Opening Doors, Avoiding Walls – Ki Tavo 5778

Do you remember the scene in the movie, Moonstruck, from 1987, when Loretta Castorini (Cher) puts her fiance Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello) on a flight to Italy to go see his dying mother, and as she’s watching the flight take off, a woman standing next to her, with white hair and covered entirely in black, says the following:

Woman: You have someone on that plane?

Loretta: Yeah, my fiancé.

Woman: [angry] I put a curse on that plane. My sister is on that plane. I put a curse on that plane that it’s gonna explode, burn on fire and fall into the sea. Fifty years ago, she stole a man from me. S’aprese il mio uomo! Today she tells me that she never loved him, that she took him to be strong on me. Now she’s going back to Sicily. Ritorna in Sicilia! I cursed her that the green Atlantic water should swallow her up!

Loretta: I don’t believe in curses.

Woman: [shrugging] Eh, neither do I.

Well, I must concede that I don’t really believe in curses, either. At least, not that kind of curse.

But actually, there is a kind of curse in which I do believe. And a kind of blessing, too.

One of the features of Parashat Ki Tavo is the litany of blessings and curses: good things that, the Torah says, we will receive if we follow the mitzvot, the traditional opportunities for holiness that the Torah prescribes, and the dire, grisly things that will happen if we fail to observe the mitzvot.

Here is the challenge that we all have as modern Jews: none of us actually believe that. Yes, there may be a few pious ones among us that truly believe that fulfilling every jot and tittle of halakhah (Jewish law) as it has come down to us will appease God’s anger. But I am fairly certain that if I were to push most of us on whether or not we take this passage of blessings and curses literally, it would not be too long before we concede that the world does not really work that way.

And there is nothing wrong with that! As some of you have surely heard me say before, the rabbis of the Talmudic period ask more or less the same question in Massekhet Berakhot (7a), which can be paraphrased as, why does the scoundrel sometimes thrive and prosper and the meticulously pious person sometimes die young of cancer? (A similar question is asked in Pirqei Avot 4:19 by Rabbi Yanai.)

One possible response to this conundrum is that the Torah is speaking not about individuals, but to us as a people. That is, if the majority of people are flouting the mitzvot, then bad things will happen to the Jews. This is not necessarily a theology that I embrace, in particular because it leads to thinking along the lines of, the Jews of Europe brought the Shoah, the Holocaust, upon themselves due to their sins. (Rabbi Ovadia Yosef actually said this.) Nonetheless, I think that there is something here we can latch onto that will be helpful.

So I am going to make the case for why you should step out of your theological comfort zone to consider that blessings and curses are real. It’s just that they don’t quite happen the way the Torah suggests.

What are some of the blessings that we have, not necessarily as individuals, but as a society?

(Food / health care / shelter / great neighborhood, etc.)

What are some of the curses?

(Racism / sexism / anti-Semitism / sin’at hinnam / cancer / allergies / climate change / pollution, etc.)

I am going to propose that the way we should read this part of Ki Tavo in the current moment is not “I keep Shabbes therefore my family will thrive,” or “I make sure my mezuzah is kosher so my great uncle will not have a heart attack.” Rather, the way we should read this is, “I take responsibility for my neighbor, so my community will thrive.” Or, “I commit my time and my money to making sure that more people have enough to eat, so I can sleep well at night knowing that fewer people are hungry.”

In other words, we reap what we sow. Collectively. We all need to be in this for the common good.

Some of you know that we always study a little text between minhah and ma’ariv on Shabbat afternoon. We actually have these nice new Pirqei Avot books that a few of you helped to purchase, with commentaries by Rabbi Gordon Tucker and Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum. A few weeks back, we read the following (Avot 4:2):

בן עזאי אומר, הוי רץ למצוה קלה, וברח מן העבירה:  שמצוה גוררת מצוה, ועבירה גוררת עבירה; ששכר מצוה מצוה, ושכר עבירה עבירה

Ben Azzai liked to say: Run to perform a trivial mitzvah / commandment as vigorously as you would to a consequential one, and flee from transgression, for one fulfilled mitzvah brings another in its wake, just as one transgression brings another in its wake. The reward for fulfilling a mitzvah is the desire to fulfill another mitzvah, whereas the reward for transgression is another transgression.

Very interesting, right? This ancient rabbinic take on the idea of mitzvot is that the reward for a mitzvah is not that Israel receives rain, or that you get a bunch of grandchildren, or a raise at work. Rather, the reward is that you get to perform another mitzvah.

Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, in her commentary, offers this very ethereal perspective:

Commandments and transgressions are… two guides to the spiritual and moral topography of life, enabling the learner to identify the openings through which one may profitably pass, on the one hand, and the walls that will constitute dead ends, on the other. Choose an opening, any opening at all, teaches Ben Azzai, and avoid the walls as best you can… Life consists of the dynamic alteration of pursuit and flight… This motion is necessitated by the fundamental human inability to know the full consequences of every action…

What she is saying is that mitzvot open doors, which lead to new passageways, which lead to more openings. When we fail to fulfill the mitzvot, we hit walls. What is nice about her take, I think, is that the mitzvot are thus a way that we open ourselves up, and connect to one another. When we throw up walls, we separate from one another; we stymie the building of community; we inhibit connections; we thwart progress as a people, a nation, a world.

magritte lembellie

Rene Magritte, L”Embellie

So while you might think that putting on tefillin on a weekday morning, or not eating shrimp, or reciting the Shema before you go to bed might be deeply personal choices that only affect you, these actions ultimately reflect back on us in deep, interconnected ways. I said it last week, and I’ll say it again: daily tefillah / prayer is meant to connect us to each other, those in the room and those beyond. When we fail to act on the holy opportunities of Jewish life, we hit a wall.

And the more walls we bump into, ladies and gentlemen, the harder it will be for us to solve the great challenges, or shall we say curses, of our time.

The more we connect, the greater our blessings. The more we separate, the greater the scourges of opioid addiction, climate change, poverty, homelessness, hunger, gun violence, sin’at hinnam / causeless hatred in all its pernicious forms.

The way we turn our curses into blessings is to work harder to recommit to our framework of qedushah, of holiness. When we perform mitzvot, and not just the tzedaqah kind, good things happen. When we don’t, well, you know what happens. We all have the potential to build a better reality. All we need to do is open another door.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 9/1/2018.)

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The Great Divide (You Are Needed) – Ki Tetse 5778

I read with great interest a few days ago about the efforts of some tech companies to prevent the use (or abuse) of social media to foment political division. In case you have no idea what I am talking about, here’s a brief summary:

Foreign powers like Russia and Iran have created fake accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms for the purposes of creating division in our society. The way it works is something like this: they create what look like activist groups by posting items of interest around certain hot-button causes – racism, for example, or gun ownership, or abortion. They attract followers, and then amp up the message by posting items that promote violence and hatred against those who disagree with them. Then they make connections with other, actual groups who have similar views, and convince them to host protest activities. One protest in Houston in May of 2016 called “Stop the Islamization of Texas” was not only organized by one of these fake groups, called Heart of Texas, which had 250,000 likes on Facebook, but also that protest was met by a counter-protest that was also organized by Russian trolls. Interestingly, nobody from Heart of Texas showed up, because it has no actual members, only Facebook likes.

stop the islamization of texas

The goal here is to disrupt us, to make us all angry, to make it seem like we are not all on the same team.

We are apparently all being played this way. Some of the platforms (Facebook and Twitter) are now working harder at taking these things down, but they are not necessarily easy to find. Also a few days ago, Microsoft announced that they thwarted Russian attempts to hack into the US Senate and two right-leaning think tanks.

In a few weeks, over Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I will be speaking about love: love of self, love of family, love of community, love of the world. These are all essential things that we need more of, and we will be discussing sources in our tradition that point to to the imperative to love. But even before we get to that point, we have to understand as a society that we are all in this together. Perhaps we have lost that sense.

In thinking about this, it occurred to me that a curious, obsolete law in today’s parashah (Torah reading), Ki Tetse (BTW, the Wikipedia entry on this parashah offers seven ways of spelling its name!), suggests something relevant to us today. It’s about the situation in which a man has two wives, and he loves one and hates the other. (In biblical times, perhaps this was a common occurrence; divorce is permitted in the Torah, but generally due to some kind of perceived flaw — this also appears later in Ki Tetse). The man’s firstborn son, who inherits a double portion of the man’s estate, was born to the unloved wife. The man is not permitted to favor the son of the wife he loves; he must follow the laws of inheritance despite his personal preference.

What we might find in this is the following: our personal feelings about others around us do not matter. Their politics, the things that others do that we do not like, these things are irrelevant. We still have to cooperate with them, interact with them, and maintain societal norms with them. With respect to the law, we cannot favor those whom we like.

About two years ago, the New York Times published a captivating op-ed by the Dalai Lama and Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute about contemporary anger, discontent, and anxiety in the wealthiest nations of the world. Their suggestion was that not enough people feel useful – that is, that the nature of our society is that too many of us feel not needed, and that for humans and society to thrive, we have to feel needed. They said the following:

Virtually all the world’s major religions teach that diligent work in the service of others is our highest nature and thus lies at the center of a happy life. Scientific surveys and studies confirm shared tenets of our faiths. Americans who prioritize doing good for others are almost twice as likely to say they are very happy about their lives. In Germany, people who seek to serve society are five times likelier to say they are very happy than those who do not view service as important. Selflessness and joy are intertwined. The more we are one with the rest of humanity, the better we feel.

One of the primary goals of halakhah, of Jewish law, is to set up an interdependent society in which people take responsibility for each other. And an essential part of that is to understand that everybody, and I mean everybody, is a part of that. Not just your friends. Not just your family. But all of us. That’s why the Torah exhorts us multiple times to take care of the orphan, the widow, the stranger among us. That is why halakhah is so all-encompassing, framing every aspect of our lives in holiness.

The Dalai Lama and Mr. Brooks go on to suggest a plan for how to improve everybody’s sense of being needed:

What can we do to help? The first answer is not systematic. It is personal. Everyone has something valuable to share. We should start each day by consciously asking ourselves, “What can I do today to appreciate the gifts that others offer me?” We need to make sure that global brotherhood and oneness with others are not just abstract ideas that we profess, but personal commitments that we mindfully put into practice.

Does anybody hear anything in that passage that exists in Jewish tradition? Neither Arthur Brooks nor the Dalai Lama are Jewish. And yet, how do Jews start each day? By expressing gratitude for everything: Modeh ani lefanekha. Grateful am I to You, God, for putting my soul into my body this morning. And then we continue with a whole litany of thanks known as Birkhot HaShahar, the morning blessings, which we recited here just a short time ago.

And I can point to a myriad of ways in which our tradition reinforces the idea of oneness. What does Hanukkah teach? To cast light in this world. What does Pesah teach? To bring people out of oppression. What does Rosh Hashanah teach? To remind us of our equality and humility before God, across all of Creation.

What does daily prayer teach? That a minyan, a quorum of ten Jews, is needed to get going. That we need you to make it happen. That we are all in this together.

veahavta.png

In a greater sense, we all need each other if we are going to tackle the great challenges facing our society right now. We need everybody to be on board in trying to do something that is really hard: reaching out to others.

It is a natural human inclination to favor the ones we love, and particularly the ones we like. But we need everybody. We cannot allow divisions to be created. We are all on the same team: Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, poor and rich, black, white, brown, young and old. We cannot allow division to be sown.

You count. You are needed.

And here is what we all need you to do:

  • Before you click the “Like” button or retweet any content on social media from any activist group, do the best you can to verify that it is a real organization.
  • Get out of your information silo: If there is a newsworthy item that concerns you, it is worth checking out how is it portrayed in various news outlets — not necessarily to change your mind, but to better understand the flip side of arguments or just to see how people you disagree with see the world and why.
  • This is an old debate-team trick: try to argue the other side’s opinion.
  • Seek ways to widen the circle of people you interact with.

A final note: one of the special things about houses of worship, like synagogues, is that they bring together a whole range of people: people with diverse opinions, people from different backgrounds and economic strata. We need you to be here, but even more so, our society needs gathering places like this that build social capital, where we can come together for holy purposes and, even when we disagree, understand that we are part of something greater.

The future of our society depends on you: your willingness not only to understand that you are an essential part of the universal whole, but also that your neighbor is not your enemy. Ve-ahavta lereiakha kamokha (Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:18). Love your neighbor as yourself.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/25/2018.)

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Horeb and Sinai: Pennsylvania’s Clergy Abuse Report – Shofetim 5778

I was actually not planning on giving a formal sermon this week, given that I should be dedicating my time to preparing for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And then the report released by the Pennsylvania grand jury investigation into more than 1,000 victims of abuse by Catholic priests over the last 70 years hit the news. And I realized that I cannot let this go by without comment.

And here is why: we who care about religion, and the image that religious people have, are all affected by this. Yes, it might be easy to say, “That’s not us; that is the Catholics.” But that would be an exercise in rationalization. While I think it would be difficult to make the case that the horrific, even systematic kinds of abuse described in this report exist to this extent in the Jewish world, there have certainly been a few cases among the Jews, and even here in Pittsburgh as well, and recently.

I do not think that there is anything that anybody can say or do that can help those who have been hurt in this way by religious leaders. There is nothing that will remove the fear and suspicion, pain and mistrust caused by the abusers. It is a “hillul haShem,” a profanation of God’s name of the highest possible order. And I am simply devastated that those victims may never again be able to put their trust in God, or even in people.

This is not good for the Jews. It’s not good for Judaism, because we, the faithful, have to continue to reach out to those who have been turned off by the appalling behavior of few outwardly pious people. As you know, it is not only my job, but yours as well, to make the case for the value of our tradition, of our prayer and learning and community. However, the echoes of those sins described in the report, and the failure of these dioceses to respond properly, will continue to ring in the ears of those who are looking for an exit not only from the church, but from all forms of religious life, including ours.

Perhaps the only upshot that will come from this is that the report has made it clear that, even though the Church claims that it handles abuse allegations very differently from in the past, the most important thing to do if you ever hear anything that suggests that a case of abuse has taken place is to go immediately to local law enforcement.

You might say that this principle is enshrined in the opening of today’s parashah, Shofetim, which mandates the creation of “shofetim veshoterim,” judges, courts, and law enforcement officers, and gives the imperative, “Tzedeq, tzedeq tirdof.” Justice; you shall pursue justice. It is our responsibility as Jews to ensure that we live in a just society, and that we have the people in place to enforce justice.

***

A childhood acquaintance of mine, Andrew Nicastro, was abused by his Catholic priest in my hometown of Williamstown, Massachusetts, when we were in junior high school. Most of you know that I grew up in an idyllic New England setting, a small college town where life was generally quiet; scandals happened elsewhere.

Williamstown

My perspective as an adult makes everything back in my childhood home seem somehow smaller, less powerful when seen through adult eyes.  The soccer field upon which we rejoiced in victory and choked up over loss; the schoolyard where 6th-grade drama played out in its full, nasty glory, the single-screen movie theater where my friends and I saw the best and worst movies of the 1980s are today less valent, less polarized with emotional residue.

My current realities of fatherhood, of meetings and mortgages and the endless logistics of scheduling the modern family have changed the equations of memory and my youth. We grow, we change, we mature.

But more than this, we learn to take responsibility for our choices.  We learn independence, and we learn how to lead.

A few weeks back, in Parashat Va-ethannan, we read the re-iteration of the covenant at Mt. Sinai, the so-called Ten Commandments or Aseret Ha-Dibberot.  It is worth noting that in Shemot, the place where they receive it is called Sinai, and in Devarim it is called Horev / Horeb.

Moshe

Why the change?  What’s the difference?

The names are different precisely because the context is different.  Not Shemot vs. Devarim, per se, but rather that in the first recounting of Moshe’s sojourn on the mountain, the Israelites have just left Egypt; they are, for the first time, masters of their own destiny, but not yet mature. We all know that the generation of freed slaves, as if they were children, whined their way across the desert.  “Moshe, are we there yet?” “Moshe, we’re thirsty.” “Moshe, we miss the meat and the leeks of Egypt.”

But the second telling, the one we read today, occurs nearly forty years later.  The tribes are now led by the children and grandchildren of those former slaves, and they have a new perspective.  As such, they are ready to accept the mitzvot, to accept the obligations of the covenant with God.  They are now a mature people, about to enter their own land. They have grown.

Horeb and Sinai are not really two names for the same place; they are distinct names for different states of mind.  Sinai is a place of immaturity; Horeb is a place of readiness, of willingness to step forward into a new life, of leading rather than following. Of responsibility.

At Sinai, Moses is at the height of his leadership, but that is as much about the Israelites as it is about him.  At Horeb, Moses is preparing to relinquish leadership, to hand over the reins to Joshua, the only clear leader who emerged from the prior generation.  This leadership piece is an essential part of the Horeb equation. As the Israelites have matured between Sinai and Horeb, they have also gained the ability to accept and participate in leadership.

Now back to Massachusetts. My abused friend, Andrew Nicastro was awarded a settlement of $500,000 in 2012 for his civil lawsuit against two retired bishops of the local diocese of the Catholic church. Between 1982 and 1984, when we were in junior high school, Mr. Nicastro was regularly molested by a local priest, Father Alfred Graves. The lawsuit charged that the bishops knew that Father Graves had committed similar sins elsewhere within the diocese in 1976, and had covered it up.

I knew Andrew from the age of eight or so because we played on the same soccer team; his father was also a member of the faculty with my father at nearby North Adams State College; I was unaware of the abuse until 5 years ago. However, the details of this case suggest that this horrible crime against him could easily have been prevented.

I am clearly not in a position to judge the Catholic Church and its issues; let’s leave that to God. But it is clear that what happened to my friend resulted from a disastrous failure of leadership.  Rather than do the right thing in 1976, when charges against Father Graves were first raised, the bishops covered up the problem and moved him to a different parish, as was done with Catholic priests in Pittsburgh and all over the world when such charges came up.

The diocesan elders were not at Horeb; they were at Sinai.  They responded to the problem not by defrocking Father Graves (as eventually happened, but not soon enough), but rather by seeking a quick fix.  This is not leadership. We can only hope that after all of the similar cases that have come to light in recent years, that they have in fact made the move to Horeb, have learned to make the responsible choice, and have atoned for their past failures.

I was shocked when I first heard this news a few years ago. But this was not a faceless victim; this was somebody I knew personally. And I remembered Andrew again this week. And I remember that although I never went to St. Patrick’s Church in Williamstown, Massachusetts, on some level, that could have been me.

This tale serves as a reminder that no matter where we are, we are never exempt from the responsibilities of doing the right thing.  We can never be at Sinai; we must always be at Horeb. We must always step back from the situation, from the anxiety and the emotion and sometimes even the inclination to forgive those whom we know personally for their wrongs.  Moshe will not be there to accompany us into the Promised Land; that we must do ourselves. Let us hope that the Catholic Church has taken that step, so that not only will my friend Andrew find some peace, but that there will be no more like him.

The grand jury report demonstrates that the shofetim veshoterim / judges and law enforcement officers are the right people to handle cases of abuse at the hands of clergy. As for the task of restoring faith in religion, well, I leave that up to all of us to continue to teach the values of the Torah, among them the values of leadership, of responsibility, of making the right choices in our interactions with everybody.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/18/2018.)

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The World is Burning – Re’eh 5778

I mentioned last week that I was out west two weeks ago. My son and I, along with my brother and my nephew, took an epic road trip that began in Phoenix. We spent Shabbat in Grand Canyon National Park, then moved on to Arches NP, Dinosaur NP (which has a Pittsburgh connection, by the way: it was initially excavated by Earl Douglass of the Carnegie Museum beginning in 1909; several of the dinosaur skeletons unearthed there are located in PGH at the museum); Devil’s Tower NP; and ending at Mt. Rushmore, with a few other destinations along the way. It was a long drive and a lot of fabulous locations to squeeze into a week, but it was my first trip out west (excluding California), and the scenery was almost overwhelmingly beautiful. The mountains, the rivers, the cliffs, the arches, the prairies, the unusual rock formations, the spacious skies, the amber waves of grain, etc.

Devil's Tower

It’s almost impossible to believe or understand how you can drive 90 miles between two intersections and not see a single home or store or even gas station, and barely any other cars on the road. There is a lot of space out there. And, given that we spent most of the time without wifi or mobile phone service, it was easy to forget about the world, to not be reminded of the Russia investigation, or the burning kites released into Israel from Gaza, or the anniversary of Charlottesville.

Except that there was one thing that we could not get away from, something lurking in the background pretty much wherever we went. Lurking in the background is this:

The world is on fire.

On the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, you can clearly see on the North Rim three wildfires. (Smoke by day, actual fire by night.) At several points along the trip, in Arizona, in Utah, and in Colorado, we saw signs and smelled the smoke of wildfires.

Smoke in Grand Canyon

The Adelson boys in the Grand Canyon. Smoke from wildfires can be seen over my left shoulder.

You may be aware that the currently-burning Mendocino Complex Fire is the largest ever recorded in California, having destroyed over 300,000 acres; another current fire, the Carr Fire, has killed 8 people and destroyed over 1,000 homes.

And it’s not just the American West. There are currently 1200 firefighters and 19 aircraft battling wildfires in southern Portugal. Wildfires in Sweden (!) destroyed 61,000 acres of forests in July. A wildfire in Greece killed 90 people in the last couple of weeks. There is an epic heat wave in Europe, such that the cattle who graze in the Swiss Alps are parched – helicopters are airlifting water to them. Sweden’s highest peak, the Kebnekaise glacier, actually dropped into second place because the heat melted the glacier, and it is now 13 feet shorter. There is a severe drought in Australia as well.

Ladies and gentlemen, the world is burning up.

Now, of course we cannot attribute any particular weather event to climate change; please remember that climate is not equal to weather. But when we consider that 7 of the 12 most destructive fires in California’s history have occurred in the last three years; when we consider that we are now losing polar ice at a rapid rate; when some climate scientists are concerned that we have already passed a global “tipping point,” beyond which we may never return to where we were, we have to ask ourselves, where are we headed? If we extrapolate this line, what will our future be?

And, as Jews, we must ask ourselves, what can we do right now to change the outcome?

Up front in Parashat Re’eh, right at the very beginning, is one of the clearest statements of the Torah’s understanding of theology (Devarim / Deuteronomy 11:26):

רְאֵה, אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָה

Re’eh anokhi noten lifneikhem hayom berakhah ukelalah.

See, this day I set before you blessing and curse.

Look, says God, I have put before you today blessing and curse. If you follow My mitzvot, you’ll get the blessings. If you don’t, you’ll get the curses.

It’s very simple. Black and white. You do X, you get Y. If you don’t do X, you don’t get Y. That is also the theology described in the second paragraph of the Shema, and in many other places in the Torah.

However, that is not actually the theology that we hold by, we who live in 21st-century America. We know that God is more complicated than that. And that’s not a contemporary re-reading; even the rabbis of the Talmud (Bavli Berakhot 7a) observe that God does not seem to work like this. And I am grateful for all of the modern Jewish philosophers (Buber, Heschel, Kaplan, Gillman, etc.) who have enabled us to understand God differently.

But there is also something powerful here, embedded in this binary theological formula that cannot be ignored: that we still have to strive for blessings, and we have within our hands, at least in some cases, the potential to earn those blessings. We also have the potential to create curses. In endowing us with free will, God puts before us the power to create our own blessings and curses.

None of the classical commentators picks up on this, but note the presence of the word “hayom” (“today”) in that verse. Look, says God, I have put before you TODAY a blessing and a curse.

It is up to us today to make the choice. And every day we make these choices. Today is not just today; it is yesterday and tomorrow. In every moment, we can fashion the future.

So how do we maintain the blessing? How do we choose the good? How do we honor God’s Creation and make sure that it is there for generations to come? How do we ensure that we do not turn Scandinavia into a desert and drown Bangladesh?

It is that we make the choice today. And not just us, in this room, but all of us. The entire world.

Here is why the challenge of climate change is so hard for us to solve: we all have to cooperate to make it happen.

The reason that we are all here, ladies and gentlemen, gathered together in this building, in a city in North America, is because of the most salient ability of Homo sapiens: the ability to share ideas. Were it not for this remarkable talent, humans would never have passed the stage of nomadic hunter-gatherers. It was this intellectual revolution that enabled agriculture, trade, money, religion, nation-states, human rights, universities, the space program, etc., etc.

And you know what? As individuals, we can all spend all of our energies trying to minimize our carbon footprints, offsetting our transportation by planting trees, and so forth. We can stop eating meat. We can reduce, reuse, recycle all day long. But this will accomplish virtually nothing with respect to climate change – not compared to the 100 million barrels per day of crude oil that the world consumes.

The polar ice caps will continue to melt until every single government in the world commits to some serious legislation that will lessen the amount of greenhouse gases that we are pouring into the atmosphere. That was exactly the point of the Paris Climate Accords, through which the 196 signatories pledged to ensure that total global warming is limited to 2 degrees Celsius. (We are already halfway there.) It’s not enough of a limit according to scientists, but it is something.

Now, I know that there are always those among us for whom government is perceived to be the problem, rather than the solution. To you I offer a challenge: How can the private sector alone solve this problem? Is this something that the free market can solve? If so, I would like to hear those ideas.

Failing some other solution, I think that the only thing we can do is to implore our elected officials to push for legislation. The United States produces 15% of the world’s greenhouse gases; China produces 25%. Changing that will be hard.

But as California burns, I think we have to ask ourselves, can we afford not to do so?

Yesterday morning, I heard an interview with Pastor Ira Acree, who leads a Christian congregation on the west side of Chicago. He was speaking with an NPR reporter about violence in Chicago. The reporter noted that last weekend was especially bloody: 70 people were wounded in gun violence, 11 died. Toward the end of the interview, he quoted Proverbs 29:18:

בְּאֵין חָזוֹן, יִפָּרַע עָם

Where there is no vision, the people perish (KJV)

About half of the population of the world lives within 120 miles of a coast. Without a vision for reining in our production of greenhouse gases, many, many people will die, and for the rest, life will be unimaginably transfigured.

Re’eh anokhi noten lifneikhem hayom.

I put this before you today. Now is the time to act for blessings. Now is the time for vision.

Shabbat shalom.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/11/2018.)

 

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A Tish’ah Be’Av Message on Recent Ominous Events in Israel – Devarim 5778

It was one of those weeks that a rabbi dreads: I had a good chunk of this sermon already written when I was walloped on Thursday by two big pieces of news out of Israel. Those of you who were here last Shabbat know that I spoke about my visit to the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv two weeks ago. I was planning to follow up on that discussion, but the news kind of hijacked the sermon, so I had to retool extensively at the last minute.

Here is what happened on Thursday (7/19/2018):

  1. The Knesset passed a very controversial bill into law. Known as the Nation-State Law, the law states that Israel is the “national home of the Jewish people.” Now this is not really a revolutionary idea, and to some extent many Jews in Israel and around the world already think of it as exactly that. But there are a couple of problematic features, some of which were toned down in the final version of the bill. The law downgrades Arabic from being an official language to having a “special status.” Israel is a multi-cultural democracy, and the challenge that democracy faces when one ethnic or religious group is favored over another is in play here. Can Israel in fact continue to be a democracy if 15% of its citizens are further alienated?Another problematic feature of the law is the following passage:“The state shall act within the Diaspora to strengthen the affinity between the state and members of the Jewish people.” The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) has characterized this clause as “patronizing to Jews outside of Israel, ignoring the fact that Israel-Diaspora relations are a two-way street.” The JFNA believes that this language was promoted by religious parties to “limit the impact of Diaspora Jewry on religious pluralism in Israel… [It] was meant to avoid claims that Israel needs to further religious pluralism in Israel as part of an effort to advance its connection with Diaspora Jews.”
  2. Rabbi Dubi Haiyun, the rabbi of Congregation Moriah in Haifa, a Masorti (Conservative) congregation, was arrested by local police at 5:30 AM at his home, at the behest of the local Rabbinate, ostensibly for performing marriages not sanctioned by the State. Rabbi Haiyun was questioned extensively and released, but it appears that the Israeli Rabbinate, which controls matters of personal status in Israel, wanted to “rough him up.” Many rabbis, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, perform weddings outside the bounds of the official Israeli Rabbinate for various reasons; these weddings are not recognized by the State, and neither are civil unions. This is one more sad chapter in the ongoing struggle with the Israeli Rabbinate’s hegemony over Judaism in Israel, something which has contributed to the growing rift with the largely-non-Orthodox North American Jewish population.
rabbi dubi haiyun

Rabbi Dubi Haiyun

Now, I must say that I am not inclined to air Israel’s dirty laundry in public. But I am certainly inclined to put this in the greater context of what it means to be Jewish today, and in particular what it means to be Jewish in the Diaspora.

Why are the Jews still here? Why are we here today, in Pittsburgh of all places, very far from where we started? Why are we celebrating a new baby girl today, and a young couple about to be married? Why are we singing ancient words in a foreign language that none of us speak?

I have a theory about this: it’s because of argument. Two Jews, three opinions. It’s all over every page of the Talmud. It’s an ancient and modern tradition. We don’t agree with each other on anything.

Actually, let me refine that: it’s because of respectful disagreement- agreeing to disagree, and yet still to hang together as a tribe.

Today we commemorate the destruction of the Second Temple (among other things) as we observe the fast day of Tish’ah Be’Av. Since the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 CE, Judaism thrived in Diaspora precisely because there was no one central authority. Yes, there came to be voices on the Jewish bookshelf who speak very loudly: Moshe Rabbeinu, of course, but also Rabbi Akiva, and Rambam and Ramban and Rashi, and many others. Some of those guys disagreed with each other quite vehemently. (Do you know why your mezuzot are at an angle? As a compromise between Rashi, who believed that they should be upright, and his grandson Rabbeinu Tam, who argued that they should be horizontal.)

But we have no pope. We have no supreme authority whose word is Divine. We are all just trying to understand God and what God wants of us, and nobody has a lock on the truth. We are all Jews, attempting to find our way through life, making a living, raising families, and trying to frame essential moments in holiness.

I was mulling over unity and disunity in Israel when I was struck by a line from the beginning of Devarim / Deuteronomy, which we read from today (Deut. 1:5):

בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן, בְּאֶרֶץ מוֹאָב, הוֹאִיל מֹשֶׁה בֵּאֵר אֶת-הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת לֵאמֹר

On the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to expound this teaching (Torah).

Ramban (13th century Spain, then moved to Israel; was a proto-Zionist, believing that making aliyah / moving to Israel is a mitzvah / commandment) says the following about “Moses undertook to expound this Torah”: This implies that he was also repeating the commandments already given and adding certain details.

The implication of Ramban’s comment is that Moshe is already disagreeing with himself, already modifying his first take. We are a people who have been arguing with ourselves from, if you will, the very beginning.

And yet, what has managed to keep us Jewish is that very disagreement. Why are we still here? Because it is the argument which has kept us in dialogue with ourselves; we have continued to revisit our texts and traditions over and over, to interpret and reinterpret, and derive value from them that continues in every generation to teach us to lead better, holier, more fulfilling lives.

So what does that mean for Israel? As long as the disagreement is civil, as long as we can live with each other and continue to talk with each other and celebrate and grieve together, then Judaism will continue for at least another 2,000 years. As long as we can respect each others’ opinions and customs, and acknowledge that we can all daven (pray)at the Kotel / Western Wall or anywhere in Israel according to our own customs, and not be assaulted by police or people throwing chairs or whatever, then we will continue to thrive as a people.

If, however, the Orthodox authorities continue to work against the interests of the non-Orthodox world, if the democratic character of the State of Israel continues to suffer, the future does not look so bright. The Talmud tells us that the very reason we fast tonight and tomorrow for Tish’ah Be’Av, the reason the Second Temple was destroyed, is because of sin’at hinnam, because the Jews’ behavior was rife with baseless hatred.

I prefer a vision of tolerance, of democracy, of peace and mutual respect and understanding.

Israel’s largest base of support in the Diaspora is non-Orthodox Jews. It is us, ladies and gentlemen.

Last week, to drive the point home about Rabin’s life, and his personal understanding of the costs of both war and peace, I shared with you what was widely known to be his favorite song: HaRe’ut, the Fellowship. Today I am going to share with you another song which captures, to me and particularly to many Israelis, the challenges of every Jewish person’s relationship with Israel. Titled “Ein li eretz aheret” / “I have no other country,” it was originally recorded by Gali Atari in 1982 (lyrics by Ehud Manor, melody by Corinne Allal, who also performed it).

אין לי ארץ אחרת
גם אם אדמתי בוערת
רק מילה בעברית חודרת
אל עורקיי, אל נשמתי
בגוף כואב, בלב רעב
כאן הוא ביתי

לא אשתוק, כי ארצי
שינתה את פניה
לא אוותר לה,
אזכיר לה,
ואשיר כאן באוזניה
עד שתפקח את עיניה

Ein li eretz aheret
Gam im admati bo’eret
Rak mila be’ivrit
hoderet el orkai el nishmati
Beguf ko’ev, belev ra’ev
Kan hu beiti 

Lo eshtok
ki artzi shinta et paneha
Lo avater lehazkir la
Ve’ashir kan be’ozneha
Ad shetifkah et eineha

I have no other country
even if my land is aflame
Just a word in Hebrew
pierces my veins and my soul
With a painful body, with a hungry heart,
Here is my home.

I will not stay silent
because my country changed her face
I will not give up reminding her
And sing in her ears
until she will open her eyes

I love Israel passionately; although I am 100% American, there have been times when I have felt that Israel is the nation where I truly belong, even with all of her challenges.

After Rabbi Haiyun was released by the police, he went to Jerusalem to do what he had originally been scheduled to do: teach at a forum about Tish’ah Be’Av convened by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, which apparently the President features every year as a reminder that we have to overcome sin’at hinnam, baseless hatred, even today, in Israel and around the world.

rivlin panel

President Rivlin reminded those present that the kinnot, the dirges we will chant tomorrow morning on Tish’ah Be’Av are not merely medieval expressions of mourning. Rather, they must teach us how to be different people. How to begin again after destruction.

And I would add that all of the lamenting of Tish’ah Be’Av teaches us how to make sure that we continue to talk to each other and live with each other respectfully, even while we disagree, to work for the betterment of ourselves as individuals, our relationships, the State of Israel, and everything that we do as Jews. If we do not, shame on us all.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 7/20/2018.)

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Israel, History, and the Current Moment – Mattot-Mas’ei 5778

On this trip to Israel, I experienced Israel’s true national religion: kaduregel, known to the rest of the world as football, but that game which we Americans call soccer. From the moment we landed at Ben Gurion Airport, when our taxi driver insisted on trying to talk to me about soccer all the way to Tel Aviv, to the games I watched with my son at various scenic locales (on the Tel Aviv beach, literally in the streets of Jerusalem, in the airport as we waited for our departing flight), the constant subject was the World Cup, which is a far bigger deal, apparently, than either the Stanley Cup or the Superbowl. (I know! Hard to believe!)

Soccer is all about this moment, about the exhilaration of scoring, of winning, of watching the sublime mechanics of team sports and admiring the talents of super-human players. It is something that unites Arab and Jew, Christian, Muslim and Druze, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, Labour and Likud, black and white, and so forth. In that exceptionally divided land, the World Cup brings everybody together. Sure, when I saw the Russia-Croatia game seated outdoors at a Jerusalem restaurant surrounded by screens, the crowd seemed evenly split between those cheering for Russia and those rooting for Croatia, but it’s all in good fun.

However, just as present in the Israeli psyche and across the land in memorials, museums, politics and places, is history. The past. And while there is history in soccer (this is the first time that England made the semifinal in 28 years, for example), once the World Cup is over, the excitement lays low for another four years.

Not so with the history of Israel. You can’t ever get away from history in the Promised Land. Not in a place with names from the Tanakh (the Hebrew bible), with memorial statues and plaques wherever you look, where you are greeted in the airport by a bust of Ben Gurion and a mosaic from an ancient synagogue, where every tourist itinerary includes visits to sites that are thousands of years old. Depending on how you count, there have been about 17 different ruling bodies over the historic land of Israel in the last 3,000 years, from the time of King David’s unified rule; each left their mark on the land, a land that is as soaked in blood as it is in qedushah, holiness.

One thing that drove this point home for me on my most recent trip was the Yitzhak Rabin Centre, a relatively new museum, only about 13 years old, on the campus of Tel Aviv University. I had never been there before.

The way that this museum works is that it is structured around Rabin’s life; you start at the top of a downward spiral, learning about his early years and his rise as one of Israel’s foremost military leaders, coming eventually to his two terms as Prime Minister and of course, his assassination at the hands of a Jewish right-wing extremist angered by Israel’s signing of the Oslo peace accords. Along the course of his life, entryways lead off to rooms on the side that include more general descriptions of the Israeli and world context that are the background to Rabin’s personal story. All the while, in the center of the building, you hear the music of Rabin’s favorite song, HaRe’ut / “The Fellowship”. Written after the first year of the War of Independence by the Israeli poet Hayyim Gouri and set to music by Sasha Argov, who created the popular sounds of the new state, the song captures marvelously the yearning for those comrades who died for the sake of establishing the new State of Israel:

על הנגב יורד ליל הסתיו
ומצית כוכבים חרש חרש
עת הרוח עובר על הסף
עננים מהלכים על הדרך

כבר שנה לא הרגשנו כמעט
איך עברו הזמנים בשדותינו
כבר שנה ונותרנו מעט
מה רבים שאינם כבר בינינו

אך נזכור את כולם
את יפי הבלורית והתואר
כי רעות שכזאת לעולם
לא תיתן את ליבנו לשכוח
אהבה מקודשת בדם
את תשובי בינינו לפרוח

הרעות נשאנוך בלי מילים
אפורה עקשנית ושותקת
מלילות האימה הגדולים
את נותרת בהירה ודולקת

הרעות כנערייך כולם
שוב בשמך נחייך ונלכה
כי רעים שנפלו על חרבם
את חייך הותירו לזכר

Al hanegev yored leil hastav
Umatzit kokhavim heresh heresh
Et haruah over al hasaf
Ananim mehalkhim al haderekh.

Kvar shana, lo hirgashnu kim’at
Eikh avru hazmanim bisdoteinu.
Kvar shana, venotarnu me’at
Ma rabim she’einam kvar beineinu.

Akh nizkor et kulam
Et yafei hablorit vehatoar
Ki re’ut shekazot le’olam
Lo titen et libenu lishkoah
Ahava mekudeshet bedam
At tashuvi beinenu lifro’ah.

Hare’ut, nesanukh bli milim
Afora, akshanit veshoteket
Milelot ha’eima hagdolim
At noteret behirah vedoleket

Hare’ut, kin’arayikh kulam
Shuv bishmekh nehayekh venelekha
Ki re’im shenaflu al harbam
Et hayyekh hotiru lezecher

Venizkor et kulam
Et yafei hablorit vehatohar
Ki re’ut shekazot le’olam
Lo titen et libenu lishko’ah
Ahava mekudeshet bedam
At tashuvi beinenu lifro’ah.

An autumn night descends on the Negev
And gently, gently lights up the stars
While the wind blows on the threshold
Clouds go on their way.

Already a year, and we almost didn’t notice
How the time has passed in our fields
Already a year, and few of us remain
So many are no longer among us.

But we’ll remember them all
The elegant, the handsome
Because fellowship like this will never
Permit our hearts to forget
Love sanctified with blood
will once more bloom among us

Fellowship, we bear you with no words
Gray, stubborn and silent
Of the nights of great terror
You remained bright and lit

Fellowship, as did all your youths
Again in your name we will smile and go foreword
Because friends that have fallen on their swords
Left your life as a monument

But we’ll remember them all
The elegant, the handsome
Because fellowship like this will never
Permit our hearts to forget
Love sanctified with blood
will once more bloom among us

he song brings tears to my eyes whenever I hear it. And so I was walking through this museum, constantly tearing up as the beautiful and tragic story of Yitzhak Rabin unfolded: a man of war who sought peace and paid the ultimate price. His is merely one chapter in the many ironies of that small strip of land, and the pain and glory and frustration and pride that are all mixed together in the Israeli narrative.

Contrary to what you might think, I do not believe that this museum is a naive peacenik display that presents a hagiography of Rabin while appealing to the left’s desire to continue to pursue foolishly the two-state solution when everybody else agrees that it is dead. Not at all. Rather, this museum displays over and over the nearly insurmountable challenges that Israel faces: the need to protect her people and her territory alongside the horrible, painful costs of war, the essential relationship between military strategy and peaceful coexistence. Rabin lived and died knowing that both war and peace are expensive, just in different ways.

Last Shabbat I davened on Shabbat morning at the Masorti (Conservative) synagogue on Agron St. in central Jerusalem, where of course I bumped into fellow travelers, including the Federation’s regular visiting rabbi, Danny Schiff. Rabbi Adam Frank, who is the rabbi of that congregation, has the somewhat-enviable position of having a different traveling group of American Jews every Shabbat, He could actually give the same sermon every single week, although the handful of Jerusalem-based regulars might eventually complain. (He is a proud vegetarian, like myself, and have heard him give the “you-should-be-vegetarian-too” sermon at least twice.)

But last week it was about history and current events. It was about how Israel is portrayed in foreign media and on American college campuses, and how the reality of the situation is far more complex, one that requires a far greater knowledge of history than most people have. He told the following story:

Suppose you watch a TV show in which you see a pack of wolves – mean, snarling, slobbering wolves – howling and chasing after a fox – a cute, furry, defenseless fox. The wolves chase, the fox runs, and eventually the fox evades the mean, ugly wolves and makes it to her lair. Relieved, you turn off the TV.

What you do not see is what follows: the fox returns to her young, dropping the wolf cub it had taken into the mouths of her own pups.

Now, the image is perhaps over-simplified, but the message is clear: there is always more to the story. It is never as clear-cut as, “The Palestinians are the aggressors; they are building tunnels with cement that could be used to build new homes for their people, and sending burning kites over the border to destroy Israeli crops.” Nor is it as simple as, “The Israelis have created an open-air prison in Gaza, limiting the transfer of resources as they continue to oppress the Palestinian people.” Just as there is no “apartheid” or “genocide” being committed by either party. And it is definitely not so simple as for either side to point and say, “But they started it.”

There is history. There is context. And it can be hard to see through all of the spin.

Yitzhak Rabin was a leader who knew war and peace, who understood context and history, who did not seek power for selfish reasons, but sincerely cared about his work for all of the people crowded together in that tiny, highly-charged area. I wish that there were leaders like him today.

Yes, the history of the land of Israel is complex, painful, and ubiquitous. Yes, there are many grievances on both sides. Yes, compromise hurts. But so does the status quo. And, as with soccer, there are things that unite us, and it is up to us to find them and build on them.

As Jews, we are commanded to offer words of prayer three times daily. In the course of every Jewish service, we offer statements about Israel: about restoring us to our land, about rebuilding and bringing peace to Jerusalem / Yerushalayim / Ir shalom, the “City of Peace.” The one prayer a week we offer for Medinat Yisrael, the modern State of Israel, which we read on Shabbat morning, reminds us not only that we seek strength for those who defend the State, but also strength to its leaders in bringing about the peace for which we pray.

The Psalmist (34:15) tells us, “Baqqesh shalom verodfehu.” Seek peace and pursue it. The life and legacy of Yitzhak Rabin teach us that those who have fought and lost comrades can ultimately seek peace, and the greater lessons of history show that this is the ultimate challenge. As Rabin did, we must rise from the depths of pain and loss to the challenge of reaching out for the greater good.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 7/14/2018.)

 

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The Tent of Love – Balaq 5778

If you have read my column in the most recent Mishpachtenu, our quarterly magazine, you know that I have already announced the theme for High Holiday sermons this fall. That theme is Ahavah / Love. I think that, in the wake of recent events, we all recognize the need for more love in this world. So we’ll derash (interpret) that out from four perspectives: love of self, love of family, love of community, love of world.

ahavah - love 5779

The Jewish world in which I grew up did not speak so much about love. Rather, Judaism was about scholarship and law. To be sure, that is a significant component of what it means to be Jewish. I have even had teachers who suggested that speaking about love (as some religious groups often do) suggests a certain neediness, an almost shameful instability that we Jews have left to others. It is true that ours is a heady tradition; we are academic; we are interested in discernment and hermeneutics and argument. Judaism, in this line of thinking, is an ongoing study in havdalah – separating this from that; drawing lines; delimiting boundaries.

Perhaps you have noticed a tension in the way that I speak about these things. I have often pointed to the value of boundaries in a completely open world – keeping kashrut (dietary laws) and Shabbat keeps us not just Jewish, but human. It reminds us that true holiness is derived from maintaining the distinctiveness in our lives, in understanding that some things are permitted to us and some things are not.

But Judaism also speaks of love. Consider the second verse of the Shema, the essential statement of Jewish life: Ve-ahavta et Adonai elohekha (Deut. 6:5). You shall love the Lord your God. Or the paragraph right before the Shema recited every morning: Ahavah rabbah ahavtanu – with great love you have loved us – that equates love with Torah. Consider that some Jewish groups recite Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs, on Friday evening before Shabbat. It’s love poetry, erotic even. We don’t recite that at Beth Shalom of Friday evenings, but we do sing Yedid Nefesh, which speaks of our yearning for God as one of love. “Nafshi holat ahavatakh,” we chant. My soul is sick with love for You, O God.

But love is not only something that happens between us and God. Rabbi Isaac Luria, the famed 15th-century kabbalist of mixed Ashkenazi and Sephardi parentage who is most strongly associated with the northern city of Tzefat, taught that each morning we should restate our commitment to “mitzvat ha-borei,” the essential obligation of our Creator, which is “Ve-ahavta lereiakha kamokha.” Love your neighbor as yourself. (That’s a quote from Vayiqra / Leviticus, 19:18.) By the way, Rabbi Luria’s morning prayer is in our siddur on the bottom of p. 102). Although we usually begin with Modeh Ani or Mah Tovu (we’ll come back to that in a moment), our tradition teaches us to re-emphasize our love for each other every single morning.

The loving, human relationship with God is understood to be a template for relationships between people. The prophet Hosea speaks of his own marriage as a metaphor for the relationship between God and Israel. We are not only a people of justice and law; we are also a people of love. And that brings us to Bil’am.

Bil’am, the non-Israelite prophet we met in today’s parashah, is seemingly in denial of his own love of Israel. When called upon to curse the Israelites by Balaq, the king of Moab, he can only bless them. He sort-of agrees to Balaq’s request, but Bil’am acknowledges that he can only do what God wants him to do. So it is no surprise to him that what emerges from his mouth is a blessing.

Bil’am is a kind of bumbling character. He certainly does not handle his donkey very well, beating her for misbehavior that is not her fault. He seems to lack a certain self-awareness. And embedded in that self-awareness is his actual love of Israel. Of course he cannot curse Israel; he acknowledges that it is the Israelites’ God that gives him his power. Had there been somebody around to make him an Israelite, Bil’am would have wanted in. He would have signed up.

So perhaps it is no great surprise that the words that we say when we enter a synagogue first thing in the morning are Bil’am’s words: Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’aqov, mishkenotekha Yisrael. How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel. (Numbers 24:5).

We follow those words a minute later with Rabbi Luria’s exhortation to state explicitly the fundamental mitzvah of loving your neighbor as yourself.

How are they connected?

The essential act of loving our neighbors, ladies and gentlemen, is welcoming them into our tent. This is our tent; this is our communal mishkan, dwelling place. A midrash about Avraham Avinu, our father Abraham, describes his tent as having four doors, entryways in each direction, as if to welcome all who would come by. And that is our obligation as well.

Some of you may be aware of the fact that we recently conducted a survey about inclusion here at Beth Shalom. Now, inclusion means many things: it often is used to refer to incorporating those with various physical and/or cognitive disabilities into our environment. It can also refer to welcoming those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and so forth, and of course we should be working harder to include all of the above.

But a few people understood inclusion to speak not necessarily about those individuals, but about whether they had been personally welcomed into the synagogue. And as a referendum on being welcoming, ladies and gentlemen, this survey was somewhat damning. A few people characterized this congregation, characterized us, as not being sufficiently friendly or open, or as being cliquishly exclusionary. Here are some of the quotes taken from the survey results:

  • “People are not always friendly.”
  • “Some prominent members seem very insular and not welcoming or inclusive. They need to be more aware of their actions as key members of Congregation Beth Shalom.”
  • “Cliques on surface are initially friendly. People stay in their own zones. Leadership does not go around to say hi.”
  • “I attend kiddush and services. It is up to me to introduce myself.”
  • “There is a feeling of “in-group” and “out-group” which we cannot have.”

And this did not turn up in the survey, but I have even heard a couple of recent reports of people being told by members of this congregation that if they are looking for a synagogue, they should go elsewhere – to Tree of Life or Rodef Shalom, particularly if they are in interfaith relationships.

That is not just wrong, ladies and gentlemen. It’s downright offensive.

Shall we read Bil’am’s statement as an interrogative? “Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’akov?” Are your tents good, O Jacob?”

No. Everybody is welcome here, period. 

Now, I think that we actually do a pretty good job of welcoming people here. And I put in a whole lot of effort in personally doing so. But we can still work harder to make sure that people feel welcome. We are all ambassadors for Beth Shalom; please think about that when you greet people, in or out of the building. Nobody should walk into this building to be offended, insulted, or encouraged to go elsewhere. On the contrary: when you walk into Beth Shalom, you should be embraced. Almost literally.

Because our tradition, ladies and gentlemen, is about love. OK, yes – it’s about law and justice and boundaries and mitzvot and so forth. But it’s also fundamentally about loving your neighbor as yourself, as Rabbi Luria taught us to reaffirm verbally each morning. And we are all neighbors. Particularly here in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood.

What will make our tents good, our dwelling places beautiful? That when you enter Congregation Beth Shalom, that you can feel the love. That every person – black, white, brown, LGBT, Jewish or not yet Jewish – can walk in and feel, “Ah! I belong here.”

And how can we do this? Just please make sure, my fellow ambassadors, that you greet warmly all those who enter the building. If there is somebody here you do not know, say “Shabbat shalom,” and engage them in conversation. Please don’t just say hello and chat with those whom you already know. Reach out. Extend your hand. Share some love.

Think love, ladies and gentlemen. We’ll talk more about love over the High Holidays. But in the meantime, let’s each of us think a little about how we can increase the love.

Shabbat shalom!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 6/30/18.)

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