Categories
Sermons

Qal VaḤomer: Standing Up in the Face of Anti-Semitism – Ki Tetze 5782

We passed an unfortunate milestone this week. Fifty years ago, on September 5th, 1972, a group of Palestinian terrorists called Black September, assisted by West German neo-Nazis, entered the Olympic Village in Munich and took 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team hostage. Two of the athletes were immediately murdered, and the other nine were killed when the West German police bungled their attempt to rescue the hostages. The Olympic games were suspended for a day and a half while the hostage situation was taking place, an unprecedented act. The murdered athletes included Shoah survivors, including one who had participated in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, as well as immigrants to Israel from Russia, Belarus, Poland, Romania, Libya, and the United States.

A paradox of those Olympic games that summer is that Mark Spitz, a Jewish American from California, won 7 gold medals in swimming competitions. When the hostage situation unfolded, Spitz had already completed his events, and was immediately whisked back to America lest he be a target for kidnapping as well.

Mark Spitz

On the one hand, this victory for a Jewish American was something for us to celebrate: a Jewish athlete who had performed miraculously, honoring his country and his co-religionists, and only 27 years after the Nazi horror was vanquished in that land. On the other, the tragedy overshadowed everything else: Jewish blood flowed once again on ground that was long soaked with the same, at a location 10 miles south of Dachau. The peaceful, non-political nature of the Olympics was shattered by an act of political terrorism, carried out against representatives of the only Jewish state in the world, who were murdered because they were Jews.

We, the Jews, know and understand tragedy; our history is littered with the tales of anti-Semitic persecution, people who were tormented just because they were Jewish. The Munich Massacre was only one highly-visible instance of the ways in which our people have been victimized due to our otherness.

But of course, we also know that we have survived, and often thrived, and in some cases, as with Mark Spitz, have been wildly successful despite anti-Semitism.

And let’s face it: 50 years may seem like a long time to some of us – I was 2 years old at the time, and thankfully unaware of what had transpired – but really, half a century is next to nothing when considering thousands of years of Jewish history.

And right now, many of us are deeply concerned about anti-Semitism once again. Some of you may have seen the recent CNN special report about anti-Semitism, which, although curiously omitting outright mention of the Pittsburgh tragedy of 10/27, did shine some light on the current state of affairs, and of course it is not pretty. 

We have a genuine reason to be concerned right now. The statistics of anti-Semitic hate crimes have risen dramatically in recent years, buoyed by the pandemic, the boost in white nationalist activity that occurred in tandem with the Trump administration, anti-Israel sentiments which often cross over into outright anti-Semitism, and all of this, of course, is aided and abetted by the fantastic new tools of social media. 

But of course, there is only one response to Jew hatred, the same approach that our people have always taken, and that is this: be loudly and proudly Jewish.

Qal vaomer, all the more so now that anti-Jewish activity is on the rise. Now is the time to recommit to tradition, because if there is one thing that makes anti-Semites recoil, it is a Jew who is not afraid.

The principle of qal vaomer, by the way, plays a starring role in my favorite mitzvah, which appears in Parashat Ki Tetze. What’s my favorite mitzvah? So glad you asked! In Hebrew, it’s called shillua haqen, sending the mother bird from the nest (Devarim / Deuteronomy 22:6-7):

כִּ֣י יִקָּרֵ֣א קַן־צִפּ֣וֹר ׀ לְפָנֶ֡יךָ בַּדֶּ֜רֶךְ בְּכׇל־עֵ֣ץ ׀ א֣וֹ עַל־הָאָ֗רֶץ אֶפְרֹחִים֙ א֣וֹ בֵיצִ֔ים וְהָאֵ֤ם רֹבֶ֙צֶת֙ עַל־הָֽאֶפְרֹחִ֔ים א֖וֹ עַל־הַבֵּיצִ֑ים לֹא־תִקַּ֥ח הָאֵ֖ם עַל־הַבָּנִֽים׃ שַׁלֵּ֤חַ תְּשַׁלַּח֙ אֶת־הָאֵ֔ם וְאֶת־הַבָּנִ֖ים תִּֽקַּֽח־לָ֑ךְ לְמַ֙עַן֙ יִ֣יטַב לָ֔ךְ וְהַאֲרַכְתָּ֖ יָמִֽים׃     

If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life.

Rashi pulls a qal vaomer on this verse:

למען ייטב לך וגו’. אִם מִצְוָה קַלָּה שֶׁאֵין בָּהּ חֶסְרוֹן כִּיס אָמְרָה תוֹרָה “לְמַעַן יִיטַב לָךְ וְהַאֲרַכְתָּ יָמִים”, קַל וָחֹמֶר לְמַתַּן שְׂכָרָן שֶׁל מִצְווֹת חֲמוּרוֹת

That you may fare well, etc. If in the case of an easy command which involves no monetary loss, Scripture states “Do this in order that you may fare well and have a long life”, it follows, qal vaḥomer, all the more so, that this at least will be the reward for the fulfillment of mitzvot which are more difficult to observe.

That is, if you can fulfill the mitzvah of shillua haqen, which is not so hard (as long as you are looking for nestlings to eat) and the reward for this is long life, then qal vaomer, just think of the reward you will receive for fulfilling the more challenging mitzvot.

Likewise, in considering the ongoing scourge of anti-Semitism, we have to remember that we should celebrate our being Jewish when we mark our successes, when it is easy to celebrate and be proud and loud and open. Qal vaomer, all the more so when we are threatened, when it is hard to do so, we have to be even more loudly and proudly Jewish.

Because, let’s face it: anti-Semitism is not going away. We have lived with it for millennia. And we cannot act like ostriches and bury our heads in the sand and pretend it is not there. So of course we must do the best we can to protect ourselves, but more importantly, we have to try not to be afraid. 

I have mentioned in this space before an art song by the early 20th-century composer Joel Engel, based on the story of Rabbi Levi Yitzḥaq of Berdichev’s fabled din toyre, or lawsuit, against God

What Rabbi Levi Yitzḥaq of Berdichev says is, You, God, have given so much to so many: the mighty empires of this or that country, the powerful kings and great armies. But what have you given the Jews? Nothing but misery and suffering. All we have is Qaddish. All we have is a prayer for the dead. And yet, says R. Levi Yitzḥaq, in response to our God-given plight:

Lo ozuz mimkoymi! I will not move from my place! (Hebrew)

Khvel zikh fun ort nit rirn! I will not stir from my place! (Yiddish)

Un a sof zol dos zayn! There must be an end [to this suffering]

Un an ek zol dos nemen! It must all stop!

Yisgadal, veyiskadash, shemei rabba!  May God’s great name be magnified and sanctified!

You might say that the legal strategy of R. Levi Yitzḥaq of Berdichev is defiance. Defiance of those who hate us and persecute us. That is our primary weapon of self-defense. We will not move an inch from the place of pride, from the place of leaning into Jewish tradition, to practicing our rituals and laws and studying and applying our holy ancient texts. That is what we have always done. We ain’t movin’. Qal vaomer in the face of anti-Semitism.

I am very proud of our community, right here in Pittsburgh, that even as we continue to grieve for the 11 members of our community who were murdered by a person motivated by anti-Semitic hatred nearly four years ago, that we have not backed down from our own commitment to our tradition. On the contrary, our community is thriving. Qal vaomer.

According to statements he has made in the past half-century, Mark Spitz never really saw himself as a Jewish standard-bearer. But the juxtaposition of his Olympic victories alongside the terrorist horror of Munich made him an obvious target of “qal vaḥomerism”. Just as Jewish pride flows from the thrill of victory, all the more so from the pain of tragedy.

Lo azuz mimmeqomi. I shall not move from this place.

A final note: Pittsburgh is hosting the second annual Eradicate Hate Global Summit from Sept. 19-21 at the Convention Center. Among the keynote speakers are Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, United States Special Envoy To Monitor And Combat Antisemitism and Alice Wairimu Nderitu of Kenya, the United Nations Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide. I attended as many sessions as I could at last years’ summit, and I can assure you that it is worth your time as well. It’s open to the public.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 9/10/2022.)

Categories
Sermons

I’m Done With Outrage – Ḥayyei Sarah 5782

In the opening moments of Parashat Ḥayyei Sarah, Avraham loses his wife Sarah, and he cries for her, mourns for her, eulogizes her, and buries her.

There is no question that Pittsburgh’s Jewish community is still in mourning, three years after the horror that was perpetrated in our neighborhood by a murderer motivated by “the Great Replacement Theory,” the detestable idea held by white nationalists that Jews are engineering the “replacement” of white people by importing dark-skinned immigrants from elsewhere.

Charlottesville, Virginia, August 2017, where marchers chanted, “Jews will not replace us.”

There is no question that the fabric of this community was irreparably torn on that day. You may know that it is customary when in mourning to wear a piece of torn clothing (we usually represent this with those ubiquitous black ribbons, although the real tradition is to actually tear your shirt). If it is a parent whom we have lost, that torn shirt may be sewn up, but may never be entirely repaired. So too will we as a community never be entirely repaired from that Shabbat morning, the 18th of Ḥeshvan*.

Even as we remember those whom we lost, even as we recall the last time we saw Cecil Rosenthal in the Beth Shalom office, patiently waiting for minḥah, or Dan Stein in the JCC locker room, we nonetheless also have to remember that life goes on. That is, of course, why we say the words of the Mourner’s Qaddish, which mentions not death but life, and the God-given framework of life which enables us to go from day to day, from week to week, from year to year. These ancient customs carry us from the depths of shiv’ah to the end of a year of mourning and onward, to the point where we can celebrate with a young couple who will soon be married, as we have done today.

Cecil Rosenthal

It is not coincidental that the American Jewish Committee released its third annual report on the state of anti-Semitism this past week. The survey is based on the perceptions and experiences of 1,433 American Jewish adults, and compares with attitudes about anti-Semitism within the general American public. Now it is worth highlighting that this survey is not based on incidents reported to law enforcement, but rather on the experiences of the respondents. 

And, as you might expect, Jews not only perceive rising rates of anti-Semitism, but also that their perception of anti-Semitism is much higher than that of the general public.

We should all be concerned about anti-Jewish attitudes and perception, particularly in light of what happened here three years ago. But we should also put this in perspective: anti-Semitism is truly an ancient hatred. It has always and will always be around us. While the rate of anti-Jewish acts – from graffiti on Jewish buildings to desecrating Jewish cemeteries all the way up to physical attacks on Jewish people and institutions – may wax and wane, they have never gone away. And they never will. While we might have thought for some time that America is different, we now know that is not reality.

CEO and President of AJC David Harris released a statement regarding the report, in which he said the following:

Now is the time for American society to stand up and say “Enough is enough.” American Jews see antisemitism on the far right and the far left, among extremists acting in the name of Islam, and elsewhere throughout America. It is 2021, and a disturbing number of Jews in America are afraid of identifying openly as Jewish for fear of attack. Where is the outrage? Where is the recognition that antisemitism may begin with Jews but, ultimately, targets the fabric and fiber of any democratic society?

While I agree with Mr. Harris that anti-Semitism, like all forms of hate, is a pernicious phenomenon that eats away at all of us, I must say that I am done with being outraged. Yes, we should make people aware of anti-Semitism in all its forms. Yes, we should chastise public figures of all sorts who dip their toes into anti-Semitic waters. Yes, we should be vigilant in protecting ourselves from physical threats.

But outrage? There is enough outrage in our world. Our society has turned the outrage knob to eleven. Social media platforms, and to some extent more traditional media outlets are in fact outrage machines.

So rather than add to the outrage, I want to us to make sure that our response to rising anti-Semitism is an intentional one.

Consider the words of our neighbor and friend, Reverend Canon Natalie Hall, who is now the Interim Rector of the Church of the Redeemer on Forbes. Reverend Hall spoke at the memorial service hosted by the 10.27 Healing Partnership on Wednesday in Schenley Park, and she invoked the words of Psalm 23 to make a point which really resonated with me.

Rev. Canon Natalie Hall, Oct. 27, 2021. (Courtesy of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle)

She noted that the tone of the psalm, which speaks of being sheltered and protected by God in the context of threatening evil, takes a surprise turn toward the end. The next to the last verse reads (Tehillim / Psalms 23:5):

תַּעֲרֹ֬ךְ לְפָנַ֨י ׀ שֻׁלְחָ֗ן נֶ֥גֶד צֹרְרָ֑י דִּשַּׁ֥נְתָּ בַשֶּׁ֥מֶן רֹ֝אשִׁ֗י כּוֹסִ֥י רְוָיָֽה׃

You prepare a banquet for me in the presence of my enemies; my head is anointed with oil; my cup runs over.

Said Rev. Hall:

Enemies. What a startling turn. At the end of a walk with the Almighty, we’re invited to a table with those who differ from us. Adversaries. People who don’t know, understand, or even like one another. It’s here that we’re refreshed with overflowing cups. Why? Because God knows it’s hard to hate your neighbors when you share dinner.

In the closing picture painted by the psalm, we are dining “neged tzorerai,” sitting opposite those who despise us. It is a reminder that at the end of the day, we can be outraged about those that hate us; we can twist ourselves up in anguish and lament the state of the world and the hatred therein; we can write impassioned opinion pieces and write checks to AJC and ADL and decry the backward-thinking, knuckle-draggers who are the source of all of our tzuris*.

Or we can sit down to dinner, at the table that God has set, facing our enemies, and seek a different way.

The best response to anti-Semitism is not outrage – it is the same response that our people have had throughout our history. It is to mourn our dead. It is to grieve through the words of our ancient texts. It is of course to protect ourselves through physical and legal means. And it is to lean into the framework of our tradition: prayer, Shabbat, the 613 holy opportunities of Jewish life. 

We remember, we mourn, we are vigilant, and then we go on about our lives, wounded as we are, knowing that there will always be people who hate us for no good reason.

Outrage is not helpful. Although it is a natural human reaction, it only leads to more outrage. And don’t you think there is enough of that going around already? 

Laura Ellsworth, speaking at the recent Eradicate Hate Global Summit in Pittsburgh (about which I spoke last week), pointed out that no politicians were involved with planning the summit, and that was by design. Although a select few politicians addressed the conference, Laura affirmed to us that politicians do not necessarily have an interest in tamping down hate, because they capitalize on hate for their own purposes. And the same is surely true of outrage.

Being outraged at each other accomplishes nothing, and might even make the problem worse. Anger often yields more anger, which yields more hate.

But of course we cannot either slide into indifference, whether by our non-Jewish neighbors who fail to see anti-Semitism in their midst, or the indifference of Jews who would rather crawl under a rock and hope that the monster goes away. It will not.

Our goal, then, in this regard is to be intentional. To use the tools at our disposal to study, to prosecute, to legislate. We have to channel our energies into productive solutions. Those solutions will not be easy, but if we are sitting down at that table in the presence of our enemies, perhaps we can at least begin the conversation.

A final thought by way of Dr. Barry Kerzin, the personal physician to the Dalai Lama and the founder of the Altruism in Medicine Institute, which offers training in mindfulness and resilience for nurses in Pittsburgh and other locales.

Dr. Kerzin with the Dalai Lama

Dr. Kerzin spoke at the Eradicate Hate Summit as well, and he opened with a story about the survivors of the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. For decades, the survivors were extraordinarily angry and filled with hate toward the Americans.

About fifteen years ago, Dr. Kerzin recounted, an extraordinary thing happened. Those survivors were able to turn their hate into love. They began advocating for worldwide denuclearization, and the anger fell away. It brought them new meaning for their lives, and their perspectives changed.

We will never cure the world of anti-Semitism, and I will certainly never excuse the actions of those who attack Jews for being Jewish. But Dr. Kerzin’s message is that it is possible to replace hate with love. And that requires that we do not turn away; rather, that we continue to mourn, that we hold fast as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, and that we sit at the table that God has set for us, facing our enemies, and try to to replace outrage with love. It is only then that our metaphorical cups may be refreshed and overflowing.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 10/30/2021.)

* Jews commemorate a deceased loved one on the anniversary of that person’s death according to the Jewish calendar. This day is referred to as the yortzayt (more commonly spelled yahrzeit), Yiddish for “year-time.” October 27, 2018 was the 18th day of the Hebrew month Ḥeshvan, in the year 5779. Since the Jewish calendar is lunar, the two dates only coincide only about once per decade.

** That’s the Yiddish pronunciation of the Hebrew word tzarot, meaning “troubles.” It is apparently related to the word tzar or tzorer, “enemy” – that is, your tzar is the one who causes you tzuris. It is not related, as far as I know, to the title of the historical Russian king, the source of much tzuris for generations of Jews in Russian lands.

Categories
Sermons

Broad Justice – Ki Tissa / Shabbat Parah 5781

I have always thought of the molten calf episode in the middle of Parashat Ki Tissa as a kind of intruder in the middle of the description of the mishkan. We have, at the end of the book of Shemot / Exodus, a total of13 chapters, spread over five parashiyyot, of descriptions of the mishkan and all of its implements and principles and construction and initiation ceremony, all recounted in stunning, and some would say monotonous, detail. 

And then, right in the middle of that, there is this curious story about how the Israelites were anxious because Moshe had not yet come down from Mt. Sinai, and so they compel his brother Aharon, who will soon officially be the Kohen Gadol, the Big Kahuna, the High Priest, to fashion an idol of gold, a calf. And they bow down in a flagrant display of idolatry, and dance about and commit lewd acts.

And God and Moshe, meanwhile, when they discover all of this, are not happy indeed.

The people’s notion, as captured in their request to Aharon is, (Shemot / Exodus 32:1)

ק֣וּם ׀ עֲשֵׂה־לָ֣נוּ אֱ-לֹהִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֤ר יֵֽלְכוּ֙ לְפָנֵ֔ינוּ

“Come, make us gods who shall go before us…”

They wanted not the one true God, of course, but gods, with a lower-case “g.” They want the thing that the Torah is primarily aligned against: idols. Empty gods. Falsehood.

And then, to demonstrate the fact that they have not yet received the message about idolatry, when the calf and the altar is complete, not only do the people worship the offending idol, but they then eat and drink in celebration, and arise “letzaheq” (v. 6), a word translated by JPS as “to dance,” although Rashi tells us that this word implies the three biggest transgressions of the Torah: idolatry of course (they have already checked that box), murder, and sexual immorality.

How could this be the right god? How could the Israelites have wanted these gods to go before them?

It is clear that this passage is inserted into the seemingly-endless mishkan construction detail not only because the brief story refreshes the narrative after it had been bogged down in mundane descriptions of materials and planks and clasps, but also because it serves to reinforce the essential message of the mishkan, which is this: We are finished with all of that idolatry business, and the nasty stuff that comes along with it.

So what did the Israelites want? Was it murder and orgies and bowing down to idols? Or was it something else? Did they merely latch onto the wrong thing, i.e. idolatry, because it’s all they knew from Egypt? Did they command Aharon to make them an idol because they were trying to fill a spiritual void? They clearly lacked the maturity as a people to connect the dots between the laws already given (i.e. the first commandment, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt,… you shall have no other gods before me.”) and their new paradigm.

I spent the earlier part of this week “at” the convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international professional organization of Conservative rabbis. Of course it was online, as most things seem to be these days, and as I am sure you can imagine, this has its advantages and disadvantages. I find that it is easier to learn new material and pick up tips from my fellow rabbis when I am away from the everyday bustle of work and home. One advantage to a Zoom convention, of course, is that you do not have to pick yourself up off the couch to attend a session. 

One of the items in which I participated was a so-called “Professional Learning Community,” a discussion with fellow rabbis that took place over three days for a total of six hours, on the subject of racial justice. In particular, our goal was to share wisdom and suggestions as to how we as individual rabbis could address this program in our own communities, but also to create some guidelines for the Rabbinical Assembly regarding how we might move forward as an organization with respect to these issues. 

Why must the Rabbinical Assembly and Conservative synagogues address issues of race? I’m so glad you asked!

In this season in particular, in which we are preparing for Pesah, also known as Hag haHerut, the celebration of our freedom, we are obligated to remember that nobody is truly free when some are enslaved.

That is precisely why we say in Aramaic, as an introduction to telling the Exodus story at the seder, “Kol dikhfin yeitei veyeikhul / Kol ditzrikh yeitei veyifsah.” Let all who are hungry, come and eat / Let all who are in need come and celebrate Pesah, this festival of freedom. We know that, as much as we have strived in America to create a system that treats all citizens equitably, the reality is that outcomes here with respect to education, health care, housing, and so forth are clearly uneven. We remind ourselves at the seder that it is our obligation to welcome our neighbor in: the one who is hungry, the one who is in need of freedom, the one who is disenfranchised.

One of the points of concern that our rabbinic task force faced is the question that some of our congregants ask, and that you may be thinking right now. “OK, Rabbi, I understand the need to help those who have been hurt by racial prejudice, but what about anti-Semitism? Shouldn’t you be talking about that instead? Shouldn’t we be focused on the challenge presented by those who are prejudiced against Jews?”

Many of us are concerned about anti-Semitic activity right now, and here in Pittsburgh we understand that too painfully. And when we see splashed across our screens a “Camp Auschwitz” t-shirt and detestable symbols of anti-Jewish hatred that have proliferated in recent years across the American landscape, we should absolutely be concerned about that. Perhaps you might think that a focus on racism means that we are neglecting the struggle against anti-Semitism. 

But this is not our God’s broad path of justice. This is the narrow path of idolatry. We cannot be only concerned for ourselves (see, for example, Pirqei Avot 1:14); if we are, we run the risk of being at the end of the litany famously delivered by Pastor Martin Niemoller, a quote that is engraved in our consciousness as a cautionary tale about the Shoah: “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out, for I was not a socialist.” Etc.

Our God is not so narrowly focused. Rather, God’s commitment to justice is broad.

It is essential for us to understand that holding aloft the anti-Semitism banner, without also addressing the other victims of hatred in our midst, that is something like idolatry. It obscures the fact that God wants us to treat all people equitably. Likewise, to address only issues of racism and implicit bias in our society without including the anti-Semitism in our midst, is also akin to idolatry.

Our God, the God of justice, is the one true God that leads us to work for the equitable treatment of all. Not just the Jews, mind you, nor only the people of any other particular group. Kol dikhfin yeitei veyeikhul. Let all who are hungry come and eat; the word “kol” / all is clear. All. 

The Talmud reminds us that the first Beit HaMiqdash / Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed due to idolatry, murder, and sexual immorality, the same things that the Israelites indulged in during Parashat Ki Tissa, when they built a calf of gold and bowed down to it. The Talmud goes on to tell us that the second Beit HaMiqdash was destroyed due to sin’at hinnam, baseless hatred, of which all the types of hatred of the other are included. That sugya (Talmudic passage) wants us all to know that sin’at hinnam is on a par with the other three major prohibitions of Jewish life. Just as we cannot tolerate idolatry in our midst, so too must we not tolerate hate of any kind. Sin’at hinnam has no boundaries.

To that end, I wanted to make you all aware of the fact that we at Beth Shalom have been working quietly on these issues in our community for some time. Yes, many of our members are already involved in racial justice work as individuals, but you should also know that we have a racial justice task force, which came together over the summer, a small but dedicated group which has been gathering material to share with the entire congregation. 

Among our goals is to begin the conversation about racial issues within our congregation, so that we might be better prepared to act when our neighbors need our help in closing the gap of racial injustice. We need to be ready, because just as they came to our side in our time of need, so too should we be there for them. That is what allies in the struggle against sin’at hinnam do. We need to be a part of that conversation.

We must continue to defend ourselves against the scourge of anti-Semitism, but we must also understand that this ancient hatred is one piece of a much larger continuum of hatred. In so doing, we will all be united in the broad struggle for justice and freedom that our God, the one true God, has commanded us to pursue.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 3/6/2021.)

Categories
Sermons

One Nation, Under God? – Va-era 5781

I am a patriotic American. I was born and raised in this country, as were my parents and three of my grandparents. Members of my family have served in the armed forces, going back to the Spanish-American War. I am grateful for everything that the United States of America has given me, and I am particularly grateful that this nation has been a haven for my immigrant forebears, and a beacon of democracy and freedom throughout the world for nearly two-and-a-half centuries.

I celebrate our nation’s birthday on July 4th. I observe Thanksgiving religiously (well, a vegetarian Thanksgiving). I drive an American car. In elementary school, I pledged my allegiance every day to our flag and our republic, invoking “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

I am, as I am sure you are, deeply disturbed by the attempted insurrection ten days ago by a mob of fellow citizens, people motivated by hate and fueled by lies. As more information has filtered out to us about who was there and what they did, I am increasingly shocked and frightened. This attack does not seem to have been planned in any organized way, but many extremist groups, some of whom are openly racist and anti-Semitic, clearly encouraged their adherents to come to Washington with the intent to cause some kind of mayhem, certainly to halt the wheels of constitutional process, and perhaps even to murder our lawfully-elected representatives.

January 6, 2021

I am sure you have heard about preparations in state capitals around the country for violence in the coming days. The Pennsylvania capitol building will be closed for two days next week. Washington is boarded up, filled with National Guard troops, and the National Mall will be closed on Wednesday as the new administration begins.

I was grateful but discomforted by a security message sent out by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh; while I am comforted to know that the Federation is thinking about our security, who would have imagined that the inauguration of a president would merit such a message about potential threats?

You might forgive me for wondering, “Where am I? Where are we? And how did we get here?”

***

Ladies and gentlemen, democracy has been good for the Jews. We do not have to dig too deeply into our history to see how other forms of government, including monarchy, feudalism, communism, and of course fascism have not been good for the Jews. The United States Constitution and its balance of powers has protected us and enabled us to thrive here in a way that had never happened before in our history. My great-grandparents all came here from Eastern Europe seeking a better life, in a place where they would not be constantly struggling against the native anti-Semitism built into the society of the Pale of Settlement from which they fled.

And they found it here, where the free exercise of religion is enshrined in that Constitution, where they could participate in the democratic process, where they could make a living and make a life without being limited by the system, where they were not immediately suspect because of their ethnic background.

Rabbinic text tells of a fraught relationship with government. If we look at Pirqei Avot, for example, a book of the Mishnah from the 2nd-century CE that documents early rabbinic wisdom, we find contradictory statements:

Pirqei Avot 2:3

הֱווּ זְהִירִין בָּרָשׁוּת, שֶׁאֵין מְקָרְבִין לוֹ לָאָדָם אֶלָּא לְצֹרֶךְ עַצְמָן. נִרְאִין כְּאוֹהֲבִין בִּשְׁעַת הֲנָאָתָן, וְאֵין עוֹמְדִין לוֹ לָאָדָם בִּשְׁעַת דָּחְקוֹ:

Be careful [in your dealings] with the ruling authorities for they do not befriend a person except for their own needs; they seem like friends when it is to their own interest, but they do not stand by a person in the hour of his distress.

And then, Pirqei Avot 3:2:

רַבִּי חֲנִינָא סְגַן הַכֹּהֲנִים אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי מִתְפַּלֵּל בִּשְׁלוֹמָהּ שֶׁל מַלְכוּת, שֶׁאִלְמָלֵא מוֹרָאָהּ, אִישׁ אֶת רֵעֵהוּ חַיִּים בְּלָעוֹ.

Rabbi Hanina, the vice-Kohen Gadol said: pray for the welfare of the government, for were it not for the fear it inspires, every person would swallow his neighbor alive.

So on the one hand, the government is distrusted by some rabbis because politicians are self-serving, and will choose their needs over yours. But on the other hand, some understood the essential need for government, in that its primary role is to protect us from one another.

The early rabbis also instituted the principle of “dina demalkhuta dina” – the law of the land is the law, meaning that laws imposed by a secular government must be observed by Jews alongside our own halakhah / Jewish law. The word, “malkhuta” is Aramaic for “the kingdom,” because of course that was the sort of jurisdiction under which the Jews lived until the last few centuries. The implication is therefore that we are subjects of a flesh-and-blood king similar to the way we are subjects to malkhut shamayim, the kingdom of heaven. You may know that there is even a berakhah for seeing a human king:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁנָתַן מִכְּבוֹדוֹ לְבָשָׂר וָדָם

Praised are you, Adonai our God, who rules the universe, who has given glory to flesh and blood.

And, to be sure, America, with no king and no kingdom, and with the principles of separation of church and state and the peaceful transfer of power, has been good for the Jews. Mostly.

And hence my great concern. Has this sense of security come to an end? Certainly, many of us have been asking this question since October 27th, 2018.

****

One nation under God. 

One of the highlights of Parashat Va-era is what is considered to be the textual basis for the four cups of wine during the Pesah seder, the following verses, up front in the parashah:

לָכֵ֞ן אֱמֹ֥ר לִבְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֘ל אֲנִ֣י ה֒ וְהוֹצֵאתִ֣י אֶתְכֶ֗ם מִתַּ֙חַת֙ סִבְלֹ֣ת מִצְרַ֔יִם וְהִצַּלְתִּ֥י אֶתְכֶ֖ם מֵעֲבֹדָתָ֑ם וְגָאַלְתִּ֤י אֶתְכֶם֙ בִּזְר֣וֹעַ נְטוּיָ֔ה וּבִשְׁפָטִ֖ים גְּדֹלִֽים׃ וְלָקַחְתִּ֨י אֶתְכֶ֥ם לִי֙ לְעָ֔ם וְהָיִ֥יתִי לָכֶ֖ם לֵֽא-לֹהִ֑ים וִֽידַעְתֶּ֗ם כִּ֣י אֲנִ֤י ה֙ אֱ-לֹ֣הֵיכֶ֔ם הַמּוֹצִ֣יא אֶתְכֶ֔ם מִתַּ֖חַת סִבְל֥וֹת מִצְרָֽיִם׃

Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the LORD. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, the LORD, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians.

Those four promises of deliverance, often interpreted as physical, political, financial, and spiritual, have been compared to the Four Freedoms promised by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his State of the Union address in 1941. Describing them, he said:

The first is freedom of speech and expression–everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way–everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want–which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants – everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear — which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor — anywhere in the world.

FDR

For American Jews, our parents and grandparents, listening to this on the radio, concerned for the welfare of their cousins in Europe at that moment, these promises must have seemed deeply reassuring. Maybe some of us actually connected Roosevelt’s words with principles in our own tradition.

Maybe some of us thought, at that time, that “one nation, under God, indivisible” was a principle that our nation’s leaders would always hold dear. Maybe we thought that this new home, far away from the ancient hatreds of the Old Country, would always protect us. Maybe, when we sat at our seder tables and invoked God’s promise, we saw ourselves as having come forth successfully from Egypt, and here we are in di Goldene Medine, the golden country of America, dining in comfort and enjoying our Four Freedoms, washing them down with Manischewitz? Maybe this is what it meant to be one nation, under God? 

Maybe. But today’s reality seems somewhat less promising.

Ladies and gentlemen, who is the patriot?

Is it the one carrying the banner of 1776, clinging to conspiracy theories and willing to support violent insurrection?

Or is the one who understands that vehement disagreement is a necessary piece of democracy, but racism and anti-Semitism are not?

To be one indivisible nation under God, we must as a nation fulfill the mitzvah found in Parashat Mishpatim (Ex. 23:7): Middevar sheqer tirhaq. Keep your distance from falsehood, as I said last week before the Prayer for Our Country.

Lies will unravel America. Living in a false reality will not solve any of the very real problems that we face, the ones that have been masked and/or magnified by the pandemic: addiction, hunger, homelessness, depression, sexual and domestic violence, homicide, and so forth. Placing our hopes in the falsehoods of QAnon or extremist news platforms will not cure all our ills. These challenges are not caused by immigrants, or socialists masquerading as moderate Democrats, or the Deep State.

On the contrary: government, good government that is focused on the needs of the people, that is dedicated to truth and justice, that guarantees our freedoms and keeps the peace, that governs with just, well-considered laws and is committed to public health, security at home and abroad – this is good for America, and good for the Jews.

Let us continue to pray for a peaceful transition, that those who engaged in violent insurrection are brought to justice, and that we may continue enjoying Roosevelt’s, and the Torah’s Four Freedoms.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 1/16/2021.)

Categories
Kavvanot

Stand Up For Truth, and Pray for Our Country

Siddur Lev Shalem for Shabbat and Festivals, The Rabbinical Assembly, 2016, p. 177.

We recite this aloud at Congregation Beth Shalom every Shabbat morning, right after reading the Torah. In recent years, I have leaned into this prayer with increasing urgency. It is a long-standing tradition for Jewish services to include a prayer for the nation in which we live; right now, in 21st-century America, we need to do so more than ever.

We have witnessed horrible things in the past week: a Confederate flag carried through the halls of Congress; a “Camp Auschwitz Staff” t-shirt; a truck full of Molotov cocktails at the ready; a police officer beaten to death with a fire extinguisher. As more images continue to pour out, my shock only grows.

While trying to wrap my head around what happened at the United States Capitol on January 6, I continue to return to the fundamental importance of truth. One piece of wisdom from our tradition, found in the 2nd-century CE rabbinic collection known as Pirkei Avot (1:18), invokes what you might call the “Jewish holy trinity”: Emet, Din, Shalom – truth, justice, and peace are integrally intertwined. Without truth and justice, there can be no peace.

But to put a finer point on it, we need in particular to remember the mitzvah / holy obligation from the Torah (Shemot / Exodus 23:7):

מִדְּבַר־שֶׁ֖קֶר תִּרְחָ֑ק וְנָקִ֤י וְצַדִּיק֙ אַֽל־תַּהֲרֹ֔ג כִּ֥י לֹא־אַצְדִּ֖יק רָשָֽׁע׃

Keep far from falsehood; do not bring death on those who are innocent and righteous, for I [God] will not acquit the wrongdoer.

While the context suggests not accepting the testimony of deceitful witnesses, so that innocent people will not be put to death, the text can and should also be translated as,

Do not lie, because lying will cause the death of innocent and righteous people, and God will never forgive us for that.

There is a reason why we still recall the national myth of George Washington, who could not tell a lie about chopping down the cherry tree, and we still refer to “Honest Abe” Lincoln. That is because the truth saves lives, and falsehood is murderous.

As we continue to pray for our country, remember that we the Jews in particular know the danger of falsehood. All anti-Semitism is rooted in falsehood: the medieval blood libel accusations, the 19th-century forgery of the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, the lies that led to the murder of 6 million Jews in Europe a mere fourscore years ago, the lies that killed 11 Jewish worshippers at a synagogue in our neighborhood two years ago.

We cannot tolerate lying in our own sphere of influence, and we must not tolerate lying on a national or international scale.

Rather, we must stand up for truth. We must distance ourselves from falsehood, because, as we have witnessed this week, falsehood leads to bloodshed.

So I am going to keep leaning into this prayer, until such time as we can put the lies behind us and move forward together.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 1/9/2021.)

Categories
Sermons

A National Day of Mourning / Shabbat Hazon 5780

You may find this hard to believe, but I once saw the hip-hop group Public Enemy live in concert. It was 1991, and I happened to be visiting a friend at Yale when they played in New Haven. I knew very little about what we called “rap” in the 1980s, and although I had the sense that Public Enemy was somewhat controversial, I figured it might be a way to expand my musical horizons.

Public Enemy

I enjoyed the show, and I was blissfully unaware that some of the controversy surrounding the group was about somebody who was by then a former member, Professor Griff, whose real name is Richard Griffin. Griffin had been kicked out of the group in 1989 for making anti-Semitic statements in an interview with the Washington Times. Among the things he said were, ”The Jews are wicked. And we can prove this,” and that the Jews are responsible for ”the majority of wickedness that goes on across the globe.” 

So when an interview of Richard Griffin surfaced two weeks ago, by celebrity Nick Cannon  (who, I must admit, I had never heard of – perhaps you get a sense that pop culture is not really my bag?), in which Cannon indulged in some classic anti-Semitic accusations (e.g. that “Zionists” and “Rothschilds” hold lots of power), I was surprised to learn that apparently Griffin had not made amends for past transgressions. Cannon, who as a result of the interview lost his position as host of comedy improv show Wild ‘N Out, offered a pareve non-apology for his remarks.

Meanwhile, Philadelphia Eagles’ wide receiver DeSean Jackson recently posted an inflammatory statement on Instagram, incorrectly attributed to Adolf Hitler, about how the Jews “blackmail” and “extort” America, and their intent for “world domination.” Mr Jackson later apologized, and has been in dialogue with a 94-year-old Holocaust survivor in an attempt to learn. (I must say that I am indeed puzzled that a Black person could deliberately quote Hitler, whether the quote was real or not.)

But the upshot of these incidents is that my favorite Pittsburgh Steeler, offensive tackle Zach Banner (OK, so I had also not heard of Mr. Banner before last week) posted a moving video in response to Mr. Jackson, in which he drew on his experience as a Pittsburgh resident in the context of the Tree of Life shooting. In it, he stated:

…We need to understand Jewish people deal with the same amount of hate and similar hardships and hard times. I’m not trying to get emotional right now, but I want to preach to the black and brown community that we need to uplift them and put our arms around them. Just as much when we talk about Black Lives Matter and elevating ourselves, we can’t do that while stepping on the back of other people to elevate ourselves, and that’s very, very important to me, and it should be important to everyone. . . .

We can’t preach equality but in result flip the script and change the hierarchy, if that makes sense. Change your heart, put your arm around people, and let’s all uplift each other.

Steelers Offensive Tackle Zach Banner

Mr. Banner’s words speak for themselves; we must all be united in the struggle against hate.

In a similar vein, basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, now a columnist for the Hollywood Reporter, wrote a column asking, “Where is the outrage over anti-Semitism in sports and in Hollywood?” Mr. Abdul-Jabbar, noting the disturbing recent rise in anti-Jewish hate crimes in recent years, called out rapper Ice Cube, basketball player  Stephen Jackson, and Chelsea Handler (who is, in fact, Jewish) for promoting anti-Semitic material, and drew a direct link from the spreading of such material via social media to the Tree of Life massacre.

With all of the concern right now in the world for how Black people have been treated by white America, something which I have spoken about repeatedly over the last several weeks, we cannot lose sight of the fact that anti-Semitism has a much longer history than European exploitation of African peoples. We cannot forget that anti-Semitism is pernicious and ever-present; it is, you might say, the “Ur-racism.” We cannot forget that anti-Jewish conspiracy theories still infuse much of the world. We cannot forget that these theories motivate actual killers, and we will not forget that one of those killers was driven by this nonsense to murder people that many of us actually knew personally, a half a mile away from where I stand.

So thank God for Black allies like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Zach Banner. Thank God that there are people who understand the power of language, the danger of ideas. Thank God that there are some who get that hatred of any group is all cut from the same cloth, that, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it in 1963 in his essay, “Religion and Race,” “What begins as inequality of some inevitably ends as inequality of all.”

Five days from now is Tish’ah BeAv, the saddest day of the Jewish year, the only full 25-hour fast aside from Yom Kippur. It is a day on which we recall all of the greatest tragedies of Jewish history: the destruction of the First and Second Temples, the Expulsion from Spain, the crushing of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and so forth. It is a day for literally sitting on the floor and weeping, for not bathing or doing anything that brings enjoyment. It is the day of the Jewish calendar on which we recall our oppression and dispersion and persecution throughout our lengthy history.

Detail from the Arch of Titus, showing Romans carrying away holy objects from the Second Temple

But Tish’ah BeAv is not merely a day on which to be hungry, thirsty, and miserable. It is also a day on which doing so should make us reflect on our behavior, on our words, and our relationships, stirring our souls in the direction of action. We read Eikhah, the Book of Lamentations, to remind us of the destruction of Jerusalem; indeed, the very first verse, which portrays Jerusalem as a bereft widow, always fills me with woe:

אֵיכָ֣ה ׀ יָשְׁבָ֣ה בָדָ֗ד הָעִיר֙ רַבָּ֣תִי עָ֔ם הָיְתָ֖ה כְּאַלְמָנָ֑ה רַּבָּ֣תִי בַגּוֹיִ֗ם שָׂרָ֙תִי֙ בַּמְּדִינ֔וֹת הָיְתָ֖ה לָמַֽס׃

Alas! Lonely sits the city once great with people! She that was great among nations is become like a widow; The princess among states has become a slave.

The Talmud teaches us (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma 9b) that the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE due to the most serious transgressions according to Jewish law: murder, idolatry, and inappropriate sexual liaisons. But the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE due to sin’at hinnam, causeless hatred among the Jews.

And, ladies and gentlemen, the world is still filled with causeless hatred. And one of the messages of Tish’ah BeAv is that we are responsible for eliminating it. We remember what and who we have lost; we acknowledge our suffering; and we rebuild as we head toward the coronation days of Rosh HaShanah.

And so I call on all of us to consider this Tish’ah BeAv not just a national day of mourning for the Jews, but a national day of mourning for all of us: for the 150,000 Americans who have succumbed to Covid-19, yes, but also for all of the forms of destruction wrought by sin’at hinnam, causeless hatred – from the destruction of Black Wall Street in Tulsa to the internment of American citizens of Japanese ancestry during World War II to the Shoah to the Tree of Life murders to the killing of George Floyd by a police officer. This Thursday is a day on which all of us should reach deep down inside ourselves to find and acknowledge the sin’at hinnam within each of us as individuals and as a society, and to pledge to stamp it out.

Antique illustration of people (veiled women, men and kids) praying at the Place of Weeping (part of the Western Wall, Wailing Wall or Kotel in the Old City of Jerusalem, Israel)

And that of course applies to the Jews as well as to everybody else; just as Messrs. Abdul-Jabbar and Banner have called out anti-Semitism promoted by Black people, so too must we the Jews call out racism and other forms of hatred in our own community when we see it.

At this particular moment in history, we have a lot for which to mourn, on this most mournful day of the Jewish calendar. But let us turn this mourning into a call to action, to improve ourselves and work harder to fix this broken world, to reach out to others in partnership and in the spirit of teaching and learning from one another, so that detestable ideas of any sort about other groups of people may be expunged from the collective human heart.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 7/25/2020.)

Categories
Sermons

Illuminating the World Through Dialogue – Vayyeshev 5780

Two weeks ago, our congregation sent a delegation to Boston, to the convention of the United Synagogue, the umbrella organization of Conservative synagogues. Rabbi Markiz and I presented on all the wonderful, connective programming we are doing through Derekh, and we all learned a whole bunch of useful stuff for continuing to build our congregation and make it more sustainable.

Boston is the Old Country for me; it’s kind of like Vilna (the Yiddish name for the capital of Lithuania). While I did not grow up there, my parents did, and so did three of my grandparents. For them, Boston was the New World. For me, it feels like history. 

On Tuesday morning, I took a taxi to Logan Airport, driven by a friendly man from Cape Verde, an island nation off the coast of West Africa. I could feel the lump of history in my throat. My maternal grandfather, Edward Bass, alav hashalom (may peace be upon him), drove a taxi in Boston in the middle of the 20th century, at one point owning his own taxi medallion. He used to hustle for fares, hanging around the airport to get well-heeled visitors into his cab. He was proud that he had driven celebrities – the singer Lena Horne was one that I recall.

And, as we traveled through the Ted Williams Tunnel, I reflected back on my family’s story as one tiny piece in the American Jewish experience, that of immigration and assimilation and trying to fit in, and the next chapter in the ongoing odyssey of the Jewish people.

My grandfather was poor. He was a foster child from age 3, grew up on a farm outside of Boston owned by a Jewish farmer, Mr. Slotnick, and never completed high school. Nonetheless, he provided for his family: my grandmother, an immigrant from what is today Ukraine, and three kids, the youngest of whom was my mother. My mother completed nursing school and married a tall, very smart young man whose father worked as a bottle-washer at the Hood dairy plant in Boston. That young man, my father, went on to get a doctorate in mathematics.

They all grew up in a Boston that was quite segregated, not only along racial lines, but along ethnic lines as well. People from different groups did not mix so much. Jews were accustomed to anti-Semitic attitudes and threats of violence, and thus kept to themselves. And in the mid-1960s, my father’s family ultimately left the neighborhood of Dorchester, where all their neighbors had been Jewish. They were pushed by the documented practice of redlining, through which banks and real estate agents encouraged white people to move out to the suburbs and penalized African-Americans by refusing them loans. They were concerned about how their neighborhood was changing, about the black folks who were moving in as the Jews left.

All the more so in those days, people were suspicious and fearful of those unlike themselves. And today we are all still feeling the reverberations of that unfortunate legacy. The question that we face now is, how might we overcome old mistrust? How might we as a society overcome that deep-seated fear of the other?

***

The attack in Jersey City last week, occurring at a cemetery and a kosher market, left four people dead, many families bereft, and a community in agony, the kind of agony that we know in Pittsburgh all too well. You may know that there has been a significant rise in anti-Semitic activity in the last few years, and we are feeling the pain. Coupled with two other incidents in LA, the last few weeks have been truly nerve-wracking.

Anti-Semitism, of course, is not new; it is truly ancient, and sits alongside the entire spectrum of fear and hatred. People distrust those whom we do not know – who have different rituals, who eat different foods, who speak a foreign language, who dress funny, who do not mix with everybody else.

And all the more so, this inclination to be wary of the other, when coupled with harmful stereotypes, occasionally leads to violence. What drove the Pittsburgh shooter to attack the three congregations at the corner of Shady and Wilkins, murdering 11 holy Jewish souls? He was convinced by white supremacists that Jews are actively working to replace white Americans with dark-skinned immigrants. Why did the attackers in Jersey City seek Jewish targets? It seems that they were motivated by the hatred of Jews espoused by some Black Hebrew Israelites, which the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as a “black supremacist” group. 

(I must point out at this point that this group, which is, to my knowledge, in no way “Jewish,” is entirely unrelated to other black Jewish groups and individuals who are not supremacists. I myself have been warmly welcomed by their congregations: I once attended a very interesting Shabbat morning service at the Ethiopian Hebrew congregation in Harlem, and my congregation on Long Island had a relationship with the black synagogue in St. Albans, Queens.)

Ethiopian Jewish kessim at a festival in Jerusalem

Fear, and indeed hatred of the other, is something that humanity will always live with. And there is really only one solution, and it is not necessarily an easy one. And that is dialogue. We have to talk to one another. We have to sit together. We have to break bread together. We have to share stories. We have to establish depth of relationship in order to overcome mutual apprehension. To defuse the time-bomb of hatred, we must proactively seek to understand each other.

Now, before we go any further, I have to confess something: 

This discussion makes me anxious, because I do not think that I am equipped with the tools for having the conversation. But I care, and I want to get it right. And I am trying to listen, and to learn.

Anti-Semitism is the type of hatred with which we are most familiar, and it is the one to which we as Jews are most attuned. And statistics have shown that anti-Semitic activity is double what it was in 2015, just a few years ago.

But let’s face it: Boston is still quite racially segregated. So too are Detroit, Baltimore, Cleveland, NYC, Washington, Houston, Chicago, and yes, Pittsburgh. And there is not only a physical segregation in our cities, but also a kind of segregation that exists in our hearts. And that segregation in all its manifestations – schools, neighborhoods, income gap, healthcare outcomes – is not just unhealthy; it is in fact dangerous. It continues to reinforce an incarceration rate that is more than five times higher for African-Americans than for caucasians. A recent study in Pittsburgh, which I mentioned on High Holidays, showed that the local black infant mortality rate puts our fair city in the 6th percentile among African-Americans in the whole country. And there are plenty of other horrifying statistics.

We need as a society to have dialogue between people of different groups. And that is not easy, and it’s not always comfortable. And frankly, most of us do not even know where to start. But here is the good news: we at Beth Shalom are trying to move the needle on this, and we have several initiatives already in progress.

And here is another piece of news: we have before us a “teachable moment.”

A few weeks back, at our Comedy Tonight fundraiser, a joke crossed a line that made many of us uncomfortable. In a bit about airports, the comedian mocked agents of the TSA, drawing on stereotypes of African American and Muslim employees. Elsewhere in his routine, he also made fun of old people and, of course, Jews, and particularly old Jews. It is to some extent the job of a comedian as an artist to hold up a mirror to ourselves, to make us consider our own absurdities. Comedy is a study in human failure.

But for us to truly be in dialogue, to be in the deep kind of dialogue that not only brings people together, but rather enables us to address honestly the challenges that we all face as a society, we all have to make sure that nobody is reinforcing harmful stereotypes of the other. 

Now, if you were in attendance that night, and you enjoyed yourself, you might be wondering, “What was harmful about the routine? Maybe there was a tasteless joke we could have done without, but harmful?”  Well as it turns out, yes. One study about humor and racism from 2011 demonstrated that, 

…if you hold negative views against one of these groups, hearing disparaging jokes about them “releases” inhibitions you might have, and you feel it’s ok to discriminate against them.

Ladies and gentlemen, words matter. We chanted earlier this morning, “Barukh she-amar vehayah ha’olam.” Praised is the One who spoke, and the world came into being. We understand our world as having been created through words. And it can be destroyed through words as well.

When I was a student at Cornell, and the Black Students Union brought Louis Farrakhan to campus, I was out there protesting with Hillel. When local groups have presented one-sided, inaccurate portrayals of the situation between Israelis and Palestinians, we the Jews have called them out. And had we as a community heard that a Christian comedian performed a routine in a local church that denigrated Jews using well-worn stereotypes about us, I am sure that we would be up in arms. Even in the context of comedy, words matter.

This teachable moment does not take away from the wonderful spirit of the evening that we shared together as a community. But we must be in dialogue, and dialogue requires that our house is in order first. We must look inward first, before looking outward. So, understanding that while we as a community were not responsible for what came out of the comedian’s mouth that night, we must acknowledge that it happened in our house. To all who may have been insulted by his portrayal of African-Americans or Muslims, we as a community are deeply regretful.

And to all who are ready to reach out your hand in dialogue for the betterment of ourselves as individuals and for the greater good, we welcome your partnership.

And, for everybody among us who is interested in moving the dialogue forward, you should be aware of the following opportunities that Derekh is creating in our community:

  1. We have a book group that is reading Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s book, How To Be an Antiracist.
  2. As part of our Beth Shalom Speaker Series, on March 25th we will be featuring Marra Gad, the Jewish and multi-racial author of The Color of Love
  3. We have an ongoing partnership with the local Episcopalian community, which continues to bear fruit in dialogue.
  4. We hosted both Richard Carrington and Rev. Tim Smith, who work in the front lines of the local African-American community.
  5. A group of us went on a civil rights tour of the South last spring, and we will be doing it again in April – be on the lookout for more info.
  6. And there are other dialogues and workshops that are flying below the radar right now, which we hope will continue and soon become more visible.

We are working toward making tzedek, that is, justice, an essential part of what we do at Beth Shalom.

My friends, I am going to close with the following thought:

Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, begins tomorrow evening. Why is it called “Hanukkah”? That word literally means “dedication,” referring to the rededication of the Second Temple following its defilement at the hands of Hellenized Syrians in the second century BCE. 

We cannot allow our Jewish spaces, or our lives, to be diminished by prejudice of any kind, and we should expect that of our neighbors as well. In this season, as we light those candles in the symbolic act of illuminating the dark corners of this world, we should rededicate ourselves to reaching out, to real dialogue, which leads to the holy work of tzedek. This is one way we may continue to be or lagoyim, a light unto the nations of this world.

Ve-ahavta lere’akhah kamokha (Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:18). Love your neighbor as yourself. And in order to love your neighbor, we must expand our sense of neighborhood.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally presented at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 12/21/2019.)

Categories
High Holidays Sermons

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

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

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

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

Do Not Be Indifferent – Kol Nidrei 5780

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

יתגדל ויתקדש שמיה רבא

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

 הֲשִׁיבֵנוּ ה’ אֵלֶיךָ וְנָשׁוּבָה, חַדֵּשׁ יָמֵינוּ כְּקֶדֶם

Hashiveinu Adonai elekha venashuvah; hadesh yameinu kekedem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

Categories
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.)

Categories
Sermons

A Din Toyre / Lawsuit Against God – Aharei Mot 5779

There is a story about Rabbi Levi Yitzhaq of Berdichev, a prominent 18th-century Hasidic rabbi, that he brought a “din toyre” (Yiddishized Hebrew for a lawsuit) against God. In the folk song that sets this din toyre to music, he points out that all the other nations thrive; this one has a huge kingdom, that one has a powerful ruler. But the Jews, what do we have? All we have is the Qaddish, the prayer most strongly associated with mourning. All we have is suffering and mourning and grief.

As the melody rises in intensity, Levi Yitzhaq affirms proudly before God, in Hebrew and then in Yiddish:

Lo ozuz mimkoymi!I will not move from my place! (Hebrew)
Ikh vel zikh fun ort nit rirn!I will not stir from my place! (Yiddish)
Un a sof zol dos zayn!An end there must be [to this suffering]
Un an ek zol dos nemen!
It must all stop!

This song flipped through my head this week following the attack on the synagogue in Poway, a brief and painful six months following the 18th of Heshvan (Oct. 27th) in Pittsburgh. I went through some of the same emotions we all felt on the last day of Pesah when we found out – shock and horror and grief. And then I detected a new emotion in this particular swamp: anger.

I am angry. And disappointed. And frustrated. And, like Rabbi Levi Yitzhaq, I am bringing a din toyre, a lawsuit against God. I imagined us as a community similarly raising an accusatory finger heavenward:

Ribbono shel olam, Master of the Universe:

Why? Why again? Why so soon? Have we done something wrong? Have we failed to serve You adequately? Have our transgressions outweighed our fulfillment of mitzvot / commandments? Have we not sought repentance?

Look, I know You do not work that way. I know that You are not about tit-for-tat, reward and punishment. That whole “Book of Life” thing, I know that’s a human artifice to help us wrap our brains around how You function. I know You don’t even have ears, in the human sense, to hear these words. But I know You’re listening. So listen up good. Please.

On the Shabbat of the 18th of Heshvan, we continued to pray, even though we knew what was going on a few blocks away. We recited the words of Psalm 130 and Psalm 121, the words of Your servant, King David: ממעמקים קראתיך – we cried out to You from the depths, and אשא איני אל ההרים, מאין יבוא עזרי, we lifted up our eyes unto the mountains, asking from where our help would come. As funerals unfolded and tears flowed and the shock on everybody’s faces at shiv’ah houses and daily minyanim (services) reminded each other of our individual and collective pain, we continued to seek comfort and protection in the words and rituals of our tradition.

We have leaned into those words and rituals, and we have come up empty. Because here we are again.

Did that help come, as You told us it would? If so, it did not prevent the death of Lori Gilbert Kaye.

Did our voices reach up to You from these depths? If so, they did not move You to action.

And speaking of the Psalms, You may know that the Talmud remarks that when the Beit HaMiqdash, the Temple in Jerusalem was still standing, the Levitical choir used to chant a different Psalm for each day of the week, a custom that we continue to this day. The Psalm for Shabbat, Psalm 92 includes the line, “Tzaddiq katamar yifrah, ke-erez balevanon yisgeh.” The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree, and grow mighty like a cedar in Lebanon.”

Eloheinu velohei avoteinu, I am sure that You still appreciate “hearing” those Psalme, but are we flourishing? Are we mighty?

Rather, perhaps we are stuck in the Psalm that is recited on Wednesdays, Psalm 94 (3-4):

עַד־מָתַ֖י רְשָׁעִ֥ים ה
עַד־מָ֝תַ֗י רְשָׁעִ֥ים יַעֲלֹֽזוּ׃
יַבִּ֣יעוּ יְדַבְּר֣וּ עָתָ֑ק
יִֽ֝תְאַמְּר֗וּ
כָּל־פֹּ֥עֲלֵי אָֽוֶן׃

Ad matai resha’im Adonai
Ad matai resha’im ya’alozu
Yabi’u yedabberu ataq
Yit’ameru ol po’alei aven

How long yet, Adonai, will the wicked —
How long yet will the evil ones prosper?
Boasting their malice,
They talk each other into greater evil.

Because the wicked are moving ahead with their plan. Why should we be frightened in Your house? Why should we continue to suffer?

So maybe we are going to have to solve this ourselves, God. Maybe we are going to have to rely on guards, and silvered glass, and electronic door locks. Maybe we are going to have to learn self-defense. Maybe we are going to have to rely on law enforcement. Maybe we will have to implore our political representatives to protect Jewish institutions, to spend even more resources on cracking down on the forces of hatred. Maybe the dark web is beyond even Your reach.

Nonetheless, I am not going to let You off the hook entirely, because I know that You did not make these people do this. I know You did not intend for humans to create assault rifles, devices crafted only to kill people quickly and efficiently, and make them available to the civilian public. I know that You did not create sin’at hinnam, causeless hatred; that was also a human invention. I know that You do not want Your people to murder each other. I know that You did not create anti-Semitism, or white supremacy, or the concept of “white genocide,” or the whole “Jews will not replace us” thing.

But, Eloheinu veilohei avoteinu ve-imoteinu, we have trusted You. We will continue to offer the words of the Psalmist, and the words of tefillah, and welcome the weekly redemption of Shabbat and argue over the words of Your Torah.

But please know this: we feel betrayed.

So please, Ribbono Shel Olam, mima’amaqim qeratikha Adonai. We continue to call out to You from the depths.

Shema qoleinu, Adonai Eloheinu. Hus verahem aleinu. Hear our voices. Have mercy upon us.

We have grieved for too long; our wounds are fresh.

Help us find the human and political will to save our people. Steady the hands of those who protect us, those who seek out the resha’im, the evil people in this world who foment hatred against others and urge the weak of spirit to kill.

Because, like Levi Yitzhaq of Berdichev, we are not going anywhere. We will not be frightened. We will not be huddled into bomb shelters or safe rooms. We will not back away from doing what we do proudly as Jews.

On the contrary, we are just going to pray louder and harder, until You hear our voices.

That’s my din toyre, my lawsuit against God.

A footnote: We marked yet another Yom HaShoah this week, another Holocaust Remembrance Day, now nearly seven and a half decades after the Nazis were vanquished by the Allies. But you may know that the official name of that day, the 27th of Nisan, is “Yom HaZikaron LaSho’ah veLaGvurah,” the Day of Remembrance of the Holocaust and the Heroism.” In abbreviating the name, we are actually emasculating it somewhat. It is not merely the day of the Sho’ah, a day on which we recall the destruction wrought by the Nazi regime, the efficient murder of 6 million of our people, but also a day on which we remember the gevurah, the heroism of those who fought against it: Jews, non-Jews, partisans, industrialists, farmers, diplomats, ordinary righteous folks who knew right from wrong. And we remember those who survived, and that we as a people continue to survive, due not only to our own tenacity and loyalty to our heritage, but also to partnership with other good people around us.

The jury is still in recess, but we will not wait to do what we have to do to – to protect ourselves, to urge our leaders to act, to partner with others of faith who care and understand the need to stamp out the evil in our midst, the ancient hatred, invigorated by modern technology, that has emboldened killers.

Now is the time to work for the redemption of the world from hate. We cannot wait for God to act; we must do it ourselves.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 5/4/2019.)