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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.)

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We Are Not Defined By Those Who Hate Us: Report From Hungary – Vayyiggash 5779

We have almost arrived at the end of Bereshit, Genesis, the Torah’s first and longest book, and the one that tells the story of the family of Avraham, the family that yields Yisrael and monotheism and really our entire heritage. And the end of the book turns on the story of Yosef and his tale of exile and redemption. And in today’s parashah, Vayyiggash, we have the denouement,  when Yosef reveals himself to his brothers and is reunited with his father Ya’aqov. It is the moment when, you might say, the chickens come home to roost. Or, rather, that the chickens all move to Egypt and begin the process that leads to their enslavement.

I must say that I feel like I have learned some uncomfortable truths over the last seven weeks, the most salient of which is that we the Jews can no longer count on our safety here in America. Perhaps that safety was an illusion of the last several decades; my sense growing up in the 1980s was that the arc of humanity’s progress, led by America’s inspiring democracy and tolerance, would ultimately stamp out anti-Semitism for good. After all, we defeated the Nazi regime, we prevailed over the Soviet Union and the mistreatment of their Jews, and we are Israel’s strongest ally and supporter.

October 27th brought home for me the feeling that this is not the case. And as we all scramble to catch up with the rest of the Diaspora world in terms of providing security for our institutions, the loss of innocence is palpable. The hatred of Jews has not only not gone away, but it is growing, on both the left and the right.

Many of you know that I spent Hanukkah in Budapest. My sister and her family live there, and my Israeli son flew in to stay with us as well. Also, my wife still has Hungarian cousins, people who survived World War II and stayed there. So we had family gatherings for the holiday. But the reality of contemporary Hungary was an unpleasant backdrop to the visit.

To begin with, Hungary has a bad record when it comes to the Jews. The Hungarian government during World War II collaborated with the Nazis and participated in sending its Jews to death camps, including my father-in-law. A few years back, the openly anti-Semitic political party Jobbik advocated in the Hungarian Parliament for drawing up a list of all Jews in the country who pose a “security risk.” Hungarians today have, as polls have shown, among the highest rates of anti-Semitic attitudes in Europe.

If any of you have been following the news, you know that the current government is dominated by the right-wing party Fidesz, led by the Prime Minister, Viktor Orban. Mr. Orban’s leadership is so strong that he has successfully eroded democratic freedoms in Hungary: there is no more free press – virtually all news outlets are controlled by friends of Orban; the independence of the courts has been limited, and just this week it was announced that a new series of “administrative courts” will be established which will be effectively controlled by Orban and his buddies.

Perhaps you remember the flow of refugees, mostly from Syria, that the Hungarian government built a fence to keep out three years ago? While Germany has welcomed refugees and tried to integrate them into German society, Hungary has tried to prevent them from entering.

And in October, the government passed a law banning homeless people from “living in public places.” The law is vague, but in effect, it criminalizes homelessness. This is not only ridiculous, it’s cruel. My Hungarian brother-in-law said it reminded him of the famous poem by Pastor Martin Niemöller :

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—

    Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—

    Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

    Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

In 2014, the Orban government unveiled a new memorial sculpture in Freedom Square in Budapest, called the “Living Memorial,” ostensibly to recall those who were killed by the Nazis. It depicts the angel Gabriel, pure and innocent and representing Hungary, and a nasty German eagle swooping down, claws bared. On the side, in multiple languages, including Hebrew, it says merely, “In memory of the victims.” No other commentary.

living memorial

The problem with the memorial is that it whitewashes Hungary’s collaboration with the Nazis and assistance in deporting her Jewish citizens. Critics have created a massive protest wall of photos, memorabilia and statements right in front of the memorial to counter and portray the truth of what really happened.  To the government’s credit, these materials have remained there for five years, although they have been vandalized by neo-Nazis.

And the other item of note is that the Hungarian government is building a Holocaust memorial museum, although, citing concerns about further blurring of the Hungarian role in the Shoah, the Israeli Holocaust museum Yad Vashem has furiously criticized the project.

Add to that Mr. Orban’s portrayal of Hungarian-born Jewish financier George Soros as a sinister character, an outside influencer seeking to corrupt Hungary through his support of NGOs and the Central European University in Budapest. The billboards that were seen around Hungary in 2017 were remarkably disturbing, drawing on traditional anti-Semitic tropes of the Jew as one who undermines Christian society.

soros
From Hungary in 2017. Text reads, “National consultation about the Soros plan – Don’t let it pass without any words.”

What do we learn from this?

When Robert Bowers walked into Tree of Life with an assault rifle and began shooting, he was motivated by hatred of Jews. But not only that: he was driven by a fear that is promulgated in the hate-filled, dark corners of white nationalist websites, that Jews like George Soros are trying to bring immigrants and refugees to this country to lessen the political power of white, Christian Americans.

When an assortment of right-fringe hate groups marched in Charlottesville a year and a half ago, among the things they chanted was, “Jews will not replace us.” I did not understand this at the time – I thought the meaning of the slogan was that Jews themselves will not literally take the jobs of white Christians or their positions of authority in government and civic life. But no – what they were saying was, “We will not let the Jews replace us with non-white, non-Christian immigrants and refugees.” As if the Jews are pulling all the strings. As if the Jews are actively smuggling people from all over the world into America to destroy our society.

The wall on our southern border; the attacks on our free press; the use of George Soros, Janet Yellen, and Lloyd Blankfein in a campaign ad to stir up fear on the far right; the disinformation that we hear daily. Anti-Semitism is not only here with us, back and better than ever, ladies and gentlemen, but it is also the lynchpin in white nationalism. Hungary is a case study for where some of our fellow citizens want us to be. Thank God, we are not there yet. But now is the time for vigilance.

When I went to synagogue last Shabbat, there were two guards outside the building. Not only did they ask for my ID (which I carried with me even though there is no eruv in Budapest), but they asked me several questions: Where are you from? Why are you here this morning? Where are you staying? This is, sadly, par for the course in Europe, and will likely be standard procedure in America soon as well. Like Ya’aqov’s entire family, we are returning, in some sense, to Egypt. The good old days are over.

My son and I spent a day in Vienna, a short train ride from Budapest last week; upon returning, the Hungarian police barely glanced at my American passport, but his Israeli passport was scrutinized. They bent it, shined a flashlight through it, asked more intrusive questions and for more identification, which he did not have. We have different last names, so they did not believe me when I said he was my son. It was not until I showed them a photo on my smartphone of his American passport, which he did not have with him, that they let us back into Hungary.

Now, I do not know if they were roughing us up because of Hungarian attempts to keep out unwelcome immigrants, or because his passport was from Israel. But does it really matter?

At this point, when my wife read this sermon, she said, wisely (as she always does), “Seth, you have raised the spectre of anti-Semitism, something which rabbis have done for generations, but you have not offered us any positive thing to grasp onto. Living a Jewish life is not only about knowing that there are people who hate us. We are not defined by anti-Semitism.”

Given that I’ve already reached the end of my Shabbat-morning quota, I am going to leave a more complete response to this for the next sermon, probably in two weeks. (Next Shabbat is the monthly Discussion Service.) But here is a little something:

Despite the climate in Hungary, the Budapest Chabad organization held a public candle-lighting for Hanukkah every evening in a busy square in front of the major train station. There were plenty of police for protection, but people came out to participate. I was told that there was a big bar mitzvah happening at one of the city’s synagogues last Shabbat morning. Jewish life goes on in Hungary.

Our response to hatred is not to try to fade into the woodwork. It is, rather, to live Jewishly and proudly, to put our Jewish values into action, and remain strong and vigilant. To quote 20th-century French philosopher Edmond Fleg:

I am a Jew because my faith demands no abdication of the mind.

I am a Jew because my faith demands all the devotion of my heart.

I am a Jew because wherever there is suffering, the Jew weeps.

I am a Jew because wherever there is despair, the Jew hopes.

We weep, we hope, and we commit ourselves again and again to our tradition, to our ancient wisdom, to our values. As we continue to face an imperfect world, one in which we know there are people who malign us, Lo alekha hamelakhah ligmor, velo atah ben horin lehibbatel mimmena (Pirqei Avot 2:21). It is not up to you to finish the task, nor are you free to desist from it. We continue to practice our customs and live our values, to build a better society, a better nation, a better planet.

There is much work to be done in facing our contemporary challenges, here and abroad. Our ancestors have always faced these challenges, and so will we.

Shabbat shalom.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 12/15/2018.)

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A Tish’ah Be’Av Message on Recent Ominous Events in Israel – Devarim 5778

It was one of those weeks that a rabbi dreads: I had a good chunk of this sermon already written when I was walloped on Thursday by two big pieces of news out of Israel. Those of you who were here last Shabbat know that I spoke about my visit to the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv two weeks ago. I was planning to follow up on that discussion, but the news kind of hijacked the sermon, so I had to retool extensively at the last minute.

Here is what happened on Thursday (7/19/2018):

  1. The Knesset passed a very controversial bill into law. Known as the Nation-State Law, the law states that Israel is the “national home of the Jewish people.” Now this is not really a revolutionary idea, and to some extent many Jews in Israel and around the world already think of it as exactly that. But there are a couple of problematic features, some of which were toned down in the final version of the bill. The law downgrades Arabic from being an official language to having a “special status.” Israel is a multi-cultural democracy, and the challenge that democracy faces when one ethnic or religious group is favored over another is in play here. Can Israel in fact continue to be a democracy if 15% of its citizens are further alienated?Another problematic feature of the law is the following passage:“The state shall act within the Diaspora to strengthen the affinity between the state and members of the Jewish people.” The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) has characterized this clause as “patronizing to Jews outside of Israel, ignoring the fact that Israel-Diaspora relations are a two-way street.” The JFNA believes that this language was promoted by religious parties to “limit the impact of Diaspora Jewry on religious pluralism in Israel… [It] was meant to avoid claims that Israel needs to further religious pluralism in Israel as part of an effort to advance its connection with Diaspora Jews.”
  2. Rabbi Dubi Haiyun, the rabbi of Congregation Moriah in Haifa, a Masorti (Conservative) congregation, was arrested by local police at 5:30 AM at his home, at the behest of the local Rabbinate, ostensibly for performing marriages not sanctioned by the State. Rabbi Haiyun was questioned extensively and released, but it appears that the Israeli Rabbinate, which controls matters of personal status in Israel, wanted to “rough him up.” Many rabbis, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, perform weddings outside the bounds of the official Israeli Rabbinate for various reasons; these weddings are not recognized by the State, and neither are civil unions. This is one more sad chapter in the ongoing struggle with the Israeli Rabbinate’s hegemony over Judaism in Israel, something which has contributed to the growing rift with the largely-non-Orthodox North American Jewish population.

rabbi dubi haiyun
Rabbi Dubi Haiyun

Now, I must say that I am not inclined to air Israel’s dirty laundry in public. But I am certainly inclined to put this in the greater context of what it means to be Jewish today, and in particular what it means to be Jewish in the Diaspora.

Why are the Jews still here? Why are we here today, in Pittsburgh of all places, very far from where we started? Why are we celebrating a new baby girl today, and a young couple about to be married? Why are we singing ancient words in a foreign language that none of us speak?

I have a theory about this: it’s because of argument. Two Jews, three opinions. It’s all over every page of the Talmud. It’s an ancient and modern tradition. We don’t agree with each other on anything.

Actually, let me refine that: it’s because of respectful disagreement- agreeing to disagree, and yet still to hang together as a tribe.

Today we commemorate the destruction of the Second Temple (among other things) as we observe the fast day of Tish’ah Be’Av. Since the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 CE, Judaism thrived in Diaspora precisely because there was no one central authority. Yes, there came to be voices on the Jewish bookshelf who speak very loudly: Moshe Rabbeinu, of course, but also Rabbi Akiva, and Rambam and Ramban and Rashi, and many others. Some of those guys disagreed with each other quite vehemently. (Do you know why your mezuzot are at an angle? As a compromise between Rashi, who believed that they should be upright, and his grandson Rabbeinu Tam, who argued that they should be horizontal.)

But we have no pope. We have no supreme authority whose word is Divine. We are all just trying to understand God and what God wants of us, and nobody has a lock on the truth. We are all Jews, attempting to find our way through life, making a living, raising families, and trying to frame essential moments in holiness.

I was mulling over unity and disunity in Israel when I was struck by a line from the beginning of Devarim / Deuteronomy, which we read from today (Deut. 1:5):

בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן, בְּאֶרֶץ מוֹאָב, הוֹאִיל מֹשֶׁה בֵּאֵר אֶת-הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת לֵאמֹר

On the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to expound this teaching (Torah).

Ramban (13th century Spain, then moved to Israel; was a proto-Zionist, believing that making aliyah / moving to Israel is a mitzvah / commandment) says the following about “Moses undertook to expound this Torah”: This implies that he was also repeating the commandments already given and adding certain details.

The implication of Ramban’s comment is that Moshe is already disagreeing with himself, already modifying his first take. We are a people who have been arguing with ourselves from, if you will, the very beginning.

And yet, what has managed to keep us Jewish is that very disagreement. Why are we still here? Because it is the argument which has kept us in dialogue with ourselves; we have continued to revisit our texts and traditions over and over, to interpret and reinterpret, and derive value from them that continues in every generation to teach us to lead better, holier, more fulfilling lives.

So what does that mean for Israel? As long as the disagreement is civil, as long as we can live with each other and continue to talk with each other and celebrate and grieve together, then Judaism will continue for at least another 2,000 years. As long as we can respect each others’ opinions and customs, and acknowledge that we can all daven (pray)at the Kotel / Western Wall or anywhere in Israel according to our own customs, and not be assaulted by police or people throwing chairs or whatever, then we will continue to thrive as a people.

If, however, the Orthodox authorities continue to work against the interests of the non-Orthodox world, if the democratic character of the State of Israel continues to suffer, the future does not look so bright. The Talmud tells us that the very reason we fast tonight and tomorrow for Tish’ah Be’Av, the reason the Second Temple was destroyed, is because of sin’at hinnam, because the Jews’ behavior was rife with baseless hatred.

I prefer a vision of tolerance, of democracy, of peace and mutual respect and understanding.

Israel’s largest base of support in the Diaspora is non-Orthodox Jews. It is us, ladies and gentlemen.

Last week, to drive the point home about Rabin’s life, and his personal understanding of the costs of both war and peace, I shared with you what was widely known to be his favorite song: HaRe’ut, the Fellowship. Today I am going to share with you another song which captures, to me and particularly to many Israelis, the challenges of every Jewish person’s relationship with Israel. Titled “Ein li eretz aheret” / “I have no other country,” it was originally recorded by Gali Atari in 1982 (lyrics by Ehud Manor, melody by Corinne Allal, who also performed it).

אין לי ארץ אחרת
גם אם אדמתי בוערת
רק מילה בעברית חודרת
אל עורקיי, אל נשמתי
בגוף כואב, בלב רעב
כאן הוא ביתי

לא אשתוק, כי ארצי
שינתה את פניה
לא אוותר לה,
אזכיר לה,
ואשיר כאן באוזניה
עד שתפקח את עיניה

Ein li eretz aheret
Gam im admati bo’eret
Rak mila be’ivrit
hoderet el orkai el nishmati
Beguf ko’ev, belev ra’ev
Kan hu beiti 

Lo eshtok
ki artzi shinta et paneha
Lo avater lehazkir la
Ve’ashir kan be’ozneha
Ad shetifkah et eineha

I have no other country
even if my land is aflame
Just a word in Hebrew
pierces my veins and my soul
With a painful body, with a hungry heart,
Here is my home.

I will not stay silent
because my country changed her face
I will not give up reminding her
And sing in her ears
until she will open her eyes

I love Israel passionately; although I am 100% American, there have been times when I have felt that Israel is the nation where I truly belong, even with all of her challenges.

After Rabbi Haiyun was released by the police, he went to Jerusalem to do what he had originally been scheduled to do: teach at a forum about Tish’ah Be’Av convened by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, which apparently the President features every year as a reminder that we have to overcome sin’at hinnam, baseless hatred, even today, in Israel and around the world.

rivlin panel

President Rivlin reminded those present that the kinnot, the dirges we will chant tomorrow morning on Tish’ah Be’Av are not merely medieval expressions of mourning. Rather, they must teach us how to be different people. How to begin again after destruction.

And I would add that all of the lamenting of Tish’ah Be’Av teaches us how to make sure that we continue to talk to each other and live with each other respectfully, even while we disagree, to work for the betterment of ourselves as individuals, our relationships, the State of Israel, and everything that we do as Jews. If we do not, shame on us all.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 7/20/2018.)