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The Constant Gift of Life – Hayyei Sarah 5781

One of the ways in which I have coped with our pandemic separation is by cooking. This week I did something I had not done in a long time – at least a year. I made a butternut squash soup. It’s a great recipe that I discovered a few years back (of course, I use kosher vegetable stock instead of chicken stock): lots of butter, which makes it so rich, but also with fennel, which rounds out the flavor. It is, however, an extensive kitchen project, with lots of time peeling and chopping and sauteeing and simmering and pureeing. We ate it with Shabbat dinner last night. (Yes, in our house, Shabbat meals are often dairy.)

But, as we learn in Pirqei Avot, Im ein qemah, ein Torah; im ein Torah, ein qemah. If there’s no bread, there’s no Torah; if there’s no Torah, there’s no bread. You have to eat to learn, but you also have to learn to eat. Food and Torah are intimately tied together in our tradition.

In other news, you might say that I “hit for the cycle” this week. (Yes, I’m using a baseball metaphor, even though I think the season is over. Right?) I hit almost every lifecycle event this week.

Last Sunday, on the most beautiful November day of my lifetime, I officiated at the wedding of Abigail Blatt and Eric Yoffee. Eric is the son of our members Carol Beth and Mike Yoffee. It was held in the Yoffees’ back yard, with about minyan of attendees. 

Wednesday, longtime Beth Shalom Cantor Moshe Taube passed away, and we have been preparing for a memorial service for him, which will be held on Thursday evening (11/19).

Cantor Moshe Taube

Thursday, I made a new Jew! We brought Casey Weiss’s husband Doug Frisbee to the miqveh to complete his journey to Judaism. Casey is, of course, the daughter of our members Amy and Lou Weiss.

Friday, we welcomed Carson Weiss, the son of our members Emily and Aaron Weiss (no relation to the previous Weisses), into our people’s covenant with God through the ceremony of berit milah, ritual circumcision. Emily and Aaron were with me last January on the Honeymoon Israel trip, and we now see the fruits of our having welcomed them into this community.

Today, of course, we are celebrating Maddie Zabusky-Stockton’s stepping forward into direct relationship with the mitzvot of Jewish life, as we called her to the Torah as a bat mitzvah.

And also this week I spoke with potential new members, people observing yahrzeits, people recovering from COVID-19, other conversion students, and so forth. Plus I virtually attended the United Synagogue’s first conference about Jews and racism.

And all of this was with the pandemic in the background. All socially-distanced. All masked. All a little more anxious than it would have been under “normal” circumstances. 

And this is how our lives are right now.

A good news item this week was that at least one company that is working on a vaccine published results of a successful trial, indicating that their vaccine was 90% successful in preventing new infections of the coronavirus. Maybe the end of our current predicament is in sight. Let’s hope.

But even so, things are not looking so good, in a more immediate sense. Rates of infection are taking off, here in Allegheny County and all over the world. Hospital beds are filling up again. Ventilators and PPE may soon be in short supply. We may soon be back where we were in April.

Meanwhile, we have to do everything that we can to prevent the spread of this virus. We have to continue to be very careful about being masked when around others, and about maintaining our distance, and about minimizing our exposure. We must continue to be vigilant, particularly as Thanksgiving comes and then the December holidays, because the opportunities to spread the virus will certainly increase if people gather, even in small groups. Please remember the essential message of piqquah nefesh / the mitzvah of saving a life – preventing the spread will save lives, and that is one of our most essential mitzvot / holy opportunities as Jews.

Taking a step back to the Jewish bookshelf, right up front in Parashat Hayyei Sarah, Sarah dies. In the first two verses of Hayyei Sarah, the Torah takes note of the fact that her life, “Hayyei Sarah,” spans 127 years; then she dies, and Avraham mourns her and cries for her. The last word of that second verse, Bereshit / Genesis 23:2, is velivkotah, meaning, “and to cry for her.” In Torah scrolls and in some humashim, including Etz Hayyim, which some of us have, the “kaf” in that word is smaller than the other letters. It is a longstanding scribal tradition that dates back many centuries, maybe more than a thousand years.

The small kaf is a reminder that grief can make us feel small. In the Post-Gazette’s obituary for Cantor Taube, he was quoted as being so wrought with grief when the Nazis invaded Poland, that, in his words:

I could not sing between 1939 and 1945. I couldn’t sing because of the atrocities that happened. Singing is an expression of fulfillment, happiness, of worship. I did worship, but not with singing.

Although he survived the war, being number 22 on Schindler’s List, he carried that sense of having been made small by the Shoah for the rest of his life, and you could hear that in his music, in his voice. Indeed, the numbers of our people were made significantly smaller by the Nazis, and so too was our spirit as a people brought low.

We also lost this week Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, a universally-admired interpreter of Torah for our times. (BTW, there aren’t too many rabbis who get THAT title.)

Of course, there are also times when life makes us feel larger, like the bigger letters in the Torah: joy over happy lifecycle events – weddings and new baby rituals and benei mitzvah – these things can make us feel a little bigger.

But the vast majority of letters in the Torah are the same size. They have the same proportions. They do not stand out from one another.

And that is how our lives go. Sometimes the big letters; sometimes the small letters. But most of the Torah that we live is of average size. Thank God.

Yes, we suffer devastating losses; we grieve and mourn; sometimes we cannot sing. And yet we also find moments in which to celebrate and to mark the passage of time and the milestones in our lives in great happiness. We should never diminish the power of loss or of joy.

And yet we must go on about our lives. We must continue to get married and have children and celebrate benei mitzvah. Although we may feel small, we have to look not only for the big letters of Torah, but also all of those regular letters, the ones we usually hardly notice. With the recent string of births, I hope that we are seeing evidence of a COVID baby boom, which would certainly be a silver lining.

In reflecting on life, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks wrote: 

“It is difficult to feel depressed when you remember fairly constantly that life is a gift. ”

Yes, life is a gift in the sense that we occasionally experience joy to counter our grief. But life is also a gift when you consider his use of the word “constantly” – while we walk this Earth, while we breathe, we experience the constant miracle of being alive. That is why, three times a day, every day, in the Amidah, on Yom Kippur and on Purim, whether we are in mourning or celebrating, we say words of gratitude, in the paragraph thematically dedicated to thanks:

נֽוֹדֶה לְּךָ וּנְסַפֵּר תְּהִלָּתֶֽךָ עַל־חַיֵּֽינוּ הַמְּ֒סוּרִים בְּיָדֶֽךָ וְעַל נִשְׁמוֹתֵֽינוּ הַפְּ֒קוּדוֹת לָךְ וְעַל נִסֶּֽיךָ שֶׁבְּכָל יוֹם עִמָּֽנוּ וְעַל נִפְלְ֒אוֹתֶֽיךָ וְטוֹבוֹתֶֽיךָ שֶׁבְּ֒כָל עֵת עֶֽרֶב וָבֹֽקֶר וְצָהֳרָֽיִם

We will give thanks to You and recount Your praise, for our lives which are committed into Your hand, and for our souls which are entrusted to You, and for Your miracles of every day with us, and for Your wonders and benefactions at all times— evening, morning and noon.

I am grateful to have met Cantor Moshe Taube and heard him sing and been inspired by his music; I am grateful to continue to learn from Rabbi Sacks, and we mourn for them. And I am also grateful to be here today for Maddie’s bat mitzvah, and to have celebrated this week a wedding and a berit milah and bringing on a new member of the tribe. But I am also grateful to have made (and ate) a tasty yet humble (okay… its hard to call it a humble soup when you use a full stick of butter…) squash soup.

Life, this miraculous gift, goes on. Be vigilant. Wear a mask. But look to the moments of ordinary-ness, of constancy, when all the letters are the same size, and we will make it through this together.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 11/14/2020.)

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Welcoming Interfaith Families / Our Two Lives – Hayyei Sarah 5780

It seems that I’m giving an inadvertent sequel to the sermon that I gave last week.

And that is mostly because last Shabbat morning, I was reading the Federation’s new study on the experiences of interfaith families in the Pittsburgh Jewish community. I served on an advisory committee of clergy members and community leaders for the study, and also helped the researchers locate interfaith couples with whom they could speak to collect information about their experiences within the Jewish community. As you may know, we have members of this congregation where one or more family member is not Jewish according to halakhah / Jewish law, and of course we welcome those members just as we welcome Jewish members to our services, our programs and activities, and to participate in this community just as the Jewish members do, with a few exceptions related to ritual leadership.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the study are the quotes collected from these couples. Some of the material actually made me feel that Beth Shalom is doing a decent job, like the note that only five out of 17 non-Orthodox congregations’ websites actually contain language explicitly welcoming interfaith couples. Ours is one of them:

While Beth Shalom is a community rooted in the Jewish tradition, many of our members are part of families who celebrate other traditions, cultures, and religions. Rather than separate ourselves from other traditions, we embrace the diversity of our members and seek to welcome their friends and family into our community in as many ways as possible. This year, we have formed a committee to investigate how we can do this in a meaningful and respectful way.

So that’s a good thing, even if the committee was actually formed three years ago.

But something else in the study caught my eye, and it connects directly to the subject of last week’s sermon, that is, when I spoke about the challenge of being welcoming while preserving our standards of synagogue behavior:

At one service we went to, they just put a yarmulke on my kid’s head. And when I took it off there was judgment, and there were comments made, and I’ve really never felt comfortable in that setting since. And I haven’t really felt comfortable with that rabbi since then either. (Non-Jewish partner)

I read that, and I thought, well, that might have been me. And I really try very hard not to be judgy. I know that we live in an environment in which any kind of perceived slight is something that may drive people away from the synagogue in such a way that they will not come back. And yet, there was this quote from a non-Jewish partner, from a family that was clearly looking for community and connection.

And I’m picturing the situation: here comes the rabbi, with the best of intentions, and he slaps a kippah on a little boy’s head. And mom is not happy.

OK, so maybe that wasn’t me. I don’t know. I certainly hope it wasn’t.

Here’s the key: we have to find a way to make people feel welcome AND to uphold our standards.

****

Switching gears for a moment, a curious textual oddity happened in the first verse that we read this morning (Bereshit / Genesis 23:1):

וַיִּהְיוּ֙ חַיֵּ֣י שָׂרָ֔ה מֵאָ֥ה שָׁנָ֛ה וְעֶשְׂרִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה וְשֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֑ים שְׁנֵ֖י חַיֵּ֥י שָׂרָֽה׃

Sarah’s lifetime—the span of Sarah’s life—came to one hundred and twenty-seven years.

If you’re listening closely, you’ll see that the word “shanah” or “shanim,” that is, “year” or “years” appears no less than 4 times in this verse. It is the fourth one, “shenei,” that is most curious. To understand it, you have to know that Hebrew has a grammatical phenomenon that sometimes changes the shapes of words.

The last three words, “shenei hayyei Sarah,” should be understood as “the years of Sarah’s life.” The word, “shenei” is called a construct form. It appears when two nouns are smushed together in such a way that indicates that the first belongs to the second. You know many constructs: Rosh Hashanah: the head of the year; Simhat Torah: celebration of the Torah; birkat hamazon: the berakhah of food (i.e. grace after meals). In our verse, the word “shenei” is the construct form of “shanim,” years. Actually, this is a dual construct: shenei hayyei Sarah is “the years of the life of Sarah.”

However, an alternate translation, nonsensical according to the context, is that “shenei” here means “two.” So you might translate shenei hayyei Sarah as “Sarah’s two lives.” A midrash in Bereshit Rabba (58:1), following this read, tells us the following:

 וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה, מַה צֹּרֶךְ לוֹמַר שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי שָׂרָה בָּאַחֲרוֹנָה, לוֹמַר לְךָ שֶׁחָבִיב חַיֵּיהֶם שֶׁל צַדִּיקִים לִפְנֵי הַמָּקוֹם בָּעוֹלָם הַזֶּה וְלָעוֹלָם הַבָּא

“Sarah’s lifetime.” What is the need for adding shenei hayyei Sarah, “the years of the life of Sarah” at the end of the verse? It tells you that the lives of the righteous are beloved by God, both in this world and in the world to come.

That is, Sarah’s two lives are the one in the here and now, and the one in the afterlife.

But another way we might read this is that Sarah had two lives in her 127 years: one as a partner to Avraham and a mother to Yitzhaq, and everything associated with those things – her life in relationship to those around her; and the second as the first of the imahot, the matriarchs of the Jewish story: the powerful, decisive leader who stood alongside and guided her husband through the challenges of life, who became a role model for her compassion, her strength, and her industriousness.

We too fulfill multiple roles. And I am thinking now of the way that most of us move seamlessly between our secular lives and our Jewish lives. Many of us are parents or grandparents who work in the wider (i.e. non-Jewish) world, proud citizens of this secular nation who are committed to democratic ideals and engaged with contemporary society.

And yet, many of us are also deeply committed to Jewish tradition – our Shabbat, our holidays, our lifecycle events, our Torah learning, our Jewish values. And it may in fact be that when we travel amongst non-Jews, we do not think about that Jewish life. Perhaps we just think of ourselves as Americans, or Pittsburghers. We do not feel our Jewishness in every interaction.

But just as Sarah was one person, so too are we. And what we might learn from this is that there should be no mehitzah, no divider between who we are as Jews and who we are in a secular context. We should make our daily choices based on Jewish values and guided by the Jewish calendar and halakhah / Jewish law. We should act on the principles of qehillah / communal interdependence, derekh eretz / respect for the other, hakarat hatov / gratitude for the good that we have, Talmud Torah / learning our texts, and so forth as we interact with everybody around us, in all the spheres of our lives.

This is what Judaism teaches us: fuse those two lives together. Make them one. You are not a Jew only on Shabbat morning! We smell fragrant spices at havdalah to bring the joy of Shabbat into the rest of the week; so too with the Torah of compassion, of responsibility, of tzedaqah, and so forth. We bring that Torah to the world as an essential part of who we are.

And the converse should also be true: just as we bring our Judaism proudly into the world, so too should we welcome those non-Jewish and Jewish-adjacent folks who come into our space, into our synagogues and homes. We should welcome them in with the same zeal with which we should carry our Torah out into the wider world.

Let’s face it folks: history has taught us, for thousands of years, to keep our Judaism to ourselves. The anti-Semitic blood libels, the pogroms, the medieval disputations between Jews and Christians in which the Jews could never really win, the second-class dhimmi status imposed on Jews in the Muslim world, and of course the attempted genocide at the hands of the Nazis taught us to keep quiet and keep our religion to ouselves.

But you know what? Today we can walk proudly through our streets with our Judaism clearly visible. I refuse to be terrorized by re-energized anti-Semites. And we must be proud to share that tradition with whoever enters a synagogue.

We don’t have to beat them over the head with it. We don’t have to put a kippah or a tallit on anyone who does not want one, or on any kid whose parent does not like it.

But we must, at the same time, invite them in. Perhaps the language should be simply, “Would you like a kippah?” Or, “Would you like a tallit?” Or, as I say to those without tefillin on weekday mornings, “Would you like a set of tefillin? I am happy to help you put them on.”

If the answer is no, then it’s no, and there is no need to press any further.

But in bringing together our Jewish and our secular selves, we ought to be sensitive to where people are, particularly those who are anxious about entering a Jewish space. We do not need to give anybody an excuse not to come back. Rather, we want them to leave thinking, “Wow. Those folks really love their tradition. And they invited me in.”

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 11/23/2019.)

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What We Need to Teach Our Children, and Ourselves, About Israel – Hayyei Sarah 5776

I’m flying to Israel in a couple of weeks to spend some quality time with my teenage son. My flight tickets were relatively cheap – that’s good for me, but not so good for Israel. Prices are down, of course, because demand is down. And demand is down because of the recent rash of stabbing attacks. Not so good for the Israeli economy, which naturally depends heavily on tourism.

I must say that every time I visit Israel, and I go often (I am proud to say that I have flown there about 30 times in the last 15 years), I have to kvell a wee bit. I am so proud to see what Israel has become – a highly-developed country on par with much of the West – and all the more so because of the obstacles that Israel has faced. Not that everything about Israel is wonderful – the traffic is horrible in the big cities, the cost of living is ridiculous, and there is a constant feeling of pressure that many Israelis feel – but when you pull back the lens, what you see is very impressive. I remember seeing poll data in recent years that despite all of their societal and political challenges, Israelis are actually among the happiest populations in the world. And that’s really surprising, given that most of them are Jewish.

Of course, the obvious reason to be proud of the State of Israel is that it is, in some sense, a fulfillment of centuries of Jewish yearning. One might make the case that this yearning began with the tale in Parashat Hayyei Sarah, when Avraham needs to find a burial place for his deceased wife, Sarah, and so negotiates with the Hittites for a plot of land in Hevron (Hebron), right smack in the middle of the Judean hills. The Torah is particularly explicit – not only does it describe the purchase of this piece of land and the formal negotiation through which Avraham and the Hittites arrive at a price, but it also identifies the specific area surrounding the Cave of Makhpelah.

The Tomb of the Patriarchs, Hevron

Many of us might read this passage as a deed to Makhpelah, and arguably an ancient anchor point for the Jewish connection to the land of Israel. Certainly, many commentators believed so: a midrash in Bereshit Rabba (79:7) cites it as one of three places in Israel for which the nations of the world cannot taunt the Jews by saying that they are stolen lands. (The others are Joseph’s Tomb in Shekhem and the Temple Mount. Interesting that all three are today in contested areas!)

Jerusalem Old City Gates & Walls map The Old City of Jerusalem is ...

And throughout history, from the time of the Babylonian Exile (beginning 586 BCE) and thereafter, Jews living in Diaspora have looked to Israel as our spiritual home. We have highlighted our connection to the land in poetry, song, and tefillah/ prayer.

We are extraordinarily fortunate to be living in a time in which there is Jewish sovereignty in that tiny strip of land. Think of how our ancestors living in Iraq in the 6th century CE or Spain in the 12th century or Poland in the 15th century must have thought about Israel: distant, dream-like. The idea of a Jewish state in Israel, where Jews from all over the world could visit easily and regularly must have seemed so remote as to be inconceivable.

Who could have imagined that, 67 years after the creation of the Jewish state, that Jews worldwide would have to battle Israel’s ideological opponents both within and without our ranks? Who could have imagined that having a Jewish state would require constantly having to defend its legitimacy? Who could have imagined that Israel would be singled out for special criticism even as the neighboring government in Syria kills hundreds of thousands of its own people?

A week and a half ago, I sat with a group of teens at the JCC to talk about Israel. I was invited by Carolyn Gerecht, whom many of you know. My goal was to put the recent stabbing attacks in perspective. So, once we had established some of the basic facts of the situation, I took them on a whirlwind tour of the history of Zionism and the modern return to Israel.

We spoke about the earliest rumblings of Zionism, even before it was known by that name, in the middle of the 19th century in Eastern Europe. We spoke about Theodor Herzl and the Zionist Congress. We spoke about the British Mandate and the War of Independence and the Six Day War. We spoke about the Oslo accords and the Intifadas. We spoke about the unilateral disengagement from Gaza and the subsequent series of military engagements with the terrorists of Hamas. If they were listening (and I know that some were), they learned quite a bit.

It seems almost crazy that we need to equip our teenagers with this information. American children of French extraction do not need to be prepared to defend the existence of the French Republic. But as we all know, there is plenty of misinformation, exaggeration, and downright lies about Israel that are being spread as truth, and we have to make sure that our children do not fall victim to falsehood.

There is a lot of concern nowadays about college campuses and where our children stand on Israel. But here is the problem: to truly understand the news from Israel, to dig beneath the headlines, one needs at least 120 years, and arguably 3,000 years of historical background.

You may know that the current attacks in Israel seem to be the result of a social media campaign, not organized by any particular organization, to stoke Palestinian anger over a rumor that Israel plans to upend the status quo over the Temple Mount. Without getting too deep into this, since Israel captured it in 1967, the Temple Mount has been controlled by a Jordanian Muslim trust called the Waqf. An increase in visits by Jews to the Temple Mount in recent years has resulted in the concern that Israel intends to take over control of the Temple Mount from the Waqf, even though Israel has stated firmly and clearly that this is not the case.

Judaism has traditionally discouraged Jews from walking around on the Temple Mount. Even though the Temple has not stood for nearly 2,000 years, there is a concern that it would be inappropriate for us to tread on the area that had been the Qodesh HaQodashim, the Holy of Holies (the inner chamber where the Ark of Covenant was kept, and wherein the Kohen Gadol / High Priest would enter once a year on Yom Kippur to pray for forgiveness on behalf of all the Israelites.) Nonetheless, I visited there in 1999, and even entered both the Mosque of Al-Aqsa at the southern end of the plaza, and the Dome of the Rock itself, which sits approximately where the Temple stood at the rocky outcropping at the top of Mount Moriah.

After paying my entrance fee, I was given a guide to the area produced by the Waqf that contained the following tidbit of information (this is a direct quote):20151109_142051_resized“The beauty and tranquility of Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem attracts thousands of visitors of all faiths every year. Some believe it was the site of the Temple of Solomon, peace be upon him, destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC, or the site of the Second Temple, completely destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, although no documented historical or archaeological evidence exists to support this.”20151109_142105_resizedNow, had I not already been aware of the wealth of archaeological information that does in fact exist, I might have believed that statement. But I know that, despite what the New York Times printed a few weeks back (prior to issuing a correction), there is no scholarly debate on this point: both Temples were there. That location was undeniably the ritual and political center of Israelite and Jewish society for centuries.

I only had one hour with those teens at JLine, so I covered only the bare essentials. But we need to equip them with more information. They have to be able to spot a bald-faced lie like I did, and speak up.

We have to send them to Israel, and not merely on fun tours of the clubs of Tel Aviv and wineries in the Golan, and not only on archaeological tours of our ancient sites of holiness. We have to give them the background that will enable them to put all of the elements of the current situation into perspective. They have to know not only about the history of the Temple Mount, but about the Balfour Declaration, the UN Partition Plan vote of November 29, 1947, the Camp David peace agreement, and on and on. Our teens have to have these dates and places and agreements in their heads and on their tongues. If they do not, then the forces of denial and untruths will continue to whittle away at Israel’s legitimacy, at her very right to exist.

And that does not mean, by the way, that we have to deny the Arab, Muslim and Christian history in the land, as (in some cases) they have denied ours. On the contrary, we must continue to take the high road. We cannot lower ourselves to the level of those who peddle misinformation. And we have to give our children a whole lot of credit here: they will know that when we are committing sins of omission. We have to give them a complete picture, and acknowledge the breadth of history dwelling in that land.

And let’s face it – this is not easy, especially when it seems that our teens are harder and harder to reach. But the very size and importance of this task points to the necessity of ongoing Jewish education after bar or bat mitzvah. (This is a subject that has been raised around me continuously since my arrival in Pittsburgh; it came up several times at the inaugural meeting of Beth Shalom’s brand-spanking-new Benei Mitzvah Committee, two nights ago.)

Even though the deed to Makhpelah is in Parashat Hayyei Sarah, there are thousands of years of history that follow. We have to know that history, and we have to teach it to our children.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 11/7/2015.)