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Waiting for the Promised Land – Mattot/Mas’ei 5780

Two weeks ago my family and I were on vacation, tent camping in the Allegheny National Forest, and it was simply wonderful. It’s easy to socially distance when you’re out in the woods, and the hiking and biking were joyful and restorative. Despite the inconvenience of regularly checking for ticks, I actually really love being out of doors, and for me there is nothing quite like it. More importantly, we had no wi-fi or even a mobile phone signal for most of the time, so it was fairly easy to forget, at least for a few days, about the public health catastrophe that is going on all around us.

But we cannot ignore this, folks. It is not going away. I think the State of Pennsylvania made a critical tactical error in labeling this phase of re-opening “Green,” because it seems to me that this suggests, “Go for it.” People poured into bars and restaurants, flew off to the beaches in South Carolina and Florida, and in Allegheny County we went from almost no new cases to a couple of hundred a day. And I cannot even muster the energy to try to comprehend how the governor of Georgia decided to outlaw local mask-wearing orders. I am beside myself.

Let’s be clear here, folks: we did this to ourselves. Our politicians have ignored the directives of actual scientists and experts and have lacked the intestinal fortitude to clamp down, and we the people have refused to comply with simple, sensible health measures. As a result, this journey of grief and unemployment and depression will last much longer, and many more Americans will die.

Speaking of journeys, the end of the book of Bemidbar / Numbers documents the various places that the Israelites traveled to and set up camp on their 40-year journey from slavery in Egypt to redemption in Israel. It is one of a handful of passages in the Torah that list stops along the way. The question is asked by some commentators, why bother to list these locations? They are in the desert, unremarkable places that hold no other significance.

One theory, promoted in a midrash, is that God wanted the Israelites to have a record of where they had been, so they could recall the travails of the journey. “Here is where you were tired and needed to rest; here is where you felt ill; here is where you were thirsty and needed water.” Perhaps. 

But the Jewish journey that began in the Torah and effectively continues up until today includes stops in many places that we will never recall. How many of us can name the towns where our great-grandparents were born? Or their great-grandparents? And yet, we know how they suffered. They suffered at the hands of Cossacks and Spaniards and Arabs and Persians and Romans and Babylonians. They suffered through famines and plagues, and were often blamed for these things by their gentile neighbors. They suffered through blood libels and anti-Semitic laws and accusations and suspicions. They were forcibly conscripted into the Czar’s army, forcibly converted to Christianity and Islam, forcibly taken from their homes and put on trains and sent to death camps.

In the context of today’s pandemic, I must say, I am certain that we will survive. We will still be here when this is over. 

We will still be here because we have survived worse than this. Much worse, in fact.

A few of you may know that I host a bi-weekly meeting for what I refer to as the Hanhalah Team of the synagogue, the senior staff. It includes Rabbi Jeremy Markiz, director of Derekh and Youth Tefillah, our Etxecutive Director Ken Turkewitz, Youth Director Marissa Tait, ELC Director Hilary Yeckel, and JJEP Director Rabbi Larry Freedman. And we had a meeting on Thursday that was tremendously frustrating. The ELC is open and functioning safely for about 60 kids in small, non-intermixing pods; that’s the good news. But for the rest of us, planning for the coming year – the High Holidays, JJEP’s classes, youth activities, Derekh activities, youth tefillah – all of them are effectively up in the air. We feel as though people are Zoomed out. We are working in an environment in which we cannot make decisions about the future, because we simply have no idea what the future looks like.

It’s not just frustrating. It’s downright painful. We all care about living and teaching our tradition, and since being Jewish so heavily depends upon being around others, it has made our lives so difficult.

But let’s face it: things could be much, much worse. Has veshalom / God forbid.

We always open these meetings with a devar Torah, and Rabbi Freedman regaled us this week with a wee bit of optimism: the Promised Land is coming. It’s actually not that far away. Yes, we are still in the desert, and we will be for a while. But next week we start reading the book of Devarim / Deuteronomy, and we know what happens next.

But maybe that’s why all those stops along the way from Egypt to Israel are there: to remind us that 40 years was a VERY long time. To remind us that the journey can be easily forgotten when recalling its endpoints. To remind us that there were headaches and hunger and thirst and loss along the way.

The silver lining is this: we are gathered here this morning, a testament to the fact that the Jews have survived 2,000 years of dispersion and destruction and suffering and loss. And how did we do this? By recounting the journey. And by leaning into the words of our tradition: the Torah, and of course the words of prayer, the words of our siddur. And let me just bring this to a close by pointing us all to one particular line in our siddur, one that is so often overlooked because it is mumbled through quickly in a transitional moment in the service. 

It’s found in Yequm Purqan, p. 412 in Sim Shalom and 176 in Lev Shalem. We only say this on Shabbat morning; it is a request for health and welfare for the congregation, and also includes a wish for our children. Open up and take a look for a moment:

זַרְעָא חַיָּא וְקַיָּמָא, זַרְעָא דִּי לָא יִפְסוק וְדִי לָא יִבְטול מִפִּתְגָּמֵי אורַיְתָא

Zar’a haya veqayama, zar’a di la yifsuq vedi la yivtul mipitgamei oraita. 

May [our] children thrive, never ceasing to speak words of Torah.

It’s in Aramaic. Why? Because that was the language that our ancestors spoke for many centuries, and therefore understood it better than Hebrew. We do not know exactly how old it is, but it first appears in the 13th-century French Mahzor Vitry.

Prayer, you may recall, is a blueprint for a better world, a vision of a society that could be. The point of this wish is to remind us that, just as we have carried our Torah with us for millennia, we want our children to do so as well.

It is a beautiful plea; a statement of yearning that, whatever challenges we face right now, in whatever spiritually-barren place in which we find ourselves, that our children receive and carry with them the words that have kept us alive and nourished us up until this very day.

Ladies and gentlemen, as we continue to face this pandemic, the dysfunction of our governing structures and the lamentably growing death count, remember that the silver lining is that our children will know Torah; that its wisdom and values and guidance will never depart from their lips. And now go out and make that happen. That is how we will get through this. The Promised Land is not far away.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 7/18/2020.)

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Sermons

Seeking Ourselves for the Greater Good – Lekh Lekha 5776

Back in Great Neck (you might have heard me use that phrase a few times already in the last two-and-a-half months) I used to teach a workshop for benei mitzvah families, wherein we spoke about (among other things) our understanding of God. And every single time we had the God discussion, I would emphasize that where you are at age thirteen in your understanding of God is probably not where you’ll be at age 18, or 22, or 40, or 65. I actually wish that somebody had told ME that when I was preparing to become bar mitzvah.

But nobody did, so I had to figure this out for myself.

As we move through life, we change. The character and quality of our interpersonal relationships change. Our outlook changes. Some of the things we value as teenagers eventually seem ridiculous, and things that once seemed irrelevant have value. And even when the circumstances of our lives are not dramatically altered, sometimes the internal journey is much more powerful and revealing.

Consider, for example, our relationships with our parents. Mark Twain gave us the following piece of wisdom: “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished by how much he’d learned in seven years.”

Our understanding of God and ourselves is central to Parashat Lekh Lekha. How does the parashah open? God tells Avram, (Gen. 12:1)

לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ

Lekh lekha me-artzekha, umimoladtekha, umibeit avikha, el ha’aretz asher ar’eka.

Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.

Those two deceptively simple words, lekh lekha, are translated (New JPS) as “Go forth.” But the depth concealed within those three simple syllables is astounding.

First, we know nothing about Avram. Nothing more than his lineage and that (at the end of Parashat Noah last week) his father Terah had once started to emigrate to Canaan, but was sidetracked and remained in Haran. There is nothing that suggests that Avram is the right person to be sent on this journey, or that he is somehow holier or more pious or more intelligent or capable than anybody else.

Second, there is no indication, at least in this verse, that Avram has any clue where he is supposed to go once he has left his family behind; he only knows that God will show him. This is an entirely indeterminate journey.

Third, the imperative “lekh lekha” is grammatically difficult. To translate it literally, it might be saying, “Go unto you.” Given the complexities of translation, particularly from ancient to modern languages, it is nonetheless clear that this phrase speaks volumes.

Yes, it seems that God is telling Avram to leave his ancestral homeland (which would today be located in Iraq) and go somewhere else. But even more so, Avram is also being urged to take not only a physical journey, but a spiritual one as well – to leave the idolatrous landscape of his family, and to start anew in a headspace that only features the one true God. And the drastic nature of his physical journey reflects the challenge of the spiritual journey.

Rashi tells us that the “lekha” suggests, “For your own benefit and for your own advantage.” That is, Avram’s move will be good for him. What follows the opening verse, of course, is a promise that he will sire a great nation, a promise that will ultimately be reiterated to Isaac and Jacob as well.

But we must read this promise as not just a physical benefit, but also a theological benefit. Avram’s journey is to improve himself, to seek the proper way to live, to find his true nature, but it also encompasses his initiation of a monotheistic legacy, which will ultimately impact much of the world.

All the more so, says Rabbi Shalom Noah Berezovsky, the Slonimer Rebbe, in his analysis of Lekh Lekha. We are each endowed with our own unique challenges, our natural characteristics, which may include some unsavory aspects, like anger or lust or pride. But we are also given the opportunity to rise to the occasion to fulfill our own particular roles in this world to do good.

Avram’s spiritual journey, then, is the challenge of self-discovery as well as self-improvement. He is ordered to leave his home, his family, to go off to some unknown place far away. But he will surmount this difficulty and thus fulfill his role as the common ancestor of all monotheistic traditions.

And the Slonimer Rebbe takes it even further: Lekh lekha tells us not only that it is Avram’s role to overcome the idolatry of his youth, but that it is the role of every single Jewish person to repair one’s own soul so that we might go on to repair the world. And furthermore, he says, it is not enough merely to learn Torah, to pray, to perform mitzvot / commandments. Rather, he says, when one arrives in heaven, s/he will be asked, “What did you DO in the physical world?” And what Rabbi Berezovsky is telling us is that even the most pious among us, the ones who davened three times a day, every day and never even so much as looked at an un-hekhshered slice of cheese pizza, we will be challenged to demonstrate that we have pursued the iqqar, the principle item of importance. And that iqqar is not ritual acts or Torah study, but rather tiqqun olam, repairing the world. Doing good works with our hands for the benefit of others in need, for the greater good of humanity. That is the essential physical task of life.

OK, that’s great rabbi, but what do I do? How do I know what my role is in this very fractured world?

Well, so I am sorry to say that I cannot tell you that. That is only something that you can determine for yourself. That is what Avram did by leaving his homeland and moving to Canaan.

But his seeking of himself does not end with his arrival in Canaan; in fact, upon arrival, he almost immediately departs to Egypt. Later we find him moving to and fro in Canaan, digging for wells in Beersheva, journeying to Moriah, what will eventually be called Jerusalem, to climb a mountain that will some day be the spiritual focal point for his offspring, and so forth. His is a lifetime of seeking; he never quite completes the journey.

And so too do we continue to seek. Our journey goes on.

Every week at the conclusion of Shabbat, we recite words from Isaiah (12:3):

וּשְׁאַבְתֶּם מַיִם, בְּשָׂשׂוֹן, מִמַּעַיְנֵי, הַיְשׁוּעָה

Ush’avtem mayim besasson mima’aynei hayeshua.

Draw water in joy from the wells of salvation.

Those wells are within us. Yes, Avram may have traveled all over the ancient Middle East in seeking himself, in going forth unto himself. We do not necessarily have to do that. (Of course, a trip to Israel that includes a visit to the holy sites of Jerusalem and hikes in the desert and a good soak in Yam HaMelah / the Dead Sea can indeed be revelatory.)

We do not have to seek outside of ourselves; we can find the answers about what our individual or collective roles are within, deep in those internal wells of salvation. But we do have to look. And that takes work – not unlike the physical challenge posed by God to Avram to pick up and leave his homeland and his father’s house. And it also takes time, as we mature and learn ever more about ourselves.

As we attempt to frame our lives with meaning, the key question, then, posed by the Torah and by Jewish tradition, is not our understanding of God, but rather how we understand ourselves.

Most of us will probably not receive a direct commandment from God to pick up and leave home. But we will all face a changed understanding of ourselves and how we relate to God and the world as we age. Many of us, I hope, will reach beyond our comfort zone into those deep wells in search of our true selves, to look for that role that we all might play in repairing the world. You don’t have to move to Israel or enroll full-time in the Jewish Theological Seminary to do so, but you do have to dig. Each of us has that potential; I hope that you will act on it.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 10/24/2015.)