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On Being Imperfect – Emor 5781

I am feeling at least as much anxiety right now as I have throughout the pandemic, and that is despite the fact that I am fully vaccinated.

Why? Because it is easy to shut things down, and just say no to all forms of gathering in person. It is easy to say, you must always wear a mask when you are around other people, or stay 6 feet away from others, and so forth.

It is not quite as easy to make cautious decisions about restarting all the things that we stopped more than a year ago. It is not so easy to say, some may come and others may not, due to their vaccination status. It is not so easy to differentiate between what is permissible outdoors vs. indoors, etc. 

And we have all been in this anxious mode for so long, it is not so simple to turn it off. I went to see my optometrist this week, my first real in-person appointment with a health-care provider in more than a year. And despite the fact that I and the optometrist are both vaccinated, it was still very strange for us to be in a small room, so close to each other. We wore masks, of course. 

We are going to be in this limbo phase for a long time, it seems – until children can be vaccinated, until we know for certain that we are sufficiently protected from the more infectious or more deadly variants. I fear that, for many of us, our anxiety level will remain quite palpable for some time.

One of the lingering concerns that I have, after 13.5 months of isolation and anxiety and uncertainty, is what loss to the Jewish world and the Jewish future that the pandemic will have caused. We have not had in-person Youth Tefillah for all of that time. Registration at both our Early Learning Center and JJEP has been lower than a “normal” year. We have canceled two Family Benei Mitzvah Retreats. And so forth.

Students learning at JJEP, the shared religious school between Beth Shalom and Rodef Shalom

Now, as an astute observer of Jewish life commented on Facebook not too long ago, the Qadosh Barukh Hu is grading on a curve this year. Nonetheless, my feeling is that we have so few opportunities in today’s always-on-the-go society to get Judaism into our children, that a loss of so many things in the past year will have a long-lasting impact on what our kids know and how connected they feel.

These are valuable hours that will never be regained.

So that is a burden that I feel I am carrying with me, as I consider my tiny role in the chain of Jewish tradition. I am sure that you all have similar types of burdens, about your work, your family, your relationships, and so forth.

I must say that the pandemic has reminded me over and over how imperfect I am, how flawed all of our lives are. 

Which brings me to Parashat Emor, and what we read today about the Kohanim / priesthood. One of the things we read about this morning was perfection in the context of the ritual sacrifices that took place in the mishkan, and later in the Beit HaMiqdash / Temple in Jerusalem:

דַּבֵּ֥ר אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֖ן לֵאמֹ֑ר אִ֣ישׁ מִֽזַּרְעֲךָ֞ לְדֹרֹתָ֗ם אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִהְיֶ֥ה בוֹ֙ מ֔וּם לֹ֣א יִקְרַ֔ב לְהַקְרִ֖יב לֶ֥חֶם אֱ-לֹהָֽיו׃

Speak to Aaron and say: No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his God. (Vayiqra / Leviticus 21:17)

Not long after this statement about the perfection of the individual kohanim offering the sacrifices, we find:

כֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־בּ֥וֹ מ֖וּם לֹ֣א תַקְרִ֑יבוּ כִּי־לֹ֥א לְרָצ֖וֹן יִהְיֶ֥ה לָכֶֽם׃

You shall not offer any [animal] that has a defect, for it will not be accepted in your favor. (Vayiqra / Leviticus 22:20)

The Torah insists that everything involved with the sacrificial offering is flawless: the kohen offering it, and the animal being offered. Of course, that expectation could not be put on the person actually bringing the sacrifice, whom, in many cases, would be bringing it because he or she had transgressed in some way.

And that expectation of perfection in ritual still plays out to some extent today. We expect that the person leading services does so fluently in Hebrew, and does not mis-pronounce words, and that this person is Jewishly observant Jew and a model citizen. We expect that the Torah is read perfectly, such that (at least, when we are doing so in person) we even have two people standing by to correct the reader in the event that she or he makes an error. And that is why we teach our children the language and the words and rituals of Jewish life, so that they can offer their own supplications and praise and requests and Torah in a way that comports with our tradition.

But, after a year of isolation, and grief, and economic and social chaos and upheaval, I occasionally feel that I am a broken vessel. I am flawed in ways that we are all flawed. Even as Congregation Beth Shalom goes from strength to strength despite the pandemic – anointing a solar roof, hiring a Development Director and a new Executive Director – I am feeling inadequate in the face of all the lost hours of Torah, the future of Judaism and the Jewish world slipping through our hands with every passing week of not gathering in person. 

I wake up in the middle of the night wondering, have I done enough to teach our tradition? Have I worked hard enough to help you all appreciate the value and meaning of Torah? Have I reached out to enough people to bring comfort and inspiration? Have I sufficiently grieved, or celebrated, or chanted or pleaded or inveighed for or against? Have I been the rabbi that you all need in this moment? Have I been the husband that I ought to be? Have I been the father that I ought to be? The son? The cousin? The friend?

Ladies and gentlemen, I can only offer myself. And I am far from perfect. And I am certain that many of us have similar doubts about ourselves. 

Fortunately, despite the strict imperative to perfection in Parashat Emor, there are other opinions on the Jewish bookshelf.

זִֽבְחֵ֣י אֱ-לֹהִים֮ ר֪וּחַ נִשְׁבָּ֫רָ֥ה לֵב־נִשְׁבָּ֥ר וְנִדְכֶּ֑ה אֱ֝-לֹהִ֗ים לֹ֣א תִבְזֶֽה׃

True sacrifice to God is a contrite spirit; God, You will not despise a contrite and crushed heart. (Tehillim / Psalm 51:19)

The Psalmist is teaching us that it is not only acceptable for us to be imperfect, but that is the absolutely the correct way to offer sacrifice to God. We offer ourselves, our imperfection of spirit in prayer, in meditation, in reflection. Furthermore, that line is just two verses after 

אֲ֭דֹנָי שְׂפָתַ֣י תִּפְתָּ֑ח וּ֝פִ֗י יַגִּ֥יד תְּהִלָּתֶֽךָ׃

O Lord, open my lips, and let my mouth declare Your praise. (Tehillim / Psalm 51:17)

You may recognize this as the line that is murmured in silence before the Amidah, as we take three steps forward (and three steps back first, if necessary) to enter the court of God in true, reflective prayer, prayer which is offered in earnest sacrifice of the soul on the metaphoric altar of awareness.

Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk, an early 19th-century Ḥasidic rabbi, in a statement that riffs on the line from Psalms, teaches us that, “There is nothing so whole as a broken heart.” It is this line that my teacher Rabbi Ed Feld drew on when he titled the siddur that some of us are holding right now, “Lev Shalem,” which literally means, “a full heart.” We enter tefillah with a broken heart, with the intent to make it complete again.

It is in fact the very intent of our tradition to offer ourselves in prayer, imperfect though we are, as dissatisfied with ourselves and our behavior as we are. 

That is the whole point.

A few years back, when I was on Long Island, a curious thing happened. In an effort to put out practical reading material in the synagogue lobby, I ordered a bunch of pamphlets from a Jewish publisher that were aimed at people who were having difficult times, emotionally and spiritually. The titles were things like, “Caring For Your Aging Parents,” “Bringing Your Sadness to God,” “Coping With the Death of a Spouse,” and so forth. You may have seen these – they are in many synagogue lobbies, and they are written from a Jewish perspective.

A former president of the synagogue, who had invested many, many years in helping to build and support the congregation, saw this and told me, “We cannot have these here. This is not us. This is not who we are.” 

What I think she was saying was, “We are not the kind of people who acknowledge our pain and grief in public. We are stronger than that.” Her knee-jerk reaction was to recoil from the idea that people could see and embrace their own vulnerability.

Being a young rabbi, a year or two out of rabbinical school, and lacking the hutzpah to respond properly, I said nothing. But the display of pamphlets stayed up, and people took them home and read them. Because actually, that is us.

We offer ourselves. And we are not perfect.

And as we look forward to the near future and anticipate that we will soon gather once again, remember that whatever burden you are carrying, whatever anxiety you might be feeling, whatever brokenness you might perceive in your life right now, you are not alone. We are all imperfect, and we are all in this together. That is what synagogue, and tefillah, and Torah are for.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 5/1/2021.)

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Sermons

The Kibitzer and the Stop Sign – Emor 5777

Many of you know that Abe Salem (z”l) passed away this week. He was the former minyan leader and Torah reader here at Beth Shalom. As I was preparing for the funeral, I watched the video he made for the Holocaust Center (we sent out the link with the death announcement), and of course struggled to understand him, because he used to switch back and forth between English and Yiddish. So that got me thinking about Yiddish, and then I realized that one thing that we Jews have given to the world is the kibitzer.

What is a kibitzer? Definitions vary. Some kibitzers are funny people, joking and making fun and generally spreading good cheer. Some kibitzers offer unwanted advice. Some are there to throw off the rhythm of others engaged in serious activities, like playing chess or cards.

kibitzer

My wife recalled to me that when she was a little girl, her mother would play cards with her Hungarian friends, and ask Judy to be a kibitzer, but she was not sure exactly what that meant; neither of them spoke Yiddish. (BTW, I checked my trusty Modern English-Yiddish / Yiddish-English Dictionary, by Uriel Weinreich, and apparently the correct English term for “kibitz” is “kibitz.”

But we all know these characters. They are a standard feature of Jewish life steeped in Eastern European ethnicity. Wherever these Jews gathered, historically, there were kibitzers. Along with the nudnik, the schnorrer, and the yente, they form a certain stratum of Jewish society that serve as social connectors. They were part of the fabric of Jewish life that marked close neighborhoods, in which everybody knew each other (and of course each other’s business). We have a talent for connecting people together, and we have particular people that do it in particular ways.

(FYI: nudnik is a pest; schnorrer is a beggar, or somebody who takes advantage of others’ generosity; and a yente is a busybody.)

Of course, as a group, most American Jews today, even though we are mostly descended from people who knew these roles and the people who played them, we no longer have that sense of ethnic interconnectedness. Squirrel Hill, it seems, is something of a throwback among Jewish neighborhoods, but even so, many have told me that it’s not what it used to be. And

And the same is true for the wider society in which we live. As the saying goes, the Jews are like everybody else, only moreso.

There are many little ways through which we demonstrate our awareness of and respect for others around us. One small example is how drivers behave at stop signs.

stop

Back on Long Island, I used to live right by an intersection with a four-way stop. From my kitchen window, I could see cars driving through the intersection without stopping all the time. Some slowed down. Some did not. (Some seemed to actually speed up as they were approaching.)

Now, I cannot say that I myself have never rolled through a stop, or exceeded the speed limit. But I think it’s notable that we are living in a time in which it is almost expected that, except when one is in the presence of a law enforcement officer, certain illegal driving behaviors are ubiquitous.

The sociologist Robert Putnam, whom you have probably heard me mention in this space before, wrote a seminal work of contemporary sociology called Bowling Alone, in which he documents the decline of interconnectedness in our society, and the consequences thereof. One of his measures of this sense of interconnectedness is, if you can believe this, stop sign behavior.

A long-term study of intersections in New York, cited by Putnam, yielded this: in 1979, when the study began, 37 percent came to a full stop. In 1996, 97 percent did not stop at all.

Traffic laws, health and safety standards, business regulations, and so forth – these are all designed to create a just society in which people are safe from the yetzer hara, the evil inclination of others. They are all reflections of a deeper set of principles, which the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau referred to as the social contract: that in order to live in a free society, we as individuals must surrender a few freedoms to protect most of the others.

The Torah, of course, contains principles of law which govern our public behavior, to benefit the general good. One such example is that when you build a house, you must put a parapet around the edge of your roof, to prevent people from falling off (Deut. 22:8). Another is that if you dig a hole in your yard, and somebody’s ox falls in and breaks its leg, you are responsible to pay monetary damages for the ox (Ex. 21:33). And there are many more such examples.

And a whole order of the Mishnah, one sixth of that earliest rabbinic work, is dedicated to what we call today tort law. It’s called Neziqin, “damages.” And several tractates of the gemara are likewise devoted to these cases.

The point, of course, is not merely to protect people or make sure they do not get hurt, but also to maintain our sense of awareness of the other. If you think about your neighbor’s safety, you are going to want to build a parapet on your roof and not leave dangerous holes in your yard. You want to protect the people around you from harm. You care about them. As with every good habit, it takes practice, consistency, and a healthy dose of mindfulness. That’s what the Torah and the Talmud are going for.

So the stop sign is one side of that interconnectedness: the things that we do to protect others from harm. But the other side is the social connection that happens organically when people gather together. And that brings us back to the kibitzer, and to Parashat Emor, which we read this morning.

It’s not explicitly stated, and it’s not really something you can glean from the English translation, and that message is this: some of the holy opportunities of Jewish life are for you singular, the individual. And some of them are for you plural, the collective. Society writ large. And all of them are, as Katriel suggested earlier, for the sake of Qiddush HaShem, sanctifying God’s name.

Last week, in Parashat Qedoshim, we read the Holiness Code, a kind of guide to the kinds of interpersonal mitzvot / holy opportunities that help set up a just society. But mostly they are for individuals, and the language of the Torah reflects that: Do not profit from the blood of your neighbor. Do not bear a grudge. You should not use dishonest measures in the marketplace. And so forth.

But this week in Parashat Emor, we find the holiday cycle, and those mitzvot are in plural. Since we’re in Pittsburgh, yinz all know what the correct colloquial plural for the second person nominative pronoun is. Yinz shall keep My appointed times. Yinz shall observe Passover for seven days. And so forth.

Why plural for the festival cycle? Because those are the things that we do as a group, as Am Yisrael. The suggestion is, yes, you might be able to maintain the holiness in your individual relationships on a one-on-one basis, but yinz better be celebrating together. Because that’s what Jews do. We are individuals who are part of a collective. When we are together, we make a greater whole, and those are the times when we are closest to God.

And whom do you encounter at these group observances and celebrations? The kibitzers, of course, and everybody else.

So you may want to consider this the next time you come to a stop sign, but even more than that, think about it as we kibitz at the luncheon today, and the next week, and for Shavuot in two weeks, and so forth:

If you are doing Jewish right, you are sensitized to and aware of all the people around you. That is what our tradition is for. And that is what we stand for as we make the words of Jewish life and learning alive for us today.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 5/13/2017.)