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On Being Imperfect – Emor 5781

I am feeling at least as much anxiety right now as I have throughout the pandemic, and that is despite the fact that I am fully vaccinated.

Why? Because it is easy to shut things down, and just say no to all forms of gathering in person. It is easy to say, you must always wear a mask when you are around other people, or stay 6 feet away from others, and so forth.

It is not quite as easy to make cautious decisions about restarting all the things that we stopped more than a year ago. It is not so easy to say, some may come and others may not, due to their vaccination status. It is not so easy to differentiate between what is permissible outdoors vs. indoors, etc. 

And we have all been in this anxious mode for so long, it is not so simple to turn it off. I went to see my optometrist this week, my first real in-person appointment with a health-care provider in more than a year. And despite the fact that I and the optometrist are both vaccinated, it was still very strange for us to be in a small room, so close to each other. We wore masks, of course. 

We are going to be in this limbo phase for a long time, it seems – until children can be vaccinated, until we know for certain that we are sufficiently protected from the more infectious or more deadly variants. I fear that, for many of us, our anxiety level will remain quite palpable for some time.

One of the lingering concerns that I have, after 13.5 months of isolation and anxiety and uncertainty, is what loss to the Jewish world and the Jewish future that the pandemic will have caused. We have not had in-person Youth Tefillah for all of that time. Registration at both our Early Learning Center and JJEP has been lower than a “normal” year. We have canceled two Family Benei Mitzvah Retreats. And so forth.

Students learning at JJEP, the shared religious school between Beth Shalom and Rodef Shalom

Now, as an astute observer of Jewish life commented on Facebook not too long ago, the Qadosh Barukh Hu is grading on a curve this year. Nonetheless, my feeling is that we have so few opportunities in today’s always-on-the-go society to get Judaism into our children, that a loss of so many things in the past year will have a long-lasting impact on what our kids know and how connected they feel.

These are valuable hours that will never be regained.

So that is a burden that I feel I am carrying with me, as I consider my tiny role in the chain of Jewish tradition. I am sure that you all have similar types of burdens, about your work, your family, your relationships, and so forth.

I must say that the pandemic has reminded me over and over how imperfect I am, how flawed all of our lives are. 

Which brings me to Parashat Emor, and what we read today about the Kohanim / priesthood. One of the things we read about this morning was perfection in the context of the ritual sacrifices that took place in the mishkan, and later in the Beit HaMiqdash / Temple in Jerusalem:

דַּבֵּ֥ר אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֖ן לֵאמֹ֑ר אִ֣ישׁ מִֽזַּרְעֲךָ֞ לְדֹרֹתָ֗ם אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִהְיֶ֥ה בוֹ֙ מ֔וּם לֹ֣א יִקְרַ֔ב לְהַקְרִ֖יב לֶ֥חֶם אֱ-לֹהָֽיו׃

Speak to Aaron and say: No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his God. (Vayiqra / Leviticus 21:17)

Not long after this statement about the perfection of the individual kohanim offering the sacrifices, we find:

כֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־בּ֥וֹ מ֖וּם לֹ֣א תַקְרִ֑יבוּ כִּי־לֹ֥א לְרָצ֖וֹן יִהְיֶ֥ה לָכֶֽם׃

You shall not offer any [animal] that has a defect, for it will not be accepted in your favor. (Vayiqra / Leviticus 22:20)

The Torah insists that everything involved with the sacrificial offering is flawless: the kohen offering it, and the animal being offered. Of course, that expectation could not be put on the person actually bringing the sacrifice, whom, in many cases, would be bringing it because he or she had transgressed in some way.

And that expectation of perfection in ritual still plays out to some extent today. We expect that the person leading services does so fluently in Hebrew, and does not mis-pronounce words, and that this person is Jewishly observant Jew and a model citizen. We expect that the Torah is read perfectly, such that (at least, when we are doing so in person) we even have two people standing by to correct the reader in the event that she or he makes an error. And that is why we teach our children the language and the words and rituals of Jewish life, so that they can offer their own supplications and praise and requests and Torah in a way that comports with our tradition.

But, after a year of isolation, and grief, and economic and social chaos and upheaval, I occasionally feel that I am a broken vessel. I am flawed in ways that we are all flawed. Even as Congregation Beth Shalom goes from strength to strength despite the pandemic – anointing a solar roof, hiring a Development Director and a new Executive Director – I am feeling inadequate in the face of all the lost hours of Torah, the future of Judaism and the Jewish world slipping through our hands with every passing week of not gathering in person. 

I wake up in the middle of the night wondering, have I done enough to teach our tradition? Have I worked hard enough to help you all appreciate the value and meaning of Torah? Have I reached out to enough people to bring comfort and inspiration? Have I sufficiently grieved, or celebrated, or chanted or pleaded or inveighed for or against? Have I been the rabbi that you all need in this moment? Have I been the husband that I ought to be? Have I been the father that I ought to be? The son? The cousin? The friend?

Ladies and gentlemen, I can only offer myself. And I am far from perfect. And I am certain that many of us have similar doubts about ourselves. 

Fortunately, despite the strict imperative to perfection in Parashat Emor, there are other opinions on the Jewish bookshelf.

זִֽבְחֵ֣י אֱ-לֹהִים֮ ר֪וּחַ נִשְׁבָּ֫רָ֥ה לֵב־נִשְׁבָּ֥ר וְנִדְכֶּ֑ה אֱ֝-לֹהִ֗ים לֹ֣א תִבְזֶֽה׃

True sacrifice to God is a contrite spirit; God, You will not despise a contrite and crushed heart. (Tehillim / Psalm 51:19)

The Psalmist is teaching us that it is not only acceptable for us to be imperfect, but that is the absolutely the correct way to offer sacrifice to God. We offer ourselves, our imperfection of spirit in prayer, in meditation, in reflection. Furthermore, that line is just two verses after 

אֲ֭דֹנָי שְׂפָתַ֣י תִּפְתָּ֑ח וּ֝פִ֗י יַגִּ֥יד תְּהִלָּתֶֽךָ׃

O Lord, open my lips, and let my mouth declare Your praise. (Tehillim / Psalm 51:17)

You may recognize this as the line that is murmured in silence before the Amidah, as we take three steps forward (and three steps back first, if necessary) to enter the court of God in true, reflective prayer, prayer which is offered in earnest sacrifice of the soul on the metaphoric altar of awareness.

Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk, an early 19th-century Ḥasidic rabbi, in a statement that riffs on the line from Psalms, teaches us that, “There is nothing so whole as a broken heart.” It is this line that my teacher Rabbi Ed Feld drew on when he titled the siddur that some of us are holding right now, “Lev Shalem,” which literally means, “a full heart.” We enter tefillah with a broken heart, with the intent to make it complete again.

It is in fact the very intent of our tradition to offer ourselves in prayer, imperfect though we are, as dissatisfied with ourselves and our behavior as we are. 

That is the whole point.

A few years back, when I was on Long Island, a curious thing happened. In an effort to put out practical reading material in the synagogue lobby, I ordered a bunch of pamphlets from a Jewish publisher that were aimed at people who were having difficult times, emotionally and spiritually. The titles were things like, “Caring For Your Aging Parents,” “Bringing Your Sadness to God,” “Coping With the Death of a Spouse,” and so forth. You may have seen these – they are in many synagogue lobbies, and they are written from a Jewish perspective.

A former president of the synagogue, who had invested many, many years in helping to build and support the congregation, saw this and told me, “We cannot have these here. This is not us. This is not who we are.” 

What I think she was saying was, “We are not the kind of people who acknowledge our pain and grief in public. We are stronger than that.” Her knee-jerk reaction was to recoil from the idea that people could see and embrace their own vulnerability.

Being a young rabbi, a year or two out of rabbinical school, and lacking the hutzpah to respond properly, I said nothing. But the display of pamphlets stayed up, and people took them home and read them. Because actually, that is us.

We offer ourselves. And we are not perfect.

And as we look forward to the near future and anticipate that we will soon gather once again, remember that whatever burden you are carrying, whatever anxiety you might be feeling, whatever brokenness you might perceive in your life right now, you are not alone. We are all imperfect, and we are all in this together. That is what synagogue, and tefillah, and Torah are for.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 5/1/2021.)

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.)