Category Archives: Sermons

All of This Belongs to You: The Greatest Jewish Hand-Off Play Ever – Rosh Hashanah 5780, Day 1

Some of you may know that I am a big fan of the old comedy troupe from England, Monty Python, and spent (or arguably wasted) a good chunk of my adolescence memorizing some of their routines. 

There is a scene in their classic 1975 movie, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” when a feudal lord is preparing his son’s wedding, and is trying to explain to his adult son the importance of marrying the young woman that the father has chosen, because her father owns a lot of property. The son, who does not seem to care for property or farming or being a feudal lord, is completely disinterested. He only wants to sing, and the father is intent on stopping him from doing so, so that he can focus on the wedding.

At one point, the father gestures to the window dramatically, as if to survey all of his fields, and says, “One day, lad, all this will be yours.”

The son, regarding the window, says, “What, the curtains?”

The young man does not see the huge tracts of land that his father wants to bestow upon him. He does not see the legacy he is poised to inherit. He would rather just sing.

****

Ladies and gentlemen, we are in the middle of a paradigm shift in Jewish history. We are witnesses to the one of the most dramatic changes in Jewish life that has ever occurred. Let me explain.

Do you remember Abe Salem, alav hashalom / May peace be upon him? Abe was a key figure in this congregation, the Ritual Director, Torah reader and service leader for nearly a quarter-century. He was a survivor who spoke a barely-understandable patois of Yiddish and English, told nearly- unbelievable stories, like how he had once personally received a pistol from David Ben Gurion, and how in 1939, after fleeing the Nazis in Poland, he was imprisoned in a Soviet labor camp because the Russians suspected him to be a spy.

Abe is gone. He passed away two years ago at the age of 97. Zikhrono livrakhah. May his memory be for a blessing.

Ladies and gentlemen, the texture of the Jewish world is not what it was in the 1950s and 1960s, when synagogues were run by scrappy survivors like Abe. Gone are the Old World sensibilities which drove the community of the past. Gone are the classic bubbies, who devoted their lives to cooking and doling out often-unwanted advice. Gone are many of the institutions that sustained Jewish life: the kosher butchers and bakers that once populated Murray Ave., the daily Yiddish papers. Gone are the Bundists, the Hebraists, the proto-Zionist veterans who left their comfortable lives in America to go serve in the Israeli War of Independence in 1948. 

All that is left is us, ladies and gentlemen. We are the inheritors of our millennia-old tradition. And we are woefully ill-equipped to inherit it.

Because the top of the agenda for our parents and grandparents was assimilation. It was to be American. It was to fit in, not to stick out, not to be a greenhorn. When my grandmother, my mother’s mother, Pinia Reyzl Bronstein, arrived at Ellis Island in 1921, at age 8, speaking not a word of English, she decided that she was going to acquire a perfect American accent, and she quit speaking Yiddish. And when she was raising my mother and her siblings on the North Shore of Boston, they would go to the neighbors’ apartment when they wanted to eat clams, like Americans; she would not dare cook them in her own kitchen while her mother, my great-grandmother Hannah was alive; after she was gone, kashrut disappeared as well.

My grandmother was not so moved by her Jewish heritage. She may as well have left that back in her shtetl, in what is today Ukraine. She knew that to be an American meant that she did not need to keep kosher or to fast on Tish’ah Be’Av.

Did you know that it was not uncommon for American Jews to celebrate Christmas in the first half of the 20th century? Families had trees and even hosted Christmas dinners: 

“In his 1958 study of second-generation immigrant Reform Jews on Chicago’s South Side, clinical psychologist and rabbi Milton Matz revealed that in the second generation parents often agreed that a Jewish child might need a Christmas tree to “hyphenate the contradiction between his Americanism and his Jewish ethnicism.” (Rabbi Joshua Plaut, myjewishlearning.com)

In subsequent generations, parents realized that there might be a contradiction here, and today there are very few Jews who celebrate Christmas. But no matter: the project of assimilation was deeply entrenched.

And in the course of this great project, what did we lose? I’ll tell you:

  • We lost the deep knowledge and familiarity with Jewish living. 
  • We lost the sense of the synagogue as an extension of our living rooms. 
  • We lost the sense of love and appreciation for the text of our tradition, the value of prayer and indeed the value of having a regular prayer practice. 
  • We lost the sense of deep interconnectedness and interdependence within our community. 
  • We lost the sense of the extended family as the essential unit. 
  • We lost almost all of the close neighborhoods in which the people knew and trusted each other and the businesses that depended on proximity. 
  • We have reduced our Judaism to lip-service: many of us declare proudly that we are Jewish without knowing what exactly our tradition teaches us.

It is undeniable that we have also gained: we gained more freedom, more independence. We moved out of cramped, urban environments into leafy, roomy suburbs. We gained entree into all quarters of American society, including into the exclusive clubs and law firms and echelons of government. And still, despite current trends, obvious signs of anti-Semitism are the exception rather than the norm.

Get ready, folks; I am about to do something I almost never do: use a sports analogy:

We are witnesses to the greatest Jewish hand-off play ever. What do I mean?

The American Jewish project of assimilation has run its course. We are done. We are as American as every other immigrant group.

And I am in fact concerned. But I am also hopeful.

Why? Because the receivers of that heritage, that handed-off football, are reclaiming it. Our parents and grandparents carried it for some time, and now it will be ours. Not mine; not the rabbis and the historians and the Judaic Studies professors, but ours as a community.

****

As you probably know about me by now, my primary goal is not only to teach Judaism, but to make the case for why you need it. I’m not so convinced that everybody in the room is on board. Because, if you were, you would be here more often! You may find this hard to believe, but we almost never fill the sanctuary on Shabbat morning even though there are only 1600 seats. 

But my intent is not to make you feel guilty. It’s rather to inspire you to to be a student of your own heritage, work harder and, to reach a little higher in giving shape to your spirituality, to dip maybe a second toe into the water of Jewish life beyond the lifecycle events of baby namings, ritual circumcisions, benei mitzvah, marriage and death. Because doing so will ultimately be repaid to you in ways that you may not yet appreciate.

Nobody had to make this case a half-century ago. Why? Because the Jews were just showing up.

Today is different. The Jews do not just show up. A piece of conventional wisdom says that Jews used to come to synagogue because they were Jewish. Today, Jews come to synagogue to feel Jewish. We are fully-assimilated Americans. When I feel the need to “get my Jew on,” I go to synagogue. Maybe.

Over these days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I am going to give you reasons to show up, to find meaning, to enrich your life and your relationships and to improve the world through Jewish life, learning, and ritual. Now that the project of assimilation is complete, we can, and we must reclaim what is ours, and take our wisdom to make our lives and our world better. All of this belongs to you – now take that football and run with it.

The welcoming gate pictured here is a typical “sha’ar” – the illustration found in the front of all printings of the traditional Vilna layout of the Talmud, dating to the 1870s. It is an invitation into the text.


Perhaps one of the greatest and best-known stories in the Talmud (found in tractate Bava Metzia 59b) is that of the Tanur Shel Akhnai, the oven of Akhnai. It’s about an argument that some rabbis are having about whether the Tanur shel Akhnai is kosher. The halakhic particulars of the oven do not matter, but what does matter is that one rabbi, Rabbi Eliezer, believes the oven is kosher, and so, apparently does God. But all the other rabbis disagree.

On that day, R. Eliezer answered all the answers on Earth (i.e. the halakhic objections) and they did not accept it from him. He said, “If the law is as I say, that carob tree will prove it”; the carob tree was uprooted from its place one hundred cubits, some say four hundred cubits. 
The other rabbis said: “We do not allow proof from a carob tree.” 
R. Eliezer then said, “If the law is as I say, the river will prove it”; the river flowed in reverse direction.
They said: “We do not allow proof from a river.”…
R. Eliezer then said, “If the law is as I say, a voice from Heaven will prove it”; a heavenly voice [i.e. God’s] said, “Why do you disagree with R. Eliezer, who is correct in every way?” 
R. Yehoshua stood on his feet and said, “Lo bashamayim hi.” “[The Torah] is not in heaven,” (Deuteronomy 30:12)…
R. Natan met Eliyahu haNavi and said to him, “What did the Qadosh Barukh Hu / Holy Blessed One do?” Eliyahu said to him: “God smiled and said, “My children have defeated Me, My children have defeated Me.” 

What does this story teach us? For one thing, that the tradition is ours. We received some initial, Divine communications, however they came down to us, and thereafter, we took the tradition and made it our own. And ultimately, we make the tradition. It belongs to us.  We interpret it in each generation as we carry it.

It belongs to us because the tradition of Jewish learning and teaching across the ages is unique in the world. Our “religion” (and I use that in quotes because it is an inadequate term) is not only arcane rituals and mumbling ancient words in synagogue, but rather as much about the body of wisdom called “Torah,” which we continue to learn.

It belongs to us because we all understand and relate to the concept of God differently: some of us understand God as a law-giving being; some of us understand God as a force in nature that works in and around us; some of us understand God as the human imperative to do good for others in this world, and the theological palette is truly limitless. And all of these conceptions of God belong to us as well.

It belongs to us because there is no single right answer on virtually anything in Jewish life. There is no single way to be Jewish. There is no single, correct answer for most questions in Jewish law. We have no pope; there is no single commentator who has a monopoly on interpreting our tradition. Torah, our textual basis is flexible enough to tolerate a wide range of understandings. 

And how do we make it ours today? By re-interpreting once again. By taking the football and running with it.

By acting on the ways that our tradition brings us value today. Here are some examples:

Our tradition teaches us how to be a family: Dine together, particularly on Shabbat. Express gratitude together, with the words of our tradition as well as your own words. Come to Beth Shalom, where we have services and activities for the whole family.

Our tradition teaches us how to be good parents: Bless your children and hold them tight, like each of the Matriarchs and Patriarchs did. Guide them with the wisdom that our ancestors gave us. Teach them the values of derekh eretz / treating others with respect, hesed / acts of lovingkindness, and hakarat hatov / recognition of the good that we have been given. 

Our tradition teaches us how to be good citizens: Seek to understand the people around us; do not swindle or deceive others, do not curse the deaf or put obstacles in front of the blind; share our wisdom and our joy with our fellow human beings, and greet everybody with sever panim yafot / a pleasant face.

Our tradition teaches us how to be an authentic person: Act on the statement of the sage Hillel: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?

Our tradition teaches us how to maintain holiness in all our relationships: Remember that every person on this Earth has within them a spark of the Divine, a modicum of holiness. Never forget that. Strive to seek the holiness in each other in all your dealings, whether in business or in encounters with strangers or in matters of the heart.

And the ritual aspects of Judaism support all of those things. That is why we have them. That is why what we do in the Conservative movement is an excellent approach to being Jewish: we maintain our traditions while acknowledging that the world has changed and we must change incrementally along with it. 

Why do we do what we do?

Because tefillah / prayer gets us in touch with ourselves and sensitizes us to the world around us.

Because observing Shabbat allows us the physical and emotional space to let go of our anxiety and just live in the moment, not swept up in commerce or politics or work.

Because kashrut / the dietary laws remind us on a daily basis of our responsibility not to cross certain lines in God’s Creation. We were not given this world so we can abuse it. And not only that, but it’s worth remembering that what comes out of our mouths should be as pure as what goes in.

Because qehillah / community provides the framework of support that we all need, in times of grief and joy, mourning and depression and celebration and hanging out and schmoozing, and everything in-between. And all the more so in the past year, in the context of what happened a few blocks away from here on the 18th day of Heshvan in the past year. We were there for each other.

Because Talmud Torah / Jewish learning teaches us that all of these things are found on the Jewish bookshelf in abundance. It’s all there, ladies and gentlemen. You just have to reach out and grab it.

I know. You’re thinking, there is so much to Judaism, and I’m so busy, and Beth Shalom offers so many portals into Jewish life. Where can I possibly start? 

Here’s an easy one: host a Shabbat dinner. Look, you’re going to be eating dinner on Friday night anyway – just make it a wee bit more special. I am happy to help you out with home rituals if you need. Invite guests. Enjoy! Then do it again. 

Then consider an online study group – Derekh, our targeted programming arm, is now coordinating them via Zoom. Or drop into Rabbi Jeremy’s Talmud class, or my Lunch and Learn. Stop by the monthly Shabbat morning Discussion service, where we get into the “whys” of what we do. The bar is not as high as you think.

***

Ladies and gentlemen, every time the Torah is put away, we sing, Ki leqah tov natati lakhem, torati al ta’azovu. For I [God] have given you a good heritage; do not forsake My Torah.

We sympathize with the young man in the Holy Grail, who only wants to sing. But we need to see the land, not just the curtains. And we need to dedicate ourselves to that property, the rich heritage of which we are the inheritors, even as we sing.

We take the tradition that our ancestors received at Mount Sinai, and we are still fashioning it to suit our needs today. We continue to make an ancient tradition new. We continue to make it ours. Lo bashamayim hi – it is not in the heavens. It’s down here with us, it’s fourth down and three yards to go. Take the hand-off.

All of this belongs to you. As they say in the Talmud as an invitation into the text: Ta shema. Come and learn.

Shanah tovah!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, first day of Rosh Hashanah, 9/30/2019.)

Continue reading the next installment in the “All of This Belongs to You” series: All of This Belongs to You: Be a Jewish Superhero! – Rosh Hashanah 5780, Day 2

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Being Honest With Ourselves – Ki Tetze 5779

In his short story, Tallit Aheret, (“Another Prayer Shawl”), the great Israeli writer Shemuel Yosef Agnon, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966, speaks of an ineffective Yom Kippur. He goes to his grandfather’s synagogue for services, where his tallit awaits him, and one thing after another distract him from actually praying, from being able to seek teshuvah / return on that day.

He arrives late (during Pesuqei Dezimra, which, BTW, many of us consider “early”), the old men will not offer him a seat, he is attacked by a pitcher of fruit juice, and when he finally dons his tallit, somebody points out that it is not kosher – it is missing one of the four tzitziyyot, the specially-tied strands that hang down at the corners. It is a symbol of death – some have the custom of deliberately making a tallit pesulah (not kosher) before burying it with its owner, by removing one of the tzitziyyot. The speaker grieves for himself, and realizes that the holy day has passed “belo tefillah uvelo kelum.” Without prayer and without anything.

Agnon speaks in a language that is rich with metaphor, but one possible way of reading the story is this: it is absolutely possible to show up for Yom Kippur and go through the motions, and not actually succeed in plumbing the depths that one must plumb in order to achieve teshuvah. I am certain that many of us fast through to the shofar blast at the end and not actually achieve anything – lo tefillah velo kelum – no actual prayer, to put Yom Kippur aside for another year.

The overwhelming number of captivating and indeed relevant mitzvot found in Parashat Ki Tetze is breathtaking. Just a brief sampling:

  • We are forbidden from taking a worker’s tool in pawn, so that she/he cannot make a living
  • Shilluah haqen – we must shoo away the mother bird before taking the nestlings (a curious, yet significant mitzvah)
  • Shikhehah– produce from our fields that is forgotten must be left behind for the needy, and several other associated mitzvot
  • We may not be indifferent to our neighbors (we’ll speak about that one at Kol Nidrei)
  • We must use honest weights and measures in business

That last one is particularly important right now, a mere two weeks out from the beginning of the seventh month of Tishrei, the “holy month” of the Jewish calendar, and in particular the cycle of teshuvah / repentance followed by celebration. But first, a story, this one courtesy of Rabbi David Wolpe:

One Shabbat morning, a rabbi gave her congregation an assignment: study Psalm 153, because we are going to take a deep dive into it during the sermon next Shabbat morning.

The following week, after the Torah is put away, the rabbi says, “Shabbat shalom! I asked you last week to read Psalm 153. Raise your hand if you read it.”

Two-thirds of the people in the room raise their hands.

“Well, that’s too bad,” says the rabbi. “Because there IS NO Psalm 153, and today’s sermon is about lying.”

So we are talking about lying, but not what you might be thinking of. The Torah tells us, as I mentioned, not to have two sets of weights and measures (Deut. 25:15-16)

אֶבֶן שְׁלֵמָה וָצֶדֶק יִהְיֶה-לָּךְ, אֵיפָה שְׁלֵמָה וָצֶדֶק יִהְיֶה-לָּךְ–לְמַעַן, יַאֲרִיכוּ יָמֶיךָ, עַל הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר-ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ.  כִּי תוֹעֲבַת ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ, כָּל-עֹשֵׂה אֵלֶּה, כֹּל עֹשֵׂה עָוֶל

You shall have a perfect and just weight; you shall have a perfect and just measure, that your days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God gives you. For all that do these things, all that do unrighteously, are an abomination unto the LORD your God.

Ibn Ezra, the great 12th-century Spanish commentator, does us the favor of interpolating the latter verse to explain that the “unrighteous” things described are neither limited to falsifying weights and measures to swindle your customer, nor any other deceptive business practice, but any sort of deception or falsehood. The Torah mandates that we treat each other with honesty, and the reward for doing so will be long life.

But I would like to extend the thinking from the external to the internal. Of course, the Torah expects us to deal honestly with each other. But reading between the lines, the Torah also expects us to deal honestly with ourselves.

Welcome to Elul! We are already halfway through the month in which we must start thinking about dealing honestly with ourselves; we’ve been blowing the shofar every morning at minyan for two weeks. This is the time in which we should be taking, if you will, a spiritual inventory, asking ourselves the tough questions, like:

  • Have I mistreated anyone in the past year?
  • Have I not fulfilled promises?
  • Have I let anger cloud my judgment?
  • Have I been too critical of others?  
  • Have I judged others without walking in their shoes?
  • Have I judged myself unfairly?

There are many such questions we could ask ourselves during Elul. (If you would like some more for your own personal review, find them here.)

And here is the REALLY hard part: you have to answer honestly.

I know, I know. You’d really rather watch funny videos on YouTube than answer difficult questions about your behavior. So would I. We are really good at finding ways of distracting ourselves from the hard work.

‘Cause let’s face it: these holidays come up every year. The services are carefully choreographed and lacking in improvised devotion. We recite these ancient Hebrew words of confession and contrition, but really, most of us do not connect them to our actual behavior. And then we go to lunch, or break the fast.

But sometimes, hevreh, and especially in Elul, we have to actually take the blame, which nobody likes doing.

Of course, it is also possible that not all of the blame is yours. We also have to be honest with ourselves when we might be inclined toward what might be called “false modesty.” Maybe I contributed to how a situation went wrong, but I have to be honest with myself about my role.

Without raising your hand, how many of us can think of a time where we really did something wrong? How many of us can think of a time in which we said words that were harmful? Or acted out of spite or anger? How many of us went back, after the fact, and did the best we could to, rather than fixing the situation, try to cover our tracks? How many of us have dug our heels in unnecessarily? How many of us have, rather than offering an earnest apology, have instead doubled down on the wrong thing?

Elsewhere, the Torah (Exodus 23:7) exhorts us, “מדבר שקר תרחק” (Midevar sheqer tirhaq – “You shall distance yourself from falsehood.”) Rabbis often joke that this line is the reason that everybody sits in the back in shul.

But seriously, now is the time to distance ourselves from the falsehood within ourselves. So here is a suggestion:

Find some time in the coming weeks to reflect back over the past year. You might need to isolate yourself in a quiet place, away from any kind of digital technology, to do this. Try to remember the instances where you made the wrong choice, said the wrong thing, damaged a relationship. A year is a long time – there are surely many such potential instances. But if you allow yourself to go back, you might find one or two that absolutely must be addressed. I already have a few items on my list.  

Write them down on a piece of paper and carry it around with you for the next several weeks as a reminder. If the opportunity comes up for you to make a situation right, then do so. If not, well, then there’s Yom Kippur. During the moments when you need that extra help searching for “inspiration” for teshuvah, take that piece of paper out and meditate on it.

After Yom Kippur, recycle the paper, and hope that as that paper is ground up and fashioned into new paper, the transgressions indicated thereupon will help you and everybody else to make better choices the next time, and to be more honest with yourself.

Nobody wants to see herself or himself as having messed up. We have a complex, layered series of self-protections to avoid exactly that. But the point of the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Return, is to swallow our pride and admit our failures. We have all failed in one way or another; the challenge at this time is to be honest with ourselves about it.

And furthermore, nobody REALLY wants Yom Kippur to pass by “belo tefillah uvelo kelum.” We want our words, our fast, our beating of the chest to be honest, to help improve ourselves, our relationships and our world. You can do it. You got this.

Shabbat shalom, and I hope that the remainder of Elul is truly introspective.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 9/14/2019.)

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The Masters of History – Shofetim 5779

This past week we observed the 80th anniversary of the start of World War II, Sept. 1, 1939, when Hitler’s armies invaded Poland. 

I had a congregant on Long Island who was there when it happened: his name was Bill Ungar, and he was a soldier in a cavalry regiment of the Polish army, which fell quickly as the Nazi troops overwhelmed them. He was injured in the Nazi onslaught, but ultimately survived the war and the camps, made it to America, and was proud to have a successful career in business and raise a bountiful family that is committed to Judaism and to Israel. He passed away a few years back, at age 100, and as a former synagogue president, his funeral was held in the synagogue sanctuary, which was packed full of mourners.

William Ungar z”l

As the first-hand witnesses to that period age and leave us, there are fewer and fewer individuals who can speak from personal experience. But, as with everything in Jewish life, the history of those years – of Nazi aggression and genocide – continues to reside with us, deposited in the collective history of our people.

We have carried our history with us wherever we go, and it is the lens through which we continue to see ourselves, to determine our role in the world, to guide us in our choices. It is our history that returns us to our values, and in particular, the value of justice.

A key clause right up front in Parashat Shofetim is, “Tzedeq, tzedeq tirdof,” notable because of the repetition of the word tzedeq, justice. Properly translated, it means, “Justice, you shall pursue justice” – holding out justice in front of us to dangle momentarily at the leading edge of the clause, before applying the verb that tells us what to do. It is as if to say, “Justice! Think about that for a moment. Then go out and pursue it.” And the text does not say, as it could have, “Tzedeq ta’aseh.” Do justice. Rather, tirdof is more active. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said that what is implied is that we must actively pursue it. Go out and make justice happen.

Through the lens of history, we know that justice must be pursued with vigor and endurance.

It is easy to point to September 1, 1939, as the start of World War II. For the Jews, I think it is difficult to separate the war from the Sho’ah, the destruction of European Jewry. One might just as easily consider January 30, 1933, when Hitler came to power. Or September 15, 1935, when the Nuremberg Laws were passed in the Reichstag. Or November 9, 1938, Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. And so forth. 

Over the summer, while spending time with our family in Budapest, Judy and I went to the Hungarian Holocaust Memorial Center. Neither of us had been there before, despite the fact that it tells the story of how Judy’s parents, who were both in their teens in Hungarian areas during the war. As is the case with all Holocaust museums, the exhibit was grim. But what was unique for me about this museum is that it tells the story of the persecution and murder of Jews from the Hungarian perspective, which is different from the German perspective that is usually told. 

In Hungary, anti-Jewish legislation was passed into law in 1920 under the leadership of Regent Miklos Horthy, the last Navy admiral of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and a self-declared anti-Semite. The law, referred to as “numerus clausus” (“closed number” in Latin), drastically limited the number of Hungarian Jews who were allowed to enroll in universities, thereby rolling back the civil liberties granted to Jews in the early 19th century. Thousands of Jews left Hungary. And this was years before anybody had heard of Adolf Hitler. The law was largely repealed in 1928, but a decade later Horthy’s regime was allied with the Nazis, and we all know what came next.

One of the fascinating aspects of the study of history is that we can trace the currents of ideas and cultural phenomena as they turn over and simmer and develop and flow. When we speak of the injustice to Jews wrought by European anti-Semitism, do we go back to Martin Luther? Do we start with St. John Chrysostom in 4th-century Constantinople?

I have read that as people age, time seems to move faster. You know this from your own experience: remember when summer vacation, a mere two months, used to last for what seemed like forever? Remember when, in September, you could not remember the math you’d learned in June? And now, for those of us over a certain age, you feel like you kick up your feet for a moment in July, and the leaves are already falling off the trees.

One theory behind this phenomenon is that the older you are, the more lived experience you have to measure every moment against. It’s as if you are looking through thicker lenses; every current event is filtered through all the relevant things that you remember from your own life. So time seems to move more quickly because each moment is refracted by everything that came before it.

And we the Jews, well, our history stretches back, depending on where you start counting, at least 2,000 years, and maybe 3,000. Our collective lenses are the size of the Herodian stones at the base of the Kotel / the Western Wall in Jerusalem; our people’s shared experience includes centuries of dispersion and oppression, yes, but also learning and thriving and teaching and yearning for freedom. And perhaps that helps with perspective; we survived the Babylonian and Roman destructions; the Spanish Expulsion; the Sho’ah. We’re still here.

It is anathema to the Jews to be ahistorical, because we know that it is only a matter of time before the situation changes once again. Slowly, inexorably, the ancient hatreds come back, with new movements and new methods and new champions. We have no choice but to be masters of history; we forget the past at our own peril. 

It is our history that has led us to continue to pursue justice. For we know that wherever people are inclined to draw lines between the “goo”d folks and the “bad” folks, between the “real” Hungarians or Aryans or English or Russians and the people who came from somewhere else, wherever leaders seek to exploit traditional fear and enmity and suspicion, we know that justice is about to be thrown out the window in favor of mob rules. 

We know that it is our responsibility, as the Torah exhorts us over and over and over again, to stand up for the widow, the orphan, the stranger in our midst; to remember that we were strangers in Egypt; to recall that people, when left to their own devices, are not fundamentally inclined to treat each other justly.

Tzedeq.Justice, says the Torah. 

Tzedeq tirdof. You must pursue justice.

Nearly 2,000 years after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem, and then banned Jews from living within sight of that city, we are still here despite the injustice served to us throughout those many centuries. 

עוד לא אבדה תקותנו,‘Od lo avdah tikvatenu,Our hope is not yet lost,
התקוה הנושנה,Hatikvah hanoshanah,The ancient hope,
לשוב לארץ אבותינו,Lashuv le-eretz avoteinu,To return to the land of our fathers,
לעיר בה דוד חנה.La‘ir bah david hanah.The city where David encamped.


Hatiqvah hanoshanah, the ancient hope identified in Naftali Herz Imber’s 1878 poem, which later became the national anthem of the State of Israel, was a hope not merely for a return to the city where David camped (as with the original text). I read it also as an ongoing plea for the Jewish soul to find comfort in a society in which the guiding principle is justice, in which there is no fear of hatred, no need for synagogue security guards, no angry mobs.

Imber died an alcoholic pauper in 1909 in New York City after a lifetime of wandering; he knew neither the Holocaust nor of the State of Israel. But we still live out his yearning today; we are still drawn by that ancient hope. We are still seeking tzedeq

Our greatest challenge is not memory. We have that in spades. Rather, it is how to act on that memory. How to pursue the upright path in the societies in which we live, in the times in which we dwell. How to make sure that tzedeq, that justice remains in front of us at all times.

What will truly make us the masters of history is when we turn our historical lenses onto ourselves, and pursue that which is truly just.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 9/7/2019.)

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Shall There Be No Needy? – Re’eh 5779

These are good times in which to be living if you are a vegetarian. You may know that I have been a “Jewish vegetarian” since 1988 – that is, I eat anything that does not qualify as “meat” for kashrut purposes. So while many traditional vegetarians do not eat fish, I do. Kosher fish, of course.)

These are good times because of the explosion of interest in plant-based foods, and the growing availability of meat-like products, like the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger. And I heard earlier this week that KFC just began test-marketing a plant-based chicken-like product in one of its restaurants in Atlanta. Apparently, it tastes like chicken.

I must say that the Torah was extraordinarily prescient in its time for setting limits on food. The laws that appear in Parashat Re’eh (pp. 1072-74 in the Etz Hayim humash) draw fairly clear lines: for land animals, only ruminants (which are, by definition, all herbivores) with a split hoof. For sea creatures, only those with fins and scales. No birds of prey. (Yes, I know there are a few critters that fall into grey areas, but such are the glorious complexities of God’s Creation.) 

And there are good reasons for us to limit our consumption. It is a reminder that not all things are nor should they be available to humans to eat or otherwise cultivate. Although God has given us the power and the know-how to manipulate our environment for our benefit, that should not be a boundless endeavor. There are just some things we should keep our hands off of.

But there is another way of reading Parashat Re’eh that I had not previously put together. Just after Deuteronomy chapter 14, in which those lines of consumption are drawn, in the following chapter we encounter what may be one of the most striking statements in the Torah (Deut. 15:4, 1077):

אֶפֶס, כִּי לֹא יִהְיֶה-בְּךָ אֶבְיוֹן:  כִּי-בָרֵךְ יְבָרֶכְךָ, ה’, בָּאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן-לְךָ נַחֲלָה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ.

There shall be no needy among you – since the Lord your God will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion…

And here is the striking part (15:7-8):

כִּי-יִהְיֶה בְךָ אֶבְיוֹן … 

If, however, there is a needy person among you…

Now, hold on there a minute. Did the text not just say that there will be no needy among you? How can that be? 

OK, so regardless, if there is a needy person among you: (1078)

לֹא תְאַמֵּץ אֶת-לְבָבְךָ, וְלֹא תִקְפֹּץ אֶת-יָדְךָ, מֵאָחִיךָ, הָאֶבְיוֹן.  ח כִּי-פָתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח אֶת-יָדְךָ, לוֹ; וְהַעֲבֵט, תַּעֲבִיטֶנּוּ, דֵּי מַחְסֹרוֹ, אֲשֶׁר יֶחְסַר לוֹ.

… do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs.

The logical conclusion that we can draw is that the world free of needy people will never exist. It is a blueprint for a world that could be, an ideal to which we should aspire.

And of course, that begs the question: how are we working to build that world?

There is a classic rabbinic textual-interpretation principle known as “semikhut parashiyyot,” literally, the juxtaposition of passages. The idea is that adjacent stories or concepts in the Torah are near each other for a reason; they must therefore comment on each other. 

One traditional example of this principle is that many items of the list of 39 avot melakhah / Shabbat prohibitions – things like hammering, weaving and building – are drawn from semikhut parashiyyot. In Parashat Vayaqhel, the Torah’s description of the building of the mishkan / tabernacle follows a restatement of the requirement to rest on the seventh day. The rabbis conclude that the activities related to creating the mishkan were therefore forbidden on Shabbat. 

So, using this principle of semikhut parashiyyot, we must ask,

”What do dietary restrictions have to do with the ongoing existence of poverty?”

And the answer emerges on two different levels. 

On an individual level, we might derive from this the fundamental requirement to be mindful of our food will ensure that we are also mindful of the nutritional needs of others. That is, drawing lines in what we eat should remind us of the imperative to make sure that all people around us have food, particularly those most likely to be food-insecure – i.e. evyonim – poor people. 

We should therefore take seriously the mitzvah of opening our hands to evyonim, as the Torah instructs, by supplying them with food. There are many means of doing so; one, the Squirrel Hill Food Pantry, is nearby and run by Jewish Family and Community Services. (As in past years, we will have donation bags available prior to the High Holidays.) 

But on a greater scale, I think we have to consider our manipulation of the natural world on a grand scale to provide food, and perhaps we might consider how our food choices affect our environment, which in turn will lead to greater numbers of food-insecure people around the world. Now, I don’t have time to address all the issues therein, but consider the following:

  1. Lots of people to feed (7.6 billion!), diminishing agricultural lands.
  2. Climate change is disrupting agriculture in various ways.

Vegetables.  We all need to be eating more vegetables. And the vegetables need to be of greater quality. And the only way we can really do that is to make sure that we are eating vegetables in the proper season. How many of us have traveled to foreign countries and discovered that the vegetables that they eat are tastier and cheaper? Our vegetables come from far away, and the entire system is geared toward longer shelf-life and year-round availability, not local and tasty.

We just love packaged, processed foods! But you know what? They are generally not good for you, nor good for the Earth. The more highly-processed foods are, the more energy they take to produce, and the more energy, the greater the contribution of greenhouse gases.

Waste. Americans throw away nearly 40% of the food we produce. That is staggering, considering all the energy we put into producing that food – $160 billion, and it is equivalent to putting 3.3 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere unnecessarily. Our Torah teaches us not to waste: the mitzvah of bal tashhit (Deut. 20:19-20) is understood by Maimonides to apply to wasting anything of value. 

Meat. Meat production, and in particular beef, is a major source of climate-change-causing gases, particularly methane. Also, water: it takes 106 gallons of water to produce one ounce of beef; soy requires only 22 gallons; chicken only 17 gallons. Greater water consumption also requires more energy to make that water useable, which brings us back to greenhouse gases.

If we all ate a few more locally-grown vegetables and just a little less meat, we would be well on our way to making our food consumption more sustainable. 

If we could, at the same time, figure out how to waste less – I know, it’s not so easy – that would certainly help.

I’m not trying to convert you to vegetarianism. For some, Shabbat is not Shabbat, or a simhah is not a simhah without meat.

But I am suggesting that you might want to consider eating less meat.  Be mindful.  Be deliberate in your food consumption as our tradition demands us to.  

Rabbi Jeremy and I were at the miqveh yesterday morning as we brought a candidate for conversion to complete her journey to becoming Jewish. Before immersing herself, she recited a kind of pledge that is found in the Rabbi’s Manual for Kabbalat Ol Mitzvot, which literally means, “taking upon oneself the yoke of mitzvot / commandments.” Among these statements of commitment to the holy opportunities of Jewish life, she pledged that one of the ways that she will be committed to Jewish life is:

“By incorporating kashrut into my life and by sharing my bread with others who are hungry.”

These two things clearly belong together, and not only because they are both found in Parashat Re’eh; they also belong together because our local awareness and our global conscience regarding not only the boundaries, but also the essential needs surrounding food should be intimately linked.

What cannot be forgotten in this picture is the essential requirement  (p. 1077) that will make it possible for there to be no needy among you – that we keep the Torah, the mitzvot that God has given us. If we do this by fulfilling not just the letter of the principles of kashrut, but also the global spirit therein, maybe, just maybe, we will achieve that theoretical world of no needy people.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 8/31/2019.)

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The Nexus of Politics and Judaism – Shabbat Nahamu 5779

I have recently received a few comments that my sermons have been “too political.” So I just wanted to clarify something as a kind of prologue: I try to speak to contemporary issues, issues that are in the air all around us. I cannot speak about abstractions, about things that we are not necessarily thinking about. And the clergy-person that does not address what’s on people’s minds is irrelevant. I am trying my best not to be irrelevant. My job is to teach how our texts guide us in our daily interactions with the world, with both the mundane and the existential.

At the same time, my goal is not to inflame. I do not label any public figures with unfair or inaccurate descriptors. I do not use hyperbolic or inflammatory language. I do try to avoid calling out specific people, where possible, or God forbid, mentioning political parties. It is not my goal to get everybody heated up and arguing at kiddush. On the contrary, I hope to elevate the dialogue by emphasizing what Jewish tradition teaches about the issues in play.

As you know, I think it is essential for us to remember that learning the words and concepts of the Jewish bookshelf improves our lives and our society, and I can tell you this: if the principles of compassion, of derekh eretz / respect, of justice, of acknowledging the kedushah / holiness in each of us and in our relationships with each other were kept in front of us at all times, the world would be a much better place, and perhaps far less polarized.

***

On this day, Shabbat Nahamu, the Shabbat of comfort, my hope is to bring us some comfort in Jewish text. The first Shabbat after Tish’ah BeAv, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, is so titled because it is the opening salvo of the First Haftarah of Consolation which we read this morning, from the prophet Isaiah. As we count off the seven weeks from Tish’ah BeAv until Rosh Hashanah, we should feel ourselves recovering from the desolation of Tish’ah BeAv, moving from mourning the tragedies of our history to seeing ourselves as elevated in the glory of God’s sovereignty.

Relief from the Arch of Titus in Rome, depicting Roman soldiers carrying away the implements of the Second Temple following the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE

And the challenge facing us at this time is, how do we find comfort when the nation is still reeling from the needless deaths of 31 people two weekends ago? When we in Pittsburgh are still in mourning for the 11 members of our community who were so brutally taken from us nearly 10 months ago?

How do we find comfort when the issues surrounding who is allowed to come into this country, and who is allowed to stay, continue to roil our national conversation?

How can we find comfort when our government is proposing to favor immigrants who are not poor? I’ll tell you this, folks: if such a principle existed when my family members came here in the late 19th and early 20th century, I wouldn’t be standing before you, and most of you would not be here either.

How do we find comfort when our elected officials, many of whom are themselves descended from poor immigrants, continue to support policies that separate families at our borders?

How do we find comfort when we know that foreign actors are continuing to try to disrupt our democratic processes?

How do we find comfort when virtually every day brings some new revelation regarding our ongoing abuse of God’s Creation? This week it was the plastic content in Arctic ice.

At the program on Saturday evening, as our 25-hour fast began, we heard from speakers who addressed our grief. Our member Danielle Kranjec, Senior Jewish Educator at Hillel-Jewish University Center, spoke about how she and her students experienced the 18th of Heshvan. Richard Carrington, who works in the poor neighborhoods of Pittsburgh trying to free children from the cycle of gang violence, spoke about the 203 funerals that he has attended for the kids he has worked with, children he could not save. Representatives of Casa San Jose spoke of the gratitude they had for the haven this country has offered them from dysfunctional Latin American governments and the violent, failed societies from which they came.

How can we indeed feel comforted?

Some might argue that we, the Jews, have to look out for ourselves. And that is certainly true, to some extent. “Im ein ani li mi li?” said our sage Hillel, 2000 years ago (Pirqei Avot 1:14): “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me.” But then Hillel goes on: “Ukhshe’ani le’atzmi, mah ani?” “And when I am ONLY for myself, what am I?”

Ve’im lo akhshav, eimatai?” “And if not now, when?”

Indeed.

Many of you know another mishnah from earlier in the same chapter of Pirqei Avot (1:2), one that was a kind of Jewish pop song a few decades back:

שִׁמְעוֹן הַצַּדִּיק הָיָה מִשְּׁיָרֵי כְנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה. הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים

Shim’on the Righteous was one of the last of the Great Assembly. He said: The world rests on three things: on the Torah, and on service [to God], and on acts of lovingkindness.

But let’s face it: three is an excellent literary device if you’d like to make a point. So the rabbis did not limit themselves to only one statement of the things upon which the world stands. So at the end of chapter 1 of Pirqei Avot, there is another take:

רַבָּן שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן גַּמְלִיאֵל אוֹמֵר, עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַדִּין וְעַל הָאֱמֶת וְעַל הַשָּׁלוֹם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (זכריה ח) אֱמֶת וּמִשְׁפַּט שָׁלוֹם שִׁפְטוּ בְּשַׁעֲרֵיכֶם

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel used to say: on three things does the world stand: On justice, on truth and on peace, as it is said: “execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates” (Zechariah 8:16).

Whenever this sort of thing happens in traditional texts, you know some rabbi is going to eventually come along to ask the question: why do we need these two statements? Wouldn’t one have been enough? Does the world stand on three things, or six?

Sure enough, in the Jerusalem Talmud (Ta’anit 4:2), there is a passage that addresses this:

תמן תנינן שמעון הצדיק היה משירי כנסת הגדולה הוא היה אומר על שלשה דברים העולם עומד על התורה ועל העבודה ועל גמילות חסדים ושלשתן בפסוק אחד (ישעיהו נא) ואשים דברי בפיך זו תורה ובצל ידי כסיתיך זו גמילות חסדים ללמדך שכל מי שהוא עוסק בתורה ובגמילות חסדים זכה לישב בצילו של הקב”ה

There they taught: Shimon the Righteous was of the remnants of the Men of the Great Assembly. He used to say ‘the world rests on three things – on the Torah on the Service and on Acts of Loving-kindness.’ The three of them are found in one verse (Isaiah 51:16):

וָאָשִׂ֤ים דְּבָרַי֙ בְּפִ֔יךָ וּבְצֵ֥ל יָדִ֖י כִּסִּיתִ֑יךָ לִנְטֹ֤עַ שָׁמַ֙יִם֙ וְלִיסֹ֣ד אָ֔רֶץ וְלֵאמֹ֥ר לְצִיּ֖וֹן עַמִּי־אָֽתָּה׃

[God said] I have put My words in your mouth and sheltered you with My hand; I, who planted the skies and made firm the earth, have said to Zion: You are My people!

“I have put My words in your mouth…” refers to Torah, “…and sheltered you with My hand…” refers to acts of lovingkindness, to teach you that anyone who is occupied with Torah and acts of lovingkindness merits to sit in the shadow of the Holy One.

So the Gemara here is explaining that the first statement of three comes from Isaiah, an affirmation that we are God’s people. Shim’on the Righteous is interpreting this to say that by living Torah, by learning and teaching it and applying it by performing acts of lovingkindness, deeds that reinforce the qedushah between people, we will merit God’s presence in our lives. We will earn a coveted spot in the shadow of the Qadosh Barukh Hu

But I must say, I need a little more than that. I can “sit in the shadow of the Qadosh Barukh Hu” all day while the rest of the world crumbles around me. Rather, I need something else. Hence the need for the other statement of three. The Gemara goes on:

תמן תנינן רבן שמעון בן גמליאל אומר על שלשה דברים העולם עומד על הדין ועל האמת והשלום ושלשתן דבר אחד הן נעשה הדין נעשה אמת נעשה שלום א”ר מנא ושלשתן בפסוק אחד (זכריה ח׳:ט״ז) אמת ומשפט שלום שפטו בשעריכם

There, Rabban Shim’on ben Gamliel said: The world stands on three things: on truth, on justice, and on peace, as is said, “Execute truth, justice, and peace within your gates” (Zech. 8:16). These three are interlinked: when justice is done, truth is achieved, and peace is established (Pirqei Avot 1:18).

So this one, says the Gemara, is an entirely different way of viewing the world. Not about the specificities of Torah or service to God, but rather about essential values. We have to seek justice, says the prophet Zechariah. We have to speak truth. That is when peace will come. And Zechariah is even more explicit in the following verse:

וְאִ֣ישׁ ׀ אֶת־רָעַ֣ת רֵעֵ֗הוּ אַֽל־תַּחְשְׁבוּ֙ בִּלְבַבְכֶ֔ם וּשְׁבֻ֥עַת שֶׁ֖קֶר אַֽל־תֶּאֱהָ֑בוּ כִּ֧י אֶת־כָּל־אֵ֛לֶּה אֲשֶׁ֥ר שָׂנֵ֖אתִי נְאֻם־ה׃

And do not contrive evil against one another, and do not love perjury, because all those are things that I hate—declares the LORD.

We have to dedicate ourselves to justice and truth and avoid purposefully reviling one another. And not just justice for us, for the Jews, but for the whole world. That’s what the world stands on. Only then will peace come.

So it may be easy to say that, but how do we get there?

The essence of politics, ladies and gentlemen, is agreement and disagreement. We all agree that there are problems to be solved, and we have multiple paths forward, different ways to approach these challenges. We can agree with each other or disagree, and not only on the solutions, but on the problems themselves.

But we have to do it truthfully, and we have to agree that justice is the abiding principle. And I would like to suggest something that we can all consider, yet another value expressed in Pirqei Avot, and that is “kaf zekhut” – giving somebody with whom you disagree the benefit of the doubt.

Before you dismiss outright what somebody else firmly believes, consider their position, and see if you can even make their argument for them. There is always another side. The only way we can gain true comfort, justice, truth, and peace, is to be able to listen to and seek to understand the other with a fair, even-handed ear, to seek common ground, and to find the political means to bring people together rather than drive them apart.

Only then will we find comfort; only then will we truly sit together in the shadow of the Qadosh Barukh Hu.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/17/2019.)

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To Bigotry No Sanction – Pinehas 5779

I was in Philadelphia over the past week – my first real visit there as a tourist. My son and I went to sites of historical interest – Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, and so forth. And we also visited places of Jewish historical interest – we welcomed Shabbat last week at Mikveh Israel, one of the oldest congregations in America, where they still practice the traditional Spanish-Portuguese minhag, and also, of course, the National Museum of American Jewish History, now nearly a decade old.

If you have not yet been to this museum, it is worth the trip to Philly. It documents and explores the Jewish experience in America, from the arrival of the 23 Dutch Jews seeking safe haven in 1654, straight through to our contemporary moment. The visitor watches as the community grows, primarily through waves of immigration, spreading from the Eastern coastal enclaves and across the continent, developing a distinctly American character along the way. 

Judaism has flourished in this country. And why is that? Because, unlike in the Europe of old, Jews were effectively welcomed from the outset. Yes, the initial group that landed in 1654 were only tolerated by the Dutch governor in New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant, and had to petition the government in Holland for the right to stay. But with independence declared in Philadelphia 122 years later, followed soon by the enshrinement of Democratic principles in the Constitution, Jews were treated as equal citizens, something that did not occur in most of the rest of the world until much later.

And we continue to thrive here. As I grow older, I am more and more grateful that our founders, even though they most likely saw the Jews as unlike them, created a system that guaranteed religious liberty.

And so too for other immigrant groups. Though Irish immigrants were discriminated against horribly upon landing here, our government gave them the same protections; so too for the Italians and the Chinese and people from many other places. It took a long time – too long – for the U.S. government to treat the children of African slaves, who were brought here against their will and sold in public markets as animals, as equals, but eventually that happened, albeit imperfectly. 

So it is with great pain and dismay that I followed the public clashes over the last two weeks over four first-term congresswomen who were insulted by the most visible representative of the United States government. I will not rehash the story here. 

But we have a real problem in confronting this, folks. And we the Jews have to make sure that we are not sucked into the bigotry underlying this.

It seems to me that in the not-too-distant past, Americans were good at keeping prejudices to themselves in the public sphere. But that has changed. Whether due to the lamentable principle that the most outrageous statements are the only ones that rise to the top of the crowded, noisy news pile, or because of our president’s apparent unwillingness to call out xenophobic hatred when given the opportunity, all of our anti-isms are coming out of the closet.

Leading the current pack is the anti-immigrant movement roiling the world. 

But not only that. I have heard Jews, friends, colleagues, say horrible, hateful things, like, “The only good Arab is a dead Arab.” Or, “There is no such thing as a Palestinian,” something which is clearly not true. I have heard Jews use slurs and make offensive jokes about racial and ethnic groups.

And, let’s be clear here: this is not unique to the Jews. In fact, I would say that, based on my own personal experience, Jews are no more or less prejudiced than any other group. It is, unfortunately, a natural human inclination to be dismissive, disdainful, or even hateful of people unlike you.

And, in particular, when I hear politicians of any sort saying things like, “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby,” or people applying the terms “apartheid” or “genocide” to the State of Israel, I understand that intolerance is not limited to any particular group or political persuasion.

If we want this nation to hold together, and to continue to uphold the democratic principles that have enabled the Jews and members of every other group to thrive in this country, we must ensure that the infection of bigotry of all sorts is defeated.

We read this morning from Parashat Pinehas, which is the most-read-from parashah in the whole Torah because it contains the festival sacrifices. So we read a passage from it every Rosh Hodesh (at the beginning of each Hebrew month), and on every holiday morning throughout the year. But we only read about Pinehas, the biblical character, on this Shabbat. And that is OK, because he is not necessarily somebody whom we want to cite as a role model. 

At the end of Parashat Balaq, which we read last week, Pinehas stabs a couple in flagrante delicto – an Israelite man canoodling with a Midianite woman. The Torah text itself seems to regard this as a good thing; Pinehas’ bloodthirsty action is rewarded by God with an end to a plague that was punishment for idolatry.

But the vast majority of commentators see his vigilante justice as a negative. In fact, there is a custom that is widespread among soferim, the scribes who write out Torah scrolls, that when God says, at the beginning of Parashat Pinehas, “Hineni noten lo et beriti shalom,” I hereby give Pinehas my covenant of peace, they leave the letter “vav” in the word “shalom” as broken, the top piece separated from the bottom by a little white space. The suggestion is that while God clearly did not want the Israelites cavorting with non-Israelites, the zealotry of Pinehas created a fractured peace, not the wholeness that the word “shalom” suggests. 

Drawing lines through zealotry, dividing people through anger and hatred, does not create peace. On the contrary, it fractures all of us. 

Another site of interest that we happened upon in Philly was the Holocaust Memorial Plaza in Center City. It includes six memorial pillars, representing the six million Jewish victims, with each pillar “chronicling an atrocity of the Holocaust and contrasting it with American constitutional protections and values” (according to the memorial’s website). One of those pillars includes a well-known quote from President George Washington, in a letter to the congregation in Newport, Rhode Island following his visit there in 1790:

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

Although not appearing on this memorial pillar, Washington continued as follows:

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

Our nation has been a safe haven and a beacon of hope flowing from the democratic principles it has upheld since its establishment. We, along with other immigrant groups, have been welcome and treated as equals by our government, if not always by our fellow citizens, for nearly two-and-a-half centuries.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, contrary to the words of the prophet Micah whom Washington cited, I am afraid. 

When angry mobs are chanting against immigrants, and indeed American-born politicians, 

when the level of public discourse has become so debased as to feature public figures insulting each other with obscenities, 

when supporters of the State of Israel find themselves unwelcome on both right and left, I am afraid.

But even more so, I am afraid because of the oft-quoted words of Pastor Martin Niemoller, originally delivered at a church in Frankfurt in January, 1946, not long after World War II:

Als die Nazis die Kommunisten holten,
habe ich geschwiegen; ich war ja kein Kommunist…

When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent; I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent; I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out; I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent; I was not a Jew.

Pastor Martin Niemoller

Niemoller’s reflection, that by the time they came for him, there was nobody left to speak up, applies to us today as well. We the Jews may not be the current target, but we better not find ourselves in Niemoller’s shoes. 

When we hear anybody say anything that can be construed as demeaning or derogatory to another group, whether it comes from a friend, a politician, or your mother, it is our obligation to speak up for the disenfranchised, because, as you know, we were strangers in the land of Egypt. 

And when angry mobs start chanting anti-immigrant epithets, we have to stand up as a community and say, “Never again.”

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 7/27/2019.)

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I’m a Fundamentalist: Tallit – Shelah Lekha 5779

(This is the fourth installment in an occasional series on the fundamentals of Jewish life. The others are:

I’m a Fundamentalist: Shabbat – Bereshit 5779

I’m a Fundamentalist: Refrigerator-Magnet Texts

I’m a Fundamentalist: Tefillin – Mishpatim 5779

Thank you for reading!)

I must say that I have been recently surprised by the number of people, and in particular Jewish men who are bar mitzvah (i.e. 13 years of age and older) who are declining to wear a tallit (prayer shawl) when they enter our sanctuary. When I was growing up, a tallit was de rigueur for all men and older boys, and in fact a ritual that we looked forward to participating in. (I mentioned earlier that the Torah describes this mitzvah / commandment in the portion we read this morning.)

Now, things are a little different today: with the resurgence of Orthodoxy in the last few decades, many more of us are exposed to the minhag / custom, which has become prevalent in Orthodoxy, that some have of not wearing a tallit until one is married. BTW, the reason that we expect all Jewish men of bar mitzvah age to wear a tallit in synagogue is because we assume that most of us are not fulfilling the mitzvah of tzitzit under their clothing, the tallit qatan. So we urge people to fulfill the mitzvah of tallit gadol, the big one with which we are all familiar.

Also, of course, in a highly integrated community like this, we often have people here who regularly attend Reform synagogues, where wearing a tallit is optional, so they are not inclined to put one on merely because they are in a Conservative synagogue. And we are also living in a time in which nobody likes to be told that they “must” do anything, regardless of where they grew up.

Furthermore, of course we encourage women to take this mitzvah on as well, although we do not require it of women, only adding to the level of confusion. Even though it has traditionally been observed by men, the Talmud (e.g. Menahot 43a) and many prominent rabbis throughout history (e.g. Rashi, Rabbeinu Tam, Rambam) indicate that women are not merely encouraged, but required to perform the mitzvah of tzitzit (similarly, Jewish sources also permit women to wear tefillin, including the great Maimonides).

But I am going to make the case for why you should be wearing a tallit, regardless of your gender.

According to what we read in today’s parashah, the tzitziyyot, the knotted threads that hang from the four corners of the tallit, are mnemonic devices. We need to be reminded of our obligations, not only to God, but also to each other. That is the goal of religious practice, and that is the whole point of the tallit, according to what we read today in Parashat Shelah Lekha. Let me explain:

I recently heard a wonderful episode of the NPR podcast Hidden Brain called “Creating God.” The guest, social psychologist Azim Shariff, described an academic study that showed that Muslim shopkeepers in the souq in Marrakesh, Morocco, gave more money to charity when they heard the azan, the Arabic call to prayer which is sounded from mosques five times a day.

What this demonstrates is that when we are reminded of religious tradition – mitzvot, commandments that compel us to do good things for each other and our community – we are more likely to actually DO those things. We are more likely to work for the common good; we are more likely to remember those around is in need; we are more likely to reach out to others.

We need those reminders: Reminders of the value of our Jewish heritage. Reminders to keep our traditions close, because they bring real value to us as individuals and to our community and the world.

There is a strain of Jewish thought that says that mitzvot have no intrinsic value or meaning – that they are simply commandments that must be followed (Rashi is among those thinkers; so too the modern Israeli commentator/gadfly Yeshayahu Leibovich). For example, there is a mitzvah / commandment in the Torah known as shilluah ha-qen, the requirement of shooing away the mother bird before taking her young from the nest (Deut. 22:6-7). The Mishnah (Berakhot 5:3) tells us that this should not be interpreted as displaying mercy so that God will be merciful to us. Rather, it is merely a statute to be followed, just like so many others in the Torah, because it is there.

But I cannot be Jewish in this way. I need to connect with my tradition with my heart and mind, to understand that God asks us to do certain things for a reason. I need motivation, and cannot suspend my reason and logic, and, I think, so too most of us in the Conservative Jewish world.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are those who feel that Jewish values are the most essential feature of Jewish life, that we should behave not according to ancient law codes and customs, but rather that our behavior should be guided by traditional values evident in Jewish text: tiqqun olam (repairing the world), hakhnassat orhim (welcoming guests into your home), biqqur holim (visiting the ill), derekh eretz (respect), praise and gratitude and so forth.

But values are not enough. There is an intermediate position, a path that pursues both the traditional actions, the mitzvot, and also encourages thought about the values that drive them. And that’s the kind of Jew that I want to be. Sign me up for that: the marriage of action and intent.

An example: in this approach, tefillah / prayer, admittedly a hard sell for most modern people, can be deeply meaningful, but only if you actually wrestle with the text. The mere recitation of words in a foreign language because ancient rabbis dictated a standard framework for tefillah is, well, uninspiring. But the combination of meaning, words, themes, music, meditation, and choreography brings me clarity, improves my concentration, helps me to examine myself, gives me a daily dose of qedushah / holiness and humility, and frames my day.

And in my mind, this type of Judaism is suggested by today’s parashah. We chanted the passage which we know and love as the third paragraph of the Shema, the one about the tzitzit (Numbers 15:37-41). The passage says explicitly that wearing the tzitzit (plural: tzitziyyot) is to remind us of the mitzvot and not to stray from the right path. But then it goes on to invoke the Exodus from Egypt, a seminal event in the establishment of the Jewish nation. The passage thereby suggests that the purpose of the mitzvot is not only their performance, but connecting them with our history, our peoplehood, and our obligation to remember where we came from and the obligations we have to aid the oppressed, the bound, the enslaved.

The tallit gadol, which many of us are wearing right now, is generally thought of as a ritual article, that is, something worn during services. If you wear a tallit qatan, you are always reminded of all of the above all day long.

But I’d like to suggest the following: when we are not in the synagogue, we need reminders. We need metaphorical tzitziyyot. We need to be reminded of the important things: yes, the values; yes, the customs; yes, the laws. We need to connect the doing with the understanding. And we do that through physical rituals.

Ladies and gentlemen, the struggle for the Jewish future will not be merely about reproduction; it will be a struggle for meaning – for understanding the values embedded within Jewish practice, for relating those things to how we live our lives on a daily basis. We need the “why” behind the “what.” And wrapping ourselves up in a tallit is an essential part of that process.

The tallit is so integral to Jewish life that we see it every time we look at the flag of the state of Israel; it is such an intimate part of our experience as Jews that there is a custom of burying one’s tallit with the deceased – it is effectively the only thing we take with us when we leave this world. And I think it’s the only ritual item that makes us feel as if we are being swaddled in our tradition.

So how do we maintain those reminders when we are not wearing a tallit? The metaphorical tzitziyyot remain after we take it off.

We feel swaddled in our tradition when we make the Shabbat special, a day apart from the craziness of the week, in whatever ways we can, traditional or otherwise. And when we make dietary choices that reflect our holy relationship with God’s Creation. And when we sanctify our relationships and always seek to partner with God in repairing this world. And when we seek out the ancient wisdom in our textual heritage.

That is why I’m a fundamentalist when it comes to the tallit: the physical ritual of being wrapped up in a tallit serves as a kind of glue that binds us to our tradition; it reminds us daily of our values and customs and practices and how they improve our lives and our society.

So go on, swaddle yourself up in a tallit, and you will find those metaphorical tzitziyyot when you take it off, and thus keep the reminders of Jewish life in front of you. That is how we will continue to build a better world. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 6/29/2019.)

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