Slavery Is Not an Ancient Abstraction – First Day of Pesah 5777

There is a certain amount of debate in the pages of Jewish commentary about a verse that appeared in today’s Torah reading, Shemot / Exodus 12:42:

לֵיל שִׁמֻּרִים הוּא לַה’, לְהוֹצִיאָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם:  הוּא-הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה לַה’, שִׁמֻּרִים לְכָל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְדֹרֹתָם

That was for the Lord a night of vigil to bring them out of the land of Egypt; that same night is the Lord’s, one of vigil for all the children of Israel throughout the ages. (JPS)

I have also seen “leil shimmurim” translated as, “a night of watchfulness,” playing on the apparent connection to the simple form of the verb, lishmor, to guard or keep.*

The debate in interpretation is regarding the watchfulness. Who is being watchful? Is it, as Ibn Ezra suggests, that God was watching/guarding the Israelites in Egypt on the night of the 14th of Nisan, when the Angel of Death swept through, to see them depart safely? Or is it, as Ramban states, that the Israelites are to be watchful on this night when we commemorate our departure from Egypt, as we did last night?

watcher

The Etz Hayim commentary (p. 389), by the way, splits the difference: it is a night of vigil both for God and for us. Regardless, Pesah is unquestionably meant to be a holiday of awareness. Awareness of ourselves, of God, of our freedom, of spring. Pesah is about paying attention, about guarding, about being ready to act.

*****

I remember leading a seder at my home a few years back, and leading a discussion (yes, I lead discussions at home as well with my family – I am, after all, their rabbi. They pretend to listen and occasionally participate as well). We were talking about the passage that I think is the most essential line in the entire haggadah (Mishnah Pesahim 10:5):

בְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם

Bekhol dor vador hayyav adam lir’ot et atzmo ke-ilu hu yatza miMitzrayim.

In every generation, each of us must see him- or herself as having personally come forth from Egypt.

It is a direct quote from the Mishnah (Pesahim 10:5), and the imperative to me seems clear: the whole point of Pesah is not to speak about the journey from slavery to freedom in the abstract, but rather to understand it as our current reality. We are all former slaves. We have all earned our freedom, with God’s help. And we must actively recall that redemption every day of our lives.

So there we were, talking about the import of this statement, when it suddenly occurred to me that we had, sitting at the table with us, a person who had actually been a slave. So I asked, has anybody here ever been a slave? And my father-in-law, Judy’s father, who spent seven months in a labor camp in the Auschwitz/Birkenau complex, said yes. And that very moment was so powerful that no more questions were required. He had lived that very journey. He had survived the Exodus.

I mention this because slavery is not something that is only in the past. It has always existed, and still exists today. In fact, estimates vary widely, but despite the fact that it is illegal in every country in the world, there are between 20 million and 36 million slaves on this planet. That’s somewhere between the population of New York State and California. About three-quarters of them are located in India, China, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Russia, Thailand, Congo, Myanmar, and Bangladesh. India alone has about 14 million slaves, around one percent of the population of that country, and more than the number of people living in Pennsylvania.

slavery

There are different types of slaves, among them bonded labor, where people take loans under the condition that they work off the debt, but are never successful in doing so; sexual slavery, including forced prostitution and the like; and child labor, which is the predominant category in India.

Now, you may make the case that challenging circumstances (war, economic hardship, and so forth) create slaves, and that is surely true. But this is what is more troubling is this: however slaves came to be enslaved, we keep them enslaved. Many of the products that we buy – food, clothing, electronics – have slaves involved somewhere along the production line. Just as the Nazis used my father-in-law and perhaps millions of others to keep their balance sheet in the black, so too do the economic engines of today’s global marketplace. You can read all about it on the Internet – simply type “contemporary slavery” into your favorite search engine. And it’s not just products, of course. The US State Department estimates that about 50,000 people, mostly women and girls, are trafficked into the United States each year to be forced into prostitution.

child slavery

So when we discuss slavery as free people around the seder table, we should be aware that it is not an ancient abstraction. Slavery is very real, and still an ongoing scourge. It is even in our midst. And hence we need to be watchful. We need to pay attention to where our money goes, who it benefits, and who it punishes.

OK, Rabbi, thanks for the bad news. Now what can we do?

First, be aware. On this holiday of awareness, when we decrease our joy by removing drops of wine from our cups while mentioning the ten plagues, when we only recite a partial Hallel to account for the suffering of the Egyptians, when we stay up late at the ready, when we make it a point to teach our children about freedom, we need to remind ourselves that there are oppressed people in horrible circumstances in the world, even as we recline as free people at the seder table. And we should know  how our spending habits affect the lives of others.

Second, act. The Torah exhorts us over and over to recall that we are slaves, and to behave accordingly. I recently counted these instances; there are at least ten times in the Torah (there may be more) where it says a variation on the following, “Do not oppress the stranger/poor/slave among you, because you were slaves in Egypt.”** And add to that the Torah’s imperative, also recurring in many places and forms, to care actively for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger in your midst. We’ll read one such example in tomorrow’s Torah reading (Vayiqra / Leviticus 23:22 – identifies the mitzvot / commandments of Pe’ah / leaving the corners of your fields un-harvested, and Leqet / leaving gleanings for the poor). Our tradition requires us to act. And action can take the following forms:

  1. Donate to organizations that work to free slaves, end human trafficking, and work for human rights all over the world. Here are a few: (I can’t make any claim as to whether or not these are good charities)

Made in a Free World

Free the Slaves

Anti-Slavery

It may be just a drop in the bucket, but every life that is reclaimed from slavery brings our own redemption one step closer. Think of it as a mitzvah in the category of piqquah nefesh, saving a life, which takes precedence over all other mitzvot.

  1. Consider buying “fair trade” products when possible. This is not necessarily a cure-all, but may have an impact, particularly if many of us do it. The most visible fair trade products of late are coffee and chocolate, but certification labels are now appearing on textiles and other products. Look for them. We have the potential to change the world merely by altering slightly our spending patterns.
  2. You may want to consider submitting a suggestion to the companies that supply the goods that keep us fed, clothed, and digitally connected. Some of the websites listed above allow you to do this directly from the website.

Our obligations in this season go beyond recalling the Exodus. Pesah is a festival of freedom for the entire world, but it is also a journey of awareness. Be watchful; be aware, but don’t forget that ours is a tradition of action.

Hag sameah!

~Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, First day of Pesah 5777, Tuesday morning, 4/11/2017.)

 

* Back in cantorial school, they taught us a melody, a “mi-sinai” tune (not actually from Mt. Sinai, but so old that it might as well be) for the series of piyyutim that begin with “leil shimmurim,” recited on the first two nights of Pesah, inserted into ma’ariv service. I’ve never actually used that melody in a synagogue, and the piyyutim do not appear in our siddur, but they are still bouncing around in my head.

 

** The ones I found, using a concordance, were:

Shemot / Exodus 22:20, 23:9

Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:34

Devarim / Deuteronomy 5:15, 10:19, 15:15, 16:12, 23:8, 24:18, 24:22

 

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Pesah Evangelism

Without question, Pesah is the most important holiday of the Jewish year. It eclipses Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. It outstrips Purim and Hanukkah by a great distance. Shavuot? Sukkot? Fahgeddaboutit. Pesah is where it’s at. Let me tell you why.

Pesah is the only holiday where you have a chance to guarantee a Jewish future. That’s how high the stakes are. Pesah is the most spiritually sustainable holiday of the year. It’s the festival that incorporates the greatest creativity and personal engagement. It’s also the time that we have the most people around the table. It’s an opportunity of epic proportions.

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And it’s up to us not to let this opportunity pass by.

Somewhere between 70-80% of American Jews still show up for the seder. Most of them are not affiliated with Jewish communities or institutions. Many of them do not feel that Judaism infuses their lives, or has any real value from which they can draw. Many are bringing partners and children who have not yet joined the Jewish people.

And that’s where you come in. You can be a Pesah evangelist. (You should pardon the association.)

And how might you do that? Very simple:

Ask questions and discuss.

Sure, you should sing, drink four cups of wine, make a Hillel sandwich, spill wine from your cup when you remember the plagues, etc.

But the real way to be a Pesah evangelist is to get away from the printed seder to one that includes asking more questions than the standard four: questions of who we are and why this all matters to us. The Talmud (Pesahim 115b) tells us that matzah is the kind of bread that elicits conversation:

אמר שמואל (דברים טז, ג) לחם עוני (כתיב) לחם שעונין עליו דברים

Shemuel said: It is written (Deuteronomy 16:3) “lehem oni” (literally, “the bread of poverty”): [this can be understood as] the bread over which one answers many matters.

Here is a list of possible discussion questions (some have simple answers, but can be used to spark further conversation). Use them at your seder table:

“Big picture” questions:

  • What does it mean to be a slave, literally and/or figuratively?
  • In what way are we slaves today (i.e. to the clock, to work, to societal expectations, to money, etc.)?
  • Envision not being a slave to these things.  What would that feel like?  What is the downside?Why is it important to have a celebration of freedom?
  • What is the meaning of freedom, and what responsibilities does freedom carry with it?
  • Who or what is your Pharaoh?
  • To what are we slaves today, and how are we free?
  • Would it have been easier to have remained slaves in Egypt?
  • What is your favorite Jewish holiday and why?  Why or why not Pesah?
  • The Pesah story is the precursor to the giving of the Torah.  What is our relationship today to the Torah and its mitzvot?
  • Fill in the blanks:  Had God _______ but not _______, would it have been enough?

Details of seder:

  • Why do we “recline” while we eat/drink?
  • Why do we dip some things into other things?
  • Why do we eat eggs, and why is there one on the seder plate but it is never mentioned?
  • Why do we tell the same story year after year?
  • Why have a seder at all?
  • What is the significance of each of the items on the seder plate, and in particular the shankbone, the matzah and the bitter herbs? (this discussion fulfills one of the obligations detailed in the Mishnah)
  • Why are there all these funny songs at the end?
  • Why do we eat the afikoman as dessert?

General Pesah questions:

  • What are the prohibited foods of Pesah?
  • If the Conservative movement allows us to eat kitniyot (legumes, etc.), is that enough of a reason to dispense with a 700-year-old custom for Ashkenazi Jews?
  • Doesn’t it seem strange that Sefaradim can traditionally eat some things on Pesah that Ashkenazim do not?  And yet we are all Jews. Discuss!
  • Which days of Pesah are Yom Tov (i.e. festival days on which many of the celebratory Shabbat guidelines apply) and why?
  • What’s the deal with the Omer?  When do we start counting and why?  When does it conclude?
  • How is Pesah connected to the next festival, Shavuot?

If you need more resources to draw on, a whole bunch of them may be found here, courtesy of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America:

http://www.jtsa.edu/passover-resources

Don’t let this opportunity go. The seder is a wonderful way to reconnect with Judaism, for everybody around the table. Good luck! Happy evangelizing! And hag sameah.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

 

 

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Be the Alef: Unity Against Hatred – Vayaqhel-Pekudei 5777

Rabbis have curious schedules. No day is the same as any other. The range and varied nature of my work is such that it’s never dull. However, the week before last was especially interesting, and particularly challenging.

I went to two training sessions. One, called “Stop the Bleed,” is part of a national effort to train law enforcement officers and people who work in schools how to prevent the unnecessary loss of life in the context of what is now called a “mass casualty incident,” that is, a shooting or stabbing of multiple people in a public place. This training session, run by the FBI, was sponsored by UPMC, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, and the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, and so there were not only cops there, but also an assortment of employees of Jewish institutions. We learned how to apply direct pressure, to pack wounds and to tie tourniquets, all ways to prevent the injured from dying of blood loss. (Not only did I receive a certificate from the FBI, but they also gave me my very own tourniquet! I hope I never have to use it, but it will live in my tallit bag.)

The other training was held here at Beth Shalom, run by the Federation’s new Director of Jewish Community Security, Brad Orsini, and this one was “active shooter” training. You can imagine what that’s about: 1. Run! 2. Hide! 3. Fight!

It is exceptionally tragic that we have to be prepared for these things. But it is today’s unfortunate reality. I don’t want anybody to be concerned – we of course are hoping that we will never have to face such a situation. But it is certainly better to be prepared. (You should know that we are also revamping our current security plan here at Beth Shalom.)

I must say that I was quite surprised and dismayed by the news, which broke on Thursday, that the perpetrator of at least some of the threatening calls to JCCs and day schools was a Jewish teen living in Israel, a 19-year-old with dual citizenship, some apparent emotional challenges, and a phalanx of fancy technology. While I am relieved that this activity was not committed by a hate group, I am utterly devastated that one of our own would cause so much chaos in our community.

Nonetheless, there is no question that anti-Jewish activity is on the rise. We do not know where it is coming from or why, but the increase is unmistakable. The organizations that keep track of these things (the ADL, the Southern Poverty Law Center, etc.) have reported a rise in anti-Jewish incidents in the last few years, independent of the current political climate.

About a month ago on Shabbat afternoon, one of our families was yelled at in Squirrel Hill, walking home from Beth Shalom after services. (“Hitler did nothing wrong!” was screamed from a car window.) While Brad Orsini told us that local law enforcement has not seen a significant increase in such incidents, we have to be aware that they do happen, and that it’s very upsetting and frightening to experience these things.

If something like this happens to you, please report the incident! Call Brad at Federation. Call me. Get a license plate number if you can. This information is truly valuable to law enforcement.

As I have said here before, I grew up in an America almost completely un-molested by open anti-Semitism. Almost all of my friends, growing up in small-town New England, were Christian, and none of them seemed to harbor any anti-Jewish attitudes. Yes, a high school friend once used the expression “to Jew me down” in my presence, not knowing what it meant and why it might be offensive. And, when I was in 6th grade, I started wearing a kippah on a daily basis to my public school, where there were very few other Jewish kids. I was teased for it, but in my mind that was kids making fun of difference rather than gentiles targeting a Jew. Aside from these things, the America in which I grew up has always seemed to me not only welcoming to Jews, but more or less religion-blind.

But that was not true for my parents’ generation. I think that, prior to the middle of the 20th century, Jewish life was marked by fear and mistrust of the non-Jew, and with good reason. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Empire, once remarked, “We used to think of ourselves as beloved by God. Now we think of ourselves as hated by the gentiles.” The bread-and-butter elements of rabbis’ sermons, deep into the 20th century, were the Holocaust and Israel, resonating with a palpable fear and its perceived antidote.

So it is all the more shocking that anti-Semitism is on the rise again. How do we respond to these disturbing trends? What can we do as individuals and as a community to ensure not only our physical well-being, but also our spiritual wholeness?

The essential response is one of qehillah, which you might translate as “community.”

It’s an interesting word, qehillah. (You all know by now how much I love words!) It’s the term that is currently in fashion at United Synagogue for how to refer to a synagogue community. Perhaps a better translation of qehillah would be “gathering” or “assembly.” A choir is a “maqhelah;” the book that we call Ecclesiastes in English (well, Latin) is Qohelet, the one who gathers people to distribute his wisdom.

And, of course, the first word (and title) of our parashah this morning was “Vayaqhel,” meaning, Moshe “gathered” the the whole Israelite community to tell them about a range of important laws, among them explicit instructions regarding the building of the mishkan (the portable sanctuary that the Israelites used in the desert to make sacrifices).

One suggestion that we might read from this is that the mishkan is a tool of assembly. It is a focal point that brings people together for a holy purpose.

We have no mishkan today, or anything like it. Buildings are not holy; it what takes place within them that creates qedushah, holiness. And what we do to create that virtual mishkan today is to gather as a community, to come together for holy purposes. One such purpose is what we are engaged in right now: tefillah / prayer and talmud torah / learning, and of course there’s the eating and schmoozing after.

Another such gathering of Jews as a community for a sacred task was the communal vigil that was held last motza’ei Shabbat (Saturday night) on behalf of immigrants and refugees. As a qehillah / community, we have the potential to stand up in defense of the gerim, the resident aliens among us, whom the Torah exhorts us to treat with dignity 36 times.

Another such gathering of Jews for a holy purpose was the communal Purimshpil at the JCC two weeks ago. The story of one righteous woman who triumphed over the forces of Amaleq was told in song and dance and theatrical frivolity, as is appropriate for Purim.

And we will gather as a community in a few weeks for a communal seder, at which we will tell the story of liberation from slavery and dine as free people who understand that our obligation is to free all the slaves in this world.

And just a few weeks after that, we will gather to celebrate Yom Ha’Atzma’ut, and remember that the State of Israel, its people, its culture, and yes, even its political balagan (mess) are an essential part of who we are, even seven time zones away.

Our strength is in our togetherness. When we stand together, we show the world and ourselves what we can do as a qehillah, as a people gathered for a holy purpose.

When we at Beth Shalom stood together a few weeks back to receive the Aseret HaDibberot, the Decalogue (aka the “Ten Commandments”) in Parashat Yitro, just as our ancestors did at Mt. Sinai, we rose together to hear God’s introductory line: I am the one who brought you out of Egypt. Anokhi, says God. “I”.

The early Hasidic sage, Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Rymanov (1745-1815), said that all that the Israelites heard at Sinai, gathered at the foot of the mountain, was the alef, the first letter of anokhi. This is, of course, paradoxical; the alef itself makes no sound. It is a simple glottal stop, the absence of consonant or vowel. But contained within that silent alef was all of the content of Jewish life, a unity of revelation in apparent nothingness.

That unity is the numerical value of alef; one. And, perhaps not coincidentally, the alef is also the first word of the Hebrew word for unity: ahdut (from ehad, one).

What the Israelites heard, assembled together as a qehillah at Sinai, was unity. Oneness. Togetherness. And when we stand together today, we are one in a way that has kept us as a distinct people 2,000 years after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, 900 years after the Crusades, 500 years after the Expulsion from Spain, and 72 years after the end of the Nazi reign of terror.

That alef has enabled us to stand up to fear and hatred in our midst. All kinds of fear and hatred.

What can we do to combat hatred? We can stand together. We can be a qehillah. We are the alef.

Shabbat shalom.

 

~

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 3/25/2017.)

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Be a Sanctuary – Terumah 5777

I was in Baltimore last week, at the annual convention of the Rabbinical Assembly. It was an opportunity to reconnect with colleagues, to learn from each, to share best practices, to daven together and sing together and break bread together.

Perhaps my favorite session from the three-day convention was when we gathered in small groups to share our favorite texts from the Jewish bookshelf. In my group, we had some great pieces, including the classic line about this Jewish month: משנכנס אדר מרבין בשמחה – Mishenikhnas Adar marbim besimhah – From the time that we enter the month of Adar, our joy increases (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ta’anit 29a) It’s a statement not only of the joy of Purim (and Lord knows this world needs a little more joy!), but also how the absence of joy makes us appreciate it that much more.

Another colleague spoke about a different piece from the Talmud (Yoma 35b), one that we recently learned as a group at Beth Shalom’s Sulam for Emerging Leaders seminar, about how the great sage Hillel doesn’t have enough money to get into the ancient beit midrash on Friday afternoon to learn the words of our tradition, so he climbs up on the roof and tries to listen through the skylight, and then it snows, and they find him buried in 4 feet of snow on the roof, and light a fire on Shabbat to save him, a gross violation of Shabbat. But the rabbis acknowledge that somebody who wanted so desperately to learn should not have been excluded from the beit midrash, and therefore deserved to have the Shabbat violated on his account.

Good material, indeed.

The piece of text that I cited as my favorite is the one that just keeps coming back to me, over and over, as what you might call a central theme of my work as a rabbi. It’s from Parashat Qedoshim, which we will not read until May.

קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ, כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם

Qedoshim tihyu, ki qadosh ani Adonai Eloheikhem

Be holy, because I, your God, am holy. (Leviticus 19:2)

If there is one thing that I want every person that I encounter in my work as a rabbi, Jewish, non-Jewish, whatever, to know and understand, it is that we all have the potential to seek qedushah / holiness, to raise the holiness quotient in this very broken world. That joy, learning, synagogues, prayer, singing, bar mitzvah, communal engagement, etc. are all attempts to infuse our lives with holiness, and to remind us that we should zealously seek holiness in all our relationships, and to remind us that there is a spark of the Divine within every single human being.

That is what our tradition is for. That is the lesson that Judaism brings to the world. All the rest, to borrow from another classic piece of text, is commentary. And every other elaboration, every other story or custom or law from our tradition, somehow relates back to that fundamental bottom line of qedushah.

Our bar mitzvah spoke a little earlier about the mishkan, the portable sanctuary that our ancestors used while wandering in the desert to perform the sacrifices commanded by God. Building the mishkan, it seems, was the Israelites’ initial path to qedushah. Right up front, before all the layers upon layers of detail that the Torah gives in order to build this glorified tent, there is a statement about the reason that God commands them to build it:

וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ, וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם

Ve’asu li miqdash, veshakhanti betokham.

Make me a sanctuary, and I shall dwell among them. (Ex. 25:8)

Build this sanctuary, says the Qadosh Barukh Hu, the Holy Blessed One, and I’ll come and actually take up residence among you.

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Moshe must be thinking, “What? After taking 2,000,000 enslaved people out of Egypt with no army, THIS is what you want me to do?” And the Torah devotes almost as much time and space to describing the mishkan as it does to telling the tale of the Exodus.

But there is a reason for it: this sanctuary is the source of holiness. It was not enough merely to take themselves out of the house of bondage, but rather to seek something higher – to be in holy relationship. And that required building a fancy dwelling-place for God, a place from which Divine blessing and guidance and reassurance and strength would emanate.

Every day, we need to remind ourselves that we draw that strength from the depth and breadth of our tradition, and that ultimately the mishkan, that ancient sanctuary, becomes a metaphor for the dwelling of God’s holy presence among and within us. Just as our bar mitzvah said, courtesy of the Malbim, we each need to build that sanctuary in our hearts.

Every morning at the convention, there were multiple tefillah / prayer options. There was, of course, the “traditional” service, more or less what we do in the weekday morning service here at Beth Shalom. Then there were two non-traditional options: a meditation service and a singing service, where virtually all parts were sung to niggunim. And one morning there was a service led by our colleague Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie in the style of his experimental, floating NYC congregation, LAB/SHUL. It was a vastly abbreviated service, with words projected on a screen, snippets of ordinary weekday tefillot, mixed in with other songs and chants drawn from our tradition.

These are the things the RA is doing now to help Conservative rabbis expand their sources of inspiration for tefillah / prayer: This is where we are today, since there is a disconnect between our traditional form of tefillah and where most Jews are today, a disconnect that mandates our re-imagining how we access God and our tradition. I did meditate one day, but on other days I went to the singing services, and a melody that was repeated endlessly became, it seemed, the unofficial anthem of the convention, drawing on the sanctuary theme of Terumah:

Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary

Pure and holy, tried and true

With thanksgiving, I’ll be a living

Sanctuary for You.

One could read “Ve’asu li miqdash” as, “Build a sanctuary for Me,” which is the traditional reading, or you could read it along the lines of the Malbim: “Turn me into a sanctuary.” Make of me a holy vessel. Make me a vehicle for delivering qedushah to the world.

And there is even more. A little later in Terumah, we read the following (Lev. 25:22):

וְנוֹעַדְתִּי לְךָ שָׁם, וְדִבַּרְתִּי אִתְּךָ מֵעַל הַכַּפֹּרֶת מִבֵּין שְׁנֵי הַכְּרֻבִים אֲשֶׁר עַל-אֲרוֹן הָעֵדֻת–אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר אֲצַוֶּה אוֹתְךָ, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.

There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you from above the cover, from between the two keruvim [i.e. cherubim, depictions of angels] that are on top of the Ark of the Pact, all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people.

Picture this for a minute. This is a great visual. Look up there, above the aron ha-qodesh. You’ll see the wings of the keruvim, reaching to each other backwards over the top of the Ark of the Covenant.

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Right between the wings of the keruvim. That’s where God will meet us and speak to us. That’s the originating point for all the qedushah that comes to us. That is the point of emanation.

But since the mishkan has not been in use for 3,000 years, all we have left is the portable, metaphorical sanctuary within ourselves. And that we have to build.

We have to create the space. We have to stretch ourselves upward and forward like keruvim / angels, so that our wings touch. It’s not so easy to make that magical place where God will dwell within and without us.

So how do we do that? How do we build that inner sanctuary? How do we infuse our lives and the lives of all others around us with holiness?

By heightening our awareness. By listening. By acting on the Jewish values drawn from our tradition: being grateful, humble, compassionate, loving, joyous, greeting everybody with a cheerful face, dedicating ourselves to ridding this world of all forms of persecution, oppression, hatred, bigotry, and fear.

By dedicating ourselves to our community.

By making Jewish ritual our own, so that we can use it to access those moments of qedushah.

By reinforcing the message of radical inclusion into our midst.

By protecting the unprotected.

By seeking peace.

By being sanctuaries. And by offering sanctuary where needed.

By singing together:

Turn yourself into a sanctuary. Make a space for holiness within you and around you.

Shabbat shalom.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 3/4/2017.)

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Standing Together – Yitro 5777

There are days, maybe once a week, when I feel like, “Ah. That was a good day. I accomplished a lot. I engaged with lots of people. I taught some Torah. I helped move this institution forward.”

There are days when I feel like, “Wow. I spent the whole day in meetings and handling logistics and didn’t get anything of significance done. Ouch.”

On the whole, I would say, I feel pretty good about the direction of Beth Shalom, about my work here, about our trajectory as a community. We are building slowly, making connections between people, reaching members and non-members in new and different ways, perhaps raising the bar of qedushah, holiness, in the context of our community.

Every now and then, it’s a good idea to count your successes and acknowledge challenges. Among the successes, I would count the following:

  • Our membership has grown by more than 10% in the past year and a half
  • We have already raised over $700,000 in pledges from members
  • We are halfway through the SULAM for Emerging Leaders program, training 14 members of the community for greater effectiveness as lay leaders
  • We are about to embark on a congregational learning process and re-envisioning of our tefillah, our services, in an attempt to make sure that our tefillah offerings meet our goals in that regard
  • The Shababababa and Shabbat Haverim services, which happened again last night, regularly draw 120 or more participants for joyous family davening in two services and a laid-back Shabbat dinner
  • Our other youth tefillah offerings have been improved dramatically, thanks to the hard work of Rabbi Jeremy Markiz
  • JJEP and the ELC are bursting with kids, energy, and innovation
  • We are launching the Derekh program this summer with a Jewish learning retreat aimed at young adults that will be held in August, and we received a $5000 grant from the Federation’s SteelTree program to run it
  • We have just established a team of volunteers to take responsibility for the sifrei Torah – where they are, to what parashah they are rolled, etc.
  • We are training new gabbaim
  • After more than a year of work and consideration, we are just about to put out a new version of the Benei Mitzvah Handbook with revised policies and information
  • We now have a streamlined, contemporary mission statement

And there are more. I think we can cautiously say that things are going well.

tefillin-hands-jjep

But of course there are also challenges. In particular, there are many things that we just haven’t gotten to yet, perhaps because nobody has stepped forward to help make them happen:

  • We still have no social action committee
  • We still have not been able to plan a congregational trip to Israel
  • We still have no official greeting team
  • There are still daily services when we lack coverage and/or a minyan of attendees
  • Our signage in the building is still, at best, confusing, and I continue to hear reports from people who have difficulty finding their way into the building
  • We are far from implementing an Earth-friendly policy to guide us in use, reuse and recycling in the building

Anybody who would like to help us take on these challenges is welcome!

But in addition to these programming needs, there is a special kind of challenge that we face, a more thorny difficulty that often afflicts synagogues, and that is disagreement.

Not that disagreement is bad! On the contrary, it is healthy and normal. In fact, one might make the case that it is due to disagreement that we are still here as Jews. You see, when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 CE, they effectively began the process of “democratizing” Judaism – no more would the priesthood and the Sanhedrin hold all the power. Study and prayer, more personal routes to God and tradition, became the central communal features of Judaism.

But what allowed Judaism to endure and enabled it to survive to this very day, is the ability to maintain civil disagreement.

An oft-quoted Talmudic example of this comes from the two major schools of rabbinic opinion, those of the great rabbis Hillel and Shammai. Yet, despite the fact that their followers disagreed on many points of law and practice, they still married each other’s daughters (Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 14a). They maintained a sense of community and togetherness in the face of argument.

Disagreement is fundamental to who we are. But disagreement can be healthy or destructive, and I am more concerned about the latter.

We read in Pirqei Avot (5:19) about the mahloqet leshem shamayim – a controversy for the sake of heaven. The disagreement which furthers the goals of community, connection and qedushah / holiness is a Divine argument that will last forever. The dispute that seeks to self-aggrandize or consolidate power or disrupt the community is NOT leshem shamayim, for the sake of heaven. This is the destructive form of disagreement.

One of my most beloved teachers at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Bill Lebeau, taught us that synagogue politics are good. They indicate a thriving organization that consists of engaged members who care. The absence of political disagreements, the shul in which everybody agrees about everything, he said, is a dying shul.

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I have been here now a year and a half. During the first year or so, I was aware of very little in the way of disagreements with my style or my choices or my halakhic opinions. There’s a name for that grace period that new rabbis are usually afforded: the honeymoon.

But now the honeymoon is over.  And just as in any marriage it’s not a bad thing.  It just signals the start of getting down to brass tacks, the sharper points of living in holy matrimony.

So I have to confess something at this point – something which I have not owned up to until now: I am not perfect. (My wife liked that line best.) While I try very hard indeed to make sure that I am serving this community as best I can, I have occasionally let myself and others down. And that is hard, because I’m a bit of a perfectionist – I want things to be right.

And yet, as the old maxim goes, you cannot please all the people all the time. And that also applies to rabbis.

It even applies, by the way, to our greatest teacher. Moshe Rabbeinu, you might say, was at the peak of his career in Parashat Yitro. He ascends Mt. Sinai to confer face-to-face with the Qodesh Barukh Hu, and takes dictation, beginning with the Aseret HaDibberot / Ten Utterances (usually referred to as the “Ten Commandments”).

And yet, Moshe fails. What happens while he’s up on the mountain, acquiring a radiant glow in the presence of God? The people doubt him. They worry. They think he’s never coming back. “This Moshe guy,” they say, “we don’t know where he went!” (Ex. 32:1, roughly). And then they build an idol. So not only has Moshe failed to deliver the monotheistic goods, but he also fails so badly that the Israelites actually do the opposite of what Moshe is about to teach them when he comes down the mountain.

And, to make matters worse, when he finds out, Moshe loses his cool. He “goes ballistic” as he smashes the tablets.

I am certain that many of us have had that Molten Calf moment, when we think things are going so well, and then everything seems to come crashing down around us. I find this passage consoling when facing my own moments of doubt.

After a year and a half of progress, I feel that together we have made Beth Shalom a more inclusive environment, a more friendly and civil place. And we have accomplished many community-building initiatives.

And yet, we still have to avoid getting sucked into that Molten Calf dynamic as a congregation. We have to agree to disagree respectfully when there are complex political issues. We have to work together to prevent rumors and anxiety from dragging us down, and instead focus on seeking the greater benefit to the community. We have to continue to work together, understanding that none of us is perfect, that we will occasionally fail to meet our objectives, that although the overall trajectory has been positive, there will sometimes be temporary setbacks.

Rather than smashing the tablets, we have to instead do what we did this morning as we read the Aseret HaDibberot: stand together as a community in solidarity, as if gathered at Mt. Sinai.

There will be contentious issues in committees and on the Board level. There will be arguments over finances. There will be personality clashes between members. And I might occasionally make a decision with which you disagree, or fail to meet your expectations. At these moments especially, we must give each other the benefit of the doubt and trust in good intentions.

These are the challenges that keep rabbis up at night. But we will face them all together, and as long as we keep before us the sense of community, connection, and qedushah, we will continue to build.  It is in remembering what unites us that we will find the holiness of our intentions, illuminating the respectful way forward as we stand together.

Shabbat shalom!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 2/19/2017.)

 

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Open up the Kotel – Va’era 5777

In 1987, on my first visit to Israel with the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program*, I visited the Kotel, the Western Wall, as every Israel tour group does. And out of nowhere, it seems, tears welled up from deep within me, from some ancient place in which Jewish history and theological yearnings meet and tap into our collective grief and our enduring optimism. I bawled as I leaned against the warm, ancient stones. So did everybody else in my group, including the one guy out of the 80 or so of us who was not Jewish. I was seventeen.

Fast forward thirteen years to 2000, when I was in cantorial school at Machon Schechter in Jerusalem, I experienced an unusual thing that at the time seemed quite avant-garde, even slightly illicit: an egalitarian shaharit / morning service at the Kotel, the Western Wall of the Temple Mount complex. At the time, there was no proper area for such a service – it was just a spot on the ancient Roman roadway at the base of the wall, under a rocky outcropping referred to as Robinson’s Arch, within the archaeological park that covers the southern vicinity of the Temple Mount. I don’t think there was even a table; just a few cantorial and rabbinical students with tallit and tefillin and our own siddurim.

robinsons-arch

Robinson’s Arch

What seemed like a covert operation at the time, a solution arrived at to allow egalitarian groups to daven / pray in the style that is customary for 85% of North American Jews, was a compromise – an attempt to allow mixed groups to do it their way without upsetting the more traditional, men-and-women-separate prayer that goes on in the plaza that is often thought of as the Western Wall (even though that portion of the outer retaining wall is really only a small fraction of Herod’s rebuilt, 2000-year-old plaza). Our ability to meet there was granted by the Israeli government to solve the problem of Haredi groups harassing egalitarian daveners (people who are praying) and throwing chairs and even human feces at them.

For more than a decade afterwards, that Roman road under Robinson’s Arch became a well-known location for egalitarian groups, and particularly for destination benei mitzvah services conducted by Jerusalem-based Conservative and Reform rabbis who were grateful for the business. The road was uneven, and there were no chairs, and portions were roped off because it is an active archaeological dig, but it was a special and unique experience to don tallit and tefillin and read Torah among the ancient rocks.

But struggles continued at the traditional Kotel plaza, where (in particular) a group known as Women of the Wall gathered regularly on Rosh Hodesh (the first day of each Jewish, lunar month) to attempt to hold services in the women’s section, wearing tallit and tefillin (according to the various customs of the individual participants) and reading from a sefer Torah. These Rosh Hodesh gatherings became a focal point for many shocking confrontations between more traditional worshippers, the police, and the Women of the Wall participants, who were verbally abused and physically harassed and occasionally arrested.

For the last three years, there has been a solid, yet temporary and somewhat inelegant platform in the Robinson’s Arch area, just south of and out of sight of the “traditional” Kotel plaza, and this platform has made the area seem a little bit more official. About a year ago, the Israeli government agreed to complete the “upgrade” to the Robinson’s Arch area to make it a fully-functioning option for egalitarian groups.

But, Israeli politics being what they are, promises made by the Netanyahu administration were never quite fulfilled. Activity was stalled. Feet were dragged. Religious parties threatened. Nothing happened.

And the groups that had been advocating for change pressed charges, bringing their case to the Israeli Supreme Court. Just a few weeks ago, the Court handed down a verdict which said that the prohibitions against mixed tefillah, against women wearing tallit and tefillin and reading Torah were all the Israeli equivalent of “unconstitutional” (although Israel has no constitution and no principle of separation of church and state), and that the religious leadership of the Kotel (Rabbi Shemuel Rabinowitz and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation) would have 30 days to demonstrate why all people could not pray according to their own customs.

According to the JTA article on the verdict:

[The Israeli Supreme Cout] also declared that women should not be subjected to body searches before entering the plaza. The Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the Orthodox-run body that oversees activity at the site, has authorized such searches to prevent worshippers from entering the women’s side with Torah scrolls, prayer shawls, tefillin and menorahs…

The [administrative] parties “must explain why the petitioners  should not be allowed to pray in accordance with their custom at the traditional plaza, or alternatively allow them to pray in accordance with their custom at a place which has access to the Western Wall similar to [the access] at the traditional site,” the court said.

Kol hakavod to the Supreme Court for standing up for what is right here, and against the forces of fundamentalism in our midst. It is truly ironic that religious protection seems to exist for non-Orthodox Jews in every democratic country in the world except Israel.

It is worth pointing out that religious restrictions such as these are not limited only to the Kotel. In 2011, I took 37 teenagers to Israel, and we stayed one night at Kibbutz Shefayim, a secular kibbutz just north of Tel Aviv. It so happened that the following morning was Monday, a Torah-reading day, and as we gathered in the hotel’s synagogue for shaharit / the morning service, we were told by the hotel staff, secular Israelis, that we were forbidden from using the hotel’s sefer Torah by the local religious authorities because we were an egalitarian group.

In the weekly cycle of parashat hashavua, the weekly reading of the Torah, we are right now in the middle of reading the Exodus story, arguably the most powerful and moving narrative of the Torah, and certainly the one that has spawned the best biblical films. It is a tale of the struggle against oppression, against hatred and fear, and of overcoming authoritarian rule. But it is also a tale about egalitarianism, about equality between men and women. Let me explain.

Some of you may have heard (from some others in the Jewish world) that the only positive, time-bound mitzvot / commandments to which women are obligated are lighting Shabbat candles, separating a piece of hallah when making it, and immersion in the miqveh (ritual bath) following the menstrual cycle. But that is not true. Those are, you might say, “alternative facts.”

In actuality, there are many other positive, time-bound mitzvot that are identified in the Talmud to which women are obligated, and one of them is drinking four cups of wine at the Pesah seder (God’s promises to the Israelites that serve as a basis for these four cups were found in today’s parashah, Ex. 6:6-8). The Talmud’s reasoning for this is (Talmud Bavli Pesahim 108a-b):

ואמר רבי יהושע בן לוי: נשים חייבות בארבעה כוסות הללו, שאף הן היו באותו הנס

Said R. Yehoshua ben Levi: Women are obligated to drink these four cups, because they too were part of the miracle [of deliverance].

In other words, the Exodus was not just for men; all of the Israelites were saved. And we all are obligated to celebrate this egalitarian deliverance today. That statement for freedom and against oppression continues to resonate in every corner of the Jewish world, not only on one side of the mehitzah. And given the centrality of the image of our people’s redemption from Egypt as a justification for treating all people with equity, the poor, the widow, the immigrant and refugee among us, it is undeniably an imperative to ensure that all of us have access to God and our tradition, that none of us are excluded due to gender or any other status.

And there is plenty more material here – the idea of a mehitzah (separation barrier between men and women) is actually medieval; it may only date for certain to the 13th century. And never mind the fact that there was no official mehitzah  at the Kotel until 1967.

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The Kotel in the 1920s

So I am waiting with great excitement to see how the anti-egalitarian forces of the Israeli religious right will justify denying adherents of the progressive movements to daven in our customary way. The Talmud tells us that Michal, the daughter of King Saul, was permitted by ancient authorities to wear tefillin (Talmud Bavli Eruvin 96a). Would our contemporary zealots challenge their authority?

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The Kotel in the 1870s

By way of conclusion, it is worth pointing out that there are really no holy places in Judaism. Once the Temple was destroyed for the second and final time by the Romans in 70 CE, our understanding is that the Shekhinah, God’s presence, departed from the Qodesh HaQodashim, the Holy of Holies, and has not returned. We have sanctified time, not space or objects, for two thousand years. While there is no question that the Kotel is a place of great sentimental significance – a central connection to our history, the focal point of our prayer, the physical remains of the ancient epicenter of the Jewish world – our tefillah is just as valid right here in Pittsburgh as it is in Jerusalem.

But since the Kotel has been elevated to an unprecedented level in the contemporary world, that spot should be emblematic of all of the different paths we have through our tradition. It’s not a synagogue; it’s just a very moving, very powerful location. And it should be open to all.

Let’s hope that by the time that we take our congregational trip to Israel (coming your way soon! Let me know if you’re interested!) that we will proudly be able to gather there for a meaningful service the same way we are doing right now – acknowledging that we are all equal before God.

Shabbat shalom!

* AMHSI is now offering free scholarships to a few lucky teens from Pittsburgh. Please see me for details.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 1/28/2017.)

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Be an Upstander – Shemot 5777

You know the old joke about how I went to a fight the other night and a hockey game broke out? There is a related Jewish story. It’s an old fable about two brothers (Zev Vilnay, Legends of Jerusalem, JPS 1973, pp. 77-78):

One brother had a wife and children, the other did not. They lived together in one house – happy, quiet, and satisfied with the portions which they inherited from their father. Together they worked the fields with the sweat of their brows.

And the harvest came. The brothers bound their sheaves and brought them to the threshing floor. There they divided the crops of the field in two parts equally between them, and left them.

That night, the brother who had no family lay on his bed and thought: I am alone, but my brother has a wife and children. Why should my share be equal to his? And he rose from his bed, went stealthily out into the threshing floor, took from the stalks of his own sheaf, and added them to the sheaf of his brother.

That same night, the other brother turned to his wife and said: “It is not right that we have divided the crop into two equal parts, one for me and one for my brother. He is alone and has no other joy or happiness, only the yield of the field. Therefore, come with me, my wife, and we will secretly take from our share and add to his.” And they did so.

In the morning, the brothers went out into the threshing floor, and they wondered that the sheaves were still equal. Each one decided to himself to investigate. During the night each one rose from his bed to repeat his deed. And they met each other in the threshing floor, each with his sheaves in his arms. Thus the mystery was explained. The brothers embraced, and kissed each other.

And the Lord looked with favor on this threshing floor where the two brothers conceived their good thoughts… and the children of Israel chose it for the site of their Holy Temple.

An Israeli variant is about two other brothers who lived on a nearby hill, and did exactly the opposite: each stole from the other in the middle of the night. And that was where the Israelis chose to build the Knesset. (#Rimshot!)

I have become very concerned about the state of our society. I think that something that we have lost is a tangible sense of togetherness. On the contrary: the level of mistrust seems to me higher than it has been in my lifetime. And a related contemporary challenge about which I am particularly concerned is the lack of civility in our public discourse.

On Monday, as part of Community Day School‘s celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the themes invoked was the principle of being an “upstander.” To be an upstander means, according to the website of the educational and professional development organization Facing History and Ourselves:

“A person who speaks or acts in support of an individual or cause, particularly someone who intervenes on behalf of a person being attacked or bullied.”

This word was just added to the Oxford Dictionaries in 2016.

Given our history and our tradition, we Jews have a special obligation to be upstanders: to speak out against that which we know is wrong, to intervene on behalf of those who are being persecuted, to call out hatred and racism and anti-Semitism when we see it.

Martin Luther King Day is always an opportunity for us to recall that Jews were there when the civil rights movement in this country was forged. It is a reminder that one of the greatest Jewish philosophers of the 20th century, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, walked with Dr. King on the latter’s 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Afterwards, Rabbi Heschel declared, “I felt as though my legs were praying.”

DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.; DR. RALPH BUNCHE;  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel;  Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. links arms with other civil rights leaders as they begin the march to the state capitol in Montgomery from Selma, Ala. on March 21, 1965. The demonstrators are marching for voter registration rights for blacks. Accompanying Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (fourth from right), are on his left Ralph Bunche, undersecretary of the United Nations, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. They are wearing leis given by a Hawaiian group. (AP Photo)

When Rabbi Heschel marched with Dr. King, the level of mistrust in America was also quite high. Society was changing. The established orders were being upended. People who had been historically oppressed were throwing off their yoke.

And people were angry. The civil rights movement inspired many Americans, including many Jewish volunteers, to do some really wonderful, holy work. But it also caused many others to behave badly in public, to scream and burn and even murder to try to prevent change.

In 1965, there was no Internet. No Facebook. No Twitter. So people actually had to confront each other in person. Not so today.

One can hardly read an article of any sort on the Internet without being assaulted by a blast of name-calling, hyperbolic accusations, and general disregard for others. And whether we are participating in these troll-fests or not, even those of us who read the comments sections on popular news sites are somehow metaphorically guilty of standing idly by the blood of our neighbors (from Parashat Qedoshim, Leviticus 19:16).

The relative anonymity of the online environment makes it far easier for us to cut each other down, to trade insults, to grandstand with impunity. And our online behavior is ultimately reflected in our feelings for one another offline.

We read this morning about how the new pharaoh “did not know Yosef.” (אשר לא ידע את יוסף – Ex. 1:8) Rashi points to a disagreement in the Talmud between Rav and Shemuel about whether this was, in fact, a new king or not. And if it was, in fact, the old king, then suddenly he was pretending not to know Yosef.

It is perfectly normal, perfectly human, and definitely Jewish to disagree with each other. And it is completely appropriate for us to stand up for the principles in which we believe. But a functional society depends on our willingness to be able to disagree with each other and continue to talk to each other and work with each other. We are, as I have mentioned in this space before, faced by many contemporary challenges; we will never solve them by demeaning each other.

And, indeed, we cannot be like the pharaoh who pretended not to know Yosef. We cannot pretend not to know our fellow Americans. We cannot dismiss the people with whom we disagree, as if their feelings and opinions cancel our ability to perceive any and all traces of decency.

On the contrary, says the Torah. Ve’ahavta lereiakha kamokha (Lev. 19:18). Love your neighbor as yourself. Even if they believe things that you find absolutely odious. The Torah clearly does not say, love your neighbor as yourself, but only if she thinks like you do. We, the Jews, must lead by example; we must continue to be or lagoyim, a light unto the nations.

I offer you the following piece from the Talmud for your consideration:

ת”ר: לא יסקל אדם מרשותו לרה”ר. מעשה באדם אחד שהיה מסקל מרשותו לרה”ר, ומצאו חסיד אחד, אמר לו: ריקה, מפני מה אתה מסקל מרשות שאינה שלך לרשות שלך! לגלג עליו. לימים נצרך למכור שדהו, והיה מהלך באותו רה”ר ונכשל באותן אבנים, אמר: יפה אמר לי אותו חסיד מפני מה אתה מסקל מרשות שאינה שלך לרשות שלך.

Our rabbis taught: “A person should not throw stones from his property into public grounds.

It happened that one man was throwing stones from his property into the public domain. A pious man passed by and said to him, “Foolish one, why are you throwing stones from property that does not belong to you onto ground that does belong to you?”

The man laughed at him. As time went by he had to sell his field and when he was walking on those public grounds, stumbled over his own stones.

He then exclaimed, “That pious man was right when he said to me, “Why are you throwing stones from ground that does not belong to you onto ground that does belong to you?” (Bava Qamma 50b)

We have to work hard to protect not only our physical public spaces, but our political, social, spiritual, and emotional public spaces as well. Throwing insults and epithets as a form of discourse into the online cloud is like tossing rocks into the street. We’re all going to eventually trip over them.

If we truly want to be upstanders, we must work hard to rekindle our civility. We cannot allow differences of opinion to fragment our democracy. We have to build a temple to love and compassion in that metaphysical public space. We have to remember and invoke our shared values.

That does not mean we have to agree. That does not mean that we have to tolerate hatred, bigotry, intolerance, or shaming of any kind. But it does mean that we have to speak nicely to each other, and occasionally give our produce up for the benefit of the other, so that we may build that temple.

 

~

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 1/21/2017.)

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