All of This Belongs to You – Hanukkah 5780

On October 29, 2018, I went to Presbyterian Hospital to visit a congregant who was near death, unrelated to the shooting that had occurred two days earlier. I parked my car on the street, and when I stepped out, an African-American woman, who had been sitting in her car eating lunch, approached me. She was wearing a green outfit that is common for hospital employees. “Are you Jewish?” she asked. Intuitively wary of that particular question, I tentatively nodded. “Can I give you a hug?” she said. “Absolutely,” I replied, and received what was among the warmest hugs that I have ever experienced. Nothing needed to be said; the comfort that she offered was overwhelming and implicit. It spoke silently of shared persecution, of historical wrongs and overcoming prejudice.

I went upstairs to visit our congregant, who, entirely coincidentally, was in the room next door to Dan Leger, who had been grievously wounded by the hate-filled shooter. His wife Ellen spotted me in the hallway, and took me in to see him. I offered words of prayer and comfort, and I am so grateful that Dan is still with us today.

More than a year on from those days of acute pain and anguish and confusion, these two little bits of memory have become intertwined. The hug gave me hope that we can and will spread more light and love into the dark corners of this world if we work together, across racial and ethnic and other meaningless boundaries. The holy moment in the hospital reminded me not only of the great need for that light and love, but also the urgency of the task before us.

As you kindle the lights of Hanukkah for eight nights with family and friends, hold them all tightly together, admire the way that the light shines out through the window into the dark, and consider how we all can push back against the forces of hatred. Find an action, even a small one, that will illuminate this world just a little more. Let the warm glow of the hanukkiah be a beacon that drives us all to make this a safer, brighter, more loving place for all of God’s Creation. All of this belongs to you.

Happy Hanukkah! 

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Angels for Anxiety – Vayyetze 5780

I had a captivating conversation this week in the context of an ongoing interfaith discussion in which I participate called the “Priest-Rabbi dialogue.” We meet two or three times a year, a group of about 10, evenly divided between Catholic and Orthodox priests and Reform and Conservative rabbis, and we generally discuss matters of theological interest. The initial subject of Thursday’s meeting was trans-substantiation, which is the Christian concept of the wine and bread used in some church rituals that are understood to turn into the body and blood of Jesus.

Now of course, we Jews also use wine and bread in our rituals, but for us they are symbols of the luxury of Shabbat (and Yom Tov holidays), symbols that set apart the 25 hours of Shabbat as being sanctified time. But this led to a fascinating back-and-forth about what we consider holy – time, objects, places, and so forth. One could make the case that in Judaism, there are really no holy objects or places, only sanctified time (we can argue that one over kiddush – literally, sanctification of the day – if you’d like). Likewise, while for Catholics and Orthodox Christians, relics – bones and body parts of dead saints – are considered holy and in some cases necessary for the building of worship spaces, to Jews that is anathema.

The discussion sparked my thinking about angels, which feature heavily in Parashat Vayyetze. After waking from his vision of angels, Ya’aqov says (Bereshit / Genesis 28:16), “Akhen yesh Adonai bamaqom hazeh ve-anokhi lo yada’ti” – “Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!” In other words, the presence of angels here, whether in a dream or not, gave Ya’aqov the sense that it is a holy place. He dubs the location “Beit El,” or Bethel, the house of God – the angels indicate God’s presence.

I must say that I have been fascinated by the angel passages in Bereshit for quite a long time. Avraham and Sarah are visited by angels multiple times; Lot offers up his daughters to the evil men of Sodom, rather than let them have his angelic guests; an angel saves Yitzhaq’s life; Ya’aqov has two run-ins with angels, and the next one will be when he wrestles with one, who renames him Yisrael, the one who has struggled with God. Midrash has angels there at the creation of the world; when God says, in first-person plural, “Na’aseh adam betzalmenu,” “Let us create a human in our image,” the midrash envisions the Qadosh Barukh Hu / Holy Blessed One as consulting with the heavenly court of angels.

And we continue to invoke them over and over. How many of us sang, last night, “Peace unto you, O ministering angels”? (I.e. Shalom aleikhem, mal’akhei ha-sharet.) How many of us sing Had Gadya on Pesah, during which we recall the Mal’akh haMavet, the Angel of Death? How many of us see the wings of the keruvim, representing those on top of the Aron haBerit / Ark of the Covenant up on the wall behind me?

Over the ark at Congregation Beth Shalom

And how many of us noticed the angels in the first berakhah this morning in Shaharit, the morning service, who are calling to one another with the words from the prophet Isaiah (6:3):

וְקָרָא זֶה אֶל-זֶה וְאָמַר, קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ ה’ צְבָאוֹת; מְלֹא כָל-הָאָרֶץ, כְּבוֹדוֹ.

And one would call to the other, “Holy, holy, holy! The LORD of Hosts! His presence fills all the earth!”

… and the words of Ezekiel (3:12), who describes the great noise of the angels’ wings beating against one another as they say,

וַתִּשָּׂאֵ֣נִי ר֔וּחַ וָאֶשְׁמַ֣ע אַחֲרַ֔י ק֖וֹל רַ֣עַשׁ גָּד֑וֹל בָּר֥וּךְ כְּבוֹד־ה’ מִמְּקוֹמֽוֹ׃

Then a spirit carried me away, and behind me I heard a great roaring sound: “Blessed is the Presence of the LORD, in His place.” *

And then we repeated those lines in the Qedushah, when we recited the Amidah aloud, only this time, we were actually acting like angels, standing with our feet together as if they are fused (Ezekiel 1:7), and lifting ourselves up heavenward.

(Actually, I recently learned from Dr. Reuven Kimelman, a scholar of Jewish liturgy who teaches at Brandeis, that we are actually imitating angels who are imitating humans! But that’s another story.)

But you probably did not notice any of those things, because we do them all the time without thinking about them.

Judaism is saturated with angelology. And I think the reason we have not focused on them is that, well, they’re kind of hard to explain. And, as heavenly beings, they challenge somewhat the idea of the unity and supremacy of God, in the monotheistic ideal. And, let’s face it: we’re all rational, and angels are not. The two centuries of history of the contemporary movements in Judaism have leaned heavily into rationalism, and thus Jewish angelology and Jewish mysticism were jettisoned. And, frankly, the whole idea seems vaguely Christian.

But to come back to Ya’aqov, on the run, being pursued by his angry and possibly violent brother Esav, the angels in his dream, climbing up and down that ladder on missions to and from Earth, are reassuring. They are an indicator that he’s OK, that he’s on the right path. Sure, he has deceived his father Yitzhaq to get his blessing, aided and abetted by his mother Rivqah, but that was the way it was meant to be from the outset. He must be in an anxious, uncomfortable place.

And yet he is in Beit El, the house of God.

Let’s fast forward to the present. My guess is that nobody here has seen an angel, at least as far as we know. I have no idea what an angel looks like, except that maybe some of them have fused legs, and that some of them (ofanim) are wheel-shaped, and some of them (serafim) must appear as though they are burning, and that keruvim (cherubim, in “English”) have wings. I don’t think I have seen any of those things. Maybe they are not meant to be seen, but rather merely imagined. Or dreamt about.

But meanwhile, we are living in anxious times. We are daily assaulted by the misdeeds of our fellow humans. 

  • Great political division
  • Disinformation campaigns
  • Racism and other forms of hatred
  • Anti-Semitism
  • Mass shootings in every imaginable context

I must say, the world is an increasingly scary place, especially for the Jews. But then I remember that this is why we have Judaism: when life is challenging, our tradition is a source of comfort and strength. When we mourn, when we fear, when we celebrate our freedom and our enlightenment and our striving to be better people, we rely on our customs and texts and wisdom for framework. And, almost everywhere we look in Judaism for that framework, we find hints of angels.

So I’ll let you in on a little secret: they are here. One midrashic opinion understands that our words of prayer are carried to God by angels.

When Ya’aqov awakes from his dream and understands that the presence of angels indicates that God is “bamaqom hazeh,” in this place, we too must understand that the heavenly court is right here with us, even right now. And this is a reminder that we are in the right place, the place of truth and justice. The place where God’s will is fulfilled. The place where all is good in the world, even when circumstances tell us to be anxious, to fear for our present and our future.

What do we say to those who are in shiv’ah, the deepest period of mourning during the first week after burial? Hamaqom yenahem etkhem. May God comfort you. But the euphemism for God here is maqom, place. We say literally, “May The Place comfort you.”  Wherever we gather, God is in that place. Maybe God even IS that place, marked by the presence of angels.

  • Whenever we comfort those who mourn, God is in that place.
  • Wherever we work for the benefit of the wider society, God is in that place.
  • Whenever we support those who are needy, God is in that place.
  • Wherever and whenever we pursue acts of qedushah / holiness, God is in that place.
  • Wherever we study the words of our ancient tradition, God is in that place.
  • Whenever we express gratitude for what we have, God is in that place.

Look for the angels. You will not see them, but they are there. They are all over the place. And their presence bamaqom hazeh, in this place, indicates that God is with us as well. I hope that this presence will bring us all some comfort in anxious times.

The Shabbat window at Beth Shalom

Shabbat shalom!

* It is a common scholarly opinion that the word “barukh” in this verse should be emended to “berum,” so that the verse should instead be understood as not recording words that the angels are saying, but that the sounds of the wings beating against each other create a great noise “as the Presence of the Lord rose from where it stood.” This makes a lot more sense in context, and does not change the fact that the angels feature heavily in this passage in Ezekiel. It does, however, render apparently incorrect the doxology that Jews have used in prayer for thousands of years.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 12/7/2019.)

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Welcoming Interfaith Families / Our Two Lives – Hayyei Sarah 5780

It seems that I’m giving an inadvertent sequel to the sermon that I gave last week.

And that is mostly because last Shabbat morning, I was reading the Federation’s new study on the experiences of interfaith families in the Pittsburgh Jewish community. I served on an advisory committee of clergy members and community leaders for the study, and also helped the researchers locate interfaith couples with whom they could speak to collect information about their experiences within the Jewish community. As you may know, we have members of this congregation where one or more family member is not Jewish according to halakhah / Jewish law, and of course we welcome those members just as we welcome Jewish members to our services, our programs and activities, and to participate in this community just as the Jewish members do, with a few exceptions related to ritual leadership.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the study are the quotes collected from these couples. Some of the material actually made me feel that Beth Shalom is doing a decent job, like the note that only five out of 17 non-Orthodox congregations’ websites actually contain language explicitly welcoming interfaith couples. Ours is one of them:

While Beth Shalom is a community rooted in the Jewish tradition, many of our members are part of families who celebrate other traditions, cultures, and religions. Rather than separate ourselves from other traditions, we embrace the diversity of our members and seek to welcome their friends and family into our community in as many ways as possible. This year, we have formed a committee to investigate how we can do this in a meaningful and respectful way.

So that’s a good thing, even if the committee was actually formed three years ago.

But something else in the study caught my eye, and it connects directly to the subject of last week’s sermon, that is, when I spoke about the challenge of being welcoming while preserving our standards of synagogue behavior:

At one service we went to, they just put a yarmulke on my kid’s head. And when I took it off there was judgment, and there were comments made, and I’ve really never felt comfortable in that setting since. And I haven’t really felt comfortable with that rabbi since then either. (Non-Jewish partner)

I read that, and I thought, well, that might have been me. And I really try very hard not to be judgy. I know that we live in an environment in which any kind of perceived slight is something that may drive people away from the synagogue in such a way that they will not come back. And yet, there was this quote from a non-Jewish partner, from a family that was clearly looking for community and connection.

And I’m picturing the situation: here comes the rabbi, with the best of intentions, and he slaps a kippah on a little boy’s head. And mom is not happy.

OK, so maybe that wasn’t me. I don’t know. I certainly hope it wasn’t.

Here’s the key: we have to find a way to make people feel welcome AND to uphold our standards.

****

Switching gears for a moment, a curious textual oddity happened in the first verse that we read this morning (Bereshit / Genesis 23:1):

וַיִּהְיוּ֙ חַיֵּ֣י שָׂרָ֔ה מֵאָ֥ה שָׁנָ֛ה וְעֶשְׂרִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה וְשֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֑ים שְׁנֵ֖י חַיֵּ֥י שָׂרָֽה׃

Sarah’s lifetime—the span of Sarah’s life—came to one hundred and twenty-seven years.

If you’re listening closely, you’ll see that the word “shanah” or “shanim,” that is, “year” or “years” appears no less than 4 times in this verse. It is the fourth one, “shenei,” that is most curious. To understand it, you have to know that Hebrew has a grammatical phenomenon that sometimes changes the shapes of words.

The last three words, “shenei hayyei Sarah,” should be understood as “the years of Sarah’s life.” The word, “shenei” is called a construct form. It appears when two nouns are smushed together in such a way that indicates that the first belongs to the second. You know many constructs: Rosh Hashanah: the head of the year; Simhat Torah: celebration of the Torah; birkat hamazon: the berakhah of food (i.e. grace after meals). In our verse, the word “shenei” is the construct form of “shanim,” years. Actually, this is a dual construct: shenei hayyei Sarah is “the years of the life of Sarah.”

However, an alternate translation, nonsensical according to the context, is that “shenei” here means “two.” So you might translate shenei hayyei Sarah as “Sarah’s two lives.” A midrash in Bereshit Rabba (58:1), following this read, tells us the following:

 וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה, מַה צֹּרֶךְ לוֹמַר שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי שָׂרָה בָּאַחֲרוֹנָה, לוֹמַר לְךָ שֶׁחָבִיב חַיֵּיהֶם שֶׁל צַדִּיקִים לִפְנֵי הַמָּקוֹם בָּעוֹלָם הַזֶּה וְלָעוֹלָם הַבָּא

“Sarah’s lifetime.” What is the need for adding shenei hayyei Sarah, “the years of the life of Sarah” at the end of the verse? It tells you that the lives of the righteous are beloved by God, both in this world and in the world to come.

That is, Sarah’s two lives are the one in the here and now, and the one in the afterlife.

But another way we might read this is that Sarah had two lives in her 127 years: one as a partner to Avraham and a mother to Yitzhaq, and everything associated with those things – her life in relationship to those around her; and the second as the first of the imahot, the matriarchs of the Jewish story: the powerful, decisive leader who stood alongside and guided her husband through the challenges of life, who became a role model for her compassion, her strength, and her industriousness.

We too fulfill multiple roles. And I am thinking now of the way that most of us move seamlessly between our secular lives and our Jewish lives. Many of us are parents or grandparents who work in the wider (i.e. non-Jewish) world, proud citizens of this secular nation who are committed to democratic ideals and engaged with contemporary society.

And yet, many of us are also deeply committed to Jewish tradition – our Shabbat, our holidays, our lifecycle events, our Torah learning, our Jewish values. And it may in fact be that when we travel amongst non-Jews, we do not think about that Jewish life. Perhaps we just think of ourselves as Americans, or Pittsburghers. We do not feel our Jewishness in every interaction.

But just as Sarah was one person, so too are we. And what we might learn from this is that there should be no mehitzah, no divider between who we are as Jews and who we are in a secular context. We should make our daily choices based on Jewish values and guided by the Jewish calendar and halakhah / Jewish law. We should act on the principles of qehillah / communal interdependence, derekh eretz / respect for the other, hakarat hatov / gratitude for the good that we have, Talmud Torah / learning our texts, and so forth as we interact with everybody around us, in all the spheres of our lives.

This is what Judaism teaches us: fuse those two lives together. Make them one. You are not a Jew only on Shabbat morning! We smell fragrant spices at havdalah to bring the joy of Shabbat into the rest of the week; so too with the Torah of compassion, of responsibility, of tzedaqah, and so forth. We bring that Torah to the world as an essential part of who we are.

And the converse should also be true: just as we bring our Judaism proudly into the world, so too should we welcome those non-Jewish and Jewish-adjacent folks who come into our space, into our synagogues and homes. We should welcome them in with the same zeal with which we should carry our Torah out into the wider world.

Let’s face it folks: history has taught us, for thousands of years, to keep our Judaism to ourselves. The anti-Semitic blood libels, the pogroms, the medieval disputations between Jews and Christians in which the Jews could never really win, the second-class dhimmi status imposed on Jews in the Muslim world, and of course the attempted genocide at the hands of the Nazis taught us to keep quiet and keep our religion to ouselves.

But you know what? Today we can walk proudly through our streets with our Judaism clearly visible. I refuse to be terrorized by re-energized anti-Semites. And we must be proud to share that tradition with whoever enters a synagogue.

We don’t have to beat them over the head with it. We don’t have to put a kippah or a tallit on anyone who does not want one, or on any kid whose parent does not like it.

But we must, at the same time, invite them in. Perhaps the language should be simply, “Would you like a kippah?” Or, “Would you like a tallit?” Or, as I say to those without tefillin on weekday mornings, “Would you like a set of tefillin? I am happy to help you put them on.”

If the answer is no, then it’s no, and there is no need to press any further.

But in bringing together our Jewish and our secular selves, we ought to be sensitive to where people are, particularly those who are anxious about entering a Jewish space. We do not need to give anybody an excuse not to come back. Rather, we want them to leave thinking, “Wow. Those folks really love their tradition. And they invited me in.”

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 11/23/2019.)

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The Un-Delivered Sermon: Welcoming Others Into the Synagogue – First Yahrzeit for the Eleven (z”l), Vayyera 5780

Prologue

Today is the first yahrzeit (anniversary of death) for the eleven holy Jewish souls who were murdered down the street from here on October 27, 2018. Today is the 18th day of the month of Heshvan. 18, as we all know, is a popular number in Jewish life, because it is the numerical value of the Hebrew word חי (hai), meaning life.

So the irony will be that, forever, this day that means life from one perspective will always be heavy with a deep sense of communal loss.

Or perhaps that is not irony, but rather just the Jewish way. What do we say when in mourning and on yahrzeit dates? We recite the words of the qaddish, a statement of praise of God in overpoweringly repetitive language: Magnified, sanctified, hallowed, exalted, celebrated, worshiped, honored, extolled, etc.

We, the living, we remember those whom we have lost by praising God, not by reciting words about death. Lo hameitim yehallelu ya, says the Psalm (115:17) which we read on our most joyous days, as part of Hallel. “The dead do not praise God.”

We do. We the living mark death through words of living, words of life.

Given that, I am going to give the sermon that I did not give for Parashat Vayyera last year, on the 18th of Heshvan, because it is about life. It is about, in some sense, the life that was happening here in Squirrel Hill before hatred personified tore into our community.

(I have left it in pristine form, so a few things do not make temporal sense. But think of this sermon as a snapshot, fixed in time.)

Welcoming Others Into the Synagogue – October 27, 2018, Vayyera 5779

Two things happened this week that really got me down.

The first occurred at the Awards Brunch on Sunday, which was truly a lovely affair that honored four deserving women for all that they have done for Congregation Beth Shalom: Lisa Steindel, Judith Kadosh, Kate Rothstein, and Tammy Hepps. I said this on Sunday, but it’s worth repeating: Without volunteers who make things happen, there would be no Congregation Beth Shalom. We cannot do what we do without people like these four who commit their time to making things happen. So thank you once again.)

But the incident that occurred was as follows: Prior to the beginning of the program, I was walking around, offering kippot to bare-headed men, as I often do.

Now, it’s worth noting before going further that while wearing a kippah is an ancient tradition for men, it is not halakhah; that is, it is not technically required according to Jewish law. Nonetheless, it is such a well-established custom that it is as close to a halakhic requirement as possible without actually being halakhah. Although there is no Torah (“de-oraita”) source for the custom of covering one’s head, it is attested to in the Talmud (Qiddushin 31a):

רב הונא בריה דרב יהושע לא מסגי ארבע אמות בגילוי הראש אמר שכינה למעלה מראשי

Rav Huna, son of Rav Yehoshua, would not walk four cubits with an uncovered head. He said: The Divine Presence is above my head, [and I must act respectfully].

This passage might raise more questions than answers, but nonetheless is considered the basis for the customary wearing of the kippah, and in particular doing certain activities: walking, praying, eating, studying, and being inside a synagogue.

Now since we were (א) in the synagogue, (ב) about to eat, and (ג) about to say a prayer before eating, it makes perfect sense that, being an institution that stands for Jewish tradition, we expect men to put on a kippah, and hence my reason for asking.

So there I am, handing out a few kippot, and I offered one to a man I did not recognize. He took it without saying anything, and I walked away. A few minutes later, I noticed that he was not wearing it, so I went back over and asked him to put it on his head. Now, in retrospect, this may not have been the right move, but hindsight often reveals our own propensity to say or do the wrong thing, and I am the first to concede that I am not immune to this phenomenon.

I immediately saw that he was not pleased about having to wear a kippah. He challenged me, saying sharply, “I’m Reform. Is it required?” I said, “We ask that men cover their heads in the synagogue as a sign of respect.” He reluctantly put it on his head.

But that’s not where the story ended. A while later, while we were getting food from the buffet table, he came up to me. He was clearly angry, and he wanted to give me a piece of his mind. He was almost yelling, and he said, among other things, “This is why I hate this place, because you’re so unwelcoming! I feel intimidated when I come here!”

I was taken aback. It had not occurred to me that asking a man to put on a kippah in a synagogue could be so “unwelcoming.”

So there is one story.

The second is about an anonymous letter I received on Monday. Reacting to our program for HIAS’ National Refugee Shabbat, it said the following:

I read the enclosed hand-out in services today; very interesting about the welcoming of strangers. Presentation about HIAS also enlightening. Do these ideals and concepts apply to our synagogue? I cannot recall the last time someone greeted me or handed me a siddur (prayerbook).

….

Now, you may have noticed that in the three-plus years that I have been here, I have tried to create a climate that is as welcoming as possible. Those of you that attended a parlor meeting with me during my first year probably studied with me the first aliyah of Parashat Vayyera, which describes Avraham Avinu’s hospitality in welcoming the guests who come to his tent. The text describes how, when he sees them, he runs to greet them, gives them a place to sit in the shade and water to drink and to wash the dust off their feet, helps Sarah (OK, orders Sarah) to prepare a meal for them, and stands patiently at their side as they eat.

As you have surely heard me say, at a parlor meeting, or in a sermon, or an ushers’ meeting, we have to be more like Avraham and Sarah. We have to run to greet people with a smile, to help them find a comfortable spot and a siddur and whatever they need, and try as best we can to make people feel welcome here.

We cannot judge anybody for who they are. The Torah does not suggest that Avraham interrogates anybody before inviting them in. There is no litmus test for participation in Jewish life. We are not “bodeqei tzitzit,” those who check to see if others are wearing their fringes properly and in the halakhically-correct manner.

By the way, an item of feedback that keeps coming back to me, from the congregational survey as well as from individuals who have spoken to me, is that we have occasionally made people feel unwelcome. There is a perception by some that there are existing synagogue cliques that are impenetrable. Now, not everybody feels this way, and there are plenty of people whom we have in fact welcomed successfully.

But it pains me greatly to know that anybody could walk into this building and feel excluded. If that happens to even one person, shame on us all.

And, by the way, that goes for all types of people who come in here: LGBT folks, for example, or those in interfaith relationships. (I have been told that multiple times, people in such relationships have been told by members of this congregation that perhaps they should consider going to Rodef Shalom. That is entirely unacceptable.)

Ladies and gentlemen, all are welcome here; all who come to seek connection to our beautiful, rich, ancient tradition are to be embraced with open arms. Consider Isaiah’s words (56:6-7; BTW, we read this on fast days at minhah for the haftarah):

וּבְנֵ֣י הַנֵּכָ֗ר הַנִּלְוִ֤ים עַל־יה֙’ לְשָׁ֣רְת֔וֹ וּֽלְאַהֲבָה֙ אֶת־שֵׁ֣ם ה’ לִהְי֥וֹת ל֖וֹ לַעֲבָדִ֑ים כָּל־שֹׁמֵ֤ר שַׁבָּת֙ מֵֽחַלְּל֔וֹ וּמַחֲזִיקִ֖ים בִּבְרִיתִֽי׃

As for the foreigners Who attach themselves to the LORD, To minister to Him, And to love the name of the LORD, To be His servants— All who keep the sabbath and do not profane it, And who hold fast to My covenant—

וַהֲבִיאוֹתִ֞ים אֶל־הַ֣ר קָדְשִׁ֗י וְשִׂמַּחְתִּים֙ בְּבֵ֣ית תְּפִלָּתִ֔י עוֹלֹתֵיהֶ֧ם וְזִבְחֵיהֶ֛ם לְרָצ֖וֹן עַֽל־מִזְבְּחִ֑י כִּ֣י בֵיתִ֔י בֵּית־תְּפִלָּ֥ה יִקָּרֵ֖א לְכָל־הָעַמִּֽים׃

I will bring them to My sacred mount And let them rejoice in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices Shall be welcome on My altar; For My house shall be called A house of prayer for all peoples.”

But wait! There is a challenge here. Isaiah seems to suggest that we have to have some kind of standard. If somebody refuses to wear a kippah, for example, or refuses to put their smartphone away in the service on Shabbat, can we still welcome them?

The answer, of course, is yes, but this is a question with which I continue to struggle: how do we raise the bar of engagement; how do we gently ease folks into the traditions of Jewish life without clobbering them over the head with a kippah and a tallit and tefillin and a siddur? How do we defuse the feeling of intimidation that some have when they walk into an alien environment?

In retrospect, I should not have gone back to the bare-headed gentleman a second time to ask him to put on the kippah; when I offer tefillin to people on weekday mornings (we always have extra sets on hand), I only ask once. But a smile goes a long way, and treating people respectfully is never the wrong thing to do.

So here are a few practical suggestions:

  1. Be an ambassador for Beth Shalom and for Conservative Judaism. Reach out wherever possible. Don’t ignore anybody you don’t know. If you see somebody standing at the side feeling awkward, mosey on over and introduce yourself. Give them a siddur. Take them by the hand if necessary and lead them in.
  2. Like Avraham Avinu, we have to be watching outside the tent to welcome people in. We cannot expect, in today’s world, that re going to walk right in and sign up to be a part of what we do. That’s one reason we created Derekh: to offer programming that goes beyond the synagogue walls. That’s why we are partnering with other organizations to offer concerts, like the Pizmon concert here. You are an ambassador for Beth Shalom and for Conservative Judaism both inside the building and outside.
  3. Connecting back to the whole point of the Awards Brunch last Sunday: volunteers are the ones who really make the SS Beth Shalom seaworthy, and there is always a need for more people to help out. If you’d like to contribute some time but simply do not know how, please come see me, or speak with Debby, our president, or Rabbi Jeremy, who runs Derekh. We will be thrilled to help you find something that suits you. And in particular, one thing we really need right now, to help address the issues I have discussed, is a few brave volunteers to form a Greeting Team, who, like Avraham and Sarah, will discuss and implement new ways to welcome people. 

With your help, we can continue to make sure that our tent is a beit tefillah lekhol ha’amim, a house of prayer for everybody.

Epilogue

That is how it ended a year ago. We still need a Greeting Team, but we are all about life, about making connections between people, about community.

Tomorrow morning we host the New Members’ Welcoming ceremony, in which a whole bunch of families who have joined the congregation within the last year will sit on this bimah, take hold of a sefer Torah, and acknowledge together their stepping forward into the next chapter of their Jewish journey.

We do this in memory of the eleven whom we lost on this day one year ago, and also in acknowledgment that in remembering them, we remember God, we remember our duties here on Earth, and we remember to continue to build this Qehillah Qedoshah, this community bound in holiness, together.

Dedicated to the memory of Cecil Rosenthal z”l, greeter extraordinaire.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 11/16/2019.)

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Don’t Give Up on the World – Noah 5780

Have you ever been in the situation where you’ve tried and failed at something multiple times, and then you finally achieved your objective, but still it was not quite good enough?

And yet you learned to live with that imperfection, right? I feel like this happens to me all the time.

There is a captivating midrash (explanatory story external to the Torah text) that speaks of God’s creation of the world as an iterative process rather than a one-time event. It draws on language that we read last week in Parashat Bereshit (the very beginning of the book of Genesis):

אָמַר רַבִּי יְהוּדָה בַּר סִימוֹן, יְהִי עֶרֶב אֵין כְּתִיב כָּאן, אֶלָּא וַיְהִי עֶרֶב, מִכָּאן שֶׁהָיָה סֵדֶר זְמַנִּים קֹדֶם לָכֵן. אָמַר רַבִּי אַבָּהוּ מְלַמֵּד שֶׁהָיָה בּוֹרֵא עוֹלָמוֹת וּמַחֲרִיבָן, עַד שֶׁבָּרָא אֶת אֵלּוּ, אָמַר דֵּין הַנְיָן לִי, יַתְהוֹן לָא הַנְיָן לִי. אָמַר רַבִּי פִּנְחָס טַעְמֵיהּ דְּרַבִּי אַבָּהוּ (בראשית א, לא): וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת כָּל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וְהִנֵּה טוֹב מְאֹד, דֵּין הַנְיָין לִי יַתְהוֹן לָא הַנְיָין לִי

Rabbi Yehudah bar Simon said: it does not say, ‘Yehi erev’ / ‘It was evening,’ but ‘Vayhi erev’ / ‘And it was evening.’ (Bereshit / Genesis 1:5) Hence we derive that there was a time-system prior to this. Rabbi Abbahu said: This teaches us that God created worlds and destroyed them, saying, ‘This one pleases me;    those did not please me.’ Rabbi Pinehas said, Rabbi Abbahu derives this from the verse, ‘And God saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good,’ (Bereshit / Genesis 1:31) as if to say, ‘This one pleases me, those others did not please me.’ (Bereshit Rabba 3:7)

The midrash says that prior to the six-day creation story that we read last week, God had already created and destroyed many previous versions of the world. We understand this to mean that each of these creations was somehow flawed, and God knew that a better one was possible. The midrash does not suggest how many of these pre-worlds there were – it could have been 3 or 97 million.

And yet, we know that this world is, of course, flawed. Very much flawed. We live in a far-from-perfect universe.

And yet, when it comes to Noah, God does not destroy the world entirely; Noah and his family are saved. And this despite the opening language of today’s parashah (weekly Torah reading), in which we read no less than four occurrences of the shoresh (tri-literal Hebrew root) shin-het-tav, meaning to ruin, corrupt, violate: e.g. Vatishahet ha-aretz… vatimale ha-aretz hamas (Bereshit / Genesis 6:11). The world was corrupt and filled with lawlessness. And the text does not exempt Noah himself – he is described as “ish tzaddiq, tamim hayah bedorotav” – a righteous man, blameless in his generation. It was just fine up until the bedorotav – in a sea of corruption and lawlessness and violence, to call somebody righteous relative to his peers is faint praise at best.

Noah’s Ark. France, Paris, 1240s. Pierpont Morgan Library, MS M.638, fol. 2v

So God puts all of God’s chips on this one, only somewhat dysfunctional family, along with one set of each type of creature. Which leads us to wonder, why didn’t God simply start over once again, like the midrash explains? For God, the world must seem like a kind of cosmic-scale Etch-a-Sketch. Why not just erase the Etch-a-Sketch and start again?

And the answer must be, of course, that God saw some kind of value in not starting over from scratch. This build was far from perfect, but there was something that worked. Cosmos 97 million point one, while deeply corrupt, had some redeemable features.

And particularly, you might say that it was something about the human spirit that must have intrigued the Qadosh Barukh Hu (Holy Blessed One, i.e. God) to maintain this version of humanity. We all know that people are not perfect; that we are complicated, that we are deceitful, that we are inclined to mistreat one another and the Earth. We know that people are bad at seeing the consequences of their actions, particularly in the long term.

And yet, even as the palette of humanity has yielded malfeasance of many different varieties, we have also filled this world with great creativity and fantastic music, art, architecture, technology, literature and so forth.

So God stuck with Noah, this guy who was not too bad.

And let’s consider the state of the world today:

We have just passed one secular year since the anti-Semitic massacre that occurred a few blocks from here, the deadliest attack on Jews in America ever, and we are approaching the first yahrzeit (annual day of mourning) for those whom we lost on that day.

Wildfires are spreading near Los Angeles, something which has become a regular occurrence. Several important Jewish institutions, including the American Jewish University, where Rabbi Jeremy was ordained, and the Skirball Center, a fantastic Jewish museum, are in the evacuation zone. My brother-in-law has been told that he may have to evacuate as well.

Floods devastated Houston once again this year.

Great Britain has its knickers in a twist over Brexit. Syria has become a Turkish and Russian free-for-all. Venezuela continues to be a tragic, starving mess. Brazil continues to allow the rainforest to be consumed for the sake of development.

Our nation is facing a constitutional crisis of sorts; for only the third time in American history, a president faces charges of high crimes and misdemeanors. 

Thomas Friedman, a generally clear-headed, sober, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the New York Times, wrote a particular disturbing column this past week in which he stated that, “Not in the Cold War, not during Vietnam, not during Watergate did I ever fear more for my country.” Friedman’s concern is that the magical mix of deceitful politicians coupled with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s stated unwillingness to take down deliberately false political advertisements may, in fact, break America.

I must say that, despite the current governmental challenges in Israel (after two elections, politicians have been unable to form a governing coalition), aliyah is looking pretty good right now. (And you all know that I am a big supporter of American aliyah – the best thing that we can do to support Israel and work for positive change in Israeli society and policies is to move there.)  

But back to Noah. We have reason right now to want to throw up our hands in defeat. To concede that we cannot change the current trajectory, that we cannot fix what is so severely broken. That the depth of corruption and lawlessness all around is so thick that the world is unredeemable. We can probably think of a whole bunch of reasons to want to throw in the towel right now. But we cannot. 

Rather, I want us all to think like God at the beginning of Parashat Noah. I want us to consider the flawed world that we have, and accept that although change is difficult, that we have the ability, and indeed the imperative to try to improve it. God could have chosen to shake that Etch-a-Sketch once again; but instead of doing that, God doubled down on the less-than-perfect Noah, who, by the way goes on to fail even more, with the whole vineyard episode.

No, we cannot hide out, drunk in our own tents and ignore the brokenness around us. Rather, we must pick ourselves up and act.

Noah, hardly a perfect person, was tapped to be the seed of humanity. Moshe, who, when we get to the book of Shemot / Exodus, will try to flee from his destiny, and yet will ultimately lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Yonah (Jonah), as we read on Yom Kippur, has no confidence in himself to save the people of Nineveh, but eventually does so. Our tradition is built upon heroes who are anything but heroic.  They are ordinary – that is to say, flawed – people who accomplish great things. That is something that we can all relate to.

And if these Biblical archetypes do not inspire, consider the modern folks who have created real change for the better despite dire circumstances. Consider Rosa Parks, whose simple act of refusing to move on a public bus became a symbol that inspired the civil rights movement. Consider Malala Yousefzai, whose teenage advocacy on behalf of education for Pakistani girls led to an assassination attempt by a Taliban gunman, which she survived, and then went on to win a Nobel Prize. Consider Theodor Herzl, a Hungarian journalist covering the Dreyfus Affair, whose vision of a Jewish state where Jews would not be subject to the deep-seated anti-Semitism of Europe ultimately became a reality. Consider those who toiled in anonymity for years to create vaccines against horrible diseases; those who led rebellions against tyrannnical governments in public squares, Tiananmen and Tahrir and elsewhere; those artists and writers and investigative reporters who call out the bad actors in society.

None of these people are perfect; all of them live in the same broken world in which we do. And yet they stood up and made change happen. That could be any one of us. 

Some of you know that one of my favorite go-to “refrigerator-magnet texts” is Pirqei Avot 2:21, in which Rabbi Tarfon tells us:

לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה

Lo alekha hamelakhah ligmor, velo attah ben horin libbatel mimmena

It’s not up to you to finish the task, but neither are you free to give up on it.

No matter how deep the dysfunction of this world, think like God! Grab hold of the good and run with it. You’re not perfect, we’re not perfect, and the results will not be perfect, but you may just change the world for the better.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 11/2/2019.)

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I’m a Fundamentalist: God – Bereshit 5780

I am always captivated by Bereshit, the beginning of the Torah, as the source of so many Big Questions. Who or what or why is this thing referred to as God? Must we take these stories literally? How can we possibly relate to a completely abstract concept? What can this mean to us as modern people? How might we understand God in this moment?

We cannot read the Creation story that we read this morning (second time this week, actually!) without facing these Big Questions.

I am going out on a limb here with what you might expect to be an unpopular notion, at least outside of this building: we need God. 

This is the fifth installment in an occasional series called, “I’m a Fundamentalist.” So far we have covered Shabbat, tallit, tefillin, and “refrigerator-magnet texts” – the best quotes from the Jewish bookshelf that you should really have on your refrigerator. Today’s Fundamentalist topic is God.

A former congregant on Long Island, one who was quite committed to Judaism once lamented to me the fact that her adult children were not very interested in Judaism. She told me that one of her sons had said, “Really, Mom, there’s no need for religion. There is no need for God. Because science has already figured almost everything out, and what it has not yet figured out, it will soon.”

I did not want to insult her son by saying that this is a particularly myopic view of the role of religion as well as a misunderstanding of what science is capable of explaining. But here are a few bullet points that I can share with you:

  • First, it is worth pointing out that science and religion address different questions. Scientific inquiry leads us to a better understanding of electron clouds, or how to cure terminal diseases; it might even describe where we came from. But it does not wrestle with the question of how to respond to somebody who is dying of a terminal disease, or offer a framework for grieving when that disease has run its course. New technology might enable us to choose the eye-color of our babies, let’s say, but it cannot make the argument about why we should or should not do so.
  • Second, what Judaism offers is community. It is learning together. It is breaking bread together. It is holding each other in times of need and celebrating in times of joy. Our tradition gives us the imperative to care not only about ourselves, but rather the others around us as well. Judaism gives us a guide to holy behavior, to sanctifying our relationships. And of course it gives us ritual – opportunities to act while we reflect on the values that we uphold. Science offers none of those things.
  • Third, Judaism offers us a glimpse of the Divine, and the opportunity to see the Godliness in the world around us. Yes, science may teach us that spewing carbon dioxide and methane and chlorofluorocarbons into the atmosphere will ultimately destroy our environment, but Judaism teaches us why we should care.

Many assume that reason and religion are antithetical.  I cannot speak for other faith traditions, but I know that reason was of utmost importance to Maimonides; Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his seminal work, God in Search of Man, points to the value of reason within Judaism. But Heschel cautions us that, “Extreme rationalism may be defined as the failure of reason to understand itself… The way to truth is an act of reason; the love of truth is an act of the spirit.” 

Rabbi Heschel’s argument is that reason and religion balance each other; we need both. He continues:  

… science is unable to give us all the truth about all of life. We are in need of spirit in order to know what to do with science… Reason’s goal is the exploration and verification of objective relations; religion’s goal is the exploration and verification of ultimate personal relations.

It is the synthesis of reason and religion that yields truth and righteousness. In The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism, Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin point out how reason alone can be immoral. As an extreme example, they argue that those who followed the orders of the Nazi regime were acting reasonably:

When the average German citizen remained silent while his Jewish neighbors were shipped to concentration camps, he was acting entirely according to reason.

The ones who acted morally, to try to prevent the killing of their neighbors,  were themselves shot.

But Judaism marries reason to spirit. Our entire tradition is derived from interpreting our ancient texts for us today, even incorporating what science teaches us.

We need God so that we can take what we have learned about the world and apply it in a way that is just, that liberates people and does not oppress them; that lifts up the needy and raises the humble of spirit.

Let’s take a real-world example: consider the challenge that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has right now. Here is a guy who created a way, through the use of technology, to connect people to each other in a way that they had never connected before. And lo, how they have connected! Zuckerberg and his friends thought they were changing the world for the better.

And yet, in his appearance before a congressional committee a few days ago to discuss Facebook’s new crypto-currency, Mr. Zuckerberg had to apologize for the company’s “trust issues.” Why do people not trust Facebook? Because people’s information has not been kept confidential. Because the platform has contributed to political upheaval in countries around the world, including our own. Because human interaction cannot be a free-for-all; it must have limits. It must be truthful. 

Science and technology may open up many new pathways for us, but they will not tell us how to behave.

So that brings us back to the problem of God. From where do these boundaries flow? Certainly not from our smartphones. And not from us as individuals, because your boundaries and mine may not coincide.

They must flow from God. God is the one who gives us the limits, the standard by which we measure the truth.

But what is God? And how can I possibly believe in something that I cannot see or hear or feel? And, by the way, wasn’t God just for ancient people who had no other way of explaining where we came from? Haven’t we moved beyond that?

We need God today, as much as ever. No, we may not rely on God for rain, or fertility, or healthy crops, like our ancestors. We may not even see God as being the source of our prosperity (when we are prosperous) or our grief (when we are grieving). 

But we need God to understand what are our limits. What will prevent us from despoiling all of Creation, if not the sense that God gave it to us “le’ovdah ulshomrah,” (Bereshit / Genesis 2:15) to work it and to guard it? What will save us from the devolution of society due to the ease with which falsehood can be spread, if not for the mitzvot regarding telling the truth? What will ultimately prevent us from killing each other, if not for the standard that murder is wrong? 

It is all too easy today to look out for number one; to rationalize – to examine our bank statement and think, I’m OK – nothing to worry about. To talk ourselves out of going the extra distance for a fellow person in need because, eh, somebody else will take care of it. To live our lives in quiet, selfish anonymity. To think, I don’t need community, I don’t need ritual – I have everything I need.

But Judaism, and indeed the presence of God in our lives drives us to dig deeper, to reach out with two hands, to be the best individuals we can be.

And you know what? You do not need to accept any of the traditional understandings of God to do that. You do not need to believe that God created the world in six days, or that God dictated the Torah to Moshe on Mt. Sinai, or that God split the Sea of Reeds so that our ancestors could walk through on dry land. 

You can understand God as completely non-understandable. You can conceptualize God as having no concept. You can see God as a spirit that works through us and around us, as with Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, or as an imperceptible presence that is completely without condition, as with Martin Buber. Or you can come up with some other idea or metaphor for God that is nothing like anything else.

Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, whose writings became the basis of Reconstructionist Judaism

And yes, it is a challenge to accept the God idea in a world in which we seemingly have a rational explanation for everything. And, in a post-Sho’ah world, a world in which an angry Jew-hater with a gun can murder Jews at prayer, one must ask about the challenge of accounting for evil. But, as Rabbi Milton Steinberg argued, the one who believes in God must account for one thing, the existence of evil. The atheist, however, must account for the existence of everything else.

I will conclude with words of caution: once we let go of God entirely, we are lost. Humanity will destroy itself. There will be nothing to prevent us from killing each other. Recent history has demonstrated that those who think only of enriching themselves or amassing more power will inevitably allow or encourage other people to murder each other.

God is a check on that. We need God.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 10/26/2019.)

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Remembering and Forgetting – Shemini Atzeret 5780 / Yizkor

As I have aged, I have learned to be somewhat more forgiving of my own brain. When I was younger, it seemed that I remembered everything. Today, I sometimes feel lucky if I remember the most important things: to spend time with my children, to eat lunch during a busy day at work, to tell my wife how much I love her.

How many of us are sometimes frustrated by not being able to remember something? Where you left the keys, as a relatively innocuous example, or something more contentious, like your spouse’s birthday. How many of us wish that our brains worked more like the RAM in a computer – efficient storage that is always available and easy to find? Wouldn’t it be awesome if you never forgot anything?

You may have heard that there are a handful of people in the world who are endowed with a curious condition that enables them to remember everything. That is, you give them a random date on a calendar, from fifteen years ago, and they will tell you what they wore that day, what they ate for lunch and who they bumped into on the street. This condition is known as “hyperthymesia,” and although it does not allow for “total recall,” it does allow a person with the condition to remember virtually everything that relates to them. For example, while a person with the condition might remember what clothes she was wearing on a certain day, she may not be able to recall what her friend was wearing, unless the friend’s outfit was somehow related to her personally. Dozens of cases have been reported in the last 13 years or so, since the condition was formally identified by neurobiologists. The actress Marilu Henner, whom you may recall from the late ‘70s/early ‘80s TV show, Taxi, apparently has this condition.

Imagine for a moment how cool that might be! School would be a breeze; you would never be embarrassed again by not knowing the name of somebody who you met five years ago at a party after a few drinks; you would never misplace your keys ever again. Speaking as a rabbi, I could definitely see how such a condition would make my life and my work so much easier.

And yet, maybe not.

There is a good reason to forget things, and perhaps the reason why, evolutionarily speaking, this feature did not become standard among humans.

Certain things need to be forgotten, and particularly those things that cause us pain and emotional anguish. We need to forget the pain of loss, the grief associated with the death of a parent or sibling or God forbid, a child. We need for ebb of time to dull the sharp memories, the ones that push our sorrow buttons. We need for those memories to be less fresh, so that we can go on about our lives with some semblance of normalcy.

Not to forget entirely, of course. But rather, to lessen the heartache somewhat. For the person who remembers clearly what he or she did on any particular day, a great personal loss must be ever-present. The stabbing pain of feeling like, “How can I possibly live without her?” must be as fresh a decade later as it was at the start of shiv’ah.

Thank God for the hollowing-out of memories that time brings. We learn to live with loss, but of course it takes time. That is the point of shiv’ah, of sheloshim, of yahrzeit – the calendrical framework of Jewish mourning. Seven days of deep pain, pain which prevents us from leaving the house, which can only be slightly soothed by the presence of others in our homes bringing comfort. Then three more weeks of somewhat less grief, when we saunter out of our homes, return to work maybe, but still feel like nothing’s quite right. And then the balance of a year, in which we acknowledge our ongoing grief by limiting our joyous activities.

And thereafter, we set aside just a few days for remembrance, to recite prayers of memory.

Memory is essential to Judaism, and our framework of mourning is known to be one of the best. But even beyond that, we have not one, but two days in the contemporary Jewish calendar called “Yom haZikaron,” the day of remembrance: Rosh Hashanah we all know. Less known to American Jews, but extraordinarily important in Israel is the national Memorial Day for fallen soldiers, a day marked by solemn ceremonies around the country, set aside for public grief for those who gave their lives defending the State of Israel. (It is an unfortunate shame that we Americans do not take our own Memorial Day as seriously as Israelis do.)

But even so, our relationship to memory is complicated. Our tradition wants us to remember things that we did not personally experience: the entire holiday scheme of the Jewish year is intimately tied to our history: the Exodus from Egypt; receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai; wandering in the desert; the destruction and rebuilding of Jerusalem; the Sho’ah. We are, in some sense, striving to constantly relive our ancient, communal memories, to make sure that we do not forget, that we remember to connect our gratitude for what we have today with all of those past events. We have a history that stretches back thousands of years, and we carry it with us wherever we go. That is an essential piece of Judaism.

And yet, even though we set aside one day a year to mourn the desolation of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and then the Romans, we do not relive that every day. We understand that communal grief has its day. Even though we remember and mourn the 6 million murdered by the Nazi machine in our own time, we also still acknowledge that there can be joy in our lives. On Shabbat morning, we read from Megillat Qohelet, the book of Ecclesiastes (3:1-4):

לַכֹּ֖ל זְמָ֑ן וְעֵ֥ת לְכָל־חֵ֖פֶץ תַּ֥חַת הַשָּׁמָֽיִם׃
עֵ֥ת לָלֶ֖דֶת וְעֵ֣ת לָמ֑וּת עֵ֣ת לָטַ֔עַת וְעֵ֖ת לַעֲק֥וֹר נָטֽוּעַ׃
עֵ֤ת לַהֲרוֹג֙ וְעֵ֣ת לִרְפּ֔וֹא עֵ֥ת לִפְר֖וֹץ וְעֵ֥ת לִבְנֽוֹת׃
עֵ֤ת לִבְכּוֹת֙ וְעֵ֣ת לִשְׂח֔וֹק עֵ֥ת סְפ֖וֹד וְעֵ֥ת רְקֽוֹד׃

A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven:
A time for being born and a time for dying, A time for planting and a time for uprooting the planted;
A time for slaying and a time for healing, A time for tearing down and a time for building up;
A time for weeping and a time for laughing, A time for wailing and a time for dancing;…

The words of Qohelet ring across the ages: we cannot dwell in grief forever; neither can we ignore that grief. Rather, there is a time for that.

Qohelet does NOT say, there is a time to remember, and a time to forget. But the Catalogue of Times also reflects back to the opening verses of the book (1:4-5):

דּ֤וֹר הֹלֵךְ֙ וְד֣וֹר בָּ֔א וְהָאָ֖רֶץ לְעוֹלָ֥ם עֹמָֽדֶת׃
וְזָרַ֥ח הַשֶּׁ֖מֶשׁ וּבָ֣א הַשָּׁ֑מֶשׁ וְאֶ֨ל־מְקוֹמ֔וֹ שׁוֹאֵ֛ף זוֹרֵ֥חַֽ ה֖וּא שָֽׁם׃

One generation goes, another comes, But the earth remains the same forever.
The sun rises, and the sun sets— And glides back to where it rises.

With each rising and setting of the sun, life goes on. Our pain will ease; the peaks and troughs of life will even themselves out. And we continue. We go on. We live with our memories, the painful ones and the joyful ones. We do not forget, but we manage with what is on our plate.

This is the last Yizkor / remembrance service that we will observe in the one year of mourning following the anti-Semitic attack in our neighborhood. There will always be a before and after in Pittsburgh; there will always be a weightiness in our hearts for those whom we lost, and for the sense of security our community lost. That day will be seared in collective memory forever. We will never forget.

I must say that I am somewhat relieved that the actual Yahrzeit (annual day of remembrance which corresponds to the day on the Jewish calendar when a loved one passed away) is a few weeks after the date that the rest of the world will associate with Pittsburgh. When the media people doing follow-up stories leave, when the cameras have moved on, we will muster our grief together and mark the 18th of Heshvan (November 16, 2019) by saying Qaddish as a community – quietly, mournfully, appropriately.

The horror of that day and its aftermath will continue to live with us. But as it recedes in memory, as we learn to grapple with it from a distance, as we remember those whom we lost, we also re-establish our sense of selves: who we are, what we stand for, and why we must continue to lean into our tradition. We re-establish our violated sanctuary as sacred space.

I remember Cecil, who wrote me notes of gratitude which I could not read. I remember Dan, always with a smile, always with a friendly update. And my memories of them drive me forward to proudly wave my lulav and etrog, to recite words of tefillah with my community, to celebrate around the Shabbat table and resonate with our ancient tradition.

I continue to meditate on the words of Qohelet – dor holekh, vedor ba… vezarah hashemesh uva hashamesh – one generation goes, and another comes, the sun rises and the sun sets – and understand that I am neither the first nor the last Jew to feel the pain of hatred, of persecution, of murder. I will not be the last Jew to cry out in anger and frustration, as Rabbi Levi Yitzhaq of Berditchev did in bringing a din toyre, a lawsuit against God. I will not be the last Jew to recite Qaddish for martyrs.

But I will certainly do whatever I can to try to make this world a place where more Jews, and more people everywhere, are liberated from painful memories.

As we turn now to Yizkor, the service of remembering, we should be at once grateful that memories recede, and also grateful that we have the framework of our tradition to guide us through dark times and to sanctify our holy moments.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shemini Atzeret, Monday morning, 10/21/2019.)

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Happiness? Or Meaning? (Turn! Turn! Turn!) – Shabbat Hol Hamo’ed Sukkot 5780

Sukkot is acknowledged throughout Jewish tradition as the happiest festival of the year. We referred to it today in Shaharit / the morning service as “Zeman simhateinu,” the time of our joy. The Torah reading from this morning included the commandment, usmahtem lifnei Adonai, you shall rejoice before God on this holiday.

And what’s the best-known Sukkot song?

וְשָׂמַחְתָּ֖ בְּחַגֶּ֑ךָ… וְהָיִ֖יתָ אַ֥ךְ שָׂמֵֽחַ׃

Vesamahta behaggekha… vehayyita akh sameah.

You shall rejoice in your festival, and you shall have nothing but joy. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 16:14-15)

But what does it mean to rejoice? To be happy? And is happiness a goal unto itself, or should we rather seek “meaning”? And what does “meaning” mean, anyway?

When I was a sophomore at Cornell, the folk singer Pete Seeger played on campus. I have always loved folk music, and Seeger’s performances (he was already quite advanced in years then) were special because of the way he incorporated the audience, urging them to sing with him as he accompanied on the banjo.

One of Pete Seeger’s best-known songs goes like this (sing with me):

To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time for every purpose under heaven
A time to be born, a time to die 
A time to plant, a time to reap 
A time to laugh, a time to weep 
A time to kill, a time to heal

Of course, it was popularized by the Byrds. But Seeger wrote the music.

Not the lyrics, however. It is almost a direct quote of the opening verses of Chapter 3 of the King James translation of Ecclesiastes, known in Hebrew as Qohelet, some of which we read earlier. This particular passage, to which scholars refer as “the Catalogue of Times,” is a reminder that while every event in life occurs in its proper time, we have no control over these times; the “when” is solely in the hands of God. Since they are paired as opposites, one way of reading this is that neither happy times nor sad ones are to be expected. Reality is such that sometimes we are happy, sometimes we are sad, and much of the time we are neither.

Qohelet, ostensibly written by an ancient king of that name, is among the more-challenging books of the Tanakh, theologically-speaking. It puts itself forward as a book of philosophy (e.g. 1:14: “I observed all the happenings beneath the sun, and I found that all is futile and pursuit of wind.”), but, somewhat like the book of Job, leaves us with a very unsatisfying conclusion. To Qohelet, effectively everything that we pursue – wealth, wisdom, food and drink, labor, and so forth – is vanity and emptiness. Nothing will bring you lasting satisfaction. Qohelet’s conclusion is, therefore, merely to enjoy the things that you have when you have them, fear God and perform the mitzvot. That’s it.

Not very satisfying, right? Perhaps, though, there is an important message here. After all, there must be a reason that we read this book during Sukkot, the most joyous festival of the year. So what’s the reason? One possibility is that Qohelet points to the transience of human life, which is also suggested by the fragile, temporary sukkot in which we are commanded to live for the week. Another is that fall is the season that most suggests mortality, a feature of our lives that the Catalogue of Times clearly invokes.

Here is another thought: in the wake of Yom Kippur, after beating our chests and seeking return and forgiveness and afflicting our souls and so forth, it may be our intent to seek happiness, albeit perhaps from a new perspective. Qohelet is a reminder that happiness is not an end unto itself, but rather ebbs and flows with the randomness of our lives.

Speaking of ebb and flow, allow me to return for a moment to Cornell University of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Despite a physical chemistry lecture that occasionally made me consider javelin catching as a career, those were great days. The academic ferment of that particular ivory tower provided a rich backdrop for developing strong social bonds and discovering who I was as a person. I had good friends and good times. It makes me think of the well-known song, “Those Were the Days” (Mary Hopkins, 1968, although based on a Russian folk tune).

We tend to speak of the “good old days.” Maybe those were they; there is a time for every purpose under heaven.

But perhaps reality is not so simple; we do tend to see the past through etrog-scented glasses (or something like that). The gypsy-punk band Gogol Bordello recorded a philosophically-minded song titled “Ultimate,” which decries the existence of such days. On the contrary, the song suggests that to refer to the “good old days” is in fact an insult to both the present and future:

There were never any good old days,
They are today, they are tomorrow
It’s a stupid thing we say
Cursing tomorrow with sorrow.

Qohelet, I think, would agree with Gogol Bordello. There were no “good old days,” says Qohelet. Ve-ein kol hadash tahat hashamesh. And there is nothing new under the sun (Eccl. 1:9).

Maybe my university days were the good old days, or maybe these days are just as good, and 5780 will be even better. Only God knows, and about that I’m not even so sure.

One thing, however, is certain: happiness is fleeting, while “meaning” is enduring. Rather than seek happiness, we should seek meaning. That is a message that is difficult for a college student to understand, but it is a message that we can glean from Jewish tradition.

An article in The Atlantic from a few years back cited a study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology that

asked nearly 400 Americans aged 18 to 78 whether they thought their lives were meaningful and/or happy. Examining their self-reported attitudes toward meaning, happiness, and many other variables — like stress levels, spending patterns, and having children — over a month-long period, the researchers found that a meaningful life and happy life overlap in certain ways, but are ultimately very different. Leading a happy life, the psychologists found, is associated with being a “taker” while leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a “giver.”

This is a fascinating revelation. Perhaps Qohelet’s suggestion to fear God and fulfill the mitzvot is an ancient attempt to steer us away from seeking happiness in favor of meaning. You might make the case that a certain portion of the mitzvot are about giving, not taking: giving your time and yourself over to holy pursuits. It’s not what we reap in this world, to borrow Qohelet’s language, but rather what we sow.

And that may in fact be one message of Sukkot. Why does the Torah command us to live in a shack in the backyard for a week? To remember that it is not our possessions that are important and valuable; that meaning may be sought in the simplest environment. That living in a sturdy, well-appointed home, when compared to a shaky, non-climate-controlled sukkah, might seem more like taking than giving.

The article goes on to say:

Meaning is not only about transcending the self, but also about transcending the present moment — which is perhaps the most important finding of the study, according to the researchers. While happiness is an emotion felt in the here and now, it ultimately fades away, just as all emotions do; positive affect and feelings of pleasure are fleeting. The amount of time people report feeling good or bad correlates with happiness but not at all with meaning.

Meaning, on the other hand, is enduring. It connects the past to the present to the future. “Thinking beyond the present moment, into the past or future, was a sign of the relatively meaningful but unhappy life,” the researchers write. “Happiness is not generally found in contemplating the past or future.” That is, people who thought more about the present were happier, but people who spent more time thinking about the future or about past struggles and sufferings felt more meaning in their lives, though they were less happy.”

In other words, happiness is in the moment. Those university days were joyful for what they were, but the real satisfaction of living comes from the fullness of life’s experiences: the glorious and the miserable, the bountiful and the meager, the cacaphonous and the silent, and the entire palette of humanity in between. The researchers agree that “What sets human beings apart from animals is not the pursuit of happiness, which occurs all across the natural world, but the pursuit of meaning, which is unique to humans.”

To everything there is a season, and we all need the carefree periods in our lives in which to pursue the momentary happiness that sustains youth. But we also need, at some point, to reach deeper, to seek out those things which bring us meaning, to give as much as we have taken, and maybe more. The good old days are indeed today and tomorrow.

So it is as much comforting your screaming child in the middle of the night as it is to see her standing under the huppah, as much receiving a wonderful promotion as losing a parent that makes life meaningful and rich. These are the things that make us human, and this is the takeaway from Sukkot.

As we celebrate the transience of life on this joyous festival, we would do well not only to fulfill the mitzvah de’oraita (commandment from the Torah) of being happy in the wake of Yom Kippur, but also to reflect on the discomfort that comes with being removed from your house for a week. Spend some time in the sukkah, with the bugs and the rain and the cool fall breeze. It’s the human thing to do, and will help make these days as good as the good old days.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat Hol Hamo’ed Sukkot, 10/19/2019.)

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All of This Belongs to You: Finding Resilience in Jewish Tradition – Yom Kippur Day 5780

This is the fourth and final installment in the “All of This Belongs to You” High Holiday sermon series. You may want to read the first three:

The Greatest Jewish Hand-Off Play Ever – Rosh Hashanah 5780, Day 1

Be a Jewish Superhero! – Rosh Hashanah 5780, Day 2

Do Not Be Indifferent – Kol Nidrei 5780

***

One of my favorite books from childhood was The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster. In it, there is a wonderful story about a city where somebody discovers that if you walk while looking only at your feet, you get to your destination much more quickly. Soon everybody in the city is looking down at their feet as they are walking from place to place. And nobody is talking to each other, and nobody is noticing the trees and the buildings and the birds and the flowers. Soon enough, the city starts to disappear.

Our tradition, Jewish tradition, is like a beautiful city, with the most wonderful, architecturally stunning buildings. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel spoke about Shabbat as a “palace in time.” That palace is at the center of this city.

I am not suggesting that Judaism is disappearing, because it certainly is not. But I am suggesting that we all take a better look at what it has to offer. Because there is much more there than what you might think. And if we are only looking at the things with which we are already familiar – the comfortable, the expected – we are missing a whole lot of scenery. And that is what I want you to see more of: the value that Judaism can bring to your life, our community, and the world.

Our theme over these High Holidays, as you really should know by now, is, “All of this belongs to you.” My goal is to remind all of us that, in the wake of the completion of Project Assimilate, it is up to us to reclaim our tradition, to make it ours once again. To make it yours once again, because it belongs to you.

And how will we reclaim it? That can be summed up in one word: meaning. We have to seek out and find meaning in our tradition. And that means looking beyond where you usually look. That means stretching yourself a little bit, to perhaps show up for a different service, for a new program, for a Talmud discussion, for a cultural event, for something that you have not sought out before. Because I’ll tell you this, folks: what we teach can change your life.

And today, in particular on one of the four days of the Jewish calendar in which we actively remember those whom we have lost, there is something that our tradition stands for that is tremendously valuable at this particular moment, in this particular place, and that is resilience.

5779 was a year of grieving. We will continue to grieve, of course, but this new year, 5780, will have to be one of looking forward.

Consider the great catastrophes of Jewish life. The destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. The destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE. The crushing of the Bar Kokhba revolt in 136 CE. The massacres at the hands of the Crusaders in the 11th century. The Expulsion from Spain in 1492. The Sho’ah / Holocaust. And so many other mini-exiles and dispersions and destructions and pogroms and so forth along the way.

And in each case, what have the Jews done? We have buried our dead. We have mourned. We have grieved. And then we got up from shiv’ah and continued doing what we do: worshipping the one true God; learning and teaching and debating about our tradition; supporting each other in times of need; yearning for freedom and working for the freedom of others; finding ways to illuminate this world based on Jewish texts and wisdom.

Many of you probably know journalist Bari Weiss, whose family belongs to Beth Shalom, and who became bat mitzvah in the context of this community in 1997. Her bat mitzvah service was held at the Tree of Life building, because that is where Beth Shalom services were located following the fire in 1996. Ms. Weiss just published a book titled How to Fight Anti-Semitism. In it, she describes the various expressions that anti-Semitism takes. But more importantly, Bari makes the case for how to respond to it.

Among the strategies that she suggests (with an assist from Rabbi Danny Schiff) is that the way we have always overcome anti-Semitism is by doubling down on our identity, and by turning back to tradition. The haters win, she says, when we take our kippot off and try to hide. She points to the statement by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, who said, “Non-Jews respect Jews who respect Judaism, and they are embarrassed by Jews who are embarrassed by Judaism.”

She cites the case of Theodor Herzl, who grew up in a secular Hungarian-Jewish family that was barely connected to Jewish tradition. At one point, young Herzl even made the case for why Jews should convert en masse to Christianity.

And then, while he was working as a journalist in Paris, he had a front-row seat to the trial of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish captain in the French army who was falsely accused of treason. Herzl witnessed the anti-Semitic mobs in Paris chanting “Mort aux juifs!” “Death to the Jews!”, and concluded that the only safe future for the Jews lay in the Zionist imperative to build a Jewish state in Palestine.

When faced with existential threats, we have responded by looking inward, by embracing our peoplehood, our traditions, our community. As Bari wrote in a New York Times op-ed, “The long arc of Jewish history makes it clear that the only way to fight [anti-Semitism] is by waging an affirmative battle for who we are. By entering the fray for our values, for our ideas, for our ancestors, for our families, and for the generations that will come after us.”

Her solution is to “build, without shame, a Judaism and a Jewish people and a Jewish state that are not only safe and resilient but also generative, humane, joyful and life-affirming.”

Must say, I could not have said that better myself! Remember that city? The better we know it, the more familiar we are with its alleyways and architecture, the less likely it is to disappear. The more we own our heritage, the more we claim our Jewishness, the more resilient we will be as individuals and as a people.

The key to fighting anti-Semitism is to lean into tradition. Our resilience in the face of hatred comes from knowing and loving and acting on what is distinctly ours.

And let me tell you something, folks: ours is a rich heritage, one with a pedigree that stretches back thousands of years. And our strength is derived from knowing our tradition, and practicing it. It is a framework that has always nourished us, in times of persecution and in times of freedom.

Has anybody here been to Terezin? It’s the location of the “model” concentration camp, which the Germans called Theresienstadt, about an hour northwest of Prague. If you have been on a tour there, you may have seen the “secret” synagogue, tucked into a hidden basement behind a house. It was created by Jewish prisoners interned at Terezin. On the wall in this otherwise nondescript room, written in 80-year-old, flaking paint, there is a quote that we recite three times every day in the Amidah: “Vetehezenah eineinu beshuvekha letziyyon berahamim” “May our eyes envision Your return to Zion in mercy.” It was a plea for better times, an acknowledgment of the fact that despite this low point of Jewish existence, we as a people, and maybe even as individuals, will soon see better days.

That kind of statement is hard-wired into who we are. The resilience that is in our DNA is found all over our liturgy, our siddur.

In a recent episode of the renowned radio show This American Life, the show’s host and creator Ira Glass reflects on going to synagogue for the first time in many years, to say qaddish on the occasion of his mother’s yahrzeit. And although he admits that he does not really believe in aspects of our tradition, particularly the idea of God, he confesses that the words of Jewish prayer nonetheless hold a very strong power for him:

I always liked going to synagogue as a kid. We went a lot. And so it was nice going back. I know all the Hebrew prayers by heart. And [LAUGHS] I don’t know if this is good or bad, but not having sat in a synagogue in over a decade, it really hit me how every day is a rerun.

Do you know what I mean? They never do a new episode. Every day, the same words, same songs in the same order, stretching back hundreds of years. They read a new part of the Bible, part of the Torah some days. So there’s that, but all the rest is basically exactly the same every day.

And everybody is singing and chanting… And I really was struck at how many of [the prayers] — the Amidah, the Ashrei– are about praising God at length. That’s what the words mean. Even the Kaddish, which you say over and over during services.

יתגדל ויתקדש שמיה רבא

… “May His great name be exalted and sanctified. Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One.” That is what they have you say when your mom dies. Comforting, huh? It’s basically God is great over and over, building up to this beautiful line, really beautiful, that’s basically God is so great. It’s beyond the power of any prayer, or word, or song, or praise. It’s beyond the power of language to capture it…

But weirdly, even… without believing any of the words, I do find it’s a comfort to say the prayer. It’s just– it’s familiar. It’s familiar as the nursery rhymes my mom sang to me as a kid, as the Shema, the prayer that she had me and my sister say every night before we went to sleep. It’s comforting.

Despite the fact that it’s in another language and part of a doctrine I don’t believe anymore, just the fact of it handed to me by my parents and to them by their parents– Frida, and Lou, and Melvin, and Molly– and their parents before them– David, and Elizabeth, and Isidore, and people whose names I don’t even know– and before them, their parents for hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds of years and standing in synagogue that day, standing and saying these words in unison with other mourners, it was comforting.

***

I know that Ira Glass thinks like a radio producer rather than a shul-going Jew, but it’s neither fair nor accurate to say that it’s a rerun every day. Yes, the words may be similar from day to day, and with the appropriate seasonal changes for holidays and so forth, but what makes tefillah / prayer interesting is that every day, month, and year, we are different. What changes is the kavvanah, the intention, the mind-set, what’s on your plate. We change, we grow, we celebrate and we mourn, and our traditions are there as a framework to support us. The liturgy may be set, but as we change, the words of our tradition continue to reveal new things to us – about ourselves, about our community, about life.

Regardless, Mr. Glass gets it: our tradition brings us comfort and strength and resilience, even if you do not entirely buy into it. Or, as the modern Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig would have put it, even if you do not buy into it yet.

Many of us gathered on a Saturday night two and a half weeks ago for the first recitation of Selihot, traditional prayers in which we ask for forgiveness in preparation for this day. At that time, I read a commentary that appears on the pages of your mahzor, p. 298 in the margin if you would like to see it. It comes from Rabbi Rob Scheinberg, a very good friend of mine, whom I have known since my first summer at Camp Ramah in New England in 1980. (Some of you may know that Rabbi Scheinberg was among a handful of rabbis who came to Pittsburgh to help out New Light Congregation in the months after the shooting. Rob was also among the founders of Pizmon, the Jewish a capella group from Columbia University that performed here at Beth Shalom last November.)

Rabbi Scheinberg’s commentary refers to the line that we say every time we put the Torah away. It is the next to last verse in Eikhah (5:21), the book of Lamentations, which we read on Tish’ah Be’Av, the day on which we commemorate all the destructions in Jewish history:

 הֲשִׁיבֵנוּ ה’ אֵלֶיךָ וְנָשׁוּבָה, חַדֵּשׁ יָמֵינוּ כְּקֶדֶם

Hashiveinu Adonai elekha venashuvah; hadesh yameinu kekedem.

Return us to You, O God, and we shall surely return; renew our days as of old.

It is the only hopeful note in the entire book of Eikhah, which is a litany of the destruction of Jerusalem and Israel wrought by the Babylonians 2600 years ago. A midrash (Eikhah Rabba) interprets this verse as referring back to Adam haQadmon, the first humans, following their exile from Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden. Rabbi Scheinberg explains the midrash as follows:

“It means, ‘Renew our lives, as you renewed our lives after we were exiled from the Garden of Eden.’ Hadesh yameinu kekedem is then not a plea for restoration of a formerly perfect condition, but rather it is a plea for resilience, a plea for the ability to renew ourselves after future crises and dislocations, just as our lives have been renewed before.

In other words, the verse is not about requesting to take us back to Eden. It is, rather, about pleading for the capacity to recover quickly from dire circumstances. As Elie Wiesel said, “God gave Adam a secret – and that secret was not how to begin, but how to begin again.”

Ledor vador, from generation to generation, we have begun again and again and again, packing up in one place and unpacking in another; leaving behind the old synagogues and cemeteries and building new ones; starting over in a new culture with a new language. We have been doing it for thousands of years. And what has maintained us, then as now, is our tradition.

And now, in 5780, we have an opportunity to begin again. Only this time we do not need to pack our bags and move.  We have to unpack our emotional suitcases and take stock in what we, the Jews, have, what belongs to us that is unique.  What belongs to you.

And the way to do that is to stare proudly in the direction of the anti-Semites who have crawled out of their holes, put on a kippah, and dive right in.

And we at Beth Shalom give you so many opportunities to do so. We will never be rid of anti-Semitism; but the way to respond, ladies and gentlemen, is to know what we stand for. Nothing suits an anti-Semite more than a Jew who cannot defend the value of his/her own tradition.

So before you leave today, pick up a Derekh High Holiday Guide, which we have lovingly produced to make it easy for you to find your way into Jewish learning. Peruse the offerings. And pick one.

And let me assure you, there are lots of things to choose from. In 2018-19, Derekh hosted 168 events, yielding nearly 2900 encounters in five areas, empowering many members of this community not only to learn, but to take leadership roles in this community.

And if you do not see something you like, do this: come up with your own idea, find two friends, and then drop in on Rabbi Jeremy Markiz to make it happen. That is what Derekh is set up to do.

The response to hatred, to persecution, to anti-Semitism, to grief, and even to cold-blooded murder, ladies and gentlemen, is to double down on Judaism. It is not to hide our kippot and cower behind armed guards. It is, rather, to be loud, proud, and informed. To be the Jewish superhero, with the big red alef on your chest, as I described on Rosh Hashanah. To dwell in that beautiful city, the one with Heschel’s Palace in Time at the center. To know our tradition and to live it. To share it with others. To act on Jewish values and do so boldly.

The anti-Semites won’t like it, of course, but, y’know, haters gonna hate.

This is yours, and if you take the ball and run with it, Jewish wisdom and ritual and prayer and text and community will continue to nourish our people and the world forever.

All of this belongs to you. Ta shema! Come and learn.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Yom Kippur day 5780, October 9, 2019.)

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All of This Belongs to You: Do Not Be Indifferent – Kol Nidrei 5780

This is the third installment in the “All of This Belongs to You” High Holiday sermon series. You may want to read the first two:

The Greatest Jewish Hand-Off Play Ever – Rosh Hashanah 5780, Day 1

Be a Jewish Superhero! – Rosh Hashanah 5780, Day 2

***

Have you seen the TV show, “The Good Place”? It is a sharp and witty comedy about the afterlife, and conceptions of “heaven” (i.e. the Good Place) and “hell” (the Bad Place). [MILD SPOILER ALERT!] In the most recent season, the characters on the show discovered a flaw in the algorithm that determines to which place people go when they die. What they found is that life today is so complicated that none of our decisions can be completely, decisively good or bad.

Buying an organic tomato, for example, is better for the Earth in some respects and maybe better for you. But if it was picked by underpaid migrant workers, shipped on a diesel truck from California, sold in a store where there is no gender parity in their pay-scale, placed in a single-use plastic bag, and then driven home in a large gas-guzzling vehicle, then you’ve racked up exponentially more negative points. And so they determined that nobody was getting into the Good Place anymore, because life has become so perpetually fraught.

(It’s worth noting here that Judaism is not so hung up on the afterlife – we are more about the here and now than about what comes after. Our reward for doing the right thing is found in the quality of our personal and communal relationships. But although that is an excellent sermon for Yom Kippur, that is not the direction we are going this evening.)

Let’s face it: we are all overwhelmed. Overwhelmed with all that needs fixing in our world.  Overwhelmed with emails, texts and notifications. Overwhelmed with the pace and complexity of contemporary life. Overwhelmed by so many choices, and so little reliable guidance. We have difficulty prioritizing our time, particularly because it seems that there is just not enough of it. And who has any time left over for volunteering, let alone doing things that are good for your soul, like daily tefillah / prayer?

Given the above, how can we possibly be the best versions of ourselves?  If the demands on our attention continue to grow, how can we hope to ensure a just society, one in which everybody gets a fair shake?

As many of you already know, the theme of this year’s High Holidays is, “All of this belongs to you.” My plea for you for the 80s, the 5780s, is to acknowledge that the great project of assimilation into American society is done, and that we now need to consider how we can reclaim our tradition.

Too many of us have taken Judaism for granted for too long; we have reduced it to a day or two per year in synagogue, a few home-based rituals, and lifecycle events. But if that is the extent of your Jewish engagement, you are missing most of the richness and value of our heritage, of our customs and rituals, of our ancient wisdom.

To that end, I am going to address this evening an essential message that Judaism offers us and our world, a message that our texts return to over and over. (Get ready – I’m about to do some text, then follow that with a story that drives the point home.)

The Torah teaches us that all of us are responsible for members of society that are less fortunate than ourselves.  Here is just one example (Deut. 15:11):

כִּ֛י לֹֽא־יֶחְדַּ֥ל אֶבְי֖וֹן מִקֶּ֣רֶב הָאָ֑רֶץ עַל־כֵּ֞ן אָֽנֹכִ֤י מְצַוְּךָ֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר פָּ֠תֹחַ תִּפְתַּ֨ח אֶת־יָֽדְךָ֜ לְאָחִ֧יךָ לַֽעֲנִיֶּ֛ךָ וּלְאֶבְיֹֽנְךָ֖ בְּאַרְצֶֽךָ׃

For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.

God expects us to take care of the poor, and the Torah refers more than thirty times to all those in ancient Israelite society who were likely to be destitute: the widow, the orphan, the foreigner, the Levites (who in ancient Israel did not own land, and were therefore among the poor).  The reasons for doing so may be obvious, but just for good measure, and also in multiple places, the Torah gives us a justification based on our national history (Exodus 23:9):

וְגֵ֖ר לֹ֣א תִלְחָ֑ץ וְאַתֶּ֗ם יְדַעְתֶּם֙ אֶת־נֶ֣פֶשׁ הַגֵּ֔ר כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃ 

Do not oppress the stranger, for you know the soul of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

As Jews, we must have compassion for others in difficult situations, because we know, as a people, what that feels like.  This is so important that we commemorate our slavery in Egypt for eight days out of every year by retelling the story and eating the “bread of poverty,” the matzah of Pesah. And to some extent, that is also the message of Sukkot, when we are commanded to leave our comfortable, climate-controlled homes to live in ramshackle huts.

Thank God, most of us have never known true hardship. But our tradition urges us to at least consider it.

In the 19th century, there was an intellectual movement among Lithuanian Jewish thinkers called mussar, meaning “moral conduct.” An important figure in the mussar movement was Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, leader of the famed Slabodka Yeshivah in Lithuania. He took that verse about not oppressing strangers a little further. Rabbi Finkel reads it as requiring us not only to sympathize with others, but to make an effort to feel their joy and their suffering.  Referring to our obligation not to oppress gerim, strangers, he writes:

Please do not explain these words according to their plain meaning, that we are forbidden to oppress a stranger because we too have been strangers and have been oppressed, and thus know the taste of oppression.

Rather, the reasoning behind it is that a person is obligated to feel and to participate in the happiness of his/her fellow, and also their troubles, as if they had afflicted him as well. ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18) – truly just like yourself. One’s relationships to others are not found to be complete unless one can feel oneself and one’s fellow person as being in the same situation, without any separation.

If we feel neither the joy nor the suffering of our neighbors, says Rabbi Finkel, we ourselves are not complete.

It is all too easy to ignore the plight of others around us, particularly people we do not personally know. And yet, says the Torah, for our own welfare, we cannot afford to ignore others in need.  A few weeks ago, in Parashat Ki Tetze, we read about returning lost items to your neighbor (Deut. 22:3):

וְכֵן תַּעֲשֶׂה לַחֲמֹרוֹ, וְכֵן תַּעֲשֶׂה לְשִׂמְלָתוֹ, וְכֵן תַּעֲשֶׂה לְכָל-אֲבֵדַת אָחִיךָ אֲשֶׁר-תֹּאבַד מִמֶּנּוּ, וּמְצָאתָהּ, לֹא תוּכַל לְהִתְעַלֵּם

You shall [also return your neighbor’s] donkey; you shall do the same with his clothes; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent.

Rashi, writing in 11th-century France, tells us that “lehit’alem,” to remain indifferent, means “To conquer your eye, as if you do not see it.”  That is, to actively choose to overlook human loss or suffering that is directly in front of you.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are exposed to poverty, suffering, and the needs of others every day, and we usually do not see it.  Yes, these are complex, multi-faceted issues, and it is easy to be indifferent, particularly in the face of intractable problems.  However, it is incumbent upon us as Jews not to allow ourselves to “conquer our eyes.” We cannot ignore others in need, whoever they are.

The following is a true story that appeared in the New York Times Magazine eight years ago. It speaks volumes about the positions of Rabbi Finkel and Rashi. It’s called, The Tire Iron and the Tamale, by Justin Horner, a graphic designer from Portland, Oregon.

During this past year I’ve had three instances of car trouble: a blowout on a freeway, a bunch of blown fuses and an out-of-gas situation. They all happened while I was driving other people’s cars, which for some reason makes it worse on an emotional level. And on a practical level as well, what with the fact that I carry things like a jack and extra fuses in my own car, and know enough not to park on a steep incline with less than a gallon of fuel.

Each time, when these things happened, I was disgusted with the way people didn’t bother to help. I was stuck on the side of the freeway hoping my friend’s roadside service would show, just watching tow trucks cruise past me. The people at the gas stations where I asked for a gas can told me that they couldn’t lend them out “for safety reasons,” but that I could buy a really crappy one-gallon can, with no cap, for $15. It was enough to make me say stuff like “this country is going to hell in a handbasket,” which I actually said.

But you know who came to my rescue all three times? Immigrants. Mexican immigrants. None of them spoke any English.

One of those guys stopped to help me with the blowout even though he had his whole family of four in tow. I was on the side of the road for close to three hours with my friend’s big Jeep. I put signs in the windows, big signs that said, “NEED A JACK,” and offered money. Nothing. Right as I was about to give up and start hitching, a van pulled over, and the guy bounded out.

He sized up the situation and called for his daughter, who spoke English. He conveyed through her that he had a jack but that it was too small for the Jeep, so we would need to brace it. Then he got a saw from the van and cut a section out of a big log on the side of the road. We rolled it over, put his jack on top and we were in business.

I started taking the wheel off, and then, if you can believe it, I broke his tire iron. It was one of those collapsible ones, and I wasn’t careful, and I snapped the head clean off. Damn.

No worries: he ran to the van and handed it to his wife, and she was gone in a flash down the road to buy a new tire iron. She was back in 15 minutes. We finished the job with a little sweat and cussing (the log started to give), and I was a very happy man.

The two of us were filthy and sweaty. His wife produced a large water jug for us to wash our hands in. I tried to put a 20 in the man’s hand, but he wouldn’t take it, so instead I went up to the van and gave it to his wife as quietly as I could. I thanked them up one side and down the other. I asked the little girl where they lived, thinking maybe I’d send them a gift for being so awesome. She said they lived in Mexico. They were in Oregon so Mommy and Daddy could pick cherries for the next few weeks. Then they were going to pick peaches, then go back home.

After I said my goodbyes and started walking back to the Jeep, the girl called out and asked if I’d had lunch. When I told her no, she ran up and handed me a tamale.

This family, undoubtedly poorer than just about everyone else on that stretch of highway, working on a seasonal basis where time is money, took a couple of hours out of their day to help a strange guy on the side of the road while people in tow trucks were just passing him by.

But we weren’t done yet. I thanked them again and walked back to my car and opened the foil on the tamale (I was starving by this point), and what did I find inside? My $20 bill! I whirled around and ran to the van and the guy rolled down his window. He saw the $20 in my hand and just started shaking his head no. All I could think to say was, “Por favor, por favor, por favor,” with my hands out. The guy just smiled and, with what looked like great concentration, said in English: “Today you, tomorrow me.”

Then he rolled up his window and drove away, with his daughter waving to me from the back. I sat in my car eating the best tamale I’ve ever had, and I just started to cry. It had been a rough year; nothing seemed to break my way. This was so out of left field I just couldn’t handle it.

In the several months since then I’ve changed a couple of tires, given a few rides to gas stations and once drove 50 miles out of my way to get a girl to an airport. I won’t accept money. But every time I’m able to help, I feel as if I’m putting something in the bank.

What an inspiring story!  Would that we all could have such heart-warming interactions!  Better yet, may we all be blessed with finding opportunities to create them.  When Mr. Horner was in need, he was helped by those who clearly understood what it means to need help.  He learned to appreciate those who are willing to help others, and translated that into his own willingness to reach out to strangers in their time of need. And when the family returned his $20 in the tamale, he surely learned that acts of kindness are, in fact, their own reward, a particularly Jewish concept.

These are the principles that the Torah is trying to teach us.  As a people, we must not remain indifferent to the needs of others, because we, the children of Israel, not only know what it’s like to be strangers in a strange land, but that our tradition requires us to participate in their joy and in their suffering. And we also understand the value that action for the benefit of others brings us in the here and now.

Ladies and gentlemen, the essential message of the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance that include Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, is that we have the power to change ourselves for the better.  We can become more compassionate, more understanding, more forthcoming in our outward relationships. 

Fasting and afflicting our souls through abstention from physical pleasures on this day is not for its own sake. Yom Kippur is not some kind of macho endurance test, or an opportunity to lose weight.  It is to remind us that we have obligations to everybody else, that the hunger we experience today is the hunger that too many experience every day, that we may not remain indifferent in the face of suffering. 

Although some have the custom, before Yom Kippur to greet others with, “Tzom qal,” “Have an easy fast,” I do not say this. It is more appropriate to say, “Have a meaningful fast.” But here is another suggestion: Have a challenging fast.”  This day should be, in fact, a challenge to our values, a challenge to our daily routine, to our modes of comfort. To face the challenge of fasting for 25 hours, and yet remain unchanged by that challenge, that would be an embarrassment before God.

Tomorrow morning, we will read the words of Isaiah in the haftarah (58:6-7):

This is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke.  It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe them, and do not ignore your own flesh.

We cannot ignore the hungry, the poor, or the naked, says Isaiah.  I would extrapolate Isaiah’s line of thinking to include the homeless, the neglected, the abused, the emotionally and physically wounded.

Just a few quick statistics:

Did you know that more black children in Pittsburgh grow up in poverty than black children in 95% of similar American cities? That black infant mortality puts Pittsburgh in the 6th percentile? That’s not compared to white people – that’s only compared to black people.

Did you know that the food insecurity rate in Allegheny County is 14.2% overall, but for children it is 17.8%? That means that nearly 1 in 5 kids go hungry regularly.

Did you know that at any given time, there are a couple of thousand homeless people in Allegheny County? Some of them can even be found in our own neighborhood.

We are surrounded by people in need, and we cannot remain indifferent. 

Why are we here this evening?  On this, the holiest night of the year, a night on which we focus on improving ourselves, a night on which we pre-emptively invalidate frivolous vows (that is the purpose of the Kol Nidrei prayer), we should consider making some vows that we will strive to keep:

  • To be aware of those around us who are in need
  • To reach out to them, whether directly, in person, or through all the various charitable organizations that do so
  • To think pro-actively about how we can make a difference in the lives of others

And you can turn that awareness into actual deeds right now: you can fill up those bags for the Squirrel Hill Food Pantry. You can donate to any number of organizations that help those in need. You can volunteer to work in a shelter or soup kitchen.

And, as with Justin Horner and his flat tire, you do not even have to look very far to find somebody in need of help. The point, ladies and gentlemen, is to be aware of others, to think beyond yourself, and to stop and give aid.

On this day of teshuvah / repentance, of self-denial and self-judgment, our task is to challenge ourselves not to succumb to information overload, not to tune out the ever-present challenges of poverty, of suffering, of those who have less than we do.

Rather, this is the essential message of our tradition: we must surmount our indifference and to turn it into action. This is a fundamental value of Judaism. All of this belongs to you. Now go out there and make 5780 a year that counts.

Gemar hatimah tovah.  Have not an easy fast, but a challenging fast.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, evening of Yom Kippur 5780, October 8, 2019.)

Continue reading the final installment in the “All of This Belongs to You” series: All of This Belongs to You: Finding Resilience in Jewish Tradition – Yom Kippur Day 5780

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