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Faithful Allies – Aḥarei Mot 5782

I went on a kind of pilgrimage this week. No, not a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, as our ancestors made at festival times in the ancient world, when the Temple was still standing. Rather, it was an interfaith trip to our nation’s capital to visit significant religious sites from several different groups. On the itinerary was the National Cathedral, the Latter-Day Saints (Mormon) Washington DC Temple, the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, Washington Hebrew Congregation, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, and the Sri Siva Vishnu Hindu Temple. (Lamentably, there was no mosque on the itinerary, perhaps because it is still Ramadan). 

Inside the Metropolitan AME Church with Rev. William Lamar IV

Our group was mixed – Jewish and Christian clergy of various streams, and part of the experience was the inevitable discussions en route: learning about one another’s traditions, seeking common ground, discovering how we read, for example, the Torah differently. I learned, for example, that Catholics celebrate Shavu’ot, although they refer to it as Pentecost, and for them it is the beginning of the ministry of the Apostles. They actually see it as an analog to our celebration of Mattan Torah, the gift of Torah at Mt. Sinai. And, by the way, it’s exactly seven weeks after Easter!*

Speaking of the Torah, one of the essential pieces of Aḥarei Mot, from which we read today, is a description of the ancient Yom Kippur, when the Kohen Gadol / High Priest would confess the sins of the Israelites onto the “scapegoat” and send it off into the wilderness. 

What is interesting about this, both from a Jewish perspective and from an interfaith perspective is that, while everybody wants to be cleansed of their sins, no major religious tradition as far as I know reads that passage as a literal guide to atonement. We, the Jews, pray and fast and confess our sins in public and ask for forgiveness from each other and from God, and pledge to change our ways. Christians and Muslims and Hindus and so forth all have their own ways of seeking forgiveness from sin, and many of these traditions include some of the aspects of the Kohen Gadol’s Yom Kippur ritual, particularly confession.

But nobody does exactly what is found in the Torah. We rather look back through the unique lenses of each of our respective faiths to relate to what we read in Aḥarei Mot (Vayiqra / Leviticus 16-18) this week. In that sense, we share some sense of common heritage. On this trip, there were multiple times that everybody in the group looked to the Jews as the originators of some of their practices, not in the sense of, “You did it all wrong, and we have fixed it!” But rather with the thrust of, “Thank you for showing us the way.” And frankly, that was somewhat encouraging.

The shrine of Our Mother of Africa, at the Basilica of the National Shrine. That’s a diagram of a slave ship on the floor at the entrance

One of the things that I have come to understand in recent years is that people of faith share quite a bit across religious lines. While I think that many of us grew up with a certain amount of justifiable fear or discomfort around non-Jews, given the complicated and unpleasant history of our people, I feel today a kinship with my non-Jewish colleagues which reflects our shared goals: to encourage mutual respect, to understand that while our religious approaches differ and our interpretations of scripture disagree, our goals are often the same.

We share a common yearning, and a common enemy.

We yearn for God. Yes, each in our own individual way; for some that yearning does not reflect traditional God language. But, as with the words of the Psalmist (Ps. 42:2):

כְּאַיָּ֗ל תַּעֲרֹ֥ג עַל־אֲפִֽיקֵי־מָ֑יִם כֵּ֤ן נַפְשִׁ֨י תַעֲרֹ֖ג אֵלֶ֣יךָ אֱ-לֹהִֽים 

Like a deer crying for water, my soul cries for You, O God.

The 17th-century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal once described this human need as a “God-shaped vacuum in the human soul,” a place inside of us that cries out for the potential that God gives us: for human connection, for doing good works, for elevating the holiness between people. What has continued to cause people to gather in praise of God, as we are doing right now? What has sustained religious engagement into a modernity that refuses to create room for God? It’s not kiddush (collation), and it’s not swimming in the pool at the JCC.

It is that impulse for Divinity, the fundamental human need to seek out the Divine spark in ourselves and others. It is the desire to fill that God-shaped hole. And we do that by building houses of worship; by telling stories and interpreting Scripture and adhering to customs and law and pilgrimage festivals with no pilgrimage and immersion in baptismal fonts and miqva’ot (Jewish ritual baths) and all the things that we do to pursue the Godliness in ourselves and others.

Mosaic at the Basilica in the chapel dedicated by Pittsburgh’s Byzantine Catholic community, showing the Pittsburgh skyline

And what is our  common enemy? It is indifference. It is the disinterested shrug that turns us back to the television, or the outrage machine on our smartphone screens, or intoxicants or shopping sprees or all the ways in which we divert ourselves and avoid facing the things we really need to face.

If we do not fill that vacuum with God, with the values that our tradition teaches us, we fill it with junk. We fill it with all of the myriad things which draw us away from holiness: leshon hara (the evil tongue) and idle pursuits rather than prayer and learning; fear and hatred of the other rather than love and connection and engagement; all of our numerous unhealthy addictions instead of the holy patterns in Jewish time.

Cantor Susan Bortnick at the Washington Hebrew Congregation

But you know better. You know that your religious framework gives you values which shape your life and your environs for the better: family; boundaries; conservation; gratitude; joy; understanding; community; support in times of grief; seeing multiple sides to every argument; respect for our fellow human beings; justice.

If only more people in the world understood the value in our traditions, in our holy books, in our framework. Maybe some of the turmoil in our world would be lessened somewhat. That is where my tefillah, my prayer is focused.

After dinner on Tuesday, when we had visited the LDS Temple, the synagogue, and the AME church, our friend and neighbor from Church of the Redeemer, Rev. Canon Natalie Hall, observed that in each of those places, our tour guides led with their most essential values. For the LDS folks, it was family. For the Jews, it was text, the holy words of our tradition. For the African Methodist Episcopal Church, it was justice.

If we were only to hold up those three things – family, text, justice – dayyenu! It would be enough. But of course that is not exactly how Judaism, or any faith tradition, works. We need to see, in some sense, the richness of our tradition through the lens of all that we do. We need to dig deeper, to climb higher, to keep reading and learning and discussing and arguing. We have to understand that, while we do not have a Kohen Gadol or a scapegoat or an altar on which to sacrifice to God, we do have the words of our tradition and our rituals and our law and our philosophy and the contemporary understandings that make these things meaningful to us today to guide us, in the words of Isaiah (42:21), יַגְדִּ֥יל תּוֹרָ֖ה וְיַאְדִּֽיר, to magnify and glorify God’s teaching.

Spending two days with colleagues from other traditions only reminded me that we are allies in faith, and that we all seek greater connection and a better world. And we can do that, folks. We carry ancient keys to the secrets for a healthier society. We only have to continue to teach them and live them. 

And, let’s face it: given the rising rates of anti-Semitic activity, it is good for us to be wary, and to decry anti-Jewish bias when we encounter it. But we must also seek partners across the aisle – in churches, mosques, and temples of all kinds – so that we might all seek forgiveness for our sins where appropriate; so that we might seek to understand each other and speak the same language, and so that we might be able to fill that God-shaped hole in the world.

Sri Siva Vishnu Temple

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 4/30/2022.)

* Echoing the seven weeks of Sefirat ha’Omer, the counting of the sheaves of barley from the second day of Pesaḥ until Shavu’ot, as described in the Torah. Today, there are no sheaves of barley, but Jews still count the seven weeks.

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The Trust Deficit – Va-era 5782

Like so many other people I tested positive this week, and I am fortunate that due to the fact that I am vaccinated and boosted, I have experienced a mild case of Covid-19 – a sore throat and some congestion. Thank God for the human ingenuity that has produced vaccines. (And it’s worth it to remind you all that if you are not boosted, you really should be: Friday mornings – walk-in at the JCC in Squirrel Hill.)

A curious bit of fake news came across my computer screen this week. It was an article about a fake New York Times headline, which read, “Teachers Should Tolerate Bullying Towards Unvaccinated Students.” It seems that somebody out there with nefarious intent wanted to rile up people who are anti-vaccine, and produced a mock-up of a NYT opinion piece suggesting violence against the unvaccinated. 

Now, of course, there are people out there who will believe anything that they see on the Internet, and of course will repost or retweet extreme content. So as ridiculous as this sounds, the fake headline traveled far enough, provoking its intended reaction, for there to be a genuine news article about it.

The challenge here is that we have reached a point where many of us are willing to believe anything that fits our particular worldview, and not to trust anything that does not. The entire world, it seems, is having trust issues. 

Whom do we trust?

I feel this affecting my own behavior: I was recently shopping online for KN95 masks, and I found myself thinking, how do I know that these are really manufactured to the N95 standard, meaning that it filters out 95% of airborne particles? I certainly cannot test that myself. Am I buying a genuine product?

I read elsewhere that a survey determined that 1 in 5 Americans say that it is acceptable to fake one’s vaccination status to keep a job. One might extrapolate that, kal vaḥomer, all the more so for people who are out for a night on the town, where the stakes might be even lower. This does not breed confidence in our fellow human beings.

Maybe the reason I contracted the virus is because the KN95 that I have been wearing in public is not legit, and the people around me who claim to be fully vaccinated are not. Who knows?

Parashat Va-era, from which we read today, includes a handful of questions surrounding trust. As God gives Moshe his mission to liberate the Israelites from the grip of Egyptian slavery, the text challenges us to wonder, does Moshe trust God? Does Pharaoh trust Moshe and Aharon? Does Moshe trust in himself? Will the Israelites trust Moshe, or God? And so forth.

Tied into all of this are the questions surrounding God’s name. Last week, in Parashat Shemot, we encountered in the burning bush episode one take on the name when Moshe seeks to be reassured about the trustworthiness of this whole operation. He asks God directly (Shemot / Exodus 3:13), “When I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?”

Exodus: Moses and the Burning Bush, Marc Chagall, 1966

God answers, “Ehyeh asher ehyeh.” Not easily translatable, we might read this as “I am what I am.” Not so reassuring, right? 

And this week in Va-era, God does not wait to be asked. The parashah opens with, (Shemot / Exodus 6:3)

וָאֵרָ֗א אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֛ם אֶל־יִצְחָ֥ק וְאֶֽל־יַעֲקֹ֖ב בְּאֵ֣ל שַׁדָּ֑י וּשְׁמִ֣י י-הֹוה לֹ֥א נוֹדַ֖עְתִּי לָהֶֽם׃

I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name י-הוה [YHWH].

In both cases, the names given are apparently conjugations of the verb, “to be.” That is, God’s very name is a form of existence. 

And, as you may have heard me mention before, all of those forms of God’s name, and in particular the Hebrew yod/heh/vav/heh which we often express as YHWH, consist of consonants that are formed only from breath. (In ancient Hebrew, as with contemporary Arabic, the “vav” is actually a “w” – hence “waw”.) With all of those letters, no part of the tongue or lips or teeth obstruct the flow of air to create a percussive sound. In fact, all of these letters, alef heh waw yod, serve as so-called matres lectionis, the fancy Latin term that Bible scholars use to describe consonants that sometimes serve as vowels. 

If God’s name consists solely of breath, then, how indeed might we be able to trust this mysterious character who somehow surfaces in an inflamed shrubbery in the desert?

Perhaps that is the point. Perhaps the point is that trust in God is elusive. There will never be a hard consonant in God’s name because you will never be able to see God, to touch God, to perceive a solid surface or a concrete hint of God’s existence. Maybe the point is that the Torah wants us to take the proverbial leap of faith, to trust in something ethereal, because that is sometimes how life works. 

It is, after all, trust in the unseen which has held people together throughout our history. In his monumental review of human history, Sapiens, the Israeli author Yuval Noah Harari points out that basic trust between people erodes in groups larger than 150, since that is the human limit on close acquaintances, and therefore the only way to create trust between people in any larger group is by sharing a common story: 

Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination. Churches are rooted in common religious myths. Two Catholics who have never met can nevertheless go together on crusade or pool funds to build a hospital because they both believe that God was incarnated in human flesh and allowed Himself to be crucified to redeem our sins.  

Harari is an atheist; he pointedly denies the existence of God. But he speaks to the power which the very idea of God has. Or the ideas of a specific shared culture, or state, or peoplehood, or judicial system, or currency. 

Harari’s observation implies that trust in God yields trust in each other. If I know that you are an observant Jew, even if you are from far away and speak a different language and prefer ghormeh sabzi to gefilte fish, then we share a common bond. We adhere to the same traditions, we trust in the same God, and therefore I can trust you.

A fundamental challenge that we are facing today, particularly with the decline of religion, is a decline in trust. In a world that is rapidly transcending statehood, peoplehood, and shared theological principles, how will we trust one another? Will we be able to maintain nation-states, let alone synagogues, if we cannot trust the information we receive? Without a shared story, we have chaos.

The cynics among us will say that it is the bad actors in our world who are creating the trust deficit: Russian or Chinese or Iranian spies, or evil politicians or corrupt public health officials or mad scientists or soulless corporations. But consider how we live today: We are all living in our own silos. We are far removed from where our food is produced, from where our clothing is manufactured, from where our policies are made. And, of course, we are far removed from where our information is emanating, and we often lack the skill, the time, and the patience to verify it. So how can we trust anything?

There will not be a burning bush to show us the truth. 

I look out at the future, at the potentially untrustworthy landscape before us, and I can see only one thing that can help us return to a state of trust. And this may be because I am a rabbi, but we have to lean into the traditional institutions that we have, ailing though they are: religious observance. Trust in and fear of God. The democratic processes of our nation. Our sense of shared peoplehoods – the Jewish one, of course, but also the American one, and all the ways we express those relationships. Our sense of the common good. 

As much as the forces of chaos want to tear these institutions down, as much as each of those institutions are flawed in their own way, a future without them seems bleak indeed.

We need to support, and likely re-imagine, the institutions that we still have, while we still can. We need to uphold the principles we have received: of democracy, of learning and teaching our tradition, of prayer and academic inquiry and shared culture and music and all the things that build trust between people. 

It is inscribed on every dollar bill, a reminder that trust intersects with theology, commerce, and nation at every turn, the official motto of the United States of America: In God We Trust. You won’t find that on any cryptocurrency.

If we cannot live by that motto, I am not sure we can live together at all. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 1/1/2022.)

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We Need God Right Now – Ki Tetze 5781

Is there any good news in the world?

As I have watched events unfold over the summer – the heartbreaking return of the Taliban, the dramatic spread of the Delta variant, the wrangling over schools and vaccination and masking and the general Covid anxiety which has returned with great aplomb – I must say that I am having a hard time keeping my usually-reliable optimism in front of me. While the early part of the summer made it seem as though everything was moving the right way, those doors seem to have closed, and everything seems suddenly more stressful.

Is anyone else feeling that? Or is it just because I’m preparing for the High Holidays, which is, for rabbis, something like training for a marathon?

When you think about it, Elul is a pretty good month for anxiety. We are supposed to be taking stock of our lives, preparing for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur and the odyssey of teshuvah, of doing the hard work of repentance. We should be a little stressed. Facing our own misdeeds and failures is not meant to be a pleasant experience.

This season is also a time of returning to God, or at least that is how it is framed in our liturgy. We open Rosh HaShanah by saying,  שָׁל֨וֹם ׀ שָׁל֜וֹם לָרָח֧וֹק וְלַקָּר֛וֹב אָמַ֥ר ה / Shalom, shalom, laraḥoq velaqarov, amar Adonai – Peace, peace to those who are near, and to those who are far, says God. We welcome those who feel close to God and to our tradition, as well as those who are returning from having been far off. And just before Kol Nidrei on Yom Kippur, we give ourselves permission to pray amongst the avaryanim, the sinners, that is, those of us who have not been here for a while.

So of course it makes sense for us to be thinking about theology at this time. What do we mean when we invoke the term, “God”? What, or who, is God? How does God function? What is God’s name? Is God with us? Is God controlling anything? Is God actually working in humanity’s interest, or has God quietly exited through the back door? Has God created us or have we created God?

It is with that backdrop that I read with interest a pitch for God by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. Mr. Douthat is a thoughtful political conservative and a faithful adherent of Roman Catholicism, and, as with many people of faith today, he is engaged in the project of promoting religious involvement.

Douthat’s essential argument is one that I have made myself, even from this very pulpit, and it is more or less this: Although scientific achievements have raised challenges to certain features of religion and perhaps to God’s very existence, the basic underpinnings to religious ideas that inspired our ancestors still apply. In other words, although some today might argue that a scientific perspective negates the Torah’s telling of how we came to be, there are many questions that science cannot answer, and it is within that sphere of uncertainty where religious ideas can still flourish and sustain us. And no matter to how many questions scientific inquiry DOES find successful answers, I am certain that there will always be a place for religious inspiration.

Put yet another way, it is perfectly reasonable, for example, to accept that the universe is 14 billion years old rather than 5782, that it was not created ex nihilo in six days, and yet still believe that the essential mitzvot and values of the Torah and rabbinic literature and all the human intellectual creativity that our tradition has yielded are still binding upon us. It is still possible, if we allow ourselves, to accept that our Torah scroll flows originally from God, even though it clearly exhibits the features of a human work. 

I think it is worth remembering on this subject that science and religion offer answers to different questions. Science is trying to answer the question of, “How are we here?”, while religion tackles the “Why?” Science is the realm of cold, hard facts. Torah and all that flows from it is the realm of our spirit and of our origin story as a people. These are not mutually exclusive, but rather different lenses, both of which enable us to put our lives in perspective.

Mr. Douthat anticipates in his introductory remarks that the response to his piece will be something along the lines of, “I am down with the ethical teachings of religion, but I just cannot accept the idea of a personified God, as described in the Bible and in religious prayers.” And, true to form, the readership of the New York Times, at least on-line, responded predictably, with thousands of people “liking” comments that were more or less to that effect, if not openly hostile to the idea of religion.

There is no question that humans have committed all manner of transgressions in the name of religion throughout the ages; I am sure you can think of some contemporary examples, not limited to the extremism of the Taliban. And of course, we the Jews have had a complicated history in our interactions with other religions, from the dhimmi status forced upon our ancestors who lived in Muslim lands, to the slaughter wrought by the Crusades, to the dramatic failure of the Catholic church to attempt to save the Jews of Europe during the Shoah.

And yet, religion and religious involvement have also done so much good for humanity, from the constant reminder of our obligation to see the holiness in others, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and house the homeless, to the inspiration that God’s presence in our lives has offered in challenging times, in times of grief and times of joy. People motivated by those obligations have created hospitals and schools and charities that care for the needy and the wretched, filling the gaps between commercial interest and insufficient government programs. 

What are the mitzvot / holy opportunities of Jewish life for? They are there to provide a framework for holy living, for ensuring that we treat each other with respect, that we treat ourselves with respect and God’s Creation with care and responsibility. They are there to provide shape to our days and our years, to mark the holy moments and bring comfort when we mourn and to give us the words, in God’s own language, to help us express our innermost concerns and desires. When we need to cry out, we have those words; when we need to dance and sing with abandon, we have that language and music and movement. 

Unlike secular law, Jewish law aims to be not only a moral compass, but also a practical guide for maintaining the holiness in our relationships with all those around us, a framework for holy living. No matter how arcane the mitzvah, there is always a fundamental reason behind it which makes our performance of the mitzvah a practical one.

While Ross Douthat sees understanding and relating to God as an essential part of that equation, I must say that I am more laissez-faire when it comes to God. Like Martin Buber, I cannot put any kind of condition on God that diminishes the foundational presence that God plays in our lives, immediately and constantly there and yet completely impossible to define or be limited by the boundaries of human understanding.

Martin Buber, 1878-1965

We should not be so arrogant as to suppose that our brains can actually interpret and quantify the way that God works through us and around us. Rather, we might want to simply respond by throwing up our arms and acknowledging Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “radical amazement” in response to God.

And let’s face it: however we might understand God, right now we need God in our lives more than ever. If not the personal, savior God to which some religious folks appeal, at least the process God, the one who works around and through us to make for good in this world, to help us in our moment of need. When I say, three times per weekday in the Amidah, “Refa-enu Adonai venerafe,” Heal us, Adonai, and we shall be healed, I may not necessarily expect God to personally heal those who are suffering, one patient at a time. Rather, I invoke the God-enabled framework by which we as humans, using the Divine gifts we have received, the intellect and technology at our disposal, do the best we can to heal this world. 

Kabul Airport

When I say, at the end of every Amidah, “Oseh shalom bimromav,” May the One who makes peace in the heavens bring some peace down to all of us, I am hoping that, in partnership with God, we as humans find a way to lay down our swords and shields and to study war no more. God is on our team in both the healing of the world and the pursuit of peace.

And so here is the good news that we can take with us back into the anxiety-inducing, post-Shabbat world: This take on God cuts across all religious, political, social, ethnic, and international lines. We need God right now, perhaps more than ever; let’s stand together and bring those Divine values to all of us down here on Earth. And let us say, Amen.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 8/21/2021.)

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Love, Theology, and Vaccinations – Terumah 5781

I was recently asked by a member of the congregation, with whom I was meeting via Zoom, “Rabbi Adelson, what’s your take on God?”

I glanced at the time in the lower right corner of my screen. We had 17 minutes until my next Zoom meeting, and we had not yet discussed the other items about which we were ostensibly meeting.

I apologized first by saying that we did not have time to properly cover the subject, but I stumbled through a clearly-unprepared elevator pitch which indirectly referenced Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (“the process that makes for salvation”) and Martin Buber (the Unconditional Thou) and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (“radical amazement”). And then I suggested we discuss God again at a follow-up meeting.

Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan

Lurking in the background, of course, was the question of the pandemic, and the classic conundrum regarding theodicy, that is, explaining the theology of human suffering. If I really, truly, believe that God is there for us and is benevolent, how can we account for a pandemic that has caused us so much misery?

I must concede that I detest the sort of theology, and the kind of rabbi, that declares that human suffering is the result of our misbehavior. Yes, the Torah states that in many places; the second paragraph of the Shema is a prime example, when it effectively says, “If you do the mitzvot, you receive rain and healthy crops and fertility and you will eat and live well, and if you do not do the mitzvot, the skies will dry up and you will suffer.” That is not a theology that I can accept. And although it certainly has its adherents in Jewish thought, it also has many detractors.

Rather, I continually return to the idea that our deeds, guided by the framework of mitzvot which God has given us, help make this world a better place for ourselves and for others. We have the opportunity, every day and all day long, to improve ourselves and our world by acting on the Jewish imperative to follow this code of behavior. And it is in this way that God works through us to counter the forces of chaos and evil that bring us down.

I read a few days ago that, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, life expectancy for Americans decreased by about 2 years in 2020. That seems like a shockingly high decrease, but I suppose it is not surprising, given our circumstances.

And the question that we face every single day is, when will this end?

Let’s go ahead and throw God into this one: When will God end this?

And the answer is, when we humans fully understand that we are partners with God in this endeavor, in a loving, holy framework.

As that Kaplanite process that makes for salvation, God is there with us as we continue to seek and to deliver vaccines. God is with us as Buber’s Unconditional Thou when we mask up and stay away from each other to prevent further spread. God is with us when we are simply struck dumb with awe at our present circumstances, and perhaps our inability to discern God or grasp God’s presence in our lives at this time, as we peer heavenward and call out, in the words of Psalm 130, “MiMaamaqim” – from the depths.

As we all know, there is good news on the horizon. Different research groups around the world have produced vaccines that will come to our rescue. And yet, the horizon seems, for many of us, impossibly far away. Ad matai, we ask in the words of Psalm 94, which we recite every Wednesday, until when? For how much longer must we be distant from one another? 

One current line of thinking, promoted by Dr. Anthony Fauci, for one, is that we need to get to an 85% vaccination rate before herd immunity will be effective at preventing the spread of the disease. I heard that number, and I thought, “How on Earth are we going to get to 85%?” During an ordinary year, the rate of influenza vaccination is about 50% or less. (For example, here.) Perhaps we have a better shot at a higher rate due to our extraordinary situation – far more people are aware of the nature of the pandemic and the numbers of people who are dying from COVID-19 than might be paying attention to the flu from year to year. But 85%?

How are we going to cut through all that vaccine skepticism, and misinformation spread by social media, and reach all of those people who have been misled to believe that this is all one giant hoax, or that the vaccines contain microchips?

I think there is only one way to do so, and it is hinted at in Parashat Terumah, which we read today. Right up front, the parashah includes a curious commandment from God (Shemot / Exodus 25:2):

דַּבֵּר֙ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְיִקְחוּ־לִ֖י תְּרוּמָ֑ה מֵאֵ֤ת כָּל־אִישׁ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִדְּבֶ֣נּוּ לִבּ֔וֹ תִּקְח֖וּ אֶת־תְּרוּמָתִֽי׃

Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.

What does the word “terumah” mean? Here, the translation is “gifts,” although that is a poor approximation. A better read is, “donation,” but the shoresh, the root of the word, is actually resh-vav-mem, meaning, to lift up. So these donations were actually a means of lifting up the donors.

And the latter half of the verse goes even further. It’s not just a donation, but a donation that relies upon the heart of the donor. Every Israelite “whose heart so moves,” shall donate. (Later in the Torah, in Parashat Vayaqhel, Moshe has to instruct the Israelites to STOP bringing more materials for the mishkan. Their generosity is overflowing!)

So why did I describe this as curious? God could have commanded the Israelites to bring the stuff for the mishkan, like a tax. God could have made it mandatory. But instead, God relied in this case on their generosity, of their willingness to be elevated through donation, to make this happen. Seems like an unreliable system, no?

And yet, it worked! The internal motivation succeeded, perhaps better than the external command.

There has been a flurry of articles lately about the challenge of combating falsehoods. Certainly part of the driving force behind the insurrection on January 6 was the power and reach of conspiracy theories that are spread mainly via social media. And many of us know people who have been taken in by this dangerous sewer of lies, people with whom we cannot even have a reasonable conversation, because they are not living in the same universe as we are. 

And from what I have read, it seems that the best antidote to a loved one who has succumbed to falsehood is not to try to prove them wrong, or to prove that QAnon is false or that certain public figures are not satanic pedophiles. Rather, the way to reach out to them is through love. To be there, to try to maintain a healthy relationship. If we break those relationships, the situation will only get worse. We cannot allow the mehitzah, the dividing barrier between people to continue to grow; that is a certain recipe for future disaster.

And so too with the vaccine. The only way that we will be able to get to 85% is to reach out to those whom we love, and remind them that we love them. Will there be some that still say no? Of course. But if we create this overflowing, overpowering fountain of love for one another, we might create a space in which all of our hearts are moved; we have a better chance than simply mandating.

Call me naive, but love is the only way to make this all happen. Perhaps this seems like a counter-intuitive strategy. But so too is God’s request for gifts for the mishkan.

The mishkan / portable desert sanctuary

Remember that we are in a partnership with God here, and together, we might be able to move some hearts. We will have to rely on the generosity of the human spirit, in the context of the Godly relationship, for this to happen. Together, in this human-divine relationship, we can get there. We can achieve redemption; we can lift each other up through love. That is one lesson we might learn from Terumah.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 2/20/2021.)

Categories
Sermons

No Easy Answers – Shabbat Hanukkah 5781

OK, so let’s face it: Hanukkah is a strange holiday. Yes, it is the best known and the most celebrated in the Jewish world. Yes, it is joyous and fun and a rollicking good time when it is cold and dark outside.

But Hanukkah is also a study in contrasts:

  • Is it about the victory of the Maccabees, a small, scrappy army of Judeans, over the Seleucid Empire? Is it about throwing off the yoke of a huge imperial power and denying their Hellenistic culture and influence, according to the story found in the non-canonical Books of the Maccabees? 
  • Or is it about the rededication of the Beit HaMiqdash, the Temple in Jerusalem and the small vial of oil that miraculously lasted for eight days, as mentioned centuries later in the Talmud? 
  • Is it actually a holiday of some stature, or a minor observance that arguably distracts from the really important holidays of the Jewish year, like Shavu’ot (one of the three pilgrimage festivals, which celebrates the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai)? 
  • Is it merely a weak excuse for American Jews to placate their children by providing a Christmas-like experience, a feeble, consumerist attempt to make Judaism look appealing in a sea of tinsel and holly? 
  • Is it a reminder to illuminate the world with our values, the values of freedom and Torah, or a mere celebratory trifle, a lightweight among weightier Jewish holidays?

There is no reason, of course, why it cannot be all of these things.

Some of you tuned in last week to hear me speak about the messages delivered by angels to Ya’aqov, and in particular his receiving the new name of Yisrael. We are Yisrael, the ones who struggle with God and with people. I offered that, while it might be nice every now and then to get a direct message from God, brought to us by a mal’akh, an angel that is a designated Divine messenger, generally we do not receive heavenly messages.

On the contrary, we receive so many other types of messages that it is impossible to tell which ones may be Divine in origin and which are merely human. I can remember a handful of times in my life in which a voice in my head told me clearly to do something, and I cannot be entirely sure where it came from. 

But Judaism does, in some sense, rely on our tradition to give us signals from the Qadosh Barukh Hu. Dr. Louis Finkelstein z”l, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, is known to have said, “When I pray, I speak to God. When I study, God speaks to me.” We understand that in order to hear God’s voice, to find those messages, we have to dig deep into the texts of Jewish life: Talmud, Torah commentaries, tefillah, and so forth. 

And even in the middle of all that text, all of that traditional beit-midrash-style give-and-take of argument and subtlety and nuance among the jumble of Hebrew and Aramaic, we still may not receive the message.

Because, you know what? There are no simple answers.

There are no simple answers to the hard questions, the questions to which we might actually need a Godly answer. There are no easy answers to the kinds of questions that Yisrael, those who struggle with God, might ask, questions like:

  • If God is all-powerful and God is all good, then why are we suffering from a worldwide pandemic, in which thousands of people around the world are dying every day? Why were the Nazis allowed to murder so many people? 
  • If God wants us to treat one another with respect, why is there racism found within the human heart? Why do some upright, honest people suffer, while some despicable people thrive?
  • Where did we come from?
  • Is God listening to us at all? Does God even have ears with which to listen?
  • What is Hanukkah REALLY all about? A miracle, a successful uprising, or defense of culture and tradition?

Sarah Hurwitz is a former speechwriter for Michelle Obama. Back in Tishrei of 5780 (that is, around Rosh Hashanah in 2019) she wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal about her own rediscovery of the complexity of Judaism as an adult, titled Religion for Adults Means Embracing Complexity

Ms. Hurwitz begins by explaining that, although she grew up going to synagogue and celebrated becoming a bat mitzvah, the words of prayer and our customs and songs and stories and texts were effectively meaningless to her, and so she rejected them. And although she came back for High Holidays year after year for decades, she would only resent the apparent simplicity of the message of those days: good deeds put you in the Book of Life; sin leads to the Book of Death, so you better repent.

And then, at age 36 (certainly a suitable age – double hai, twice the numerical value of the Hebrew word for “life” – for discovering Judaism), she decided to take an Introduction to Judaism class, and found what she had been missing in her Hebrew school education: complexity.

She points out that not only does the Untaneh Toqef prayer ask, מי יחיה ומי ימות, who shall live and who shall die, but also, מי ינוח ומי ינוע, who shall be calm and who shall be tormented, and מי יעני ומי יעשר, who shall be poor and who shall be rich, and of course that those descriptors can be understood as metaphor. She learned that this prayer draws heavily from the book of Iyyov / Job, which wrestles with theology until God comes along in a whirlwind and more or less asks Iyyov, who are you to challenge Me? What do you know of the complexity of My world? (Job 38).

Ms. Hurwitz realized that she had never understood this because, since she stopped her Jewish education at age twelve and never proceeded any further, she was never in a situation where she could actually wrestle with this complexity, with the richness of the Jewish bookshelf, and the powerful words of wisdom therein. We cannot really teach the many layers of meaning in Untaneh Toqef, or in the Amidah (the standing, silent prayer recited 3x/day), or even in something as simple as Modeh Ani (the first words that should leave our lips every morning, acknowledging gratitude for life), to children; ours is a tradition that was created, maintained, and carried by adult Jews for thousands of years. Different layers, different strands of our tradition are meant to speak to us at different stages of our lives. That is the glory of religion in general: it is neither pediatric nor geriatric; it is both, and everything in-between as well.

That is why, and I know you’ve heard me say this before, we read the Torah every year; the same Torah. That is why daily tefillah (prayer) is mostly the same each day and from week to week, because every time we turn back to these words, we unlock something new; we connect them to a new part of ourselves as we grow and change and mature. There is no end to the perspectives we gain each time we return.

Ms. Hurwitz writes,

If someone told us that they found their sixth-grade science or history classes to be dull and overly simplistic, and thus entirely stopped learning about those subjects, we would be appalled. But that is precisely what many of us do with religion, including plenty who continue to show up at our places of worship and go through the motions. We’ve rejected the kiddie stuff but never bothered to replace it with an adult version.

And that’s a real loss, because mature forms of religion don’t traffic in simplistic or implausible answers, but push us to ask the right questions. Not just “what does it mean to be happy or successful?” But “what does it mean to lead a truly ethical life? To be part of a community? To serve something greater than one’s self?”

And therein lies the challenge for us today, even as adults who appreciate and value our tradition. When the minhag / custom of today is to express yourself in 280 characters or less, or with a photo and a brief caption, how will we possibly capture that complexity? How will we relay the many layers, the multi-dimensional perspectives and thoughts and expressions of grief and joy and solitude and raucousness?

How do we pass on the value of Torah, in all its messy, organic glory and open-ended, occasionally inscrutable wisdom, when we boil a holiday experience down to lighting candles and eating fried foods? How do we teach the wonderfully esoteric items of Jewish culture, as distinct from ancient Greek culture, when we can barely get past sheheheyyanu?

What if, particularly during this COVID Hanukkah when we are all stuck inside with our families, we set aside a few minutes, over latkes, to discuss the possible parallels between the Maccabees’ world and our own? Can we acknowledge our assimilated, and yet connected way of living today? Can we face the thorny questions around Jewish identity in the context of secular America? Can we talk about the power and holiness in our ancient customs, our traditions, and how we need them to help make our lives better today?

We need to dig deeper, to ask more questions, to continue to struggle. We need to, as Ms. Hurwitz puts it, to do the seeking, the learning, and the grappling ourselves. The table is set before you, not just with latkes and sufganiyot (jelly dougnuts), or for that matter haroset and maror (symbolic foods of Passover) or apples and honey (Rosh Hashanah) or cheesecake (Shavu’ot), but with an impossibly rich range of appetizers, sumptuous main dishes, and multiple courses of wine. There are no easy answers, but within that smorgasbord of Jewish life and text there is much of value, and finding it is more than half the fun. It is all there. Now come and learn.

Shabbat shalom, and hag urim sameah (Happy Festival of Lights)!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, the second day of Hanukkah, 12/12/2020.)

Categories
Festivals Sermons

Redemption from (Love-)Sickness – Shabbat Hol HaMo’ed Pesah 5780

It’s been at least a month now, maybe even six weeks, since I have shaken anybody’s hand, and that is probably true for just about all of us. (My wife and kids have kept me adequately supplied with hugs, but we don’t generally shake hands with each other around the house.)

I am going to tell you something about myself, something which some of you may have trouble believing, and that is this: I am NOT a people person. I am a classic introvert, one who draws energy from being alone, rather than from socializing with others. I am no fun at parties – I tend to be checking out the bookshelves and the artwork while others are chattering. Yes, I cover that well – an essential part of my work as a rabbi is to be social. To paraphrase Pirqei Avot (3:17), Im ein schmooze, ein Torah. Without schmoozing, there’s no Torah. We, the Jews, are a sociable people, and rabbis are not monks.

But, if you can believe this, it’s hard for me. There are times, particularly at the end of the day, when I just want to crawl into a hole and listen to NPR, or silence.

The Rothko Chapel in Houston. A great place to appreciate silence.

However, I have found the time at home in the last month harder than I anticipated. Something I have learned about myself in recent weeks is that I need to see people, to chat with them, to relate in person. And I am sure that many of us are feeling that need as well right about now.

A little earlier we read some of Shir HaShirim, one of the most curious and intriguing books of the Tanakh. Some of the questions that might arise about Shir HaShirim are:

  1. This is clearly ancient erotic poetry. What’s it doing in the Tanakh?
  2. Where is God?
  3. Why on Earth do we read this on Shabbat Hol HaMoed Pesah?

Addressing the more obvious challenge, which unites the first two questions, Shir HaShirim is understood in the rabbinic mind as being about the relationship between God and Israel as lovers. There is, indeed, romantic and sexual tension found in the contortions of this relationship; from the Sinai moment until today, God is continually being spurned and then sought again by Israel. (The prophet Hosea, who, if you survey all the haftarot of the year, is the most-read of the minor prophets, allegorizes exactly this relationship in his description of his own faithless marriage.) 

The lovers in Shir HaShirim face a kind of disconnect; while they speak of touching one another, they are often distant, missing each other’s overtures, seeking each other. I must say that this describes to some extent my own personal God experience, and maybe yours as well. 

For example:

2:14

יוֹנָתִ֞י בְּחַגְוֵ֣י הַסֶּ֗לַע בְּסֵ֙תֶר֙ הַמַּדְרֵגָ֔ה הַרְאִ֙ינִי֙ אֶתּ־מַרְאַ֔יִךְ הַשְׁמִיעִ֖ינִי אֶת־קוֹלֵ֑ךְ כִּי־קוֹלֵ֥ךְ עָרֵ֖ב וּמַרְאֵ֥יךְ נָאוֶֽה׃

“O my dove, in the cranny of the rocks, Hidden by the cliff, Let me see your face, Let me hear your voice; For your voice is sweet And your face is comely.”

3:1-2

עַל־מִשְׁכָּבִי֙ בַּלֵּיל֔וֹת בִּקַּ֕שְׁתִּי אֵ֥ת שֶׁאָהֲבָ֖ה נַפְשִׁ֑י בִּקַּשְׁתִּ֖יו וְלֹ֥א מְצָאתִֽיו׃

Upon my couch at night I sought the one I love— I sought, but found him not.

אָק֨וּמָה נָּ֜א וַאֲסוֹבְבָ֣ה בָעִ֗יר בַּשְּׁוָקִים֙ וּבָ֣רְחֹב֔וֹת אֲבַקְשָׁ֕ה אֵ֥ת שֶׁאָהֲבָ֖ה נַפְשִׁ֑י בִּקַּשְׁתִּ֖יו וְלֹ֥א מְצָאתִֽיו׃

“I must rise and roam the town, Through the streets and through the squares; I must seek the one I love.” I sought but found him not.

I spend a great deal of time in tefillah / prayer, lavishing praise upon God (which is what the majority of our statutory prayers consist of). Just as the lover in Shir HaShirim describes the object of her desire in rich, hyperbolic prose, so too do we whenever we open the siddur / prayerbook.

And yet, when we seek, we often do not find God. We yearn, we plead, our mouths overflow with litanies of praise. Some Mizrahi (Eastern) traditions chant Shir HaShirim before Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday evenings; that is not our custom, but we do sing Yedid Nefesh, which draws heavily on imagery from Shir HaShirim: “Nafshi holat ahavatakh,” wrote the poet Rabbi Elazar Azikri in the 16th century. My soul is sick from your love, riffing on 2:5.

It is this unquenched desiring for God’s presence, to find our Eternal Lover, that keeps us connected to our tradition, that reminds us of the ongoing potential for redemption. Rambam describes this imperative in the Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 10:3: 

And what is the proper love? One shall love the Lord with an exceeding great and very strong love so that one’s soul be tied to the love of the Lord, finding oneself in a constant tremor, as if suffering of lovesickness, … This is what Solomon allegorically said: Ki holat ahavah ani / “For I am love-sick” (Songs 2.5). And, the whole book, Shir HaShirim, is an allegory on this subject.

And it is through this love that we are redeemed. The Exodus story is the foundational moment of the loving relationship between Israel and God. The relationship that is defined in the revelation of Torah at Mt. Sinai, a climactic moment that effectively consummates the relationship. Integral to this loving relationship is the idea that God will complete the redemption of Israel: having been brought forth from slavery and brought into the covenantal relationship with Torah, the final stage of redemption is bringing the Israelites into the land promised to them, the land of Israel. 

What happened at Sinai was a wee bit more than a handshake. And that love continues to this day. The Exodus story looms large in Jewish thought and ritual because it is the template for future redemption; love and redemption are intimately intertwined.

Some of you have probably heard me speak about my own personal theology, which dwells heavily on finding God in the interstices of our lives, in the cosmic glue which holds us all together, both from the perspective of physics and of human relationships. 

However, in this particular time, I must say that I want to lean into the traditional understanding of God as the one who, having redeemed us in the past, exemplified by the loving redemption story that Pesah commemorates, will redeem us once again. And I am not hoping for a big Redemption (with a capital R) right now, but rather, just the opportunity to spend time with friends and family again, for my kids to be able to go to the playground again, for me to be able to meet with congregants again and shake hands, as I always do. 

We read Shir HaShirim on Pesah as a sign not only of that great Redemption, but also of the little redemptions that we experience every day. Shir HaShirim reminds us that love is that cosmic glue, and that the minor redemptions on which we depend are never too far away, even if we cannot see them, even as we seek God and do not find.

You are loved, not only by God, of course, but also by the others around you. And although we may not feel their touch right now, although we may not be able to physically reach out, we should take some comfort in knowing that, when we are redeemed, that this brief period of separation, of seeking, of yearning, will heighten the experience of being with each other, in each other’s physical presence once again. 

I eagerly await that day, that redemption. Shabbat shalom and Hag Sameah!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat Hol HaMo’ed Pesah, 4/11/2020.)

Categories
Sermons

Don’t Give Up on the World – Noah 5780

Have you ever been in the situation where you’ve tried and failed at something multiple times, and then you finally achieved your objective, but still it was not quite good enough?

And yet you learned to live with that imperfection, right? I feel like this happens to me all the time.

There is a captivating midrash (explanatory story external to the Torah text) that speaks of God’s creation of the world as an iterative process rather than a one-time event. It draws on language that we read last week in Parashat Bereshit (the very beginning of the book of Genesis):

אָמַר רַבִּי יְהוּדָה בַּר סִימוֹן, יְהִי עֶרֶב אֵין כְּתִיב כָּאן, אֶלָּא וַיְהִי עֶרֶב, מִכָּאן שֶׁהָיָה סֵדֶר זְמַנִּים קֹדֶם לָכֵן. אָמַר רַבִּי אַבָּהוּ מְלַמֵּד שֶׁהָיָה בּוֹרֵא עוֹלָמוֹת וּמַחֲרִיבָן, עַד שֶׁבָּרָא אֶת אֵלּוּ, אָמַר דֵּין הַנְיָן לִי, יַתְהוֹן לָא הַנְיָן לִי. אָמַר רַבִּי פִּנְחָס טַעְמֵיהּ דְּרַבִּי אַבָּהוּ (בראשית א, לא): וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת כָּל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וְהִנֵּה טוֹב מְאֹד, דֵּין הַנְיָין לִי יַתְהוֹן לָא הַנְיָין לִי

Rabbi Yehudah bar Simon said: it does not say, ‘Yehi erev’ / ‘It was evening,’ but ‘Vayhi erev’ / ‘And it was evening.’ (Bereshit / Genesis 1:5) Hence we derive that there was a time-system prior to this. Rabbi Abbahu said: This teaches us that God created worlds and destroyed them, saying, ‘This one pleases me;    those did not please me.’ Rabbi Pinehas said, Rabbi Abbahu derives this from the verse, ‘And God saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good,’ (Bereshit / Genesis 1:31) as if to say, ‘This one pleases me, those others did not please me.’ (Bereshit Rabba 3:7)

The midrash says that prior to the six-day creation story that we read last week, God had already created and destroyed many previous versions of the world. We understand this to mean that each of these creations was somehow flawed, and God knew that a better one was possible. The midrash does not suggest how many of these pre-worlds there were – it could have been 3 or 97 million.

And yet, we know that this world is, of course, flawed. Very much flawed. We live in a far-from-perfect universe.

And yet, when it comes to Noah, God does not destroy the world entirely; Noah and his family are saved. And this despite the opening language of today’s parashah (weekly Torah reading), in which we read no less than four occurrences of the shoresh (tri-literal Hebrew root) shin-het-tav, meaning to ruin, corrupt, violate: e.g. Vatishahet ha-aretz… vatimale ha-aretz hamas (Bereshit / Genesis 6:11). The world was corrupt and filled with lawlessness. And the text does not exempt Noah himself – he is described as “ish tzaddiq, tamim hayah bedorotav” – a righteous man, blameless in his generation. It was just fine up until the bedorotav – in a sea of corruption and lawlessness and violence, to call somebody righteous relative to his peers is faint praise at best.

Noah’s Ark. France, Paris, 1240s. Pierpont Morgan Library, MS M.638, fol. 2v

So God puts all of God’s chips on this one, only somewhat dysfunctional family, along with one set of each type of creature. Which leads us to wonder, why didn’t God simply start over once again, like the midrash explains? For God, the world must seem like a kind of cosmic-scale Etch-a-Sketch. Why not just erase the Etch-a-Sketch and start again?

And the answer must be, of course, that God saw some kind of value in not starting over from scratch. This build was far from perfect, but there was something that worked. Cosmos 97 million point one, while deeply corrupt, had some redeemable features.

And particularly, you might say that it was something about the human spirit that must have intrigued the Qadosh Barukh Hu (Holy Blessed One, i.e. God) to maintain this version of humanity. We all know that people are not perfect; that we are complicated, that we are deceitful, that we are inclined to mistreat one another and the Earth. We know that people are bad at seeing the consequences of their actions, particularly in the long term.

And yet, even as the palette of humanity has yielded malfeasance of many different varieties, we have also filled this world with great creativity and fantastic music, art, architecture, technology, literature and so forth.

So God stuck with Noah, this guy who was not too bad.

And let’s consider the state of the world today:

We have just passed one secular year since the anti-Semitic massacre that occurred a few blocks from here, the deadliest attack on Jews in America ever, and we are approaching the first yahrzeit (annual day of mourning) for those whom we lost on that day.

Wildfires are spreading near Los Angeles, something which has become a regular occurrence. Several important Jewish institutions, including the American Jewish University, where Rabbi Jeremy was ordained, and the Skirball Center, a fantastic Jewish museum, are in the evacuation zone. My brother-in-law has been told that he may have to evacuate as well.

Floods devastated Houston once again this year.

Great Britain has its knickers in a twist over Brexit. Syria has become a Turkish and Russian free-for-all. Venezuela continues to be a tragic, starving mess. Brazil continues to allow the rainforest to be consumed for the sake of development.

Our nation is facing a constitutional crisis of sorts; for only the third time in American history, a president faces charges of high crimes and misdemeanors. 

Thomas Friedman, a generally clear-headed, sober, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the New York Times, wrote a particular disturbing column this past week in which he stated that, “Not in the Cold War, not during Vietnam, not during Watergate did I ever fear more for my country.” Friedman’s concern is that the magical mix of deceitful politicians coupled with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s stated unwillingness to take down deliberately false political advertisements may, in fact, break America.

I must say that, despite the current governmental challenges in Israel (after two elections, politicians have been unable to form a governing coalition), aliyah is looking pretty good right now. (And you all know that I am a big supporter of American aliyah – the best thing that we can do to support Israel and work for positive change in Israeli society and policies is to move there.)  

But back to Noah. We have reason right now to want to throw up our hands in defeat. To concede that we cannot change the current trajectory, that we cannot fix what is so severely broken. That the depth of corruption and lawlessness all around is so thick that the world is unredeemable. We can probably think of a whole bunch of reasons to want to throw in the towel right now. But we cannot. 

Rather, I want us all to think like God at the beginning of Parashat Noah. I want us to consider the flawed world that we have, and accept that although change is difficult, that we have the ability, and indeed the imperative to try to improve it. God could have chosen to shake that Etch-a-Sketch once again; but instead of doing that, God doubled down on the less-than-perfect Noah, who, by the way goes on to fail even more, with the whole vineyard episode.

No, we cannot hide out, drunk in our own tents and ignore the brokenness around us. Rather, we must pick ourselves up and act.

Noah, hardly a perfect person, was tapped to be the seed of humanity. Moshe, who, when we get to the book of Shemot / Exodus, will try to flee from his destiny, and yet will ultimately lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Yonah (Jonah), as we read on Yom Kippur, has no confidence in himself to save the people of Nineveh, but eventually does so. Our tradition is built upon heroes who are anything but heroic.  They are ordinary – that is to say, flawed – people who accomplish great things. That is something that we can all relate to.

And if these Biblical archetypes do not inspire, consider the modern folks who have created real change for the better despite dire circumstances. Consider Rosa Parks, whose simple act of refusing to move on a public bus became a symbol that inspired the civil rights movement. Consider Malala Yousefzai, whose teenage advocacy on behalf of education for Pakistani girls led to an assassination attempt by a Taliban gunman, which she survived, and then went on to win a Nobel Prize. Consider Theodor Herzl, a Hungarian journalist covering the Dreyfus Affair, whose vision of a Jewish state where Jews would not be subject to the deep-seated anti-Semitism of Europe ultimately became a reality. Consider those who toiled in anonymity for years to create vaccines against horrible diseases; those who led rebellions against tyrannnical governments in public squares, Tiananmen and Tahrir and elsewhere; those artists and writers and investigative reporters who call out the bad actors in society.

None of these people are perfect; all of them live in the same broken world in which we do. And yet they stood up and made change happen. That could be any one of us. 

Some of you know that one of my favorite go-to “refrigerator-magnet texts” is Pirqei Avot 2:21, in which Rabbi Tarfon tells us:

לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה

Lo alekha hamelakhah ligmor, velo attah ben horin libbatel mimmena

It’s not up to you to finish the task, but neither are you free to give up on it.

No matter how deep the dysfunction of this world, think like God! Grab hold of the good and run with it. You’re not perfect, we’re not perfect, and the results will not be perfect, but you may just change the world for the better.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 11/2/2019.)

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I’m a Fundamentalist: God – Bereshit 5780

I am always captivated by Bereshit, the beginning of the Torah, as the source of so many Big Questions. Who or what or why is this thing referred to as God? Must we take these stories literally? How can we possibly relate to a completely abstract concept? What can this mean to us as modern people? How might we understand God in this moment?

We cannot read the Creation story that we read this morning (second time this week, actually!) without facing these Big Questions.

I am going out on a limb here with what you might expect to be an unpopular notion, at least outside of this building: we need God. 

This is the fifth installment in an occasional series called, “I’m a Fundamentalist.” So far we have covered Shabbat, tallit, tefillin, and “refrigerator-magnet texts” – the best quotes from the Jewish bookshelf that you should really have on your refrigerator. Today’s Fundamentalist topic is God.

A former congregant on Long Island, one who was quite committed to Judaism once lamented to me the fact that her adult children were not very interested in Judaism. She told me that one of her sons had said, “Really, Mom, there’s no need for religion. There is no need for God. Because science has already figured almost everything out, and what it has not yet figured out, it will soon.”

I did not want to insult her son by saying that this is a particularly myopic view of the role of religion as well as a misunderstanding of what science is capable of explaining. But here are a few bullet points that I can share with you:

  • First, it is worth pointing out that science and religion address different questions. Scientific inquiry leads us to a better understanding of electron clouds, or how to cure terminal diseases; it might even describe where we came from. But it does not wrestle with the question of how to respond to somebody who is dying of a terminal disease, or offer a framework for grieving when that disease has run its course. New technology might enable us to choose the eye-color of our babies, let’s say, but it cannot make the argument about why we should or should not do so.
  • Second, what Judaism offers is community. It is learning together. It is breaking bread together. It is holding each other in times of need and celebrating in times of joy. Our tradition gives us the imperative to care not only about ourselves, but rather the others around us as well. Judaism gives us a guide to holy behavior, to sanctifying our relationships. And of course it gives us ritual – opportunities to act while we reflect on the values that we uphold. Science offers none of those things.
  • Third, Judaism offers us a glimpse of the Divine, and the opportunity to see the Godliness in the world around us. Yes, science may teach us that spewing carbon dioxide and methane and chlorofluorocarbons into the atmosphere will ultimately destroy our environment, but Judaism teaches us why we should care.

Many assume that reason and religion are antithetical.  I cannot speak for other faith traditions, but I know that reason was of utmost importance to Maimonides; Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his seminal work, God in Search of Man, points to the value of reason within Judaism. But Heschel cautions us that, “Extreme rationalism may be defined as the failure of reason to understand itself… The way to truth is an act of reason; the love of truth is an act of the spirit.” 

Rabbi Heschel’s argument is that reason and religion balance each other; we need both. He continues:  

… science is unable to give us all the truth about all of life. We are in need of spirit in order to know what to do with science… Reason’s goal is the exploration and verification of objective relations; religion’s goal is the exploration and verification of ultimate personal relations.

It is the synthesis of reason and religion that yields truth and righteousness. In The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism, Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin point out how reason alone can be immoral. As an extreme example, they argue that those who followed the orders of the Nazi regime were acting reasonably:

When the average German citizen remained silent while his Jewish neighbors were shipped to concentration camps, he was acting entirely according to reason.

The ones who acted morally, to try to prevent the killing of their neighbors,  were themselves shot.

But Judaism marries reason to spirit. Our entire tradition is derived from interpreting our ancient texts for us today, even incorporating what science teaches us.

We need God so that we can take what we have learned about the world and apply it in a way that is just, that liberates people and does not oppress them; that lifts up the needy and raises the humble of spirit.

Let’s take a real-world example: consider the challenge that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has right now. Here is a guy who created a way, through the use of technology, to connect people to each other in a way that they had never connected before. And lo, how they have connected! Zuckerberg and his friends thought they were changing the world for the better.

And yet, in his appearance before a congressional committee a few days ago to discuss Facebook’s new crypto-currency, Mr. Zuckerberg had to apologize for the company’s “trust issues.” Why do people not trust Facebook? Because people’s information has not been kept confidential. Because the platform has contributed to political upheaval in countries around the world, including our own. Because human interaction cannot be a free-for-all; it must have limits. It must be truthful. 

Science and technology may open up many new pathways for us, but they will not tell us how to behave.

So that brings us back to the problem of God. From where do these boundaries flow? Certainly not from our smartphones. And not from us as individuals, because your boundaries and mine may not coincide.

They must flow from God. God is the one who gives us the limits, the standard by which we measure the truth.

But what is God? And how can I possibly believe in something that I cannot see or hear or feel? And, by the way, wasn’t God just for ancient people who had no other way of explaining where we came from? Haven’t we moved beyond that?

We need God today, as much as ever. No, we may not rely on God for rain, or fertility, or healthy crops, like our ancestors. We may not even see God as being the source of our prosperity (when we are prosperous) or our grief (when we are grieving). 

But we need God to understand what are our limits. What will prevent us from despoiling all of Creation, if not the sense that God gave it to us “le’ovdah ulshomrah,” (Bereshit / Genesis 2:15) to work it and to guard it? What will save us from the devolution of society due to the ease with which falsehood can be spread, if not for the mitzvot regarding telling the truth? What will ultimately prevent us from killing each other, if not for the standard that murder is wrong? 

It is all too easy today to look out for number one; to rationalize – to examine our bank statement and think, I’m OK – nothing to worry about. To talk ourselves out of going the extra distance for a fellow person in need because, eh, somebody else will take care of it. To live our lives in quiet, selfish anonymity. To think, I don’t need community, I don’t need ritual – I have everything I need.

But Judaism, and indeed the presence of God in our lives drives us to dig deeper, to reach out with two hands, to be the best individuals we can be.

And you know what? You do not need to accept any of the traditional understandings of God to do that. You do not need to believe that God created the world in six days, or that God dictated the Torah to Moshe on Mt. Sinai, or that God split the Sea of Reeds so that our ancestors could walk through on dry land. 

You can understand God as completely non-understandable. You can conceptualize God as having no concept. You can see God as a spirit that works through us and around us, as with Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, or as an imperceptible presence that is completely without condition, as with Martin Buber. Or you can come up with some other idea or metaphor for God that is nothing like anything else.

Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, whose writings became the basis of Reconstructionist Judaism

And yes, it is a challenge to accept the God idea in a world in which we seemingly have a rational explanation for everything. And, in a post-Sho’ah world, a world in which an angry Jew-hater with a gun can murder Jews at prayer, one must ask about the challenge of accounting for evil. But, as Rabbi Milton Steinberg argued, the one who believes in God must account for one thing, the existence of evil. The atheist, however, must account for the existence of everything else.

I will conclude with words of caution: once we let go of God entirely, we are lost. Humanity will destroy itself. There will be nothing to prevent us from killing each other. Recent history has demonstrated that those who think only of enriching themselves or amassing more power will inevitably allow or encourage other people to murder each other.

God is a check on that. We need God.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 10/26/2019.)

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Lifting Up God’s Face – Naso 5779

Last Shabbat I mentioned the panel discussion at Rodef Shalom’s annual congregational meeting about the future of synagogues, and one of the items that I identified at this discussion regarding the future of American Judaism is our knowledge of Hebrew. Yes, we live in a time in which readily-available online translations of ancient Jewish text have made the learning of our collected wisdom so much more accessible. That is a good thing; many of you know that we are currently in a kind of renaissance of Jewish learning, aided and abetted by Sefaria and other such platforms.

Nonetheless, there is no question that the Hebrew language, the language of the Jews, is the key to engaging with Jewish life. I learned most of my Hebrew as an adult, and I must say that, even though I learned to “decode” (i.e. read without understanding) when I was quite young, I had no idea what I was missing.

In 1845, at the conference of Reform rabbis in Frankfurt, Germany, a line was drawn in the sand over the Hebrew language. Some Reform rabbis of the time, including Rabbi Abraham Geiger, the “founding father” of Reform, advocated for dispensing with Hebrew in Jewish worship in favor of the vernacular. German, Rabbi Geiger argued, was the “language of the soul,” of philosophy, of civilization; for Geiger, prayer in German struck “a deeper chord.” The Jews of the time did not understand Hebrew, and if the purpose of tefillah / prayer is for our words to connect with our hearts, then tefillah should be in a language we understand.

Rabbi Zecharias Frankel, one of the leading lights of the Positive-Historical School, which ultimately became the Conservative movement, argued that Hebrew is the language of the Jews, the language of the Torah, the language of God. How could we jettison such an essential piece of what it means to be Jewish?

Our sensitivity to language is borne of the historical Jewish need to code-switch. Since the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians, nearly 2600 years ago, Jews have lived in places where they had to speak another language and manage another culture to get along. The Babylonians imposed the Aramaic language on their entire empire, mostly because they had wiped out the Arameans, and so speaking that language implied no political agenda. And from that time forward, Hebrew became the second language for the Jews, taking a back seat to Aramaic, Persian, Greek, Latin, Arabic, Spanish, French, German, and the Jewish dialects of all of those, some of which survived the centuries to be spoken today as Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Provencal, and so forth. We are experts at translation of language and culture, because we have been doing it for so long.

And hence the interest we have in parsing our ancient texts; we are constantly moving from our second language to our first and back again. Most of you have heard me say that it is the continual wrestling with the Torah and Talmud and midrash and poetry and halakhic works that has continued to sustain us to this day. That is one reason we are still here, because, as Pirqei Avot (5:22) suggests,

בּן בַּג בַּג אוֹמֵר, הֲפֹךְ בָּהּ וַהֲפֹךְ בָּהּ, דְּכֹלָּא בָהּ

Ben Bag Bag says, “Turn it over and over, because everything is in it.”

Our ancient words are a lens that help us contextualize our world, to determine what is right, to improve our lives and our communities.

And of course we continue to wrestle.

In that light, we might consider an unusual Hebrew verb, one which has flown by us several times this morning already, and in particular appears, arguably, as what scholars call a leitwort (thematic word) for today’s parashah, Parashat Naso. The verb is the shoresh / root נ-ש-א, from which the very word “naso” is derived. It usually means, “to lift up, elevate.” But its appearances in the Torah are usually idiomatic. Consider the following, the second verse of Naso, and the line from which the name of the parashah derives (Numbers 4:22):

נָשֹׂ֗א אֶת־רֹ֛אשׁ בְּנֵ֥י גֵרְשׁ֖וֹן גַּם־הֵ֑ם לְבֵ֥ית אֲבֹתָ֖ם לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָֽם׃

Take a census of the Gershonites also, by their ancestral house and by their clans.

Now the idiom, “Naso et rosh …” might be literally translated as, “Lift up the head of…” But here it means, “count.” That is, take a census.

And then it appears multiple times in the subsequent verses, which one way that we determine a leitwort. In particular, it appears near the end of the parashah in the passage that we generally know as birkat kohanim, the Priestly Blessing (Numbers 6:24-26).

יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ ה’ וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ׃
יָאֵ֨ר ה’ ׀ פָּנָ֛יו אֵלֶ֖יךָ וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ׃
יִשָּׂ֨א ה’ ׀ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם׃

The LORD bless you and protect you!
The LORD deal kindly and graciously with you!
The LORD bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace!

We also use these words to bless our children on Friday evening. (By the way, we sang this at the ELC graduation on Thursday, as we wrapped our 4-year-olds in a sefer Torah, encircling them with the ancient words of our tradition.)

Did you notice the occurrence of our leitwort? It’s the first word of the third verse: yissa. (If you wondered why there is no letter nun there, there is a reason: the nun is assimilated into the sin; that’s why there is a daggesh hazzaq in the sin, suggesting a “doubling” or “gemination” of the letter.)

But what does it mean here? Again we’ve come against an idiom. Yissa Adonai panav elekha is translated as something like, “May God bestow favor upon you.” But what it literally means is, “May God lift up God’s face to you.”

OK, so now there is something strange in this idiom. Most of us conceive of God as being above us, or all around us, or perhaps as some indeterminate, de-localized force within nature. And many of us conceive of God as not having a particular face. At the beginning of the Amidah, we refer to God as El Elyon – God on high; by comparison, we are lowly and Earthbound.

But whatever your understanding of God, how is it that God might be lifting up God’s face to us? Should it not be exactly the opposite? Should we not turn our faces up to God, for inspiration, for guidance, for knowledge of right and wrong? The second half of the verse, “May God grant you peace,” seems totally reasonable within our range of understanding God; so too the preceding statements. So what gives?

When we pray or study words of Torah, we lift our faces to God. When we pursue outward actions that better our relations with others, God’s face lifts up to us.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the greatest contemporary figures in Jewish thought and one of the most essential thinkers on the totality of the Jewish bookshelf, taught that the reason the Torah forbids images of God is NOT that God has NO image, but rather that God has just ONE image: that of every living, breathing human being. That is, we humans create the image of God with our lives – by doing mitzvot, by sanctifying time, by highlighting the holiness in all other beings and in all of God’s Creation.

It is when you fashion yourself in the Divine image that “Yissa Adonai panav elekha,” God lifts up God’s face to you.

When we as Jews take our Judaism outside of our homes and synagogues into our work and social lives, God looks up to us.

When we give generously and anonymously to those in need, God looks up to us.

When we act in compassion on behalf of those who are mistreated by governments and other organizations, God looks up to us.

When we support our cousins in Israel with our time and energy, God looks up to us.

When we take seriously the obligation to treat all of the people around us with derekh eretz, with respect, God looks up to us.

And, not insignificantly, when we parse the words of our living texts in our ancient language to inspire us to do these works, God’s face lifts up, and God will grant us peace.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 6/15/2019.)

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A Din Toyre / Lawsuit Against God – Aharei Mot 5779

There is a story about Rabbi Levi Yitzhaq of Berdichev, a prominent 18th-century Hasidic rabbi, that he brought a “din toyre” (Yiddishized Hebrew for a lawsuit) against God. In the folk song that sets this din toyre to music, he points out that all the other nations thrive; this one has a huge kingdom, that one has a powerful ruler. But the Jews, what do we have? All we have is the Qaddish, the prayer most strongly associated with mourning. All we have is suffering and mourning and grief.

As the melody rises in intensity, Levi Yitzhaq affirms proudly before God, in Hebrew and then in Yiddish:

Lo ozuz mimkoymi!I will not move from my place! (Hebrew)
Ikh vel zikh fun ort nit rirn!I will not stir from my place! (Yiddish)
Un a sof zol dos zayn!An end there must be [to this suffering]
Un an ek zol dos nemen!
It must all stop!

This song flipped through my head this week following the attack on the synagogue in Poway, a brief and painful six months following the 18th of Heshvan (Oct. 27th) in Pittsburgh. I went through some of the same emotions we all felt on the last day of Pesah when we found out – shock and horror and grief. And then I detected a new emotion in this particular swamp: anger.

I am angry. And disappointed. And frustrated. And, like Rabbi Levi Yitzhaq, I am bringing a din toyre, a lawsuit against God. I imagined us as a community similarly raising an accusatory finger heavenward:

Ribbono shel olam, Master of the Universe:

Why? Why again? Why so soon? Have we done something wrong? Have we failed to serve You adequately? Have our transgressions outweighed our fulfillment of mitzvot / commandments? Have we not sought repentance?

Look, I know You do not work that way. I know that You are not about tit-for-tat, reward and punishment. That whole “Book of Life” thing, I know that’s a human artifice to help us wrap our brains around how You function. I know You don’t even have ears, in the human sense, to hear these words. But I know You’re listening. So listen up good. Please.

On the Shabbat of the 18th of Heshvan, we continued to pray, even though we knew what was going on a few blocks away. We recited the words of Psalm 130 and Psalm 121, the words of Your servant, King David: ממעמקים קראתיך – we cried out to You from the depths, and אשא איני אל ההרים, מאין יבוא עזרי, we lifted up our eyes unto the mountains, asking from where our help would come. As funerals unfolded and tears flowed and the shock on everybody’s faces at shiv’ah houses and daily minyanim (services) reminded each other of our individual and collective pain, we continued to seek comfort and protection in the words and rituals of our tradition.

We have leaned into those words and rituals, and we have come up empty. Because here we are again.

Did that help come, as You told us it would? If so, it did not prevent the death of Lori Gilbert Kaye.

Did our voices reach up to You from these depths? If so, they did not move You to action.

And speaking of the Psalms, You may know that the Talmud remarks that when the Beit HaMiqdash, the Temple in Jerusalem was still standing, the Levitical choir used to chant a different Psalm for each day of the week, a custom that we continue to this day. The Psalm for Shabbat, Psalm 92 includes the line, “Tzaddiq katamar yifrah, ke-erez balevanon yisgeh.” The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree, and grow mighty like a cedar in Lebanon.”

Eloheinu velohei avoteinu, I am sure that You still appreciate “hearing” those Psalme, but are we flourishing? Are we mighty?

Rather, perhaps we are stuck in the Psalm that is recited on Wednesdays, Psalm 94 (3-4):

עַד־מָתַ֖י רְשָׁעִ֥ים ה
עַד־מָ֝תַ֗י רְשָׁעִ֥ים יַעֲלֹֽזוּ׃
יַבִּ֣יעוּ יְדַבְּר֣וּ עָתָ֑ק
יִֽ֝תְאַמְּר֗וּ
כָּל־פֹּ֥עֲלֵי אָֽוֶן׃

Ad matai resha’im Adonai
Ad matai resha’im ya’alozu
Yabi’u yedabberu ataq
Yit’ameru ol po’alei aven

How long yet, Adonai, will the wicked —
How long yet will the evil ones prosper?
Boasting their malice,
They talk each other into greater evil.

Because the wicked are moving ahead with their plan. Why should we be frightened in Your house? Why should we continue to suffer?

So maybe we are going to have to solve this ourselves, God. Maybe we are going to have to rely on guards, and silvered glass, and electronic door locks. Maybe we are going to have to learn self-defense. Maybe we are going to have to rely on law enforcement. Maybe we will have to implore our political representatives to protect Jewish institutions, to spend even more resources on cracking down on the forces of hatred. Maybe the dark web is beyond even Your reach.

Nonetheless, I am not going to let You off the hook entirely, because I know that You did not make these people do this. I know You did not intend for humans to create assault rifles, devices crafted only to kill people quickly and efficiently, and make them available to the civilian public. I know that You did not create sin’at hinnam, causeless hatred; that was also a human invention. I know that You do not want Your people to murder each other. I know that You did not create anti-Semitism, or white supremacy, or the concept of “white genocide,” or the whole “Jews will not replace us” thing.

But, Eloheinu veilohei avoteinu ve-imoteinu, we have trusted You. We will continue to offer the words of the Psalmist, and the words of tefillah, and welcome the weekly redemption of Shabbat and argue over the words of Your Torah.

But please know this: we feel betrayed.

So please, Ribbono Shel Olam, mima’amaqim qeratikha Adonai. We continue to call out to You from the depths.

Shema qoleinu, Adonai Eloheinu. Hus verahem aleinu. Hear our voices. Have mercy upon us.

We have grieved for too long; our wounds are fresh.

Help us find the human and political will to save our people. Steady the hands of those who protect us, those who seek out the resha’im, the evil people in this world who foment hatred against others and urge the weak of spirit to kill.

Because, like Levi Yitzhaq of Berdichev, we are not going anywhere. We will not be frightened. We will not be huddled into bomb shelters or safe rooms. We will not back away from doing what we do proudly as Jews.

On the contrary, we are just going to pray louder and harder, until You hear our voices.

That’s my din toyre, my lawsuit against God.

A footnote: We marked yet another Yom HaShoah this week, another Holocaust Remembrance Day, now nearly seven and a half decades after the Nazis were vanquished by the Allies. But you may know that the official name of that day, the 27th of Nisan, is “Yom HaZikaron LaSho’ah veLaGvurah,” the Day of Remembrance of the Holocaust and the Heroism.” In abbreviating the name, we are actually emasculating it somewhat. It is not merely the day of the Sho’ah, a day on which we recall the destruction wrought by the Nazi regime, the efficient murder of 6 million of our people, but also a day on which we remember the gevurah, the heroism of those who fought against it: Jews, non-Jews, partisans, industrialists, farmers, diplomats, ordinary righteous folks who knew right from wrong. And we remember those who survived, and that we as a people continue to survive, due not only to our own tenacity and loyalty to our heritage, but also to partnership with other good people around us.

The jury is still in recess, but we will not wait to do what we have to do to – to protect ourselves, to urge our leaders to act, to partner with others of faith who care and understand the need to stamp out the evil in our midst, the ancient hatred, invigorated by modern technology, that has emboldened killers.

Now is the time to work for the redemption of the world from hate. We cannot wait for God to act; we must do it ourselves.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 5/4/2019.)