was given a few minutes to introduce themselves, and after the brief ceremony, participants were encouraged to speak to representatives of the organizations.

Interfaith Thanksgiving 2021 at Beth Shalom

One presenter, Cheryl Lowitzer of Open Hand Ministries, told a captivating story. Open Hand’s mission is to help bridge the wealth gap between black and white Pittsburghers by among other things, helping black families to buy homes. Most of us know how complicated buying and owning a home is. But for families who were excluded from home ownership by various means (e.g. redlining) for generations, the obstacles are much higher. 

Among the things that Open Hand Ministries does is to help candidates with budgeting, reducing their debt, determining and improving credit scores, managing mortgages, and so forth. They also help families with repairing homes, using their own contractors at reduced rates. As Cheryl described it, the overarching goal of Open Hand is to help people manage their money so that it does not manage them.

Ms. Lowitzer told the story of one 60-year-old woman, whom they helped to buy her family’s first home ever. Upon achieving her goal, the woman remarked, “I’ve been paying for someone else’s dream for over 20 years. Now I’m going to fulfill my own dream.”

This is an organization that is truly making a difference in people’s lives, and I was grateful for the opportunity to learn about Open Hand, and the other organizations present that evening. 

You may know that the psalm most closely associated with Ḥanukkah is Psalm 30, which opens with (Tehillim / Psalms 30:1)

מִזְמ֡וֹר שִׁיר־חֲנֻכַּ֖ת הַבַּ֣יִת לְדָוִֽד׃

A psalm of David. A song for the dedication of the House.

The word חנוכה / Ḥanukkah means, literally, “dedication. The “bayit” (house) referred to here is the Beit HaMiqdash, the Temple in Jerusalem. Given that the psalm may have been written 800 years before anybody had heard of a Maccabee, it is clearly not referring to the dedication in the Ḥanukkah story, but more likely the original ḥanukkat habayit, the dedication of the First Temple, built by Shelomoh haMelekh, King Solomon.

But if you can imagine how powerful it must have been for this woman to dedicate her own house, fulfilling a dream that neither she nor her parents or grandparents or great-grandparents have been able to fulfill, that might give you a sense of the power of Ḥanukkah, the power of light over darkness.

Further down in Psalm 30, we read (v. 6)

בָּ֭עֶרֶב יָלִ֥ין בֶּ֗כִי וְלַבֹּ֥קֶר רִנָּֽה׃

Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning. (KJV*)

Light is a symbol of the victory over the dark; although we may suffer in dark times, redemption is always there, around the corner. 

But symbols must lead to action. Joy doth not come with the light, unless we maketh it do so. If the Ḥanukkah candles do not lead us to a place where we do something concrete, something where we actually improve the quality of life of people near us, then we have missed the point. If we allow Ḥanukkah, or any Jewish holiday, merely to wash over us in joy and gifts and over-consumption of greasy foods, then we have not heeded the message.

Our goal in this season, as much as it should be to maintain our traditions, to remember our berit, our covenant, to resist assimilation by passing on moments of joy and gravitas and prayer to our children, should also be to act. To make a difference. To cast more light through action. To bring about ḥanukkat habayit – figuratively or literally to help dedicate a house.

A joyous and meaningful Ḥanukkah to you all, and may you be re-dedicated in this season to improving the lives of others.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 6th day of Ḥanukkah, 12/4/2021.)

* King James Version translation. I don’t usually use King James, preferring the new Jewish Publication Society translation. However, in this case, it just seems to work so well.

Categories
Sermons

Less Stuff, More Compassion – Vayyishlah 5782

A funny thing happened to me this week.

The older of our two cars, a 2007 Toyota, was parked in front of our home in Squirrel Hill on Tuesday night. Judy went out on Wednesday morning, started up the car, and was absolutely freaked out by a fearful roar of the engine. It sounded like the muffler had fallen off. 

But no. As it turns out, some enterprising thief or thieves had gotten underneath the car and stolen the catalytic converter, which is apparently a 10-minute job that is worth it for the expensive metals, particularly platinum, found inside of it.

Catalytic converter

OK, so this is annoying for a whole bunch of reasons, as I am sure you can imagine. But let’s face it: a car, while essential for getting from place to place, is an expensive hunk of metal. Despite the fact that this vehicle was my first major purchase after completing rabbinical school, I do not have any particular affection or nostalgia for it. At some point, I’ll probably have to replace it with something that will look and feel a lot nicer, at least for a little while. I consider myself fortunate in that I can afford two cars.

But I had a fairly spartan childhood, growing up in rural New England. In my family, we almost never received Ḥanukkah gifts – for us, gift-giving was something that non-Jews did in December, and there was a clear, almost rabbinic opinion in my family that Ḥanukkah had nothing to do with Christmas, and that “giving in” to gift-giving was like celebrating Christmas. It just did not feel appropriate. 

So I suffered in resentful silence as my friends (virtually all of whom were not Jewish) received the newest, coolest toys, and all I got was a few pieces of chocolate wrapped in gold foil, and, if we were lucky, a few homemade latkes served with applesauce.

Truth is, my parents were experts at not buying stuff. We were all skilled in the art of re-using and recycling, way before it was cool, and turning the junk of others into our own treasure. Here is some true Adelson Family folklore:

Where we grew up, there was no municipal garbage pickup. We had to drive our garbage to the landfill (known affectionately as “the dump”) and actually toss it onto the pile, where it would soon be covered with soil. I’ll never forget the smell, which was not pleasant. 

Williamstown, Massachusetts, where I grew up

But the dump was fun in other ways – there was a recycling area where you could pick through the discarded periodicals of others, and also a spot where you could find large items that some considered garbage; but for us it was an opportunity to find slightly imperfect appliances and furniture at a VERY reasonable cost. So sometimes we came back from the dump with more stuff.

When my mother sensed that a critical mass of our household refuse had amassed in the garage, she would say, “Lennie, it’s time to go to the dump.” And my father would say, “Why? Whaddaya need?”

Now, with the anti-materialist deprivations of my childhood far behind me, I feel like I have too much stuff. I’ve got a whole house full of it. And, as I am sure is the case with many of you as well, most of it we almost never use.

As a society, of course, we think a lot about buying stuff at this time of year: the sales, the holiday pitches, family get-togethers, etc. Black Friday, the day when retail businesses go into the black, is coming up this week. And let’s face it: right now, supply-chain issues aside, the US economy needs a boost. (And perhaps some booster shots, as well!)

So it caught my eye that in Parashat Vayyishlaḥ, there is a particularly significant episode of gift-giving. Our hero Ya’aqov, preparing for being reunited with his brother Esav 20 years after effectively stealing their father Yitzḥaq’s blessing and fleeing, is expecting the worst. He assumes that Esav is still angry, and he has heard that Esav is coming with 400 men. So what does Ya’aqov do to attempt to head off a potentially deadly confrontation? He sends gifts: 550 animals – goats, sheep, camels, and even donkeys.

His reasoning is stated in the Torah (Bereshit / Genesis 32:21):

אֲכַפְּרָ֣ה פָנָ֗יו בַּמִּנְחָה֙ הַהֹלֶ֣כֶת לְפָנָ֔י וְאַחֲרֵי־כֵן֙ אֶרְאֶ֣ה פָנָ֔יו אוּלַ֖י יִשָּׂ֥א פָנָֽי׃

If I propitiate him with presents in advance, and then face him; perhaps he will show me favor.

This is very interesting verse for a number of reasons:

  1. The use of term minḥah, which we think of as meaning, “the afternoon service,” although here we reveal its original meaning, “offering.” (When the Temple was functioning in Jerusalem, prior to its second and final destruction by the Romans in the year 70 CE, the minḥah sacrifice was the daily offering in the afternoon.)
  2. There are four idioms containing the root peh-nun-yod, meaning “face,” which is clearly a leitwort / thematic word of this chapter. The root also appears in the place name Peni-el, literally “face of God,” where Ya’aqov has the wrestling match with the angel.
  3. One of those idioms is akhapperah fanav baminḥah, which is hard to translate. Our translation says, “If I propitiate him with presents,” although the verb here is to atone. Ya’aqov seeks to “atone to his face,” or something similar.

Ya’aqov knows, as we all do, that people like gifts. Giving a gift tells the recipient, I care.  I love you. I am concerned with your welfare. Or, in this case, I’m sorry for what I did to you 20 years ago. I am atoning to your face.

But gifts can also be a kind of shortcut, an attempt to say something meaningful without actually saying it! 

In recent years, since there is so much more shopping that happens online, we have not heard about the Black Friday debacles that have happened in the past: people lining up all night, and stampeding when stores open, to get to the heavily discounted holiday gift items. You may recall that there was a Walmart employee who was trampled to death on Long Island about a decade ago. So thank God that sort of thing isn’t happening right now.

We like having stuff!  Ya’aqov liked stuff too – he left his father-in-law Laban’s house with all the best animals. The offspring of that hand-picked herd, the unnaturally-selected cream of the woolly crop, was delivered to Esav to ameliorate him, because Ya’aqov assumed that his brother also liked having new stuff.

But really, the problem here is that gifts do not necessarily resolve long-standing estrangements. Gifts do not even solve simple disputes. They might make the recipient more willing to talk to the giver, and perhaps lighten the mood. But the issues are still there.

Perhaps Ya’aqov made his offering under the misguided notion that it would right past wrongs.  Perhaps he feared Esav so much that he was unable to “atone to his face” verbally, to ask for forgiveness, to apologize, to try to make amends.  So he gave him a whole pasture-full of ruminants.

And the plan may not have even worked! When the brothers meet, in the following chapter, Esav runs to greet Ya’aqov, kisses him, and immediately declines the gifts. “יֶשׁ־לִ֣י רָ֑ב אָחִ֕י יְהִ֥י לְךָ֖ אֲשֶׁר־לָֽךְ׃,” says Esav. “I have enough, my brother; let what you have remain yours.” I don’t need your charity.

Radaq, Rabbi David Qimḥi, writing in Provence in the 12th-13th c., says that Esav realizes in that moment that he has abased himself, and is filled with compassion for Ya’aqov and genuinely forgave his brother. Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, 15th-16th c. Italy, tells us that this change happens when Esav sees his brother; it is only when they see each other face-to-face that all is forgiven.

Ya’aqov fails the key test: instead of actually seeking forgiveness through reaching out to his brother, he tries to buy him off with gifts. Ironically, the true hero in this case is Esav; he is filled with compassion, not moved by gifts. He didn’t need more stuff.

What is more valuable than material goods? Genuine, true expressions of love. Honesty, compassion, sympathy, and earnest attempts to forgive those from whom we are estranged. Showing our faces.

We read in the Talmud, Massekhet Shabbat,

These are the things which people may do and thus enjoy their fruits in this world, while the principal of the investment remains for the world to come: honoring one’s parents, the practice of loving deeds, and making peace between people, and the study of the Torah surpasses them all.

The most valuable gifts we can give are not tangible; they are expressions of love and compassion. Material goods might make us momentarily happy; but personal investment in our relationships and knowledge will pay off throughout this lifetime, and the next.

So don’t worry about the supply-chain issues. What your family and friends and maybe even estranged relatives need is for you to reach out and tell them how much you love them, how much you appreciate them, and how much you care. They don’t need more stuff; they need to see your face. They need you.

Wassily Kandinsky – Unstable Compensation, 1930

A joyous Thanksgiving to you and yours, and may you have a happy, illuminating Ḥanukkah!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 11/20/2021.)