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No Fear – Ki Tetze 5780

As I stand here today, filled with pride as my daughter was called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah, I cannot help but think about how, just a few weeks after you were born, we were at a Shabbat dinner at Temple Israel of Great Neck, and I was leading the song based on the words of Rabbi Nahman of Breslov, “Kol ha’olam kulo, gesher tzar me-od, veha’iqqar lo lefahed kelal.” The whole world is a narrow bridge, and the most essential thing is not to fear at all. She was so tiny; I was actually holding her in one hand.

Our lives are, in fact, moving forward along that narrow bridge. And nothing has reminded me of the precarious nature of human life more than the coronavirus pandemic, which has brought a new level of fear back into our day-to-day existence like no other experience in recent memory.

But you, Hannah, you hold the future in your hands, along with all your peers. And we will depend on you lo lefahed – not to be afraid. 

When Hannah and I sat down back in the winter to start working on her devar Torah, we reviewed the entirety of Parashat Ki Tetze, which she chanted this morning, we encountered the mitzvah, the holy opportunity, that is referred to in rabbinic literature as “shilluah haqen.” If you find a mother bird in a nest with her chicks, and you want to take the chicks as food, the Torah requires us to shoo away the mother bird, so she will not see you taking her chicks. If you perform this mitzvah, the Torah says, you will be rewarded with long life. 

I reminded Hannah that this is my favorite mitzvah. “I know, Abba,” she said.

So why is this my favorite mitzvah? Many of you know that I am a vegetarian, and I certainly do not go about looking for nests and chicks to eat. Rather, it is because the mitzvah of shilluah haqen speaks to so much of what we value as Jews.

First, it relates to a principle that Hannah spoke about earlier: that of tza’ar ba’alei hayyim, the prevention of cruelty to animals. We value the life of all of God’s creatures: maintain life, says the Torah, and you are rewarded with life. Compassion even for God’s smallest creatures is a reflection of the qedushah, holiness in the human spirit. 

Closely tied to that is the sense of wise use and respect for the resources that have been given to us. We do need to eat, and many people like to eat animals. So we can do that, provided that (a) we ensure that the mother bird lives to create more life, and (b) that she does not suffer the emotional stress of watching her children taken from her. 

And the third item is related to a story that the Talmud tells about this mitzvah. A character named Elishah ben Avuyah, who receives the finest rabbinic education from the best teachers of the ancient world, including Rabbi Akiva, loses his faith. He witnesses a young boy climbing up into a tree to get some chicks from a nest. The boy shoos away the mother bird, fulfilling the mitzvah of shilluah haqen, and then falls from the tree and dies. He does not receive the Torah’s promised reward of long life. Elishah’s entire theological framework falls apart. He becomes the most famous apostate in Jewish tradition, referred to often only as Aher, “the other,” because he othered himself.

What value comes from this story? Why did the rabbis include this and other tales of a famous apostate?

The value is that Elishah ben Avuyah is the outlier. That we can, in fact, maintain faith even in the face of evidence that shakes our understanding of the world. Despite what it says all over the Torah, we know that sometimes bad things happen to good people. And vice versa.  Jewish theology (and I am saying this in full acknowledgment that Rosh Hashanah is three weeks from today) is not so simplistic. 

Our tradition still holds a great appeal for many of us. Why? Because even though we often understand that literal readings of our text do not always hold up, nonetheless, this ancient framework, which we have upheld for a couple thousand years, is still quite valuable in nurturing and sustaining us. 

Hevreh, we are facing challenges unlike any seen before in my lifetime. The pandemic, of course. The resurgence of anti-Semitism, which yielded the bloodiest attack on a synagogue in American history, just a few blocks from where I stand. The ongoing scourge of racism, coded and overt.

And, thrown into the mix is the ability that bad actors possess today to spread falsehood so easily.

Many of you may have heard of QAnon for the first time in recent weeks. I am actually ashamed and embarrassed that this deliberate attempt to manipulate people with the most outrageous types of conspiratorial falsehoods has made it to this level of visibility. 

QAnon is an online conspiracy theory that claims that a cult of pedophiles is controlling our government; it also includes anti-Semitic accusations against “the Rothschilds” and of course, Hungarian Holocaust survivor and financier George Soros. A community of followers of QAnon has grown around the conspiracy, and soon a congressional district in Georgia will likely be represented by a woman who has publicly stated her support of the QAnon conspiracy

(BTW, a JTA article this week pointed out that two years ago she shared a video that indulges in the horrible anti-Semitic Great Replacement Theory, which posits that Jews are actively recruiting brown-skinned migrants to replace white people in Europe and North America; this is the idea that motivated David Bowers to attack the synagogue here in Pittsburgh.)

In a related vein, I am concerned that when a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available (bimherah beyameinu / speedily in our days), many people will not receive it due to misinformation. A recent poll indicated that 40% of Americans say they will not get the vaccine; some will refuse it because of their concerns around vaccine safety, which have been thoroughly debunked, and some are convinced that the coronavirus is just a hoax.

And, lest you think that online falsehoods are limited to a gullible American audience, you might be surprised to know that in the United Kingdom, people are attacking telecom workers who are putting up infrastructure for the new 5G data network, because manipulators online have convinced many that 5G technology actually causes COVID-19 sickness.

We the Jews know the dangers of the widespread dissemination of such falsehoods. The infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a Russian forgery originally published in 1903 that supposedly documented the Jewish conspiracy for world domination, was a pretext for state-sponsored Russian pogroms. (It was later published by Henry Ford in the US, by the way.)

It was the falsehoods that Adolf Hitler published in Mein Kampf, and later screamed into a microphone, that enabled the Sho’ah, the Nazi Holocaust that murdered nearly a third of our people during World War II.

It’s easy to lose hope, like Elishah ben Avuyah. This is not the way the world is supposed to work. This is not what God promised us.

But I am going to remind us all that Elishah is an outlier. He succumbed to the fear that God is not with us. We must remember that the forces of lies and chaos have always been there, and it is up to us, to the righteous ones, not to lose faith, not to succumb.

The real value of our tradition is not the literal reward of “long life.” Rather, the real value of our tradition, as well as that of Christianity and Islam and really every other major religious tradition, is the essential behavioral values that are held up by our traditional texts for us to pursue:

  • The value of compassion, as exemplified by shilluah haqen.
  • The value of truth (Exodus 23:7):  מִדְּבַר־שֶׁ֖קֶר תִּרְחָ֑ק / Middevar sheqer tirhaq. Distance yourself from falsehood.
  • The value of humility (Isaiah 57:15, which appears in the haftarah on Yom Kippur morning) : מָר֥וֹם וְקָד֖וֹשׁ אֶשְׁכּ֑וֹן וְאֶת־דַּכָּא֙ וּשְׁפַל־ר֔וּחַ לְהַחֲיוֹת֙ ר֣וּחַ שְׁפָלִ֔ים וּֽלְהַחֲי֖וֹת לֵ֥ב נִדְכָּאִֽים׃

… I dwell on high, in holiness; Yet with the contrite and the humble — Reviving the spirits of the humble, Reviving the hearts of the contrite.

  • The value of community: Kol Yisra’el arevim zeh bazeh (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 27b). All of us are guarantors for each other. We are interdependent, and we must behave as such. And that goes not only for our Jewish neighbors, but for all of them.
  • The value of freedom, and we have a whole 8-day holiday dedicated to that (Pesah): the responsibility not only to protect our own safety and freedom, but to guarantee those things for others. 
  • The value of tzedakah / charitable giving, for which the Talmud tells us that there is no limit.

And so forth. You know, some people might criticize religious practice as arcane at best, and irrelevant or potentially dangerous at worst. You might have heard people say that all wars have been caused by religion, etc.

But I’ll tell you this: if we follow it, if we commit ourselves to performing the mitzvot, our tradition drives us to be better people. Religious practice, and Jewish practice in particular, living Jewish values, will help create a better world, one marked by the “long life” of which the Torah speaks. And if we lose our faith to the forces of lies and chaos, the world will descend into an unholy pit, from which humanity may never emerge.

So I turn to my daughter Hannah on this day, and implore you thus:

The world that we need you and your peers to create is the one that is hopeful, not hopeless. That is filled with compassion; in which we act with humility; in which we strive for truth and justice in all our dealings; in which we always remember that our essential task in life is to remember the qedushah, the holiness of the other, and act on the Divine imperative to raise the total amount of holiness in this world. 

והעיקר לא לפחד כלל

Veha’iqqar lo lefahed kelal. And the most essential thing is not to fear at all. Now build that world.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 8/29/2020.)

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Sermons

Being Honest With Ourselves – Ki Tetze 5779

In his short story, Tallit Aheret, (“Another Prayer Shawl”), the great Israeli writer Shemuel Yosef Agnon, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966, speaks of an ineffective Yom Kippur. He goes to his grandfather’s synagogue for services, where his tallit awaits him, and one thing after another distract him from actually praying, from being able to seek teshuvah / return on that day.

He arrives late (during Pesuqei Dezimra, which, BTW, many of us consider “early”), the old men will not offer him a seat, he is attacked by a pitcher of fruit juice, and when he finally dons his tallit, somebody points out that it is not kosher – it is missing one of the four tzitziyyot, the specially-tied strands that hang down at the corners. It is a symbol of death – some have the custom of deliberately making a tallit pesulah (not kosher) before burying it with its owner, by removing one of the tzitziyyot. The speaker grieves for himself, and realizes that the holy day has passed “belo tefillah uvelo kelum.” Without prayer and without anything.

Agnon speaks in a language that is rich with metaphor, but one possible way of reading the story is this: it is absolutely possible to show up for Yom Kippur and go through the motions, and not actually succeed in plumbing the depths that one must plumb in order to achieve teshuvah. I am certain that many of us fast through to the shofar blast at the end and not actually achieve anything – lo tefillah velo kelum – no actual prayer, to put Yom Kippur aside for another year.

The overwhelming number of captivating and indeed relevant mitzvot found in Parashat Ki Tetze is breathtaking. Just a brief sampling:

  • We are forbidden from taking a worker’s tool in pawn, so that she/he cannot make a living
  • Shilluah haqen – we must shoo away the mother bird before taking the nestlings (a curious, yet significant mitzvah)
  • Shikhehah– produce from our fields that is forgotten must be left behind for the needy, and several other associated mitzvot
  • We may not be indifferent to our neighbors (we’ll speak about that one at Kol Nidrei)
  • We must use honest weights and measures in business

That last one is particularly important right now, a mere two weeks out from the beginning of the seventh month of Tishrei, the “holy month” of the Jewish calendar, and in particular the cycle of teshuvah / repentance followed by celebration. But first, a story, this one courtesy of Rabbi David Wolpe:

One Shabbat morning, a rabbi gave her congregation an assignment: study Psalm 153, because we are going to take a deep dive into it during the sermon next Shabbat morning.

The following week, after the Torah is put away, the rabbi says, “Shabbat shalom! I asked you last week to read Psalm 153. Raise your hand if you read it.”

Two-thirds of the people in the room raise their hands.

“Well, that’s too bad,” says the rabbi. “Because there IS NO Psalm 153, and today’s sermon is about lying.”

So we are talking about lying, but not what you might be thinking of. The Torah tells us, as I mentioned, not to have two sets of weights and measures (Deut. 25:15-16)

אֶבֶן שְׁלֵמָה וָצֶדֶק יִהְיֶה-לָּךְ, אֵיפָה שְׁלֵמָה וָצֶדֶק יִהְיֶה-לָּךְ–לְמַעַן, יַאֲרִיכוּ יָמֶיךָ, עַל הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר-ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ.  כִּי תוֹעֲבַת ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ, כָּל-עֹשֵׂה אֵלֶּה, כֹּל עֹשֵׂה עָוֶל

You shall have a perfect and just weight; you shall have a perfect and just measure, that your days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God gives you. For all that do these things, all that do unrighteously, are an abomination unto the LORD your God.

Ibn Ezra, the great 12th-century Spanish commentator, does us the favor of interpolating the latter verse to explain that the “unrighteous” things described are neither limited to falsifying weights and measures to swindle your customer, nor any other deceptive business practice, but any sort of deception or falsehood. The Torah mandates that we treat each other with honesty, and the reward for doing so will be long life.

But I would like to extend the thinking from the external to the internal. Of course, the Torah expects us to deal honestly with each other. But reading between the lines, the Torah also expects us to deal honestly with ourselves.

Welcome to Elul! We are already halfway through the month in which we must start thinking about dealing honestly with ourselves; we’ve been blowing the shofar every morning at minyan for two weeks. This is the time in which we should be taking, if you will, a spiritual inventory, asking ourselves the tough questions, like:

  • Have I mistreated anyone in the past year?
  • Have I not fulfilled promises?
  • Have I let anger cloud my judgment?
  • Have I been too critical of others?  
  • Have I judged others without walking in their shoes?
  • Have I judged myself unfairly?

There are many such questions we could ask ourselves during Elul. (If you would like some more for your own personal review, find them here.)

And here is the REALLY hard part: you have to answer honestly.

I know, I know. You’d really rather watch funny videos on YouTube than answer difficult questions about your behavior. So would I. We are really good at finding ways of distracting ourselves from the hard work.

‘Cause let’s face it: these holidays come up every year. The services are carefully choreographed and lacking in improvised devotion. We recite these ancient Hebrew words of confession and contrition, but really, most of us do not connect them to our actual behavior. And then we go to lunch, or break the fast.

But sometimes, hevreh, and especially in Elul, we have to actually take the blame, which nobody likes doing.

Of course, it is also possible that not all of the blame is yours. We also have to be honest with ourselves when we might be inclined toward what might be called “false modesty.” Maybe I contributed to how a situation went wrong, but I have to be honest with myself about my role.

Without raising your hand, how many of us can think of a time where we really did something wrong? How many of us can think of a time in which we said words that were harmful? Or acted out of spite or anger? How many of us went back, after the fact, and did the best we could to, rather than fixing the situation, try to cover our tracks? How many of us have dug our heels in unnecessarily? How many of us have, rather than offering an earnest apology, have instead doubled down on the wrong thing?

Elsewhere, the Torah (Exodus 23:7) exhorts us, “מדבר שקר תרחק” (Midevar sheqer tirhaq – “You shall distance yourself from falsehood.”) Rabbis often joke that this line is the reason that everybody sits in the back in shul.

But seriously, now is the time to distance ourselves from the falsehood within ourselves. So here is a suggestion:

Find some time in the coming weeks to reflect back over the past year. You might need to isolate yourself in a quiet place, away from any kind of digital technology, to do this. Try to remember the instances where you made the wrong choice, said the wrong thing, damaged a relationship. A year is a long time – there are surely many such potential instances. But if you allow yourself to go back, you might find one or two that absolutely must be addressed. I already have a few items on my list.  

Write them down on a piece of paper and carry it around with you for the next several weeks as a reminder. If the opportunity comes up for you to make a situation right, then do so. If not, well, then there’s Yom Kippur. During the moments when you need that extra help searching for “inspiration” for teshuvah, take that piece of paper out and meditate on it.

After Yom Kippur, recycle the paper, and hope that as that paper is ground up and fashioned into new paper, the transgressions indicated thereupon will help you and everybody else to make better choices the next time, and to be more honest with yourself.

Nobody wants to see herself or himself as having messed up. We have a complex, layered series of self-protections to avoid exactly that. But the point of the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Return, is to swallow our pride and admit our failures. We have all failed in one way or another; the challenge at this time is to be honest with ourselves about it.

And furthermore, nobody REALLY wants Yom Kippur to pass by “belo tefillah uvelo kelum.” We want our words, our fast, our beating of the chest to be honest, to help improve ourselves, our relationships and our world. You can do it. You got this.

Shabbat shalom, and I hope that the remainder of Elul is truly introspective.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 9/14/2019.)