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Hope, Ancient and Modern – Emor 5782

Last Wednesday, I was having dinner with my family on our back porch, and we saw our first hummingbird of the season! We have a hummingbird feeder out there that the ruby-throated hummingbirds come to, and since they move fast and do not spend a lot of time at the feeder, you have to be paying attention in order to see them. They return in April, and it is always exciting to see one. We also have a robins’ nest just outside our kitchen door, with four pale blue eggs in it. The birds fill me with hope for an enjoyable summer, but also the hope of return: of the constancy of life, that the Earth wakes up in the spring, that we all feel a little renewed. (The renewal that comes in spring is one reason, by the way, that Nisan is the first month of the year, and Pesaḥ is the actual Jewish new year festival, despite whatever goes on in the fall.)

You might have heard that we passed a grim milestone this week: one million American deaths from Covid-19. It is a lamentable fact that our proud nation has lost the largest absolute number of people to Covid in the world, and among wealthy nations we have the highest per-capita death rate as well, about 300 total deaths per 100,000 people since the start of the pandemic. 

And of course, death and sickness, although perhaps the most easily quantifiable measures of what the pandemic has caused, are not the only tragic outcomes. There is the unemployment, the inflation, the “supply-chain issues,” the rates of depression and anxiety and suicide and drug abuse and overdoses, the disruption of schools and workplaces and houses of worship. The list goes on.

But thank God, despite the persistence of new variants, despite the fact that Pittsburgh Public Schools just reinstated their mask mandate after only two weeks without, we are in a much better place at this moment. Thank God for the human ingenuity which has enabled us to produce effective vaccines in record time. Thank God for the resilience of the human spirit. 

We, the Jews, know something about resilience; we have been on this Earth for a long time, relating our Torah, our Teaching, from generation to generation for thousands of years. And we are still here, having survived centuries of persecution and dispersion and prejudice and genocide.

Why are we still here? Is it something in the smoked fish? Is it because we chant Ashrei responsively in Hebrew every Shabbat morning? Is it because of God?

Perhaps we are still here because of hope. Maybe it is because, despite all that we have been through as a people, we have not abandoned that hope: Hatiqvah bat shenot alpayim, the hope of 2,000 years; hatiqvah hanoshanah, the ancient hope, in the original wording of Naftali Herz Imber.

We are a hopeful people, and we have learned that from the very outset. You may know that there is a midrash, of which I am particularly fond, about the creation of the world – that God created and destroyed many worlds before arriving at the one described in the first chapter of Bereshit / Genesis, at the beginning of the Torah. At some point, and particularly after the flood story of Noaḥ, God realized that no world would be perfect, and that God would therefore have to stick with this one and hope for the best.

And there is evidence of hope in Parashat Emor, from which we read today. Much of the parashah is instructions to the Kohanim, the priestly class of ancient Israelites who performed the sacrifices in the Beit haMiqdash, the Temple in Jerusalem until it was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 CE. In that moment of destruction, the role of the Kohanim as spiritual leaders of the Jews vanished, and for the past 2,000 years, they have had effectively no clear role in Jewish life. (Yes, in some congregations they get the first aliyah to the Torah, and in some they ascend the bimah to recite the Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Blessing, over all the rest of us, although we do not follow either practice here at Beth Shalom.)

And yet, here in Parashat Emor, the Torah is explicit: the Kohanim, in order to maintain their distinctive, holy status, must follow certain laws. Among those things are not being exposed to tum’at met, the ritual impurity that comes from contact with corpses, and a male kohen is forbidden from marrying a divorced woman. (I am not commenting here on how to understand these laws today – that is a subject for another sermon.) If they do not follow these laws, they are not permitted to offer the sacrifices in the Beit haMiqdash, the Temple.

And there are many Kohanim today who continue to practice these mitzvot, even though there is no Beit haMiqdash, and no immediate plans to build it. 

Now, wait a minute. Kohanim are following ancient rules that absolutely no longer apply. Why? Because of hope. Because we know that, as slim as the chances are, they might someday be called upon to serve again, or their children or grandchildren.

And all the more so in the Conservative movement, where we have de-emphasized the idea of rebuilding the Temple and re-establishing the sacrificial cult. We have a better, traditional means of accessing God, that which we are engaged in right now: tefillah / prayer. The recitation of the Amidah three times each day replaces the daily sacrifices in the Beit haMiqdash. And we are OK with that. So we simply are not planning on rebuilding that Third Temple. And yet we also hope that the messianic vision of a peaceful world is still waiting for us. 

The retention of some of the practices of the Kohanim is a reminder that we always hold out hope for the future. We never cut our ties with the past, and we are eternally hopeful that some day we will live in a better world, a time of peace. You can see that vision, the vision of Isaiah (11:6) in the window over here to your right:

וְגָ֤ר זְאֵב֙ עִם־כֶּ֔בֶשׂ וְנָמֵ֖ר עִם־גְּדִ֣י יִרְבָּ֑ץ

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard lie down with the kid;

From the Faye Rubinstein Weiss Sanctuary at Beth Shalom

(Unfortunately, the window misquotes Isaiah, as does popular culture; the text does not say that the “lion will lie down with the lamb.” Oh, well.)

As an expression of hope, we continue to pray for that ultimate peace; that is why we conclude each Amidah with Oseh shalom bimromav… May the One who makes peace on high bring us peace here on Earth.

Consider also the tiqvah bat shenot alpayim, the hope of 2,000 years, the yearning for return that is evident throughout our history, our literature, and our prayer, that led to the establishment of the State of Israel, which has just celebrated its 74th birthday. Zionism is one of many forms of yearning in the Jewish soul, and that tiqvah, that hope, has yielded fruit far beyond the fantasies of any shtetl-dwelling Jew of the 19th century. We continue to hope and pray for peace in that land, for all its inhabitants. 

Consider also that in Emor there is a brief reprise of the essential agricultural laws, which appeared last week in Qedoshim as well: leaving the corners of our fields unharvested to allow people in need to take food (Vayiqra / Leviticus 23:22). We continue to give in the hope that someday there will be no need to do so.

We have our tefillah / our prayer. We have our text. We have our rituals and customs. And we have our hope.

As has been the case throughout much of the Jewish history of the last two millennia, we have many reasons to despair right now. But, as the 20th-century French-Jewish essayist Edmond Fleg once stated so incisively, 

Je suis juif, parce qu’en tous temps où crie une désespérance, le juif espère.

I am a Jew because in every age when the cry of despair is heard, the Jew hopes.

We mourn for those whom we have lost to Covid-19, and we, the living, acknowledge our gratitude that we are still here.

And we also continue to hold out hope that, even as we gather again, even as we move from pandemic to endemic, even as we face all of the challenges of our world, we will someday soon have a better world, one which is untroubled by all of our contemporary scourges, one in which wolf, lamb, leopard, and kid are all dwelling together, and the birds of spring bring renewal of spirit once again.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 5/14/2022.)

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Sermons

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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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.)