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High Holidays Sermons

Make it Meaningful! – Engaging With Israel – Kol Nidrei 5782

Shalom! Before you proceed, you might want to read the first installment in the “Make it Meaningful!” series, from the first day of Rosh HaShanah and the second day of Rosh HaShanah 5782.

Many of my rabbinic colleagues give a sermon about Israel over the course of the High Holidays. I have generally not done so for two reasons: (א) because I give sermons about Israel from time to time throughout the year, and (ב) because the High Holidays seem like the best time to talk about the ways in which Jewish living can enrich your life and our world. So many of us make it to Jewish adulthood without deriving meaning from our customs and rituals, and since most of us are paying attention on the High Holidays, this is the time when I feel I must teach about the essential value and meaning of our tradition.

However, I noticed an opening this year that needs to be addressed. (Or, “needs addressed,” in local parlance.) Our theme this year is, “Make it Meaningful!” and Israel is very, very meaningful to me as a part of what it means to be Jewish today, and I know that Israel is meaningful to many of you as well. But I am, I must confess, a little concerned that it may not be meaningful enough for some of us. I am concerned that American Jews are drifting away from Israel.

And all the more so for me personally right now, since my oldest son, Oryah, is serving in the Israel Defense Forces, in the Ḥeil haTotḥanim, the artillery brigade. So I have, you might say, quite a bit of skin in the game at this particular moment. It’s worth noting that, come November, we will have two more young members of our congregation serving in the IDF: Naomi Kitchen and Ari Gilboa. That is actually a fairly significant group of ḥayyalim, Israeli soldiers directly connected to Congregation Beth Shalom.

Not only am I the father of an Israeli soldier, I am also a proud Zionist. I fell in love with the State of Israel – the people, the land, the culture, the optimistic idea of a modern Jewish state in the historical land of the Jewish people, built on the yearnings and hope of 2,000 years – I fell in love upon touching down at Ben Gurion Airport for my first visit there in the summer of 1987 when I was a participant in the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program. And that love only deepened when I returned there as an adult to live and study there in 1999. 

Not only am I a proud Zionist, but I am also concerned for the welfare of ALL all the people on that tiny strip of land. I have spent time working as an idealistic volunteer on kibbutz, and climbed Masada multiple times and studied every aspect and angle of the contemporary Israeli story and hiked from the Kinneret  / Sea of Galilee to the Mediterranean. I have also visited Israeli Arab and Druze villages, engaged with light political chatter with Palestinian citizens, been in a forum with Palestinian Authority politicians, been to West Bank locales such as Ḥevron and Mt. Gerizim and Jewish settlements and was once even turned back by Palestinian police at the crossing point while trying to visit Shechem, also known as Nablus. I have been and have experienced, in the words of the Israeli author Amos Oz, פה ושם בארץ ישראל, here and there in the land of Israel.

Not only am I concerned for all the people who live there, but I am also concerned that, according to the most recent Pew Research Center study of American Jews, our engagement with Israel is waning. 

For example:

  • 52% of American Jews over 50 consider “caring about Israel” to be “essential” to being Jewish, while only 35% of those under 30 do.
  • For the over-50 crowd, only 10% say Israel is not important to their Jewish identity, while for those under 30, that figure is 27%, nearly three times as much.

The handful of us in the American Jewish community who remember the 1940s know that we helped make the State of Israel a reality. There were the American fighter pilots who volunteered to serve. The Americans who donated to help build the new state. The Pittsburghers, who, as described in our member Dr. Barbara Burstin’s books on the history of our community, created a major hub of Zionist activity all the way back to the 1890s. Dr. Burstin assures me that Pittsburgh was second only to New York in terms of Zionist fervor and support, with a range of organizations and activities.

That is our legacy here. 

But for many American Jews today, Israel is far away and not so consequential; for some Israel is no longer a source of pride. And that is what I find truly disheartening.

And one more brief “not only”: Not only am I concerned that disengagement of the American Jewish community is a threat to the future of Israel, I am also concerned that whatever I say about Israel, I am going to disappoint a whole bunch of people, and perhaps anger a few as well. While once upon a time, an Israel-based sermon was an easy slam dunk, today many rabbis actually shy away from talking about Israel from the pulpit for that reason. 

Consider the pop singer Billie Eilish, who, in promoting her new album last month, created a series of brief videos on TikTok aimed at her fans in different countries. In the one addressed to her fans in the Israeli market, where there are apparently plenty of Billie Eilish fans, she said, ““Hi Israel, this is Billie Eilish, and I’m so excited that my new album, Happier Than Ever, is out now.” In doing so, a Twitter-storm erupted of people calling her out, for saying nothing more than, “Hi, Israel.” How dare she even attempt to sell albums to Israelis? 

Of course, Billie Eilish is not a rabbi, and the membership of Beth Shalom is hardly akin to a Twitter mob. As one who has had a life-long love affair with Israel, with all its attendant complexity and angst, and as a cheerleader for Jewish tradition, my task is to tell you not only why Israel is so meaningful to me, but why it should be for you as well.

We are going to consider the meaning in our relationship with Israel from three different perspectives: Jewish tradition, Jewish power, and Jewish culture.

Jewish Tradition

At the simplest level, we cannot separate our connection to the land of Israel from our Jewishness. Certainly the arc of the Torah, and indeed the entire Tanakh / Hebrew bible, revolves around getting to or returning to Eretz Yisrael. And from the time that the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE, and hastened the Jewish dispersion all over the world, much of Jewish creativity – the Talmud, midrash, commentaries, liturgy, music and art – has been focused on the yearning for return and rebuilding our land.

On virtually every page of every siddur / prayerbook, including the maḥzor many of you hold in your hand right now, this yearning is evident. Consider what you just recited a few moments ago in the Amidah, words which we recite in every Amidah, at least three times on every day of the year: 

וְתֶחֱזֶֽינָה עֵינֵֽינוּ בְּשׁוּבְ֒ךָ לְצִיּוֹן בְּרַחֲמִים

Veteḥezena eineinu beshuvekha letziyyon beraḥamim.

And may our eyes behold Your merciful return to Zion.

The addressee here is, of course, God; but the implication is that if God returns to Israel, so might we as well. (By the way, I’ll never forget seeing those words inscribed on the wall in the secret synagogue found at Terezin, the Nazi concentration camp not far from Prague.) 

The “secret synagogue” in the Terezin (Theresienstadt) concentration camp

Or, right before the Shema, as we say every morning (we’ll say this tomorrow at about 9:20 AM.:

 וַהֲבִיאֵֽנוּ לְשָׁלוֹם מֵאַרְבַּע כַּנְפוֹת הָאָֽרֶץ וְתוֹלִיכֵֽנוּ קוֹמְ֒מִיּוּת לְאַרְצֵֽנוּ

Vahavienu leshalom me-arba kanfot ha-aretz, vetolikheinu qomemiyyut le-artzeinu.

Bring upon us in peace from the four corners of the Earth, and speedily lead us upright to our land.

And, when we chant the berakhot after the haftarah tomorrow morning:

רַחֵם עַל צִיּון כִּי הִיא בֵּית חַיֵּינוּ. וְלַעֲלוּבַת נֶפֶשׁ תּושִׁיעַ בִּמְהֵרָה בְיָמֵינוּ 

Raem al Tziyyon ki hi beit ayyeinu. Vela’aluvat nefesh toshia bimheira veyameinu.

Have mercy upon Zion, for it is the source of our life; and for the downtrodden of spirit bring salvation speedily in our days.

Zion is not merely some fantastical poetic reference. It is the land of our ancestors. It is the very real place that hosted the establishment of the Jewish people. It was our homeland for a thousand years, thereafter occupied by one empire after another for nearly 2,000 more, with continuous Jewish settlement (at times minimal) throughout that period.

In exile, this yearning for the land of Israel has been our inspiration and salvation and essential Earthly link to our tradition and to God as long as Jews have existed. Our connection to the land is not only inseparable from our tradition, but it has soaked every siddur / prayerbook with tears for two thousand years. 

And, with the modern Zionist movement, which began a century and a half ago in Eastern Europe, the establishment of a Jewish State in that land has become a central plank in what it means to be a contemporary Jew.

Of course, the establishment of this state has come with its share of challenges, some of which the early Zionists anticipated, and some they did not, pre-eminent among them the challenge of creating a respectful living situation for the Arabs who live alongside our people in that land.

Jewish Power

For virtually all of the last two millennia, our people were powerless exiles, and in some cases even refugees. We were subjects of empires, kings and queens, and feudal lords, and lived at their mercy. We survived, but we managed to do so with our wits, while clinging steadfastly to our tradition and to each other.

Our powerlessness enabled the Crusaders’ slaughter, the Expulsion from Spain, the medieval blood libels, and the pogroms. Our powerlessness permitted the Nazis to actually calculate the number of Deutschmarks required to kill each Jew; to realize that one bullet per dead Jew shot by the Einzatsgruppen was too expensive, and hence the use of Zyklon B poison gas and BMW engine exhaust in the death camps.

But, in the wake of the Shoah / Holocaust, in which 6 million of our people were murdered due to their powerlessness, the desperation that our people felt aroused the sympathy of much of the world. Although the return to Zion had begun more than 80 years prior, it was to some extent this sympathy, which played out in the League of Nations partition plan vote on November 29, 1947, that allowed David Ben Gurion to establish the State five and a half months later.

And suddenly the Jews had sovereign state power. But power is complicated. Power requires making ethical choices, sometimes between two bad possible outcomes. The State of Israel is a democracy with a thriving set of checks on power – free elections, a free press, free academia, the rule of law, a court system. Tzahal, the Israel Defense Forces, has a principle of “tohar haneshek,” the purity of arms, that is, the soldier’s obligation to maintain her/his humanity in combat. As a result, there is healthy internal evaluation and criticism of Israel’s military choices.

When I was living in Israel in the summer of 2000, the Camp David Summit broke down with no resolution. The Second Intifada began a few weeks later. In that context, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, speaking to the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities in November, 2000, on “The Ethics of Jewish Power Today,” said the following:

Jewish power is never self-validating, so we have to sit in continual judgment upon ourselves… [And] given the evil that cannot be avoided, there is still some best possible or least evil way of exercising power. 

In an ideal world, all people would be treated absolutely equally. In the real world, you distribute your priorities and in fact it may be that some people will get a shorter stick than others. What makes this moral is you try to do the best you can. 

Secondly, you have a continuous process of correction. In a democracy you have elections or you have a free press or other forms of correction, and therefore whatever flaws there are subject to further improvement and further correction. So you have to have both. And the criteria of the moral person is the one who consciously makes those kinds of choices…

So that means in the real world I may err trying to protect the security, overreact and even inflict pain or damage. The criteria of morality is I try to inflict as little as possible and I try to maximize the good. Keep in mind that’s the balance wheel to the other principle, which is that we are only human and we can’t be perfect, so we are going to make some mistakes, which we are then going to go on and try to correct or try to have some mechanism of correction.  

No, Israel is not perfect. But yes, Israel’s democratic process is trying to do the right thing, balancing all the moral criteria with the fact that sometimes people make mistakes. 

Remember the Nazi calculation of how much it cost to murder each Jew, that one bullet per Jew was too much? How much did the State of Israel pay to bring the Jews of Ethiopia to Israel? By one calculation, $35 million was paid to the leader of Ethiopia in 1991 for 14,000 Jews. That was, to put it bluntly, a bribe, just to allow the Jews to leave, and did not account for the price of the airlift itself, or the resettlement in Israel, or all the other ancillary services required.

Operation Solomon, 1991

That is the meaning of Jewish power. So which would you rather have? A situation in which, at any moment, Jews may need to flee out of fear of persecution or expulsion, and have no place to go, as has happened so many times in our history? Or a reality in which there is a sanctuary, even an imperfect one, where the doors are always open? Medieval powerlessness, or the power to be responsible for our own destiny, for better or for worse?

Jewish Culture

Perhaps the greatest value of the State of Israel, and the easiest for Diaspora Jews to appreciate, is its thriving culture. I hope you are familiar with some of the pop-culture products that Israel has exported to the world, particularly the television series (some of which you can find on various streaming services) and films and music and dance.

When I lived in Israel as an adult, now more than 20 years ago, I discovered that Israel’s culture is not merely thriving, but vital; Hebrew rock blasts from outdoor cafes; the theater and dance scene is fresh and exciting; the contemporary architecture is unique and distinctly Israeli. No Jewish Diaspora subculture, even in the mighty United States, the second-largest Jewish population, has come even close to creating as vibrant and distinctive a culture as Israel has. Israel’s entrepreneurial spirit, hatched by necessity from the hardscrabble existence which new olim / immigrants have always faced, is evident in all the ways that Israelis express their singularly Jewish, home-grown national culture.

The vision of Israel as a cultural center, a merkaz ruḥani, did not belong to Theodor Herzl. Rather, it is the vision of one of Zionism’s earliest and greatest internal critics: the essayist and thinker Ahad Ha’am.

Asher Zvi Hirsch Ginsberg, aka Ahad Ha’am

What is a nation without culture? Ahad Ha’am saw Herzl and some of the other leaders of political Zionism as focused on the wrong thing. In his essay from 1888 (!), Lo zu haderekh (“This is not the way”), he took them to task for focusing merely on bringing people to Israel, and not considering what they would do once they arrived. Rather, Ahad Ha’am was laser-focused on drawing on our history and literature to fashion a contemporary Hebrew culture, and the strength of this culture and its values would ultimately lead them to want to face the much greater challenge of building a Jewish national home in Eretz Yisrael.

Israeli reggae band Hativah 6

And, to some extent, when I look at Israeli culture today, when I listen to Israeli hip-hop or enjoy an Israeli wine, I think of Ahad Ha’am and his idea of the merkaz ruḥani. Israel is my spiritual and cultural center.

***

I could speak all night on Israel (and let’s face it: it’s Yom Kippur – what else are you doing tonight?). But I want to add one final note, from Israel’s Minister of Diaspora Affairs from the Labor Party, Dr. Nachman Shai. In a recent blog post on the Times of Israel website, Dr. Shai suggested that rabbis share with their congregants over these High Holidays that Israel wants to make amends for ways in which it may have failed Diaspora Jews, particularly non-Orthodox Jews like us:

Share with your congregants that we in Israel are slowly but surely taking responsibility for our side of the relationship in a way that you have never seen, that we realize we have disappointed you and are doing teshuvah, repentance, with a sincere desire to make things right in the future. Share with them that this new government is committed to bringing back a Kotel Compromise — that is, formalizing an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall. It is committed to learning and understanding how our actions impact your communities. Tell them that we believe in you and that we are ready for both your critique and your ideas.

Most importantly, share with your communities that Israel desires to be your partner, to not let our politics or diverse identities serve as barriers to our fundamental belief that we are a people with a common fate and destiny.

I am grateful that Dr. Shai is beginning the process of reaching out to the Diaspora, and in particular the American Jewish community, to, I hope, repair the broken aspects of our relationship with the State of Israel. I am also hopeful that the new coalition (still holding together! And including an Arab party for the first time in Israel’s history) will be good for that relationship.

***

How do we make Israel meaningful? Through understanding the lenses of ancient Jewish yearning, the ethical pitfalls of Jewish power, and the joy of resonating with Jewish culture. 

But most importantly, by going there. By experiencing Ahad Ha’am’s merkaz ruḥani personally. 

Go there. See the land, the historical sites. But also, speak to the people. All the people – the Jews (so many varieties of Jews!), the Palestinians, the Druze, the Circassians, the Armenian Christians, the Filipino nurses, the Chinese and Romanian hired laborers, and on and on. Get to know them and understand the challenges that they face on a daily basis. And you will soon see that beyond the spin, beyond the this-side-or-that-side-ism, beyond the seemingly insoluble political challenges, there are 13 million people on that small strip of land trying to make a living, trying to enjoy time with their families, trying to eke out some kind of respectful existence.

If we could only somehow convince all the extremists in our midst to consider the others around them, we would have a chance to make peace blossom and solve the deep, genuine challenges that the region faces. Alas.

We at Beth Shalom put together a congregational trip to Israel three years ago, and it was a fantastic success. We will have another such trip in the next couple of years, but meanwhile, you might also want to consider going on the Federation Mega Mission next June. (If you’re going on that trip, please let me know.)

***

In 1948, David Ben Gurion was faced with the decision of when to declare independence, knowing that in doing so the neighboring Arab armies would invade the new state. He asked his friend and adviser, Yitzḥak Tabenken, what he should do. Tabenken answered that he would respond in a few days, after he consulted a few other people. When he returned, he told Ben Gurion that it was imperative that Ben Gurion declare the new state right now. 

Later, when Ben Gurion asked him whom he had consulted, Tabenken responded, “I spoke to my deceased grandparents, and my as-yet-unborn grandchildren, and asked them, ‘What do I owe you?’”

Seventy-three-and-a-half years later, we owe it to our people, to ourselves, to be in meaningful relationship with Israel. And how do we do that? By knowing and understanding the Jewish state. By engaging with her culture, her politics, her successes and challenges. By being intimately familiar with her people, her history, her complexity. Yes, by appreciating the value and responsibility of Jewish power. And by continuing to yearn through the words of prayer and tradition.

Make it meaningful!

Shanah tovah! May you be sealed for a 5782 that is full of meaning.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, evening of Yom Kippur / Kol Nidrei, 9/15/2021.)

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I’m a Fundamentalist: Shabbat – Bereshit 5779

Usually, when I return to the beginning of the Torah, my thoughts turn to the aspects of Creation that concern our relationship with and responsibility to it. That is, our obligation “le’ovdah ulshomerah,” “to till it and to tend it,” (Gen. 2:15).

But one of the best things about Parashat Bereshit (the first weekly reading in the Torah) is that there is just so much to talk about! So something else occurred to me this week.

Rashi asks the essential question up front about Bereshit: Why start here? Why didn’t the Torah begin with the lawgiving parts of Shemot / Exodus, specifically 12:2:

הַחֹ֧דֶשׁ הַזֶּ֛ה לָכֶ֖ם רֹ֣אשׁ חֳדָשִׁ֑ים רִאשׁ֥וֹן הוּא֙ לָכֶ֔ם לְחָדְשֵׁ֖י הַשָּׁנָֽה׃

This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.

(That’s Parashat Bo – not quite the end of the Exodus narrative, but more or less the first passage of the Torah which is a series of laws.)

And Rashi answers himself by saying that the reason the Torah starts with Bereshit is that it is of utmost importance for all of us to know that God created the world.* That is a fundamental aspect of our existence, and what amounts to a postulate for all that follows. I must say that, although Rashi and I would most likely disagree on the precise meaning of “God created the world,” or for that matter, the meaning of the word “God,” Rashi is definitely onto something here. The premise that God’s metaphorical hand is active in the world, in its creation and ongoing functioning, is clearly a cornerstone of Jewish tradition, no matter how we understand this parashah.

the earth

As you are surely aware by now, we are in the early stages of a process that will ultimately yield a new strategic plan, and there are plenty of good reasons for why now is the time for Congregation Beth Shalom to do so. I was able this week to see some of the data collected so far by the congregational survey that many of you filled out. We have now received about 220 of them, which is wonderful. One of the things that is instantly clear from some of the data is that the principles of Conservative Judaism are important to a majority of the respondents, and that many believe that a focal point for our activities should be teaching those principles and how to fulfill them.

Now, as you can imagine, this is very good news to me, because that is what I do all day long, and most evenings as well. And, as you know, there is a lot of stuff to teach in Judaism. The question always comes down to this: In the limited time that we all have, what are the essential things upon which we should focus?

I have to concede that I am a fundamentalist. No, not like what you’re thinking of when you hear that word: I am clearly not a literalist, not an extremist, not an ultra-nationalist, not one who shuns modernity. Rather I am a fundamentalist in that I believe that what we need to focus on, in this world of infinite choice and limited time, are the fundamental aspects of Judaism. So what are the fundamentals? In my humble opinion, they are these:

  • Shabbat / Sabbath
  • Kashrut / Holy eating
  • Talmud Torah / Learning the words of our tradition and making them come alive today
  • Ritual / Connecting our actions and thoughts and feelings with our tradition
  • Community

(No promises, but I am going to try to make this a series.)

Let’s talk about Shabbat. This is first on the list for so many reasons, not the least of which is that it is “created” in Parashat Bereshit. When we read the beginning of the Torah on Simhat Torah Tuesday morning, right after we finished the end of Devarim / Deuteronomy, the first aliyah ended with the following (and, by the way, the custom is for the whole congregation to recite this first, because it’s so essential):

וַיְכֻלּ֛וּ הַשָּׁמַ֥יִם וְהָאָ֖רֶץ וְכָל־צְבָאָֽם׃

The heaven and the earth were finished, and all their array.

וַיְכַ֤ל אֱ-לֹהִים֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔י מְלַאכְתּ֖וֹ אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֑ה וַיִּשְׁבֹּת֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔י מִכָּל־מְלַאכְתּ֖וֹ אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשָֽׂה׃

On the seventh day God finished the work that God had been doing, and God ceased on the seventh day from all the work that God had done.

וַיְבָ֤רֶךְ אֱ-לֹהִים֙ אֶת־י֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔י וַיְקַדֵּ֖שׁ אֹת֑וֹ כִּ֣י ב֤וֹ שָׁבַת֙ מִכָּל־מְלַאכְתּ֔וֹ אֲשֶׁר־בָּרָ֥א אֱ-לֹהִ֖ים לַעֲשֽׂוֹת׃

And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation that God had done. (Gen. 2:1-3)

We also chant this, of course, twice every Friday evening: once in the synagogue service and once at home right before reciting qiddush. You might read from this that the framers of our tradition thought it to be fairly important.

And they were right. Shabbat is not just important: it’s essential. It’s the keystone of Jewish life.

And we need Shabbat more than ever. One of the biggest impediments to greater involvement in synagogue activities cited in the responses to the survey was time. We don’t have enough time.

And you know how unhealthy that is. I don’t need to quote you any academic studies or articles to tell you that we are all overworked, under-slept, overtired; that we don’t spend enough time with our family; that we don’t have time to eat properly; that we feel overwhelmed by the constant noise, the constant feeling of go-go-go; that we are constantly assaulted with paid messages vying for our attention: buy this, vote for that one, eat here, and on and on and on.

I am as busy as anybody here who is busy. My family is as crazed as yours, with pickups and dropoffs and instrument lessons and dance lessons and Back to School Night and everything else. And my family and I all manage to shut down for Shabbat. No appointments. No shopping. No Facebook. No television. And you know what? It’s fantastic.

(BTW, from time to time you see people who take “vacations” from social media. You can absolutely do that every 7th day. I highly recommend it.)

Our ancestors knew this, and even though they didn’t have Facebook or TV or cars or smartphones, they understood the value of shutting down every seventh day.

And what is the Shabbat dinner table, if not the altar on which we build family and community?

shabbat dinner

One of the most dismal numbers in the Federation’s community study, which came out at the beginning of 2018, was the number of Conservative-identified Jews who had been to a Shabbat meal in the past year. Do you want to guess what that number was?

It was 44%. That to me is shockingly low. But it is also an opportunity – an opportunity to teach the fundamentalist value of Shabbat: of dining together with friends and family, of shutting down and reconnecting in real time, of learning a little something of Jewish tradition, of holy eating, of expressing gratitude for what we have.

So in this regard, I have some wonderful news: We can do something about that. We are in fact doing something about that figure. And by we, I mean, all of us.

I would make a reasonable guess that most of us in this room are in that 44%. Part of the reason that you are here this morning is that you “get” Shabbat. You understand the value that it brings to you and your family. You understand how it shapes your week, how it gives you some time to unwind, to do something heady and holy and healthy.

You know that, to quote Ahad Ha-Am, “More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews. You know that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his infinitely ethereal prose, called Shabbat a “palace in time” and you can feel the power in his observation that (The Sabbath, p. 93):

On the Sabbath it is given us to share in the holiness that is in the heart of time. Even when the soul is seared, even when no prayer can come out of our tightened throats, the clean, silent rest of the Sabbath leads us to a realm of endless peace, or to the beginning of an awareness of what eternity means. There are few ideas in the world of thought which contain so much spiritual power as the idea of the Sabbath.

You know that God’s having rested on the seventh day is as meaningful as God’s having created the world in the first six.

And that’s why you have to help us out in creating a Shabbat meal program.

A few brave volunteers have planned a pilot program for members of Beth Shalom inviting others into their homes for a Shabbat dinner on October 19th. The ultimate goal, and it might take a couple of years for us to do this, is to personally invite all of the other members of this congregation into our homes.

This is the realization of a fantastically fundamentalist move. If done properly, it will hit all five of the fundamentalist buttons: Shabbat, kashrut, Talmud Torah, ritual, and community.

But we need you to make it happen. We need you to be a part of it, you who “get” Shabbat. Here’s the link:

bethshalompgh.org/shabbatdinners/

Be a fundamentalist with me! Shabbat shalom!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 10/8/2018.)

 
* What Rashi says is a little more complicated: “If the nations of the world should say to Israel, ‘You are thieves! You have conquered the land belonging to the seven nations of Canaan,’ they can reply, ‘The whole world belongs to the Holy One. He created it and gave it to whomever He wanted to. He first willed to give it to them, and then He willed to take it from them and give it to us.’” (Translation from The Commentators’ Bible by Michael Carasik.)

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Israel Snapshot, Part One: the Spiritual and the Physical – Vayhi 5778

I returned last week from a two-week trip to Israel. I was there for Hanukkah. I actually have not been in America for Hanukkah since 2007; it’s a great time to visit my son. He’s on vacation, the weather is cool and comfortable, and its usually before the hordes of December tourists arrive. I also find that my trips to Israel also recharge me and my sense of connection with Judaism, with our ancient texts, and of course with the modern complexities of the Jewish state.

When I sat down, by the shore of the Kinneret, to write this sermon, I found that I had been so energized by my trip that I had at least two weeks’ worth of material, so this is going to be a two-part sermon. This week, I am going to frame a different way of looking at the State of Israel; in two weeks, we’ll talk about recent political developments.

A good way to frame our understanding of Israel requires dividing the world into two traditional spheres, often reflected in Hasidic thought: ruhaniyyut, matters of the spirit, and gashmiyyut, mundane, material matters.

What got me thinking about this was the podcast Fault Lines, produced by the Forward newspaper, featuring an ongoing conversation between Rabbi Daniel Gordis of Israel’s Shalem Center, and New York-based journalist Peter Beinart. If you have not yet heard this podcast, you really should: you can find it here. What makes the podcast so appealing is that they come from different political perspectives on Israel, and yet they manage to have civil, thoughtful discussions.

HERZL WAS AN ANTI-SEMITE IN DISGUISE | SHOAH
Theodor Herzl

In an episode from last summer, they were speaking about the anti-occupation activist group If Not Now. At one point, they took a detour to talk about the competing visions of Theodor Herzl and Ahad HaAm.  Herzl was committed to the political process of statecraft – the nuts and bolts of actually creating a Jewish state.

אחד העם שלא רציתם להכיר - עיון - הארץ
Ahad HaAm

Ahad HaAm was not as interested in statehood as he was in Israel as the merkaz ruhani, the “spiritual center” of the Jews. Herzl wanted facts on the ground: borders, government, infrastructure. Ahad HaAm, noting the pitiful state of the settlements in Palestine at the end of the 19th century, wanted to focus on the way that the Diaspora and the land of Israel as its spiritual center could strengthen one another; that Israel should be “a Jewish state and not merely a state of Jews” – a cultural center that would foster an international Jewish renaissance. Herzl was occupied with gashmiyyut; Ahad HaAm with ruhaniyyut. They were asking different questions: Herzl was concerned with the what and the how; Ahad HaAm with the why.

Beinart and Gordis concluded that both were necessary; that Israel today was created from the visions of both Ahad HaAm and Herzl, and that both ideals still nourish and sustain the Israeli population and the State.

And so too do we need both, here in the Diaspora. We’ll come back to this.

On this trip, my son and I performed what has become an annual ritual: we got a parking ticket.

Nonetheless, on every visit to Israel, I am reminded of why I love the country and the people. Here are a few things I took note of on this trip:

Nahalat Binyamin, the Tel Aviv street fair near the shuq (open-air market) on Fridays is always packed with people. Artists and craftspeople of all kinds set up to sell their wares. There are buskers and various types of street entertainers, including a particularly talented string trio: Russian emigres, two violins and a cello. Their instruments look beat-up and barely varnished. But as I listened to them play Vivaldi, I was transported momentarily away from the busy, dusty city to a place of  beauty and tranquility. I put 10 sheqel in their hat.

The cafes are alive, bursting with people. The cafe culture in Israel is vibrant. While I have often been in cafes in America where every single person (including me) is working on their own laptop, not talking to each other, that is never how it is in Israel. Friends are having conversations; people have work meetings; some are simply checking out the scene; and so forth.

Meanwhile, Israeli city streets are always filled with people, not just cars. Israeli cities are generally built around a small, pedestrian-friendly merkaz, so the sense of seeing people and being seen is a part of the Israeli day-to-day experience.

And then there is the youthful energy of Israel. On my flight over, I was literally surrounded by Israeli babies on four sides. I didn’t sleep so well, but the comfort of knowing that Israelis and Israeli society are family-centric is worth so much more.

As bustling and exciting as Israeli is, I confess that what I love most when I visit is the opportunity to reflect: the quiet of a hike, wherein I can chew on history and current reality, about what it means to be a Jew, an American Jew, an Israeli Jew, an American Zionist, an American Jew who considered making aliyah but then returned to America, and so forth.

Arbel caves
View of the north-facing cliff of Mt. Arbel, which contains the caves

Last Sunday, my son was in school following Hanukkah break, so I drove up to Mt. Arbel, just north of Tiberias, to take a hike. Arbel is best known for the ancient natural caves, hewn into the steep cliff on its north face, that were not only used as homes by our ancestors, but also played a role in the rebellion against Rome in the first century CE. (Noted by Josephus because Herod’s commander lowered soldiers from the cliff above the caves to enter and massacre the rebels in the caves.)

Josephus

Unfortunately, the caves were inaccessible because it was a windy and rainy day. So instead I strolled around the top of the mountain, and also checked out the ruins of the 4th-century synagogue near the summit.

The synagogue, like many ancient synagogues in Israel, is demarcated by Israeli authorities to protect the past. Among the signs placed haphazardly around the site are descriptions of the worship area, and then a note that there were also rooms to one side where limmud / “learning” took place.

Israel needs that ancient synagogue. It lies there, a collection of worn, sculpted rocks, as a symbol of our ancient connection with the land; it represents the past as much as the present. It reminds us of the politics and the spirit. It speaks to us of ruhaniyyut and gashmiyyut, the material and the spiritual.

Now, you might be thinking that ruhaniyyut here is tefillah / prayer, since it involves what at least ostensibly suggests expressing our gratitude and requests to God; that the role of the synagogue as a beit tefillah, a house of prayer, is the spiritual side.

And I would posit that it is exactly the opposite: tefillah has a certain rigidity to it: it has laws, customs, and the expectation, at least historically, has been that it’s done a certain, particular way. The words do not change; the melodies do not change that much. As much as many of us synagogue regulars crave a certain amount of variety in our services, the reality is that most of us expect that prayer will be done a certain way, and that not doing it that way would be foreign.

(Aside: we are currently hosting a discussion about re-imagining what we do here for tefillah, something that you will become more aware of in coming months. We’re setting some goals, and will try to make our services align with those goals. And we are certainly focused on making tefillot a more creative and meaningful endeavor.)

But limmud, learning is exactly the opposite. The rules are simple: study and argue. It is a creative endeavor. And although you have to use what’s come before, the field is wide open in terms of interpretation, what ancient words mean to us today.

Tefillah / prayer is like Herzl’s political Zionism; it desires structure. It is about demarcating liturgical frameworks so that words of praise are recited in an organized way, so that people can gather in groups to create a ritual framework together. But learning is about openness, about freedom, about exploring yourself through ancient text. It is about enriching yourself and your community through seeking meaning. The Jewish bookshelf is the virtual merkaz ruhani, the spiritual center of our people.

The synagogue, ancient and modern, symbolizes the modern state of Israel – learning and praying together, structure and creativity, ruhaniyyut and gashmiyyut.

החיים היפים בתל אביב הקטנה / חלק א` | מסע בתוך החמישים

And the lesson that we can draw from this is that the Israel that we know and love, the Israel that gives us inspiration, is not just about political boundaries and democracy and the peace process; it is also about how we go about finding meaning here in the Diaspora. It is about being not only or lagoyim, a light unto the nations, but or la’am, a light unto OUR nation, the Jewish people, as well. It is about the people who live there, and the wealth of culture that Israel gives to the Jewish world: the religious culture, yes, but also the secular: the pop music, the plays, the fashion design, the high-tech innovations.

As Diaspora Jews, we are as much enriched by Herzl’s vision of Altneuland, the old land become new, as we are by Ahad HaAm’s notion of the merkaz ruhani, the spiritual center. Let’s keep that in mind as we move forward.

Take me to Part Two!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 12/30/17.)

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Sermons

Letter from the Tel Aviv Beach – Huqqat 5776

A funny thing happened on my way to Israel.

Apparently, an anonymous threat had indicated that there was an explosive device located in one of the plane’s kitchens. Nothing was found, even after searching the aircraft upon landing. For a brief time in Swiss airspace, we were accompanied by Swiss fighter jets, although I am not sure what they would have done if there had in fact been a bomb on the plane (God forbid!). Perhaps they would have evacuated us in mid-air, James Bond style?

I emerged from baggage claim into the arrivals hall at Ben Gurion International Airport, and there was a sea of journalists with TV cameras and microphones and all sorts of recording devices. Since I had not checked any bags, I was among the first to emerge, and was accosted by a posse of them, who were asking questions like, “Do you know anything about the alerts? Did you hear anything? What happened on the flight?” My answers were not very interesting, because they had not told us a single thing (or if they did, I was asleep at the time). From my perspective, the flight had been utterly, completely normal. In retrospect, they probably did not let us know that there had been a bomb threat, because it might have led to chaos on the plane.

The rest of my week in Israel was far less exciting. Nonetheless, no matter how many times I go back, Israel is always magical to me. I often wish, as I am traveling around the Jewish state, that I could collect all of the little moments of amazement that strike me – the sunset over the Mediterranean, the beauty of the Kinneret / Sea of Galilee as seen from the mountains all around, the ironies of the Byzantine rules of Israeli bureaucracy, the striking entrepreneurship of the Israeli people, the scene of Orthodox families rubbing shoulders with vacationing Arab families on the Tiberias boardwalk, and on and on.

I must say, however, that there is no place that makes me feel more proud to be Jewish than the Tel Aviv beach. Yes, the sand and the scene are awesome, and the water is warm and inviting, and the people are friendly and the mood is groovy. But even more than that, it reminds me of the central thing that I love about the modern State of Israel: that it is completely normal for there to be a beach, where completely normal beach things happen, in the Jewish state.

tel-aviv-beaches

What I see on the beach is not merely the sand and the waves and the volleyball and the surfers, but rather the ordinariness of it all, that people of all walks of life and backgrounds and religions and ethnicities can gather in this place to simply enjoy the few moments of freedom they have before returning to the rest of their normalcy. The beach is a great equalizer: everybody parks themselves on the same sand; everybody dips into the same water.

And yet, the lifeguards are calling through their megaphones in Hebrew. And the meat served in the beach restaurant is kosher (even if the restaurant itself is not hekhshered). And you are only a few steps away from the Trumpeldor cemetery, where some of the greatest figures in Zionism and Israel’s fine and performing arts are interred. And as you look both directions, north and south along the Mediterranean shore, you see more and more buildings as the city with the world’s largest Jewish population continues to grow and reshape itself. And the tourists and residents and guest workers and diplomats and journalists on the beach who are chatting in French, Italian, German, Hindi, Tagalog, Arabic, American English, Australian English, English English, Chinese, Portuguese, Romanian, and a bunch of others that I can’t even recognize all know that they are in a Jewish land.

My son and I spent many hours on the beach last Shabbat, most of the time body-surfing the voluptuous waves (is it OK for a rabbi to use the word “voluptuous”?). And while he was merely enjoying the beach like everybody else, I was in a state of Zionist reverie, reflecting on how special this ordinariness was.

The only thing that interrupted this dreamy afternoon was how filled the water was with non-biodegradable refuse: fragments of plastic bags, Q-tips, bottle caps, swathes of netting, lost undergarments, and a variety of less-mentionables. Indeed, at first I collected a few larger items and brought them to shore to dispose of properly. But there were just too many to deal with – a sign both of Israel’s tremendous success as a destination and the downside to overloading the system.

The other item of unpleasantness was a small altercation between a down-on-his-luck panhandler with a nasty skin disease and an American busker. The American had apparently set up his guitar-based operation too close to the panhandler, and so my son and I happened to be walking by when the panhandler threw a plastic bottle filled with water at the busker in the middle of a song as he stormed off in anger to find a better location.

I suppose that one thing we learn from the beach is complexity, that Israel is not simply some picture-perfect Disneyland where the streets are paved with Jerusalem stone and everybody frolics in Judaic glee. On the contrary – Israel is a complicated place where the politics reflect the diversity of all of its residents. And all the more so – the sea of languages heard at the beach is a small representation of all of the voices who are weighing in on the fate of this tiny country and its range of prickly-on-the-outside-but-sweet-on-the-inside people.

The early Zionist writer Asher Tzvi Ginsberg, known generally by his pen name, Ahad Ha’am, envisioned Israel as the merkaz ruhani – the Jewish “spiritual center,” guided not by halakhah / Jewish law necessarily, but by the values that Judaism teaches us. While there were several competing varieties of Zionism extant in the early 20th century, you could make the case that Ahad Ha’am’s was the one that probably came closest to being fulfilled. And it is certainly my merkaz ruhani: I go there to recharge.

One poem that often resurfaces when I am visiting Israel is Yehuda Amichai’s Tayyarim / Tourists:

תיירים / יהודה עמיחי

בקורי אבלים הם עורכים אצלנו

יושבים ביד ושם, מרצינים ליד הכותל המערבי

וצוחקים מאחורי וילונות כבדים בחדרי מלון,

מצטלמים עם מתים חשובים בקבר רחל

ובקבר הרצל ובגבעת התחמושת

בוכים על יפי גבורת נערינו

וחושקים בקשיחות נערותינו

ותולים את תחתוניהם

ליבוש מהיר

באמבטיה כחולה וצוננת

פעם ישבתי על מדרגות ליד שער במצודת דוד, את שני הסלים

הכבדים שמתי לידי. עמדה שם קבוצת תיירים סביב המדריך

ושימשתי להם נקודת ציון. “אתם רואים את האיש הזה עם

הסלים? קצת ימינה מראשו נמצאת קשת מן התקופה הרומית.

קצת ימינה מראשו”. “אבל הוא זז, הוא זז!” אמרתי בלבי

הגאולה תבוא רק אם יגידו להם: אתם רואים שם את הקשת

מן התקופה הרומית? לא חשוב: אבל לידה, קצת שמאלה

ולמטה ממנה, יושב אדם שקנה פֵּרות וירקות לביתו

 

 

Tourists – תיירים

Visits of condolence is all we get from them.

They squat at the Holocaust Memorial,

They put on grave faces at the Wailing Wall

And they laugh behind heavy curtains

In their hotels.

They have their pictures taken

Together with our famous dead

At Rachel’s Tomb and Herzl’s Tomb

And on Ammunition Hill.

They weep over our sweet boys

And lust after our tough girls

And hang up their underwear

To dry quickly

In cool, blue bathrooms.

Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower,

I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists

was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. “You see

that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch

from the Roman period. Just right of his head.” “But he’s moving, he’s moving!”

I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them,

“You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it,

left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”

***

The day-to-day normalcy of human existence to which Amichai points, coupled with Ahad Ha’am’s vision of the spiritual center were demonstrated in abundance all over Israel as I collected my moments of amazement. Israel is neither a merely a museum of ancient ruins nor a bookshelf full of stories stretching back thousands of years. It is a society that exhibits all of the positives and negatives of human existence. It is upon us all to take that into consideration as we ponder and weigh in on Israel’s future, the future of not just the holy sites, not just the ancient connections, but of all the very real people who live there. And we should measure Israel not by Yad Vashem and the Kotel and the high places of Christianity and Islam, but by Israeli willingness to continue living those Jewish values, by being a light not only to the nations  but even unto Diaspora Jews.

Ahad Ha’am is buried in the Trumpeldor Cemetery, a stone’s throw from the Tel Aviv beach. And I am certain that he is grinning and stroking his beard as he contemplates what the Zionist dream has become. Imperfect, yes. But also beautiful.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 7/16/2016.)