On October 29, 2018, I went to Presbyterian Hospital to visit a congregant who was near death, unrelated to the shooting that had occurred two days earlier. I parked my car on the street, and when I stepped out, an African-American woman, who had been sitting in her car eating lunch, approached me. She was wearing a green outfit that is common for hospital employees. “Are you Jewish?” she asked. Intuitively wary of that particular question, I tentatively nodded. “Can I give you a hug?” she said. “Absolutely,” I replied, and received what was among the warmest hugs that I have ever experienced. Nothing needed to be said; the comfort that she offered was overwhelming and implicit. It spoke silently of shared persecution, of historical wrongs and overcoming prejudice.
I went upstairs to visit our congregant, who, entirely coincidentally, was in the room next door to Dan Leger, who had been grievously wounded by the hate-filled shooter. His wife Ellen spotted me in the hallway, and took me in to see him. I offered words of prayer and comfort, and I am so grateful that Dan is still with us today.
More than a year on from those days of acute pain and anguish and confusion, these two little bits of memory have become intertwined. The hug gave me hope that we can and will spread more light and love into the dark corners of this world if we work together, across racial and ethnic and other meaningless boundaries. The holy moment in the hospital reminded me not only of the great need for that light and love, but also the urgency of the task before us.
As you kindle the lights of Hanukkah for eight nights with family and friends, hold them all tightly together, admire the way that the light shines out through the window into the dark, and consider how we all can push back against the forces of hatred. Find an action, even a small one, that will illuminate this world just a little more. Let the warm glow of the hanukkiah be a beacon that drives us all to make this a safer, brighter, more loving place for all of God’s Creation. All of this belongs to you.
I had a captivating conversation this week in the context of an ongoing interfaith discussion in which I participate called the “Priest-Rabbi dialogue.” We meet two or three times a year, a group of about 10, evenly divided between Catholic and Orthodox priests and Reform and Conservative rabbis, and we generally discuss matters of theological interest. The initial subject of Thursday’s meeting was trans-substantiation, which is the Christian concept of the wine and bread used in some church rituals that are understood to turn into the body and blood of Jesus.
Now of course, we Jews also use wine and bread in our rituals, but for us they are symbols of the luxury of Shabbat (and Yom Tov holidays), symbols that set apart the 25 hours of Shabbat as being sanctified time. But this led to a fascinating back-and-forth about what we consider holy – time, objects, places, and so forth. One could make the case that in Judaism, there are really no holy objects or places, only sanctified time (we can argue that one over kiddush – literally, sanctification of the day – if you’d like). Likewise, while for Catholics and Orthodox Christians, relics – bones and body parts of dead saints – are considered holy and in some cases necessary for the building of worship spaces, to Jews that is anathema.
The discussion sparked my thinking about angels, which feature heavily in Parashat Vayyetze. After waking from his vision of angels, Ya’aqov says (Bereshit / Genesis 28:16), “Akhen yesh Adonai bamaqom hazeh ve-anokhi lo yada’ti” – “Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!” In other words, the presence of angels here, whether in a dream or not, gave Ya’aqov the sense that it is a holy place. He dubs the location “Beit El,” or Bethel, the house of God – the angels indicate God’s presence.
I must say that I have been fascinated by the angel passages in Bereshit for quite a long time. Avraham and Sarah are visited by angels multiple times; Lot offers up his daughters to the evil men of Sodom, rather than let them have his angelic guests; an angel saves Yitzhaq’s life; Ya’aqov has two run-ins with angels, and the next one will be when he wrestles with one, who renames him Yisrael, the one who has struggled with God. Midrash has angels there at the creation of the world; when God says, in first-person plural, “Na’aseh adam betzalmenu,” “Let us create a human in our image,” the midrash envisions the Qadosh Barukh Hu / Holy Blessed One as consulting with the heavenly court of angels.
And we continue to invoke them over and over. How many of us sang, last night, “Peace unto you, O ministering angels”? (I.e. Shalom aleikhem, mal’akhei ha-sharet.) How many of us sing Had Gadya on Pesah, during which we recall the Mal’akh haMavet, the Angel of Death? How many of us see the wings of the keruvim, representing those on top of the Aron haBerit / Ark of the Covenant up on the wall behind me?
And how many of us noticed the angels in the first berakhah this morning in Shaharit, the morning service, who are calling to one another with the words from the prophet Isaiah (6:3):
Then a spirit carried me away, and behind me I heard a great roaring sound: “Blessed is the Presence of the LORD, in His place.” *
And then we repeated those lines in the Qedushah, when we recited the Amidah aloud, only this time, we were actually acting like angels, standing with our feet together as if they are fused (Ezekiel 1:7), and lifting ourselves up heavenward.
(Actually, I recently learned from Dr. Reuven Kimelman, a scholar of Jewish liturgy who teaches at Brandeis, that we are actually imitating angels who are imitating humans! But that’s another story.)
But you probably did not notice any of those things, because we do them all the time without thinking about them.
Judaism is saturated with angelology. And I think the reason we have not focused on them is that, well, they’re kind of hard to explain. And, as heavenly beings, they challenge somewhat the idea of the unity and supremacy of God, in the monotheistic ideal. And, let’s face it: we’re all rational, and angels are not. The two centuries of history of the contemporary movements in Judaism have leaned heavily into rationalism, and thus Jewish angelology and Jewish mysticism were jettisoned. And, frankly, the whole idea seems vaguely Christian.
But to come back to Ya’aqov, on the run, being pursued by his angry and possibly violent brother Esav, the angels in his dream, climbing up and down that ladder on missions to and from Earth, are reassuring. They are an indicator that he’s OK, that he’s on the right path. Sure, he has deceived his father Yitzhaq to get his blessing, aided and abetted by his mother Rivqah, but that was the way it was meant to be from the outset. He must be in an anxious, uncomfortable place.
And yet he is in Beit El, the house of God.
Let’s fast forward to the present. My guess is that nobody here has seen an angel, at least as far as we know. I have no idea what an angel looks like, except that maybe some of them have fused legs, and that some of them (ofanim) are wheel-shaped, and some of them (serafim) must appear as though they are burning, and that keruvim (cherubim, in “English”) have wings. I don’t think I have seen any of those things. Maybe they are not meant to be seen, but rather merely imagined. Or dreamt about.
But meanwhile, we are living in anxious times. We are daily assaulted by the misdeeds of our fellow humans.
Great political division
Racism and other forms of hatred
Mass shootings in every imaginable context
I must say, the world is an increasingly scary place, especially for the Jews. But then I remember that this is why we have Judaism: when life is challenging, our tradition is a source of comfort and strength. When we mourn, when we fear, when we celebrate our freedom and our enlightenment and our striving to be better people, we rely on our customs and texts and wisdom for framework. And, almost everywhere we look in Judaism for that framework, we find hints of angels.
So I’ll let you in on a little secret: they are here. One midrashic opinion understands that our words of prayer are carried to God by angels.
When Ya’aqov awakes from his dream and understands that the presence of angels indicates that God is “bamaqom hazeh,” in this place, we too must understand that the heavenly court is right here with us, even right now. And this is a reminder that we are in the right place, the place of truth and justice. The place where God’s will is fulfilled. The place where all is good in the world, even when circumstances tell us to be anxious, to fear for our present and our future.
What do we say to those who are in shiv’ah, the deepest period of mourning during the first week after burial? Hamaqom yenahem etkhem. May God comfort you. But the euphemism for God here is maqom, place. We say literally, “May The Place comfort you.” Wherever we gather, God is in that place. Maybe God even IS that place, marked by the presence of angels.
Whenever we comfort those who mourn, God is in that place.
Wherever we work for the benefit of the wider society, God is in that place.
Whenever we support those who are needy, God is in that place.
Wherever and whenever we pursue acts of qedushah / holiness, God is in that place.
Wherever we study the words of our ancient tradition, God is in that place.
Whenever we express gratitude for what we have, God is in that place.
Look for the angels. You will not see them, but they are there. They are all over the place. And their presence bamaqom hazeh, in this place, indicates that God is with us as well. I hope that this presence will bring us all some comfort in anxious times.
* It is a common scholarly opinion that the word “barukh” in this verse should be emended to “berum,” so that the verse should instead be understood as not recording words that the angels are saying, but that the sounds of the wings beating against each other create a great noise “as the Presence of the Lord rose from where it stood.” This makes a lot more sense in context, and does not change the fact that the angels feature heavily in this passage in Ezekiel. It does, however, render apparently incorrect the doxology that Jews have used in prayer for thousands of years.
And that is mostly because last Shabbat morning, I was reading the Federation’s new study on the experiences of interfaith families in the Pittsburgh Jewish community. I served on an advisory committee of clergy members and community leaders for the study, and also helped the researchers locate interfaith couples with whom they could speak to collect information about their experiences within the Jewish community. As you may know, we have members of this congregation where one or more family member is not Jewish according to halakhah / Jewish law, and of course we welcome those members just as we welcome Jewish members to our services, our programs and activities, and to participate in this community just as the Jewish members do, with a few exceptions related to ritual leadership.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the study are the quotes collected from these couples. Some of the material actually made me feel that Beth Shalom is doing a decent job, like the note that only five out of 17 non-Orthodox congregations’ websites actually contain language explicitly welcoming interfaith couples. Ours is one of them:
While Beth Shalom is a community rooted in the Jewish tradition, many of our members are part of families who celebrate other traditions, cultures, and religions. Rather than separate ourselves from other traditions, we embrace the diversity of our members and seek to welcome their friends and family into our community in as many ways as possible. This year, we have formed a committee to investigate how we can do this in a meaningful and respectful way.
So that’s a good thing, even if the committee was actually formed three years ago.
But something else in the study caught my eye, and it connects directly to the subject of last week’s sermon, that is, when I spoke about the challenge of being welcoming while preserving our standards of synagogue behavior:
At one service we went to, they just put a yarmulke on my kid’s head. And when I took it off there was judgment, and there were comments made, and I’ve really never felt comfortable in that setting since. And I haven’t really felt comfortable with that rabbi since then either. (Non-Jewish partner)
I read that, and I thought, well, that might have been me. And I really try very hard not to be judgy. I know that we live in an environment in which any kind of perceived slight is something that may drive people away from the synagogue in such a way that they will not come back. And yet, there was this quote from a non-Jewish partner, from a family that was clearly looking for community and connection.
And I’m picturing the situation: here comes the rabbi, with the best of intentions, and he slaps a kippah on a little boy’s head. And mom is not happy.
OK, so maybe that wasn’t me. I don’t know. I certainly hope it wasn’t.
Here’s the key: we have to find a way to make people feel welcome AND to uphold our standards.
Switching gears for a moment, a curious textual oddity happened in the first verse that we read this morning (Bereshit / Genesis 23:1):
Sarah’s lifetime—the span of Sarah’s life—came to one hundred and twenty-seven years.
If you’re listening closely, you’ll see that the word “shanah” or “shanim,” that is, “year” or “years” appears no less than 4 times in this verse. It is the fourth one, “shenei,” that is most curious. To understand it, you have to know that Hebrew has a grammatical phenomenon that sometimes changes the shapes of words.
The last three words, “shenei hayyei Sarah,” should be understood as “the years of Sarah’s life.” The word, “shenei” is called a construct form. It appears when two nouns are smushed together in such a way that indicates that the first belongs to the second. You know many constructs: Rosh Hashanah: the head of the year; Simhat Torah: celebration of the Torah; birkat hamazon: the berakhah of food (i.e. grace after meals). In our verse, the word “shenei” is the construct form of “shanim,” years. Actually, this is a dual construct: shenei hayyei Sarah is “the years of the life of Sarah.”
However, an alternate translation, nonsensical according to the context, is that “shenei” here means “two.” So you might translate shenei hayyei Sarah as “Sarah’s two lives.” A midrash in Bereshit Rabba (58:1), following this read, tells us the following:
“Sarah’s lifetime.” What is the need for adding shenei hayyei Sarah, “the years of the life of Sarah” at the end of the verse? It tells you that the lives of the righteous are beloved by God, both in this world and in the world to come.
That is, Sarah’s two lives are the one in the here and now, and the one in the afterlife.
But another way we might read this is that Sarah had two lives in her 127 years: one as a partner to Avraham and a mother to Yitzhaq, and everything associated with those things – her life in relationship to those around her; and the second as the first of the imahot, the matriarchs of the Jewish story: the powerful, decisive leader who stood alongside and guided her husband through the challenges of life, who became a role model for her compassion, her strength, and her industriousness.
We too fulfill multiple roles. And I am thinking now of the way that most of us move seamlessly between our secular lives and our Jewish lives. Many of us are parents or grandparents who work in the wider (i.e. non-Jewish) world, proud citizens of this secular nation who are committed to democratic ideals and engaged with contemporary society.
And yet, many of us are also deeply committed to Jewish tradition – our Shabbat, our holidays, our lifecycle events, our Torah learning, our Jewish values. And it may in fact be that when we travel amongst non-Jews, we do not think about that Jewish life. Perhaps we just think of ourselves as Americans, or Pittsburghers. We do not feel our Jewishness in every interaction.
But just as Sarah was one person, so too are we. And what we might learn from this is that there should be no mehitzah, no divider between who we are as Jews and who we are in a secular context. We should make our daily choices based on Jewish values and guided by the Jewish calendar and halakhah / Jewish law. We should act on the principles of qehillah / communal interdependence, derekh eretz / respect for the other, hakarat hatov / gratitude for the good that we have, Talmud Torah / learning our texts, and so forth as we interact with everybody around us, in all the spheres of our lives.
This is what Judaism teaches us: fuse those two lives together. Make them one. You are not a Jew only on Shabbat morning! We smell fragrant spices at havdalah to bring the joy of Shabbat into the rest of the week; so too with the Torah of compassion, of responsibility, of tzedaqah, and so forth. We bring that Torah to the world as an essential part of who we are.
And the converse should also be true: just as we bring our Judaism proudly into the world, so too should we welcome those non-Jewish and Jewish-adjacent folks who come into our space, into our synagogues and homes. We should welcome them in with the same zeal with which we should carry our Torah out into the wider world.
Let’s face it folks: history has taught us, for thousands of years, to keep our Judaism to ourselves. The anti-Semitic blood libels, the pogroms, the medieval disputations between Jews and Christians in which the Jews could never really win, the second-class dhimmi status imposed on Jews in the Muslim world, and of course the attempted genocide at the hands of the Nazis taught us to keep quiet and keep our religion to ouselves.
But you know what? Today we can walk proudly through our streets with our Judaism clearly visible. I refuse to be terrorized by re-energized anti-Semites. And we must be proud to share that tradition with whoever enters a synagogue.
We don’t have to beat them over the head with it. We don’t have to put a kippah or a tallit on anyone who does not want one, or on any kid whose parent does not like it.
But we must, at the same time, invite them in. Perhaps the language should be simply, “Would you like a kippah?” Or, “Would you like a tallit?” Or, as I say to those without tefillin on weekday mornings, “Would you like a set of tefillin? I am happy to help you put them on.”
If the answer is no, then it’s no, and there is no need to press any further.
But in bringing together our Jewish and our secular selves, we ought to be sensitive to where people are, particularly those who are anxious about entering a Jewish space. We do not need to give anybody an excuse not to come back. Rather, we want them to leave thinking, “Wow. Those folks really love their tradition. And they invited me in.”
Today is the first yahrzeit (anniversary of death) for the eleven holy Jewish souls who were murdered down the street from here on October 27, 2018. Today is the 18th day of the month of Heshvan. 18, as we all know, is a popular number in Jewish life, because it is the numerical value of the Hebrew word חי (hai), meaning life.
So the irony will be that, forever, this day that means life from one perspective will always be heavy with a deep sense of communal loss.
Or perhaps that is not irony, but rather just the Jewish way. What do we say when in mourning and on yahrzeit dates? We recite the words of the qaddish, a statement of praise of God in overpoweringly repetitive language: Magnified, sanctified, hallowed, exalted, celebrated, worshiped, honored, extolled, etc.
We, the living, we remember those whom we have lost by praising God, not by reciting words about death. Lo hameitim yehallelu ya, says the Psalm (115:17) which we read on our most joyous days, as part of Hallel. “The dead do not praise God.”
We do. We the living mark death through words of living, words of life.
Given that, I am going to give the sermon that I did not give for Parashat Vayyera last year, on the 18th of Heshvan, because it is about life. It is about, in some sense, the life that was happening here in Squirrel Hill before hatred personified tore into our community.
(I have left it in pristine form, so a few things do not make temporal sense. But think of this sermon as a snapshot, fixed in time.)
Welcoming Others Into the Synagogue – October 27, 2018, Vayyera 5779
Two things happened this week that really got me down.
The first occurred at the Awards Brunch on Sunday, which was truly a lovely affair that honored four deserving women for all that they have done for Congregation Beth Shalom: Lisa Steindel, Judith Kadosh, Kate Rothstein, and Tammy Hepps. I said this on Sunday, but it’s worth repeating: Without volunteers who make things happen, there would be no Congregation Beth Shalom. We cannot do what we do without people like these four who commit their time to making things happen. So thank you once again.)
But the incident that occurred was as follows: Prior to the beginning of the program, I was walking around, offering kippot to bare-headed men, as I often do.
Now, it’s worth noting before going further that while wearing a kippah is an ancient tradition for men, it is not halakhah; that is, it is not technically required according to Jewish law. Nonetheless, it is such a well-established custom that it is as close to a halakhic requirement as possible without actually being halakhah. Although there is no Torah (“de-oraita”) source for the custom of covering one’s head, it is attested to in the Talmud (Qiddushin 31a):
רב הונא בריה דרב יהושע לא מסגי ארבע אמות בגילוי הראש אמר שכינה למעלה מראשי
Rav Huna, son of Rav Yehoshua, would not walk four cubits with an uncovered head. He said: The Divine Presence is above my head, [and I must act respectfully].
This passage might raise more questions than answers, but nonetheless is considered the basis for the customary wearing of the kippah, and in particular doing certain activities: walking, praying, eating, studying, and being inside a synagogue.
Now since we were (א) in the synagogue, (ב) about to eat, and (ג) about to say a prayer before eating, it makes perfect sense that, being an institution that stands for Jewish tradition, we expect men to put on a kippah, and hence my reason for asking.
So there I am, handing out a few kippot, and I offered one to a man I did not recognize. He took it without saying anything, and I walked away. A few minutes later, I noticed that he was not wearing it, so I went back over and asked him to put it on his head. Now, in retrospect, this may not have been the right move, but hindsight often reveals our own propensity to say or do the wrong thing, and I am the first to concede that I am not immune to this phenomenon.
I immediately saw that he was not pleased about having to wear a kippah. He challenged me, saying sharply, “I’m Reform. Is it required?” I said, “We ask that men cover their heads in the synagogue as a sign of respect.” He reluctantly put it on his head.
But that’s not where the story ended. A while later, while we were getting food from the buffet table, he came up to me. He was clearly angry, and he wanted to give me a piece of his mind. He was almost yelling, and he said, among other things, “This is why I hate this place, because you’re so unwelcoming! I feel intimidated when I come here!”
I was taken aback. It had not occurred to me that asking a man to put on a kippah in a synagogue could be so “unwelcoming.”
So there is one story.
The second is about an anonymous letter I received on Monday. Reacting to our program for HIAS’ National Refugee Shabbat, it said the following:
I read the enclosed hand-out in services today; very interesting about the welcoming of strangers. Presentation about HIAS also enlightening. Do these ideals and concepts apply to our synagogue? I cannot recall the last time someone greeted me or handed me a siddur (prayerbook).
Now, you may have noticed that in the three-plus years that I have been here, I have tried to create a climate that is as welcoming as possible. Those of you that attended a parlor meeting with me during my first year probably studied with me the first aliyah of Parashat Vayyera, which describes Avraham Avinu’s hospitality in welcoming the guests who come to his tent. The text describes how, when he sees them, he runs to greet them, gives them a place to sit in the shade and water to drink and to wash the dust off their feet, helps Sarah (OK, orders Sarah) to prepare a meal for them, and stands patiently at their side as they eat.
As you have surely heard me say, at a parlor meeting, or in a sermon, or an ushers’ meeting, we have to be more like Avraham and Sarah. We have to run to greet people with a smile, to help them find a comfortable spot and a siddur and whatever they need, and try as best we can to make people feel welcome here.
We cannot judge anybody for who they are. The Torah does not suggest that Avraham interrogates anybody before inviting them in. There is no litmus test for participation in Jewish life. We are not “bodeqei tzitzit,” those who check to see if others are wearing their fringes properly and in the halakhically-correct manner.
By the way, an item of feedback that keeps coming back to me, from the congregational survey as well as from individuals who have spoken to me, is that we have occasionally made people feel unwelcome. There is a perception by some that there are existing synagogue cliques that are impenetrable. Now, not everybody feels this way, and there are plenty of people whom we have in fact welcomed successfully.
But it pains me greatly to know that anybody could walk into this building and feel excluded. If that happens to even one person, shame on us all.
And, by the way, that goes for all types of people who come in here: LGBT folks, for example, or those in interfaith relationships. (I have been told that multiple times, people in such relationships have been told by members of this congregation that perhaps they should consider going to Rodef Shalom. That is entirely unacceptable.)
Ladies and gentlemen, all are welcome here; all who come to seek connection to our beautiful, rich, ancient tradition are to be embraced with open arms. Consider Isaiah’s words (56:6-7; BTW, we read this on fast days at minhah for the haftarah):
As for the foreigners Who attach themselves to the LORD, To minister to Him, And to love the name of the LORD, To be His servants— All who keep the sabbath and do not profane it, And who hold fast to My covenant—
I will bring them to My sacred mount And let them rejoice in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices Shall be welcome on My altar; For My house shall be called A house of prayer for all peoples.”
But wait! There is a challenge here. Isaiah seems to suggest that we have to have some kind of standard. If somebody refuses to wear a kippah, for example, or refuses to put their smartphone away in the service on Shabbat, can we still welcome them?
The answer, of course, is yes, but this is a question with which I continue to struggle: how do we raise the bar of engagement; how do we gently ease folks into the traditions of Jewish life without clobbering them over the head with a kippah and a tallit and tefillin and a siddur? How do we defuse the feeling of intimidation that some have when they walk into an alien environment?
In retrospect, I should not have gone back to the bare-headed gentleman a second time to ask him to put on the kippah; when I offer tefillin to people on weekday mornings (we always have extra sets on hand), I only ask once. But a smile goes a long way, and treating people respectfully is never the wrong thing to do.
So here are a few practical suggestions:
Be an ambassador for Beth Shalom and for Conservative Judaism. Reach out wherever possible. Don’t ignore anybody you don’t know. If you see somebody standing at the side feeling awkward, mosey on over and introduce yourself. Give them a siddur. Take them by the hand if necessary and lead them in.
Like Avraham Avinu, we have to be watching outside the tent to welcome people in. We cannot expect, in today’s world, that re going to walk right in and sign up to be a part of what we do. That’s one reason we created Derekh: to offer programming that goes beyond the synagogue walls. That’s why we are partnering with other organizations to offer concerts, like the Pizmon concert here. You are an ambassador for Beth Shalom and for Conservative Judaism both inside the building and outside.
Connecting back to the whole point of the Awards Brunch last Sunday: volunteers are the ones who really make the SS Beth Shalom seaworthy, and there is always a need for more people to help out. If you’d like to contribute some time but simply do not know how, please come see me, or speak with Debby, our president, or Rabbi Jeremy, who runs Derekh. We will be thrilled to help you find something that suits you. And in particular, one thing we really need right now, to help address the issues I have discussed, is a few brave volunteers to form a Greeting Team, who, like Avraham and Sarah, will discuss and implement new ways to welcome people.
With your help, we can continue to make sure that our tent is a beit tefillahlekhol ha’amim, a house of prayer for everybody.
That is how it ended a year ago. We still need a Greeting Team, but we are all about life, about making connections between people, about community.
Tomorrow morning we host the New Members’ Welcoming ceremony, in which a whole bunch of families who have joined the congregation within the last year will sit on this bimah, take hold of a sefer Torah, and acknowledge together their stepping forward into the next chapter of their Jewish journey.
We do this in memory of the eleven whom we lost on this day one year ago, and also in acknowledgment that in remembering them, we remember God, we remember our duties here on Earth, and we remember to continue to build this Qehillah Qedoshah, this community bound in holiness, together.
Have you ever been in the situation where you’ve tried and failed at something multiple times, and then you finally achieved your objective, but still it was not quite good enough?
And yet you learned to live with that imperfection, right? I feel like this happens to me all the time.
There is a captivating midrash (explanatory story external to the Torah text) that speaks of God’s creation of the world as an iterative process rather than a one-time event. It draws on language that we read last week in Parashat Bereshit (the very beginning of the book of Genesis):
Rabbi Yehudah bar Simon said: it does not say, ‘Yehi erev’ / ‘It was evening,’ but ‘Vayhi erev’ / ‘And it was evening.’ (Bereshit / Genesis 1:5) Hence we derive that there was a time-system prior to this. Rabbi Abbahu said: This teaches us that God created worlds and destroyed them, saying, ‘This one pleases me; those did not please me.’ Rabbi Pinehas said, Rabbi Abbahu derives this from the verse, ‘And God saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good,’ (Bereshit / Genesis 1:31) as if to say, ‘This one pleases me, those others did not please me.’ (Bereshit Rabba 3:7)
The midrash says that prior to the six-day creation story that we read last week, God had already created and destroyed many previous versions of the world. We understand this to mean that each of these creations was somehow flawed, and God knew that a better one was possible. The midrash does not suggest how many of these pre-worlds there were – it could have been 3 or 97 million.
And yet, we know that this world is, of course, flawed. Very much flawed. We live in a far-from-perfect universe.
And yet, when it comes to Noah, God does not destroy the world entirely; Noah and his family are saved. And this despite the opening language of today’s parashah (weekly Torah reading), in which we read no less than four occurrences of the shoresh (tri-literal Hebrew root) shin-het-tav, meaning to ruin, corrupt, violate: e.g. Vatishahet ha-aretz… vatimale ha-aretz hamas (Bereshit / Genesis 6:11). The world was corrupt and filled with lawlessness. And the text does not exempt Noah himself – he is described as “ish tzaddiq, tamim hayah bedorotav” – a righteous man, blameless in his generation. It was just fine up until the bedorotav – in a sea of corruption and lawlessness and violence, to call somebody righteous relative to his peers is faint praise at best.
So God puts all of God’s chips on this one, only somewhat dysfunctional family, along with one set of each type of creature. Which leads us to wonder, why didn’t God simply start over once again, like the midrash explains? For God, the world must seem like a kind of cosmic-scale Etch-a-Sketch. Why not just erase the Etch-a-Sketch and start again?
And the answer must be, of course, that God saw some kind of value in not starting over from scratch. This build was far from perfect, but there was something that worked. Cosmos 97 million point one, while deeply corrupt, had some redeemable features.
And particularly, you might say that it was something about the human spirit that must have intrigued the Qadosh Barukh Hu (Holy Blessed One, i.e. God) to maintain this version of humanity. We all know that people are not perfect; that we are complicated, that we are deceitful, that we are inclined to mistreat one another and the Earth. We know that people are bad at seeing the consequences of their actions, particularly in the long term.
And yet, even as the palette of humanity has yielded malfeasance of many different varieties, we have also filled this world with great creativity and fantastic music, art, architecture, technology, literature and so forth.
So God stuck with Noah, this guy who was not too bad.
And let’s consider the state of the world today:
We have just passed one secular year since the anti-Semitic massacre that occurred a few blocks from here, the deadliest attack on Jews in America ever, and we are approaching the first yahrzeit (annual day of mourning) for those whom we lost on that day.
Wildfires are spreading near Los Angeles, something which has become a regular occurrence. Several important Jewish institutions, including the American Jewish University, where Rabbi Jeremy was ordained, and the Skirball Center, a fantastic Jewish museum, are in the evacuation zone. My brother-in-law has been told that he may have to evacuate as well.
Floods devastated Houston once again this year.
Great Britain has its knickers in a twist over Brexit. Syria has become a Turkish and Russian free-for-all. Venezuela continues to be a tragic, starving mess. Brazil continues to allow the rainforest to be consumed for the sake of development.
Our nation is facing a constitutional crisis of sorts; for only the third time in American history, a president faces charges of high crimes and misdemeanors.
Thomas Friedman, a generally clear-headed, sober, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the New York Times, wrote a particular disturbing column this past week in which he stated that, “Not in the Cold War, not during Vietnam, not during Watergate did I ever fear more for my country.” Friedman’s concern is that the magical mix of deceitful politicians coupled with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s stated unwillingness to take down deliberately false political advertisements may, in fact, break America.
I must say that, despite the current governmental challenges in Israel (after two elections, politicians have been unable to form a governing coalition), aliyah is looking pretty good right now. (And you all know that I am a big supporter of American aliyah – the best thing that we can do to support Israel and work for positive change in Israeli society and policies is to move there.)
But back to Noah. We have reason right now to want to throw up our hands in defeat. To concede that we cannot change the current trajectory, that we cannot fix what is so severely broken. That the depth of corruption and lawlessness all around is so thick that the world is unredeemable. We can probably think of a whole bunch of reasons to want to throw in the towel right now. But we cannot.
Rather, I want us all to think like God at the beginning of Parashat Noah. I want us to consider the flawed world that we have, and accept that although change is difficult, that we have the ability, and indeed the imperative to try to improve it. God could have chosen to shake that Etch-a-Sketch once again; but instead of doing that, God doubled down on the less-than-perfect Noah, who, by the way goes on to fail even more, with the whole vineyard episode.
No, we cannot hide out, drunk in our own tents and ignore the brokenness around us. Rather, we must pick ourselves up and act.
Noah, hardly a perfect person, was tapped to be the seed of humanity. Moshe, who, when we get to the book of Shemot / Exodus, will try to flee from his destiny, and yet will ultimately lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Yonah (Jonah), as we read on Yom Kippur, has no confidence in himself to save the people of Nineveh, but eventually does so. Our tradition is built upon heroes who are anything but heroic. They are ordinary – that is to say, flawed – people who accomplish great things. That is something that we can all relate to.
And if these Biblical archetypes do not inspire, consider the modern folks who have created real change for the better despite dire circumstances. Consider Rosa Parks, whose simple act of refusing to move on a public bus became a symbol that inspired the civil rights movement. Consider Malala Yousefzai, whose teenage advocacy on behalf of education for Pakistani girls led to an assassination attempt by a Taliban gunman, which she survived, and then went on to win a Nobel Prize. Consider Theodor Herzl, a Hungarian journalist covering the Dreyfus Affair, whose vision of a Jewish state where Jews would not be subject to the deep-seated anti-Semitism of Europe ultimately became a reality. Consider those who toiled in anonymity for years to create vaccines against horrible diseases; those who led rebellions against tyrannnical governments in public squares, Tiananmen and Tahrir and elsewhere; those artists and writers and investigative reporters who call out the bad actors in society.
None of these people are perfect; all of them live in the same broken world in which we do. And yet they stood up and made change happen. That could be any one of us.
Lo alekha hamelakhah ligmor, velo attah ben horin libbatel mimmena
It’s not up to you to finish the task, but neither are you free to give up on it.
No matter how deep the dysfunction of this world, think like God! Grab hold of the good and run with it. You’re not perfect, we’re not perfect, and the results will not be perfect, but you may just change the world for the better.
I am always captivated by Bereshit, the beginning of the Torah,as the source of so many Big Questions. Who or what or why is this thing referred to as God? Must we take these stories literally? How can we possibly relate to a completely abstract concept? What can this mean to us as modern people? How might we understand God in this moment?
We cannot read the Creation story that we read this morning (second time this week, actually!) without facing these Big Questions.
I am going out on a limb here with what you might expect to be an unpopular notion, at least outside of this building: we need God.
This is the fifth installment in an occasional series called, “I’m a Fundamentalist.” So far we have covered Shabbat, tallit, tefillin, and “refrigerator-magnet texts” – the best quotes from the Jewish bookshelf that you should really have on your refrigerator. Today’s Fundamentalist topic is God.
A former congregant on Long Island, one who was quite committed to Judaism once lamented to me the fact that her adult children were not very interested in Judaism. She told me that one of her sons had said, “Really, Mom, there’s no need for religion. There is no need for God. Because science has already figured almost everything out, and what it has not yet figured out, it will soon.”
I did not want to insult her son by saying that this is a particularly myopic view of the role of religion as well as a misunderstanding of what science is capable of explaining. But here are a few bullet points that I can share with you:
First, it is worth pointing out that science and religion address different questions. Scientific inquiry leads us to a better understanding of electron clouds, or how to cure terminal diseases; it might even describe where we came from. But it does not wrestle with the question of how to respond to somebody who is dying of a terminal disease, or offer a framework for grieving when that disease has run its course. New technology might enable us to choose the eye-color of our babies, let’s say, but it cannot make the argument about why we should or should not do so.
Second, what Judaism offers is community. It is learning together. It is breaking bread together. It is holding each other in times of need and celebrating in times of joy. Our tradition gives us the imperative to care not only about ourselves, but rather the others around us as well. Judaism gives us a guide to holy behavior, to sanctifying our relationships. And of course it gives us ritual – opportunities to act while we reflect on the values that we uphold. Science offers none of those things.
Third, Judaism offers us a glimpse of the Divine, and the opportunity to see the Godliness in the world around us. Yes, science may teach us that spewing carbon dioxide and methane and chlorofluorocarbons into the atmosphere will ultimately destroy our environment, but Judaism teaches us why we should care.
Many assume that reason and religion are antithetical. I cannot speak for other faith traditions, but I know that reason was of utmost importance to Maimonides; Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his seminal work, God in Search of Man, points to the value of reason within Judaism. But Heschel cautions us that, “Extreme rationalism may be defined as the failure of reason to understand itself… The way to truth is an act of reason; the love of truth is an act of the spirit.”
Rabbi Heschel’s argument is that reason and religion balance each other; we need both. He continues:
… science is unable to give us all the truth about all of life. We are in need of spirit in order to know what to do with science… Reason’s goal is the exploration and verification of objective relations; religion’s goal is the exploration and verification of ultimate personal relations.
It is the synthesis of reason and religion that yields truth and righteousness. In The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism, Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin point out how reason alone can be immoral. As an extreme example, they argue that those who followed the orders of the Nazi regime were acting reasonably:
When the average German citizen remained silent while his Jewish neighbors were shipped to concentration camps, he was acting entirely according to reason.
The ones who acted morally, to try to prevent the killing of their neighbors, were themselves shot.
But Judaism marries reason to spirit. Our entire tradition is derived from interpreting our ancient texts for us today, even incorporating what science teaches us.
We need God so that we can take what we have learned about the world and apply it in a way that is just, that liberates people and does not oppress them; that lifts up the needy and raises the humble of spirit.
Let’s take a real-world example: consider the challenge that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has right now. Here is a guy who created a way, through the use of technology, to connect people to each other in a way that they had never connected before. And lo, how they have connected! Zuckerberg and his friends thought they were changing the world for the better.
And yet, in his appearance before a congressional committee a few days ago to discuss Facebook’s new crypto-currency, Mr. Zuckerberg had to apologize for the company’s “trust issues.” Why do people not trust Facebook? Because people’s information has not been kept confidential. Because the platform has contributed to political upheaval in countries around the world, including our own. Because human interaction cannot be a free-for-all; it must have limits. It must be truthful.
Science and technology may open up many new pathways for us, but they will not tell us how to behave.
So that brings us back to the problem of God. From where do these boundaries flow? Certainly not from our smartphones. And not from us as individuals, because your boundaries and mine may not coincide.
They must flow from God. God is the one who gives us the limits, the standard by which we measure the truth.
But what is God? And how can I possibly believe in something that I cannot see or hear or feel? And, by the way, wasn’t God just for ancient people who had no other way of explaining where we came from? Haven’t we moved beyond that?
We need God today, as much as ever. No, we may not rely on God for rain, or fertility, or healthy crops, like our ancestors. We may not even see God as being the source of our prosperity (when we are prosperous) or our grief (when we are grieving).
But we need God to understand what are our limits. What will prevent us from despoiling all of Creation, if not the sense that God gave it to us “le’ovdah ulshomrah,” (Bereshit / Genesis 2:15) to work it and to guard it? What will save us from the devolution of society due to the ease with which falsehood can be spread, if not for the mitzvot regarding telling the truth? What will ultimately prevent us from killing each other, if not for the standard that murder is wrong?
It is all too easy today to look out for number one; to rationalize – to examine our bank statement and think, I’m OK – nothing to worry about. To talk ourselves out of going the extra distance for a fellow person in need because, eh, somebody else will take care of it. To live our lives in quiet, selfish anonymity. To think, I don’t need community, I don’t need ritual – I have everything I need.
But Judaism, and indeed the presence of God in our lives drives us to dig deeper, to reach out with two hands, to be the best individuals we can be.
And you know what? You do not need to accept any of the traditional understandings of God to do that. You do not need to believe that God created the world in six days, or that God dictated the Torah to Moshe on Mt. Sinai, or that God split the Sea of Reeds so that our ancestors could walk through on dry land.
You can understand God as completely non-understandable. You can conceptualize God as having no concept. You can see God as a spirit that works through us and around us, as with Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, or as an imperceptible presence that is completely without condition, as with Martin Buber. Or you can come up with some other idea or metaphor for God that is nothing like anything else.
And yes, it is a challenge to accept the God idea in a world in which we seemingly have a rational explanation for everything. And, in a post-Sho’ah world, a world in which an angry Jew-hater with a gun can murder Jews at prayer, one must ask about the challenge of accounting for evil. But, as Rabbi Milton Steinberg argued, the one who believes in God must account for one thing, the existence of evil. The atheist, however, must account for the existence of everything else.
I will conclude with words of caution: once we let go of God entirely, we are lost. Humanity will destroy itself. There will be nothing to prevent us from killing each other. Recent history has demonstrated that those who think only of enriching themselves or amassing more power will inevitably allow or encourage other people to murder each other.
As I have aged, I have learned to be somewhat more forgiving of my own brain. When I was younger, it seemed that I remembered everything. Today, I sometimes feel lucky if I remember the most important things: to spend time with my children, to eat lunch during a busy day at work, to tell my wife how much I love her.
How many of us are sometimes frustrated by not being able to remember something? Where you left the keys, as a relatively innocuous example, or something more contentious, like your spouse’s birthday. How many of us wish that our brains worked more like the RAM in a computer – efficient storage that is always available and easy to find? Wouldn’t it be awesome if you never forgot anything?
You may have heard that there are a handful of people in the world who are endowed with a curious condition that enables them to remember everything. That is, you give them a random date on a calendar, from fifteen years ago, and they will tell you what they wore that day, what they ate for lunch and who they bumped into on the street. This condition is known as “hyperthymesia,” and although it does not allow for “total recall,” it does allow a person with the condition to remember virtually everything that relates to them. For example, while a person with the condition might remember what clothes she was wearing on a certain day, she may not be able to recall what her friend was wearing, unless the friend’s outfit was somehow related to her personally. Dozens of cases have been reported in the last 13 years or so, since the condition was formally identified by neurobiologists. The actress Marilu Henner, whom you may recall from the late ‘70s/early ‘80s TV show, Taxi, apparently has this condition.
Imagine for a moment how cool that might be! School would be a breeze; you would never be embarrassed again by not knowing the name of somebody who you met five years ago at a party after a few drinks; you would never misplace your keys ever again. Speaking as a rabbi, I could definitely see how such a condition would make my life and my work so much easier.
And yet, maybe not.
There is a good reason to forget things, and perhaps the reason why, evolutionarily speaking, this feature did not become standard among humans.
Certain things need to be forgotten, and particularly those things that cause us pain and emotional anguish. We need to forget the pain of loss, the grief associated with the death of a parent or sibling or God forbid, a child. We need for ebb of time to dull the sharp memories, the ones that push our sorrow buttons. We need for those memories to be less fresh, so that we can go on about our lives with some semblance of normalcy.
Not to forget entirely, of course. But rather, to lessen the heartache somewhat. For the person who remembers clearly what he or she did on any particular day, a great personal loss must be ever-present. The stabbing pain of feeling like, “How can I possibly live without her?” must be as fresh a decade later as it was at the start of shiv’ah.
Thank God for the hollowing-out of memories that time brings. We learn to live with loss, but of course it takes time. That is the point of shiv’ah, of sheloshim, of yahrzeit – the calendrical framework of Jewish mourning. Seven days of deep pain, pain which prevents us from leaving the house, which can only be slightly soothed by the presence of others in our homes bringing comfort. Then three more weeks of somewhat less grief, when we saunter out of our homes, return to work maybe, but still feel like nothing’s quite right. And then the balance of a year, in which we acknowledge our ongoing grief by limiting our joyous activities.
And thereafter, we set aside just a few days for remembrance, to recite prayers of memory.
Memory is essential to Judaism, and our framework of mourning is known to be one of the best. But even beyond that, we have not one, but two days in the contemporary Jewish calendar called “Yom haZikaron,” the day of remembrance: Rosh Hashanah we all know. Less known to American Jews, but extraordinarily important in Israel is the national Memorial Day for fallen soldiers, a day marked by solemn ceremonies around the country, set aside for public grief for those who gave their lives defending the State of Israel. (It is an unfortunate shame that we Americans do not take our own Memorial Day as seriously as Israelis do.)
But even so, our relationship to memory is complicated. Our tradition wants us to remember things that we did not personally experience: the entire holiday scheme of the Jewish year is intimately tied to our history: the Exodus from Egypt; receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai; wandering in the desert; the destruction and rebuilding of Jerusalem; the Sho’ah. We are, in some sense, striving to constantly relive our ancient, communal memories, to make sure that we do not forget, that we remember to connect our gratitude for what we have today with all of those past events. We have a history that stretches back thousands of years, and we carry it with us wherever we go. That is an essential piece of Judaism.
And yet, even though we set aside one day a year to mourn the desolation of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and then the Romans, we do not relive that every day. We understand that communal grief has its day. Even though we remember and mourn the 6 million murdered by the Nazi machine in our own time, we also still acknowledge that there can be joy in our lives. On Shabbat morning, we read from Megillat Qohelet, the book of Ecclesiastes (3:1-4):
A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven: A time for being born and a time for dying, A time for planting and a time for uprooting the planted; A time for slaying and a time for healing, A time for tearing down and a time for building up; A time for weeping and a time for laughing, A time for wailing and a time for dancing;…
The words of Qohelet ring across the ages: we cannot dwell in grief forever; neither can we ignore that grief. Rather, there is a time for that.
Qohelet does NOT say, there is a time to remember, and a time to forget. But the Catalogue of Times also reflects back to the opening verses of the book (1:4-5):
One generation goes, another comes, But the earth remains the same forever. The sun rises, and the sun sets— And glides back to where it rises.
With each rising and setting of the sun, life goes on. Our pain will ease; the peaks and troughs of life will even themselves out. And we continue. We go on. We live with our memories, the painful ones and the joyful ones. We do not forget, but we manage with what is on our plate.
This is the last Yizkor / remembrance service that we will observe in the one year of mourning following the anti-Semitic attack in our neighborhood. There will always be a before and after in Pittsburgh; there will always be a weightiness in our hearts for those whom we lost, and for the sense of security our community lost. That day will be seared in collective memory forever. We will never forget.
I must say that I am somewhat relieved that the actual Yahrzeit (annual day of remembrance which corresponds to the day on the Jewish calendar when a loved one passed away) is a few weeks after the date that the rest of the world will associate with Pittsburgh. When the media people doing follow-up stories leave, when the cameras have moved on, we will muster our grief together and mark the 18th of Heshvan (November 16, 2019) by saying Qaddish as a community – quietly, mournfully, appropriately.
The horror of that day and its aftermath will continue to live with us. But as it recedes in memory, as we learn to grapple with it from a distance, as we remember those whom we lost, we also re-establish our sense of selves: who we are, what we stand for, and why we must continue to lean into our tradition. We re-establish our violated sanctuary as sacred space.
I remember Cecil, who wrote me notes of gratitude which I could not read. I remember Dan, always with a smile, always with a friendly update. And my memories of them drive me forward to proudly wave my lulav and etrog, to recite words of tefillah with my community, to celebrate around the Shabbat table and resonate with our ancient tradition.
I continue to meditate on the words of Qohelet – dor holekh, vedor ba… vezarah hashemesh uva hashamesh – one generation goes, and another comes, the sun rises and the sun sets – and understand that I am neither the first nor the last Jew to feel the pain of hatred, of persecution, of murder. I will not be the last Jew to cry out in anger and frustration, as Rabbi Levi Yitzhaq of Berditchev did in bringing a din toyre, a lawsuit against God. I will not be the last Jew to recite Qaddish for martyrs.
But I will certainly do whatever I can to try to make this world a place where more Jews, and more people everywhere, are liberated from painful memories.
As we turn now to Yizkor, the service of remembering, we should be at once grateful that memories recede, and also grateful that we have the framework of our tradition to guide us through dark times and to sanctify our holy moments.