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Festivals Sermons Yizkor

The Original Non-Fungible Token – Eighth Day Pesaḥ / Yizkor 5781

You might have heard a curious news blip a few weeks back about an extraordinarily unusual art auction. The artwork, by the American artist known as Beeple, was a collage of 5,000 individual digital images, assembled over nearly 14 years. Beeple, whose birth name is Mike Winkelmann, made one image each day, beginning on May 1, 2007, and the collage, entitled “Everydays: The First 5,000 Days” sold for an astonishing $69.3 million, the third-highest price paid for the work of a living artist.

Now, what is most curious about this? That the purchaser has nothing to show for his $69.3 million other than a JPEG file, about 21,000 x 21,000 pixels, with a size of about 320 megabytes. No canvas, no paint, not even a carved, gilt frame. Theoretically, anybody with a computer could easily make and distribute innumerable copies of the file and share it online with a few clicks.

You heard that right: the owner paid nearly $70 million for a computer file.

So how is it that this work could be sold for such an exorbitant sum? Because it is a so-called “non-fungible token,” or NFT.

What’s a non-fungible token, you ask? You’re not alone. Saturday Night Live actually put together a musical skit about it last week, in which a befuddled Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen (played by Kate McKinnon) seems to be at a loss to explain it

As briefly and as simply as I can explain it, an NFT is any unique item of digital content – art, tweets, music, etc. – that can be verified as the original version through a series of secure, verifiable, time-stamped files that attest to its legitimacy. And why the need for this verifiability? So that the creator can sell the original digital content, and its ownership, or transfer of ownership, can therefore be proven. Many people can possess a digital copy, but there is only one non-fungible token of any digital content that exists anywhere, and the proof of that ownership is entrusted to thousands of computer servers, scattered around the world, so that the ownership can always be proven. (Some of you may have heard of Blockchain – NFTs use that technology.)

In short, this enables people to assign a dollar value to something that is effectively a set of ones and zeros that only computers can translate for us. Completely intangible. And the records that make it “real” are entrusted on a whole bunch of secure servers, ostensibly forever.

Other items that have sold as NFTs are the first tweet by Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter, for nearly $3 million, and a digital picture of a column by New York Times Technology columnist Kevin Roose, which netted $560,000, which is I presume far more than Mr. Roose earns in a year. (He donated the money to a charity.)

Now, why is this interesting, other than the absurd amounts of money involved?

First, because it means that art, and specifically ownership of art, has moved beyond the physical product into a kind of spiritual state. It effectively means that you can own an idea, and not just the Earthly manifestation of that idea. (I suppose that the concept is not too different from the principle of intellectual property, except that usually people want to own their intellectual property because it can be used to create physical things of value. That does not seem necessarily to be the situation here. Hence the novelty.)

But second, as curious as the principles behind non-fungible tokens may seem,  the concept suggests something very powerful: that intangible items are truly valuable. And, particularly relevant on a Yizkor day, that our relationships, our sets of memories of those whom we recall today, are something like NFTs in that they are unique, real, and non-fungible. But these relationships are much richer, and effectively priceless.

Let me explain:

When I was in graduate school at Texas A&M University, I recall a discussion with some fellow Jewish grad students over a Shabbat dinner at the Hillel building there. One of my colleagues opined that it was essential to publish academic papers, because it meant that when we were gone, there would be something tangible to show that we had made an impact on the world, in print and therefore “official.” (Since he was a grad student, I’m guessing that he was also trying to rationalize what he was doing in graduate school.)

You could extend this to any particular product: inventing a gadget, say, or building a house. When we create tangible things in this world, we can point to them and say, “Aha! I have left something for the world that will remain after my death.”

But I must say that I disagree with my grad school buddy. An object is just an object; it will eventually crumble and return to dust. A paper in a journal, no matter how essential it might seem right now, will ultimately become obsolete. Yes, it is true that we read words from the Torah today, a book that is still with us after over 3,000 years, but how many other books can you name that are that old? (The Torah is clearly exceptional, for several reasons.)

Rather, I am convinced that the greatest impact that we can have on the world is to place a little bit of the intangible pieces of ourselves – our wisdom, our love, our emotional support, our humor, our personality – into all the people we know. 

And, in fact, that is what every single person on this Earth fundamentally creates during our lifetimes: the intangible dust of relationships. Memories, sentiments, shared experiences, wisdom, cherished moments, expectations fulfilled, or not, and so forth. That is the content of our relationships, much more comprehensive than the pixels arranged on a screen by a digital artist. 

And, almost miraculously, we give out these bits of ourselves to others every time we interact, every time we speak, every moment we share with others. Taken together, all of those create a unique, non-fungible collection of us as individuals, a collection that will remain long after we have departed our physical bodies.

And, unlike an NFT, the content of these vouchsafed bits of ourselves is much more rich. My relationship with my wife, for example, is quite different than my relationship with my 6th-grade teacher, Mr. Welsh. OK, so Beeple spent 5,000 days creating the piece that sold for $69 million. But I have spent already more than 18,000 days on this planet, and within that over 300,000 waking hours, much of that time engaging with others in all the ways that people interact. And nobody can ever take that away from me. Or from you. Or from all the people we know.

The total value of the unique relational moments of my life, if it could be sold, would easily eclipse any NFT by an infinite number of orders of magnitude. 

And that is precisely the point. Our relationships are priceless, and they are forever. Even if one cannot recall a specific interaction, it leaves an emotional residue – cumulative and integrated into the totality of relationship. Even when all those who knew us personally are gone, the dust of our relationships continues to echo in all relationships, in all the collective facets of humanity. 

In a commentary on Shir HaShirim, Song of Songs, from which we read this morning, Rav Avraham Yitzḥaq Kook (1865-1935), the first Chief Rabbi of Mandate Palestine, teaches us that, “Each worldly song is linked to all other songs, and their totality expresses the supernal harmony of the divine whole.” That is, the songs of our individual lives are interconnected. The relational dust that we all leave is a part of the greater song of humanity.

That is, I think, the very meaning of the term “Tzeror haḥayyim,” the bond of life, which appears in the El Male Raḥamim memorial prayer, which we will recite in a few minutes. We are all tzerurim bitzror haḥayyim, bound up in the bond of life together, inextricably interconnected in all the relational material that we share and re-share.

On this day of hazkarat neshamot / remembrance of souls, we recall those whom we have lost by singing their songs, by recalling the holy moments we spent with them, by engaging with that relational residue. We understand that our lives were not only enriched, but in fact defined by those pieces of themselves that they placed in us. Those memories are unique, and together they define those whom we remember today.

We carry them with us. We attest to not only their existence, not only the non-fungibility of their lives, not only how very real they surely still are, but how those relationships shape our lives, our world, our outlook, and our ongoing relationships, which we continue to share with others.

And that, hevreh, is truly priceless.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Eighth Day of Pesaḥ, 4/4/2021.)

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Festivals Sermons

As God is My Editor – Pesaḥ Day 1, 5781

The past year, in addition to facing all of the various physical, social, and economic ills caused by the coronavirus pandemic, we have also had a sort of national reckoning on race, and we continue to look deep inside ourselves as we wrestle with the biases and prejudices that we all have. As a part of this process, we have continued the public struggles over symbols of the racism of American history. And this has not been an easy or comfortable conversation.

Right now, we are celebrating one of the most essential festivals of the Jewish year, a holiday that marks our freedom from slavery and our freedom to worship as we please. And yet, in more than one passage in the Torah, it is clear that some of our ancestors, thousands of years ago, owned slaves. Now, the slavery described in the Torah seems to be largely an economic arrangement born of bankruptcy, in which one who could not repay debts could effectively sell him/herself as a slave, although there are also arrangements for enslaving those captured in war. And it is worth pointing out that the Torah requires slave owners to let slaves go free, if the the slaves desire, after 7 years.

How can the Torah permit something which it elsewhere decries?

Of course, the very idea of slavery of any kind is detestable to us today as Jews, and as Americans. And yet, of course, as with all the other passages in the Torah that make us uncomfortable, we continue to read them, albeit with the disclaimer which I find myself making whenever explaining these thorny parts of the Torah, that although this was permissible in ancient times, we no longer do this. That’s the thing about the Torah – we read it all, out loud, every year (well, every three years at Beth Shalom, where we follow the triennial cycle). We cannot edit out passages that we do not like.

And let’s face it: as an ancient tradition that unfolded over centuries, there are plenty of things in Jewish life that we have received from our ancestors which today we find uncomfortable. And we must wrestle with those things.

The traditional Pesaḥ haggadah, for example, includes a passage that I find particularly objectionable. You can find it in your haggadah right after the berakhah for the third cup of wine, which is in the “Barekh” section (most of which is Birkat haMazon). 

 It is the following:

שְׁפֹךְ חֲמָתְךָ אֶל־הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יְדָעוּךָ וְעַל־מַמְלָכוֹת אֲשֶׁר בְּשִׁמְךָ לֹא קָרָאוּ. כִּי אָכַל אֶת־יַעֲקֹב וְאֶת־נָוֵהוּ הֵשַׁמּוּ 

שְׁפָךְ־עֲלֵיהֶם זַעֲמֶךָ וַחֲרוֹן אַפְּךָ יַשִּׂיגֵם 

תִּרְדֹף בְּאַף וְתַשְׁמִידֵם מִתַּחַת שְׁמֵי ה

Pour your wrath upon the nations that did not know You and upon the kingdoms that did not call upon Your Name! Since they have consumed Ya’aqov and laid waste his habitation (Psalms 79:6-7). 

Pour out Your fury upon them and the fierceness of Your anger shall reach them (Psalms 69:25).

You shall pursue them with anger and eradicate them from under the skies of the Lord (Lamentations 3:66)

These are a relatively late addition to the haggadah, probably from the 12th century, in the context of the Crusades, which were particularly painful to the Jews of early Ashkenaz: four verses saturated with anger and grief and pain. They were chosen because they are an obscene gesture to our non-Jewish enemies, a reflection of the powerlessness of our medieval ancestors in response to their horrible condition, maintained by anti-Semitic oppression.  

And what do we do when we recite these verses? We open the door, ostensibly to welcome Eliyahu HaNavi, the Prophet Elijah. Yes, I know that is what they told you in Hebrew school. 

A cup for Miriam the Prophetess, which some put out in addition to a cup for Elijah

But what are we saying as we do this? May God slaughter our enemies, in anger.

One theory about why we open the door is that our ancestors in these troubled times were demonstrating to our non-Jewish neighbors that nothing nefarious was going on, to show that we were not, as we had been accused, using blood of murdered Christian children to make matzah. So the irony here is that we open the door for all to see our innocence, and yet at the same time we are calling on God for vengeance.

I have often been at a loss to try to square these verses, their origin and context, with my own outlook on American Jewish life in the 21st century. On the one hand, anti-Semitism is, lamentably, still thriving here and around the world. On the other, is cursing our neighbors and calling for their destruction the right response? So, when leading a seder, I have tried to put these in context, to rationalize their presence in my haggadah, or to lean into the Eliyahu haNavi bit rather than the pouring out of Thy wrath.  

But that is what we do: when faced with rituals or text that challenge our contemporary sensibilities, we do not merely take them out. We modify them slightly (for example, adding the Imahot, the matriarchs to the opening paragraph of the Amidah), or we put them in context. The Conservative movement has historically been the home of Tradition and Change. We do not gloss over the ugly parts; rather, we seek context, meaning and intent in every generation, as our world evolves.

And we must do the same as Americans.  We are struggling right now with symbols of our past that are fraught with the sting of racism. 

You may recall that the wider movement to remove some of these symbols, like statues of Confederate generals and Confederate flags, gained a new urgency following the mass shooting at an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina by an avowed white supremacist in 2015. You may also recall that the shocking march of white supremacist groups in Charlottesville, Virginia in August of 2017 was precipitated by a public debate in that city about whether to take down a monument of Robert E. Lee.

Some symbols, like those of Confederate generals, are too painful to remain in public places. Mississippi, the state with the highest percentage of African-Americans, only removed the Confederate emblem from its flag last June. I cannot even imagine how it must have felt to the 40% of Mississippi that is Black to live in a state that flew that flag; picture having to tolerate veneration of Nazis in your neighborhood.

But while Confederate symbols and statues are clearly unacceptable, all cultures have heroes, and heroes are never saints; they are human. Their achievements can be admired while also giving context and even speaking of their failings. Presidents Washington and Jefferson, for example, were slave owners. Should we remove the statues of these icons of American democracy?

We the Jews are all too familiar with the danger of words and images. We understand where the constant denigration of others can lead. We are all too familiar with the grief and suffering caused by ancient hatreds – the pogroms, the forced exiles, the forced conscriptions, the genocide.

When we look deep into our own tradition, there are clearly troubling items to be found there. But our response is always to teach, to argue with ourselves, to write commentaries and fiery sermons and opinion pieces and critical editions of ancient texts. And, of course, around Purim time, we remember to forget Amaleq, who sought to destroy us.

In short, the remedy to these things is education. We do not edit out the bad parts; we teach them! And we teach that hatred is wrong, that oppression and slavery are wrong.

And so too as Americans. We have to teach the shameful parts of our past, and help our coming generations wrestle with our own internal demons to lead us all to live in harmony with each other, to understand that we are all in this together, that nobody is truly free until all are free. We have to make sure that the commentaries are there, the explanations that say, “This is not who we are. We are better than this.” 

We, the Jews, have to share a little bit of the seder with our non-Jewish neighbors, a different part, the passage that is, I think, the most important one in the whole book: Check out the beginning of “Maggid”: Kol dikhfin yeitei yeikhul. Let all who are hungry, come and eat. I am going to break these down, Rashi-style:

Kol dikhfin / All who are hungry: This refers to all who suffer in any way, whether through physical or spiritual deprivation. It includes the homeless as well as the oppressed, the abused, the victims of grinding poverty, baseless hatred, and corrupt governments.

Yeitei / Let them come: Open our doors with love, honesty, and compassion.

Veyeikhul / And let them eat: We are obligated to take care of one another, to make sure that all are welcome, all are fed and clothed and housed and all have access to health care and justice. We should incline toward building a better society, one in which nobody falls through the cracks. The work of repairing this world is not yet done.  

If you want to reinterpret “Shefokh ḥamatekha” / pouring out God’s wrath a different way, that’s fine. Perhaps you’d like to interpret this passage as directed at the enemies within ourselves, the parts of our personalities that resist God’s holiness. Maybe right afterward, you could reprise Kol dikhfin yeitei veyeikhul. But just make sure that we know why we are saying what we say. Teach our values, so that we may live them, and that our children may live them, and all of us may live together.

חג שמח / Ḥag sameaḥ!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, first day of Pesa , 3/28/2021.)

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Festivals Sermons

Next Year in Jerusalem – Shabbat HaGadol, 5781

Leading up to Pesaḥ / Passover, I always try to remind anybody who will listen that the most important part of the seder experience is not the meal, but the discussion surrounding the meal. I know – eating is more fun than talking about tradition and history and customs and ideas and holiday themes and slavery and freedom. But I want to try to give you a discussion topic today that I think you will really WANT to have with your family, whether they are there in person or meeting via Zoom or however you are gathering.

It is this: Lashanah haba-ah biyrushalayim. The last three words in the haggadah: Next year in Jerusalem. That should be our mantra this year.

Because this year, this Pesaḥ, we can see Jerusalem from a distance.

What do I mean by that? First, let’s consider the role of Jerusalem in Jewish life.

In the year 70 CE, the Romans destroyed the Second Beit haMiqdash / Temple in Jerusalem. The Beit haMiqdash was the center of Jewish life up until that time – it was where the kohanim (Jewish priests) sacrificed animals to God, according to the instructions found in the Torah, some of which were described in Parashat Tzav, which we read from this morning. Following this destruction, the Beit haMiqdash has never been rebuilt. 

(As you have heard me argue before, the Romans actually did the Jews a kind of favor; Maimonides makes the case, more than a millennium later, that it was ultimately God’s intent to bring us to tefillah / prayer as our primary form of worship in lieu of sacrificing animals. Not everybody agrees with Maimonides, but that is a subject for another day.)

About 65 years after the Roman destruction, following the Bar Kokhba rebellion of 132-135 CE, the Roman authorities banned Jews from living in Jerusalem and its outskirts. 

(Another aside: when you read tonight about the five rabbis – R. Eliezer, R. Yehoshua R. El’azar ben Azariah, R. Aqiva, and R. Tarfon – who gathered at Benei Beraq to discuss the Exodus all night long, that may be a description of an all-night Bar Kokhba rebellion planning session. When one of their students pops in to say, Rabbeinu, higi’a zeman qeri’at Shema shel shaḥarit / “Our teachers, the time has come to recite the morning Shema,” that may have been the sentry’s code for, “Hide the maps! The Romans are coming!”)

From the early 2nd century forward, the entirety of the rabbinic enterprise was dedicated not only to creating a religious system to replace the kohanic / sacrificial system, but also to remember and highlight the grandeur of the Beit haMiqdash, and the “good ol’ days” of its existence, even as they replaced its centralized, hierarchical system with the democratic, decentralized system of Rabbinic Judaism that we have today.

In doing so, the rabbis elevated Jerusalem, also known as Tziyyon / Zion, as the focal point of our yearning. We find this throughout rabbinic literature, manifest in the messianic desire of rebuilding Jerusalem and the Beit haMiqdash of course, but also in passages like this from the Talmud, Massekhet Qiddushin 49b:

עשרה קבים חכמה ירדו לעולם תשעה נטלה ארץ ישראל ואחד כל העולם כולו עשרה קבים יופי ירדו לעולם תשעה נטלה ירושלים ואחד כל העולם כולו …

Ten kavim of wisdom descended to the world; Eretz Yisrael took nine of them and all the rest of the world took one. Ten kavim of beauty descended to the world; Jerusalem took nine and all the rest of the world in its entirety took one.

90% of the world’s beauty is in Jerusalem, and 90% of the world’s wisdom is in Israel. This yearning continues until this very day; you can find it on many pages of the siddur, including multiple berakhot in the weekday Amidah, which we recite three times per day, while facing, and bowing in the direction of Jerusalem.

The medieval Spanish poet, Yehudah haLevi, who lived in the 11th/12th century, captures this ancient desire so beautifully in his primal poem, Libi vemizrah

לִבִּי בְמִזְרָח וְאָנֹכִי בְּסוֹף מַעֲרָב
אֵיךְ אֶטְעֲמָה אֵת אֲשֶׁר אֹכַל וְאֵיךְ יֶעֱרָב
אֵיכָה אֲשַׁלֵּם נְדָרַי וֶאֱסָרַי, בְּעוֹד
צִיּוֹן בְּחֶבֶל אֱדוֹם וַאֲנִי בְּכֶבֶל עֲרָב
יֵקַל בְּעֵינַי עֲזֹב כָּל טוּב סְפָרַד, כְּמוֹ
יֵקַר בְּעֵינַי רְאוֹת עַפְרוֹת דְּבִיר נֶחֱרָב

My heart is in the East, and I in the uttermost West–
How can I find savor in food? How shall it be sweet to me?
How shall I render my vows and my bonds, while yet
Zion lieth beneath the fetter of Edom, and I in Arab chains?
A light thing would it seem to me to leave all the good things of Spain —
Seeing how precious in mine eyes to behold the dust of the desolate sanctuary.

In some sense, Yehudah haLevi is yearning not for the rebuilt Beit haMiqdash, but rather the idea of returning to this “precious” jewel of a ruined city. Were it not for the desire to see Jerusalem, his exile in Spain would be impossible to bear.

An essential destination in the Earthly Jerusalem: Marzipan.

And furthermore, the Talmud tells us that there are really two Jerusalems, and our yearning is arguably greater for the heavenly Jerusalem, Yerushalayim shel Ma’alah (BT Ta’anit 5a):

וַאֲמַר לֵיהּ רַב נַחְמָן לְרַבִּי יִצְחָק מַאי דִּכְתִיב בְּקִרְבְּךָ קָדוֹשׁ וְלֹא אָבוֹא בְּעִיר מִשּׁוּם דִּבְקִרְבְּךָ קָדוֹשׁ לֹא אָבוֹא בְּעִיר אָמַר לֵיהּ הָכִי אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן אָמַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לֹא אָבוֹא בִּירוּשָׁלַיִם שֶׁל מַעְלָה עַד שֶׁאָבוֹא לִירוּשָׁלַיִם שֶׁל מַטָּה

Rabbi Yitzḥak said to Rav Naḥman that Rabbi Yoḥanan said … The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: I shall not enter Jerusalem above, in heaven, until I enter Jerusalem on earth down below at the time of the redemption, when it will be sacred in your midst.

Rabbi Yoḥanan’s suggestion is that the heavenly Jerusalem is the greater prize; that will not be rebuilt until the Earthly Jerusalem, Yerushalayim shel Matah, is rebuilt.

So why am I telling you all of this today? What does it mean for us at this particular moment?

When we say, Lashanah Haba-ah Biyrushalayim tonight and tomorrow night, we should lean into our own immediate yearning. We have been in exile for more than a year; we have been yearning for the East, our hearts at the end of the West, since Adar of 5780.  

Yes, I know that is not a long time, compared to the nearly two millennia that our ancestors waited for the opportunity to rebuild Yerushalayim shel Matah / Earthly Jerusalem. 

Yes, I know that even with all the grief that the virus has caused – the sickness, the death, the anxiety, and all the various socio-economic consequences – these things are still small compared to the way our people have suffered throughout the centuries of displacement. 

And yes, I know that it does not really help to look at one’s predicament and say, “Oh, but it could be so much worse.”

Nonetheless, the point at which enough of us will have been vaccinated such that we can begin to gather safely again, to re-open businesses, to see our families and friends, will actually feel to many of us like a major redemption. People have told me that they have cried when receiving their shots; many, I know, are saying a berakhah. I certainly recited sheheheyyanu when I got my first dose two weeks ago. This is my Jerusalem right now.

So as we all gather this evening, here are a few discussion questions you can ask:

  • Why do we say, “Lashanah haba-ah biyrushalayim,” if most of us are not actually planning to move to Israel in the next year?
  • What might “Yerusahalayim” represent this year?
  • What might we do to make sure we get there more quickly?

You might guide the discussion by seasoning it with the difference between the Earthly and Heavenly Jerusalems, and while we can all visit and/or move to the Earthly Jerusalem, the Heavenly one is more of an idea that encompasses our yearning, our individual goals of freedom at this moment.

And, by the way, you do not have to wait until the end of the seder to discuss this, because right up front in the “Maggid” section, in which we tell the story, when we say, “Ha laḥma anya,” this is the bread of poverty that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt, it also says, a little further into that Aramaic passage:

הָא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא דִּי אֲכָלוּ אַבְהָתָנָא בְאַרְעָא דְמִצְרָיִם. כָּל דִכְפִין יֵיתֵי וְיֵיכֹל, כָּל דִצְרִיךְ יֵיתֵי וְיִפְסַח. הָשַּׁתָּא הָכָא, לְשָׁנָה הַבָּאָה בְּאַרְעָא דְיִשְׂרָאֵל. הָשַּׁתָּא עַבְדֵי, לְשָׁנָה הַבָּאָה בְּנֵי חוֹרִין

This is the bread of poverty that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat; let all who are in need come and partake of the Pesaḥ sacrifice. Now we are here, next year we will be in the land of Israel. ​​​​​​​This year we are slaves, next year we will be free people.

Let me rephrase that for you:

Now we are living apart; in the coming year, with the help of the Qadosh Barukh Hu, we will be free once again to greet each other, to hug each other, to dine together, to worship together, to sing and dance together. That is freedom; that is a vision of Yerushalayim shel Ma’alah for which I am yearning right now.

Shabbat shalom, and ḥag sameaḥ!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 3/27/2021.)

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Sermons

Gathering With Purpose, Then and Now – Vayaqhel-Pequdei 5781

The Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle published a fascinating piece this week about the history of Beth Shalom by Rauh Jewish Archives director Eric Lidji, and it is truly a great read. It is about the oldest part of this building, the central piece that is now where the Helfant Chapel is located, and the few floors above it. Drawing on a Beth Shalom yearbook from Rosh Hashanah 5685 (that’s 1924!), Mr. Lidji reports that the building was called the “Community House,” and featured spaces for learning, prayer, physical exercise, and of course preparing and eating food. You should check out the article yourself (there is also a link to it on our Facebook page, and it will be in next week’s print edition), but what caught my eye was a wonderful statement by the congregation’s second rabbi, Rabbi Goodman Rose:

We… are laying the foundations for a new Jewish community, distinctive, and in certain respects different from those from which we had come. We must organize our Judaism and mould our spiritual structures. What plans have we to follow? No set rules, no standard patterns, no fixed precedents are available for our guidance. We must think out our way step by step and act by act — this only being our unswerving principle, that not an iota of our Judaism is to be sacrificed.

I read that and I had one of those moments that remind me of bad ‘80s television, in particular, the George Peppard character on The A-Team, which I must concede that I watched and enjoyed when I was in junior high school. When the team’s solution to the crisis of the week was falling into place, Hannibal would say, “I love it when a plan comes together.” So as a rabbi, I love it when a sermon comes together.

When Rabbi Rose wrote those words, he was thinking, arguably “outside the box,” about the ways in which we use our spaces to gather. And when this article landed in my inbox, I was thinking about that as well. I was considering the opening line of Parashat Vayaqhel, and also about the keynote lecture that the author and conflict-resolution expert Priya Parker gave to the membership of the Rabbinical Assembly at our annual convention last week. Ms. Parker spoke on the subject of gathering, particularly in the context of the pandemic. She has written a book on this topic, titled, The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters.

I’ll come back to Priya Parker in a moment, but first, it is worth remembering that the Hebrew term for synagogue is “beit kenesset,” which literally means, “house of gathering.” That is what this building is for. We, the Jews, are a communal people. You can’t be Jewish alone, and the essence of “doing Jewish” is doing it in the context of community, in Hebrew, “qehillah.” Even here on Zoom, in this virtual space, we are making qehillah happen, but I must say that I am thinking about gathering in the same physical space again.

It has certainly been a year that has been challenging for many reasons, and from where I stand, the challenge is exceptionally great. For an entire year, beginning on this Shabbat, Shabbat HaHodesh last year, we have been gathering mostly not in person, mostly online. I am of course very proud of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative movement for giving us a rabbinic hekhsher (permission) to do so, and I am also particularly proud of Beth Shalom as a congregation for keeping the momentum of gathering up over the last year. We have maintained a morning and evening service every single day of the last year, and our attendance has actually been better than prior to the pandemic. Our tradition has developed over centuries, and our response to the pandemic is on the continuum of ways in which Judaism has grown and changed with time.

But think for a moment about the situations in which we gather:

Certainly, we gather for tefillah / prayer. Al tifrosh min hatzibbur. Do not separate yourself from the community, says Pirqei Avot (2:4). Rambam takes this even a step further; in the Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Tefillah 8:1), he reports that one who does NOT go to a synagogue in his neighborhood is called a bad neighbor! So of course we gather for tefillah.

And did you know that you have to have a minyan, a quorum of ten people at a wedding?

We of course gather for funerals. For shiv’ah. For supporting those of us who mourn.

We gather for benei mitzvah, as we see our young people called to the Torah

We gather for meals – Shabbat, Yom Tov, breaking the fast, etc. You do not need a minyan to eat, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.

We gather to learn. We gather to schmooze. We gather to support those in need, and to bring holiday cheer to one another, and to argue over bylaws and synagogue budgets and current events. We gather to toss our sins away on Rosh Hashanah, and to confess them together in public on Yom Kippur.

In short, almost everything in Jewish life involves gathering.

The beginning of Vayaqhel, which we read from this morning, includes an ancient imperative to gather (Shemot / Exodus 35:1):

וַיַּקְהֵ֣ל מֹשֶׁ֗ה אֶֽת־כָּל־עֲדַ֛ת בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֑ם אֵ֚לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּ֥ה ה’ לַעֲשֹׂ֥ת אֹתָֽם׃

Moses then gathered the whole Israelite community and said to them: These are the things that the LORD has commanded you to do…

Gathering has a purpose: here, God needed to tell our ancestors about the essence of Shabbat and the building of the mishkan, their new center of worship. The verb, vayaqhel, comes from the same shoresh / Hebrew root as qehillah, community. We have been gathering as a people since ancient times.

Among the principles that Priya Parker spoke about is the fact that good gathering includes storytelling, and understanding why the gathering is taking place, and is not about the form and the details of the room or the furniture or the food, but rather about the purpose therein.

(BTW, although she is not Jewish, she complimented us, the Jews, heavily, saying that she could have written her book drawing exclusively on anecdotes from the Jewish world! All cultures have forms of gathering, but we do it especially well.)

The bottom line, says Ms. Parker, is that we should not gather because we have to; rather, we gather because it meets a certain need. Tefillah, schmoozing, grieving, celebrating – those are the needs; we gather as Jews because we need to, as individuals and as a qehillah.

And when I read that quote from Rabbi Rose, my predecessor of many decades, I understood completely his description of the Community House: no set rules, no standard patterns, no fixed precedents for how Beth Shalom came together in our first building; a new, distinctive Jewish community, an opportunity to “mould our spiritual structures.” In short, purpose over form.

And we are there again, just as we are poised to re-emerge from a year of hibernation.

Over the past year, I know that I have lamented our lack of gathering. I have advocated for us to gather whenever possible; our coronavirus task force has put the kibosh on some ideas. But I am certain that many of you are longing for us to gather once again, in all the ways that we do so.

And so, as more of us are vaccinated, as more of us can safely gather, let’s not just return to where we were, but rather take time (א) to savor our gratitude for being able to be safely in each others’ presence again, but also (ב) to ensure that our gathering is good, that it is meaningful, that it meets the need of molding our spiritual structure.

To that end, let me suggest just a few things that we can consider, inspired by the wisdom of Priya Parker, while we are still in pandemic mode, perhaps to be implemented when we return:

  1. Consider defining your own personal ritual as you enter the synagogue building or our prayer space. Is it to recite, “Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’aqov,” the words that are traditionally said upon entering a synagogue? Is it to wrap yourself up in your tallit for a minute, for a moment of solitude? Is it to greet everybody in the room?
  2. Consider what we might do as a qehillah to re-establish our presence in this space, in each other’s presence. Should we have a ceremony? Should we spend a moment sitting in utter silence together, or sing songs together, or dance together in one huge, non-socially-distanced circle?
  3. Consider the ways in which we can, moving forward, ensure that all of our gatherings have a shared sense of purpose. Will that require an addition to our service, a moment of focus? Will it necessitate discussions or classes or a revised approach to what we do? Our Board meetings always begin with a devar Torah; maybe all our other gatherings should include a little thought from our tradition as well?  

Every morning of the year, just before the end of Pesuqei deZimra, we recite Psalm 149. It is one of those that we mumble through, without any particular songs or particularly quotable lines. But the first verse reads as follows:

 שִׁ֣ירוּ לה’ שִׁ֣יר חָדָ֑שׁ תְּ֝הִלָּת֗וֹ בִּקְהַ֥ל חֲסִידִֽים׃

Sing to God a new song, praise of God in the gathering of the faithful.

How can it be a new song every day, particularly when we chant the same ancient words? By ensuring that the gathering of the faithful is endowed with purpose.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 3/13/2021.)

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Broad Justice – Ki Tissa / Shabbat Parah 5781

I have always thought of the molten calf episode in the middle of Parashat Ki Tissa as a kind of intruder in the middle of the description of the mishkan. We have, at the end of the book of Shemot / Exodus, a total of13 chapters, spread over five parashiyyot, of descriptions of the mishkan and all of its implements and principles and construction and initiation ceremony, all recounted in stunning, and some would say monotonous, detail. 

And then, right in the middle of that, there is this curious story about how the Israelites were anxious because Moshe had not yet come down from Mt. Sinai, and so they compel his brother Aharon, who will soon officially be the Kohen Gadol, the Big Kahuna, the High Priest, to fashion an idol of gold, a calf. And they bow down in a flagrant display of idolatry, and dance about and commit lewd acts.

And God and Moshe, meanwhile, when they discover all of this, are not happy indeed.

The people’s notion, as captured in their request to Aharon is, (Shemot / Exodus 32:1)

ק֣וּם ׀ עֲשֵׂה־לָ֣נוּ אֱ-לֹהִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֤ר יֵֽלְכוּ֙ לְפָנֵ֔ינוּ

“Come, make us gods who shall go before us…”

They wanted not the one true God, of course, but gods, with a lower-case “g.” They want the thing that the Torah is primarily aligned against: idols. Empty gods. Falsehood.

And then, to demonstrate the fact that they have not yet received the message about idolatry, when the calf and the altar is complete, not only do the people worship the offending idol, but they then eat and drink in celebration, and arise “letzaheq” (v. 6), a word translated by JPS as “to dance,” although Rashi tells us that this word implies the three biggest transgressions of the Torah: idolatry of course (they have already checked that box), murder, and sexual immorality.

How could this be the right god? How could the Israelites have wanted these gods to go before them?

It is clear that this passage is inserted into the seemingly-endless mishkan construction detail not only because the brief story refreshes the narrative after it had been bogged down in mundane descriptions of materials and planks and clasps, but also because it serves to reinforce the essential message of the mishkan, which is this: We are finished with all of that idolatry business, and the nasty stuff that comes along with it.

So what did the Israelites want? Was it murder and orgies and bowing down to idols? Or was it something else? Did they merely latch onto the wrong thing, i.e. idolatry, because it’s all they knew from Egypt? Did they command Aharon to make them an idol because they were trying to fill a spiritual void? They clearly lacked the maturity as a people to connect the dots between the laws already given (i.e. the first commandment, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt,… you shall have no other gods before me.”) and their new paradigm.

I spent the earlier part of this week “at” the convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international professional organization of Conservative rabbis. Of course it was online, as most things seem to be these days, and as I am sure you can imagine, this has its advantages and disadvantages. I find that it is easier to learn new material and pick up tips from my fellow rabbis when I am away from the everyday bustle of work and home. One advantage to a Zoom convention, of course, is that you do not have to pick yourself up off the couch to attend a session. 

One of the items in which I participated was a so-called “Professional Learning Community,” a discussion with fellow rabbis that took place over three days for a total of six hours, on the subject of racial justice. In particular, our goal was to share wisdom and suggestions as to how we as individual rabbis could address this program in our own communities, but also to create some guidelines for the Rabbinical Assembly regarding how we might move forward as an organization with respect to these issues. 

Why must the Rabbinical Assembly and Conservative synagogues address issues of race? I’m so glad you asked!

In this season in particular, in which we are preparing for Pesah, also known as Hag haHerut, the celebration of our freedom, we are obligated to remember that nobody is truly free when some are enslaved.

That is precisely why we say in Aramaic, as an introduction to telling the Exodus story at the seder, “Kol dikhfin yeitei veyeikhul / Kol ditzrikh yeitei veyifsah.” Let all who are hungry, come and eat / Let all who are in need come and celebrate Pesah, this festival of freedom. We know that, as much as we have strived in America to create a system that treats all citizens equitably, the reality is that outcomes here with respect to education, health care, housing, and so forth are clearly uneven. We remind ourselves at the seder that it is our obligation to welcome our neighbor in: the one who is hungry, the one who is in need of freedom, the one who is disenfranchised.

One of the points of concern that our rabbinic task force faced is the question that some of our congregants ask, and that you may be thinking right now. “OK, Rabbi, I understand the need to help those who have been hurt by racial prejudice, but what about anti-Semitism? Shouldn’t you be talking about that instead? Shouldn’t we be focused on the challenge presented by those who are prejudiced against Jews?”

Many of us are concerned about anti-Semitic activity right now, and here in Pittsburgh we understand that too painfully. And when we see splashed across our screens a “Camp Auschwitz” t-shirt and detestable symbols of anti-Jewish hatred that have proliferated in recent years across the American landscape, we should absolutely be concerned about that. Perhaps you might think that a focus on racism means that we are neglecting the struggle against anti-Semitism. 

But this is not our God’s broad path of justice. This is the narrow path of idolatry. We cannot be only concerned for ourselves (see, for example, Pirqei Avot 1:14); if we are, we run the risk of being at the end of the litany famously delivered by Pastor Martin Niemoller, a quote that is engraved in our consciousness as a cautionary tale about the Shoah: “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out, for I was not a socialist.” Etc.

Our God is not so narrowly focused. Rather, God’s commitment to justice is broad.

It is essential for us to understand that holding aloft the anti-Semitism banner, without also addressing the other victims of hatred in our midst, that is something like idolatry. It obscures the fact that God wants us to treat all people equitably. Likewise, to address only issues of racism and implicit bias in our society without including the anti-Semitism in our midst, is also akin to idolatry.

Our God, the God of justice, is the one true God that leads us to work for the equitable treatment of all. Not just the Jews, mind you, nor only the people of any other particular group. Kol dikhfin yeitei veyeikhul. Let all who are hungry come and eat; the word “kol” / all is clear. All. 

The Talmud reminds us that the first Beit HaMiqdash / Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed due to idolatry, murder, and sexual immorality, the same things that the Israelites indulged in during Parashat Ki Tissa, when they built a calf of gold and bowed down to it. The Talmud goes on to tell us that the second Beit HaMiqdash was destroyed due to sin’at hinnam, baseless hatred, of which all the types of hatred of the other are included. That sugya (Talmudic passage) wants us all to know that sin’at hinnam is on a par with the other three major prohibitions of Jewish life. Just as we cannot tolerate idolatry in our midst, so too must we not tolerate hate of any kind. Sin’at hinnam has no boundaries.

To that end, I wanted to make you all aware of the fact that we at Beth Shalom have been working quietly on these issues in our community for some time. Yes, many of our members are already involved in racial justice work as individuals, but you should also know that we have a racial justice task force, which came together over the summer, a small but dedicated group which has been gathering material to share with the entire congregation. 

Among our goals is to begin the conversation about racial issues within our congregation, so that we might be better prepared to act when our neighbors need our help in closing the gap of racial injustice. We need to be ready, because just as they came to our side in our time of need, so too should we be there for them. That is what allies in the struggle against sin’at hinnam do. We need to be a part of that conversation.

We must continue to defend ourselves against the scourge of anti-Semitism, but we must also understand that this ancient hatred is one piece of a much larger continuum of hatred. In so doing, we will all be united in the broad struggle for justice and freedom that our God, the one true God, has commanded us to pursue.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 3/6/2021.)

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Love, Theology, and Vaccinations – Terumah 5781

I was recently asked by a member of the congregation, with whom I was meeting via Zoom, “Rabbi Adelson, what’s your take on God?”

I glanced at the time in the lower right corner of my screen. We had 17 minutes until my next Zoom meeting, and we had not yet discussed the other items about which we were ostensibly meeting.

I apologized first by saying that we did not have time to properly cover the subject, but I stumbled through a clearly-unprepared elevator pitch which indirectly referenced Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (“the process that makes for salvation”) and Martin Buber (the Unconditional Thou) and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (“radical amazement”). And then I suggested we discuss God again at a follow-up meeting.

Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan

Lurking in the background, of course, was the question of the pandemic, and the classic conundrum regarding theodicy, that is, explaining the theology of human suffering. If I really, truly, believe that God is there for us and is benevolent, how can we account for a pandemic that has caused us so much misery?

I must concede that I detest the sort of theology, and the kind of rabbi, that declares that human suffering is the result of our misbehavior. Yes, the Torah states that in many places; the second paragraph of the Shema is a prime example, when it effectively says, “If you do the mitzvot, you receive rain and healthy crops and fertility and you will eat and live well, and if you do not do the mitzvot, the skies will dry up and you will suffer.” That is not a theology that I can accept. And although it certainly has its adherents in Jewish thought, it also has many detractors.

Rather, I continually return to the idea that our deeds, guided by the framework of mitzvot which God has given us, help make this world a better place for ourselves and for others. We have the opportunity, every day and all day long, to improve ourselves and our world by acting on the Jewish imperative to follow this code of behavior. And it is in this way that God works through us to counter the forces of chaos and evil that bring us down.

I read a few days ago that, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, life expectancy for Americans decreased by about 2 years in 2020. That seems like a shockingly high decrease, but I suppose it is not surprising, given our circumstances.

And the question that we face every single day is, when will this end?

Let’s go ahead and throw God into this one: When will God end this?

And the answer is, when we humans fully understand that we are partners with God in this endeavor, in a loving, holy framework.

As that Kaplanite process that makes for salvation, God is there with us as we continue to seek and to deliver vaccines. God is with us as Buber’s Unconditional Thou when we mask up and stay away from each other to prevent further spread. God is with us when we are simply struck dumb with awe at our present circumstances, and perhaps our inability to discern God or grasp God’s presence in our lives at this time, as we peer heavenward and call out, in the words of Psalm 130, “MiMaamaqim” – from the depths.

As we all know, there is good news on the horizon. Different research groups around the world have produced vaccines that will come to our rescue. And yet, the horizon seems, for many of us, impossibly far away. Ad matai, we ask in the words of Psalm 94, which we recite every Wednesday, until when? For how much longer must we be distant from one another? 

One current line of thinking, promoted by Dr. Anthony Fauci, for one, is that we need to get to an 85% vaccination rate before herd immunity will be effective at preventing the spread of the disease. I heard that number, and I thought, “How on Earth are we going to get to 85%?” During an ordinary year, the rate of influenza vaccination is about 50% or less. (For example, here.) Perhaps we have a better shot at a higher rate due to our extraordinary situation – far more people are aware of the nature of the pandemic and the numbers of people who are dying from COVID-19 than might be paying attention to the flu from year to year. But 85%?

How are we going to cut through all that vaccine skepticism, and misinformation spread by social media, and reach all of those people who have been misled to believe that this is all one giant hoax, or that the vaccines contain microchips?

I think there is only one way to do so, and it is hinted at in Parashat Terumah, which we read today. Right up front, the parashah includes a curious commandment from God (Shemot / Exodus 25:2):

דַּבֵּר֙ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְיִקְחוּ־לִ֖י תְּרוּמָ֑ה מֵאֵ֤ת כָּל־אִישׁ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִדְּבֶ֣נּוּ לִבּ֔וֹ תִּקְח֖וּ אֶת־תְּרוּמָתִֽי׃

Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.

What does the word “terumah” mean? Here, the translation is “gifts,” although that is a poor approximation. A better read is, “donation,” but the shoresh, the root of the word, is actually resh-vav-mem, meaning, to lift up. So these donations were actually a means of lifting up the donors.

And the latter half of the verse goes even further. It’s not just a donation, but a donation that relies upon the heart of the donor. Every Israelite “whose heart so moves,” shall donate. (Later in the Torah, in Parashat Vayaqhel, Moshe has to instruct the Israelites to STOP bringing more materials for the mishkan. Their generosity is overflowing!)

So why did I describe this as curious? God could have commanded the Israelites to bring the stuff for the mishkan, like a tax. God could have made it mandatory. But instead, God relied in this case on their generosity, of their willingness to be elevated through donation, to make this happen. Seems like an unreliable system, no?

And yet, it worked! The internal motivation succeeded, perhaps better than the external command.

There has been a flurry of articles lately about the challenge of combating falsehoods. Certainly part of the driving force behind the insurrection on January 6 was the power and reach of conspiracy theories that are spread mainly via social media. And many of us know people who have been taken in by this dangerous sewer of lies, people with whom we cannot even have a reasonable conversation, because they are not living in the same universe as we are. 

And from what I have read, it seems that the best antidote to a loved one who has succumbed to falsehood is not to try to prove them wrong, or to prove that QAnon is false or that certain public figures are not satanic pedophiles. Rather, the way to reach out to them is through love. To be there, to try to maintain a healthy relationship. If we break those relationships, the situation will only get worse. We cannot allow the mehitzah, the dividing barrier between people to continue to grow; that is a certain recipe for future disaster.

And so too with the vaccine. The only way that we will be able to get to 85% is to reach out to those whom we love, and remind them that we love them. Will there be some that still say no? Of course. But if we create this overflowing, overpowering fountain of love for one another, we might create a space in which all of our hearts are moved; we have a better chance than simply mandating.

Call me naive, but love is the only way to make this all happen. Perhaps this seems like a counter-intuitive strategy. But so too is God’s request for gifts for the mishkan.

The mishkan / portable desert sanctuary

Remember that we are in a partnership with God here, and together, we might be able to move some hearts. We will have to rely on the generosity of the human spirit, in the context of the Godly relationship, for this to happen. Together, in this human-divine relationship, we can get there. We can achieve redemption; we can lift each other up through love. That is one lesson we might learn from Terumah.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 2/20/2021.)

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Watermelons and Seeds: Yitro 5781

A technique that my children learned in school about writing is the concept of “watermelon ideas” and “seed ideas.” (They did not teach me this when I was in elementary school.)

A “watermelon idea” is a big, general plot point without which the story will not make sense or hold together: “Alice takes a magical trip to Wonderland,” or “The rebels fight back against Darth Vader and the Empire.” Seed ideas are details that, if omitted, will not throw the whole story off: “While she is only a few inches tall, Alice receives advice from a curious caterpillar who is sitting on a mushroom and smoking a hookah,” or, “Luke learns Jedi techniques from a small, frog-like creature named Yoda.” Big concepts vs. small details. You can see why the watermelon and seeds analogy is useful and easy to understand.

The powerful moment that we read this morning in Parashat Yitro is the Sinai encounter between Israel and God. This is one big, huge watermelon sitting there in the middle of Shemot / Exodus.

Dr. Martin Buber, one of the greatest modern Jewish philosophers, saw in the Sinai moment a Big Idea that was really just a bunch of little ideas. Akin to his understanding of God as being immediately present and unconditionally in touch with us at all times, the Mt. Sinai moment is an attempt to dramatize the infinitesimal communications with the Divine presence that we constantly have. In his monumental work, I and Thou, he wrote:

The mighty revelations to which the religions appeal are like in being with the quiet revelations that are to be found everywhere and at all times. The mighty revelations which stand at the beginning of great communities and at the turning-point of an age are nothing but the eternal revelation. But the revelation does not pour itself into the world through him who receives it as through a funnel; it comes to him and seizes his whole elemental being in all its particular nature, and fuses with it. 

Martin Buber

Buber’s point is that the Mt. Sinai moment is really NOT a watermelon, as the Torah describes; it is a myriad of seeds which are always with us.

Meanwhile, Buber’s colleague, Franz Rosenzweig, takes the Sinai moment in a different direction. “For Rosenzweig,” wrote my teacher Rabbi Neil Gillman, “The content of revelation is simply the fact of revelation, God’s entering into a unique relationship with Israel.” (Sacred Fragments, p. 23). In other words, this is a watermelon with no particular seeds, but its existence is essential to us.

Contemporary philosophy aside, our traditional understanding is that there are 613 seeds in this watermelon (not just the Top Ten identified in Yitro. There is a midrash that suggests that the fruit on the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden was, of course, a pomegranate, since pomegranates have 613 seeds. I have never been able to actually confirm this figure, but it seems totally reasonable.)

And really, each of those mitzvot is only a starting point. But they have a shared intent: to lead us to a heightened awareness of each other, to highlight the holiness in all of our relationships, such that we are all pursuing the common good together

As you may know, that is how I understand the halakhic system. We fulfill the mitzvot of the Torah not just because it says so, but rather because that system creates a framework of holiness, through which we can improve our lives and the lives of those around us.

But let’s face it: the Torah is not just ONE watermelon. It’s lots of ‘em! And then there are other gourds: squash! Cucumbers! An occasional pumpkin!

OK, so at this point I have clearly beaten this metaphor to death. 

But the point is this: the Torah, meaning the Five Books of Moses, and Torah in its larger sense, that is, all of the teaching on the Jewish bookshelf, has its big ideas and its details. 

For example:

Watermelon: Zakhor et yom haShabbat lekaddesho. Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it, as we read this morning. (Shemot / Exodus 20:8)

Seeds: (Well, really there are 39 sub-gourds for this one.) Do not kindle a fire on Shabbat; do have a joyous Shabbat meal with family

Watermelon: Ve-ahavta lereiakha kamokha. Love your neighbor as yourself. (Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:18)

Seeds: Give tzedaqah to charities that feed the hungry and house the homeless.

We could clearly play this game for a while. But I want to take this metaphor in a slightly different direction.

Watermelon: Al tifrosh min hatzibbur. Do not separate yourself from the community. (Pirqei Avot 2:5)

Seeds: You should belong to a synagogue and show up from time to time – not only to fulfill the mitzvah of prayer, but also to schmooze with friends, to welcome guests, to comfort the bereaved, and a whole bunch of other seeds.

And let’s face it: one of the biggest ideas of Jewish life is community. Qehillah. You may remember it as one of the three essential principles that I began my rabbinic journey with here at Beth Shalom five-and-a-half years ago. We are a communal people. Judaism is fundamentally a tradition that revolves around community. You cannot be Jewish alone. You might say that it is both an explicit message of the words of Torah, and an implicit message of the Sinai moment.

One of the biggest challenges that we have faced in this pandemic world is that we cannot gather. We cannot rub elbows over kiddush. We cannot meet new people while strolling through the halls of Beth Shalom, or waiting to pick up our kids after JJEP, or interacting with each other at a talk or a service or even at a shiv’ah house.

This is something that is really huge, that we are all missing right now. None of the various online platforms are satisfying substitutes for the chance encounters, the opportunities to make somebody else’s day with a well-chosen word, the simple pleasure of being around others, that make up the spectrum of human interaction. I feel this dissatisfaction on a daily basis. I feel this need. And I would not even really describe myself as a “people person.” (I’m more of an old-dusty-book person, truth be told.)

But I miss you. And I miss the yous, the yinz, whom I am not seeing, whom I do not even know. We have people every week who come to our online Shabbat services as visitors, and it kills me that I cannot personally greet you, shake your hand, engage with you briefly in meaningful conversation, give you a sense of what a convivial group of folks we are, and welcome you aboard our journey of learning and living Torah.

I miss the opportunities to raise the bar of holiness around me through the regular, personal interactions that make up our lives when we are not isolated from one another.

If the watermelon here is community, the seeds are the holy opportunities we have each day to make this world a better place through our own actions. And I am not speaking here specifically of tzedaqah, although of course that is important. I am, rather, talking about how we interact: about greeting others with a cheerful face (Pirqei Avot 1:15); about being ohev shalom verodef shalom, loving and pursuing peace (Pirqei Avot 1:12), about avoiding lashon hara, the evil tongue (Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:16-17).

Here’s a seed for you that could very easily be its own watermelon: Build a rail around your roof (Devarim / Deuteronomy 22:8). We are responsible for the safety of others. I was thinking of this on Thursday as I took a night-time stroll around the neighborhood. I try to get outside every day for a walk – it helps with my sanity as well as my physical health; sometimes I don’t get out until late. And I would estimate that about a third of the property owners in our shtetl of Squirrel Hill had shoveled their sidewalks after the snow that came earlier in the week. This is not only a city ordinance, but also a law from the Torah: we respect each other’s safety. We build railings on our roofs so people do not fall off; by interpolation, we shovel snow and make sure that our sidewalks are not icy, so people do not fall. But we also are careful with how we drive, and the products we sell, and of course the masks that we wear right now so as not to cause physical harm to others. All of these are variants on the “rail” seed: it is up to us as individuals to make sure that others are safe.

What is a community, if not a group of people who are committed to all of the little ways in which we respect, protect, and honor one another? 

Hevreh, while the vaccine roll-out has been off to a rocky start, I am hopeful that as the production ramps up, as new vaccines come available, as the county and the state figure out how to do this correctly, we will return to normal. We will be able to interact with one another once again; we will be able to go to the grocery store without feeling anxious; we will gather and sing and talk normally in this building and everywhere else.

And we will once again be able to act on all of those opportunities for elevating the holiness around us, to emphasize the seeds as we rebuild the sense of community.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, 2/6/2021.)

Categories
Festivals High Holidays music Sermons

Sermon in Song: A Musical Journey Through Jewish Ritual Melodies – Shabbat Shirah 5781

Shabbat Shirah, the “Shabbat of Song,” is the day on which we chant Shirat HaYam (the Song of the Sea, which the Israelites chanted upon having crossed the Sea of Reeds on dry land, Shemot / Exodus 15:1-21) as well as Shirat Devorah (the song chanted by Devorah the Prophet following victory over the Canaanite commander Sisera, Shofetim / Judges 5:1-31). In honor of Shabbat Shirah 5781, I created this musical explanation of the nusah (prayer-chant melody), musical modes and motifs, and congregational melodies used in the synagogue and in home rituals throughout Jewish life.

Enjoy!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally chanted at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 1/30/2021.)

Categories
Sermons

Building Bridges of Prayer – Bo 5781

The 46th president of the United States, just before he was sworn in on Wednesday, did something remarkable: he prayed. As his predecessor boarded Air Force One to head out of town, Joe Biden went to the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, presumably to daven (pray) the Catholic equivalent of shaharit / the morning service.

As you know, I am a big fan of prayer. I do it every day, and I am convinced that tefillah / prayer is good for you. It is the original Jewish form of mindfulness meditation. Tefillah centers me; in the morning it gets me ready to face the day; in the evening it is a gentle, reflective conclusion, an opportunity to check in with myself. 

I am convinced that if we all did just a little more prayer, if we all took reflective moments more frequently, our world would be a better, kinder, gentler, more united world. And of course that applies to all of us – not just the Jews, of course, or the Christians, but all of us, and even those who do not belong to a particular faith tradition. Prayer, whatever form it takes or whatever you call it, has the potential to bring us all together, to build bridges.

The television coverage that I saw on Wednesday morning did not actually show the president-elect in prayer, just the exterior of the church. Nonetheless, to see this very public, yet also very private moment of prayer brought tears to my eyes.

A little while later, Father Leo O’Donovan, a Catholic priest, gave the invocation before the swearing-in, and he said the following:

There is a power in each and every one of us that lives by turning to every other one of us, a thrust of the spirit to cherish and care and stand by others, and above all those most in need. It is called love, and its path is to give ever more of itself. Today, it is called American patriotism, born not of power and privilege but of care for the common good – “with malice toward none and with charity for all.”

In Father O’Donovan’s words, I hear the yearning to be once again “one nation, under God,” acknowledging the love and faith that should bind us together as a society in pursuit of the common good. 

And so we find ourselves this week in perhaps a more prayerful stance as a nation, and it is absolutely serendipitous that we read from Parashat Bo this morning, including arguably the most essential items in the story of yetzi’at Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt.

One of the key features of the Exodus narrative is that the freedom, the redemption from slavery that Moshe and the Israelites seek includes as a fundamental principle the ability to worship the one true God. By definition, slavery (in Hebrew, עבדות avdut, from the shoresh עבד, to serve), precludes service to God. Integral to that freedom for the Israelites is the license to worship God, the autonomy to be a servant of faith rather than a servant of other people. 

Almost every time, when Moshe approaches Pharaoh to ask for freedom, he says something similar to what we find up front in Parashat Bo, Shemot / Exodus 10:7: שַׁלַּח֙ אֶת־הָ֣אֲנָשִׁ֔ים וְיַֽעַבְד֖וּ ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵיהֶ֑ם Shalah et ha-anashim veya’avdu et Adonai eloheihem. Let the people go to worship the Lord their God! 

Freedom, as the Torah sees it, includes that holy relationship with the Qadosh Barukh Hu.

And so too today: building a better future in our very divided country necessitates God’s presence in our lives, however we understand that presence.

Now, do not go reading this as a screed against atheists, or a repudiation of the separation of church and state. On the contrary: we need a greater sense of shared faith in this country, among the diverse people of this nation, because, as Father O’Donovan suggested, that will, through love, enable us to build a better nation, infused with a unified pursuit of the common good. As servants of God who see the Divine spark in each other, who see our shared humanity, we can and should work together to build bridges, to create a stronger, more resilient society and a healthier democracy. Even those who reject theology outright can, I hope, get on board with seeking the common good through shared love of humanity, of our fellow citizens.

And a key piece of this sense of shared love is interfaith cooperation.

You may know that I grew up in an area with relatively few Jews. Until I went to college, virtually all of my friends and neighbors and classmates were Christian, mainline Protestants and Catholics, and my family was among a handful of Jewish families in my home town. We all knew each other, and I think it is fair to say that, to some extent, we the Jews felt like outsiders. Not that our neighbors treated us badly or as enemies, but there was definitely a mutual awareness of our difference. Sometimes this awareness bred resentment, as, for example, when well-meaning Christian friends failed to understand that we did not celebrate Christmas. It was sometimes hard to see past this, given some of the history of Christian/Jewish relations. There was a time in my life when I would not have wanted to listen to the words of a Catholic priest giving an invocation at an official gathering.

My sense is that things are somewhat different today; the religious landscape in America has changed. Many of us now look at each other across religious divisions as allies. Yes, of course there are issues that divide us. But what we who are partners in faith share is much greater, and much more powerful.

Rabbi Jeremy Markiz and I were at a meeting on Thursday of the Priest-Rabbi dialogue, a discussion between local Catholic and Jewish clergy which meets from time to time to discuss interesting theological issues. At this meeting, we read a statement from 2002 produced by a group of influential North American Christian scholars attempting to reframe the historically fraught relationship between Jews and Christians. Among the principles expressed in this document were, “God’s covenant with the Jewish people endures forever,” and, “Ancient rivalries must not define Christian-Jewish relations today.”

Our discussion broke toward the points of disagreement among Christian theologians and within the Jewish world about some subtleties of our beliefs. But the greater message is well-taken: today we are allies in the struggle against disorder, disunity, and distrust. We are united in facing the challenges of poverty and racism, hunger and homelessness, mental health and addiction and isolation. 

I heard a podcast this week from the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem about Parashat Bo, taught by Pardes teacher Tovah Leah Nachmani, about emunah / faith. She pointed to a commentary by Ramban, aka Nachmanides, who lived in 13th-century Spain. In surveying Parashat Bo, Ramban points to the symbols of emunah found in this parashah: the annual observance of Pesah / Passover that we read this morning, and the wearing of tefillin (Ex. 13:16, the last line in the parashah). Ramban suggests that these symbols (the Hebrew term is ot, sign) of faith are meant to remind us of the role that God plays in our lives. There will not be an Exodus in every generation, says Ramban, but every year when we celebrate Pesah we remember that power. The tefillin that we put on every morning are an ot, a sign of the binding promise that God has made with us to help us live better lives through the framework of mitzvot.

Ms. Nachmani expands on Ramban’s line of thinking to include Shabbat and regular tefillah, such that we have daily, weekly, and annual signs before us: The weekly reminder of Shabbat, also described as an ot (beini uvein benei Yisrael, ot hi le’olam – Ex. 31:17) gives us a taste of the true peace that will someday come if we commit to the common good. 

Faith and freedom are intertwined; we must keep those symbols of faith in front of us; we must use them to remind ourselves to reach out to our neighbors in love. We must also remind ourselves that we have partners, who do not celebrate Pesah or wear tefillin, yet who also have faith; these signs of faith can also lead us to dream about what we can accomplish when we are all praying together.

We remembered this past week the strength of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, what he accomplished, inspired by God and the words of the biblical prophets. Consider that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel had the vision to reach out to and march with Dr. King as a partner in faith, at a time when many of us were not thinking far beyond our own community. 

Our future depends on building bridges of prayer and bridges of emunah / faith. Our Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, and Buddhist friends and neighbors are all interconnected with us; we may differ on how we approach or understand the Divine and the role that the holy relationship plays in our lives, but we mostly agree on the outcome: that we can build a better world through shared prayer, faith, and love.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 1/23/2021.)

Categories
Sermons

One Nation, Under God? – Va-era 5781

I am a patriotic American. I was born and raised in this country, as were my parents and three of my grandparents. Members of my family have served in the armed forces, going back to the Spanish-American War. I am grateful for everything that the United States of America has given me, and I am particularly grateful that this nation has been a haven for my immigrant forebears, and a beacon of democracy and freedom throughout the world for nearly two-and-a-half centuries.

I celebrate our nation’s birthday on July 4th. I observe Thanksgiving religiously (well, a vegetarian Thanksgiving). I drive an American car. In elementary school, I pledged my allegiance every day to our flag and our republic, invoking “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

I am, as I am sure you are, deeply disturbed by the attempted insurrection ten days ago by a mob of fellow citizens, people motivated by hate and fueled by lies. As more information has filtered out to us about who was there and what they did, I am increasingly shocked and frightened. This attack does not seem to have been planned in any organized way, but many extremist groups, some of whom are openly racist and anti-Semitic, clearly encouraged their adherents to come to Washington with the intent to cause some kind of mayhem, certainly to halt the wheels of constitutional process, and perhaps even to murder our lawfully-elected representatives.

January 6, 2021

I am sure you have heard about preparations in state capitals around the country for violence in the coming days. The Pennsylvania capitol building will be closed for two days next week. Washington is boarded up, filled with National Guard troops, and the National Mall will be closed on Wednesday as the new administration begins.

I was grateful but discomforted by a security message sent out by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh; while I am comforted to know that the Federation is thinking about our security, who would have imagined that the inauguration of a president would merit such a message about potential threats?

You might forgive me for wondering, “Where am I? Where are we? And how did we get here?”

***

Ladies and gentlemen, democracy has been good for the Jews. We do not have to dig too deeply into our history to see how other forms of government, including monarchy, feudalism, communism, and of course fascism have not been good for the Jews. The United States Constitution and its balance of powers has protected us and enabled us to thrive here in a way that had never happened before in our history. My great-grandparents all came here from Eastern Europe seeking a better life, in a place where they would not be constantly struggling against the native anti-Semitism built into the society of the Pale of Settlement from which they fled.

And they found it here, where the free exercise of religion is enshrined in that Constitution, where they could participate in the democratic process, where they could make a living and make a life without being limited by the system, where they were not immediately suspect because of their ethnic background.

Rabbinic text tells of a fraught relationship with government. If we look at Pirqei Avot, for example, a book of the Mishnah from the 2nd-century CE that documents early rabbinic wisdom, we find contradictory statements:

Pirqei Avot 2:3

הֱווּ זְהִירִין בָּרָשׁוּת, שֶׁאֵין מְקָרְבִין לוֹ לָאָדָם אֶלָּא לְצֹרֶךְ עַצְמָן. נִרְאִין כְּאוֹהֲבִין בִּשְׁעַת הֲנָאָתָן, וְאֵין עוֹמְדִין לוֹ לָאָדָם בִּשְׁעַת דָּחְקוֹ:

Be careful [in your dealings] with the ruling authorities for they do not befriend a person except for their own needs; they seem like friends when it is to their own interest, but they do not stand by a person in the hour of his distress.

And then, Pirqei Avot 3:2:

רַבִּי חֲנִינָא סְגַן הַכֹּהֲנִים אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי מִתְפַּלֵּל בִּשְׁלוֹמָהּ שֶׁל מַלְכוּת, שֶׁאִלְמָלֵא מוֹרָאָהּ, אִישׁ אֶת רֵעֵהוּ חַיִּים בְּלָעוֹ.

Rabbi Hanina, the vice-Kohen Gadol said: pray for the welfare of the government, for were it not for the fear it inspires, every person would swallow his neighbor alive.

So on the one hand, the government is distrusted by some rabbis because politicians are self-serving, and will choose their needs over yours. But on the other hand, some understood the essential need for government, in that its primary role is to protect us from one another.

The early rabbis also instituted the principle of “dina demalkhuta dina” – the law of the land is the law, meaning that laws imposed by a secular government must be observed by Jews alongside our own halakhah / Jewish law. The word, “malkhuta” is Aramaic for “the kingdom,” because of course that was the sort of jurisdiction under which the Jews lived until the last few centuries. The implication is therefore that we are subjects of a flesh-and-blood king similar to the way we are subjects to malkhut shamayim, the kingdom of heaven. You may know that there is even a berakhah for seeing a human king:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁנָתַן מִכְּבוֹדוֹ לְבָשָׂר וָדָם

Praised are you, Adonai our God, who rules the universe, who has given glory to flesh and blood.

And, to be sure, America, with no king and no kingdom, and with the principles of separation of church and state and the peaceful transfer of power, has been good for the Jews. Mostly.

And hence my great concern. Has this sense of security come to an end? Certainly, many of us have been asking this question since October 27th, 2018.

****

One nation under God. 

One of the highlights of Parashat Va-era is what is considered to be the textual basis for the four cups of wine during the Pesah seder, the following verses, up front in the parashah:

לָכֵ֞ן אֱמֹ֥ר לִבְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֘ל אֲנִ֣י ה֒ וְהוֹצֵאתִ֣י אֶתְכֶ֗ם מִתַּ֙חַת֙ סִבְלֹ֣ת מִצְרַ֔יִם וְהִצַּלְתִּ֥י אֶתְכֶ֖ם מֵעֲבֹדָתָ֑ם וְגָאַלְתִּ֤י אֶתְכֶם֙ בִּזְר֣וֹעַ נְטוּיָ֔ה וּבִשְׁפָטִ֖ים גְּדֹלִֽים׃ וְלָקַחְתִּ֨י אֶתְכֶ֥ם לִי֙ לְעָ֔ם וְהָיִ֥יתִי לָכֶ֖ם לֵֽא-לֹהִ֑ים וִֽידַעְתֶּ֗ם כִּ֣י אֲנִ֤י ה֙ אֱ-לֹ֣הֵיכֶ֔ם הַמּוֹצִ֣יא אֶתְכֶ֔ם מִתַּ֖חַת סִבְל֥וֹת מִצְרָֽיִם׃

Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the LORD. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, the LORD, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians.

Those four promises of deliverance, often interpreted as physical, political, financial, and spiritual, have been compared to the Four Freedoms promised by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his State of the Union address in 1941. Describing them, he said:

The first is freedom of speech and expression–everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way–everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want–which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants – everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear — which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor — anywhere in the world.

FDR

For American Jews, our parents and grandparents, listening to this on the radio, concerned for the welfare of their cousins in Europe at that moment, these promises must have seemed deeply reassuring. Maybe some of us actually connected Roosevelt’s words with principles in our own tradition.

Maybe some of us thought, at that time, that “one nation, under God, indivisible” was a principle that our nation’s leaders would always hold dear. Maybe we thought that this new home, far away from the ancient hatreds of the Old Country, would always protect us. Maybe, when we sat at our seder tables and invoked God’s promise, we saw ourselves as having come forth successfully from Egypt, and here we are in di Goldene Medine, the golden country of America, dining in comfort and enjoying our Four Freedoms, washing them down with Manischewitz? Maybe this is what it meant to be one nation, under God? 

Maybe. But today’s reality seems somewhat less promising.

Ladies and gentlemen, who is the patriot?

Is it the one carrying the banner of 1776, clinging to conspiracy theories and willing to support violent insurrection?

Or is the one who understands that vehement disagreement is a necessary piece of democracy, but racism and anti-Semitism are not?

To be one indivisible nation under God, we must as a nation fulfill the mitzvah found in Parashat Mishpatim (Ex. 23:7): Middevar sheqer tirhaq. Keep your distance from falsehood, as I said last week before the Prayer for Our Country.

Lies will unravel America. Living in a false reality will not solve any of the very real problems that we face, the ones that have been masked and/or magnified by the pandemic: addiction, hunger, homelessness, depression, sexual and domestic violence, homicide, and so forth. Placing our hopes in the falsehoods of QAnon or extremist news platforms will not cure all our ills. These challenges are not caused by immigrants, or socialists masquerading as moderate Democrats, or the Deep State.

On the contrary: government, good government that is focused on the needs of the people, that is dedicated to truth and justice, that guarantees our freedoms and keeps the peace, that governs with just, well-considered laws and is committed to public health, security at home and abroad – this is good for America, and good for the Jews.

Let us continue to pray for a peaceful transition, that those who engaged in violent insurrection are brought to justice, and that we may continue enjoying Roosevelt’s, and the Torah’s Four Freedoms.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 1/16/2021.)