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Building Bridges of Prayer – Bo 5781

The 46th president of the United States, just before he was sworn in on Wednesday, did something remarkable: he prayed. As his predecessor boarded Air Force One to head out of town, Joe Biden went to the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, presumably to daven (pray) the Catholic equivalent of shaharit / the morning service.

As you know, I am a big fan of prayer. I do it every day, and I am convinced that tefillah / prayer is good for you. It is the original Jewish form of mindfulness meditation. Tefillah centers me; in the morning it gets me ready to face the day; in the evening it is a gentle, reflective conclusion, an opportunity to check in with myself. 

I am convinced that if we all did just a little more prayer, if we all took reflective moments more frequently, our world would be a better, kinder, gentler, more united world. And of course that applies to all of us – not just the Jews, of course, or the Christians, but all of us, and even those who do not belong to a particular faith tradition. Prayer, whatever form it takes or whatever you call it, has the potential to bring us all together, to build bridges.

The television coverage that I saw on Wednesday morning did not actually show the president-elect in prayer, just the exterior of the church. Nonetheless, to see this very public, yet also very private moment of prayer brought tears to my eyes.

A little while later, Father Leo O’Donovan, a Catholic priest, gave the invocation before the swearing-in, and he said the following:

There is a power in each and every one of us that lives by turning to every other one of us, a thrust of the spirit to cherish and care and stand by others, and above all those most in need. It is called love, and its path is to give ever more of itself. Today, it is called American patriotism, born not of power and privilege but of care for the common good – “with malice toward none and with charity for all.”

In Father O’Donovan’s words, I hear the yearning to be once again “one nation, under God,” acknowledging the love and faith that should bind us together as a society in pursuit of the common good. 

And so we find ourselves this week in perhaps a more prayerful stance as a nation, and it is absolutely serendipitous that we read from Parashat Bo this morning, including arguably the most essential items in the story of yetzi’at Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt.

One of the key features of the Exodus narrative is that the freedom, the redemption from slavery that Moshe and the Israelites seek includes as a fundamental principle the ability to worship the one true God. By definition, slavery (in Hebrew, עבדות avdut, from the shoresh עבד, to serve), precludes service to God. Integral to that freedom for the Israelites is the license to worship God, the autonomy to be a servant of faith rather than a servant of other people. 

Almost every time, when Moshe approaches Pharaoh to ask for freedom, he says something similar to what we find up front in Parashat Bo, Shemot / Exodus 10:7: שַׁלַּח֙ אֶת־הָ֣אֲנָשִׁ֔ים וְיַֽעַבְד֖וּ ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵיהֶ֑ם Shalah et ha-anashim veya’avdu et Adonai eloheihem. Let the people go to worship the Lord their God! 

Freedom, as the Torah sees it, includes that holy relationship with the Qadosh Barukh Hu.

And so too today: building a better future in our very divided country necessitates God’s presence in our lives, however we understand that presence.

Now, do not go reading this as a screed against atheists, or a repudiation of the separation of church and state. On the contrary: we need a greater sense of shared faith in this country, among the diverse people of this nation, because, as Father O’Donovan suggested, that will, through love, enable us to build a better nation, infused with a unified pursuit of the common good. As servants of God who see the Divine spark in each other, who see our shared humanity, we can and should work together to build bridges, to create a stronger, more resilient society and a healthier democracy. Even those who reject theology outright can, I hope, get on board with seeking the common good through shared love of humanity, of our fellow citizens.

And a key piece of this sense of shared love is interfaith cooperation.

You may know that I grew up in an area with relatively few Jews. Until I went to college, virtually all of my friends and neighbors and classmates were Christian, mainline Protestants and Catholics, and my family was among a handful of Jewish families in my home town. We all knew each other, and I think it is fair to say that, to some extent, we the Jews felt like outsiders. Not that our neighbors treated us badly or as enemies, but there was definitely a mutual awareness of our difference. Sometimes this awareness bred resentment, as, for example, when well-meaning Christian friends failed to understand that we did not celebrate Christmas. It was sometimes hard to see past this, given some of the history of Christian/Jewish relations. There was a time in my life when I would not have wanted to listen to the words of a Catholic priest giving an invocation at an official gathering.

My sense is that things are somewhat different today; the religious landscape in America has changed. Many of us now look at each other across religious divisions as allies. Yes, of course there are issues that divide us. But what we who are partners in faith share is much greater, and much more powerful.

Rabbi Jeremy Markiz and I were at a meeting on Thursday of the Priest-Rabbi dialogue, a discussion between local Catholic and Jewish clergy which meets from time to time to discuss interesting theological issues. At this meeting, we read a statement from 2002 produced by a group of influential North American Christian scholars attempting to reframe the historically fraught relationship between Jews and Christians. Among the principles expressed in this document were, “God’s covenant with the Jewish people endures forever,” and, “Ancient rivalries must not define Christian-Jewish relations today.”

Our discussion broke toward the points of disagreement among Christian theologians and within the Jewish world about some subtleties of our beliefs. But the greater message is well-taken: today we are allies in the struggle against disorder, disunity, and distrust. We are united in facing the challenges of poverty and racism, hunger and homelessness, mental health and addiction and isolation. 

I heard a podcast this week from the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem about Parashat Bo, taught by Pardes teacher Tovah Leah Nachmani, about emunah / faith. She pointed to a commentary by Ramban, aka Nachmanides, who lived in 13th-century Spain. In surveying Parashat Bo, Ramban points to the symbols of emunah found in this parashah: the annual observance of Pesah / Passover that we read this morning, and the wearing of tefillin (Ex. 13:16, the last line in the parashah). Ramban suggests that these symbols (the Hebrew term is ot, sign) of faith are meant to remind us of the role that God plays in our lives. There will not be an Exodus in every generation, says Ramban, but every year when we celebrate Pesah we remember that power. The tefillin that we put on every morning are an ot, a sign of the binding promise that God has made with us to help us live better lives through the framework of mitzvot.

Ms. Nachmani expands on Ramban’s line of thinking to include Shabbat and regular tefillah, such that we have daily, weekly, and annual signs before us: The weekly reminder of Shabbat, also described as an ot (beini uvein benei Yisrael, ot hi le’olam – Ex. 31:17) gives us a taste of the true peace that will someday come if we commit to the common good. 

Faith and freedom are intertwined; we must keep those symbols of faith in front of us; we must use them to remind ourselves to reach out to our neighbors in love. We must also remind ourselves that we have partners, who do not celebrate Pesah or wear tefillin, yet who also have faith; these signs of faith can also lead us to dream about what we can accomplish when we are all praying together.

We remembered this past week the strength of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, what he accomplished, inspired by God and the words of the biblical prophets. Consider that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel had the vision to reach out to and march with Dr. King as a partner in faith, at a time when many of us were not thinking far beyond our own community. 

Our future depends on building bridges of prayer and bridges of emunah / faith. Our Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, and Buddhist friends and neighbors are all interconnected with us; we may differ on how we approach or understand the Divine and the role that the holy relationship plays in our lives, but we mostly agree on the outcome: that we can build a better world through shared prayer, faith, and love.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 1/23/2021.)

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Truth-Telling from the USCJ: Love and the Jewish Future – Bo 5778

You may have noticed that I like to talk about the Jewish future, about how our community is changing, about how the institutions of the past (including this one) have to change to account for where the Jews are.

Well, the recent convention of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), which was in Atlanta at the beginning of December, was extraordinarily gratifying for me, because USCJ is now embracing the future full-throttle. Our delegation from Beth Shalom totaled seven.

Masorti Movement Thriving but Threatened | Atlanta Jewish ...
Yoel Sykes of Nava Tehila at the USCJ 2017 convention in Atlanta

First, a brief word of Torah.

The opening words of Parashat Bo are grammatically curious (Exodus 10:1):

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר ה֙’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה בֹּ֖א אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֑ה

Vayomer Adonai el Moshe, bo el Par’oh…

Then God said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh…

Ordinarily, when one gives an imperative to somebody to go see a third person, we use the verb “to go.” As in, “Go tell Aunt Rhody, the old grey goose is dead,” or, “Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s land / Tell ol’ Pharaoh to let My people go.”

But that’s not what the Torah says. Despite what you’ll find in every single translation, the Hebrew says, “Then God said to Moses, “Come to Pharaoh…” And that doesn’t quite make sense. The text should read, “Lekh el Par’oh.” Go to Pharaoh.

Joseph Bekhor Shor, the 12th-century French commentator, explains the grammatical oddity this way:

בא אל פרעה. לא היה אומר לך כי אם בא ביי”ן בלע’ שמשמע שאני אלך עמך

The text did not say “lekh” (“go”), but rather “bo” (“come,” like the Old French “viens”) because the meaning suggested is that I [God] will go with you…

Bekhor Shor is suggesting that God is reassuring Moshe: “Come with Me,” says God, even though you and I both know that I will harden Pharaoh’s heart even after this next plague, and he will not let the Israelites go.

It’s Moshe’s come-to-Pharaoh moment. The challenges are great; we might fail. But you and me, Moshe, we’re going together.

Hold onto that for a moment; we’ll come back to it in a bit.

The theme of this convention was, “Dare Together.” And I must say that it was, in fact, a daring convention, in that the ideas that are being bandied about today in the movement are very different from what they were historically. I learned a lot of good stuff to bring back to Pittsburgh; it was so good, in fact, that you should really consider coming with us to the next one in Boston in two years.

In addition to all of the practical learning, however, I also gained some new insights from a couple of great teachers of Torah: Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, and Rabbi Brad Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles (where Rabbi Jeremy Markiz, Beth Shalom’s Director of Derekh and Youth Tefillah, was ordained nearly two years ago). They spoke on different days and to different audiences, but their messages dovetailed in a way that, in retrospect, works out very nicely. Kurtzer spoke about today’s challenges and Artson gave us a perspective on how to address them.

Dr. Kurtzer spoke at a session that was limited to rabbis, entitled, “Jewish Identity, Belonging, and Community.” That’s a pretty vague title, but the subject matter was anything but. He began by asking the following questions:

What does it mean to live in a world in which we are fully integrated into wider American society? Who represents Judaism in such a climate?

In asking these questions, he reminded us of the existential crisis that contemporary American Jews face: that in the absence of the ethnic trappings of our parents’ and grandparents’ days, when it was abundantly clear to everybody who was Jewish and who wasn’t, that today’s boundaries are muddy. The question of who is a Jew today is much more complicated. He noted that, in a recent study in the New York area, about 5% of people claiming to be Jewish had no Jewish parents and had not converted. That didn’t happen in the 1950s.

Dr. Kurtzer identified four specific sub-challenges related to the question of who is Jewish and who represents us.

Challenge 1: What happens when self-evident truths disappear in a generation or two?

Jews light candles to welcome Shabbat. They don’t eat pork. They circumcise their baby boys. These used to be fundamental, self-evident truths, accepted without question by our grandparents and most of our parents. Today almost anything can be questioned. This type of change is unprecedented.

Challenge 2: We have a global perspective today that is unlike any time in history.

We are in a particularly ironic moment for Jewish collective living. Prior to the 20th century, Jews had no real sense of connectedness; you were Jewish, and the Jews you knew were all just like you – from the same region. Nothing connected the shtetlakh in Poland to Jews in Baghdad or Provence or Tunis.

Today, most of us live in the US and Israel, and we are more internationally networked than we have ever been. But while the American Jewish community is busy creating all sorts of new paths in Judaism (did you see the JTA’s recent article about a Jewish event in San Francisco called “Trefa Banquet 2.0”?), the State of Israel requires clear boundaries as to who is a Jew. In this climate, how do we continue to define Jewishness around the world?

Challenge 3: The data is moving faster than ever.

We love demographic data. But big demographic studies are almost obsolete the moment that they are published. The pace of change in today’s world is a challenge in that it may not be useful to determining what is next in Jewish life.

Challenge 4: The challenge of halakhah / Jewish law.

In Orthodoxy and in the Conservative movement we still understand halakhah (Jewish law) as being binding on us. But the challenge is that halakhah evolves slowly; that the rate of change in our technologies and the way we live is much faster than the rate at which halakhah is evolving.

Cognizant that he was speaking to a room of Conservative rabbis, Dr. Kurtzer said, “It’s not up to me to tell you how to do your jobs.” But his implicit message is that we have to acknowledge the halakhic challenge and do something about that.

He concluded by saying that although the boundaries are not clear, that although times are rapidly changing, we should not focus our energies on the questions of who belongs and who doesn’t, or is this behavior acceptable or not. Rather we should work harder as a community to draw everybody in closer to the center.

And how might we do this? This brings me to the inspiring words of Rabbi Artson, who spoke to the entire convention at the closing plenary. The guiding principle we must teach, he said, is ahavat hinnam, which he translated as “unearned love.”

Rabbi Artson opened with some truth-telling: “God is King,” he said, does not speak to us today. And most Jews do not really buy the idea of halakhah / Jewish law as law. But everybody understands and can relate to love – the feeling showered upon you by those that brought you into this world, who sacrificed time and money and personal space to make you what you are. “Ahavat hinnam, unmerited love,” he said, “is our first and most profound experience, and our mandate in life.”  Many of us will immediately recognize this metaphor as a way to understand our relationship with God.

Rather than teach religious ritual, law and custom as oppression, a burden to the pious, we have to instead translate Torah into “dignity, glory, and dance.” The Torah has been, at times in Jewish history, wielded as source of guilt.

But nobody wants to feel guilt. So let’s translate Torah as love. “Mitzvot are about radical love,” said Rabbi Artson. “Being in God’s image takes practice. Saying, ‘I love you, but I don’t want to change anything I do,’ is a sure recipe for loneliness. We are the people in the world’s most abiding romance.”

ahavah

“Romance,” he said, “is not just about maintaining the past – it is about change.”

So, when God says to Moshe, “Bo,” “Come with Me,” we might read that as a symbol of the eternal love between us and God, the intoxicating power of that ancient romance. “Come with Me, My love, and we will change the world. We will set you free.”

That’s the message we have to teach. That has to be the message of the Jewish future: Come with Me; be My partner. Yes, there are guidelines. Yes, you may have to change. But I promise you ahavat hinnam, unearned love. it’s worth it. Shabbat shalom.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 1/20/2018.)