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The Hope that Overcomes Fear – Shelaḥ Lekha 5782

It is always an interesting time to be in Israel! You probably heard that the governing coalition fell apart while we were there, meaning that they will go to elections for the fifth time in three years. This coalition actually held together longer than anybody expected – about a year – and they at least passed a budget, which the State desperately needed. But the likelihood is that the next round will yield a right-wing government, and perhaps the return of Bibi as PM, despite his ongoing corruption trial.

But this was a particularly appropriate time to be in Israel, if not simply because the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Mega Mission was the first large group (about 240 strong, on seven buses!) to come to Israel since before the pandemic. It seemed that the whole nation was grateful that we were there, touring Israel, visiting people and museums and organizations and of course contributing to the tourist economy.

Bike trip with fellow Pittsburghers between Rosh HaNikra and Nahariya

It was also appropriate because of a curious calendrical phenomenon: that while we were there, Israeli synagogues read Parashat Shelaḥ Lekha, and upon our return, here we are again. This is due to the fact that, since Israel only observes seven days of Pesaḥ and we observe eight, and the eighth day this year was on Shabbat, we in the Diaspora have been one week behind Israel in the Torah-reading cycle since the week after Pesaḥ. (Don’t worry – it will all be resolved again in a few weeks!)

But two weeks of Parashat Shelaḥ Lekha is particularly appropriate because it opens with – get this – a bunch of chieftains sent to tour the Land of Israel. As you may recall, ten come back with a bad report (i.e. There are giants there who will squash us like bugs!), and the other two, Kalev and Yehoshua, report their modest confidence in being able to successfully enter and conquer the land. (It is worth noting here that the ten fearful reporters cause Moshe great anguish, such that he later refers to them as הָעֵדָ֤ה הָֽרָעָה֙ הַזֹּ֔את, “that evil community” (Num. 14:27), considered one of the sources identifying a minyan, a prayer quorum, as 10 people, according to the Talmud, Tractate Megillah 23b).

OK, so we know the end of the story: ultimately, the Israelites end up in Israel. But the problem at this particular moment in the Torah’s narrative is that this inaccurate, inflammatory report generates fear among the people. They are suddenly not so sure that they want to inherit the land which has been promised to them, particularly if doing so will guarantee that they will be squashed like bugs. 

On Shabbat afternoon in Jerusalem, after I had attended a spirited service at Shira Hadasha, had a lovely picnic lunch with some other trip participants, and managed a wee Shabbat shlof (nap), I attended a shi’ur with Rabbi Danny Schiff, who spoke about the themes of optimism and hope as presented in this tale from Shelaḥ Lekha, and seasoned with yet another great passage from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. This one is from his book, To Heal a Fractured World:

A morality of hope lives in the belief that we can change the world for the better, and without certain theological beliefs it is hard to see where hope could come from, if not from optimism. Optimism and hope are not the same. Optimism is the belief that the world is changing for the better; hope is the belief that, together, we can make the world better. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope an active one. It needs no courage to be an optimist, but it takes a great deal of courage to hope. The Hebrew Bible is not an optimistic book. It is, however, one of the great literatures of hope.

Kalev and Yehoshua are agents of hope. They know that, although there are certainly perils which await the Israelites in the land, they are still hopeful that they can overcome them. 

The extraordinarily timely question before us is, what is the story we tell about Israel? Do we tell the fearful story, the one about all the existential challenges facing the Jewish state, or do we tell the hopeful one? Do we expect that the political landscape of the Middle East will somehow change for the better, or do we rise to the challenge of making it change? Do we speak of Israel’s failures, and there are many, or do we catalog her hopes and dreams and successes?

Pride flag displayed by the American consulate in Jerusalem

On the last day of the mission, we heard a lecture by the journalist and author Matti Friedman, whose credits include five years working for the Associate Press bureau in Jerusalem until he became disillusioned with what the AP does in Israel. Friedman spoke about the perception that the AP and other media outlets create due to their hyper-focus on the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Among the items he pointed out was the fact that the journalistic presence in Israel is much higher than in most places. The AP, for example, has about 40 staff members on the ground in Israel, a nation which, including the Palestinian territories, contains about 14 million people. That staffing figure is not too different from the number of AP employees in China, a nation that has roughly 100 times as many people. Meanwhile, the number of homicides in Jerusalem, including terrorist activity, is roughly one-tenth that of Indianapolis, a city about the same size as Jerusalem.

So our perception of how dangerous Jerusalem is, for example, or the human toll of the conflict there is blown vastly out of proportion merely by the number of AP stories generated in that city, while by comparison the world is not too concerned about violence in Indianapolis, which is far more dangerous.

This is of course not to say that we should not be concerned about the political situation in Jerusalem, or in Israel vis-a-vis the Palestinian territories and a final-status agreement there, or the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, and so forth. To be sure, we should be aware of and engaged with those issues, and of course make our voices heard where appropriate. But it is worth remembering that the way we speak of Israel, like the story of the ten “bad” chieftains following their reconnaissance mission, shape our understanding of and our relationship to the State of Israel today. 

***

I have often described myself as an optimist. And I still am. But given R. Sacks’ definition, I think I might be more hopeful than optimistic. It is up to us not to wait for Mashiaḥ, to wait for peace to happen by itself, to wait for an equitable solution for all the 14 million people living on that tiny strip of land, but actually to make it happen.

And one way we act on that hope, according to Rabbi Sacks, is by committing ourselves to details of Jewish life, the mitzvot, the holy opportunities of our tradition. These details – actions, learning, ritual – not only sensitize us to the needs of others around us and to the values which we uphold, but also remind us of our essential connection to that land, even from so far away in the Diaspora. And they also teach us that hope requires us to be involved, not merely playing armchair philosopher or engaging in online back-and-forth, but actually doing something: being involved with a community, with other people, visiting the land of Israel, committing our resources through charitable contributions or other means.

I have hope for Israel. I have hope which overcomes fear. 

And I have the mitzvot, the details of Jewish life, which continue to keep us engaged and active, and maintain that hope.

And I have hatiqvah bat shenot alpayim, the hope that comes from 2,000 years of yearning within the Jewish soul, which helped to create the State of Israel and so too will ultimately forge a better world.

Graffiti in Jerusalem

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 6/25/2022).

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Hope, Ancient and Modern – Emor 5782

Last Wednesday, I was having dinner with my family on our back porch, and we saw our first hummingbird of the season! We have a hummingbird feeder out there that the ruby-throated hummingbirds come to, and since they move fast and do not spend a lot of time at the feeder, you have to be paying attention in order to see them. They return in April, and it is always exciting to see one. We also have a robins’ nest just outside our kitchen door, with four pale blue eggs in it. The birds fill me with hope for an enjoyable summer, but also the hope of return: of the constancy of life, that the Earth wakes up in the spring, that we all feel a little renewed. (The renewal that comes in spring is one reason, by the way, that Nisan is the first month of the year, and Pesaḥ is the actual Jewish new year festival, despite whatever goes on in the fall.)

You might have heard that we passed a grim milestone this week: one million American deaths from Covid-19. It is a lamentable fact that our proud nation has lost the largest absolute number of people to Covid in the world, and among wealthy nations we have the highest per-capita death rate as well, about 300 total deaths per 100,000 people since the start of the pandemic. 

And of course, death and sickness, although perhaps the most easily quantifiable measures of what the pandemic has caused, are not the only tragic outcomes. There is the unemployment, the inflation, the “supply-chain issues,” the rates of depression and anxiety and suicide and drug abuse and overdoses, the disruption of schools and workplaces and houses of worship. The list goes on.

But thank God, despite the persistence of new variants, despite the fact that Pittsburgh Public Schools just reinstated their mask mandate after only two weeks without, we are in a much better place at this moment. Thank God for the human ingenuity which has enabled us to produce effective vaccines in record time. Thank God for the resilience of the human spirit. 

We, the Jews, know something about resilience; we have been on this Earth for a long time, relating our Torah, our Teaching, from generation to generation for thousands of years. And we are still here, having survived centuries of persecution and dispersion and prejudice and genocide.

Why are we still here? Is it something in the smoked fish? Is it because we chant Ashrei responsively in Hebrew every Shabbat morning? Is it because of God?

Perhaps we are still here because of hope. Maybe it is because, despite all that we have been through as a people, we have not abandoned that hope: Hatiqvah bat shenot alpayim, the hope of 2,000 years; hatiqvah hanoshanah, the ancient hope, in the original wording of Naftali Herz Imber.

We are a hopeful people, and we have learned that from the very outset. You may know that there is a midrash, of which I am particularly fond, about the creation of the world – that God created and destroyed many worlds before arriving at the one described in the first chapter of Bereshit / Genesis, at the beginning of the Torah. At some point, and particularly after the flood story of Noaḥ, God realized that no world would be perfect, and that God would therefore have to stick with this one and hope for the best.

And there is evidence of hope in Parashat Emor, from which we read today. Much of the parashah is instructions to the Kohanim, the priestly class of ancient Israelites who performed the sacrifices in the Beit haMiqdash, the Temple in Jerusalem until it was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 CE. In that moment of destruction, the role of the Kohanim as spiritual leaders of the Jews vanished, and for the past 2,000 years, they have had effectively no clear role in Jewish life. (Yes, in some congregations they get the first aliyah to the Torah, and in some they ascend the bimah to recite the Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Blessing, over all the rest of us, although we do not follow either practice here at Beth Shalom.)

And yet, here in Parashat Emor, the Torah is explicit: the Kohanim, in order to maintain their distinctive, holy status, must follow certain laws. Among those things are not being exposed to tum’at met, the ritual impurity that comes from contact with corpses, and a male kohen is forbidden from marrying a divorced woman. (I am not commenting here on how to understand these laws today – that is a subject for another sermon.) If they do not follow these laws, they are not permitted to offer the sacrifices in the Beit haMiqdash, the Temple.

And there are many Kohanim today who continue to practice these mitzvot, even though there is no Beit haMiqdash, and no immediate plans to build it. 

Now, wait a minute. Kohanim are following ancient rules that absolutely no longer apply. Why? Because of hope. Because we know that, as slim as the chances are, they might someday be called upon to serve again, or their children or grandchildren.

And all the more so in the Conservative movement, where we have de-emphasized the idea of rebuilding the Temple and re-establishing the sacrificial cult. We have a better, traditional means of accessing God, that which we are engaged in right now: tefillah / prayer. The recitation of the Amidah three times each day replaces the daily sacrifices in the Beit haMiqdash. And we are OK with that. So we simply are not planning on rebuilding that Third Temple. And yet we also hope that the messianic vision of a peaceful world is still waiting for us. 

The retention of some of the practices of the Kohanim is a reminder that we always hold out hope for the future. We never cut our ties with the past, and we are eternally hopeful that some day we will live in a better world, a time of peace. You can see that vision, the vision of Isaiah (11:6) in the window over here to your right:

וְגָ֤ר זְאֵב֙ עִם־כֶּ֔בֶשׂ וְנָמֵ֖ר עִם־גְּדִ֣י יִרְבָּ֑ץ

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard lie down with the kid;

From the Faye Rubinstein Weiss Sanctuary at Beth Shalom

(Unfortunately, the window misquotes Isaiah, as does popular culture; the text does not say that the “lion will lie down with the lamb.” Oh, well.)

As an expression of hope, we continue to pray for that ultimate peace; that is why we conclude each Amidah with Oseh shalom bimromav… May the One who makes peace on high bring us peace here on Earth.

Consider also the tiqvah bat shenot alpayim, the hope of 2,000 years, the yearning for return that is evident throughout our history, our literature, and our prayer, that led to the establishment of the State of Israel, which has just celebrated its 74th birthday. Zionism is one of many forms of yearning in the Jewish soul, and that tiqvah, that hope, has yielded fruit far beyond the fantasies of any shtetl-dwelling Jew of the 19th century. We continue to hope and pray for peace in that land, for all its inhabitants. 

Consider also that in Emor there is a brief reprise of the essential agricultural laws, which appeared last week in Qedoshim as well: leaving the corners of our fields unharvested to allow people in need to take food (Vayiqra / Leviticus 23:22). We continue to give in the hope that someday there will be no need to do so.

We have our tefillah / our prayer. We have our text. We have our rituals and customs. And we have our hope.

As has been the case throughout much of the Jewish history of the last two millennia, we have many reasons to despair right now. But, as the 20th-century French-Jewish essayist Edmond Fleg once stated so incisively, 

Je suis juif, parce qu’en tous temps où crie une désespérance, le juif espère.

I am a Jew because in every age when the cry of despair is heard, the Jew hopes.

We mourn for those whom we have lost to Covid-19, and we, the living, acknowledge our gratitude that we are still here.

And we also continue to hold out hope that, even as we gather again, even as we move from pandemic to endemic, even as we face all of the challenges of our world, we will someday soon have a better world, one which is untroubled by all of our contemporary scourges, one in which wolf, lamb, leopard, and kid are all dwelling together, and the birds of spring bring renewal of spirit once again.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 5/14/2022.)

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The Sinkholes of Grief and the Ponds of Hope – Toledot 5779

If you have been to the area around the Dead Sea in the last few years, you may have noticed a relatively new phenomenon: large sink-holes have appeared close to the current shoreline. Our guide told us that there are as many as 6,000 of them.

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As our Beth Shalom group was on the bus this past Tuesday, headed from Jerusalem to Masada, we saw many such sink-holes. They are the result of the Dead Sea’s rate of evaporation, abetted by the rate of consumption of water by both Israel and Jordan. Areas from which the water has receded have underground pockets of salts, and when it rains, fresh water dissolves those salts, leaving empty holes under the exposed area, and then the ground above collapses. There is an area near Ein Gedi where the road actually collapsed into a sink-hole. Israeli transportation engineers anticipated it and built a bypass before it collapsed, and are apparently monitoring the rest of the road for similar problems.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are celebrating today that a young woman has come into direct relationship with the mitzvot of Jewish life. As she stood here today and demonstrated her entry into Jewish adulthood by being called to the Torah in the presence of her family, friends, and community, we are all filled with joy and pride. The cycle of life continues.

But we are also still in sheloshim, the 30-day mourning period following burial, and our community is still grieving today, and we must acknowledge that. Even though sheloshim is a less-intense time than shiv’ah, many of us are nonetheless still wrought with emotion.

Something has become quite clear to me in the past two weeks, and that is that we all respond to grief differently.

Some respond by wailing.

Some respond in anger.

Some respond in panic.

Some respond by clamming up.

Some respond by calling out.

Some respond by pointing fingers.

Some respond with a call to action, and some retreat.

Some of us fell into sink-holes two weeks ago, and have not yet emerged. And some of us are still waiting on the loose ground on top, not knowing when it will collapse. Some of us have already crawled out onto safe, stable land.

Our responses vary with our personalities, of course. Parashat Toledot, which Elana taught us something about earlier, details ways in which Ya’aqov and Esav are quite different: Ya’aqov is mild-mannered; he likes to cook, to hang around in the tent. He’s something of a homebody, his mother’s son. He is reasoned and strategic, and willing to deceive to get his way.

His brother Esav, meanwhile, is described in almost brutish terms; he is a hunter who likes meat, he’s covered with hair, he is impulsive. Esav is favored by their father Yitzhaq. With Esav, what you see is what you get. Elsewhere, the Torah reveals to us traits of other main characters: Moshe is a strong leader who has anger management issues; Abraham is a gracious and faithful host who argues with God; Sarah is brave and tenacious, but laughs at the wrong time; Aaron is holy and speaks well, yet he acquiesces when he should stand up strong.

These characters are templates for humanity; we see in ourselves, and in the palette of human expression, many of these personality features. And many of them are present in how we have responded to the attack of two weeks ago.

The Jewish mourning customs are the best around for managing grief, however it is expressed, because they acknowledge that our responses to grief reflect our personalities. One of the customs of shiv’ah is that, when visiting avelim, mourners, in their homes, we do not address them directly; we wait for the bereaved person to speak first. That way, we give space for the avelim to do what’s best for them. If they want to talk, they talk. If they want to sit there in silence, then we let them do that, and sit by patiently. If they want to cry, they cry. If they want comfort, we hold them tight. If they want to be alone, we leave them alone. It is within that framework of allowing the avel to fashion his or her own response to grief that we acknowledge their humanity.

I want to share with you a piece of wisdom that Rabbi Yolkut at Congregation Poale Zedeck brought to his community last Shabbat. It’s from the Shulhan Arukh, the authoritative 16th-century codification of Jewish law.

Last week, we visited the synagogue and beit midrash / study hall of Rabbi Yosef Karo, the primary author of the Shulhan Arukh, in the northern city of Tzfat. In his portion of the book, Rabbi Karo documents the Sephardic practice of his time. Rabbi Moshe Isserles, living contemporaneously in Poland, inserted into Rabbi Karo’s text clarifications when the Ashkenazic practice differed with Karo’s. Rabbi Isserles, known by his acronym, the Rama, had been working on a similar codification, but Rabbi Karo beat him to publication.

In the context of laws about mourning, the Shulhan Arukh addresses the question about whether or not one may cry on Shabbat. Shabbat is, of course, a day on which we are happy; we gather with friends and family to celebrate, to eat festive meals, to sing joyful songs. Those who are in shiv’ah generally do not mourn publicly on Shabbat by wearing torn clothing or sitting on a low seat or receiving guests in their homes. But is it permissible to cry? The Rama says the following: (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim רפח:ב)

If it brings one pleasure to cry on Shabbat, such that the sorrow may be lifted from his heart, then one may cry.

Crying in pain may bring you pleasure, and we give space to the avel to cry as necessary on Shabbat. I’m thinking here of Rosey Grier singing on the classic children’s album from 1972, Free to Be You and Me:

It’s alright to cry
Crying gets the sad out of you
It’s alright to cry
It might make you feel better

Raindrops from your eyes
Washing all the mad out of you
Raindrops from your eyes
It’s gonna make you feel better

How many of us have felt really wounded, and found that a good cry made at least some of the pain go away? That has certainly happened to me, and perhaps the Rama as well.

There is a hopeful note about the sink-holes: some of them have trapped water that has run off the mountains, and are now little ponds surrounded by new growth, new trees and bushes and reeds. As you drive by, these look like little oases in the otherwise barren landscape. These ponds, unlike the water of the Dead Sea itself, have a salinity content that is apparently low enough for things to grow around them.

And you know what that looks like? It looks to me like hope. The rings of greenery in the desert around these new ponds are sort of like the proverbial cloud with the silver lining. if you’ll allow me to mix metaphors.

On our final day in Israel, we visited the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, what is effectively the Louvre of Israel. It’s a fantastic museum, ranging from antiquities to modern art; I can get my Kandinsky fix not far from the 10th-century Aleppo Codex, which is one of the two oldest existing Masoretic* manuscripts in the world; the volume was consulted by Maimonides himself in 12th-century Cairo. Among the items we saw together included synagogues and Judaica from all over the Jewish world, from China to Poland to Suriname. And I remembered that the cataclysm of the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE did not bring Judaism and Jewish life to an end. Rather, it fundamentally changed it, and strengthened our tradition for the millennia of dispersion that lay ahead. And the Jews responded by carving ornate arks and covering with gold leaf in the 16th century in Italy, and crafting spice boxes in the shape of windmills in 18th-century Holland; by producing polished-silver Torah tikkim (that the Sephardic cabinet that houses a Torah) in India and illuminated Esther scrolls in Iran and bowls made of crystalline sugar for wedding celebrations in Afghanistan.

The richness of Jewish life continues even after tragic events. Just as our people responded to destruction and dispersion with artistic creativity and continuing to embrace the richness of Jewish life, so too will we. While there will always and forever be a before and after in the Pittsburgh Jewish community, I am certain beyond a shadow of a doubt that the after will be even more vibrant.

But there is still grieving to be done, and we will continue to do so, each in our own way, even as we celebrate all the other joyous moments: benei mitzvah, weddings, births, holidays, and so forth. So please continue to give yourself space for that, even as we seek joy and pleasure. And if you can’t get out of your sink-hole, or you were on stable ground and you suddenly find yourself falling, please come see me or one of the other rabbis in the neighborhood. We are here to help, to listen, to give you the space to cry if necessary.

We will continue to grieve in all the ways that we do, and we will never forget those whom we lost. But we will emerge stronger together.

stronger together

Shabbat shalom.
* The Tiberian Masoretes were Jewish scholars living in the north of Israel in the 6th-9th centuries; they were responsible for, among other things, creating an authoritative, vocalized text of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. The Aleppo Codex and the Leningrad Codex are the two existing texts that are closest to the original Masoretic manuscript.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 11/11/2018.)