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Courage, Wisdom, and Framework: What Judaism Offers Us Right Now – Vayaqhel/Pequdei 5780

I spent most of this past week at home, talking and praying via Zoom; I presume that many of you were also at home. Schools are closed or have moved online. Restaurants are only open for takeout. Non-life-sustaining businesses are closed. (It’s good to know, BTW, that Pennsylvania considers “Religious Organizations” to be life-sustaining!) My sister and her family just arrived here from Hungary, and are in a self-quarantine for two weeks. 

This is a reality that we will likely face for at least a few months. I am fortunate to be standing here, with a family today as a young woman was called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah, but of course we are about 16 people standing in a room that seats 1600, maintaining at least 6 feet from each other at all times. And all the rest of yinz are watching this online.

Congregation Beth Shalom’s sanctuary, courtesy of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle

Some of you are of course wondering why, suddenly, live-streaming of services on Shabbat is OK. And how we have been holding weekday minyanim online for a week, with no single, physical room in which there are 10 people. It speaks to the resilience of our tradition, that even while we must be physically separated, we acknowledge the value of gathering, even if it is through means by which just a week ago seemed unacceptable according to Jewish law.

Photo of Beth Shalom’s weekday morning Zoom minyan, courtesy of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle

And let me tell you why this is going to be extraordinarily important in the coming months.

As religious knowledge and participation in America has declined, most of us do not have a spiritual framework. We value our independence over all else. “It’s a free country,” is the refrain that we hear throughout our lives: free from government control; free from limitations on our behavior or speech; free from religious traditions.

In all that freedom, where are the guidelines that help us make the right choices? How do we improve ourselves and the world? Where are the opportunities for holiness that make our lives meaningful?

Our current situation is exceedingly humbling. We have come to think of ourselves as invincible, as not having to wrestle with many of the real physical threats that our ancestors did. Think of the ability we have to cure many diseases today, thanks to antibiotics. Think of the abilities we have honed to manipulate our world such that we can connect with people in real time all over the world. Think of the many brilliant minds humanity has yielded – the Einsteins and the Mozarts and the Shakespeares and Freuds of our species, the people who have unlocked the secrets of nature and produced such great creativity and innovation and technology and beauty.

We seem to have conquered nature, perhaps after God’s command to the first humans in the first chapter of Bereshit / Genesis (1:28): 

פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁ֑הָ וּרְד֞וּ בִּדְגַ֤ת הַיָּם֙ וּבְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וּבְכָל־חַיָּ֖ה הָֽרֹמֶ֥שֶׂת עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

“Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.”

Well, ladies and gentlemen, it is so easy for us to feel that we have done that.

And yet, all of that can be so easily undone by a microscopic strand of RNA wrapped up in a protein shell: a virus. Not even quite a living thing, arguably. But a force within nature that fells the mightiest of economies and the most robust societies. We have been brought low by the devastating force unleashed by this tiny invader.

The ancient world was a much more dangerous place. There were so many things that we could not control. And that’s why our ancestors appealed to an unseen God, a God that offered them land and fertility and protection and success and health. That’s why, when enemies destroyed our Beit haMiqdash, our Temple in Jerusalem and exiled us to the four corners of the world, we stubbornly carried our Torah with us, and continued to read it, to live by it, and to reinterpret it in every age. The Torah is the portable, personal manifestation of that protection, of the Shekhinah, God’s presence in our lives.

And that is why we have inherited this ancient framework. That is why we celebrate today a young woman being called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah, as one who has fully inherited those mitzvot, those holy opportunities of Jewish life. 

Framework: Jewish tradition. Halakhah / Jewish law. Mitzvot. Customs. Foods. Holidays. Our stories. Our texts, our music. These things have nourished us and kept us whole for thousands of years. They are as integral to our lives as truth and justice. They are the infrastructure of our very existence. They have kept us alive and sustained us and enabled us to reach this moment, as the bat mitzvah’s parents said in gratitude on Shabbat morning.

And that is why we do not merely change everything that we do. That is why the motivating reason for so much in Jewish life is, “Because we’ve always done it this way.”

Our tradition matters so much that it is essential that we grapple with the hard questions, and not merely dismiss them. Sometimes, we cannot do things the way we have always done them. And so too today. 

It is that Etz Hayyim, that tree of life about which we sang just a few minutes ago when we returned the Torah to the ark, to which we continue to grasp. That tree is solid, is sturdy, and yet it is a wee bit flexible. And particularly when times change as dramatically as they have right now.

The word halakhah, which we often interpret in shorthand as “Jewish law,” is derived from the Hebrew shoresh (root letters) heh-lamed-kaf, meaning to walk or to go. Halakhah is how we walk through life, acknowledging God’s presence, and, more to the point, the presence of others around us. As we walk, we make course corrections. When there is an obstacle in the way, we find a way around it. And these guiding principles keep us aware of our context, our relationships, our behavior. 

And they keep us alive, enabling us to go from celebration to mourning to support for one another in all frames of reference.

Ladies and gentlemen, the next several weeks, and maybe months, may be very boring indeed. Maybe you’ll get tired of streaming movies. Maybe you’ll need a new hobby. I am pretty sure that Pesah will be very strange this year, because you can’t invite all your friends and family. We will definitely still be practicing social distancing. We may all be completely confined to our homes by then. Who knows.

And maybe, just maybe, you’ll have the opportunity to think about all the things that are special in your life, and what really matters most. Not the gadgets, or the high-falutin’ degrees from fancy colleges, or all of the trappings of our society. What ultimately matters is the people you love: your family, your close friends. When we make it to the other side of this, whether it is two months or many more, I hope that we will all see that clearly.

But in the meantime, we will need courage. We will need wisdom. And we will need a framework.

Where will we find those things? In the living words of our tradition. Life will conquer this thing, this destructive, nearly-alive thing. Human spirit, ingenuity, and creativity will get us through. But it will take a long time, and we will re-emerge leaner, less sure of ourselves, and definitely more humble.

I want to urge us all, of course to look out for ourselves and our families, but also to look out especially to those who may be sheltering alone and will feel cut off, and of course those who are ill. We have before us the mitzvah of biqqur holim, visiting the sick, which of course we will not be able to do in person, but a phone call or some other means of contact will be so valuable. Make that mitzvah a part of your daily practice.

And we also have guidance from our parashah today, where we read in Vayaqhel about the generosity of spirit that moved the Israelites in the building of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary that became the home of the Shekhinah, God’s presence among them while wandering in the desert for 40 years. Over and over, the text referenced the materials brought by, “kol nadiv libo,” every person whose heart so moved them to generosity. We are a people who understand the value of the common good, and our obligation to exercise that generosity, to let the good of our hearts motivate us.

Furthermore, let the characters from our tradition inspire us to be resolute in this time. Consider the bravery of Devorah the Judge, the wisdom of King Shelomoh, the leadership of Moshe Rabbeinu, and the impressive resilience of Rabbi Shim’on bar Yohai, a student of Rabbi Akiva’s and the purported author of the Zohar, who, the Talmud tells us, hid from the Romans in a cave for 13 years, eating only from the fruit of a carob tree.

Please God, it won’t be 13 years. What really counts now, however, is courage, wisdom, and framework. Our tradition gives us all of those things.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 3/21/2020.)

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Welcoming Ourselves, or, the Stranger Within – Vayyera 5778

This is a parashah that is chock full of good material, but I must concede that the episode to which I always return is the story in the beginning of Vayyera where Avraham welcomes a trio of traveling strangers into his tent. He runs to greet them. He brings them water to drink and to wash the dust off their feet. He brings them food. He literally waits on them.

Avraham Avinu the father of our tradition and our people, the progenitor of the entire monotheistic world, the one whom we invoke at the beginning of every Amidah – teaches us to welcome the stranger. Yes, we know that they are angels, but Avraham does not. He sees unfamiliar people walking by, and he reaches out and grabs ’em.

Now how do you think that makes the visitors feel? The Torah does not record their reactions, but I can tell you this: when I have been a stranger in a strange land, I am always grateful for the help and care of locals. The postal clerk in Jodhpur, India, who not only sold Judy and me stamps, but also took us into a back room of the post office to give us a table on which to write our postcards, supplied us with glue (which apparently Indian stamps lack), and even gave us his address so that we could stay with him if we ever returned to Jodhpur. The nice gentleman who stopped to help me fix a flat by the side of a highway late at night in a rural part of upstate New York, and even offered me a sandwich. The Israeli Bedouin who invited a friend and me, while we were hiking near the desert town of Arad, to actually sit with him in his tent and drink water and tea and to schmooze with him in Hebrew.

Bedouin Tent Wiki images

(As an aside, tomorrow is our annual New Members’ Welcoming Ceremony, when we invite in those who have joined our community within the last year, bring them up onto this bimah, discuss what brought them all here, and give everybody a sefer Torah to hold while we recite Tefillat HaDerekh, the prayer for those who are starting a new journey.)

I was thinking about this a couple of weeks back when I read an article in the New York Times Magazine about anxiety. Apparently, we are living in a time in which there are more and more people, and particularly teens, who are living with severe anxiety. The article cites statistics about the growing rates of anxiety; about a third of adolescents and adults live suffer from an anxiety disorder. Almost two-thirds of university undergraduates report feeling “overwhelming anxiety” in the prior year.

Man at bridge holding head with hands and screaming

Perhaps you know somebody like this – I do. Anxiety is a very serious disorder. While we all have moments of anxiety, for most of us they pass. But for people with disorders like this, life is a daily challenge of trying to manage one’s constant fears.

Nobody knows, of course, what causes anxiety, or why the rates are increasing. But we all know the contemporary exacerbating factors: things like the pressure that high-achieving teens feel in school, our addiction to social media, threats of terrorism, and so forth. You might think that privileged teens would have lower rates; actually, rates are higher among the affluent

Left untreated, anxiety does not go away. But there is a disagreement about how to treat it: some say that the way to reduce anxiety is to remove the stressors; some say that greater exposure to the things that arouse their fears helps the anxious person learn to cope.

But I am going to suggest a different approach.

Now, I am not a psychologist, and in no way is it my intent to trivialize this challenge by glibly offering ancient words to soothe the contemporary soul.

But as one who can speak from personal experience, that third way is the framework of Jewish tradition.

What does Judaism offer? What is that framework?

Family togetherness, a holy purpose to life, communal support in times of joy and grief and everything in-between, slowing down for Shabbat and relating to others, the critical thinking that comes from talmud torah, learning our ancient wisdom – these are all things that give us a healthy framework, one that might help us feel more grounded, more connected, less anxious.

And here is the final thing that our tradition offers, and this comes back to Avraham’s welcoming the wayfarers into his tent. Judaism reminds us that we must not only welcome the stranger, but that we also must welcome ourselves in.

What on Earth do you mean by that, Rabbi?

Most of us have a fairly lukewarm relationship with our tradition. That is, we are tentative about entering too deeply into the actions, about throwing ourselves bodily into our customs and rituals. I mentioned this briefly a few weeks back, on Shemini Atzeret. Most of us like to maintain our reserve, our cool, academic distance from the curious customs that we have inherited from our ancient ancestors.

In the middle of the 20th century, changes in our society led to a revolt against the old order. Some of the ways in which our society changed were good: the struggles for civil rights and the equality of women and men, the breaking down of many traditional barriers.

But the baby went out with the bathwater. For most of us, the framework that religion provided disappeared. Many of us grew up thinking that people who were committed to religious tradition were unthinking sheep. Dr. Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, documents the distancing from Judaism by the Baby Boom generation in particular in his book with Steven M. Cohen, The Jew Within. They discuss the elevation of the “sovereign self” in place of traditional religious involvement.

As a result, there are many of us today who are not quite sure of what to do in the synagogue – how to behave, when to stand up or sit down; many of us wonder how on earth the person leading services could possibly have gotten to the bottom of the page so fast. And all the more so with Jewish traditions that we practice outside the synagogue.

But engaging with our tradition, “practicing” Judaism, is not merely about being an expert davener, or fulfilling every iota of Jewish law and custom. It is about all the meaningful aspects of holy living: the primary mitzvah of engaging with our holy texts, through which we learn to acknowledge the holiness in all our relationships, maintaining our sense of wonder and gratitude about the world.

And, rather than think you may not be “good” at “doing Jewish” because you can’t mumble the second paragraph of Aleinu fast enough, think instead about this: Have you, over the past week, say, done something to bring honor to somebody around you? Did you teach your child the value of doing charitable work? Did you help resolve a conflict between friends or neighbors? Did you spend an unhurried, pleasurable meal with your family? Have you thought twice before uttering an unkind word?

If so, welcome. Welcome yourself to our tradition, to that framework. We’re glad to have you aboard. And we need you to welcome yourself, because those who have not welcomed themselves in, who have not actually opened the metaphorical door of Jewish life and walked through it, cannot really welcome others.

Structure of Welcome Emails

Avraham Avinu, our father Abraham, goes out of his way to welcome strangers into his tent. And when these same strangers, who we know to be divine messengers, give the news to his wife Sarah that she will give birth to a son at age 90, she laughs. Was it anxious laughter? Perhaps.

Maybe she was not quite ready for the news. Or maybe she was not ready to welcome the strangers in, because she had not yet welcomed herself.

A final note: on Thursday, I attended an interfaith program for clergy and community leaders at the JCC, entitled “Faithful Responses to Strangers, Immigrants, and Refugees.” One of the speakers, a Muslim woman who immigrated to Pittsburgh from Sudan, spoke about her experience in getting to know her neighbors. They were not forthcoming in introducing themselves, so she hatched the plan of inviting herself over to their houses to get to know them. Her friends said, “No, you can’t do that. Americans don’t do that.” But she ignored them, and more or less went door-to-door, welcoming herself into her neighbors’ homes – really the opposite of what Abraham did. And it worked! She is now very close with her neighbors, none of whom are like her, and prouder than ever to be an American.

Don’t be a stranger! Open the door, and welcome yourself into our tradition. Be a part of our framework. It’s a gift that you can give yourself and your family. You’ll be glad you did.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, November 4, 2017.)

 

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