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Gathering With Purpose, Then and Now – Vayaqhel-Pequdei 5781

The Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle published a fascinating piece this week about the history of Beth Shalom by Rauh Jewish Archives director Eric Lidji, and it is truly a great read. It is about the oldest part of this building, the central piece that is now where the Helfant Chapel is located, and the few floors above it. Drawing on a Beth Shalom yearbook from Rosh Hashanah 5685 (that’s 1924!), Mr. Lidji reports that the building was called the “Community House,” and featured spaces for learning, prayer, physical exercise, and of course preparing and eating food. You should check out the article yourself (there is also a link to it on our Facebook page, and it will be in next week’s print edition), but what caught my eye was a wonderful statement by the congregation’s second rabbi, Rabbi Goodman Rose:

We… are laying the foundations for a new Jewish community, distinctive, and in certain respects different from those from which we had come. We must organize our Judaism and mould our spiritual structures. What plans have we to follow? No set rules, no standard patterns, no fixed precedents are available for our guidance. We must think out our way step by step and act by act — this only being our unswerving principle, that not an iota of our Judaism is to be sacrificed.

I read that and I had one of those moments that remind me of bad ‘80s television, in particular, the George Peppard character on The A-Team, which I must concede that I watched and enjoyed when I was in junior high school. When the team’s solution to the crisis of the week was falling into place, Hannibal would say, “I love it when a plan comes together.” So as a rabbi, I love it when a sermon comes together.

When Rabbi Rose wrote those words, he was thinking, arguably “outside the box,” about the ways in which we use our spaces to gather. And when this article landed in my inbox, I was thinking about that as well. I was considering the opening line of Parashat Vayaqhel, and also about the keynote lecture that the author and conflict-resolution expert Priya Parker gave to the membership of the Rabbinical Assembly at our annual convention last week. Ms. Parker spoke on the subject of gathering, particularly in the context of the pandemic. She has written a book on this topic, titled, The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters.

I’ll come back to Priya Parker in a moment, but first, it is worth remembering that the Hebrew term for synagogue is “beit kenesset,” which literally means, “house of gathering.” That is what this building is for. We, the Jews, are a communal people. You can’t be Jewish alone, and the essence of “doing Jewish” is doing it in the context of community, in Hebrew, “qehillah.” Even here on Zoom, in this virtual space, we are making qehillah happen, but I must say that I am thinking about gathering in the same physical space again.

It has certainly been a year that has been challenging for many reasons, and from where I stand, the challenge is exceptionally great. For an entire year, beginning on this Shabbat, Shabbat HaHodesh last year, we have been gathering mostly not in person, mostly online. I am of course very proud of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative movement for giving us a rabbinic hekhsher (permission) to do so, and I am also particularly proud of Beth Shalom as a congregation for keeping the momentum of gathering up over the last year. We have maintained a morning and evening service every single day of the last year, and our attendance has actually been better than prior to the pandemic. Our tradition has developed over centuries, and our response to the pandemic is on the continuum of ways in which Judaism has grown and changed with time.

But think for a moment about the situations in which we gather:

Certainly, we gather for tefillah / prayer. Al tifrosh min hatzibbur. Do not separate yourself from the community, says Pirqei Avot (2:4). Rambam takes this even a step further; in the Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Tefillah 8:1), he reports that one who does NOT go to a synagogue in his neighborhood is called a bad neighbor! So of course we gather for tefillah.

And did you know that you have to have a minyan, a quorum of ten people at a wedding?

We of course gather for funerals. For shiv’ah. For supporting those of us who mourn.

We gather for benei mitzvah, as we see our young people called to the Torah

We gather for meals – Shabbat, Yom Tov, breaking the fast, etc. You do not need a minyan to eat, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.

We gather to learn. We gather to schmooze. We gather to support those in need, and to bring holiday cheer to one another, and to argue over bylaws and synagogue budgets and current events. We gather to toss our sins away on Rosh Hashanah, and to confess them together in public on Yom Kippur.

In short, almost everything in Jewish life involves gathering.

The beginning of Vayaqhel, which we read from this morning, includes an ancient imperative to gather (Shemot / Exodus 35:1):

וַיַּקְהֵ֣ל מֹשֶׁ֗ה אֶֽת־כָּל־עֲדַ֛ת בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֑ם אֵ֚לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּ֥ה ה’ לַעֲשֹׂ֥ת אֹתָֽם׃

Moses then gathered the whole Israelite community and said to them: These are the things that the LORD has commanded you to do…

Gathering has a purpose: here, God needed to tell our ancestors about the essence of Shabbat and the building of the mishkan, their new center of worship. The verb, vayaqhel, comes from the same shoresh / Hebrew root as qehillah, community. We have been gathering as a people since ancient times.

Among the principles that Priya Parker spoke about is the fact that good gathering includes storytelling, and understanding why the gathering is taking place, and is not about the form and the details of the room or the furniture or the food, but rather about the purpose therein.

(BTW, although she is not Jewish, she complimented us, the Jews, heavily, saying that she could have written her book drawing exclusively on anecdotes from the Jewish world! All cultures have forms of gathering, but we do it especially well.)

The bottom line, says Ms. Parker, is that we should not gather because we have to; rather, we gather because it meets a certain need. Tefillah, schmoozing, grieving, celebrating – those are the needs; we gather as Jews because we need to, as individuals and as a qehillah.

And when I read that quote from Rabbi Rose, my predecessor of many decades, I understood completely his description of the Community House: no set rules, no standard patterns, no fixed precedents for how Beth Shalom came together in our first building; a new, distinctive Jewish community, an opportunity to “mould our spiritual structures.” In short, purpose over form.

And we are there again, just as we are poised to re-emerge from a year of hibernation.

Over the past year, I know that I have lamented our lack of gathering. I have advocated for us to gather whenever possible; our coronavirus task force has put the kibosh on some ideas. But I am certain that many of you are longing for us to gather once again, in all the ways that we do so.

And so, as more of us are vaccinated, as more of us can safely gather, let’s not just return to where we were, but rather take time (א) to savor our gratitude for being able to be safely in each others’ presence again, but also (ב) to ensure that our gathering is good, that it is meaningful, that it meets the need of molding our spiritual structure.

To that end, let me suggest just a few things that we can consider, inspired by the wisdom of Priya Parker, while we are still in pandemic mode, perhaps to be implemented when we return:

  1. Consider defining your own personal ritual as you enter the synagogue building or our prayer space. Is it to recite, “Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’aqov,” the words that are traditionally said upon entering a synagogue? Is it to wrap yourself up in your tallit for a minute, for a moment of solitude? Is it to greet everybody in the room?
  2. Consider what we might do as a qehillah to re-establish our presence in this space, in each other’s presence. Should we have a ceremony? Should we spend a moment sitting in utter silence together, or sing songs together, or dance together in one huge, non-socially-distanced circle?
  3. Consider the ways in which we can, moving forward, ensure that all of our gatherings have a shared sense of purpose. Will that require an addition to our service, a moment of focus? Will it necessitate discussions or classes or a revised approach to what we do? Our Board meetings always begin with a devar Torah; maybe all our other gatherings should include a little thought from our tradition as well?  

Every morning of the year, just before the end of Pesuqei deZimra, we recite Psalm 149. It is one of those that we mumble through, without any particular songs or particularly quotable lines. But the first verse reads as follows:

 שִׁ֣ירוּ לה’ שִׁ֣יר חָדָ֑שׁ תְּ֝הִלָּת֗וֹ בִּקְהַ֥ל חֲסִידִֽים׃

Sing to God a new song, praise of God in the gathering of the faithful.

How can it be a new song every day, particularly when we chant the same ancient words? By ensuring that the gathering of the faithful is endowed with purpose.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 3/13/2021.)

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Love, Theology, and Vaccinations – Terumah 5781

I was recently asked by a member of the congregation, with whom I was meeting via Zoom, “Rabbi Adelson, what’s your take on God?”

I glanced at the time in the lower right corner of my screen. We had 17 minutes until my next Zoom meeting, and we had not yet discussed the other items about which we were ostensibly meeting.

I apologized first by saying that we did not have time to properly cover the subject, but I stumbled through a clearly-unprepared elevator pitch which indirectly referenced Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (“the process that makes for salvation”) and Martin Buber (the Unconditional Thou) and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (“radical amazement”). And then I suggested we discuss God again at a follow-up meeting.

Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan

Lurking in the background, of course, was the question of the pandemic, and the classic conundrum regarding theodicy, that is, explaining the theology of human suffering. If I really, truly, believe that God is there for us and is benevolent, how can we account for a pandemic that has caused us so much misery?

I must concede that I detest the sort of theology, and the kind of rabbi, that declares that human suffering is the result of our misbehavior. Yes, the Torah states that in many places; the second paragraph of the Shema is a prime example, when it effectively says, “If you do the mitzvot, you receive rain and healthy crops and fertility and you will eat and live well, and if you do not do the mitzvot, the skies will dry up and you will suffer.” That is not a theology that I can accept. And although it certainly has its adherents in Jewish thought, it also has many detractors.

Rather, I continually return to the idea that our deeds, guided by the framework of mitzvot which God has given us, help make this world a better place for ourselves and for others. We have the opportunity, every day and all day long, to improve ourselves and our world by acting on the Jewish imperative to follow this code of behavior. And it is in this way that God works through us to counter the forces of chaos and evil that bring us down.

I read a few days ago that, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, life expectancy for Americans decreased by about 2 years in 2020. That seems like a shockingly high decrease, but I suppose it is not surprising, given our circumstances.

And the question that we face every single day is, when will this end?

Let’s go ahead and throw God into this one: When will God end this?

And the answer is, when we humans fully understand that we are partners with God in this endeavor, in a loving, holy framework.

As that Kaplanite process that makes for salvation, God is there with us as we continue to seek and to deliver vaccines. God is with us as Buber’s Unconditional Thou when we mask up and stay away from each other to prevent further spread. God is with us when we are simply struck dumb with awe at our present circumstances, and perhaps our inability to discern God or grasp God’s presence in our lives at this time, as we peer heavenward and call out, in the words of Psalm 130, “MiMaamaqim” – from the depths.

As we all know, there is good news on the horizon. Different research groups around the world have produced vaccines that will come to our rescue. And yet, the horizon seems, for many of us, impossibly far away. Ad matai, we ask in the words of Psalm 94, which we recite every Wednesday, until when? For how much longer must we be distant from one another? 

One current line of thinking, promoted by Dr. Anthony Fauci, for one, is that we need to get to an 85% vaccination rate before herd immunity will be effective at preventing the spread of the disease. I heard that number, and I thought, “How on Earth are we going to get to 85%?” During an ordinary year, the rate of influenza vaccination is about 50% or less. (For example, here.) Perhaps we have a better shot at a higher rate due to our extraordinary situation – far more people are aware of the nature of the pandemic and the numbers of people who are dying from COVID-19 than might be paying attention to the flu from year to year. But 85%?

How are we going to cut through all that vaccine skepticism, and misinformation spread by social media, and reach all of those people who have been misled to believe that this is all one giant hoax, or that the vaccines contain microchips?

I think there is only one way to do so, and it is hinted at in Parashat Terumah, which we read today. Right up front, the parashah includes a curious commandment from God (Shemot / Exodus 25:2):

דַּבֵּר֙ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְיִקְחוּ־לִ֖י תְּרוּמָ֑ה מֵאֵ֤ת כָּל־אִישׁ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִדְּבֶ֣נּוּ לִבּ֔וֹ תִּקְח֖וּ אֶת־תְּרוּמָתִֽי׃

Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.

What does the word “terumah” mean? Here, the translation is “gifts,” although that is a poor approximation. A better read is, “donation,” but the shoresh, the root of the word, is actually resh-vav-mem, meaning, to lift up. So these donations were actually a means of lifting up the donors.

And the latter half of the verse goes even further. It’s not just a donation, but a donation that relies upon the heart of the donor. Every Israelite “whose heart so moves,” shall donate. (Later in the Torah, in Parashat Vayaqhel, Moshe has to instruct the Israelites to STOP bringing more materials for the mishkan. Their generosity is overflowing!)

So why did I describe this as curious? God could have commanded the Israelites to bring the stuff for the mishkan, like a tax. God could have made it mandatory. But instead, God relied in this case on their generosity, of their willingness to be elevated through donation, to make this happen. Seems like an unreliable system, no?

And yet, it worked! The internal motivation succeeded, perhaps better than the external command.

There has been a flurry of articles lately about the challenge of combating falsehoods. Certainly part of the driving force behind the insurrection on January 6 was the power and reach of conspiracy theories that are spread mainly via social media. And many of us know people who have been taken in by this dangerous sewer of lies, people with whom we cannot even have a reasonable conversation, because they are not living in the same universe as we are. 

And from what I have read, it seems that the best antidote to a loved one who has succumbed to falsehood is not to try to prove them wrong, or to prove that QAnon is false or that certain public figures are not satanic pedophiles. Rather, the way to reach out to them is through love. To be there, to try to maintain a healthy relationship. If we break those relationships, the situation will only get worse. We cannot allow the mehitzah, the dividing barrier between people to continue to grow; that is a certain recipe for future disaster.

And so too with the vaccine. The only way that we will be able to get to 85% is to reach out to those whom we love, and remind them that we love them. Will there be some that still say no? Of course. But if we create this overflowing, overpowering fountain of love for one another, we might create a space in which all of our hearts are moved; we have a better chance than simply mandating.

Call me naive, but love is the only way to make this all happen. Perhaps this seems like a counter-intuitive strategy. But so too is God’s request for gifts for the mishkan.

The mishkan / portable desert sanctuary

Remember that we are in a partnership with God here, and together, we might be able to move some hearts. We will have to rely on the generosity of the human spirit, in the context of the Godly relationship, for this to happen. Together, in this human-divine relationship, we can get there. We can achieve redemption; we can lift each other up through love. That is one lesson we might learn from Terumah.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 2/20/2021.)

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Watermelons and Seeds: Yitro 5781

A technique that my children learned in school about writing is the concept of “watermelon ideas” and “seed ideas.” (They did not teach me this when I was in elementary school.)

A “watermelon idea” is a big, general plot point without which the story will not make sense or hold together: “Alice takes a magical trip to Wonderland,” or “The rebels fight back against Darth Vader and the Empire.” Seed ideas are details that, if omitted, will not throw the whole story off: “While she is only a few inches tall, Alice receives advice from a curious caterpillar who is sitting on a mushroom and smoking a hookah,” or, “Luke learns Jedi techniques from a small, frog-like creature named Yoda.” Big concepts vs. small details. You can see why the watermelon and seeds analogy is useful and easy to understand.

The powerful moment that we read this morning in Parashat Yitro is the Sinai encounter between Israel and God. This is one big, huge watermelon sitting there in the middle of Shemot / Exodus.

Dr. Martin Buber, one of the greatest modern Jewish philosophers, saw in the Sinai moment a Big Idea that was really just a bunch of little ideas. Akin to his understanding of God as being immediately present and unconditionally in touch with us at all times, the Mt. Sinai moment is an attempt to dramatize the infinitesimal communications with the Divine presence that we constantly have. In his monumental work, I and Thou, he wrote:

The mighty revelations to which the religions appeal are like in being with the quiet revelations that are to be found everywhere and at all times. The mighty revelations which stand at the beginning of great communities and at the turning-point of an age are nothing but the eternal revelation. But the revelation does not pour itself into the world through him who receives it as through a funnel; it comes to him and seizes his whole elemental being in all its particular nature, and fuses with it. 

Martin Buber

Buber’s point is that the Mt. Sinai moment is really NOT a watermelon, as the Torah describes; it is a myriad of seeds which are always with us.

Meanwhile, Buber’s colleague, Franz Rosenzweig, takes the Sinai moment in a different direction. “For Rosenzweig,” wrote my teacher Rabbi Neil Gillman, “The content of revelation is simply the fact of revelation, God’s entering into a unique relationship with Israel.” (Sacred Fragments, p. 23). In other words, this is a watermelon with no particular seeds, but its existence is essential to us.

Contemporary philosophy aside, our traditional understanding is that there are 613 seeds in this watermelon (not just the Top Ten identified in Yitro. There is a midrash that suggests that the fruit on the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden was, of course, a pomegranate, since pomegranates have 613 seeds. I have never been able to actually confirm this figure, but it seems totally reasonable.)

And really, each of those mitzvot is only a starting point. But they have a shared intent: to lead us to a heightened awareness of each other, to highlight the holiness in all of our relationships, such that we are all pursuing the common good together

As you may know, that is how I understand the halakhic system. We fulfill the mitzvot of the Torah not just because it says so, but rather because that system creates a framework of holiness, through which we can improve our lives and the lives of those around us.

But let’s face it: the Torah is not just ONE watermelon. It’s lots of ‘em! And then there are other gourds: squash! Cucumbers! An occasional pumpkin!

OK, so at this point I have clearly beaten this metaphor to death. 

But the point is this: the Torah, meaning the Five Books of Moses, and Torah in its larger sense, that is, all of the teaching on the Jewish bookshelf, has its big ideas and its details. 

For example:

Watermelon: Zakhor et yom haShabbat lekaddesho. Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it, as we read this morning. (Shemot / Exodus 20:8)

Seeds: (Well, really there are 39 sub-gourds for this one.) Do not kindle a fire on Shabbat; do have a joyous Shabbat meal with family

Watermelon: Ve-ahavta lereiakha kamokha. Love your neighbor as yourself. (Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:18)

Seeds: Give tzedaqah to charities that feed the hungry and house the homeless.

We could clearly play this game for a while. But I want to take this metaphor in a slightly different direction.

Watermelon: Al tifrosh min hatzibbur. Do not separate yourself from the community. (Pirqei Avot 2:5)

Seeds: You should belong to a synagogue and show up from time to time – not only to fulfill the mitzvah of prayer, but also to schmooze with friends, to welcome guests, to comfort the bereaved, and a whole bunch of other seeds.

And let’s face it: one of the biggest ideas of Jewish life is community. Qehillah. You may remember it as one of the three essential principles that I began my rabbinic journey with here at Beth Shalom five-and-a-half years ago. We are a communal people. Judaism is fundamentally a tradition that revolves around community. You cannot be Jewish alone. You might say that it is both an explicit message of the words of Torah, and an implicit message of the Sinai moment.

One of the biggest challenges that we have faced in this pandemic world is that we cannot gather. We cannot rub elbows over kiddush. We cannot meet new people while strolling through the halls of Beth Shalom, or waiting to pick up our kids after JJEP, or interacting with each other at a talk or a service or even at a shiv’ah house.

This is something that is really huge, that we are all missing right now. None of the various online platforms are satisfying substitutes for the chance encounters, the opportunities to make somebody else’s day with a well-chosen word, the simple pleasure of being around others, that make up the spectrum of human interaction. I feel this dissatisfaction on a daily basis. I feel this need. And I would not even really describe myself as a “people person.” (I’m more of an old-dusty-book person, truth be told.)

But I miss you. And I miss the yous, the yinz, whom I am not seeing, whom I do not even know. We have people every week who come to our online Shabbat services as visitors, and it kills me that I cannot personally greet you, shake your hand, engage with you briefly in meaningful conversation, give you a sense of what a convivial group of folks we are, and welcome you aboard our journey of learning and living Torah.

I miss the opportunities to raise the bar of holiness around me through the regular, personal interactions that make up our lives when we are not isolated from one another.

If the watermelon here is community, the seeds are the holy opportunities we have each day to make this world a better place through our own actions. And I am not speaking here specifically of tzedaqah, although of course that is important. I am, rather, talking about how we interact: about greeting others with a cheerful face (Pirqei Avot 1:15); about being ohev shalom verodef shalom, loving and pursuing peace (Pirqei Avot 1:12), about avoiding lashon hara, the evil tongue (Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:16-17).

Here’s a seed for you that could very easily be its own watermelon: Build a rail around your roof (Devarim / Deuteronomy 22:8). We are responsible for the safety of others. I was thinking of this on Thursday as I took a night-time stroll around the neighborhood. I try to get outside every day for a walk – it helps with my sanity as well as my physical health; sometimes I don’t get out until late. And I would estimate that about a third of the property owners in our shtetl of Squirrel Hill had shoveled their sidewalks after the snow that came earlier in the week. This is not only a city ordinance, but also a law from the Torah: we respect each other’s safety. We build railings on our roofs so people do not fall off; by interpolation, we shovel snow and make sure that our sidewalks are not icy, so people do not fall. But we also are careful with how we drive, and the products we sell, and of course the masks that we wear right now so as not to cause physical harm to others. All of these are variants on the “rail” seed: it is up to us as individuals to make sure that others are safe.

What is a community, if not a group of people who are committed to all of the little ways in which we respect, protect, and honor one another? 

Hevreh, while the vaccine roll-out has been off to a rocky start, I am hopeful that as the production ramps up, as new vaccines come available, as the county and the state figure out how to do this correctly, we will return to normal. We will be able to interact with one another once again; we will be able to go to the grocery store without feeling anxious; we will gather and sing and talk normally in this building and everywhere else.

And we will once again be able to act on all of those opportunities for elevating the holiness around us, to emphasize the seeds as we rebuild the sense of community.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, 2/6/2021.)

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What Matters Most – Vayhi 5781

In the flurry of year-end stories (that is, the secular year; our year of 5781 began back in Tishrei, in the fall), a whimsical bit of news floated out of my radio a few days ago, about a curious clock tower in Scotland. The clock in the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh, which looms over the Waverley train station, traditionally runs three minutes fast, in an apparent effort to help people get to their trains on time. But every year, on December 31st, they set the clock back three minutes so that it will chime midnight at the appropriate time, and then set it forward again three minutes. 

The Balmoral Hotel, Edinburgh, Scotland

This year, the management decided not to set the clock back, so that it would chime three minutes early, thus making 2020 apparently three minutes shorter than a usual year. And, as we all know, the past year was hardly “usual.”

As silly as this story is, I must say that there is something heartening about it. It speaks about the optimism we have for the future. Three fewer minutes of 2020, three extra minutes appended to 2021. (Of course, for 5781, it’s a wash.) 

But given how precious our time is, how valuable the holy potential of every moment, those three minutes remind us, in some sense, to keep our wits about us as we remember what matters most: life.

Over my “stay-cation” during the last two weeks, I was able to tune into another Conservative synagogue’s streamed Shabbat services. I tried for a second one, but although I set up Zoom before Shabbat, somehow I got booted off after Kabbalat Shabbat, and so was not able to see Shabbat morning – perhaps you have experienced this yourself. (The Conservative movement’s teshuvah / rabbinic guidance on the use of online services during the pandemic actually mandates that one set up the computer before Shabbat and minimize touching it during Shabbat or Yom Tov, but of course that brings with it the inevitable technological pitfalls.)

But the services that I did see, from one of the largest Conservative synagogues in America, was a highly-polished production, with musicians and a choir and multiple camera shots and a director and technical staff and two rabbis and a cantor and a handful of pre-arranged visitors participating from home and the whole nine cubits. The number of households streaming peaked out at over 1,100.

My reaction to such a production was not necessarily to daven, but to sit back in awe of the level of logistical sophistication, and, of course, money, required to make that happen. And of course I could not help but to compare it to our own online services, which, by comparison, are still in the electronic Bronze Age.

But I must say that I’m happy with what we are doing, even though it’s not perfect, or even close to approximating what a synagogue service should feel like. And, by the way, the vast majority of respondents to our High Holiday survey also indicated that they were pleased with those services. Of course, I know that everybody right now is giving kaf zekhut, that is, tipping the scales in our favor given the circumstances (see Pirqei Avot 1:6). 

We all know that this is an insufficient substitute for actual synagogue services, and we all look forward to the time (bimherah beyameinu / speedily in our days) we will be able to gather again for tefillah / prayer, for kiddush, for schmoozing, for JJEP and meetings and social gatherings and Hod veHadar and learning together and yes, even shiv’ah and for all the communal things that we do.

But right now, we are all in exile. (Ironic, considering that most of us are spending a lot more time at home…)

The widely-anticipated post-holiday virus surge is about to take off; the vaccine distribution is plodding along, although I am very pleased to see that many of our members who work in the medical field have already received it, and there is light at the end of what looks like a very long tunnel. But we are not there yet, even though we can see the Promised Land from the depths of Egypt: Min hametzar qarati Yah; from the narrow place we continue to call out to God (Psalm 118:1).

Parashat Vayhi reminds us that Ya’aqov / Jacob ends his life in exile! So too Yosef. But they both live, and that is what matters most. The parashah opens with:

וַיְחִ֤י יַעֲקֹב֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם שְׁבַ֥ע עֶשְׂרֵ֖ה שָׁנָ֑ה

Vayhi Ya’aqov be-eretz mitzrayim sheva esreh shanah

Ya’aqov lived in Egypt for 17 years.

Vayhi Ya’aqov. Ya’aqov lived. The text does not say, Ya’aqov suffered, or Ya’aqov was miserable and depressed because he was in exile. It just says, he lived. OK, so perhaps he was grateful to be alive, having escaped the famine in Israel and having been ultimately rescued by his estranged son Yosef, whom he thought had been killed by a wild beast years before. Maybe he was not miserable and depressed because he was surrounded by his large and prolific family, and they lived freely and happily with the blessing of the good Pharaoh.

We do not know. But embedded in that word, vayhi, packed into a common grammatical form, is a suggestion of both past and future. Known to grammarians as the “vav consecutive,” it is a phenomenon of Biblical Hebrew that in many circumstances, the letter vav in front of a verb reverses the mood: perfect becomes imperfect; imperfect (as we have here) becomes perfect. 

(It is not entirely accurate to say that this is a question of past vs. future. While Biblical Hebrew does have past, present and future contexts, the verbs do not really have “tense” the way that Modern Hebrew does. But that’s a grammar lesson for another day.)

Vayhi Ya’aqov. Ya’aqov lived: The vav consecutive turns the imperfect, what has not yet been completed, into the perfect, what is complete. The imperfect form without the vav consecutive, yehi, should be literally understood as “he has not completed living.” With the vav in front of it, it reads, vayhi: he completed living. He lived. 

And yet, the incomplete is incorporated into the complete. He lived, and he will yet live. Embedded in the past is the future. A contradiction, perhaps.

Ya’aqov must have known that his future was found in his past. He was, after all, renamed Yisrael, the name later applied to the land promised to him and his parents and grandparents. He must have understood that, although he lived the end of his life and died in exile, that his children and grandchildren would return. He lived, and yet he will live.

And so too the contradiction in our current moment: Vaccines are being administered, and yet the virus is spiking. The end of the worldwide pandemic is near, but we must continue wearing masks and social distancing and refraining from gathering. Normal living is on the horizon, but the current anxiety is not yet abated.

We have lived, and we will live. And we will do the best we can under these circumstances. We will judge 2020 – ourselves, our friends and family, our institutions – with kaf zekhut, the benefit of the doubt. We will mourn those whom we have lost, and who we will lose, and those of us who are still safe and healthy will be grateful for our lives.

Exile will come to an end. We will come forth from Egypt. And we will continue to sanctify every moment, every three-minute increment of holiness. 

I am not one for secular New Years’ resolutions. We made our resolutions back at the beginning of Tishrei, the resolution to recommit to our tradition, to improve ourselves, our behavior, our relationships and our world through the framework of halakhah, the spiritual fulfillment of Torah. One of the names for Rosh Hashanah is Yom HaZikaron, the day of remembrance, because those are days on which we remember that the framework of Torah is our Etz Hayyim, the Tree that brings us life.

But if I were, I would resolve right now to keep living: to remember family and friends and to be in touch with them, to tell them how much you love and appreciate them. To savor every minute as best we can. To not succumb to the feelings of hopelessness or anxiety that many of us surely feel. To look to the future, even as we grieve for what, and who, we have lost. Here is an action item: make it a point to reach out to a distant friend every day. We are all in this together, and everybody is grateful for the call.

That is, perhaps what distinguishes our tradition from those cultures that celebrate the secular new year. A new year is not merely an excuse to party with abandon; it is an opportunity to look back and forward, to acknowledge and be grateful that we are still here, to remember that our history has its high and low points, and that the coming year will surely include both.

We the Jews have survived far greater challenges than this; we have been through exile and dispersion, persecution and genocide. We can surely manage a few more months of wearing masks and staying away from each other. And the way that we have always done that is to remember what matters most: life.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 1/2/2021.)

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Sermons

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.)

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Sermons

How to Leave a Better World for Our Children in Five Easy Steps – Re’eh 5780

One of the most challenging things for me right now, in this pandemic time, is the deep dissatisfaction I am feeling; I am living with a gnawing sense that whatever I do, it is not enough. Yes, to some extent I have that feeling in “normal” times as well – it’s a rabbinic affliction. But something about the isolation and limitations on human interaction in this time has vaulted that feeling of “It’s not enough” to the top of my list of regular anxieties. 

My work, which, you may know, is mostly NOT leading services and giving sermons, but rather talking with people and teaching, is not particularly satisfying right now, because I know that no matter how much I do, no matter how well we at the synagogue plan for High Holidays or JJEP or benei mitzvah celebrations, no matter how many people I call, it will not be enough. And so too at home. No matter how much time I spend with my family, it is not enough. No matter how awesome it was to go tent camping out in the woods this summer, it is not enough.

A recent family dinner, cooked over a campfire in Laurel Hill State Park

And I am continually asking myself, “When this is all over, will I be able to look back and say, did I use this time as best as I could? Could I have done better? Could we have done better?”

As you know, we have been learning some great midrashim / rabbinic stories between minhah and ma’ariv on Shabbat afternoon, in a series I have titled, “My Favorite Midrash.” One that we covered recently, certainly a favorite midrash of mine, is about one of the more curious characters of rabbinic literature, a fellow who is known as “Honi haMe’aggel,” Honi the Circle-Maker. He is so called because of his unique talent of drawing circles in which rain falls. Seemingly unrelated to this remarkable gift, the following midrash is also told (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ta’anit 23a):

יומא חד הוה אזל באורחא חזייה לההוא גברא דהוה נטע חרובא אמר ליה האי עד כמה שנין טעין אמר ליה עד שבעין שנין אמר ליה פשיטא לך דחיית שבעין שנין אמר ליה האי [גברא] עלמא בחרובא אשכחתיה כי היכי דשתלי לי אבהתי שתלי נמי לבראי

One day, Honi was walking along the road when he saw a certain man planting a carob tree. Honi said to him: This tree, after how many years will it bear fruit? The man said to him: It will not produce fruit until seventy years have passed. Honi said to the tree-planter: Is it obvious to you that you will live seventy years, that you expect to benefit from this tree? He replied to Honi: I myself found a world full of carob trees. Just as my ancestors planted for me, I too am planting for my descendants.

Carob

The midrash does not tell us about how many carob trees the man found, nor how many he planted. He was probably not too concerned about whether or not he had planted enough trees; the larger point is that he made an effort to ensure that there would be some for his grandchildren.

While my first inclination is to read this story as referring to our responsibility to take care of God’s Creation, such that we can bequeath it in good condition to those who come after us, I think it is also possible to read this as a metaphor not only for our physical environment, but for our spiritual milieu as well. 

The beginning of Parashat Re’eh is very concerned about the idea of the Land of Israel as the yerushah, the inheritance of the Israelites. Various forms of the Hebrew word “lareshet” / to inherit appear five times in the first two aliyot we read this morning. It is clear that the Torah wants us to see Israel as the reward; it is the gift for being party to the covenant, for fulfilling the mitzvot. It is what the Torah’s original audience needed to hear; that they would inherit this land as a sign of God’s love to them.

And so, as I am thinking about the emotional state of the world, the divisive nature of American politics right now, and the numbers of people we have lost unnecessarily to the pandemic, and the grief and pain that this loss as well as the economic devastation it has caused, I am left with the following question:

What do we want our children to inherit? What will their spiritual inheritance be?

Do we want them to inherit a polarized world, one in which people not only cannot see the other side of an argument, but openly denigrate those who hold opposing views? Do we want them to inherit a world in which coarse language is the norm, that prevarication goes unpunished, that advocacy for your team always wins out over thoughtful, considered positions? In which news is not fact, but merely spin? In which people on different sides of any particular issue cannot even speak to each other or break bread together, because they view the other as stupid or heartless?

I come back to the line at the end of today’s reading (Devarim / Deuteronomy 12:28):

שְׁמֹ֣ר וְשָׁמַעְתָּ֗ אֵ֚ת כָּל־הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה אֲשֶׁ֥ר אָנֹכִ֖י מְצַוֶּ֑ךָּ לְמַעַן֩ יִיטַ֨ב לְךָ֜ וּלְבָנֶ֤יךָ אַחֲרֶ֙יךָ֙ עַד־עוֹלָ֔ם כִּ֤י תַעֲשֶׂה֙ הַטּ֣וֹב וְהַיָּשָׁ֔ר בְּעֵינֵ֖י ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶֽיךָ׃

Be careful to heed all these commandments that I enjoin upon you; thus it will go well with you and with your descendants after you forever, for you will be doing what is good and right in the sight of the LORD your God.

How do we plant the carob trees for our grandchildren? How do I use this pandemic time to create a foundation for a better world, so that my children’s spiritual inheritance will be tov veyashar, good and right?

Hevreh, the framework of mitzvot that God has given us is the formula by which we can live better. It was given to us a long time ago, and if more of us were to follow it, the world we will leave to our children will be a much better one. Here is, if you will, a simplified formula for success:

  1. Keep Shabbat. Doing so encourages respect for yourself and those close to you. Keep your conversations and your activities local and low-key. Be with your nearby family and friends. Don’t spend money; avoid technology. Connect with the here and now, and leave behind the elsewhere and the later.
  1. Keep kashrut (the Jewish dietary laws). It encourages respect for God’s Creation. The lines in what we can or cannot consume are there to remind us that there are limits to what is Divinely-acceptable behavior. Maintain the holiness in the natural world.
  1. Pray daily. Connect with yourself; hold your mind and your heart in self-judgment, and leave room for doubt. You may not be right about every single thing.  Introspection leads to intentionality, which leads to patience, planning, and presence of mind in all the spheres of life.
  1. Observe Jewish holidays, and make sure you know why. Yom Kippur teaches us humility. Pesah teaches freedom for all. Hanukkah teaches enlightenment. Sukkot teaches simplicity. Simhat Torah celebrates learning. Purim celebrates standing up for what is right.
  1. Learn Torah. The wisdom of the ancient Jewish bookshelf teaches us how to be human beings, not cogs in a machine. It sensitizes us to the needs of others, and forces us to consider how our behavior impacts this world.

It is a simple formula. But of course you are thinking, “Rabbi, I’ve been Jewish all my life and while I may do some of those things, it’s just too much for me to take on something that I’m just not used to doing.”

Let me tell you why you need to reach higher: because the world depends on your mitzvot. Because our heritage – the world our children inherit – depends on your willingness to think and behave for the benefit of the common good. And that is what every single one of those things is about.

What kind of world do you want our children to inherit? One in which everybody is looking out for themselves, seeking personal gratification at any cost? Or one in which we cooperate to solve the big problems, in which we acknowledge the humanity in each other and the Divinity of Creation, in which we seek the holiness that is waiting for us under the surface of every relationship?

The choice is yours. Reach higher. Think of those carob trees, bearing fruit 70 years hence.

And I know this is hard, but try not to worry too much about whether you have done enough. If you take on this formula of five things, I am certain that you will be able to look back and say, “Yes. That was good and right.”

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 8/15/2020.)

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Sermons

Waiting for the Promised Land – Mattot/Mas’ei 5780

Two weeks ago my family and I were on vacation, tent camping in the Allegheny National Forest, and it was simply wonderful. It’s easy to socially distance when you’re out in the woods, and the hiking and biking were joyful and restorative. Despite the inconvenience of regularly checking for ticks, I actually really love being out of doors, and for me there is nothing quite like it. More importantly, we had no wi-fi or even a mobile phone signal for most of the time, so it was fairly easy to forget, at least for a few days, about the public health catastrophe that is going on all around us.

But we cannot ignore this, folks. It is not going away. I think the State of Pennsylvania made a critical tactical error in labeling this phase of re-opening “Green,” because it seems to me that this suggests, “Go for it.” People poured into bars and restaurants, flew off to the beaches in South Carolina and Florida, and in Allegheny County we went from almost no new cases to a couple of hundred a day. And I cannot even muster the energy to try to comprehend how the governor of Georgia decided to outlaw local mask-wearing orders. I am beside myself.

Let’s be clear here, folks: we did this to ourselves. Our politicians have ignored the directives of actual scientists and experts and have lacked the intestinal fortitude to clamp down, and we the people have refused to comply with simple, sensible health measures. As a result, this journey of grief and unemployment and depression will last much longer, and many more Americans will die.

Speaking of journeys, the end of the book of Bemidbar / Numbers documents the various places that the Israelites traveled to and set up camp on their 40-year journey from slavery in Egypt to redemption in Israel. It is one of a handful of passages in the Torah that list stops along the way. The question is asked by some commentators, why bother to list these locations? They are in the desert, unremarkable places that hold no other significance.

One theory, promoted in a midrash, is that God wanted the Israelites to have a record of where they had been, so they could recall the travails of the journey. “Here is where you were tired and needed to rest; here is where you felt ill; here is where you were thirsty and needed water.” Perhaps. 

But the Jewish journey that began in the Torah and effectively continues up until today includes stops in many places that we will never recall. How many of us can name the towns where our great-grandparents were born? Or their great-grandparents? And yet, we know how they suffered. They suffered at the hands of Cossacks and Spaniards and Arabs and Persians and Romans and Babylonians. They suffered through famines and plagues, and were often blamed for these things by their gentile neighbors. They suffered through blood libels and anti-Semitic laws and accusations and suspicions. They were forcibly conscripted into the Czar’s army, forcibly converted to Christianity and Islam, forcibly taken from their homes and put on trains and sent to death camps.

In the context of today’s pandemic, I must say, I am certain that we will survive. We will still be here when this is over. 

We will still be here because we have survived worse than this. Much worse, in fact.

A few of you may know that I host a bi-weekly meeting for what I refer to as the Hanhalah Team of the synagogue, the senior staff. It includes Rabbi Jeremy Markiz, director of Derekh and Youth Tefillah, our Etxecutive Director Ken Turkewitz, Youth Director Marissa Tait, ELC Director Hilary Yeckel, and JJEP Director Rabbi Larry Freedman. And we had a meeting on Thursday that was tremendously frustrating. The ELC is open and functioning safely for about 60 kids in small, non-intermixing pods; that’s the good news. But for the rest of us, planning for the coming year – the High Holidays, JJEP’s classes, youth activities, Derekh activities, youth tefillah – all of them are effectively up in the air. We feel as though people are Zoomed out. We are working in an environment in which we cannot make decisions about the future, because we simply have no idea what the future looks like.

It’s not just frustrating. It’s downright painful. We all care about living and teaching our tradition, and since being Jewish so heavily depends upon being around others, it has made our lives so difficult.

But let’s face it: things could be much, much worse. Has veshalom / God forbid.

We always open these meetings with a devar Torah, and Rabbi Freedman regaled us this week with a wee bit of optimism: the Promised Land is coming. It’s actually not that far away. Yes, we are still in the desert, and we will be for a while. But next week we start reading the book of Devarim / Deuteronomy, and we know what happens next.

But maybe that’s why all those stops along the way from Egypt to Israel are there: to remind us that 40 years was a VERY long time. To remind us that the journey can be easily forgotten when recalling its endpoints. To remind us that there were headaches and hunger and thirst and loss along the way.

The silver lining is this: we are gathered here this morning, a testament to the fact that the Jews have survived 2,000 years of dispersion and destruction and suffering and loss. And how did we do this? By recounting the journey. And by leaning into the words of our tradition: the Torah, and of course the words of prayer, the words of our siddur. And let me just bring this to a close by pointing us all to one particular line in our siddur, one that is so often overlooked because it is mumbled through quickly in a transitional moment in the service. 

It’s found in Yequm Purqan, p. 412 in Sim Shalom and 176 in Lev Shalem. We only say this on Shabbat morning; it is a request for health and welfare for the congregation, and also includes a wish for our children. Open up and take a look for a moment:

זַרְעָא חַיָּא וְקַיָּמָא, זַרְעָא דִּי לָא יִפְסוק וְדִי לָא יִבְטול מִפִּתְגָּמֵי אורַיְתָא

Zar’a haya veqayama, zar’a di la yifsuq vedi la yivtul mipitgamei oraita. 

May [our] children thrive, never ceasing to speak words of Torah.

It’s in Aramaic. Why? Because that was the language that our ancestors spoke for many centuries, and therefore understood it better than Hebrew. We do not know exactly how old it is, but it first appears in the 13th-century French Mahzor Vitry.

Prayer, you may recall, is a blueprint for a better world, a vision of a society that could be. The point of this wish is to remind us that, just as we have carried our Torah with us for millennia, we want our children to do so as well.

It is a beautiful plea; a statement of yearning that, whatever challenges we face right now, in whatever spiritually-barren place in which we find ourselves, that our children receive and carry with them the words that have kept us alive and nourished us up until this very day.

Ladies and gentlemen, as we continue to face this pandemic, the dysfunction of our governing structures and the lamentably growing death count, remember that the silver lining is that our children will know Torah; that its wisdom and values and guidance will never depart from their lips. And now go out and make that happen. That is how we will get through this. The Promised Land is not far away.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 7/18/2020.)

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The Common Good and America the Beautiful – Huqqat-Balaq 5780

Well, I must admit that it’s a bit sad for me to be all alone in our sanctuary once again. For a moment there, we thought we might be able to keep meeting in person. Now, it seems, we are back to square 1.  I am grateful to Beth Shalom’s Coronavirus Task Force for considering this issue thoughtfully and putting our safety ahead of other concerns.

But I suppose it is, unfortunately, not too surprising, based on the behaviors that I have seen in the last few weeks. Some people are diligent about wearing masks and keeping away from others. Others are not at all. And of course there is a range in-between: uncovered noses, pulling a mask down to speak, believing that a mask exempts you from social distancing, which it does not.

Now, clearly, even with a mask-wearing order in place, law enforcement cannot ensure that everybody is wearing masks and distancing themselves. To a great extent, we have to rely on the willingness of people to follow these instructions to benefit public health.  Or, on a smaller scale, we can ask those we interact with in public to please put on their masks. 

But Americans love to break conventions and customs as an expression of freedom. From its very outset, the American nation was based on an idea that was mostly foreign to the monarchies of Europe: that, as the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence puts it, “all men are created equal.” Yes, I know that at the time, they did not really believe that in a complete sense, and that that particular phrase excluded a majority of people living here when it was written. But the spirit of democracy that infused the creation of this country was an affront to virtually everything that had come before it. 

And that independent streak still runs strong through American veins. Some of us still carry the banner of, “Don’t tread on me,” but today, of course, it is primarily a vulgar gesture directed at our own government.

So now we have discovered a problem with the American inclination to flout convention for the sake of “freedom”: in order to beat the virus, we have to work together. We have to understand that this is an “all-in” sort of operation. Nobody is beyond the reach of this bug, and to beat it, we are all going to have to change our behavior for the common good. And before we even get to that point, we have to agree what “the common good” is. And, thankfully, our tradition can guide us in this.

Many of you know that I am an optimist, and although these times seem to leave little room for optimism, I have to remind us all that we will eventually get past this as a society. I am very sorry to say that we have not been able to muster our courage as a nation to prevent more disease and more unnecessary deaths. Perhaps this new wave of infections, and the rising body count that will inevitably follow, will lead more people to be more inclined toward the common good.

I heard this week Rabbi David Wolpe interviewed by Jonathan Silver on the Tikvah Podcast. Rabbi Wolpe is one of the most prominent Conservative rabbis in America, the spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. They were speaking about the future of the non-Orthodox movements, and the interviewer asked the following: “Do you think the pandemic will change the way [non-Orthodox] Jews think about America?” Rabbi Wolpe responded with the following:

My greatest sorrow through this — obviously apart from the loss of life — has been the extent to which even the question of wearing masks becomes politicized. And I think that as long as we are in the grip of this inability to believe anything good of people who are on the opposite side of the political spectrum from oneself, and to believe that the opposite side is venal and evil, and as long as I receive nothing but articles attacking the other side from members of my congregation who are on one side or another, I’m not sure that we will learn anything about America that is useful to be learned. It is only the extent to which we are able to vault over our own preconceptions and to understand that whatever the faults of the people who oppose you, that they also have something to say, and their experience also deserves to be taken into account, only then will we be able to learn.

You cannot learn by lobbing grenades over a wall. So, I hope the pandemic will teach us something, but so far I’m not seeing it.

The Jews, of course, are just like everyone else, only moreso. So all of the challenges that we have with division in this country exist in our community as well. Rabbi Wolpe was speaking about the Jewish community, but you could very easily extrapolate what he said to the rest of America. We cannot work toward the common good until we as individuals are willing to think beyond ourselves. 

I am grateful that this nation was a haven for my great-grandparents when they arrived here more than a century ago.  I am grateful that the founders of this country dedicated themselves to the proposition that all are created equal, and that President George Washington, upon visiting the synagogue in Newport, RI in 1790, affirmed that this nation should “give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” I am grateful to have grown up in this American experiment, in which we the Jews have, mostly, thrived.

But I am also terrified. I behold the mess in front of us right now, a nation that is coming apart at the seams. Our leaders do not debate serious policy proposals; they exchange barbs. Our people are told to make particular behavioral choices to protect public health, and they do the exact opposite. Winning at any cost is valued over the common good. The simmering cauldron of the American culture wars is laced with racism and anti-Semitism, seasoned with misinformation and outright lies, and about to boil over.

Some of you know that my favorite hymn (ok, so my second favorite after Hatikvah, which always makes me cry), is America the Beautiful, the poem originally penned by Kathryn Lee Bates in 1893. One of the verses that is almost never heard is the following (it’s not in the back of our siddur):

O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!
America! America!
May God thy gold refine,
Till all success be nobleness,
And every gain divine!

This is, by the way, the verse that Ray Charles starts with in his phenomenal recording of the song. If you have never heard this version, you definitely should do so right now:

Let me just break down a brief piece of that, Rashi-style:

Who more than self their country loved,
The heroes of which this verse speaks include of course those who fought and died for this nation, but also those who, behind the front lines and not in military uniforms, dedicated themselves to building a society based on the common good, and not merely on self-interest. 

And mercy more than life.
The sign of a truly just society is the one that cares about all its people no matter their station. When I am willing to sacrifice what I have, my possessions, my reputation, my life, so that somebody else is treated mercifully, then we will have achieved the nobleness that the verse references.

National hymns like this, very much like prayer, are aspirational; they reflect our aims as a society, where we see ourselves headed. God willing, some day Americans will put mercy for others above their own lives. Some day, they will hew to the instructions of the prophet Micah, which we read in today’s haftarah:

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

He 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.

Would that we could all follow this simple formula: justice, goodness, and walking modestly. It’s that last one that is especially captivating for its unusual form. It’s an imperative, but the verb is not lalekhet, to walk, but rather, lehatzni’a, to make modest. Hatzne’a lekhet, perhaps more literally translated is “Make your walking modest” as you saunter through life. And I think that this image of approaching life modestly includes the following values taught by our tradition: 

  • Honesty – מדבר שקר תרחק (Midevar sheqer tirhaq / Distance yourself from falsehood. Shemot / Exodus 23:7)
  • Learning – תלמוד תורה (Talmud Torah, the highest holy opportunity of Jewish life.)
  • Respect – דרך ארץ (Derekh eretz. See e.g. Pirqei Avot 2:2)
  • Justice – צדק צדק תרדוף (“Justice, you shall pursue justice.” Devarim / Deuteronomy 16:20)
  • Mercy – רחמים
  • Not speaking hurtfully of others – אונאת דברים
  • Making peace between people – שלום בית

Ladies and gentlemen, all I can say on this July 4th is the following:

Make good choices. Make the choices that benefit the common good. Implement these Jewish values in your everyday actions. Protect others. Have mercy. Seek justice and goodness. Make your walking through life modest. 

And if we can get everybody on that program together, we will not only vanquish the virus, but we will continue to build America the Beautiful, and get this American experiment back on track.

Shabbat shalom, and a happy and reflective Independence Day.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 7/4/2020.)

Categories
Kavvanot

Desperately Seeking Catharsis – Huqqat/Balaq 5780

Purity and purification were of utmost importance to our ancient Israelite ancestors, and for good reason. Theirs was a world of many dangers: marauding wildlife, uncontrollable diseases, bloodthirsty enemies, lawless bandits, the merciless forces of nature, and so forth. Purity was an ideal that they held out before themselves, that through various rituals they could achieve a pure state, in which God would favor them and lessen the danger.

Not much has changed. With COVID-19 potentially lurking in every corner, police brutality on display for all to see, racial injustice revealed in all its ugliness, anti-Semitism gathering steam, and governmental dysfunction of cataclysmic proportions, it is easy to feel like we are floundering in chaotic currents of human failure.

I could use a good cleanse right now. 

And so it almost makes sense to read the passage in Parashat Huqqat about the parah adumah, the notoriously elusive “red heifer” used in preparing a magic potion that would cleanse anybody of tum’at met, ritual impurity that came from exposure to a corpse. Almost, because to contemporary ears this passage is inscrutable. And not only contemporary: a midrash (Bemidbar Rabbah 19:3) has the wise King Solomon declaring, “I have labored to understand the word of God and have understood it all, except for the ritual of the parah adumah.”

Nonetheless, one does see the appeal in achieving purity through curious rituals. I want all of this to be over. I want resolution. I want purity. And I want to be able to sit on my porch on a summer evening, survey the world, and think, All is right once again. 

I want catharsis. 

One of the greatest challenges that we see right now is that none of these things have a simple, sweet resolution. The virus is not going to magically disappear. The problematic political actors are not simply going to pick up their toys and go home. The system that reinforces racial injustice at many levels in American society is not going to fix itself. The Jew-haters are not going to crawl back into their holes. The Internet will not suddenly only speak the polite truth. The Earth’s atmosphere is not going to stop its steady warming. There is no magic potion. There is no parah adumah.

There is only us. And we are going to have to work together to solve these problems. But the good news is that we have solved many such challenges before, and we have the ability to do so again. But it will require that we listen to one another and to the words of professionals, that we act from a place of respect for each other rather than “winning.” 

Perhaps what this passage teaches us is that the details and complexity of the parah adumah ritual, and indeed the impossibility of finding the right cow for the job, suggest that the easy way out does not exist; that although absolute purity is unattainable, we should nonetheless push ourselves to find it. 

Lo alekha hamelakhah ligmor, velo attah ben horin lehibbatel mimmena, says Pirqei Avot. It is not up to you to finish the task, but neither can you let it go. We may not find either a red heifer nor that much-needed catharsis, but if we do not even seek to unite to solve big problems, then nothing will be solved. It is through cooperation and commitment that we will ultimately achieve purity.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally published in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, July 3, 2020.)

Categories
Sermons

There is Only One Side – Naso 5780

:’לֹ֥א תַעֲמֹ֖ד עַל־דַּ֣ם רֵעֶ֑ךָ אֲנִ֖י ה

Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor; I am God. (Vayiqra/Leviticus 19:16)

(The “I am God” bit is often left off; but it is an essential part of the verse. Understanding that we are all in holy relationship, that God dwells in the space between each of us and connects us, is needed now more than ever.)

***

On October 28th, 2018, there was a hastily-prepared memorial service at Soldiers’ and Sailors Memorial Hall for the victims of the previous day’s murders at the Tree of Life building. I remember the silence, the shock and grief, the over-capacity crowd, the sea of umbrellas outside of people who could not get into the hall. 

I remember that the clergy who were invited to join the presenters on the stage were from across the community: Jewish, Christian, Muslim, white, black, and everything else.

Pittsburgh, October 28, 2018

I remember that we stood together, unable to fathom the depth of what had happened, unable to imagine the sheer brutality and hatred required to carry out such an unspeakable act.

I did not watch the video of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police. I could not bring myself to do so. The print details were enough: 8 minutes and 46 seconds. “I can’t breathe.” “Mama!”

Ladies and gentlemen, we are in pain as a society. The coronavirus, the 108,000 dead; the economic fallout, 13% unemployment; and now a slew of events on the national stage that remind us all of the deep ugliness that lurks within the American psyche. The hatred, the systemic racism, the political division, the festering anger toward the judicial system and law enforcement, the resentment that different groups of people feel toward one another.

I attended a peaceful protest of clergy on Monday. One of the African-American preachers riffed on Psalm 94, which we recite in our weekday services every Wednesday.  

עַד־מָתַ֖י רְשָׁעִ֥ים ה’ עַד־מָ֝תַ֗י רְשָׁעִ֥ים יַעֲלֹֽזוּ׃

How long shall the wicked, O Lord, how long shall the wicked exult? (Tehillim / Psalm 94:3)

How long? He cried. How long?!

Pittsburgh, June 1, 2020

How long indeed. 

As you know, we had an 8:30 curfew for three nights last week. I confess that I broke the curfew on each of those nights; on Saturday night because I did not know that there was a curfew (I don’t use computers or listen to the radio or turn on TV on Shabbat or Yom Tov). On Sunday and Monday evenings because I was taking an evening stroll in Frick Park after dinner, and did not quite make it home by 8:30. 

On the latter two nights, I suppose that I broke that curfew because I knew I could. I knew that if a police officer were to stop me, he or she would not interrogate me or knock me to the ground or handcuff me or arrest me and take me down to the station. And if I happened to say the wrong thing or not look sufficiently submissive, she or he would probably be forgiving, tell me to just go home, you’re not supposed to be outside right now.

And that is exactly the point.

I will not have to have “the talk” with my sons, the talk that all black parents must have with their sons. Although I am 6’4” and arguably intimidating if you were to pass me alone at night, I will probably not have to worry that I will be perceived as a threat, and I know that people do not immediately assume that I am up to no good when they see me in public. I can go jogging or bird-watching without fear of anything going wrong.

And that’s because I look white. And I wear a kippah on my head.

But my tradition teaches me to be sympathetic to others; to listen to their needs; to help them when we can.

וְגֵ֥ר לֹא־תוֹנֶ֖ה וְלֹ֣א תִלְחָצֶ֑נּוּ כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃

You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
(Shemot / Exodus 22:20)

We remember where we came from. We remember that we were slaves, so that we understand the oppressed, the enslaved, the disenfranchised. And we remember that we have to stand up for them, whether they are Jewish or not.

I was dismayed to read an opinion piece in the Forward this week, written by some rabbinic colleagues, titled, Every Jew Must Decide Which Side They Are On.

No! Hevreh, there is only one side: the side of humanity. The side in which we build a better society, one in which police officers do not kill unarmed people, and in which peaceable assembly is not accompanied by violence, theft, and vandalism. The side in which there is no need for city curfews. The side in which visibly Jewish people can walk in the street without fear of being attacked. The side in which law enforcement, and indeed the US military, do not use tear gas on American citizens who are lawfully exercising their Constitutional rights. The side in which people are not divided between “sides.”

I am afraid right now that, given the division between people, our society will be torn apart by well-meaning people who point angry fingers at others. Let us not be manipulated into thinking that there is an “us” and a “them.”

There is only one side, and I am on that one. And so is the Torah.

Ladies and gentlemen, the only way we are going to move forward as a society in a way that is safe and respectful and loving is by understanding that we are in this together. 

:’וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ אֲנִ֖י ה

Love your neighbor as yourself.
(Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:18)
[ זה כלל גדול בתורה, this is a great principle in the Torah, adds Rabbi Aqiva.]

Hevreh, there is a lot of blame to go around for how we got here. But blame is also a game that involves picking sides, drawing lines. Let’s face it folks: we are all a little guilty of bringing us to this point. Parashat Naso (Bemidbar / Numbers 5:7) teaches us that when we seek atonement, we must confess our sins, and here are a few we have all done:

We are guilty of not helping raise up our enemy’s donkey, after it fell from a too-heavy burden. (Think metaphorically, folks.) (Shemot / Exodus 23:5)

We are guilty of repeating slander of one another via social media, like the tzara’at skin disease that spreads so easily, and cannot be taken back. (Vayiqra / Leviticus 13:1ff)

We are guilty of not having a system of justice that is applied equally to the rich and the poor. (Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:15)

We are guilty of not following the Torah’s imperative of “Tzedeq, tzedeq tirdof” – צדק, צדק תרדוף. Justice! you shall pursue justice. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 16:20)

We are guilty of standing idly by the blood of our fellow human beings. (Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:16)

But here is the upshot: we are all in this together, and we can change.

What we need now is not anger. Not division. Rather, what we need right now is to listen to one another, to work together, and pull ourselves up out of the mess we have made. 

Our neighbors showed up for us, ladies and gentlemen. And we must show up for them.

And not just that. Get to know people outside your familiar range of friends. It is only through being in relationship with others unlike you that we learn to counteract our own natural biases. We, the Jews, have spent so many centuries in ghettoes and in forced exile and subject to pogroms and genocide that we are reflexively suspect of others unlike us. But now is the time for us to listen to the stories of all of our neighbors, and act through love toward one another. That is the Torah’s great principle.

Parashat Naso includes a piece of text that is well-known in Jewish life, the so-called Birkat Kohanim, which the Torah identifies as the blessing that the kohanim, the priestly class shall bless all the rest of us:

יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ ה’ וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ׃ 

May God bless you and protect you!

יָאֵ֨ר ה’ פָּנָ֛יו אֵלֶ֖יךָ וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ׃

May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you!

יִשָּׂ֨א ה’ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם׃

May God’s face lift up to you and grant you peace!
(Bemidbar / Numbers 6:24-26)

It is up to us to seek God’s face, to look for and understand the divinity in each and every person. It is up to us to find ways to reach out, to learn, to listen, to create spaces in our lives beyond our comfort zones to connect with others. We must all stand on the same side at this time to be blessed and protected. We must seek to change ourselves, to change our behavior, to rid ourselves of the anger and the fear and the hate, to create that single side, the right side of justice and peace and love. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 6/6/2020.)