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Sermons

The Common Good and America the Beautiful – Huqqat-Balaq 5780

Well, I must admit that it’s a bit sad for me to be all alone in our sanctuary once again. For a moment there, we thought we might be able to keep meeting in person. Now, it seems, we are back to square 1.  I am grateful to Beth Shalom’s Coronavirus Task Force for considering this issue thoughtfully and putting our safety ahead of other concerns.

But I suppose it is, unfortunately, not too surprising, based on the behaviors that I have seen in the last few weeks. Some people are diligent about wearing masks and keeping away from others. Others are not at all. And of course there is a range in-between: uncovered noses, pulling a mask down to speak, believing that a mask exempts you from social distancing, which it does not.

Now, clearly, even with a mask-wearing order in place, law enforcement cannot ensure that everybody is wearing masks and distancing themselves. To a great extent, we have to rely on the willingness of people to follow these instructions to benefit public health.  Or, on a smaller scale, we can ask those we interact with in public to please put on their masks. 

But Americans love to break conventions and customs as an expression of freedom. From its very outset, the American nation was based on an idea that was mostly foreign to the monarchies of Europe: that, as the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence puts it, “all men are created equal.” Yes, I know that at the time, they did not really believe that in a complete sense, and that that particular phrase excluded a majority of people living here when it was written. But the spirit of democracy that infused the creation of this country was an affront to virtually everything that had come before it. 

And that independent streak still runs strong through American veins. Some of us still carry the banner of, “Don’t tread on me,” but today, of course, it is primarily a vulgar gesture directed at our own government.

So now we have discovered a problem with the American inclination to flout convention for the sake of “freedom”: in order to beat the virus, we have to work together. We have to understand that this is an “all-in” sort of operation. Nobody is beyond the reach of this bug, and to beat it, we are all going to have to change our behavior for the common good. And before we even get to that point, we have to agree what “the common good” is. And, thankfully, our tradition can guide us in this.

Many of you know that I am an optimist, and although these times seem to leave little room for optimism, I have to remind us all that we will eventually get past this as a society. I am very sorry to say that we have not been able to muster our courage as a nation to prevent more disease and more unnecessary deaths. Perhaps this new wave of infections, and the rising body count that will inevitably follow, will lead more people to be more inclined toward the common good.

I heard this week Rabbi David Wolpe interviewed by Jonathan Silver on the Tikvah Podcast. Rabbi Wolpe is one of the most prominent Conservative rabbis in America, the spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. They were speaking about the future of the non-Orthodox movements, and the interviewer asked the following: “Do you think the pandemic will change the way [non-Orthodox] Jews think about America?” Rabbi Wolpe responded with the following:

My greatest sorrow through this — obviously apart from the loss of life — has been the extent to which even the question of wearing masks becomes politicized. And I think that as long as we are in the grip of this inability to believe anything good of people who are on the opposite side of the political spectrum from oneself, and to believe that the opposite side is venal and evil, and as long as I receive nothing but articles attacking the other side from members of my congregation who are on one side or another, I’m not sure that we will learn anything about America that is useful to be learned. It is only the extent to which we are able to vault over our own preconceptions and to understand that whatever the faults of the people who oppose you, that they also have something to say, and their experience also deserves to be taken into account, only then will we be able to learn.

You cannot learn by lobbing grenades over a wall. So, I hope the pandemic will teach us something, but so far I’m not seeing it.

The Jews, of course, are just like everyone else, only moreso. So all of the challenges that we have with division in this country exist in our community as well. Rabbi Wolpe was speaking about the Jewish community, but you could very easily extrapolate what he said to the rest of America. We cannot work toward the common good until we as individuals are willing to think beyond ourselves. 

I am grateful that this nation was a haven for my great-grandparents when they arrived here more than a century ago.  I am grateful that the founders of this country dedicated themselves to the proposition that all are created equal, and that President George Washington, upon visiting the synagogue in Newport, RI in 1790, affirmed that this nation should “give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” I am grateful to have grown up in this American experiment, in which we the Jews have, mostly, thrived.

But I am also terrified. I behold the mess in front of us right now, a nation that is coming apart at the seams. Our leaders do not debate serious policy proposals; they exchange barbs. Our people are told to make particular behavioral choices to protect public health, and they do the exact opposite. Winning at any cost is valued over the common good. The simmering cauldron of the American culture wars is laced with racism and anti-Semitism, seasoned with misinformation and outright lies, and about to boil over.

Some of you know that my favorite hymn (ok, so my second favorite after Hatikvah, which always makes me cry), is America the Beautiful, the poem originally penned by Kathryn Lee Bates in 1893. One of the verses that is almost never heard is the following (it’s not in the back of our siddur):

O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!
America! America!
May God thy gold refine,
Till all success be nobleness,
And every gain divine!

This is, by the way, the verse that Ray Charles starts with in his phenomenal recording of the song. If you have never heard this version, you definitely should do so right now:

Let me just break down a brief piece of that, Rashi-style:

Who more than self their country loved,
The heroes of which this verse speaks include of course those who fought and died for this nation, but also those who, behind the front lines and not in military uniforms, dedicated themselves to building a society based on the common good, and not merely on self-interest. 

And mercy more than life.
The sign of a truly just society is the one that cares about all its people no matter their station. When I am willing to sacrifice what I have, my possessions, my reputation, my life, so that somebody else is treated mercifully, then we will have achieved the nobleness that the verse references.

National hymns like this, very much like prayer, are aspirational; they reflect our aims as a society, where we see ourselves headed. God willing, some day Americans will put mercy for others above their own lives. Some day, they will hew to the instructions of the prophet Micah, which we read in today’s haftarah:

הִגִּ֥יד לְךָ֛ אָדָ֖ם מַה־טּ֑וֹב וּמָֽה־ה’ דּוֹרֵ֣שׁ מִמְּךָ֗ כִּ֣י אִם־עֲשׂ֤וֹת מִשְׁפָּט֙ וְאַ֣הֲבַת חֶ֔סֶד וְהַצְנֵ֥עַ לֶ֖כֶת עִם־אֱ-לֹהֶֽיךָ׃

He has told you, O man, what is good, And what the LORD requires of you: Only to do justice And to love goodness, And to walk modestly with your God.

Would that we could all follow this simple formula: justice, goodness, and walking modestly. It’s that last one that is especially captivating for its unusual form. It’s an imperative, but the verb is not lalekhet, to walk, but rather, lehatzni’a, to make modest. Hatzne’a lekhet, perhaps more literally translated is “Make your walking modest” as you saunter through life. And I think that this image of approaching life modestly includes the following values taught by our tradition: 

  • Honesty – מדבר שקר תרחק (Midevar sheqer tirhaq / Distance yourself from falsehood. Shemot / Exodus 23:7)
  • Learning – תלמוד תורה (Talmud Torah, the highest holy opportunity of Jewish life.)
  • Respect – דרך ארץ (Derekh eretz. See e.g. Pirqei Avot 2:2)
  • Justice – צדק צדק תרדוף (“Justice, you shall pursue justice.” Devarim / Deuteronomy 16:20)
  • Mercy – רחמים
  • Not speaking hurtfully of others – אונאת דברים
  • Making peace between people – שלום בית

Ladies and gentlemen, all I can say on this July 4th is the following:

Make good choices. Make the choices that benefit the common good. Implement these Jewish values in your everyday actions. Protect others. Have mercy. Seek justice and goodness. Make your walking through life modest. 

And if we can get everybody on that program together, we will not only vanquish the virus, but we will continue to build America the Beautiful, and get this American experiment back on track.

Shabbat shalom, and a happy and reflective Independence Day.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 7/4/2020.)

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Sermons

To Bigotry No Sanction – Pinehas 5779

I was in Philadelphia over the past week – my first real visit there as a tourist. My son and I went to sites of historical interest – Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, and so forth. And we also visited places of Jewish historical interest – we welcomed Shabbat last week at Mikveh Israel, one of the oldest congregations in America, where they still practice the traditional Spanish-Portuguese minhag, and also, of course, the National Museum of American Jewish History, now nearly a decade old.

If you have not yet been to this museum, it is worth the trip to Philly. It documents and explores the Jewish experience in America, from the arrival of the 23 Dutch Jews seeking safe haven in 1654, straight through to our contemporary moment. The visitor watches as the community grows, primarily through waves of immigration, spreading from the Eastern coastal enclaves and across the continent, developing a distinctly American character along the way. 

Judaism has flourished in this country. And why is that? Because, unlike in the Europe of old, Jews were effectively welcomed from the outset. Yes, the initial group that landed in 1654 were only tolerated by the Dutch governor in New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant, and had to petition the government in Holland for the right to stay. But with independence declared in Philadelphia 122 years later, followed soon by the enshrinement of Democratic principles in the Constitution, Jews were treated as equal citizens, something that did not occur in most of the rest of the world until much later.

And we continue to thrive here. As I grow older, I am more and more grateful that our founders, even though they most likely saw the Jews as unlike them, created a system that guaranteed religious liberty.

And so too for other immigrant groups. Though Irish immigrants were discriminated against horribly upon landing here, our government gave them the same protections; so too for the Italians and the Chinese and people from many other places. It took a long time – too long – for the U.S. government to treat the children of African slaves, who were brought here against their will and sold in public markets as animals, as equals, but eventually that happened, albeit imperfectly. 

So it is with great pain and dismay that I followed the public clashes over the last two weeks over four first-term congresswomen who were insulted by the most visible representative of the United States government. I will not rehash the story here. 

But we have a real problem in confronting this, folks. And we the Jews have to make sure that we are not sucked into the bigotry underlying this.

It seems to me that in the not-too-distant past, Americans were good at keeping prejudices to themselves in the public sphere. But that has changed. Whether due to the lamentable principle that the most outrageous statements are the only ones that rise to the top of the crowded, noisy news pile, or because of our president’s apparent unwillingness to call out xenophobic hatred when given the opportunity, all of our anti-isms are coming out of the closet.

Leading the current pack is the anti-immigrant movement roiling the world. 

But not only that. I have heard Jews, friends, colleagues, say horrible, hateful things, like, “The only good Arab is a dead Arab.” Or, “There is no such thing as a Palestinian,” something which is clearly not true. I have heard Jews use slurs and make offensive jokes about racial and ethnic groups.

And, let’s be clear here: this is not unique to the Jews. In fact, I would say that, based on my own personal experience, Jews are no more or less prejudiced than any other group. It is, unfortunately, a natural human inclination to be dismissive, disdainful, or even hateful of people unlike you.

And, in particular, when I hear politicians of any sort saying things like, “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby,” or people applying the terms “apartheid” or “genocide” to the State of Israel, I understand that intolerance is not limited to any particular group or political persuasion.

If we want this nation to hold together, and to continue to uphold the democratic principles that have enabled the Jews and members of every other group to thrive in this country, we must ensure that the infection of bigotry of all sorts is defeated.

We read this morning from Parashat Pinehas, which is the most-read-from parashah in the whole Torah because it contains the festival sacrifices. So we read a passage from it every Rosh Hodesh (at the beginning of each Hebrew month), and on every holiday morning throughout the year. But we only read about Pinehas, the biblical character, on this Shabbat. And that is OK, because he is not necessarily somebody whom we want to cite as a role model. 

At the end of Parashat Balaq, which we read last week, Pinehas stabs a couple in flagrante delicto – an Israelite man canoodling with a Midianite woman. The Torah text itself seems to regard this as a good thing; Pinehas’ bloodthirsty action is rewarded by God with an end to a plague that was punishment for idolatry.

But the vast majority of commentators see his vigilante justice as a negative. In fact, there is a custom that is widespread among soferim, the scribes who write out Torah scrolls, that when God says, at the beginning of Parashat Pinehas, “Hineni noten lo et beriti shalom,” I hereby give Pinehas my covenant of peace, they leave the letter “vav” in the word “shalom” as broken, the top piece separated from the bottom by a little white space. The suggestion is that while God clearly did not want the Israelites cavorting with non-Israelites, the zealotry of Pinehas created a fractured peace, not the wholeness that the word “shalom” suggests. 

Drawing lines through zealotry, dividing people through anger and hatred, does not create peace. On the contrary, it fractures all of us. 

Another site of interest that we happened upon in Philly was the Holocaust Memorial Plaza in Center City. It includes six memorial pillars, representing the six million Jewish victims, with each pillar “chronicling an atrocity of the Holocaust and contrasting it with American constitutional protections and values” (according to the memorial’s website). One of those pillars includes a well-known quote from President George Washington, in a letter to the congregation in Newport, Rhode Island following his visit there in 1790:

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

Although not appearing on this memorial pillar, Washington continued as follows:

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

Our nation has been a safe haven and a beacon of hope flowing from the democratic principles it has upheld since its establishment. We, along with other immigrant groups, have been welcome and treated as equals by our government, if not always by our fellow citizens, for nearly two-and-a-half centuries.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, contrary to the words of the prophet Micah whom Washington cited, I am afraid. 

When angry mobs are chanting against immigrants, and indeed American-born politicians, 

when the level of public discourse has become so debased as to feature public figures insulting each other with obscenities, 

when supporters of the State of Israel find themselves unwelcome on both right and left, I am afraid.

But even more so, I am afraid because of the oft-quoted words of Pastor Martin Niemoller, originally delivered at a church in Frankfurt in January, 1946, not long after World War II:

Als die Nazis die Kommunisten holten,
habe ich geschwiegen; ich war ja kein Kommunist…

When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent; I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent; I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out; I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent; I was not a Jew.

Pastor Martin Niemoller

Niemoller’s reflection, that by the time they came for him, there was nobody left to speak up, applies to us today as well. We the Jews may not be the current target, but we better not find ourselves in Niemoller’s shoes. 

When we hear anybody say anything that can be construed as demeaning or derogatory to another group, whether it comes from a friend, a politician, or your mother, it is our obligation to speak up for the disenfranchised, because, as you know, we were strangers in the land of Egypt. 

And when angry mobs start chanting anti-immigrant epithets, we have to stand up as a community and say, “Never again.”

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 7/27/2019.)

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High Holidays Sermons

תם: The Simple Child Sees Only the Past – Kol Nidrei 5778

Before reading this sermon, you might want to check out the first two in the series:

Rosh Hashanah 5778, Day 1: The Wise Child Sees Past, Present, and Future

Rosh Hashanah 5778, Day 2: The Wicked Child Sees Only the Present

hashmal arba'ah banim

***

Throughout my life, there have always been two flags on either side of the bimah, or the Jewish  stage: the American flag and the Israeli flag. This is not an arrangement that derives from divided loyalties, but rather a double measure of pride: On the one side the pride of being a citizen of the nation that provided a safe haven for my family members who fled persecution in Czarist Russia and enabled them to thrive in an open, tolerant land, and on the other side the nation that continues to symbolize the dawn of our Jewish redemption, a beacon of hope and democracy in the Middle East and an eternal symbol of our tradition.

So let’s talk about the tam, the simple child: In the Pesah haggadah, what is the answer given to the simple child’s question of “Mah zot?” What is this?

בְּחֹזֶק יָד הוֹצִיאָנוּ ה’ מִמִּצְרַיִם, מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים

It was with a mighty arm that God took us out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. (Exodus 13:14)

The answer given to the simple child dwells only on the past. No complexity: we were slaves, and then we were free. Only history; no present or future.

Although our past is essential to who we are today, we cannot be content to be the simple child, to dwell only on the past. That cannot be us. Let me explain.

What does the past look like? Well, I think it’s different depending on how many years you have been on this earth.

If you are over a certain age, you might see our history of persecution drawn in relief; you might remember the Shoah and its aftermath; you might recall that Jewish identity in the middle of the 20th century went hand-in-hand with remembering the Holocaust, and how the sympathy of the world in the late ‘40s contributed to the creation of the State of Israel (Pew Study 2013: 73% of Jews said that “Remembering the Holocaust” is essential to what it means to be Jewish, more than any other feature of Jewish life). You may also be aware of the arc of upward mobility of American Jews, and in particular the pattern of those who remained culturally Jewish but increasingly looked to religious leaders to be their proxy in spiritual matters.

Those of you who are younger than I am (I am grateful to have walked this earth for 47 very complicated years) might have a different perspective on the past. You grew up in America with no barriers to entering wider society. Anti-Semitism has not seemed particularly relevant, at least until the last year, with the rise of the alt-right. You have never lived in a world without a strong, resilient State of Israel. You may even be increasingly disappointed that Israel may not be the or lagoyim / the light unto the nations that we expect her to be. Your relationship to Judaism is far less connected to institutions, and more do-it-yourself.

So how do we move forward together from this point, as one people who are drawn to two flags?

We cannot be the simple child, only replaying and living in the past. Rather, we have to acknowledge the past and embrace the future. That is, we must embrace the unknown.

 

100 Years of Balfour

Let’s consider Israel.

This is a fascinating year with respect to Israeli history, because we are commemorating two anniversaries this year. On November 2, 1917, the same year that Beth Shalom was established, the British government issued the Balfour Declaration, which stated the following:

“His Majesty’s Government views with favour the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.”

It was a major victory for the political Zionists who had been working with the Brits to secure a Jewish state, with the goal of fulfilling hatiqvah bat shenot alpayim, the hope of 2,000 years.

Remember on Rosh Hashanah, when we spoke about the Romans destroying the Second Temple in 70 CE?  From that point on, that region was controlled by one empire or another.

Successive waves of immigration, starting in the 1860s, had brought tens of thousands of pioneers to the land, so that by 1917 there were already a good number of Jewish pioneers living in Palestine and building the new home for the Jews. But they had not yet received any assurance from any major player that a new Jewish state was even remotely possible. They were working the fields, growing Jaffa oranges, and meditating on the words of Theodor Herzl: Im tirtzu, ein zo agadah. If you desire it, it is not a fantasy.

With the fall of the Turkish Ottoman Empire during World War I, the land that the Romans had labeled Palestine now lay in British hands. Dr. Chaim Weizmann, then president of the British Zionist Federation, worked quickly with British politicians, including Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur Balfour (the one who wrote the famous Declaration), to set the foundation for a new political entity in the region. (Dr. Weizmann went on not only to found the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, but also to become the State of Israel’s first president.)

TIME Magazine Cover: Lord Arthur Balfour - Apr. 13, 1925 ...

The Balfour Declaration paved the way for the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Herzl’s desire became a reality; the Jewish dream of being am hofshi be’artzeinu, a free people in our land, had taken a substantial leap forward. (BTW, the British government reinforced its support for the Balfour Declaration in April of this year.)

Fast forward 50 years after Balfour, to June of 1967. The State of Israel, 19 years old and only tenuously holding on to her tiny piece of land,  She pre-emptively attacked her Arab neighbors, who were busy amassing troops to attack. In what came to be known as the Six Day War, Israel captured not only the Old City of Jerusalem, reuniting the city that had been divided for 19 years, but all the remaining territory of the historical Palestine, plus the Sinai peninsula and the Golan Heights, effectively tripling its area. The world, including Diaspora Jewry, woke up to the fact that Israel was here to stay.

But the heady victory of the Six Day War not only secured Israel’s future and guaranteed her ongoing stability, it also set up fifty years of political complexity on the ground. Not only was she still technically at war with the entire Arab world, but now also in control of an additional 1 million Arabs, who had been building a national identity in resistance to Egyptian and Jordanian control, and who were certainly not grateful to their new landlords. It was only five years later that the Palestinian Black September terrorist operation killed 11 Israelis in Munich, opened up Israelis to ongoing terror at home and abroad.

Herzl and Weizmann and Balfour and Ben Gurion did not anticipate that we would be in the place that we are today: a world in which the intractable challenges of creating safety, security, and peace in the Middle East have cost the region nearly 100,000 lives and, by one estimate, $13 trillion dollars.

So while we continue to celebrate the past, to revel in nearly 70 years of the state of Israel, we also have to be realistic about the future. Many of you know that I am an incurable optimist, and optimists are especially rare right now.

I am also a proud Zionist, one who is committed to an Israel that continues to be strong and democratic. And I am also the father of an Israeli 11th-grader, a kibbutznik who is facing his bagruyot (the high school matriculation exams) with greater anxiety.

But I also believe in talking, in bringing the relevant parties back to the negotiating table. I wish I had the answers.  I don’t know how to bring about peace and security for Israel. But I do know that the status quo is not sustainable, that the arsenals of Hezbullah and Hamas continue to grow, that the next time rockets fly from Gaza they will reach my son’s kibbutz, and that the only way things will change is by looking to the future rather than the past.

We cannot simply look back and admire the string of successes of the last 100 years. Even if we leave aside the question of a Palestinian state or the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran: Israel has serious challenges within, among them many citizens living in poverty, the always growing divide between secular and religious Jews, the politically fractious nature of Israeli politics, and of course the current government’s willingness to throw non-Orthodox Diaspora Jewry under a bus for political purposes.

Those of you who heard my Hamilton impression on the first day of Rosh Hashanah may be relieved that I will not be rapping again. Nonetheless, Washington’s advice to Hamilton from the Broadway show comes back to me here: “Winning was easy, young man. Governing is harder.”

Embracing the future means that we have to keep talking, keep facing all of the serious challenges before us, and look forward.

 

American Jewish Experience: Decline of “Ethnicity”

But Israel is only one of the flags of my identity; the other flag paints my Magen David in red, white, and blue.

The landscape of American Judaism has changed dramatically since this congregation formed in 1917 as the first Jewish congregation established in Squirrel Hill. And that has everything to do with what you might call a decline in a distinct Jewish “ethnicity” among American Jews.

It has often been said that the Jews are like everyone else, only more so. And today, that is more true than it has ever been!

The world of our parents and grandparents was one of exclusion from the wider society. Living apart from the Ukrainians, Russians, and Poles was expected in the old country; when our forebears immigrated to this country many of them maintained their distinct dress, language, foods, songs, and of course religious rituals for a generation or so.

But my grandmother, who was 8 years old when she came to Boston in 1921 from the province of Volhynia in the Ukraine, did not want to be a “greenhorn.” She refused to speak Yiddish. She soon learned that she loved to eat lobster and clams, like so many other Bostonians. She wasn’t so interested in Jewish life. And so she, like many other immigrants, began to shed the ethnic attributes of the old world.

Nearly a century later, where are we as modern Jews? We speak the same language, eat the same foods, wear the same clothes, and hold the same jobs as our gentile neighbors. And, perhaps most significantly, they don’t mind socializing with, and even marrying us. So where does that leave our Jewish identity?

Much of what we think of as Judaism is highly connected to Jewish ethnicity. And now that the ethnicity is mostly gone, the practices associated with Judaism seem, for many, irrelevant.

Today, while our Shabbat morning services are full and lively, we occasionally struggle on weekday and even Shabbat evenings to make a minyan of ten people. Only reluctantly can we get members of the congregation, even those who know and love tefillah, to come on a regular basis to help us make a minyan, a quorum of ten. Even more troubling to me is the idea that the weekday service is there only for people to say kaddish, memorial prayers for their deceased loved ones. I am fairly certain that’s not the original idea of daily tefillah / prayer.

Meanwhile, from where I stand, the number of younger people in our orbit who derive meaning in services seems to decline.

We are in a totally different place today from when this congregation began; the Jews have a completely different view of themselves. We do not necessarily need a social club of our own, since we are welcome everywhere. We do not need a place where people can schmooze or kibitz.

We cannot operate a synagogue based on the models of the past. We cannot only look backward with nostalgia. That is what the simple child does.

Instead, we have to take what we have and move forward. And what we have is the richness of accumulated Jewish wisdom. We have the words of the Torah, which tell us to leave a portion of what we reap in life to those in need. We have the words of the Talmud, which speak of the essential obligation of visiting those who are ill, of performing deeds of lovingkindness, of making peace between people. We have the words of philosophy, which teach us to find the meaning in our concrete, scientific world. We have the words of tefillah, of prayer, which bring us humility and compassion as we reach within ourselves and out to the Divine. We have the ongoing inspiration that is the State of Israel and our connection to it. We have all of these things, even if we do not speak Yiddish or eat gefilte fish.

Sea Breeze Fish Market in Plano Offers Classes, House Made ...

All of that has already been uncoupled from the trappings of ethnicity. But we still need a synagogue, because this is the house that keeps all those things alive. This is the place where we teach them, where we live them. It has been observed that while Jews used to come to synagogue because they were Jewish, today they come to BE Jewish.

Ladies and gentlemen, this particular moment, 100 years after the establishment of Congregation Beth Shalom and 100 years since Lord Balfour set in motion the creation of the State of Israel, we are at a critical juncture. We need to continue to be here as a community, as a synagogue, offering guidance and inspiration and community and connection and qedushah / holiness. We need to continue, as our mission statement says, enriching lives through community, lifelong learning, and spiritual growth.

And we need Israel to be there as or lagoyim, that inspirational light unto the nations, a beacon for Diaspora Jews and for the rest of the world.

And so that’s why we have to think to the future. That’s why we cannot be like the simple child. We cannot merely think wistfully about the past, and expect that the 20th century version of Beth Shalom will always be relevant. We have to look forward. We have to think outside the box. We have to find ways to connect with people that are new and powerful.

And that’s why I am counting on all of you.

Many of us in the room know that this is the only night of the year on which one wears a tallit, a prayer shawl. Traditionally, the tallit is worn only during the day.

It is customary to wear a tallit in the evening on Yom Kippur because our prayer never stops; even though we go home and sleep. We don’t eat, and we deny ourselves a range of physical pleasures. It is as though on this day we never stop pleading with God for forgiveness.

In the spirit of the full 25 hours of kavvanah / intention of Yom Kippur, when you go home tonight, take that one step further. Rather than fantasizing about breaking the fast tomorrow evening, take some time to think about what it is that will make you put more time and energy and resources into building our future together.

Do not think that because you cannot read Hebrew at light speed you are not capable of contributing to the future of Judaism. Do not think that if you do not know Maimonides from Mendelsohn you are unworthy of creating the Jewish future. On the contrary: I’d make the argument that this would make you uniquely qualified to participate in the conversation. If being Jewish matters to you but you do not know exactly how or why, then you are perfectly positioned to help us envision our community for the next 100 years.

I hope you, unlike the tam, the simple child, will look to the future. You chose to be here tonight.  Make the decision to be here next week.  Invest in the future of this community with integrity and pride.  And please don’t just come to me with, “Hey Rabbi, here’s an idea that you should do.” Rather, “Hey Rabbi, here’s an idea that I want to do, and I’m willing to help make it happen.” Because our sustainability depends on your willingness to partner with this community in building together.

To read the final installment in the series, The Child Who Does Not Know How to Ask is the Future, please click here.

Shanah tovah!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, evening of Kol Nidrei, 9/29/17.)

Categories
Sermons

No Justice, No Peace – Ki Tetse 5777

Last Monday, Rabbi Jeremy and I were fortunate to be able to attend a local interfaith commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Aug 28 1963 March on Washington. Faith leaders from all over the region gathered at the JCC to learn together and share sermons about the need for justice in our society today, a need that is as great as it was 54 years ago when Dr. King gave his most famous speech. Dr. King’s dream is still alive; it is, of course, unfulfilled. 169 local priests, ministers, rabbis, and imams signed a joint declaration, which we read at the ceremony, re-affirming our obligations as clergy to fight hatred and to stand together for compassion and inclusion.

... Who Refused to Celebrate the 50th Anniversary of March on Washington

This section of Devarim / Deuteromony is all about justice. It begins with the statement in last week’s parashah, “Tzedeq, tzedeq tirdof,” “Justice: you shall pursue justice,” (that’s my translation), and the Torah’s requirement to appoint impartial judges and law enforcement officers. The thread of justice continued this week with an assortment of other commandments that maintain the holiness in human relationships. For example, the obligation to pay a day laborer promptly and not take advantage of him (Deut. 24:14), or the commandment not to despise the foreigner among you, because we know what it’s like to be foreigners (23:8). We have to allow needy people to pick up produce that has fallen to the ground, and otherwise glean from our fields (24:19, e.g.), but they are not allowed to take more than their share (23:25).

We have an obligation to make sure that our society is a just one. And, as Maimonides explains at the end of the Moreh Nevukhim, the Guide for the Perplexed, the mitzvot (holy opportunities derived from the Torah) are there not only for us to fulfill, but also for us to extrapolate moral behavior according to the spirit of the law. This principle is known in Hebrew as “lifnim mishurat hadin,” that we should behave within the line of the law. So yes, having a just society means setting up legitimate courts, honest weights and measures, and making sure that some of your  produce is set aside for the poor; these are all explicit in the Torah. But extending that line, creating a just society also means that we have an obligation to step forward in the event that your leadership does not. It means that we each have a personal responsibility to make sure that our society is just, and we might fulfill that by supporting organizations that protect the right of everybody to vote, for example, or by making sure that our laws do not discriminate against individuals on the basis of race, gender, religion, and so forth, or by working to ensure that our public schools offer a worthy education to all who enter.

There has been much recent concern over public statues that feature people who stood for abhorrent things, like slavery. This was, of course, part of the back-story for the events that took place in Charlottesville, VA a few weeks back. I think that there are certainly good arguments for taking down statues to Confederate leaders.

But there is also another way. What do we do with the symbols of an unseemly past? We teach. We talk about them. We study.

There are many such examples in our siddur (prayerbook). To cite just one, consider the image of resurrection that is featured in the second berakhah of the Amidah, the standing prayer that we recite each day. Yes, you heard that right: resurrection. When we say, “Barukh Attah Adonai, mehayye hameitim,” we are saying, praised are You, God, who brings the dead back to life. It is a paean to the ancient understanding that when the Anointed One, the mashiah (messiah) comes, faithful Jews will be resurrected and get on El Al flights to return to Israel, which will be united again under the kingship of a descendant of King David. In today’s Jewish world, some groups have elevated classical messianism to the point where it is an essential part of their theology, despite the fact that no such idea exists in the Torah.

But messianism has always been an uncomfortable area for contemporary Jews, including your faithful rabbinic correspondent. We don’t treat each other justly for some eschatological reward (something to which we can look forward at the end of times). Rather we treat each other justly because it is the right thing to do in the here and now, that the reward comes from elevating the qedushah / holiness in our relationships.

And so, while the Reform movement replaced “mehayye hameitim” with “mehayye hakol,” restoring life to all, we in the Conservative movement say the original text, while reinterpreting the berakhah to mean that God is the source of all life. It does not have to be about messianic resurrection; it can be about how God works as a force in nature all around us, providing the spirit that nourishes all of us in life and in death. We take our traditional text and reinterpret the words, thereby conserving the tradition and making it work with our contemporary values.

But of course, that requires explanation, and you will find one if you look in the margin of Siddur Lev Shalem on a page with the Amidah (e.g. p. 186). In the Conservative movement, we have a long and glorious history of re-interpretation. So the message for today is, whether we take down statues or not, let’s make sure that we make our interpretation explicit.

Let’s make sure that every child knows that slavery was deeply wrong, that racism is wrong, that anti-Semitism is wrong, that anti-immigrant-ism is wrong. Let’s make sure that our elected officials and judges and law enforcement officers do not unfairly target people with different skin color. Let’s make sure that we acknowledge the divinity in EVERY human being, the Godly spark that motivates us all to do good for each other in this world.

It is a long-standing Jewish tradition to recite a prayer for the secular authorities of the jurisdiction in which we live. (One of the most interesting features of old siddurim is to find the prayer for the emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or, as referenced in Fiddler on the Roof, a blessing for the czar and/or czarina).

Week after week we pray for our country, that of the United States of America. They are roughly the same words that we have been saying for many years (Lev Shalem, p. 177).

We are living in a time in which many people are in pain. Many in our this great and prosperous nation are suffering from disenfranchisement, from the scourge of readily-available, inexpensive addictive drugs, from the cycles of poverty which afflict us from generation to generation, from the growing gap between rich and poor, from the closing of steel mills and coal mines to the looming threat of unemployment from self-driving cars and trucks and the coming automation of, well, everything. We are frustrated by stagnant wages and the outrageous cost of health care. We are frightened at the prospect of emboldened racists and anti-Semites parading through our streets, and the attendant regression in race relations. We are once again roiled by the fear of immigrants in our midst. We are living in a time of great philosophical divide in our country, and the reluctance to compromise on a range of issues.

As the center of American Judaism, we have what to teach the world about these things. We, particularly as Conservative Jews, understand listening to all sides, left and right. We understand the value of maintaining tradition while reinterpreting and explaining for today to reflect contemporary sensibilities.

In our prayer for the country, we said the following:

Help [the inhabitants of this country] understand the rules of justice You have decreed, so that peace and security, happiness and freedom, will never depart from our land.

If there were ever a time that we needed those words, it would be right now. If there were ever a time in which we needed those ideals, it is the current moment. And so we have to get out there and teach our Torah, our values.

To have peace, happiness, freedom, and security, we need justice. And justice requires thoughtful reflection, to making sure that the choices we make will ultimately support the institutions that we have set in place. We cannot respond out of hatred and fear of the other. We cannot support authority figures who seek only to destroy institutions and prop up the bigotry-mongers. We cannot violate the sacred ideals of democracy and individual protections which immigrants to this great nation have sought for centuries. We have to make sure that our leaders follow not only the rule of law, but also the spirit. Lifnim mishurat hadin.

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We have the potential to reignite those values. Because, in the words of Pirqei Avot (the 2nd-century collection of ancient rabbinic wisdom), “Im lo akhshav, eimatai?” If not now, when?

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 9/2/2017.)

Categories
Kavvanot

A Post-Election Thought

You may have noticed that I have until now studiously avoided speaking about the presidential election explicitly, even though of course we have all been thinking about it (and perhaps agonizing about it) for months. There are several reasons that I have avoided this subject, and I identified those reasons in the Chronicle article on the subject a few weeks back.

The American people have spoken, and regardless of your own political views, there is no question that this election has upended the establishment. This vote came, I think, from a place of anxiety, of deep frustration and a measure of hopelessness from across large swathes of America. We are a nation gripped by many, seemingly intractable problems: the epidemic of addiction, the decline of manufacturing jobs, the divide between rich and poor and the related squeezing of the middle class, the ongoing challenge of racial justice, the continuing rise in health care costs, the rising temperature of the Earth, and so forth.

I hope that these issues will be addressed by our leaders in the coming months and years. I hope that we will have the fortitude to take on these challenges as an undivided nation.

One thing of great concern to me, however, is that the fissures in American society inflamed by the discourse of the past year will hinder that progress. I am worried about all of the “isms” that have been let out of the bottle: the anti-Semitism, racism, anti-immigrant-ism, anti-Muslim-ism, the mocking of people with disabilities, fat-shaming, and perhaps most troubling, the sexism: flagrantly disrespectful language and behavior meant to denigrate and objectify women.

I want our leaders to reflect the holiness in human relationships; I want those who serve the public to be role models for my children, particularly since such role models seem to become more and more scarce.

I pray that the man who will soon be president will take a different tack, that he will, when he occupies the Oval Office, discover a humility that will compel him to lead in a way that embraces our differences, that acknowledges that America is greatest when it is both diverse and inclusive.

I have been thinking this week a lot about George Washington. President George Washington, who worked more than 300 slaves on his Mount Vernon property even as he led this country; the same President George Washington, who said, in his letter to the Jewish community of Newport, Rhode Island in 1790:

For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.

There is, no doubt, some irony in these words, delivered just three years after the Constitutional Convention declared an African-American man to be counted as only three-fifths of a man for election purposes. And we should also remember that the 19th Amendment, giving women full suffrage, was only ratified in 1920. It is abundantly clear that, 226 years after Washington’s letter, we are still working on the project of making these states a more perfect Union. This journey is not complete.

The Talmud notes that the reason the Second Temple was destroyed in the year 70 CE at the hands of the Romans was due to sin’at hinam, baseless hatred; this malignancy on the human spirit is still found within us. We all have the capacity to hate. But we also have the capacity for ahavat hinam, unbounded love.

As we enter the next in a long line of peaceful transfers of political power, I hope not only that we can rise to the challenges of the 21st century, but that we can also continue the work of eliminating the toxic -isms which continue to plague our society. We must stand up to hatred and fear, name-calling and conspiracy-mongering, bigotry and persecution of all kinds, so that we may continue to move forward together. Let’s make the future one of ahavat hinam, a love that will envelop and empower all within our midst for the betterment of our society.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson