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Wisdom of the Journey – Mattot/Mas’ei 5781

I was fortunate to have been in Philadelphia over the last week, including for July 4th. Judy and I went to watch the fireworks display over the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and sat in the street with thousands of other folks. It was the first time that we had been at a gathering of that size for more than a year and a half, and it was, as you can imagine, a good, patriotic feeling.

July 4th, 2021, Philadelphia. Photo credit: me

As we sat and watched the crowds milling about, angling for a good location to stand or sit, having ice cream, schmoozing with the strangers around them, we noticed the fantastic diversity around us. Americans of every color, Americans speaking multiple languages, some of which we could only guess at, Americans in various types of ethnic and religious clothing. It was absolutely heartwarming to see so many people, and so many different sorts of people, hanging out together in the city, celebrating our nation’s 245 years of independence.

Judy remarked, “If the founding fathers, who signed the Declaration of Independence a stone’s throw from this spot, were here today to see this crowd, would they recognize it as the nation they created?”

It was indeed a healthy ponderable. While a few of the signers were born in the British Isles, most were born on this side of the pond, but all of them were, up until that moment of independence, subjects of the English King. All men. All white. Some were plantation owners, where they owned enslaved Black people. 

Could they have possibly surveyed this crowd and made sense of the picture before them? Would they understand that equality, that citizenship, that certain unalienable rights such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, could be extended by our Creator to the mixed multitudes on the streets of Philadelphia in 2021?

And could they have possibly foreseen a group of aggrieved American citizens, whipped into a violent frenzy by an outgoing president, storm the building that houses the legislative heart of America, threaten the democratically-elected people who represent us, cause damage, kill a police officer, and capture the whole thing on video, as happened six months ago?

I would like to think that the founders of this nation might have expected both. I would like to think that they anticipated a range of events, from unity to schism and from homogeneity to the entire smorgasbord of humanity and for a whole gradient of possibilities in-between. I would like to think that they knew, as they set out on this journey that would last centuries, that they felt that what they were building in the New World was at least as resilient as the English monarchy, which was already 900 years old in their time. I would like to think that, as optimistic and idealistic as they were, they were confident that what they were setting up would be able to handle what would undeniably be a challenging journey for a new nation.

Of course, we the Jews have been around much longer. We have been witnesses to events that go back thousands of years. And who knows if our ancestors anticipated the travails that we have survived? We mark on Tish’ah BeAv, a week from tonight, the destructions of both First and Second Temples; dispersions, exiles, the Inquisition, the Shoah, and so forth. That we are still here, whether in Philadelphia, London, Buenos Aires, Tehran, Tel Aviv, or Pittsburgh, is nothing short of miraculous. Our tradition is that powerful.

Parashat Mas’ei, from which we read this morning, opens with the following verse (Bemidbar / Numbers 33:1):

אֵ֜לֶּה מַסְעֵ֣י בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר יָצְא֛וּ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם לְצִבְאֹתָ֑ם בְּיַד־מֹשֶׁ֖ה וְאַהֲרֹֽן׃

Elleh mas’ei venei yisrael asher yatze-u me-eretz mitzrayim letziv-otam beyad Moshe veAharon.

These were the marches of the Israelites who started out from the land of Egypt, troop by troop, in the charge of Moses and Aaron.

And what follows, of course, is a litany of the places in which the Israelites camped during their masa’im, their journeys. Rambam, in his Moreh Nevukhim, the Guide for the Perplexed, explains that this record of the 20-odd places in which the Israelites camped in their journey through the wilderness was absolutely necessary, because future generations may not believe that it was possible. The record of places, suggests Rambam, are there because otherwise, the miracle of 2 million people living for 40 years in the wilderness simply may not be believed.

And maybe you would not believe the things that have happened in these United States, either. Maybe you would not believe that, a mere 85 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia, that the Southern states would secede from the Union over the issue of slavery. Maybe you would not believe that the remaining states would have to go to war to bring them back into the Union. Maybe you would not believe that women were not allowed to vote until 1920, and that it would require an act of Congress in 1965 to ensure voting rights for Black Americans. Maybe you would not believe that presidents would be assassinated, that our nation would fight in distant wars overseas, that an American could walk on the moon, and many other features along the journey that we have not yet encountered.

Maybe.

But just as we the Jews are resilient, having outlasted many of our historical enemies, the democracy in which we live is in fact resilient. Flawed, yes. But still holding up under pressure.

On Wednesday evening, Judy and I were walking through the historic district of Philadelphia, and as we were strolling past brick townhouses from the 18th century, we spotted many mezuzot. I imagined that some of them may have been from the Colonial period, although one might hope that the kelafim contained therein have since been replaced. Certainly, Congregation Mikveh Israel, which dates to 1740, is still there (although not in its original building).

The rabbi of Mikveh Israel through a hefty chunk of the 19th century was Sabato Morais. Born in Italy and of Sephardic extraction, Morais was not only a hazzan and rabbi, but also was the founding president of the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1886. (JTS was initially located at Congregation Shearith Israel in New York, the Spanish-Portuguese congregation which is the oldest in America and the sister congregation to Mikveh Israel.)

Rabbi Hazzan Sabato Morais

Morais was a rationalist, rejecting kabbalah, as many of those associated with JTS did in its early years, and he also highlighted the flourishing of Jewish literature and poetry in Andalusia in the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry, a subtle bias which exists to this day at the Seminary. Although it was surely not his intent to create the Conservative movement, it was certainly an objective of the early Seminary to unify the rational center of Jewish life, far from the theological extremes.

In the context of the American Civil War, during a sermon in Philadelphia in 1863, he spoke of unity not only in Judaism, but in public life as well. Referencing the country of his birth, he applauded the need to fight for unity:

The aspirations of Dante, the inspiring songs of Petrarch, the longing of every good and true Italian, have they not ever been for the unity of the Italian peninsula . . . Why have the dungeon and the gibbet proved fruitless, and the brothers Bandiera run to martyrdom as to a festive board, but because the idea of a united Italy kindled the hearts of her children?

(Attilio and Emilio Bandiera were Milanese nationalists killed during the revolution of 1848, fighting for a unified Italy.)

Morais stood for unity: unity of Italy, unity of the United States, and he was also a pivotal figure in seeking unity in the ranks of American Jewry.

Our resilience in Judaism relies on the idea, however tenuous in today’s Jewish world, that even though we disagree on some theological issues, we are still one people. Let us hope that we as Americans can see our way through to a unity that will guarantee our resilience for centuries to come.

Let us pray that the American journey does not end in chaos and dysfunction; that we can find a way to cast aside the extremism in our midst, to focus on the greater good, and to move forward as a society.

Philadelphia is a city that today is still marked by the presence of Benjamin Franklin, whose pithy quotes adorn many a statue and building around the city. One that we encountered read, “The doors of wisdom are never shut.”

These words strike me as being so Jewish. What is the source of our resilience throughout history? It is Torah – our ancient wisdom, which we continue to revisit and re-learn and re-interpret. 

I would like to think that Franklin might take contemporary America’s pulse and as his prescription for our contemporary ills, simply repeat those words. Those doors are not shut. The wisdom is there – the wisdom of unity in the face of division. We know where we have been; we remember the journey. 

Let us put that wisdom to work.

Shabbat shalom.

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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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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.)