Categories
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.)

Categories
Sermons

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.)

Categories
Festivals Sermons Yizkor

The Dead Support the Living – Yizkor / Shavu’ot 5780

You may know that I love to hike, and during this pandemic, I have been spending more time walking outside than I ordinarily do, particularly in the heavily-wooded Frick Park. That’s a good thing – particularly now that the weather is nice. Good for the spirit, good for the body. 

Red-tailed hawk in Frick Park (photo credit: me)

Judy and I were in the park a few weeks ago, and we noticed a couple of tall trees that looked dead, sort of intertwined with each other. And upon looking closer, we saw that the situation was much more interesting: one of the trees, standing upright, was clearly dead – no leaves, no bark in many places, minimal branches still remaining on its tall trunk. But the other tree was leaning over heavily onto the dead one, and it was still alive. It looked as though the live tree had been knocked over in a storm, and the dead tree had somehow “caught” it, and prevented it from falling.

The dead tree was actually holding up the living one.

We generally think of dead natural things – trees, animals, etc. – as being past their point of usefulness. That is, they are no longer part of the system. But of course that is not true. On the contrary: as you walk around a forest, for example, and you see plenty of dead things on the ground – leaves and tree trunks and occasionally animal carcasses – it is worth remembering that those things are essential parts of the circle of life. They serve as homes to insects, food for fungi, and of course when they break down into nutrients and reenter the soil, they continue to nourish the living plants around them by fertilizing the ground once again.

That is the cycle of life. Life yields death, which yields life again. 

And, in some sense, the same is true for people. Not in physical sense, of course, and not in the sense of death and resurrection, although for sure there are some Jews who believe in that sort of thing. But rather, I would like to propose that the dead nourish and sustain the living, sort of like that dead tree holding up the live one.

How can that be? Lo hameitim yehallelu Yah (Psalm 115:17), we chanted in Hallel earlier today. The dead do not praise God; that is only for the living. Being able to sing words of praise together with our community, that is a sure sign of life.

And yet, those of us who have passed from this world into the next are not only very much here with us, but they support us, the living as well. Let me explain, with an assist from the following midrash:

Moshe Rabbeinu is at the end of his life, and has ascended Har Nevo (Mt. Nebo), as God instructed him to do. God reminds Moshe that, even though he will not enter the Promised Land, he can see it from the mountain.

Moshe appeals to God, saying that it is not fair that he, Moshe Rabbeinu, who took the people out of the Land of Egypt, bringing them forth from slavery, cannot enter the Land of Israel. “I should be the first to cross the Jordan River,” he pleads. “I should lead them into the Land. Why won’t you let me? Why do you not favor me with love, as you favor the rest of Benei Yisrael (the Israelites)?”

“I have favored you with love,” says God. “I gave the Aseret HaDibberot, the Ten Commandments to the people through you. I gave the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, to them through you. That is how I have expressed my love for you.”

“Who, then, will lead the people, if not me?” says Moshe.

“Yehoshua (Joshua) will lead them. It is time for the people to find the courage to travel on without you, Moshe. But you will die knowing that they will never forget you. You will always be an essential part of them. You will be constantly invoked, in song and story, in learning and teaching, in repeating the words of Torah for millennia to come. You will continue to support them after you die, and your words will bring them strength.”

Moshe thinks about this, and then goes back down from Har Nevo to give a final blessing to Benei Yisrael. He climbs the mountain a final time, and, as he is looking out over the Land of Israel, spread out before him to the west across the Jordan River, God kisses his soul, taking his life. 

As a final act of God’s love, God buries Moshe on top of Har Nevo, in a location that has remained secret to this day.

***

How do the dead support the living? In the same way that Moshe Rabbeinu does: through the words that they said; through the actions that they took to sustain us in life; through the inspirations and memories fixed in our hearts and minds, that lead us to seek peace between people and care for those in need and comfort those who grieve. 

We carry them with us, just as we carry with us the Torah that Moshe gave us. When we get to Simhat Torah, the other celebration of Torah, half a year away, we will read, “Torah tzivvah lanu Moshe; morashah qehillat Ya’aqov.” (Devarim / Deuteronomy 33:4) Moses charged us with Torah, as the heritage of the congregation of Jacob. Our heritage includes not only Torah, but also the pieces of our ancestors that we contain: their good deeds, their wisdom, their reputations.

And how will we, the living, support those who will someday remember us when we are gone? By being the best people that we can be in life. By drawing on the Jewish values of learning, of compassion, of gratitude, of community-building, of remembrance. By fulfilling the mitzvot, the holy opportunities communicated to us through Moshe Rabbeinu and upheld by generations. By committing ourselves, every day, to making this world a slightly better place.

Three times a day in Jewish life, and sometimes four, we recite the berakhah Barukh Attah Adonai, mehayyeh hameitim.” Praised are You, God, who gives life to the dead. I know that it’s a not-so-coded reference to the Messianic resurrection of the dead that our ancestors yearned for. The Amidah (standing, silent prayer that is a part of every Jewish service) says, God keeps faith even with those who sleep in the dust: umqayyem emunato liysheinei afar, we sing ever-so-joyously. (BTW, that well-known melody, ubiquitous in American synagogues, was written by Cantor Max Wohlberg for a Junior Congregation service in the middle of the 20th century. He later regretted its spread to the entire Jewish world, because it just did not quite fit the meaning of that paragraph.)

But the berakhah is incomplete. It was liturgy that served a particular purpose at one time, and there are some who feel it has outlived its usefulness (the Reform and Reconstructionist movements changed the language; the Conservative movement left the language but tinkered with the translation). 

How it should be read is not only about God giving life to the dead, but also as the dead giving life back to us. Mehayyeh hameitim. We are in a circle of mutual support: God sustains the dead, who sustain us, who praise God. It’s an eternal loop of life. 

I would be remiss not to mention today that we passed an abominable statistic in America this week. The number 100,000 means nothing in relative terms; our per capita death rate in America due to the coronavirus is lower than many nations. 

But in very real terms, it is a staggering number, more than the number of American soldiers who died in the Korean War and Vietnam conflict combined, and all in the space of a couple of months.

I find myself coming back to the words of President Abraham Lincoln, delivered a little to the east of here, after the battle at Gettysburg in 1863:

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain…

We the living, said President Lincoln, continue the work of those who gave their lives to give us life. They sustain us through their devotion. And as we recall not only our parents and grandparents and spouses and siblings and children who are no longer with us, we also recall those who gave up their lives to this disease, and we too resolve that they shall not have died in vain.

The dead give us life. They hold us up like strong, tall tree trunks. And we continue to remember them, to live their words and their deeds and their wisdom. That is the cycle of life, in which we are all bound.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning / Second day of Shavu’ot, May 30, 2020.)

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Sermons

Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land (Maybe?) – Behar/Behuqqotai 5780

I had a good cry last week. I guess you might say that I hit a wall: the wall of frustration, anxiety, and yearning for things to just be “normal.” It felt good to sob openly. My wife Judy, God bless her, held me tight and reassured me.

It’s been nine weeks of staying mostly at home; nine weeks of uncertainty, of loneliness, of a whole range of unusual emotions. Nine weeks of looking at the same walls. Nine weeks of despairing for the world – for people suffering from and dying from the virus, for people suffering from the side effect of economic implosion – joblessness, product shortages and in some cases higher prices, loan applications and fear of a looming economic depression.

I am sorry to report that it’s going to get worse. Now we are in a phase of “should we or shouldn’t we?” And there is already a diverse, discordant chorus of voices on all sides. There will be much disagreement, and collective agonizing about the activities of the near future. Can we open? What can we open? Can we see our friends again? Will I have to wear a mask forever? There will be much speculation and analysis of infection rates, comparing places that have reopened to those that have not. And, of course, the hand-wringing will go on about testing – where are all those tests that should be widely available?

Add to all this that around the world, we may in fact be facing a mental illness crisis. The uncertainty and isolation and poverty caused by this pandemic are causing increased rates of depression and anxiety, domestic violence and a whole range of other effects, according to Devora Kestel, the director of the World Health Organization’s mental health department.

All of this is particularly challenging for Americans, because we are, as you know, the Land of Liberty, a beacon of freedom to the world. Our conception of freedom, alien in many places in the world, has made it more difficult for us to limit our behaviors in order to stop the disease. As a nation, we clearly do not like being told what to do, particularly by our government.

A year and a half ago, I traveled with a bunch of members of Beth Shalom to Israel. We stayed in Jerusalem at a hotel across the street from “Gan HaPa’amon,” Liberty Bell Park, which contains at its center a replica of, you guessed it, the Liberty Bell. Strangely enough, when I was living in Jerusalem 20 years ago, I walked past this park and even through it many times, but never bothered to check out its namesake. One evening, our Beth Shalom group paid the bell a visit.

Liberty Bell Park, Jerusalem

And there it was, a little smaller than the original, embossed with the line from up front in Parashat Behar, which we read this morning, Vayiqra / Leviticus 25:10: Uqratem deror ba-aretz, lekhol yosheveha. Proclaim liberty throughout all the land, unto all the inhabitants thereof. (That translation is the King James Version; the Jews read it a little differently. The New JPS translation is “You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants.” It is a reference not to personal freedom per se, but freedom from the economic bondage of indebtedness that occurred in the yovel, the jubilee year, every 50 years, in which all debts were forgiven and land that had been sold to others due to economic hardship reverted to its original owner.)

The verse was appropriated by the designers of the Liberty Bell in 1752, and some time later the quote from Vayiqra came to symbolize the spirit of this new nation, and, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Now, we the Jews know a few things about freedom and bondage. It is of course no coincidence that the Torah dedicates a fair amount of ink to the idea of freedom from slavery: the entirety of the Exodus story, of course, but also providing the freedom from work that is Shabbat, and setting limitations on Israelite ownership of slaves (not that we permit or endorse that today, of course), and even providing not only a Shabbat to people but to animals and agricultural land as well.

But in the Exodus tale, Moshe’s call to arms is not actually freedom in the American sense. It is, rather, freedom from serving a human, God-like character, that is, the Egyptian Pharaoh, in favor of serving the one, true God. As you may have heard me point out before, the slogan that Moshe recites in front of Pharaoh is not, “Let My people go,” but rather, “Let My people go so that they can worship Me.” The journey of the Exodus is not, therefore from slavery to freedom, from avdut to herut, as our liturgy puts it, but from avdut to avdut: from slavery to Pharaoh (think: avadim hayyinu lefar’oh bemitzrayim / we were slaves in Egypt to Pharaoh, from the Pesah haggadah) to avodat Hashem, the service of God. It’s an exchange of one type of service for another, much better one.

What is freedom, really? Is it blanket permission to do whatever you want with no concern for the consequences? Clearly, no. On the contrary, freedom must have a structure. My “unalienable rights” do not permit me to infringe on yours. Freedom requires responsibility; it requires a legal framework that sets limits on behavior. Freedom from slavery for our ancestors was immediately shaped, 50 days after the departure from Egypt, with Torah. 

What is the period of the sefirat ha’omer, connecting Pesah and Shavuot, if not a reminder that freedom requires a code that protects and strikes the balance between the personal and the common good? Without Torah, without a constitution, we have chaos.

You might by now have detected where I might be headed. (I detest being predictable.)

We are living in a time when chaos threatens the structure that freedom requires. We are living in a time when people believe anything they read on the Internet, particularly if it reflects their worldview. And, given the very real hazard of infection and the fact that COVID-19 actually kills people, chaos right now can actually kill. That is not freedom.

I know that we are balancing health and economic welfare. On the one hand, preventing the spread of the new coronavirus is essential to protecting lives. We have already lost nearly 90,000 Americans to the disease; over 300,000 people worldwide. On the other hand, the economic devastation that has been wrought in trying to stop the spread of the virus is absolutely unfathomable. Over 36 million people have applied for unemployment since the middle of March. 

We are now caught in a truly mind-bending conundrum, the most challenging political question of our time: when can we open for business again?

Let’s take it as a given that we are not going to have a safe, reliable vaccine for COVID-19 for at least a year, and even that is a remarkably optimistic figure. Let’s also assume that we will not have an effective “herd immunity” for many more months. Particularly here in Pittsburgh, where (thank God) we have had a relatively low infection rate, since we have been pretty good here at preventing the spread of the virus. Thank God. But of course, that means that the vast majority of us have not been exposed, and are therefore susceptible.

If we reopen businesses and camps and schools and yes, synagogues, will we be able to rely on people’s ability to actually keep their distance from one another? Will we be able to count on people wearing masks in public? Will singing together in public, even at reasonable distances, be at all safe? Will people who work with or are otherwise in proximity to older people and others with compromising conditions manage to keep themselves separate from others who are exposed? 

And if we do reopen some things, what is the smart way to do it? Even in countries where widespread testing and contact tracing have been implemented successfully (as far as I can tell, we have not done either here on a suitable scale), there are still pockets of reinfection. Consider the episode two weeks ago in South Korea, which had managed to contain the virus early with lots of testing, and then one infected person went out to night clubs in Seoul, and authorities had to track down 7,200 exposed individuals in the following days.

To make matters even more anxious, I am concerned that, to help stem the rising tide of suffering caused by job loss, governments will willfully disguise the numbers, undercounting infections or deaths, to justify their reopening. Russia is reporting over a quarter of a million confirmed cases, second in the world after the US, but less than 3,000 deaths from the virus. Can anybody seriously believe that they are accurately reporting the death toll? We know from statistics that our own is undercounted by a significant fraction already, because people died and laid to rest before being tested.

We love our freedom, and we particularly desire it right now, after two months of enforced isolation. So you can see why I am a little worried. I am concerned that the data will be fudged. I am concerned that we will lose sight of the disenfranchised in a rush to satisfy our own wants. I am concerned that your liberty will tread on mine.

Rambam (aka Maimonides, 1135-1204 Spain-Egypt) teaches us about concentric circles of charitable responsibility. When giving tzedakah, we are responsible first for those closest to us: our family, then our neighbors, then the residents of the same city, and so forth. While we must clearly be concerned with ourselves and the people closest to us, we must also be concerned about those who might be a little further away, and yet in danger. Being negligent at this time will certainly be deadly; and I am fairly certain that Dr. Rambam would not be pleased.

We cannot merely proclaim liberty;  we cannot simply open our workplaces and schools and camps without any real planning for potential consequences; we cannot fantasize about some alternate reality in which the virus just stops itself. Just as our ancestors needed Torah, so too do we need reasonable measures that will keep the lives of all members of our society, particularly the most vulnerable, safe and holy. Let’s please make sure that we do that. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 5/16/2020.)

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Sermons

Wants vs. Needs: A Pandemic Primer – Aharei Mot/Qedoshim 5780

Last Tuesday, on the night of Yom HaAtzma-ut, Israel’s Independence Day, we sang a song composed by Hayim Hefer and Moshe Vilensky, two of the greatest Israeli pop music composers, called Hayu Zemanim. It is an Israeli classic from 1948, originally sung by Shoshanna Damari (the Chizbatron, a group of performers who emerged from the Palmach, sang it in 1949). The song is about young soldiers, already veterans of Israel’s War of Independence, envisioning themselves sitting around the fireplace as grandparents, reminiscing and telling war stories about 1948 to their grandchildren about their time serving in the Palmach:

יָבוֹא הַיּוֹם וְעוֹד תֵּשֵב אֶל מוּל הָאָח
וְגַם הַגַּב יִהְיֶה כָּפוּף כַּחֲטוֹטֶרֶת
וְתִזָּכֵר אָז בְּיָמֶיךָ בַּפַּלְמָ”ח
וּתְסַפֵּר עַל זֹאת אַגַּב עִשּׁוּן מִקְטֶרֶת
וּמִסָּבִיב, וּמִסָּבִיב יֵשֵׁב הַטַּף
וְאִשְׁתְּךָ גַּם הִיא מֻפְלֶגֶת בַּשָּׁנִים
תַּזִּיל דִּמְעָה וּתְקַנֵּחַ אֶת הָאַף
וְתֵאָנַח: הָיוּ זְמַנִּים, הָיוּ זְמַנִּים

הָיוּ זְמַנִּים
אָז בַּמִּשְׁלָט יָשַׁבְנוּ
הָיוּ זְמַנִּים
לָחַמְנוּ וְאָהַבְנוּ
עַכְשָׁו דָּבָר אֵין לְהַכִּיר
עַל הַמִּשְׁלָט יוֹשֶׁבֶת עִיר
אוּלַי בִּזְכוּת אוֹתָם זְמַנִּים

The day will come when you will sit by the fireplace
When your back will be bent like a camel’s hump
And you will remember your days in the Palmach
And you will tell about this while smoking a pipe
And around you will sit all the little children
And your wife will also be distinguished in years
A tear may fall and you will wipe your nose
And you will sigh, “Those were the days, those were the days.”

Those were the days
When we sat in the army fortification
We fought and we loved
Now there is nothing left to recognize
Where the fort was stands a city
Perhaps because of those days

The Chizbatron, with Hayim Hefer front center, September 1949.

Of course, it made me think of the times we are in right now. Not like war, of course (there is only one person in America who thinks we are at war), but rather, like being cooped up with people whom we love and strive with in a kind of fortification.

And I hope that one day, in the distant future, we will look back on these times, and we will ask ourselves, what did we learn? How did we manage being apart from so many friends and family and workplaces and favorite haunts? What did we learn about the value of things we had always taken for granted?  

It has now been seven weeks since the Men’s Club Shabbat here at Beth Shalom, which was the last time the Faye Rubinstein Weiss Sanctuary was populated with Shabbat morning service attendees. Seven weeks of social distancing, of face masks and hand sanitizer and not hanging around with your friends on lazy Shabbat afternoons. And I must say that, while my family and I are long past stir crazy, I have settled into a kind of routine – davening via Zoom morning and evening, online meetings, frequent trips to the fridge, making pastoral phone calls, occasionally a walk outside, meals with the whole family, trying to find a quiet place in the house to write sermons, and so forth. The time is moving faster than I would have figured – strangely enough, even though I rarely leave the house, there are not enough hours in the day.

But I’ll confess something that I did not expect: I do not miss my weekly shvitz.

On my day off, up until 7 weeks ago, I would go to the gym to work out, after which I “rewarded” myself with a good shvitz, that is, sitting in the steam room, followed by a few minutes in the jacuzzi. Made me feel all loose and relaxed and calm. For years now, I have been looking forward to this routine; my shvitz time has been essentially sacred. 

Now I must say that up until perhaps this week, for some reason, I had not actually noticed that I had not thought about the shvitz in seven weeks. It simply got pushed down on my list of priorities. While we were trying to cope with the new reality, suddenly other things became more important. 

Now some of you may recall that Qedoshim is probably my favorite parashah (OK, so Aharei Mot comes along for the ride most years – they were together when I became bar mitzvah 37 years ago this week – but Aharei Mot simply doesn’t have the cachet that Qedoshim has.) So why is Qedoshim my favorite? Because it opens with what is essentially the most important piece of guidance from the Torah that we have:

קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

And then what flows from that statement is a whole bunch of laws, which scholars refer to as the “Holiness Code,” that guide us in proper behavior. Examples: honoring your parents, leaving some of your produce for the poor to glean, being honest, not bearing a grudge, not mistreating a stranger, having honest business practices, and so forth. What we learn from Parashat Qedoshim, writ large, is that being holy mandates treating others with respect. We must respect their livelihoods, their feelings, their families, their citizenship status, their essential needs. That is what it means to be holy.

In this parashah, Jewish values are on display in abundance. How do we live our values? By acting on them; by walking through life with respect for others; by understanding that every human has fundamental needs, and that we should not stand in the way of the needs of others.

So the challenge we always have, and the challenge that is perhaps most easily answered in the current moment, comes down to two questions: “What do I need?” vs. “What do I want?”

Ours is a society that is saturated with want. Virtually every sponsored message of any kind out there is trying to tell us what we want. Think of the most “sticky” ad jingles that your brain is filled with – here are some that will be forever stuck in mine: “You deserve a break today.” “Have a Coke and a smile.” “Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t,” “Have it your way,” etc. Selling a product is all about telling you not what you need, but what you want.

המבין יבין

One of the things that is truly remarkable, and truly foreboding about this time is how much of the American economy depends on want, rather than need. At least 30 million Americans are now jobless; 1 in 4 workers in Pennsylvania. And that is due to the fact that we have closed non-essential businesses – one might presume that most of those closed businesses serve wants, rather than needs. And let us not forget that all of those newly-jobless people have actual needs, and now no means to pay for them; we should not discount the grave situation which we are now in as a society.

So what do we need? Obviously, food and shelter and clothing and healthcare. (And, as we all know now, you don’t really need that much clothing to attend Zoom meetings. And, BTW, do we really need the Internet? It’s hard to believe, of course, but it was not so long ago that we all managed without it. Not too much before that, at least in historical terms, humanity even survived without electricity.)

But all the more so, we need the intangibles, the things you cannot buy, which are just as essential. “I’ll buy you a diamond ring, my friend, if it makes you feel alright,” sang Paul McCartney a long time ago. “But I don’t care too much for money / for money can’t buy me love.”

We need love. We need companionship. We need friendship. We need family. We need spiritual structure. We need intellectual stimulation. We need meaning. 

Dr. Viktor Frankl, noted psychologist and survivor of Auschwitz and three other camps, documented in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, the ways in which the Nazi operation dehumanized people, taking away their spirit and ultimately their will to live. Frankl observed that the feature shared by those who survived was that they made the active choice to seek some future goal, to put their current context into perspective and not allow the despair and pain and deprivation of bodily needs sap their desire to look to the future. He describes how he arrived at Auschwitz carrying the manuscript of his unpublished book, which at the time he felt was the most important thing in his life, the thing that he needed the most, hidden in his coat. It was promptly taken away from him and destroyed. His coat and manuscript are replaced by:

… the worn-out rags of an inmate who had already been sent to the gas chambers immediately after his arrival… Instead of the many pages of my manuscript, I found in a pocket of the newly-acquired coat one single page torn out of a Hebrew prayer book, containing the most important Jewish prayer, Shema Yisrael. How should I have interpreted such a “coincidence” other than as a challenge to live my thoughts instead of merely putting them on paper?

Frankl sees the Shema as a kind of divine message: keep these words upon your lips at all times, says the Shema. Speak them, teach them to your children. Live them. It is a sign that daily prayer, that seeking meaning through a spiritual framework, maintains the will to live, the intangible sense that our lives have value, that we are here for a purpose. It is a sign that the constancy of that spiritual framework, uniting past, present, and future, gives us life. He would not survive Auschwitz by lamenting the loss of his book, upon which he had worked so hard; rather, he would survive by knowing that he would write an even better book after the camps, after the Shoah.

Yes, the life-sustaining things are important: the food, the shelter, maybe even the internet. But what ultimately will enable us, as Jews, as a community, and as a nation, to survive is our drive to find meaning in our current predicament, to use it as an opportunity to hone our sense of ourselves and our values, to strive to be better people when we get to the other side.

Right now, we must mourn those whom we have lost, stay home and stay healthy, and look to the future, when we will treasure that much more our sense of respect for one another, our obligation to fashion a society that cares about the neediest among us, our drive for personal enlightenment as individuals and as a qehillah, a community.

I do not miss the shvitz, but I do miss all of you. And someday, far in the future, we will sit around and tell our grandchildren about 2020, about how we survived by learning about our values, about what we really need. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered via Zoom to Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh PA, Shabbat morning, 5/2/2020.)

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Sermons

A Plague of Misinformation – Tazria-Metzora 5780

One of the key principles in Jewish life is that words have power. That is why we recite certain sets of liturgy three times every day. That is why the Torah itself urges us to recite the Shema before going to sleep and when we wake up in the morning. That is why the pre-eminent mitzvah in Jewish life is Talmud Torah, the study of the words of Torah. And that mitzvah does not just mean “study,” as in, read them and/or commit them to memory. Talmud Torah is about elevating the words of the Jewish bookshelf by interpreting, re-interpreting, disagreeing and yes, even arguing about the meaning of our ancient texts, and of course applying them to our lives.  Everything is under scrutiny; slight nuances of individual words, or even single letters or vowels, can lead us to different interpretations. And that is really the essential holy act of Judaism.

That is why, as you have definitely heard me say before, we are still here: because we have been using our words – living them and revisiting them again and again – for literally thousands of years.

And it is this essential devotion to words – written, printed, spoken, and so forth – that makes us understand all the more so the essential value of using words with care.

Just a few examples of ways through which we demonstrate on a regular basis the high stakes with respect to the use of words: 

  1. Whoever leads services in a Jewish context, a sheliah tzibbur (literally, “emissary of the community”) must be skilled at pronouncing the words of tefillah / prayer correctly. The one who mispronounces words, whether accidentally or deliberately, should be replaced.
  2. Whenever we read from the Torah, there are two people standing on either side of the reader to correct her or him in the event of a mispronunciation that changes the meaning of the word.
  3. We have in our tradition strict halakhah / law about what is acceptable vs. unacceptable speech. Just a few examples:
    1. Lashon hara. “The evil tongue.” We are forbidden, according to Vayikra / Leviticus 19:16, which read in Parashat Qedoshim next week, from being rekhilim, people who tell tales about one another, whether true or false.
    2. Nibbul peh. “Lewdness of the mouth.” The Talmud (Yerushalmi Terumot 1:6) tells us that the use of foul language is prohibited. The words that come out of our mouth should be as pure as the food that we put in.
    3. Motzi shem ra. Slander. Our bar mitzvah mentioned this earlier in his devar Torah. A subset of gossip, this is the spreading of malicious falsehoods.
  4. We have an obligation to speak the truth, for example from Shemot / Exodus 23:7: מדבר שקר תרחק / Midevar sheqer tirhaq. Distance yourself from falsehood. 

Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, a rabbi from Belarus who lived in the 19th and early 20th century, is best known for the name of the book he wrote about lashon hara, called “Hafetz Hayyim.” The title is a reference to a line that we sang earlier this morning in Pesuqei DeZimra, from Psalm 34:13-14:

מִֽי־הָ֭אִישׁ הֶחָפֵ֣ץ חַיִּ֑ים אֹהֵ֥ב יָ֝מִ֗ים לִרְא֥וֹת טֽוֹב׃ נְצֹ֣ר לְשׁוֹנְךָ֣ מֵרָ֑ע וּ֝שְׂפָתֶ֗יךָ מִדַּבֵּ֥ר מִרְמָֽה׃

Who is the person who desires life, who desires years of good fortune? Guard your tongue from evil, your lips from deceitful speech.

If we truly desire life, says Rabbi Kagan, we will guard our tongues, and not spread falsehoods.

According to our tradition, we have a tremendous responsibility to make sure that our words reflect the qedushah, the holiness to which we aspire in all of our relationships. To do so reflects an honest desire to pursue life. Those that lie cause pain, suffering, and death.

And all of this is why the current moment is just so disturbing to me.

Let’s face it. We are all really, really anxious right now. Some of us are going a bit stir crazy, stuck in our homes, with few options for getting out of the house, other than to take a walk or go food shopping, the latter of which, in my experience, only causes more anxiety. (Nothing wrong with taking walks, of course; those of us who have dogs know that the dogs are clearly grateful for our presence around the house to take them for lots of walks.)

And aside from being cooped up in the house, everybody is anxious about the state of the world. As we watch the numbers of people with confirmed infections rise, and with them the number of people hospitalized, and those who die from the disease, we are all wondering: When will we see the peak? Will there be a second wave? What about all the people who have lost their jobs, their source of income? And perhaps most heartbreakingly, When can we resume our lives or reclaim some semblance of normalcy?

I, of course, have no answers to these questions, or even educated guesses. I certainly wish I did, but epidemiology was not included in my rabbinical school curriculum. Perhaps the closest approach I have to any knowledge of the spread of infectious diseases comes from the parashah that we read today, Tazria-Metzora, which of course describes the spread of an infectious disease, and frankly, it’s not so helpful (even though it does speak of regular testing and quarantine).

That disease, called in Hebrew tzara’at, has often historically been translated as “leprosy,” although I am told that anybody who knows anything about leprosy knows that the disease described in this part of Vayiqra / Leviticus cannot be leprosy, based on its description.

Nonetheless, there is an essential message here, related not to epidemiology but about a public health issue of another sort: that of misinformation.

You probably know what I’m talking about. There are many people spreading misinformation. Whether through malicious intent, or because they might be able to profit off people’s gullibility, or because they just do not know any better, repeating outright lies on social media is a transgression of the highest order. A few of the kinds of things that you might find out there are (a more extensive list of these things, courtesy of Ryerson University Ted Rogers School of Management Social Media Lab, is found here):

  • Promoting fake tests or cures. As of right now, there is no cure. Do not believe anything that presents as such.
  • Speculation on the origin. The virus was not created in a lab by some country to use as a weapon.
  • Dismissing the severity of the virus. Clearly a political move that comes from the honest desire that many of us have to see our businesses reopened and our jobs returned as soon as possible.
  • Racial, religious, or ethnicity-baiting. Perhaps the most tragic, because it demonstrates how easily many of us fall into blaming others for our situation. This type of malicious falsehood appeals to our basest fears.

And there are more. Ladies and gentlemen, this stuff is dangerous. Lies kill, just like some viruses do.

Unfortunately, one piece of news out there related to COVID-19 is that at a few of the anti-government protests intended to end state shutdowns, there were people displaying openly anti-Semtic signs. One, at a protest in Ohio, featured a cartoon of a blue rat with a Jewish star and a kippah on its head, flanked above and below by blue stripes similar to those on the Israeli flag, with the caption, “The Real Plague.”

Straight-up anti-Semitism aside, the danger here is simple: any kind of information that misleads people, whether intentional or unintentional, has the potential to cause more people to die. There has been dangerous misinformation about the malaria treatment, hydroxychloroquine, which in preliminary studies has not shown any effectiveness in curing people of the virus. The FDA on Friday (April 24th) issued a warning that this drug may cause heart arrhythmia in people with COVID-19.

And this should go without saying, but of course taking disinfectants internally is dangerous and ineffective. (And it’s just a little ridiculous that the company who manufactures Lysol had to issue a public statement to that effect.)

Part of the challenge here is the ease with which we can spread falsehoods today. While it used to be that you needed a printing press to promote misinformation, today anybody with a smartphone can put out lies to the entire world with a few finger taps. 

And that, in my mind, simply elevates the reasons that Jews have always been so invested in our words. Words can give life, as we have seen here today. But they can also, in fact, kill. 

And social media, when misused by anybody to promote misinformation, can kill as well. 

Hevreh, we have a responsibility right now, more than ever, to the truth – to scientific inquiry, to actual medical knowledge, to responsible, sober advice from people that actually know something. Drawing on Jewish tradition, please be discerning regarding what you post/repost. If you read something on Facebook or wherever that sounds like a cure, perhaps you should check it out before spreading it. Because, like the guy with the feather pillows, once it is out there, it cannot be taken back.

We who desire life must commit over and over to highlighting the importance of truth. And right now, anything less than truth can kill. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 4/25/2020.)

Categories
Festivals Sermons

Redemption from (Love-)Sickness – Shabbat Hol HaMo’ed Pesah 5780

It’s been at least a month now, maybe even six weeks, since I have shaken anybody’s hand, and that is probably true for just about all of us. (My wife and kids have kept me adequately supplied with hugs, but we don’t generally shake hands with each other around the house.)

I am going to tell you something about myself, something which some of you may have trouble believing, and that is this: I am NOT a people person. I am a classic introvert, one who draws energy from being alone, rather than from socializing with others. I am no fun at parties – I tend to be checking out the bookshelves and the artwork while others are chattering. Yes, I cover that well – an essential part of my work as a rabbi is to be social. To paraphrase Pirqei Avot (3:17), Im ein schmooze, ein Torah. Without schmoozing, there’s no Torah. We, the Jews, are a sociable people, and rabbis are not monks.

But, if you can believe this, it’s hard for me. There are times, particularly at the end of the day, when I just want to crawl into a hole and listen to NPR, or silence.

The Rothko Chapel in Houston. A great place to appreciate silence.

However, I have found the time at home in the last month harder than I anticipated. Something I have learned about myself in recent weeks is that I need to see people, to chat with them, to relate in person. And I am sure that many of us are feeling that need as well right about now.

A little earlier we read some of Shir HaShirim, one of the most curious and intriguing books of the Tanakh. Some of the questions that might arise about Shir HaShirim are:

  1. This is clearly ancient erotic poetry. What’s it doing in the Tanakh?
  2. Where is God?
  3. Why on Earth do we read this on Shabbat Hol HaMoed Pesah?

Addressing the more obvious challenge, which unites the first two questions, Shir HaShirim is understood in the rabbinic mind as being about the relationship between God and Israel as lovers. There is, indeed, romantic and sexual tension found in the contortions of this relationship; from the Sinai moment until today, God is continually being spurned and then sought again by Israel. (The prophet Hosea, who, if you survey all the haftarot of the year, is the most-read of the minor prophets, allegorizes exactly this relationship in his description of his own faithless marriage.) 

The lovers in Shir HaShirim face a kind of disconnect; while they speak of touching one another, they are often distant, missing each other’s overtures, seeking each other. I must say that this describes to some extent my own personal God experience, and maybe yours as well. 

For example:

2:14

יוֹנָתִ֞י בְּחַגְוֵ֣י הַסֶּ֗לַע בְּסֵ֙תֶר֙ הַמַּדְרֵגָ֔ה הַרְאִ֙ינִי֙ אֶתּ־מַרְאַ֔יִךְ הַשְׁמִיעִ֖ינִי אֶת־קוֹלֵ֑ךְ כִּי־קוֹלֵ֥ךְ עָרֵ֖ב וּמַרְאֵ֥יךְ נָאוֶֽה׃

“O my dove, in the cranny of the rocks, Hidden by the cliff, Let me see your face, Let me hear your voice; For your voice is sweet And your face is comely.”

3:1-2

עַל־מִשְׁכָּבִי֙ בַּלֵּיל֔וֹת בִּקַּ֕שְׁתִּי אֵ֥ת שֶׁאָהֲבָ֖ה נַפְשִׁ֑י בִּקַּשְׁתִּ֖יו וְלֹ֥א מְצָאתִֽיו׃

Upon my couch at night I sought the one I love— I sought, but found him not.

אָק֨וּמָה נָּ֜א וַאֲסוֹבְבָ֣ה בָעִ֗יר בַּשְּׁוָקִים֙ וּבָ֣רְחֹב֔וֹת אֲבַקְשָׁ֕ה אֵ֥ת שֶׁאָהֲבָ֖ה נַפְשִׁ֑י בִּקַּשְׁתִּ֖יו וְלֹ֥א מְצָאתִֽיו׃

“I must rise and roam the town, Through the streets and through the squares; I must seek the one I love.” I sought but found him not.

I spend a great deal of time in tefillah / prayer, lavishing praise upon God (which is what the majority of our statutory prayers consist of). Just as the lover in Shir HaShirim describes the object of her desire in rich, hyperbolic prose, so too do we whenever we open the siddur / prayerbook.

And yet, when we seek, we often do not find God. We yearn, we plead, our mouths overflow with litanies of praise. Some Mizrahi (Eastern) traditions chant Shir HaShirim before Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday evenings; that is not our custom, but we do sing Yedid Nefesh, which draws heavily on imagery from Shir HaShirim: “Nafshi holat ahavatakh,” wrote the poet Rabbi Elazar Azikri in the 16th century. My soul is sick from your love, riffing on 2:5.

It is this unquenched desiring for God’s presence, to find our Eternal Lover, that keeps us connected to our tradition, that reminds us of the ongoing potential for redemption. Rambam describes this imperative in the Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 10:3: 

And what is the proper love? One shall love the Lord with an exceeding great and very strong love so that one’s soul be tied to the love of the Lord, finding oneself in a constant tremor, as if suffering of lovesickness, … This is what Solomon allegorically said: Ki holat ahavah ani / “For I am love-sick” (Songs 2.5). And, the whole book, Shir HaShirim, is an allegory on this subject.

And it is through this love that we are redeemed. The Exodus story is the foundational moment of the loving relationship between Israel and God. The relationship that is defined in the revelation of Torah at Mt. Sinai, a climactic moment that effectively consummates the relationship. Integral to this loving relationship is the idea that God will complete the redemption of Israel: having been brought forth from slavery and brought into the covenantal relationship with Torah, the final stage of redemption is bringing the Israelites into the land promised to them, the land of Israel. 

What happened at Sinai was a wee bit more than a handshake. And that love continues to this day. The Exodus story looms large in Jewish thought and ritual because it is the template for future redemption; love and redemption are intimately intertwined.

Some of you have probably heard me speak about my own personal theology, which dwells heavily on finding God in the interstices of our lives, in the cosmic glue which holds us all together, both from the perspective of physics and of human relationships. 

However, in this particular time, I must say that I want to lean into the traditional understanding of God as the one who, having redeemed us in the past, exemplified by the loving redemption story that Pesah commemorates, will redeem us once again. And I am not hoping for a big Redemption (with a capital R) right now, but rather, just the opportunity to spend time with friends and family again, for my kids to be able to go to the playground again, for me to be able to meet with congregants again and shake hands, as I always do. 

We read Shir HaShirim on Pesah as a sign not only of that great Redemption, but also of the little redemptions that we experience every day. Shir HaShirim reminds us that love is that cosmic glue, and that the minor redemptions on which we depend are never too far away, even if we cannot see them, even as we seek God and do not find.

You are loved, not only by God, of course, but also by the others around you. And although we may not feel their touch right now, although we may not be able to physically reach out, we should take some comfort in knowing that, when we are redeemed, that this brief period of separation, of seeking, of yearning, will heighten the experience of being with each other, in each other’s physical presence once again. 

I eagerly await that day, that redemption. Shabbat shalom and Hag Sameah!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat Hol HaMo’ed Pesah, 4/11/2020.)

Categories
Sermons

Meeting Virtually and Saving Lives – Vayyiqra 5780

While I am working from home, making Zoom calls or phone calls, I try to sit by a window, so I won’t lose sight of Creation. (You may know that a synagogue must have windows, so that one does not forget the world outside.)

Eldridge Street Synagogue, NYC

I have seen so many people walking and bicycling and running by – couples, families, single people out for a quiet, contemplative stroll. All are keeping their distance from one another. It is definitely far less car traffic than I’ve seen, and far more non-car traffic, and that is somewhat reassuring. We have not receded into our caves. We have not forgotten that life goes on.

I want to take a moment to reflect on where we are right now. We are physically distant from one another, but we remain close spiritually. Some of us are probably starting to feel a bit anxious, wondering:

  • How long will this go on? 
  • How long will we be cooped up like chickens? 
  • How long will it be before we can safely see our friends and relatives again in person? 
  • How long will it take for the wave of infections to crest?

I am beginning to hear the frustration, the anger, the tears of members of this community who feel isolated, who have lost their jobs, who cannot get to the store. I am beginning to hear the sound of loneliness, of depression, of anger at our elected officials, whose job it is to keep us safe and properly informed, to craft a responsible, science-based plan and to make good decisions in the context of international crisis.

And I am beginning to hear those things within myself, as well. And the insistent questions: How do we continue to connect as a community? How do I serve my congregation when I cannot be in the same room with them? How do I continue to teach Judaism, to relay the message that our tradition helps us improve ourselves, our lives, and our world, when I am limited to electronic communications? How do I learn of and bring comfort to congregants in distress?

As is obvious, because I am the only person in this sanctuary right now, I have clearly given a green light to the use of Zoom calls on Shabbat. And I know that this is a halakhic challenge. But let me be clear about this: we are in what the rabbis called, “she’at hadehaq,” the hour of urgency. It is not physically safe for us to gather for minyanim, for services. To do so would violate the principle of piqquah nefesh, the saving of a life. I will come back to that in a moment.

First, two brief thoughts from Parashat Vayyiqra:

1. The first verse of the parashah, which is also the first verse of the book of Vayiqra / Leviticus, is a wee bit curious:

וַיִּקְרָ֖א אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר ה֙’ אֵלָ֔יו מֵאֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵ֖ד לֵאמֹֽר׃

God called to Moshe and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting [part of the mishkan / sanctuary complex], saying…

God called, and then spoke. The medieval commentators are all over that. Rashi says something simply lovely: that this is leshon hibbah, language of affection. God does not merely instruct Moshe by enumerating laws; God first calls to him in a tender moment, an endearing opening to indicate God’s closeness. And while the rest of the parashah is dedicated to the straightforward and occasionally grisly details of sacrifices in the ancient Temple, this verse reminds us of the imperative to connect, to express our affection to those with whom we are in relationship.

2. In written sifrei Torah, and in some editions of the humash (like Etz Hayyim and the venerable Hertz), the letter alef at the end of the first word, vayyiqra, is small. My favorite explanation for this is as follows: Comparing the small alef with the large bet at the very beginning of the Torah, in the word “bereshit,” (in the beginning), and, knowing that alef has the numerical value of one and bet is two, we learn that Torah must be studied in partnership. When we learn Torah with a partner, we make ourselves greater; when we study alone, we miss something, and we become smaller. Two is always greater than one, not just numerically, but also spiritually.

It is a fundamental statement about the nature of our tradition. The smallest element of doing Jewish, of living Judaism, is two people, learning together, in relationship.

Ladies and gentlemen, we find ourselves in a very real, very dangerous situation, and our primary goal as a society right now is not to overwhelm our healthcare system. About 10-20% of people who are infected with COVID-19 require hospitalization; some of those will require ventilators; and a small number of those will die.  What percentage is still unknown, but it is definitely much higher than the number who succumb to the flu. If the virus continues to spread unchecked, then the need for hospital beds and ventilators will quickly outstrip the availability of those items, and doctors and hospitals will be forced to decide who lives and who dies. 

As you may know, the principle of piqquah nefesh overrides every single mitzvah in our tradition save three prohibitions: worshipping idols, committing murder, or any of the prohibited sexual liaisons. 

Meanwhile, we have the imperative in Pirqei Avot (2:5): Al tifrosh min hatzibbur. Do not separate yourself from your community. We are a communal people, and we are obligated to be together, to be in relationship with one another, to be a qehillah, a congregation. We learn this not only from the first word in Vayyiqra, but throughout our tradition. Relationship is fundamental to Judaism.

The Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, while not expressly permitting it, gave us a basis on which we can rely for counting a minyan virtually. I am reading from their Letter of Rabbinic Guidance on the subject:

The classic sources (Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 55:13, and others cited by Rabbi Reisner) require that a minyan be located in one physical space. However, Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 55:14 does open the possibility that there may be an exception by joining in to constitute a minyan if one can see the faces of the other participants: “One who is standing behind the synagogue, with a window between that person and the congregation, even if it is several stories up and less than four cubits wide, and who shows his face to them, may combine with them to form a minyan of ten.

The possibility of a minyan being constituted by people who are not physically near each other is further expanded by Rabbi Yitzhak Zilberstein in Hashukei Hemed on Berakhot 21b (p. 135), where he permits constituting a minyan for kaddish yatom (Mourner’s Kaddish) where people are scattered in a field but can see each other. Recently Rabbi Haim Ovadia called attention to this source, arguing in favor of constituting a minyan by means of real-time video and audio connection between ten Jews. Therefore, in this crisis situation, a number of us are of the opinion that a ruling relying on these precedents should be issued.

So yes, the CJLS concedes that this is not ideal; the ideal remains to gather as a community in physical proximity. But this is what we have right now. If this is the only space in which we can gather, then we should gather in it.

In this hour of urgency, and coupled with the principle of saving lives, and relying on a lenient reading of ancient texts, we ARE gathering. We are responding to one another; we are still a qehillah, a congregation. And not just for services – also for all types of learning.

So thank God. Because we need this. We need this right now more than ever. I am grateful that our attendance at weekly minyanim has been higher than it has ever been in the nearly five years I have been in Pittsburgh. We are now averaging 30 people in the morning and 40 in the evening. And I cannot see how many people are on this call right now, but I know it’s a bunch. We are gathering. We are not separating ourselves. And we are saving lives.

Once again, thank God. Thank God for the resiliency of our tradition, and thank God that the Conservative movement is willing to engage with our tradition in a living way, in a way that reflects the needs of the moment. 

We need each other right now. We need to call out to each other with affection; we need to learn Torah together; we need to gather on Pesah, even if we have to do it via electronic means, which are clearly not ideal. Welcome to she’at hadehaq, the hour of urgency.

Remember that, as I said last week, our tradition offers us the framework, the guidance, the values that will get us through this. Take advantage of the tools we have; they will help keep us spiritually nourished and strong in order to stay safe and healthy. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered via livestream from Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 3/28/2020.)