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No Fear – Ki Tetze 5780

As I stand here today, filled with pride as my daughter was called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah, I cannot help but think about how, just a few weeks after you were born, we were at a Shabbat dinner at Temple Israel of Great Neck, and I was leading the song based on the words of Rabbi Nahman of Breslov, “Kol ha’olam kulo, gesher tzar me-od, veha’iqqar lo lefahed kelal.” The whole world is a narrow bridge, and the most essential thing is not to fear at all. She was so tiny; I was actually holding her in one hand.

Our lives are, in fact, moving forward along that narrow bridge. And nothing has reminded me of the precarious nature of human life more than the coronavirus pandemic, which has brought a new level of fear back into our day-to-day existence like no other experience in recent memory.

But you, Hannah, you hold the future in your hands, along with all your peers. And we will depend on you lo lefahed – not to be afraid. 

When Hannah and I sat down back in the winter to start working on her devar Torah, we reviewed the entirety of Parashat Ki Tetze, which she chanted this morning, we encountered the mitzvah, the holy opportunity, that is referred to in rabbinic literature as “shilluah haqen.” If you find a mother bird in a nest with her chicks, and you want to take the chicks as food, the Torah requires us to shoo away the mother bird, so she will not see you taking her chicks. If you perform this mitzvah, the Torah says, you will be rewarded with long life. 

I reminded Hannah that this is my favorite mitzvah. “I know, Abba,” she said.

So why is this my favorite mitzvah? Many of you know that I am a vegetarian, and I certainly do not go about looking for nests and chicks to eat. Rather, it is because the mitzvah of shilluah haqen speaks to so much of what we value as Jews.

First, it relates to a principle that Hannah spoke about earlier: that of tza’ar ba’alei hayyim, the prevention of cruelty to animals. We value the life of all of God’s creatures: maintain life, says the Torah, and you are rewarded with life. Compassion even for God’s smallest creatures is a reflection of the qedushah, holiness in the human spirit. 

Closely tied to that is the sense of wise use and respect for the resources that have been given to us. We do need to eat, and many people like to eat animals. So we can do that, provided that (a) we ensure that the mother bird lives to create more life, and (b) that she does not suffer the emotional stress of watching her children taken from her. 

And the third item is related to a story that the Talmud tells about this mitzvah. A character named Elishah ben Avuyah, who receives the finest rabbinic education from the best teachers of the ancient world, including Rabbi Akiva, loses his faith. He witnesses a young boy climbing up into a tree to get some chicks from a nest. The boy shoos away the mother bird, fulfilling the mitzvah of shilluah haqen, and then falls from the tree and dies. He does not receive the Torah’s promised reward of long life. Elishah’s entire theological framework falls apart. He becomes the most famous apostate in Jewish tradition, referred to often only as Aher, “the other,” because he othered himself.

What value comes from this story? Why did the rabbis include this and other tales of a famous apostate?

The value is that Elishah ben Avuyah is the outlier. That we can, in fact, maintain faith even in the face of evidence that shakes our understanding of the world. Despite what it says all over the Torah, we know that sometimes bad things happen to good people. And vice versa.  Jewish theology (and I am saying this in full acknowledgment that Rosh Hashanah is three weeks from today) is not so simplistic. 

Our tradition still holds a great appeal for many of us. Why? Because even though we often understand that literal readings of our text do not always hold up, nonetheless, this ancient framework, which we have upheld for a couple thousand years, is still quite valuable in nurturing and sustaining us. 

Hevreh, we are facing challenges unlike any seen before in my lifetime. The pandemic, of course. The resurgence of anti-Semitism, which yielded the bloodiest attack on a synagogue in American history, just a few blocks from where I stand. The ongoing scourge of racism, coded and overt.

And, thrown into the mix is the ability that bad actors possess today to spread falsehood so easily.

Many of you may have heard of QAnon for the first time in recent weeks. I am actually ashamed and embarrassed that this deliberate attempt to manipulate people with the most outrageous types of conspiratorial falsehoods has made it to this level of visibility. 

QAnon is an online conspiracy theory that claims that a cult of pedophiles is controlling our government; it also includes anti-Semitic accusations against “the Rothschilds” and of course, Hungarian Holocaust survivor and financier George Soros. A community of followers of QAnon has grown around the conspiracy, and soon a congressional district in Georgia will likely be represented by a woman who has publicly stated her support of the QAnon conspiracy

(BTW, a JTA article this week pointed out that two years ago she shared a video that indulges in the horrible anti-Semitic Great Replacement Theory, which posits that Jews are actively recruiting brown-skinned migrants to replace white people in Europe and North America; this is the idea that motivated David Bowers to attack the synagogue here in Pittsburgh.)

In a related vein, I am concerned that when a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available (bimherah beyameinu / speedily in our days), many people will not receive it due to misinformation. A recent poll indicated that 40% of Americans say they will not get the vaccine; some will refuse it because of their concerns around vaccine safety, which have been thoroughly debunked, and some are convinced that the coronavirus is just a hoax.

And, lest you think that online falsehoods are limited to a gullible American audience, you might be surprised to know that in the United Kingdom, people are attacking telecom workers who are putting up infrastructure for the new 5G data network, because manipulators online have convinced many that 5G technology actually causes COVID-19 sickness.

We the Jews know the dangers of the widespread dissemination of such falsehoods. The infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a Russian forgery originally published in 1903 that supposedly documented the Jewish conspiracy for world domination, was a pretext for state-sponsored Russian pogroms. (It was later published by Henry Ford in the US, by the way.)

It was the falsehoods that Adolf Hitler published in Mein Kampf, and later screamed into a microphone, that enabled the Sho’ah, the Nazi Holocaust that murdered nearly a third of our people during World War II.

It’s easy to lose hope, like Elishah ben Avuyah. This is not the way the world is supposed to work. This is not what God promised us.

But I am going to remind us all that Elishah is an outlier. He succumbed to the fear that God is not with us. We must remember that the forces of lies and chaos have always been there, and it is up to us, to the righteous ones, not to lose faith, not to succumb.

The real value of our tradition is not the literal reward of “long life.” Rather, the real value of our tradition, as well as that of Christianity and Islam and really every other major religious tradition, is the essential behavioral values that are held up by our traditional texts for us to pursue:

  • The value of compassion, as exemplified by shilluah haqen.
  • The value of truth (Exodus 23:7):  מִדְּבַר־שֶׁ֖קֶר תִּרְחָ֑ק / Middevar sheqer tirhaq. Distance yourself from falsehood.
  • The value of humility (Isaiah 57:15, which appears in the haftarah on Yom Kippur morning) : מָר֥וֹם וְקָד֖וֹשׁ אֶשְׁכּ֑וֹן וְאֶת־דַּכָּא֙ וּשְׁפַל־ר֔וּחַ לְהַחֲיוֹת֙ ר֣וּחַ שְׁפָלִ֔ים וּֽלְהַחֲי֖וֹת לֵ֥ב נִדְכָּאִֽים׃

… I dwell on high, in holiness; Yet with the contrite and the humble — Reviving the spirits of the humble, Reviving the hearts of the contrite.

  • The value of community: Kol Yisra’el arevim zeh bazeh (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 27b). All of us are guarantors for each other. We are interdependent, and we must behave as such. And that goes not only for our Jewish neighbors, but for all of them.
  • The value of freedom, and we have a whole 8-day holiday dedicated to that (Pesah): the responsibility not only to protect our own safety and freedom, but to guarantee those things for others. 
  • The value of tzedakah / charitable giving, for which the Talmud tells us that there is no limit.

And so forth. You know, some people might criticize religious practice as arcane at best, and irrelevant or potentially dangerous at worst. You might have heard people say that all wars have been caused by religion, etc.

But I’ll tell you this: if we follow it, if we commit ourselves to performing the mitzvot, our tradition drives us to be better people. Religious practice, and Jewish practice in particular, living Jewish values, will help create a better world, one marked by the “long life” of which the Torah speaks. And if we lose our faith to the forces of lies and chaos, the world will descend into an unholy pit, from which humanity may never emerge.

So I turn to my daughter Hannah on this day, and implore you thus:

The world that we need you and your peers to create is the one that is hopeful, not hopeless. That is filled with compassion; in which we act with humility; in which we strive for truth and justice in all our dealings; in which we always remember that our essential task in life is to remember the qedushah, the holiness of the other, and act on the Divine imperative to raise the total amount of holiness in this world. 

והעיקר לא לפחד כלל

Veha’iqqar lo lefahed kelal. And the most essential thing is not to fear at all. Now build that world.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 8/29/2020.)

Categories
Sermons

The Value of Life and the Jewish Triangle – Bemidbar 5776

I was struck by a curious item in the news two weeks ago: the gorilla that was shot and killed at the Cincinnati Zoo. (In case you didn’t hear: a 3-year-old boy fell into the moat surrounding the gorilla pen; the silverback, a 17-year-old, 420-pound western lowlands gorilla named Harambe, while not attacking the boy, did drag him around the pen, injuring the boy seriously.)

There were vigils, criticism by various groups, defense of the killing by the zoo spokespeople, and plenty of news articles and opinion pieces for and against. Social media exploded.

I am not in a position to judge whether killing the gorilla was justified or not. The zoo’s “dangerous animal response team” made a quick decision, and they opted for shooting to kill over using a tranquilizer dart, to ensure that the child would survive.

Harambe’s cousins in Africa are critically endangered, and zoos like the one in Cincinnati have attempted to remediate this situation by breeding gorillas in captivity. It is certainly unfortunate that Harambe had to die because of this boy. There is no question that this was a hard decision for the zoo, and that their choice would be scrutinized and criticized. We will never know what would have happened had they gone with the tranquilizer dart, or some other solution.

WesternLowlandGorilla03.jpg
Western lowland gorilla

But what actually struck me about this story was its context in the news. Around the same time there was a shooting with multiple fatalities in a neighborhood in Houston where I used to live. It has also emerged in recent weeks that the homicide rates in both Chicago and Toronto are up by over 50% this year over last. And of course there is the ongoing terror activity in Israel, which claimed four more lives in Tel Aviv this week.

And those stories are dwarfed by the largest humanitarian catastrophe of the last few years – that is, the Syrian civil war. Estimates vary, but perhaps 400,000 people have been killed in Syria in the last five years. And we all know about the refugee crisis here and abroad, driven largely by displaced Syrians.

What emerges when you juxtapose the flap surrounding the gorilla with those other stories is this curious situation where people – actual people – are being killed and driven from their homes, and yet the reaction to Harambe’s death somehow floated to the top of the news, at least on Internet portals.

It is fascinating to me that have become so inured to daily killing and human suffering in our own contexts, outside of the tightly-controlled environment of the metropolitan zoo, in the wild streets of Chicago or Baltimore or even suburban St. Louis, that we seem to have lost a sense for the value of human life.

Of course, it’s hard to wrap our brains around the killing of many; it’s much easier to be outraged by the murder of a single, rare primate in a single, tragic situation.

But it’s worth noting that our tradition teaches us about both.

All lives – the lives of all creatures – are endowed with a spark of the Divine.

We learn from the Torah in multiple places, and it is expanded upon in the Talmud, that we are forbidden from causing animals unnecessary suffering. This principle is known as, “tza’ar ba’alei hayyim,” (and I learned this week that the SPCA in Israel is called, Agudat tza’ar ba’alei hayyim – the association of [fulfilling the mitzvah of preventing] cruelty to animals).

But qal vahomer / all the more so, human life too is sacred, and one of our duties here on Earth is to alleviate human suffering wherever we can. Lo ta’amod al dam re’ekha, says the Torah (Lev. 19:16). Do not stand idly by the blood of your fellow person. We have fundamental obligations to the people around us. And if Syria is too far away, we might consider just the people in our immediate environs.

Where, ladies and gentlemen, is the outcry? Where are the vigils for the victims of authoritarian regimes around the world? Where are the politicians calling for change on America’s streets? Where are the nations who are jumping over each other to take in those who have fled the Syrian chaos? Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany was the only head of state of the G-7 nations to attend the UN’s World Humanitarian Summit at the end of May, something which UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon went out of his way to point out.

And where, indeed, are the Jews, marching to help ensure that everybody gets a fair break in life, a decent education, neighborhoods free of the scourges of crime and drugs and guns?

***

We celebrate today with two young women who have stepped forward into direct relationship with the Torah and its framework of holiness. And not only that, but we continue our celebration of that framework tonight as we usher in the festival of Shavuot.

We call benei mitzvah to the Torah in the synagogue, surrounded not only by family and friends because we are making a public statement: this child is now one of us; she has inherited the mantle of Torah, the set of holy opportunities to fulfill our mitzvot. It is, by definition, a public display of the stepping up of this child.

The most fundamental statement of bar/bat mitzvah is communal; it is that this child is now one essential vertex in the triangle of individual, community, and Torah.

A sizeable chunk of that triangle is dedicated to the acknowledgement that this is an imperfect world, one which routinely tramples idealism and continues to thwart dreams, but that we have an obligation, as individuals and communities in sacred relationship with Torah, to right wrongs, to uplift the oppressed and give a hand to the needy. Lo alekha hammelakha ligmor, velo attah ben horin lehibbatel mimmena. It is not up to you to finish the task, neither may you give up on it (Pirqei Avot 2:21). That holy work is never done.

One neat trick of the Jewish calendar is that Parashat Bemidbar is always read adjacent to Shavuot, a reminder that the Torah was given and received in the desert. It was not given in Jerusalem, or even in Israel! The message is that the Torah does not belong to a particular place or even (!) a particular people. The Torah, and the holy opportunities it gives us, are for everybody.

As we prepare ourselves to celebrate Torah tonight on Shavuot, we should remember that our opportunities for holiness extend far beyond our interconnected Jewish circle here in Squirrel Hill, and much further beyond the Jewish world. The triangle that unites us with Torah demands that we seek justice for all of God’s creatures, as we said on Shabbat morning in the Prayer for Our Country, “lemiqtanam ve’ad gedolam,” from the least of them to the greatest (Jer. 31:33).

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 6/11/2016.)