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We Can Change the World Through Civic Engagement: Schmoozing Leads to Action – Beha’alotekha 5780

Milt Eisner passed away and was laid to rest this week. He was a member of Beth Shalom for 57 years, a stalwart of lay leadership, former president, chief gabbai and man of many committees who held a range of roles for this synagogue and for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. Those of you who knew Milt knew that he was first and foremost dedicated to community. If you did not know Milt, you should know that it was this dedication that made Beth Shalom what it is. He was a gifted fundraiser, but even more so, a consummate schmoozer. He knew everybody, and he knew you and your kids and your stories and, of course, how much you should be giving to the shul or the Federation. As Federation CEO Jeff Finkelstein put it at his funeral, they don’t make ‘em like Milt anymore.

Milt knew something that not enough of us realize: that civic engagement is the key to a thriving community. 

Now, of course, Milt came up in a time in which the Jews were more likely to look inward. When he first joined Beth Shalom in 1963, the world was a very different place for the Jews. They were still not welcome in some circles. Casual anti-Semitism was still very much alive. It was only 18 years after the end of World War II, and Jews were still struggling to make known the horrors of the Holocaust.

Those Jews who were inclined to participate in communal activities did so with the other people in their neighborhoods, i.e. Jews. They played poker with other Jews; they dined with other Jews;  they donated to Jewish causes.

And people like Milt poured their heart and soul into building the institutions of Jewish community, institutions like Congregation Beth Shalom.

Ladies and gentlemen, the world has changed tremendously. But civic engagement, truly engaging with your community, is the key to the future. We all need to be more like Milt, but we need to do it a little differently. 

Right up front in Parashat Beha’alotekha, in the second verse of this morning’s reading, the one that includes the titular word, we find the following (Bemidbar / Numbers 8:2):

דַּבֵּר֙ אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֔ן וְאָמַרְתָּ֖ אֵלָ֑יו בְּהַעֲלֹֽתְךָ֙ אֶת־הַנֵּרֹ֔ת אֶל־מוּל֙ פְּנֵ֣י הַמְּנוֹרָ֔ה יָאִ֖ירוּ שִׁבְעַ֥ת הַנֵּרֽוֹת׃

Speak to Aharon and say to him, “When you raise up the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lampstand.”

What is God telling Aharon, the Kohen Gadol / High Priest to do? To lift up seven lamps; to elevate the Israelites and their spirits by casting light. Yes, you can read this literally, as a mere prescription for a routine activity in the mishkan (the portable sanctuary in which the Israelites worshipped while wandering in the desert for 40 years). But you can also read it metaphorically as the obligation of leadership to cast light and to elevate the holiness in people and in the community. 

Detail from the Arch of Titus in Rome, showing the menorah from the Temple in Jerusalem being carried away following the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 CE

In fact, Rashi (Rabbi Shelomoh Yitzhaqi, France 1045-1105 CE) points out that the wicks of the three lamps on either side of the seven should be pointed inward, toward the middle lamp, so that nobody would say that it was God who needed the light. In other words, the light cast is for us. Humans, not God.

I’ll come back to that, but let’s pause for a moment of internal self-congratulation. Beth Shalom took a giant leap forward this week with respect to leadership: We passed the new constitution. Mazal tov! Milt would be very proud.

Yes, I know that does not sound so exciting. But it speaks volumes about the health of this institution. In the wake of and of course driven by the new strategic plan, the implementation of which began last fall, we now have a constitution that meets the needs of this congregation now, allowing us to sail boldly together into the future with more efficient, more transparent leadership. And that is tremendously valuable.

And bringing that plan and this new structure to fruition required the help of a bunch of civic-minded people, too numerous to mention right now, but you know who they are. When volunteers put their heads together, great things can happen. And it bodes well for the larger plank in this congregation’s future, that of financial sustainability. 

The leadership of this synagogue is truly worthy of praise and appreciation, and I am grateful for and inspired by your talents and your commitment. Kol  hakavod.

Turning our attention now beyond the walls of Congregation Beth Shalom, we cannot deny that we are facing other great challenges right now as a society.

I spoke last week about the particular challenge of racism seen in the recent murder of George Floyd. And Ahmaud Arbery. And Breonna Taylor. And Antwon Rose. And I spoke about how our tradition – verses of Torah and rabbinic literature – speak directly to our obligations as Jews to build a better world. And I spoke about how we are all in this together: Black, white, Asian, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Zoroastrian.

A lot of people are very upset and hurt right now. And a lot of people are looking for positive ways to be involved. And here is my suggestion: we have to channel that energy into being like Milt, that is, being committed to the idea of community.

The future of our society, and our ability to right fundamental wrongs, to change institutional bias that breeds injustice, depends on our interdependence, on our willingness to work together and to support each other. And it also depends on leaders – people who step forward to make things happen.

However, unlike in the Torah, when leadership came through tribal affiliation and primogeniture, leadership today can come from anywhere. Each of us has the potential to be a leader. And we need more leaders. 

Many of us are asking ourselves, what can we do? What can we do about the inherent biases in our schools, in our real estate practices, in our healthcare system, in our policing, that lead to very different outcomes depending on the color of your skin?

And, in particular, what can a synagogue do?

Let me tell you, in particular what we need. We need volunteers, people who are willing to step forward to create dialogue. We need to partner with another community, an African-American church, for example, with whom we can create not just bridges, but opportunities. We need to get to know each other, to share stories, to break bread, maybe even to daven together, to learn what they need from us as allies, as members of the same community. We need to create meaningful joint programming and not just “virtue signaling.” 

We should also acknowledge that the landscape of American Judaism is no longer only Yiddish-speaking, gefilte-fish-eating, Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews. We need to have dialogue within our own community about the palette of contemporary Jews. 

And before we even get to those dialogues, we need to prepare ourselves. Did the Israelites receive the Torah on day 1 at Sinai? No. It was day 3, after extensive preparation.  We have to make sure that we understand our own biases first, our own comfort and discomfort zones. We have to make sure that our intentions are pure and our hearts are open.

Ladies and gentlemen, this will take time. I know, the urgency of the moment feels like we need to swoop in and do something dramatic. And for sure, there are many people in this world who do not have the luxury of time. 

True leadership is thoughtful and mission-driven. And now that many of us have been drawn into the cause of casting more light in this world, into considering how we might make a difference in the fight against racism, we have before us an unprecedented opportunity to show real leadership.

Congregation Beth Shalom should be building that metaphorical seven-branched menorah. Not the one in the mishkan, but the one that serves as a beacon of light, here on Beacon Street, to our neighborhood, our city, and our country; to lift us all up, together, black, brown, white, and everything else. 

Building that menorah will not be easy. Milt Eisner and other people like him put decades of work into building the institutions of this community. And where did it begin? With the schmooze. With sharing stories; with breaking bread together. With being involved with people and organizations.

Rabbi Aqiva teaches us (Babylonian Talmud Masekhet Qiddushin 40b) that study is greater than action, because study leads to action.

We have a lot of learning to do before we get to the action. Now is the time to discuss, to learn, to take a good long look at ourselves, and then to reach out to others to expand the dialogue. And then we can lift up the lamps that will illuminate all of us.

And we need you to be involved first. Derekh has sponsored a few initiatives in the past year or two, including the civil rights trip last year and the book group reading Ibram Kendi’s How to be an Anti-Racist. We intend to turn up the volume in this area, to raise the level of dialogue. So when those opportunities come, please take them. 

We will also need a dedicated task force to prepare and create the dialogue, and to facilitate the learning opportunities that will lead to action. 

Ladies and gentlemen, we will all need to be involved if we as a synagogue community want to make a difference. We will need you to step forward as a leader. We will all need to be a little more like Milt.

Milt (z”l) and Sarita Eisner

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 6/13/2020.)

Categories
High Holidays Sermons

4 Whys #1: Why be Jewish? – Rosh Hashanah Day 1, 5777

Take a moment to think about why you are here today.

Are you here because you could not imagine being anywhere else on the first day of Rosh Hashanah?

Are you here because you are energized by the themes of the High Holidays? About sin and repentance and the Book of Life? About God’s sovereignty in this world? About remembering our texts and tradition?

Are you here because of guilt?

Are you here for the first time, because you want to check it out?

Are you here because the moving melodies of the High Holiday liturgy always transport you to a unique spiritual zone?

Are you not sure why you’re here?

Why Values Based Communication?

This year, 5777, the theme of my sermons for of these days, these Yamim Nora’im, these days of awesomeness, is “Why?” The Four Whys, actually. And I’m going to attempt something that is in fact a wee bit bold. You might even call it (to use the lofty French term), “khutzpadik.”

I am going to try to answer a question that you may not have thought too deeply about, but which, I think, is an essential question of our time:

Why be Jewish? Why do we need Judaism?

And, to be even more specific, the question is more accurately not about “being Jewish,” which many of us can do quite easily by default, but rather, “Why DO Jewish?” Why be a part of a Jewish community? Why engage with Jewish life and learning? Why commit yourself to an ancient tradition that might seem sometimes charmingly irrelevant, and at other times downright oppressive?

This is the first why, and perhaps the biggest of the four.

The questions of “Why be Jewish”  has not always been a feature of Jewish life. Most of our ancestors did not have the luxury of asking. But today, we need to address this head-on.

Not too long ago, I saw a TED talk featuring a television producer named Andrew Stanton. Mr. Stanton said something that I found particularly relevant about the way we engage with anything today.

We are constantly bombarded with various sponsored messages: buy this, eat here, do that, make yourself thinner, happier, healthier, etc. This barrage causes some of us to want to retreat to within a protective shell, to tune out the noise.

As one who makes his living trying to get people to pay attention to his work, what Mr. Stanton said really struck me: “Make me care.” We are all equipped today with a dispassionate outer shell; not much breaks through. In order to be heard you have to find the hook that connects to the soul beneath.

I want to make you care about being Jewish, and about living a Jewish life. I want you to tune into that voice that comes from within, calling you to something greater.

We here in congregations like Beth Shalom are firmly engaged with the rest of the world. And let’s face it: some of the things we know and feel contradict some ideas found in traditional Judaism. We know, for example, that the universe came into being 14.5 billion years ago, not 5777 years ago today. Traditional Judaism does not count women and men as equals. The theology espoused in the Torah is woefully simplistic.

Even the Jewish values that we learn from our tradition: expressing gratitude, respect for others, responsibility for the Earth, honoring your elders, visiting the sick, redeeming captives, seeking justice for all people, and so on. Aren’t these simply human values? Why do we need Jewish text to teach us these things?

For sure, a handful of us are convinced of the value of Jewish tradition. But the vast majority of us are not.

Beginning right now, and stretching over the four sermons between now and Yom Kippur, I will be making the case for Judaism in four general areas, going from the macro “why” to the micro “why”:

RH day 1: Why we need Judaism (in general)  

RH day 2: Why we need mitzvot / Shabbat

Kol Nidrei: Why we need Beth Shalom?

Yom Kippur morning: Why we need Torah

These are the Four Whys.

So without further ado: Why do we need Judaism?

I recently heard Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in LA retell a good story about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the greatest luminaries of the 20th century. Rabbi Heschel meets a Jewish fellow who tells him that he does not need to go to synagogue or otherwise participate in Jewish rituals. “I’m basically a good guy. I treat my family well, my friends well, I take care of people,” he says. “I don’t need Judaism.”

Rabbi Heschel responds by saying, “Gee, I envy you. I often say things that I regret. I don’t feel like I am generous enough with my time and my money. I wish I were a better parent and colleague and friend. I wish I were more like you.”

Who do you think has a better understanding for why we need Judaism?

I am going to make the case for how personally meaningful our tradition is, and how it can improve your life by making you feel more grounded, more connected, less anxious, more satisfied, and improve your relationships, your family life, and your inner peace.

In short, the answer to “Why be Jewish?” that may be recited while standing on one foot is, “Because drawing on Jewish knowledge and Jewish living will yield tangible benefits to your life.”

I’m going to warn you up front, however. To get these benefits, you have to put some effort in. Jewish living takes work. It takes time. But let me assure you: the time you put in will pay you back, and then some.

Before we go further, however, some things that I am not going to tell you:

  • I am not going to say that eating kosher food is healthier for you.
  • I am not going to say that keeping the Shabbat for 25 hours every week will give you a boost in your paycheck.
  • I am not going to tell you that making sure that your doorposts have properly-mounted, kosher mezuzot will keep your family safe from harm.

There are certainly people in the Jewish world who say those things. I’m not one of them.  Let’s dispense with superstition entirely and talk about meaning.

I think it is helpful to frame our discussion in terms of three major paths through Jewish life: ritual, action, and learning.

  1. Ritual

 

This is probably the most familiar area of Judaism, because it is what American synagogues have bet on. It includes tefillah / prayer, of course, but also holiday activities, including the observance of Shabbat, lifecycle events like berit millah / circumcision, weddings, and funerals. While ritual is an essential and often meaningful part of Jewish life, it is only a part of what Judaism offers.

Here are a few examples from the most popularly-observed Jewish rituals, and some perspective that makes them more relevant:

  • Lighting Hanukkah candles, for example, illuminates not only our windowsills but also our world; they remind us of the need for us to continue to spread light throughout the spiritually dark places all around us. And we know that our world needs more enlightenment.
  • Gathering family and friends to dine and tell the story of Pesah is not just about the food, nor is it merely about an ancient tale of taskmasters and slaves and a stubborn king. It is about the value of freedom and our obligation to seek out and eliminate oppression in all its forms.
  • Fasting on Yom Kippur is not an endurance test; it is an opportunity to cleanse your body, your mind, and your heart. It is a personal challenge that helps us to understand the mind-body connection, and to greater appreciate the creature comforts to which we are all accustomed. As your grandmother may have told you, there’s nothing wrong with suffering a little now and then.

Ritual requires context. The synagogue service, circumcision, eating particular foods, mourning rituals, etc. must be connected to the larger picture of Judaism. Ritual cannot stand alone; when we connect it to ourselves and our world, it can enrich our lives, enshrine moments in holiness, and provide a framework for expression that helps us celebrate, grieve, discover ourselves, and express a whole range of emotions.

All ritual is accompanied by liturgy: words that make the ritual complete. Without it, the ritual would fall flat; it would be left unmoored from its past and future. And just as important are the traditional melodies that accompany the words, that remind us of our own pasts, of our paths of learning and connection with our parents and teachers. Think of how powerful some of the words and  melodies that we have chanted today are; they are like wormholes in the time-space continuum that connect us to our ancestors.

Ritual replays for us the Jewish story, reminding us why we are here and what our responsibilities are to everybody around us.

  1. Action

This is the whole sphere of Jewish behaviors that are not explicitly tied to ritual. Examples include the dietary laws (kashrut), guidelines for how we speak to each other / Leshon HaRa, the obligation to repair this very broken world / Tikkun Olam, business ethics, and the moral code that ensures a just society (not murdering, honoring your parents, etc.). This area is much more far-ranging, and potentially rewarding, than most of us are aware of.

We all know, on some level, that action is a mandatory feature of Judaism. You may have heard that what differentiates Judaism from Christianity generally is that being a Christian requires faith, while being Jewish requires action.

The underlying value of Jewish actions is that they improve ourselves and our world. We may not always understand the value of a particular non-ritual action, but after doing something over and over, its internal wisdom is revealed.

Let’s take, for example, kashrut, the Jewish dietary principles. You may ask, “Why, Rabbi, if God created the shrimp, am I not permitted to eat it?” Or, “Pork has fewer calories than beef. Shouldn’t I eat more pork?” How can avoiding cheeseburgers possibly improve this world?

One possible answer is this:

In their excellent introduction to our tradition, The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism, Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin point to the following interpretation of kashrut (from Midrash Tanhuma on Parashat Shemini, #7):

The mitzvot [of kashrut] were given solely in order to train people. For what does it matter to the Qadosh Barukh Hu / God about the ‘purity’ or ‘impurity’ of the animals we eat?

You might think that kashrut is about food, but I would counter that kashrut is about maintaining the sanctity of life through boundaries. And this is becoming ever so much more important in the Information Age, when all the boundaries are melting away before our eyes. Eating is such an essential part of our lives that our understanding the limits in consumption easily transfers to other aspects of our relationship with all creatures.

We’ll speak about action a little bit more tomorrow.

  1. Learning

This is probably the area that has been the least-emphasized in contemporary Jewish life, but in my opinion the most important. Why? Because Judaism is a tradition of the heart and mind, and understanding this is essential to deriving meaning from our traditions. Without the basis of knowledge, mature, sophisticated understanding of how to connect Jewish action to ourselves, the former are empty, meaningless.

Once upon a time, there was the Temple in Jerusalem; it was the center of Jewish life.  The Kohanim / priests ruled.  If you were fortunate, you went maybe a few times a year to the Temple to offer your animals and produce as sacrifices. That was the extent of Jewish ritual.

The Romans destroyed it for the 2nd and final time in 70 CE, leaving the Jews with a dilemma: How would we connect with God?  How would we maintain our national identity?

Out of the ashes of the Temple came rabbinic Judaism, and with it the tradition of Jewish learning which has enabled Judaism to survive to this day. The Romans did us two great favors: (א) they ended the barbaric practice of animal sacrifice, and (ב) they made Judaism decentralized. The center of Jewish tradition could never be taken away from us again, because it would now be carried in our heads (and ultimately written down in books).

No more would we be a hierarchical religion, led by priests. The Romans democratized us. Anybody who wanted access to the tradition could learn our textual sources and thus argue with leaders and teachers and scholars.

We began to offer the words of our lips, in prayer and study, instead of animals on the altar. And thus words became the glue that bound us together as a people. And it is this focus on teaching and learning from generation to generation that has enabled us to survive, long after the Babylonians and the Ptolemies and the Romans and the Byzantines and the Ottomans are all gone.

The center of Jewish life is not the Temple in Jerusalem, nor is it the ruin that remains there, the Kotel, the Western Wall, or any other physical place. It is the Jewish bookshelf, which exists not only on physical bookshelves or online, but in the Jewish heart and mind. It is not just the Torah, but the Talmud, the midrash, the commentaries, the halakhic interpretation, the stories of the last 2,000 years.

And it is from this center of ancient wisdom from which we draw meaning about our lives, our interactions, our families, our businesses. The Jewish bookshelf has sustained us for two millennia; our future depends on it.

I will discuss this in greater depth on Yom Kippur.

***

It is the combination of these three things – ritual, action, and learning – that gives our lives shape, that bring us meaning.

That’s a tricky concept: meaning. You can’t find it on the Internet. You can’t buy it with any form of currency. You won’t find any photos of it on Instagram.

Why? Because meaning is the ultimate intangible. It is elusive. But it is something we all need. A life without meaning is a life that is not worth living.

The reason we need Judaism is that when we embrace it, it elevates our lives by giving them meaning. And by engaging with Jewish life and learning, by being a member of the Jewish community, we have the opportunity to experience that elevation and that meaning in a joyful, sociable context.

So, now that you’ve made me care, Rabbi, what’s the entry point? Where do I start?

The tale is told of the early 20th century Jewish philosopher, Franz Rosenzweig, who is famous for two particular moments in his life: the first was that, after having decided to convert to Christianity to advance his career prospects, he stopped into a synagogue at Kol  Nidrei to give Judaism one last shot. After experiencing that service, he changed his mind, realizing that he could not possibly leave such a rich and inspiring tradition. He opted to remain Jewish.

But the second moment came years later, after he was famous for having embraced Judaism and written a contemporary philosophical work on the subject, The Star of Redemption. He was asked publicly, “Herr Rosenzweig, are you putting on tefillin every day?”

Rosenzweig’s answer: “Not yet.”

We are all somewhere on that continuum of “Not yet.” And there’s nothing wrong with that. You don’t have to be a perfectly-observant, ritually-correct, Talmudically-fluent Jew to elevate yourself through Jewish tradition.

You can enter it from any point: come see me about where to start: it could be as simple as lighting Shabbat candles or taking time to visit someone in the hospital, or we could jump right into learning Talmud. But if you want the benefits that Judaism offers, you have to start somewhere.

All of it – ritual, action, and learning – can enrich your life, heighten your ability to understand yourself, improve your relationships, and make this a better world. I am sorry if they did not teach you that in Hebrew school, but that’s how it looks from my vantage point. Embracing Judaism has dramatically improved my life; the same could be true for you.

למה ללמה קוראים למה? צילום: sxe
למה?

So, why are you here today? Why Judaism? Because we need it.

Tomorrow we’ll talk more about action.

Shanah tovah!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, first day of Rosh Hashanah 5777, 10/3/2016.)