Increase the Love: HaMishpahah / the Family – Rosh Hashanah 5779, Day 2

(This is part II of a four-part High Holiday sermon cycle. I encourage you to read part I first: Increase the Love: Ani / the Self – Rosh Hashanah 5779, Day 1)

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How many of us saw the documentary about Mr. Rogers, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”? One thing that we heard Mr. Rogers say during the film, which has stuck with me, is as follows: “The greatest thing that we can do is to help somebody know that they’re loved and capable of loving.”

Now, my guess is that some of us in the room actually met Fred Rogers, and I have been assured by people in the know that he was “the real deal” – a genuine person whose off-screen personality matched the one on the show. He was not acting; he was truly a loving person who wanted to improve the lives of all the people he reached, and particularly the children. His primary goal, it seems, was to increase the love in this world.

Yesterday I introduced the topic of love, and the framework of this High Holiday sermon cycle. We learned that love starts with Ani, with the I. We cannot love others until we love ourselves.

Today, we move from the alef (א) of ahavah (אהבה ) to the heh (ה): hamishpahah. The family. Moving outwards from Maimonides’ concentric circles of responsibility, the next stop is the people closest to you, your family.

concentric_circles

Judaism actually mandates that each of us has particular obligations to our family: various ways of honoring our parents and being responsible for our spouses, and of course teaching our children the words of our tradition.

But perhaps the most important thing that we can do for our family members, and particularly our children, is to teach them how to love. But how do we do this?

I would like to make the case that the way we teach our children about love is to give them the space in which to learn. Yes, we have to model. Occasionally, we have to lecture. Sometimes we even have to intervene to keep them safe. But the most essential piece of parenting is ultimately to equip our children to leave us; that is how we demonstrate our love, and children so properly equipped will, in love, prepare their children the same way.

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As some of you have heard me say many times, the essential mitzvah, and here I will translate that word as holy obligation, of Jewish life is learning. It is our ancient custom of relaying our textual tradition from generation to generation that has maintained our people. Who are we without the next generation, and how will the next generation manage without familiarity with what it means to be Jewish, and the value that Judaism brings to your life?

A few years back, a mother was arrested in South Carolina for letting her 9-year-old daughter play in a playground alone near her workplace. She was a single mother, a shift manager at a fast-food restaurant, and for some time the girl been entertaining herself with a tablet while her mother worked. When that was stolen, the mother sent the girl, equipped with a cell phone, to a park next door. It was all fine until another mother called the police.

In the summer of 2014, a 9-year-old girl in Arizona shot and killed a gun instructor with an Uzi. Her parents brought her to the shooting range and set her up for a lesson; when she could not handle the recoil from the notoriously difficult-to-handle Israeli-made submachine gun, she shot the teacher in what amounted to a tragic accident.

The first mother served time in jail for letting her daughter play in a busy park. The parents who put an Uzi in their child’s hands? No charges were filed.

On what planet does any of that make sense? What are the messages that these cases signal to our next generation? That playing in a playground is dangerous but that guns are OK? Is this a way to love our children?

I read not too long ago a captivating article in the The Atlantic magazine about a unique playground in Wales. It’s called “The Land,” and it is unlike anything that you would think of when you hear the word “playground.” It is effectively a dirty junkyard: an assemblage of old furniture, used tires, ropes and big pipes and discarded toys and wooden pallets and tools of all sorts. There is a fire pit, a stream running through it, a whole lot of mud, and various types of building materials scattered about. There are adults inside called “playworkers” whose job it is to try to avoid injuries, but they rarely stop the kids from running around, building, jumping, lighting and playing tools and with fire, and doing all sorts of things that most of us would consider “dangerous.” The Land bears no resemblance to the safe, cushioned, clean, colorful (perhaps even sterile) playgrounds that one finds all over America.

The creators of The Land have fashioned a space in which children can develop their creativity in infinite ways – not limited by the presence of hovering parents or the fear of getting hurt. The theory behind it is that children who are given independence, who are allowed the thrill of exploring and taking risks, develop healthier coping skills. They are more self-reliant and work out problems for themselves. They overcome fear. If we view our children as incapable of handling challenges, if we do not trust them to manage some risk, then they will fulfill our greatest fears.

There are a few passages from Jewish text that tell us about raising children. The first is one with which most of us are familiar because it is found in the first paragraph of the Shema (Deut. 6:7)

וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ

Veshinantam levanekha.

You shall teach them to your children.

Now the word “them” here appears to refer to the text of the Shema itself, although it may very well imply the entire body of Jewish learning, beginning with the Torah and proceeding on to all the great works of the Jewish bookshelf – the Talmud, the midrashim, the centuries of commentary. This suggestion is reinforced by a statement in Pirqei Avot (5:23):

הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, בֶּן חָמֵשׁ שָׁנִים לַמִּקְרָא, בֶּן עֶשֶׂר לַמִּשְׁנָה, בֶּן שְׁלשׁ עֶשְׂרֵה לַמִּצְוֹת, בֶּן חֲמֵשׁ עֶשְׂרֵה לַתַּלְמוּד

[Yehuda ben Teima] used to say: At the age of five, the study of Bible; at ten, the study of Mishnah; at thirteen, responsibility for the mitzvot; at fifteen, the study of Talmud….

And yes, we do aspire to teach our children our holy books. But not just so that they can spit back the story of Creation or the Flood or the midrash about Abraham destroying the idols in his father’s shop. Rather, we learn these stories so, for example, that when we spot “idolatry” in our own world – worship of money and material goods, or a slavish devotion to our electronic devices, or the tendency to place our desires over the needs of others  – we know that we should find the better path.

The Talmud (Qiddushin 29a) tells us that we are obligated to teach our children three things:

האב חייב בבנו למולו ולפדותו וללמדו תורה ולהשיאו אשה וללמדו אומנות וי”א אף להשיטו במים

The father is obligated to circumcise his son, to teach him Torah, to find him a wife, and to teach him a trade. And some add, to teach him to swim.

So in addition to seeing a child through berit millah and marriage, the parent must teach a child Torah, how to earn a livelihood, and to swim. Rashi quite logically explains this third item by remarking that if one is traveling by boat and falls in, it could save one’s life.

But the wider message here is much more interesting. The first two items suggest that the goal is to make a person who not only can support him/herself and has familiarity with Jewish tradition, but also is well-rounded, can draw on Jewish values in making decisions, who will not merely follow the crowd but will think for him/herself.

But what does it mean to teach your child to swim? It means holding on to the child at first, and then gradually letting go, until she or he can manage in the water alone. This is, of course, a challenge to both the parent and the child.

A long time ago, at one of my first cantorial pulpits, a congregant of mine told me the following: Parenting is about learning to let go. We cannot always be there for our children. We teach them our values, we fill them with useful information, and then we leave them alone. We cannot always be there to hover over them in case they fall or make a mistake.

Not long before he died, the actor Leonard Nimoy gave an extensive interview to the National Yiddish Book Center. Mr. Nimoy, of course, was perhaps most famous for playing the hyper-logical character Spock on Star Trek, but he spoke in the interview about growing up in a Yiddish-speaking environment in Boston. He mentions one of his favorite songs, a song that, like so many Yiddish songs, gets me right here.

It’s called Oyfn Veg Shteyt a Boym. It’s about a little boy who sees a deserted tree, bent and unprotected in a winter storm, and wants to become a bird to fly to the tree to comfort it with song. The mother bird, who wants to protect her nestling from freezing to death, insists that he put on a coat, a scarf, galoshes, long underwear, and a fur hat. So he does, and then the boy discovers that he cannot fly because he has been smothered by his mother’s overbearing “love” (transliteration from Mir Trogn A Gezang, a treasury of Yiddish songs).

Oyfn veg shteyt a boym
Shteyt er ayngeboygn
Ale feygl funem boym
Zaynen zikh tsefloygn

Dray keyn mayrev, dray keyn mizrekh
Un der resht – keyn dorem
Un dem boym gelozt aleyn
Hefker far dem shturem

Zog ikh tsu der mamen – her
Zolst mir nor nit shtern
Vel ikh mame, eyns un tsvey
Bald a foygl vern

Ikh vel zitsn oyfn boym
Un vel im farvign
Ibern vinter mit a treyst
Mit a sheynem nign

Yam tari tari tari…

The song concludes with, “Sadly, I gaze into my mother’s eyes, knowing that it was her love that kept me from soaring like a bird.”

Reflecting on his own experience, Mr. Nimoy recalled that his parents did not want him to become an actor; they did not trust him to make the right choices for himself. Of course, we know how it worked out.

We have to be careful, ladies and gentlemen, not to let our love stifle our children. Teach them to swim; don’t be there with the lifejacket, the noodle, the pole and the canoe. We have to give them independence. That is what raising the next generation is all about. Love is not meant to protect our children from the cold; it is rather meant to arm them to face the world bravely, to make their own choices; to pick themselves up when they fail.

How many of us, as parents, have heard ourselves say, “I’d like to give my child what I did not have”? Perhaps what we should say instead is, “I want to give them what I did have.”

What did you have? What did your parents give you? What did they allow you to do that most parents would never do today?

Your parents may not have been able to give you a Lexus or a Caribbean vacation or the fanciest new smartphone. But what did they give you? Was it love? Was it decent, but not fancy, home-cooked food? Was it their time? Was it an emphasis on the importance of family? Was it a love of reading, or of helping the neighbor in need, or of singing or building things in the garage or digging in the garden or playing in the great outdoors?

Was it punishment when you misbehaved? Was it shame?

Was it Judaism? Did they bring you to the synagogue, on the High Holidays? On Shabbat? Was it a love of the Divine, of things unseen?

Was it a sense of purpose, of belonging? Was it the drive to succeed?

Not too long ago, New York Magazine published an article by Lisa Miller about the ethics of parenting, which documented some of the ways in which contemporary parents might bend the rules a bit to give their children an edge. The author, perhaps rationalizing her own misdeeds, likened parenting to war, and pointed to a whole range of misbehaviors that she knew her friends and fellow warriors to be guilty of: lying on school applications, pulling strings of all sorts to get them into this program or that, paying $20K for test-prep, getting them unnecessary prescriptions to drugs that help with concentration, and so forth. She cites the apocryphal story of the woman who, with her husband’s permission, slept with an Ivy League admissions officer to get her son into a select university.

Ms. Miller asks the essential questions:

“But how are children supposed to learn honesty and fairness when the parents are yelling at the coach to give Johnny more playing time? Or wrangling behind the scenes to get Susie into a particular day care? Put another way: By advantaging kids at every turn, are parents, in fact, laming them? Are they raising children they may not ultimately want as colleagues, neighbors, or friends?”

She points to research data that suggest that cheating is commonplace and accepted and in some cases believed to be required; one such study showed that 95% of high school juniors and seniors confess to have cheated in the past year.

But does she chide the guilty? No. In fact, she excuses herself and all of us by saying, “It’s tough out there.”

But that is exactly the point. It’s tough, for children and adults, and by shielding our children from the challenges and risks of life, we do them a great disservice. In Paul Tough’s book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, Mr. Tough identifies the qualities that actually lead to accomplishment. It is not performing well on tests or being surrounded by children of privilege that equip children to succeed. Rather, it is conscientiousness, self-control, curiosity, and perseverance that yield the best outcomes.

Dr. Wendy Mogel is an author who does marvelously what each of us should do: she uses the texts of Jewish tradition to teach us about our lives today. In particular, she has written books on parenting that see children and their behavior through the lens of ancient Jewish texts. In her book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, she points to a classic statement of Jewish law, from the so-called “Holiness Code” of Leviticus (19:14):

לפני עיוור לא תתן מכשול

Do not put a stumbling block in front of the blind.

Dr. Mogel uses this passage to refer to our children, and in doing so I think that she sums up all of this quite nicely:

“Keeping too close an eye on our children is a stumbling block. If they don’t have the chance to be bad, they can’t choose to be good. If they don’t have the chance to fail, they can’t learn. And if they aren’t allowed to face scary situations, they’ll grow up to be frightened of life’s simplest challenges.”

Our next generation is indeed precious; they will carry our body of learning, practice and values into the future. But we cannot treat them like they are precious. We have to teach them to swim. We have to give them the independence that they need to flourish.

The greatest mitzvah of parenthood is to let go. Don’t give your children what you didn’t have; give them what you did have.

As we send our children out into the world, the message that we hope they have received in love is, “You are ready. You are prepared. You’re going to be OK. You are loved.”

We love them so that we can set them free.

We’ll speak on Yom Kippur about lhttps://themodernrabbi.com/2018/09/20/increase-the-love-beyahad-community-kol-nidrei-5779/https://themodernrabbi.com/2018/09/20/increase-the-love-beyahad-community-kol-nidrei-5779/ve of community and love of the world.

Shanah tovah!

 

~

(Delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, second day of Rosh Hashanah 5779, 9/11/2018.)

 

Next in the series:

Increase the Love: Beyahad / Community – Kol Nidrei 5779

 

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Increase the Love: Ani / the Self – Rosh Hashanah 5779, Day 1

Some of you know that I come from a family for whom musical theater is understood to be the height of artistic expression. (My wife is a former member of Actors Equity, having toured with Phantom of the Opera for 2.5 years.)

But even before I met her, I was always in love with the stage and musicals. You probably do not know this about me, but I can, in fact, sing every note and every lyric of Fiddler on the Roof. When I was 2 or 3, I had a well-worn vinyl copy of the Zero Mostel soundtrack that I used to play on my kiddie turntable. It was scratchy and skipped, but I was hooked.

Many of us have very nostalgic notions about Fiddler, as if it accurately captures a world that was. In fact, Fiddler, when it came out in the early ’60s, was already indulging in a romanticization of the shtetl.

You may recall that in Fiddler, Tevye’s daughters come to him, contrary to his expectations, to tell him who they are going to marry. They want to marry people they love.

“Love,” says Tevye. “It’s the new style.”

Because, at least according to Fiddler, that’s just not how they did it in the old world. Tevye then goes on to ask his wife, “Do you love me?”, a question that had apparently never been addressed in their household before.

A challenge that we face in contemporary Judaism is that most of us have come to believe that while Christianity teaches love, Judaism is about action and justice. That feeling has no place in the Jewish religious context.

That is frankly ridiculous.

Over these High Holidays, I will be speaking about love, because I think that the most important thing we can do right now, at this very moment, is to increase the love.

I have created a little mnemonic structure for the four sermons over these days; I hope you will all be here to hear the complete cycle:

אהבה
אני
המשפחה
ביחד
העולם

Ahavah (love) =
Ani / I;
Hamishpahah / the family;
Beyahad / together (i.e. community);
Ha’olam / the world.

That is today’s focus: the I. The Ani. And over the remainder of these High Holidays, we will expand outward from the Ani to love of family, love of community, and love of the world. (אהבה).

Before we talk about love of self, I need to explain why love is this year’s theme.

We are living in a time of great challenges to our society. I think that we are seeing a breakdown on multiple levels of inter-connectedness, of social capital, of ability to talk to each other. That has something to do with our retreat into our own individual electronic bubbles with the aid of social media, and a good deal to do with the political rifts that are quite evident today.

One of those factors is, frankly, selfishness. We are, for the most part, all looking out for ourselves. Not enough of us are concerned about the common good. In the last half-century, we have seen the rise of the “Me” generation, of “looking out for number one.” “Greed is good,” said Gordon Gekko.

Berkeley professor and former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich recently published a book about our current situation entitled, The Common Good. Reich presents many examples of how we have lost the sense of working toward the common good.

From a macro perspective, consider the following: Frank Abrams, the CEO of Standard Oil of New Jersey, said the following in 1951:

“The job of management is to maintain an equitable and working balance among the claims of the various directly affected interest groups… stockholders, employees, customers, and the public at large.” Reich claims that at one time, CEOs were “corporate statesmen” who felt responsible for the common good of the nation.

In contrast, consider Martin Shkreli, the young executive who arbitrarily raised the price of a necessary drug from $13 a pill to $750 overnight. Although widely execrated and eventually convicted on an unrelated charge, Shkreli was legally permitted to make this move, and those who needed the drug (and those of us who pay into the insurance system) suffered.

I am sure that we can think of many ways in which we have lost the sense of connection to and responsibility for each other. In many places in America, people do not even know their neighbors. (Here in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, we are, of course, bucking the trend somewhat, although how close are we to those around us?)

How can we expect to thrive in such an environment, where we’re all looking out for number one, where we are all lone actors, independent and isolated? How can a sense of the common good even exist?

The antidote to this disconnection is to Increase the love. If there is one thing we need more of in this world, it’s love. If there is one thing that a synagogue, that Judaism should stand for, it’s love.

ahavah

Now, you may not have heard that in Hebrew school. Judaism has often seemed cold: rabbinic tradition is fond of throwing up barriers, of drawing lines, of delineating clear boundaries. This is kosher; that is not. You can do this on Shabbat; you cannot do that. No emotion; just law.

When you dig a little deeper, however,  you will see that ahavah / love is invoked over and over in our rituals, in our texts. In other words, Tevye was wrong! Love is not the new style. Love is actually the old style.

Just a few examples:

וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ

Ve’ahavta lereiakha kamokha.

Love your fellow person as yourself. (Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:18)

Rabbi Aqiva (Talmud Yerushalmi, Nedarim 30b) calls this a “kelal gadol baTorah” – literally, a great principle, that is, an essential, foundational idea upon which all of Torah is based. We will certainly be discussing this more over the next few days.

Rabbinic tradition actually thinks of Torah, in its greater sense, as the manifestation of God’s love for us. And, of course, when we recite the Shema itself, what is the first word of the second line?

וְאָהַבְתָּ, אֵת ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשְׁךָ, וּבְכָל-מְאֹדֶך

Ve-ahavta et Adonai Elohekha bekhol levavekha, uvkhol nafshekha, uvkhol me’odekha.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 6:5)

And some of us might speak of Ahavat Yisrael, love of fellow Jews, and Ahavat Torah, love of Torah, as being essential values.

But, pulling back the lens, love is what has to drive us, not only as Jews, but as members of a wider society that is really in crisis mode. Love is the basis of community; it causes us to work for the greater good; it enhances our lives and our relationships.

To understand the meaning of love in the Jewish way, we have to put the statement “Ve’ahavta lereiakha kamokha” in its proper context. That verse (Lev. 19:18) is found in a part of Vayiqra / Leviticus that focuses on the essential mitzvot between people. Among them we find the obligations to honor your parents (Vayiqra 19:3), to leave some of your produce to the needy (19:9-10), show deference to the elderly (19:32), treat the stranger among you with respect (19:33-34), use honest weights and measures in your business dealings (19:35), and so forth.

Love is essentially a matter of being in relationship with the people around you in a way that benefits the common good. The Torah does not care if you dislike the person with whom you have an exchange in the marketplace; you still have an obligation not to swindle him or her. The covenant of love requires us, on some level, to maintain a system of trust and responsibility with all people, even our enemies.

Our tradition wants – no, requires us to look beyond ourselves, wants us to reach out to others.

And you know what? You cannot love others until you love yourself. Ve-ahavta lereiakha kamokha. Love your neighbor as you love yourself, says the verse. Because love is an all-encompassing thing: it flows from God, with whom we are in relationship, and flows into all of our relationships, including that with ourselves.

But there is a tension here. Consider the following story from the Talmud (Bava Metzia 62a), a classic conundrum:

שנים שהיו מהלכין בדרך וביד אחד מהן קיתון של מים אם שותין שניהם מתים ואם שותה אחד מהן מגיע לישוב דרש בן פטורא מוטב שישתו שניהם וימותו ואל יראה אחד מהם במיתתו של חבירו עד שבא ר’ עקיבא ולימד וחי אחיך עמך חייך קודמים לחיי חבירך

If two people were walking on a desolate path and there was a jug of water in the possession of one of them, and the situation was such that if both drink from the jug, both will die, as there is not enough water, but if only one of them drinks, he will reach a settled area, there is a dispute as to the halakha. Ben Petura taught: It is preferable that both of them drink and die, and let neither one of them see the death of the other. This was the accepted opinion until Rabbi Aqiva came and taught that the verse states: “And your brother shall live with you,” indicating that your life takes precedence over the life of the other.

The Talmud is wrestling with the question of whether your love for your neighbor outweighs your love for yourself? Ben Petura says yes, and this love will lead you to die along with your buddy. But Rabbi Aqiva says no: your life takes precedence.

The reality, of course, is that we must balance these two inclinations. Virtually every situation involving other people dwells in the greys. The challenge therein is reflected in this well-known Hasidic story, from Rabbi Simhah Bunim of Przysucha, in central Poland. Rabbi Simhah Bunim carried two slips of paper, one in each pocket. On one was written, in Hebrew: Bishvili nivra ha-olam—“for my sake the world was created.” On the other he wrote: “Va-anokhi afar ve-efer”—“And I am but dust and ashes.” He would take out each slip of paper as necessary, as a reminder to himself.

We are all faced with the constant dilemma of, am I the most important thing in my world, or should I place others above me? The great sage Hillel said, Im ein ani li mi li? If I am not for myself, who am I? Ukhshe’ani le’atzmi mah ani? And if I am only for myself, what am I? (Pirqei Avot 1:13). Is the world created for my sake? Or am I but dust and ashes?

Maimonides actually draws circles to illustrate this point in his discussion of tzedaqah, the giving of charity. What does the word tzedaqah mean? Literally, it means “righteousness.” By taking care of those around us with material donations, we are acting righteously; we are acting out of love. You are at the center of every circle. You are the starting point for love of everybody else. You (singular) have to come first. We cannot love others until we love ourselves. If, as Rambam says, there are concentric circles of caring, where do they all start?

How do we love ourselves? Is it through…

  •     Exercise
  •     “Pampering”
  •     Vacation
  •     Buying stuff
  •     Personal time / alone time

I would argue that, while most of these are good things, they are not necessarily self-love. All of these things, perhaps with the exception of alone time, are physical. And it makes sense that we would consider these things first: material things are always easier to understand, to grab hold of than spiritual things.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz tells the following tale: A fisherman caught a large pike, and said to himself, “This is wonderful! I’ll take it to the Baron; he loves pike.” The fish is thinking, “Oh, good! There is some hope for me yet.” The fisherman brings it to the Baron’s manor, to the kitchen. The cooks ooh and aah over the fish, chattering about how much the Baron loves pike. The fish is getting woozy, but this sounds hopeful.

So they summon the Baron to the kitchen, and upon seeing the large pike, he says, “Cut off the tail, cut off the head, and slit it this way.” With his last breath, the fish cries out in great despair, “Why did you lie? You don’t love pike, you love yourself!”

We are awash in stuff, and in ways to amuse and distract ourselves. What we really need to do is to nourish the spirit. And I have some good news for you: one of the ways to do this is to do what you are doing right now, that is setting aside time for matters of the spirit. Meditation. Reading inspirational material. Spending time pondering the grandeur of Creation. Introspection. Considering philosophy and ethics. Giving yourself space to grieve. Making a point to be grateful. I would hazard a guess that most of us are not doing enough of these things.

There are two major traditional Jewish ways of doing this: through tefillah, prayer, and limmud, learning our ancient Jewish texts.

Most of us think that tefillah / prayer is “talking to God.” I would argue that actually tefillah is primarily talking to yourself. Not that we hope God doesn’t hear, of course, but the actual Hebrew word, lehitpallel, means, “to judge oneself.” (BTW, it does not mean, “reciting obscure words in an ancient language that I don’t understand.”)

When we are doing tefillah (praying is really just an inadequate translation), we are actually standing in judgment of ourselves. If you’re doing it right, particularly on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, you should be taking stock of yourself, doing a personal inventory.

It is an opportunity to “check in” with ourselves, something that most of us rarely do. It is also a way of ensuring that every day, you take a moment to offer some words of gratitude: gratitude for what you have, gratitude for the fact that all (or most) of your body parts still function, gratitude that the Earth continues to bring forth food and rain and daily wonders.

And, by the way, nobody cares if you don’t know the Hebrew words, or when to bow, or cover your eyes. For sure God doesn’t care. Use the words that come to you. Or don’t use any words at all.

The other major vehicle in Jewish life is learning. Many of you have already learned something today about Judaism: that our tradition highlights love as an essential value.

But Judaism’s richness in learning is practically limitless. Many of you have heard me sing the praises of the Jewish bookshelf; its wisdom, once unlocked, can give you the tools not only to love yourself, but also to love your neighbor and the rest of the world. It is our tradition that reminds us to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to build peace in this world.

It is our tradition that reminds us to be responsible for the strangers among us. The Talmud says that this principle is invoked 36 times, i.e. double חי / hai. You should love the stranger in your midst enough for two lifetimes.

And it’s not just cracking open a volume of Talmud or a siddur / prayerbook that teaches us to love ourselves. It is also in regular Jewish practice.

Kashrut / dietary laws teach us about taking care that what goes into our mouths is as important as what comes out. Yom Kippur teaches us to be responsible for our behavior. Shabbat teaches us to set aside time to just be present.

(You know, one possible way of loving yourself might be to turn your smartphone off for the 25 hours of Shabbat. Might be worth trying – it’s not so hard. Trust me – I do it every week. And it’s great.)

How do we love ourselves? By finding balance between the material and the spiritual. By learning the value of reaching out to others. By scouring our internals to find the areas that need work. By making sure that we are self-aware enough to separate our needs from our wants and to make sure that our choices are our own and not those of others.

The Hebrew word for “I,” ani, begins with the same letter as “ahavah” / “love”, with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the alef.

But there is something curious about that letter. Unlike any letter in English, the alef is silent. So the word ani starts from a place of silence, an infinitesimally small place. You might think of that place of silence as your very core, that place from which Maimonides’ concentric circles of caring emanate.

That silent alef embedded within each of us is the point from which all love emanates. In order to increase the love, we have to find that alef, to find the love within ourselves and embrace it.

Shanah tovah!

Read the second installment: Increase the Love: HaMishpahah / The Family – Rosh Hashanah 5779, Day 2

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, first day of Rosh Hashanah 5779, 9/10/2018.)

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Opening Doors, Avoiding Walls – Ki Tavo 5778

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

Woman: You have someone on that plane?

Loretta: Yeah, my fiancé.

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

Loretta: I don’t believe in curses.

Woman: [shrugging] Eh, neither do I.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are some of the curses?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

magritte lembellie

Rene Magritte, L”Embellie

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

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

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

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

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

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

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

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

stop the islamization of texas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

veahavta.png

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

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

You count. You are needed.

And here is what we all need you to do:

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

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

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

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Williamstown

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

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

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

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

Moshe

Why the change?  What’s the difference?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

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The World is Burning – Re’eh 5778

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

Devil's Tower

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

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

The world is on fire.

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

Smoke in Grand Canyon

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

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

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

Ladies and gentlemen, the world is burning up.

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

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

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

רְאֵה, אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָה

Re’eh anokhi noten lifneikhem hayom berakhah ukelalah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

בְּאֵין חָזוֹן, יִפָּרַע עָם

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

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

Re’eh anokhi noten lifneikhem hayom.

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

Shabbat shalom.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

 

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Dubi Haiyun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

rivlin panel

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

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

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

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