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One Nation, Under God? – Va-era 5781

I am a patriotic American. I was born and raised in this country, as were my parents and three of my grandparents. Members of my family have served in the armed forces, going back to the Spanish-American War. I am grateful for everything that the United States of America has given me, and I am particularly grateful that this nation has been a haven for my immigrant forebears, and a beacon of democracy and freedom throughout the world for nearly two-and-a-half centuries.

I celebrate our nation’s birthday on July 4th. I observe Thanksgiving religiously (well, a vegetarian Thanksgiving). I drive an American car. In elementary school, I pledged my allegiance every day to our flag and our republic, invoking “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

I am, as I am sure you are, deeply disturbed by the attempted insurrection ten days ago by a mob of fellow citizens, people motivated by hate and fueled by lies. As more information has filtered out to us about who was there and what they did, I am increasingly shocked and frightened. This attack does not seem to have been planned in any organized way, but many extremist groups, some of whom are openly racist and anti-Semitic, clearly encouraged their adherents to come to Washington with the intent to cause some kind of mayhem, certainly to halt the wheels of constitutional process, and perhaps even to murder our lawfully-elected representatives.

January 6, 2021

I am sure you have heard about preparations in state capitals around the country for violence in the coming days. The Pennsylvania capitol building will be closed for two days next week. Washington is boarded up, filled with National Guard troops, and the National Mall will be closed on Wednesday as the new administration begins.

I was grateful but discomforted by a security message sent out by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh; while I am comforted to know that the Federation is thinking about our security, who would have imagined that the inauguration of a president would merit such a message about potential threats?

You might forgive me for wondering, “Where am I? Where are we? And how did we get here?”

***

Ladies and gentlemen, democracy has been good for the Jews. We do not have to dig too deeply into our history to see how other forms of government, including monarchy, feudalism, communism, and of course fascism have not been good for the Jews. The United States Constitution and its balance of powers has protected us and enabled us to thrive here in a way that had never happened before in our history. My great-grandparents all came here from Eastern Europe seeking a better life, in a place where they would not be constantly struggling against the native anti-Semitism built into the society of the Pale of Settlement from which they fled.

And they found it here, where the free exercise of religion is enshrined in that Constitution, where they could participate in the democratic process, where they could make a living and make a life without being limited by the system, where they were not immediately suspect because of their ethnic background.

Rabbinic text tells of a fraught relationship with government. If we look at Pirqei Avot, for example, a book of the Mishnah from the 2nd-century CE that documents early rabbinic wisdom, we find contradictory statements:

Pirqei Avot 2:3

הֱווּ זְהִירִין בָּרָשׁוּת, שֶׁאֵין מְקָרְבִין לוֹ לָאָדָם אֶלָּא לְצֹרֶךְ עַצְמָן. נִרְאִין כְּאוֹהֲבִין בִּשְׁעַת הֲנָאָתָן, וְאֵין עוֹמְדִין לוֹ לָאָדָם בִּשְׁעַת דָּחְקוֹ:

Be careful [in your dealings] with the ruling authorities for they do not befriend a person except for their own needs; they seem like friends when it is to their own interest, but they do not stand by a person in the hour of his distress.

And then, Pirqei Avot 3:2:

רַבִּי חֲנִינָא סְגַן הַכֹּהֲנִים אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי מִתְפַּלֵּל בִּשְׁלוֹמָהּ שֶׁל מַלְכוּת, שֶׁאִלְמָלֵא מוֹרָאָהּ, אִישׁ אֶת רֵעֵהוּ חַיִּים בְּלָעוֹ.

Rabbi Hanina, the vice-Kohen Gadol said: pray for the welfare of the government, for were it not for the fear it inspires, every person would swallow his neighbor alive.

So on the one hand, the government is distrusted by some rabbis because politicians are self-serving, and will choose their needs over yours. But on the other hand, some understood the essential need for government, in that its primary role is to protect us from one another.

The early rabbis also instituted the principle of “dina demalkhuta dina” – the law of the land is the law, meaning that laws imposed by a secular government must be observed by Jews alongside our own halakhah / Jewish law. The word, “malkhuta” is Aramaic for “the kingdom,” because of course that was the sort of jurisdiction under which the Jews lived until the last few centuries. The implication is therefore that we are subjects of a flesh-and-blood king similar to the way we are subjects to malkhut shamayim, the kingdom of heaven. You may know that there is even a berakhah for seeing a human king:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁנָתַן מִכְּבוֹדוֹ לְבָשָׂר וָדָם

Praised are you, Adonai our God, who rules the universe, who has given glory to flesh and blood.

And, to be sure, America, with no king and no kingdom, and with the principles of separation of church and state and the peaceful transfer of power, has been good for the Jews. Mostly.

And hence my great concern. Has this sense of security come to an end? Certainly, many of us have been asking this question since October 27th, 2018.

****

One nation under God. 

One of the highlights of Parashat Va-era is what is considered to be the textual basis for the four cups of wine during the Pesah seder, the following verses, up front in the parashah:

לָכֵ֞ן אֱמֹ֥ר לִבְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֘ל אֲנִ֣י ה֒ וְהוֹצֵאתִ֣י אֶתְכֶ֗ם מִתַּ֙חַת֙ סִבְלֹ֣ת מִצְרַ֔יִם וְהִצַּלְתִּ֥י אֶתְכֶ֖ם מֵעֲבֹדָתָ֑ם וְגָאַלְתִּ֤י אֶתְכֶם֙ בִּזְר֣וֹעַ נְטוּיָ֔ה וּבִשְׁפָטִ֖ים גְּדֹלִֽים׃ וְלָקַחְתִּ֨י אֶתְכֶ֥ם לִי֙ לְעָ֔ם וְהָיִ֥יתִי לָכֶ֖ם לֵֽא-לֹהִ֑ים וִֽידַעְתֶּ֗ם כִּ֣י אֲנִ֤י ה֙ אֱ-לֹ֣הֵיכֶ֔ם הַמּוֹצִ֣יא אֶתְכֶ֔ם מִתַּ֖חַת סִבְל֥וֹת מִצְרָֽיִם׃

Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the LORD. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, the LORD, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians.

Those four promises of deliverance, often interpreted as physical, political, financial, and spiritual, have been compared to the Four Freedoms promised by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his State of the Union address in 1941. Describing them, he said:

The first is freedom of speech and expression–everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way–everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want–which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants – everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear — which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor — anywhere in the world.

FDR

For American Jews, our parents and grandparents, listening to this on the radio, concerned for the welfare of their cousins in Europe at that moment, these promises must have seemed deeply reassuring. Maybe some of us actually connected Roosevelt’s words with principles in our own tradition.

Maybe some of us thought, at that time, that “one nation, under God, indivisible” was a principle that our nation’s leaders would always hold dear. Maybe we thought that this new home, far away from the ancient hatreds of the Old Country, would always protect us. Maybe, when we sat at our seder tables and invoked God’s promise, we saw ourselves as having come forth successfully from Egypt, and here we are in di Goldene Medine, the golden country of America, dining in comfort and enjoying our Four Freedoms, washing them down with Manischewitz? Maybe this is what it meant to be one nation, under God? 

Maybe. But today’s reality seems somewhat less promising.

Ladies and gentlemen, who is the patriot?

Is it the one carrying the banner of 1776, clinging to conspiracy theories and willing to support violent insurrection?

Or is the one who understands that vehement disagreement is a necessary piece of democracy, but racism and anti-Semitism are not?

To be one indivisible nation under God, we must as a nation fulfill the mitzvah found in Parashat Mishpatim (Ex. 23:7): Middevar sheqer tirhaq. Keep your distance from falsehood, as I said last week before the Prayer for Our Country.

Lies will unravel America. Living in a false reality will not solve any of the very real problems that we face, the ones that have been masked and/or magnified by the pandemic: addiction, hunger, homelessness, depression, sexual and domestic violence, homicide, and so forth. Placing our hopes in the falsehoods of QAnon or extremist news platforms will not cure all our ills. These challenges are not caused by immigrants, or socialists masquerading as moderate Democrats, or the Deep State.

On the contrary: government, good government that is focused on the needs of the people, that is dedicated to truth and justice, that guarantees our freedoms and keeps the peace, that governs with just, well-considered laws and is committed to public health, security at home and abroad – this is good for America, and good for the Jews.

Let us continue to pray for a peaceful transition, that those who engaged in violent insurrection are brought to justice, and that we may continue enjoying Roosevelt’s, and the Torah’s Four Freedoms.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 1/16/2021.)

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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.)