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Sermons

Finding Comfort in Hesed – Shabbat Nahamu 5780

Two days ago we observed the low point of the Jewish year, the fast of Tish’ah BeAv., the ninth day of the month of Av. It is, of course, a day on which we remember all of the greatest tragedies of Jewish history: the destructions of the First and Second Temples, Jerusalem laid waste, exile, dispersion, expulsion, and genocide. It is the only full, 25-hour fast aside from Yom Kippur, and still holds a great resonance for many of us, even though most of the events we recall on this day happened hundreds and thousands of years ago.

Ophel Archaeological Park, at the southern end of the Western Wall, the exterior wall of the Temple Mount plaza, destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE

It was difficult on this particularly challenging Tish’ah BeAv to think only of the past. Our present moment is filled with so many things to mourn: more than 154,000 dead in America, and approaching 700,000 dead around the world; the social isolation and economic fallout and joblessness caused by the pandemic; ongoing street protests against police brutality; federal troops on the ground in some cities, lobbing tear gas and arresting American citizens; the undeniable rise of anti-Semitism.

Where are the words of comfort for this time? 

On Thursday morning, as we chanted the Shaharit / morning service in mournful tones, we recited the haftarah / prophetic reading unique to Tish’ah BeAv, words from the prophet Jeremiah (8:23), who is arguably the best prophet when it comes to grief and loss:

מִֽי־יִתֵּ֤ן רֹאשִׁי֙ מַ֔יִם וְעֵינִ֖י מְק֣וֹר דִּמְעָ֑ה וְאֶבְכֶּה֙ יוֹמָ֣ם וָלַ֔יְלָה אֵ֖ת חַֽלְלֵ֥י בַת־עַמִּֽי׃

Oh, that my head were water, My eyes a fount of tears! Then would I weep day and night for the slain of my poor people.

Water, of course, is not only associated with tears; it is also the source of life. Jeremiah is requesting not only the ability to cry with abandon, but also to live and give life. Water also suggests, in a more spiritual sense, the sustaining salvation, the life-force that is Divine in nature (cf. Isaiah 12:3, which we say at havdalah every Saturday night, as Shabbat draws to a close: Ush’avtem mayim besasson mimmay’anei hayeshua / Draw water in joy from the wells of salvation.) Who will give me the spiritual sustenance to face the great challenges of this broken world? Where will I find, in my parched soul, the nourishment to rise again tomorrow morning and confront yet another day of devastation? How can I care for those around me, when I am not sure I can even care for myself?

On this Shabbat Nahamu, this Shabbat of comfort, I ask, where is that comfort?

I think that it is only natural at this time to look heavenward, hands outstretched, and ask God directly for some kind of help. In the enduring words of Psalm 121:1, Esa einai el heharim, me-ayin yavo ezri / I lift up my eyes to the mountains; from where will my help come?

In the wake of the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in the year 70 CE, our ancestors must have been devastated. Everything that they knew about the order of the world had changed effectively overnight. There would be no more sacrifices; there would be no more priesthood. The central pillar of their connection to God was gone.

Now, it may have taken nearly two millennia for us to be able to say this, but maybe the Romans did the Jews a sort of favor. Yes, you have heard me say this before: we now offer the words of our hearts and minds in place of animal sacrifices, surely a less-barbaric approach to worship, and definitely a form more palatable to vegetarians. Our tradition also became portable, decentralized, no longer tied to a particular place and building, and somewhat more democratic, not held in the hands of a few Kohanim / priests, but rather distributed amongst the scholars called rabbis, wherever they lived. 

But there is something more. In particular, the destruction of the Temple and the end of the sacrifice system gave us another path to forgiveness. Consider the following passage, which appears on the bottom of p. 14 if you have the classic Siddur Sim Shalom:

Avot deRabbi Natan 4:5

פעם אחת היה רבן יוחנן בן זכאי יוצא מירושלים והיה רבי יהושע הולך אחריו וראה בית המקדש חרב אר״י אוי לנו על זה שהוא חרב מקום שמכפרים בו עונותיהם של ישראל. א״ל בני אל ירע לך יש לנו כפרה אחרת שהיא כמותה ואיזה זה גמ״ח שנאמר כי חסד חפצתי ולא זבח

Once, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai left Jerusalem, and Rabbi Yehoshua followed after him. Rabbi Yehoshua saw the Holy Temple destroyed, and he lamented: ‘Woe to us, for this is destroyed—the place where all of Israel’s sins are forgiven!’ Rabban Yohanan replied, “My child, do not be distressed, for we have a form of atonement just like it. And what is it? Gemilut hasadim, performing acts of lovingkindness, as it says, ‘For I desire hesed / lovingkindness, not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6). 

This charming story from the midrashic interpretation of Pirqei Avot called Avot deRabbi Natan is a classic rabbinic re-framing of Jewish life. Yes, the Beit HaMiqdash, the Temple is destroyed, and Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai and Rabbi Yehoshua were there to witness the destruction and to continue to see the ruins for some time after. Rabban YbZ, despite having been there for the cataclysm (and, as the midrash tells us, smuggled out by his students in a coffin), is not fazed by the loss of the center of the Jewish world. Instead, he reminds R. Yehoshua that, despite the fact that we can no longer offer sacrifices, we have another means of bringing about teshuvah, of repairing ourselves in the wake of transgression: gemilut hasadim, acts of lovingkindness.

And to put a fine point on it, YbZ quotes the book of Hosea, written eight centuries before any of these events take place. The Qadosh Barukh Hu (Holy Blessed One) does not desire our animal sacrifices. Do you think God needs us to burn animals on an altar? What God really needs from us is for humans to go out of their way to treat others respectfully; to go the extra mile to take care of those in need; to commit to tzedaqah, charitable acts of righteousness; to literally clothe the naked and feed the hungry and house the homeless and comfort the bereaved and free the oppressed.

Rabban YbZ did not quote my favorite “refrigerator-magnet” verse from the prophet Micah (6:8), but he could have:

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

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

Hevreh, I must say that I have been thinking a lot lately about what the world will be like, in a couple months (let’s hope it’s not too much more than that) when a vaccine for this virus is available, and enough people get the vaccine so that our lives can return to something resembling normalcy.

Will we continue to cautiously tiptoe around one another, maintaining our social distance? Will we avoid gathering in public places: theaters, restaurants, libraries, synagogues, like we used to, for fear of aerosolized viruses? Will I be able to shake anybody’s hands ever again?

Or will we all run outdoors and give hugs to passing strangers? Will we commit ourselves anew to offering our hands in assistance to neighbors in need? Will we reach out with both arms to others as we do justice, love goodness, and walk modestly with God?

The way out of our current state is not by reading kinnot, poems of lament, like the ones recited on Tish’ah BeAv. On the contrary: the kinnot, and indeed the Book of Eikhah / Lamentations that we read on Wednesday evening, the fasting, the self-denial, the eschewing of leather shoes, signs of luxury are there to remind us that there is an end to suffering; that suffering, in fact, precedes redemption. That we can actually bring about the comfort we seek by recommitting to gemilut hasadim

We will be redeemed. But we do not have to wait for a vaccine to do hesed right now! Yes, gemilut hasadim includes some activities that must be performed in person, and maybe some of those things should not be done right now. But if you have money, if you still have a job, you can give tzedaqah. Find the organizations that are doing good work for people, and donate. Seek out the institutions that you want to ensure will still be here when all is said and done (synagogues, for example, which rely on charitable donations to survive), and make a donation.
We have a means to bring about redemption. Let us recommit to hesed to ensure that our world grows in justice and goodness, so that we may continue to walk modestly with God. That will surely bring us some comfort, even as we remain apart from one another.

Safam’s “Nahamu, Nahamu” performed by alumni of the collegiate Jewish a capella group Pizmon

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 8/1/2020.)

Categories
Sermons

The Nexus of Politics and Judaism – Shabbat Nahamu 5779

I have recently received a few comments that my sermons have been “too political.” So I just wanted to clarify something as a kind of prologue: I try to speak to contemporary issues, issues that are in the air all around us. I cannot speak about abstractions, about things that we are not necessarily thinking about. And the clergy-person that does not address what’s on people’s minds is irrelevant. I am trying my best not to be irrelevant. My job is to teach how our texts guide us in our daily interactions with the world, with both the mundane and the existential.

At the same time, my goal is not to inflame. I do not label any public figures with unfair or inaccurate descriptors. I do not use hyperbolic or inflammatory language. I do try to avoid calling out specific people, where possible, or God forbid, mentioning political parties. It is not my goal to get everybody heated up and arguing at kiddush. On the contrary, I hope to elevate the dialogue by emphasizing what Jewish tradition teaches about the issues in play.

As you know, I think it is essential for us to remember that learning the words and concepts of the Jewish bookshelf improves our lives and our society, and I can tell you this: if the principles of compassion, of derekh eretz / respect, of justice, of acknowledging the kedushah / holiness in each of us and in our relationships with each other were kept in front of us at all times, the world would be a much better place, and perhaps far less polarized.

***

On this day, Shabbat Nahamu, the Shabbat of comfort, my hope is to bring us some comfort in Jewish text. The first Shabbat after Tish’ah BeAv, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, is so titled because it is the opening salvo of the First Haftarah of Consolation which we read this morning, from the prophet Isaiah. As we count off the seven weeks from Tish’ah BeAv until Rosh Hashanah, we should feel ourselves recovering from the desolation of Tish’ah BeAv, moving from mourning the tragedies of our history to seeing ourselves as elevated in the glory of God’s sovereignty.

Relief from the Arch of Titus in Rome, depicting Roman soldiers carrying away the implements of the Second Temple following the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE

And the challenge facing us at this time is, how do we find comfort when the nation is still reeling from the needless deaths of 31 people two weekends ago? When we in Pittsburgh are still in mourning for the 11 members of our community who were so brutally taken from us nearly 10 months ago?

How do we find comfort when the issues surrounding who is allowed to come into this country, and who is allowed to stay, continue to roil our national conversation?

How can we find comfort when our government is proposing to favor immigrants who are not poor? I’ll tell you this, folks: if such a principle existed when my family members came here in the late 19th and early 20th century, I wouldn’t be standing before you, and most of you would not be here either.

How do we find comfort when our elected officials, many of whom are themselves descended from poor immigrants, continue to support policies that separate families at our borders?

How do we find comfort when we know that foreign actors are continuing to try to disrupt our democratic processes?

How do we find comfort when virtually every day brings some new revelation regarding our ongoing abuse of God’s Creation? This week it was the plastic content in Arctic ice.

At the program on Saturday evening, as our 25-hour fast began, we heard from speakers who addressed our grief. Our member Danielle Kranjec, Senior Jewish Educator at Hillel-Jewish University Center, spoke about how she and her students experienced the 18th of Heshvan. Richard Carrington, who works in the poor neighborhoods of Pittsburgh trying to free children from the cycle of gang violence, spoke about the 203 funerals that he has attended for the kids he has worked with, children he could not save. Representatives of Casa San Jose spoke of the gratitude they had for the haven this country has offered them from dysfunctional Latin American governments and the violent, failed societies from which they came.

How can we indeed feel comforted?

Some might argue that we, the Jews, have to look out for ourselves. And that is certainly true, to some extent. “Im ein ani li mi li?” said our sage Hillel, 2000 years ago (Pirqei Avot 1:14): “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me.” But then Hillel goes on: “Ukhshe’ani le’atzmi, mah ani?” “And when I am ONLY for myself, what am I?”

Ve’im lo akhshav, eimatai?” “And if not now, when?”

Indeed.

Many of you know another mishnah from earlier in the same chapter of Pirqei Avot (1:2), one that was a kind of Jewish pop song a few decades back:

שִׁמְעוֹן הַצַּדִּיק הָיָה מִשְּׁיָרֵי כְנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה. הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים

Shim’on the Righteous was one of the last of the Great Assembly. He said: The world rests on three things: on the Torah, and on service [to God], and on acts of lovingkindness.

But let’s face it: three is an excellent literary device if you’d like to make a point. So the rabbis did not limit themselves to only one statement of the things upon which the world stands. So at the end of chapter 1 of Pirqei Avot, there is another take:

רַבָּן שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן גַּמְלִיאֵל אוֹמֵר, עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַדִּין וְעַל הָאֱמֶת וְעַל הַשָּׁלוֹם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (זכריה ח) אֱמֶת וּמִשְׁפַּט שָׁלוֹם שִׁפְטוּ בְּשַׁעֲרֵיכֶם

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel used to say: on three things does the world stand: On justice, on truth and on peace, as it is said: “execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates” (Zechariah 8:16).

Whenever this sort of thing happens in traditional texts, you know some rabbi is going to eventually come along to ask the question: why do we need these two statements? Wouldn’t one have been enough? Does the world stand on three things, or six?

Sure enough, in the Jerusalem Talmud (Ta’anit 4:2), there is a passage that addresses this:

תמן תנינן שמעון הצדיק היה משירי כנסת הגדולה הוא היה אומר על שלשה דברים העולם עומד על התורה ועל העבודה ועל גמילות חסדים ושלשתן בפסוק אחד (ישעיהו נא) ואשים דברי בפיך זו תורה ובצל ידי כסיתיך זו גמילות חסדים ללמדך שכל מי שהוא עוסק בתורה ובגמילות חסדים זכה לישב בצילו של הקב”ה

There they taught: Shimon the Righteous was of the remnants of the Men of the Great Assembly. He used to say ‘the world rests on three things – on the Torah on the Service and on Acts of Loving-kindness.’ The three of them are found in one verse (Isaiah 51:16):

וָאָשִׂ֤ים דְּבָרַי֙ בְּפִ֔יךָ וּבְצֵ֥ל יָדִ֖י כִּסִּיתִ֑יךָ לִנְטֹ֤עַ שָׁמַ֙יִם֙ וְלִיסֹ֣ד אָ֔רֶץ וְלֵאמֹ֥ר לְצִיּ֖וֹן עַמִּי־אָֽתָּה׃

[God said] I have put My words in your mouth and sheltered you with My hand; I, who planted the skies and made firm the earth, have said to Zion: You are My people!

“I have put My words in your mouth…” refers to Torah, “…and sheltered you with My hand…” refers to acts of lovingkindness, to teach you that anyone who is occupied with Torah and acts of lovingkindness merits to sit in the shadow of the Holy One.

So the Gemara here is explaining that the first statement of three comes from Isaiah, an affirmation that we are God’s people. Shim’on the Righteous is interpreting this to say that by living Torah, by learning and teaching it and applying it by performing acts of lovingkindness, deeds that reinforce the qedushah between people, we will merit God’s presence in our lives. We will earn a coveted spot in the shadow of the Qadosh Barukh Hu

But I must say, I need a little more than that. I can “sit in the shadow of the Qadosh Barukh Hu” all day while the rest of the world crumbles around me. Rather, I need something else. Hence the need for the other statement of three. The Gemara goes on:

תמן תנינן רבן שמעון בן גמליאל אומר על שלשה דברים העולם עומד על הדין ועל האמת והשלום ושלשתן דבר אחד הן נעשה הדין נעשה אמת נעשה שלום א”ר מנא ושלשתן בפסוק אחד (זכריה ח׳:ט״ז) אמת ומשפט שלום שפטו בשעריכם

There, Rabban Shim’on ben Gamliel said: The world stands on three things: on truth, on justice, and on peace, as is said, “Execute truth, justice, and peace within your gates” (Zech. 8:16). These three are interlinked: when justice is done, truth is achieved, and peace is established (Pirqei Avot 1:18).

So this one, says the Gemara, is an entirely different way of viewing the world. Not about the specificities of Torah or service to God, but rather about essential values. We have to seek justice, says the prophet Zechariah. We have to speak truth. That is when peace will come. And Zechariah is even more explicit in the following verse:

וְאִ֣ישׁ ׀ אֶת־רָעַ֣ת רֵעֵ֗הוּ אַֽל־תַּחְשְׁבוּ֙ בִּלְבַבְכֶ֔ם וּשְׁבֻ֥עַת שֶׁ֖קֶר אַֽל־תֶּאֱהָ֑בוּ כִּ֧י אֶת־כָּל־אֵ֛לֶּה אֲשֶׁ֥ר שָׂנֵ֖אתִי נְאֻם־ה׃

And do not contrive evil against one another, and do not love perjury, because all those are things that I hate—declares the LORD.

We have to dedicate ourselves to justice and truth and avoid purposefully reviling one another. And not just justice for us, for the Jews, but for the whole world. That’s what the world stands on. Only then will peace come.

So it may be easy to say that, but how do we get there?

The essence of politics, ladies and gentlemen, is agreement and disagreement. We all agree that there are problems to be solved, and we have multiple paths forward, different ways to approach these challenges. We can agree with each other or disagree, and not only on the solutions, but on the problems themselves.

But we have to do it truthfully, and we have to agree that justice is the abiding principle. And I would like to suggest something that we can all consider, yet another value expressed in Pirqei Avot, and that is “kaf zekhut” – giving somebody with whom you disagree the benefit of the doubt.

Before you dismiss outright what somebody else firmly believes, consider their position, and see if you can even make their argument for them. There is always another side. The only way we can gain true comfort, justice, truth, and peace, is to be able to listen to and seek to understand the other with a fair, even-handed ear, to seek common ground, and to find the political means to bring people together rather than drive them apart.

Only then will we find comfort; only then will we truly sit together in the shadow of the Qadosh Barukh Hu.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/17/2019.)

Categories
Kavvanot

A Shabbat of Comfort

This has been perhaps the most challenging week that many of us have ever lived through. Right now, we all need a little comfort, and a little qedushah, an extra measure of holiness in our lives. When we gather together as a community, there is strength and comfort in that.

In the context of shiv’ah, the seven-day period of mourning following burial, it is customary to say to those who mourn, Hamaqom yenaḥem etkhem betokh she-ar aveilei tziyyon viyrushalayim. May God comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Hamaqom” is an infrequently-used euphemism for God. Literally, it means, “the place.” It sounds nonsensical if you translate the saying as, “May the place comfort you…” But the suggestion is very clear: we do not count only on God for comfort; we as individuals are as much a part of this place as God is. It reads as a kind of unity of us and God. Together in partnership we comfort those who mourn. And in this place, in this time, we are all mourning. Right now, we are all in shiv’ah.

Join us Friday evening at 6 PM and Shabbat morning at 9:30 AM, and every evening and morning at Beth Shalom as we not only offer words of tefillah / prayer in solidarity with each other and with God, but also moments of holiness, togetherness, and comfort. Although I am in Jerusalem with Beth Shalom’s congregational trip, in spirit I will be in our place, in our synagogue, with you in solidarity. Come be with your community this Shabbat, and stay strong.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson