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;
(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.)