Tag Archives: Judaism

All of This Belongs to You: Finding Resilience in Jewish Tradition – Yom Kippur Day 5780

This is the fourth and final installment in the “All of This Belongs to You” High Holiday sermon series. You may want to read the first three:

The Greatest Jewish Hand-Off Play Ever – Rosh Hashanah 5780, Day 1

Be a Jewish Superhero! – Rosh Hashanah 5780, Day 2

Do Not Be Indifferent – Kol Nidrei 5780

***

One of my favorite books from childhood was The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster. In it, there is a wonderful story about a city where somebody discovers that if you walk while looking only at your feet, you get to your destination much more quickly. Soon everybody in the city is looking down at their feet as they are walking from place to place. And nobody is talking to each other, and nobody is noticing the trees and the buildings and the birds and the flowers. Soon enough, the city starts to disappear.

Our tradition, Jewish tradition, is like a beautiful city, with the most wonderful, architecturally stunning buildings. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel spoke about Shabbat as a “palace in time.” That palace is at the center of this city.

I am not suggesting that Judaism is disappearing, because it certainly is not. But I am suggesting that we all take a better look at what it has to offer. Because there is much more there than what you might think. And if we are only looking at the things with which we are already familiar – the comfortable, the expected – we are missing a whole lot of scenery. And that is what I want you to see more of: the value that Judaism can bring to your life, our community, and the world.

Our theme over these High Holidays, as you really should know by now, is, “All of this belongs to you.” My goal is to remind all of us that, in the wake of the completion of Project Assimilate, it is up to us to reclaim our tradition, to make it ours once again. To make it yours once again, because it belongs to you.

And how will we reclaim it? That can be summed up in one word: meaning. We have to seek out and find meaning in our tradition. And that means looking beyond where you usually look. That means stretching yourself a little bit, to perhaps show up for a different service, for a new program, for a Talmud discussion, for a cultural event, for something that you have not sought out before. Because I’ll tell you this, folks: what we teach can change your life.

And today, in particular on one of the four days of the Jewish calendar in which we actively remember those whom we have lost, there is something that our tradition stands for that is tremendously valuable at this particular moment, in this particular place, and that is resilience.

5779 was a year of grieving. We will continue to grieve, of course, but this new year, 5780, will have to be one of looking forward.

Consider the great catastrophes of Jewish life. The destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. The destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE. The crushing of the Bar Kokhba revolt in 136 CE. The massacres at the hands of the Crusaders in the 11th century. The Expulsion from Spain in 1492. The Sho’ah / Holocaust. And so many other mini-exiles and dispersions and destructions and pogroms and so forth along the way.

And in each case, what have the Jews done? We have buried our dead. We have mourned. We have grieved. And then we got up from shiv’ah and continued doing what we do: worshipping the one true God; learning and teaching and debating about our tradition; supporting each other in times of need; yearning for freedom and working for the freedom of others; finding ways to illuminate this world based on Jewish texts and wisdom.

Many of you probably know journalist Bari Weiss, whose family belongs to Beth Shalom, and who became bat mitzvah in the context of this community in 1997. Her bat mitzvah service was held at the Tree of Life building, because that is where Beth Shalom services were located following the fire in 1996. Ms. Weiss just published a book titled How to Fight Anti-Semitism. In it, she describes the various expressions that anti-Semitism takes. But more importantly, Bari makes the case for how to respond to it.

Among the strategies that she suggests (with an assist from Rabbi Danny Schiff) is that the way we have always overcome anti-Semitism is by doubling down on our identity, and by turning back to tradition. The haters win, she says, when we take our kippot off and try to hide. She points to the statement by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, who said, “Non-Jews respect Jews who respect Judaism, and they are embarrassed by Jews who are embarrassed by Judaism.”

She cites the case of Theodor Herzl, who grew up in a secular Hungarian-Jewish family that was barely connected to Jewish tradition. At one point, young Herzl even made the case for why Jews should convert en masse to Christianity.

And then, while he was working as a journalist in Paris, he had a front-row seat to the trial of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish captain in the French army who was falsely accused of treason. Herzl witnessed the anti-Semitic mobs in Paris chanting “Mort aux juifs!” “Death to the Jews!”, and concluded that the only safe future for the Jews lay in the Zionist imperative to build a Jewish state in Palestine.

When faced with existential threats, we have responded by looking inward, by embracing our peoplehood, our traditions, our community. As Bari wrote in a New York Times op-ed, “The long arc of Jewish history makes it clear that the only way to fight [anti-Semitism] is by waging an affirmative battle for who we are. By entering the fray for our values, for our ideas, for our ancestors, for our families, and for the generations that will come after us.”

Her solution is to “build, without shame, a Judaism and a Jewish people and a Jewish state that are not only safe and resilient but also generative, humane, joyful and life-affirming.”

Must say, I could not have said that better myself! Remember that city? The better we know it, the more familiar we are with its alleyways and architecture, the less likely it is to disappear. The more we own our heritage, the more we claim our Jewishness, the more resilient we will be as individuals and as a people.

The key to fighting anti-Semitism is to lean into tradition. Our resilience in the face of hatred comes from knowing and loving and acting on what is distinctly ours.

And let me tell you something, folks: ours is a rich heritage, one with a pedigree that stretches back thousands of years. And our strength is derived from knowing our tradition, and practicing it. It is a framework that has always nourished us, in times of persecution and in times of freedom.

Has anybody here been to Terezin? It’s the location of the “model” concentration camp, which the Germans called Theresienstadt, about an hour northwest of Prague. If you have been on a tour there, you may have seen the “secret” synagogue, tucked into a hidden basement behind a house. It was created by Jewish prisoners interned at Terezin. On the wall in this otherwise nondescript room, written in 80-year-old, flaking paint, there is a quote that we recite three times every day in the Amidah: “Vetehezenah eineinu beshuvekha letziyyon berahamim” “May our eyes envision Your return to Zion in mercy.” It was a plea for better times, an acknowledgment of the fact that despite this low point of Jewish existence, we as a people, and maybe even as individuals, will soon see better days.

That kind of statement is hard-wired into who we are. The resilience that is in our DNA is found all over our liturgy, our siddur.

In a recent episode of the renowned radio show This American Life, the show’s host and creator Ira Glass reflects on going to synagogue for the first time in many years, to say qaddish on the occasion of his mother’s yahrzeit. And although he admits that he does not really believe in aspects of our tradition, particularly the idea of God, he confesses that the words of Jewish prayer nonetheless hold a very strong power for him:

I always liked going to synagogue as a kid. We went a lot. And so it was nice going back. I know all the Hebrew prayers by heart. And [LAUGHS] I don’t know if this is good or bad, but not having sat in a synagogue in over a decade, it really hit me how every day is a rerun.

Do you know what I mean? They never do a new episode. Every day, the same words, same songs in the same order, stretching back hundreds of years. They read a new part of the Bible, part of the Torah some days. So there’s that, but all the rest is basically exactly the same every day.

And everybody is singing and chanting… And I really was struck at how many of [the prayers] — the Amidah, the Ashrei– are about praising God at length. That’s what the words mean. Even the Kaddish, which you say over and over during services.

יתגדל ויתקדש שמיה רבא

… “May His great name be exalted and sanctified. Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One.” That is what they have you say when your mom dies. Comforting, huh? It’s basically God is great over and over, building up to this beautiful line, really beautiful, that’s basically God is so great. It’s beyond the power of any prayer, or word, or song, or praise. It’s beyond the power of language to capture it…

But weirdly, even… without believing any of the words, I do find it’s a comfort to say the prayer. It’s just– it’s familiar. It’s familiar as the nursery rhymes my mom sang to me as a kid, as the Shema, the prayer that she had me and my sister say every night before we went to sleep. It’s comforting.

Despite the fact that it’s in another language and part of a doctrine I don’t believe anymore, just the fact of it handed to me by my parents and to them by their parents– Frida, and Lou, and Melvin, and Molly– and their parents before them– David, and Elizabeth, and Isidore, and people whose names I don’t even know– and before them, their parents for hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds of years and standing in synagogue that day, standing and saying these words in unison with other mourners, it was comforting.

***

I know that Ira Glass thinks like a radio producer rather than a shul-going Jew, but it’s neither fair nor accurate to say that it’s a rerun every day. Yes, the words may be similar from day to day, and with the appropriate seasonal changes for holidays and so forth, but what makes tefillah / prayer interesting is that every day, month, and year, we are different. What changes is the kavvanah, the intention, the mind-set, what’s on your plate. We change, we grow, we celebrate and we mourn, and our traditions are there as a framework to support us. The liturgy may be set, but as we change, the words of our tradition continue to reveal new things to us – about ourselves, about our community, about life.

Regardless, Mr. Glass gets it: our tradition brings us comfort and strength and resilience, even if you do not entirely buy into it. Or, as the modern Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig would have put it, even if you do not buy into it yet.

Many of us gathered on a Saturday night two and a half weeks ago for the first recitation of Selihot, traditional prayers in which we ask for forgiveness in preparation for this day. At that time, I read a commentary that appears on the pages of your mahzor, p. 298 in the margin if you would like to see it. It comes from Rabbi Rob Scheinberg, a very good friend of mine, whom I have known since my first summer at Camp Ramah in New England in 1980. (Some of you may know that Rabbi Scheinberg was among a handful of rabbis who came to Pittsburgh to help out New Light Congregation in the months after the shooting. Rob was also among the founders of Pizmon, the Jewish a capella group from Columbia University that performed here at Beth Shalom last November.)

Rabbi Scheinberg’s commentary refers to the line that we say every time we put the Torah away. It is the next to last verse in Eikhah (5:21), the book of Lamentations, which we read on Tish’ah Be’Av, the day on which we commemorate all the destructions in Jewish history:

 הֲשִׁיבֵנוּ ה’ אֵלֶיךָ וְנָשׁוּבָה, חַדֵּשׁ יָמֵינוּ כְּקֶדֶם

Hashiveinu Adonai elekha venashuvah; hadesh yameinu kekedem.

Return us to You, O God, and we shall surely return; renew our days as of old.

It is the only hopeful note in the entire book of Eikhah, which is a litany of the destruction of Jerusalem and Israel wrought by the Babylonians 2600 years ago. A midrash (Eikhah Rabba) interprets this verse as referring back to Adam haQadmon, the first humans, following their exile from Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden. Rabbi Scheinberg explains the midrash as follows:

“It means, ‘Renew our lives, as you renewed our lives after we were exiled from the Garden of Eden.’ Hadesh yameinu kekedem is then not a plea for restoration of a formerly perfect condition, but rather it is a plea for resilience, a plea for the ability to renew ourselves after future crises and dislocations, just as our lives have been renewed before.

In other words, the verse is not about requesting to take us back to Eden. It is, rather, about pleading for the capacity to recover quickly from dire circumstances. As Elie Wiesel said, “God gave Adam a secret – and that secret was not how to begin, but how to begin again.”

Ledor vador, from generation to generation, we have begun again and again and again, packing up in one place and unpacking in another; leaving behind the old synagogues and cemeteries and building new ones; starting over in a new culture with a new language. We have been doing it for thousands of years. And what has maintained us, then as now, is our tradition.

And now, in 5780, we have an opportunity to begin again. Only this time we do not need to pack our bags and move.  We have to unpack our emotional suitcases and take stock in what we, the Jews, have, what belongs to us that is unique.  What belongs to you.

And the way to do that is to stare proudly in the direction of the anti-Semites who have crawled out of their holes, put on a kippah, and dive right in.

And we at Beth Shalom give you so many opportunities to do so. We will never be rid of anti-Semitism; but the way to respond, ladies and gentlemen, is to know what we stand for. Nothing suits an anti-Semite more than a Jew who cannot defend the value of his/her own tradition.

So before you leave today, pick up a Derekh High Holiday Guide, which we have lovingly produced to make it easy for you to find your way into Jewish learning. Peruse the offerings. And pick one.

And let me assure you, there are lots of things to choose from. In 2018-19, Derekh hosted 168 events, yielding nearly 2900 encounters in five areas, empowering many members of this community not only to learn, but to take leadership roles in this community.

And if you do not see something you like, do this: come up with your own idea, find two friends, and then drop in on Rabbi Jeremy Markiz to make it happen. That is what Derekh is set up to do.

The response to hatred, to persecution, to anti-Semitism, to grief, and even to cold-blooded murder, ladies and gentlemen, is to double down on Judaism. It is not to hide our kippot and cower behind armed guards. It is, rather, to be loud, proud, and informed. To be the Jewish superhero, with the big red alef on your chest, as I described on Rosh Hashanah. To dwell in that beautiful city, the one with Heschel’s Palace in Time at the center. To know our tradition and to live it. To share it with others. To act on Jewish values and do so boldly.

The anti-Semites won’t like it, of course, but, y’know, haters gonna hate.

This is yours, and if you take the ball and run with it, Jewish wisdom and ritual and prayer and text and community will continue to nourish our people and the world forever.

All of this belongs to you. Ta shema! Come and learn.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Yom Kippur day 5780, October 9, 2019.)

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All of This Belongs to You: Do Not Be Indifferent – Kol Nidrei 5780

This is the third installment in the “All of This Belongs to You” High Holiday sermon series. You may want to read the first two:

The Greatest Jewish Hand-Off Play Ever – Rosh Hashanah 5780, Day 1

Be a Jewish Superhero! – Rosh Hashanah 5780, Day 2

***

Have you seen the TV show, “The Good Place”? It is a sharp and witty comedy about the afterlife, and conceptions of “heaven” (i.e. the Good Place) and “hell” (the Bad Place). [MILD SPOILER ALERT!] In the most recent season, the characters on the show discovered a flaw in the algorithm that determines to which place people go when they die. What they found is that life today is so complicated that none of our decisions can be completely, decisively good or bad.

Buying an organic tomato, for example, is better for the Earth in some respects and maybe better for you. But if it was picked by underpaid migrant workers, shipped on a diesel truck from California, sold in a store where there is no gender parity in their pay-scale, placed in a single-use plastic bag, and then driven home in a large gas-guzzling vehicle, then you’ve racked up exponentially more negative points. And so they determined that nobody was getting into the Good Place anymore, because life has become so perpetually fraught.

(It’s worth noting here that Judaism is not so hung up on the afterlife – we are more about the here and now than about what comes after. Our reward for doing the right thing is found in the quality of our personal and communal relationships. But although that is an excellent sermon for Yom Kippur, that is not the direction we are going this evening.)

Let’s face it: we are all overwhelmed. Overwhelmed with all that needs fixing in our world.  Overwhelmed with emails, texts and notifications. Overwhelmed with the pace and complexity of contemporary life. Overwhelmed by so many choices, and so little reliable guidance. We have difficulty prioritizing our time, particularly because it seems that there is just not enough of it. And who has any time left over for volunteering, let alone doing things that are good for your soul, like daily tefillah / prayer?

Given the above, how can we possibly be the best versions of ourselves?  If the demands on our attention continue to grow, how can we hope to ensure a just society, one in which everybody gets a fair shake?

As many of you already know, the theme of this year’s High Holidays is, “All of this belongs to you.” My plea for you for the 80s, the 5780s, is to acknowledge that the great project of assimilation into American society is done, and that we now need to consider how we can reclaim our tradition.

Too many of us have taken Judaism for granted for too long; we have reduced it to a day or two per year in synagogue, a few home-based rituals, and lifecycle events. But if that is the extent of your Jewish engagement, you are missing most of the richness and value of our heritage, of our customs and rituals, of our ancient wisdom.

To that end, I am going to address this evening an essential message that Judaism offers us and our world, a message that our texts return to over and over. (Get ready – I’m about to do some text, then follow that with a story that drives the point home.)

The Torah teaches us that all of us are responsible for members of society that are less fortunate than ourselves.  Here is just one example (Deut. 15:11):

כִּ֛י לֹֽא־יֶחְדַּ֥ל אֶבְי֖וֹן מִקֶּ֣רֶב הָאָ֑רֶץ עַל־כֵּ֞ן אָֽנֹכִ֤י מְצַוְּךָ֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר פָּ֠תֹחַ תִּפְתַּ֨ח אֶת־יָֽדְךָ֜ לְאָחִ֧יךָ לַֽעֲנִיֶּ֛ךָ וּלְאֶבְיֹֽנְךָ֖ בְּאַרְצֶֽךָ׃

For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.

God expects us to take care of the poor, and the Torah refers more than thirty times to all those in ancient Israelite society who were likely to be destitute: the widow, the orphan, the foreigner, the Levites (who in ancient Israel did not own land, and were therefore among the poor).  The reasons for doing so may be obvious, but just for good measure, and also in multiple places, the Torah gives us a justification based on our national history (Exodus 23:9):

וְגֵ֖ר לֹ֣א תִלְחָ֑ץ וְאַתֶּ֗ם יְדַעְתֶּם֙ אֶת־נֶ֣פֶשׁ הַגֵּ֔ר כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃ 

Do not oppress the stranger, for you know the soul of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

As Jews, we must have compassion for others in difficult situations, because we know, as a people, what that feels like.  This is so important that we commemorate our slavery in Egypt for eight days out of every year by retelling the story and eating the “bread of poverty,” the matzah of Pesah. And to some extent, that is also the message of Sukkot, when we are commanded to leave our comfortable, climate-controlled homes to live in ramshackle huts.

Thank God, most of us have never known true hardship. But our tradition urges us to at least consider it.

In the 19th century, there was an intellectual movement among Lithuanian Jewish thinkers called mussar, meaning “moral conduct.” An important figure in the mussar movement was Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, leader of the famed Slabodka Yeshivah in Lithuania. He took that verse about not oppressing strangers a little further. Rabbi Finkel reads it as requiring us not only to sympathize with others, but to make an effort to feel their joy and their suffering.  Referring to our obligation not to oppress gerim, strangers, he writes:

Please do not explain these words according to their plain meaning, that we are forbidden to oppress a stranger because we too have been strangers and have been oppressed, and thus know the taste of oppression.

Rather, the reasoning behind it is that a person is obligated to feel and to participate in the happiness of his/her fellow, and also their troubles, as if they had afflicted him as well. ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18) – truly just like yourself. One’s relationships to others are not found to be complete unless one can feel oneself and one’s fellow person as being in the same situation, without any separation.

If we feel neither the joy nor the suffering of our neighbors, says Rabbi Finkel, we ourselves are not complete.

It is all too easy to ignore the plight of others around us, particularly people we do not personally know. And yet, says the Torah, for our own welfare, we cannot afford to ignore others in need.  A few weeks ago, in Parashat Ki Tetze, we read about returning lost items to your neighbor (Deut. 22:3):

וְכֵן תַּעֲשֶׂה לַחֲמֹרוֹ, וְכֵן תַּעֲשֶׂה לְשִׂמְלָתוֹ, וְכֵן תַּעֲשֶׂה לְכָל-אֲבֵדַת אָחִיךָ אֲשֶׁר-תֹּאבַד מִמֶּנּוּ, וּמְצָאתָהּ, לֹא תוּכַל לְהִתְעַלֵּם

You shall [also return your neighbor’s] donkey; you shall do the same with his clothes; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent.

Rashi, writing in 11th-century France, tells us that “lehit’alem,” to remain indifferent, means “To conquer your eye, as if you do not see it.”  That is, to actively choose to overlook human loss or suffering that is directly in front of you.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are exposed to poverty, suffering, and the needs of others every day, and we usually do not see it.  Yes, these are complex, multi-faceted issues, and it is easy to be indifferent, particularly in the face of intractable problems.  However, it is incumbent upon us as Jews not to allow ourselves to “conquer our eyes.” We cannot ignore others in need, whoever they are.

The following is a true story that appeared in the New York Times Magazine eight years ago. It speaks volumes about the positions of Rabbi Finkel and Rashi. It’s called, The Tire Iron and the Tamale, by Justin Horner, a graphic designer from Portland, Oregon.

During this past year I’ve had three instances of car trouble: a blowout on a freeway, a bunch of blown fuses and an out-of-gas situation. They all happened while I was driving other people’s cars, which for some reason makes it worse on an emotional level. And on a practical level as well, what with the fact that I carry things like a jack and extra fuses in my own car, and know enough not to park on a steep incline with less than a gallon of fuel.

Each time, when these things happened, I was disgusted with the way people didn’t bother to help. I was stuck on the side of the freeway hoping my friend’s roadside service would show, just watching tow trucks cruise past me. The people at the gas stations where I asked for a gas can told me that they couldn’t lend them out “for safety reasons,” but that I could buy a really crappy one-gallon can, with no cap, for $15. It was enough to make me say stuff like “this country is going to hell in a handbasket,” which I actually said.

But you know who came to my rescue all three times? Immigrants. Mexican immigrants. None of them spoke any English.

One of those guys stopped to help me with the blowout even though he had his whole family of four in tow. I was on the side of the road for close to three hours with my friend’s big Jeep. I put signs in the windows, big signs that said, “NEED A JACK,” and offered money. Nothing. Right as I was about to give up and start hitching, a van pulled over, and the guy bounded out.

He sized up the situation and called for his daughter, who spoke English. He conveyed through her that he had a jack but that it was too small for the Jeep, so we would need to brace it. Then he got a saw from the van and cut a section out of a big log on the side of the road. We rolled it over, put his jack on top and we were in business.

I started taking the wheel off, and then, if you can believe it, I broke his tire iron. It was one of those collapsible ones, and I wasn’t careful, and I snapped the head clean off. Damn.

No worries: he ran to the van and handed it to his wife, and she was gone in a flash down the road to buy a new tire iron. She was back in 15 minutes. We finished the job with a little sweat and cussing (the log started to give), and I was a very happy man.

The two of us were filthy and sweaty. His wife produced a large water jug for us to wash our hands in. I tried to put a 20 in the man’s hand, but he wouldn’t take it, so instead I went up to the van and gave it to his wife as quietly as I could. I thanked them up one side and down the other. I asked the little girl where they lived, thinking maybe I’d send them a gift for being so awesome. She said they lived in Mexico. They were in Oregon so Mommy and Daddy could pick cherries for the next few weeks. Then they were going to pick peaches, then go back home.

After I said my goodbyes and started walking back to the Jeep, the girl called out and asked if I’d had lunch. When I told her no, she ran up and handed me a tamale.

This family, undoubtedly poorer than just about everyone else on that stretch of highway, working on a seasonal basis where time is money, took a couple of hours out of their day to help a strange guy on the side of the road while people in tow trucks were just passing him by.

But we weren’t done yet. I thanked them again and walked back to my car and opened the foil on the tamale (I was starving by this point), and what did I find inside? My $20 bill! I whirled around and ran to the van and the guy rolled down his window. He saw the $20 in my hand and just started shaking his head no. All I could think to say was, “Por favor, por favor, por favor,” with my hands out. The guy just smiled and, with what looked like great concentration, said in English: “Today you, tomorrow me.”

Then he rolled up his window and drove away, with his daughter waving to me from the back. I sat in my car eating the best tamale I’ve ever had, and I just started to cry. It had been a rough year; nothing seemed to break my way. This was so out of left field I just couldn’t handle it.

In the several months since then I’ve changed a couple of tires, given a few rides to gas stations and once drove 50 miles out of my way to get a girl to an airport. I won’t accept money. But every time I’m able to help, I feel as if I’m putting something in the bank.

What an inspiring story!  Would that we all could have such heart-warming interactions!  Better yet, may we all be blessed with finding opportunities to create them.  When Mr. Horner was in need, he was helped by those who clearly understood what it means to need help.  He learned to appreciate those who are willing to help others, and translated that into his own willingness to reach out to strangers in their time of need. And when the family returned his $20 in the tamale, he surely learned that acts of kindness are, in fact, their own reward, a particularly Jewish concept.

These are the principles that the Torah is trying to teach us.  As a people, we must not remain indifferent to the needs of others, because we, the children of Israel, not only know what it’s like to be strangers in a strange land, but that our tradition requires us to participate in their joy and in their suffering. And we also understand the value that action for the benefit of others brings us in the here and now.

Ladies and gentlemen, the essential message of the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance that include Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, is that we have the power to change ourselves for the better.  We can become more compassionate, more understanding, more forthcoming in our outward relationships. 

Fasting and afflicting our souls through abstention from physical pleasures on this day is not for its own sake. Yom Kippur is not some kind of macho endurance test, or an opportunity to lose weight.  It is to remind us that we have obligations to everybody else, that the hunger we experience today is the hunger that too many experience every day, that we may not remain indifferent in the face of suffering. 

Although some have the custom, before Yom Kippur to greet others with, “Tzom qal,” “Have an easy fast,” I do not say this. It is more appropriate to say, “Have a meaningful fast.” But here is another suggestion: Have a challenging fast.”  This day should be, in fact, a challenge to our values, a challenge to our daily routine, to our modes of comfort. To face the challenge of fasting for 25 hours, and yet remain unchanged by that challenge, that would be an embarrassment before God.

Tomorrow morning, we will read the words of Isaiah in the haftarah (58:6-7):

This is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke.  It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe them, and do not ignore your own flesh.

We cannot ignore the hungry, the poor, or the naked, says Isaiah.  I would extrapolate Isaiah’s line of thinking to include the homeless, the neglected, the abused, the emotionally and physically wounded.

Just a few quick statistics:

Did you know that more black children in Pittsburgh grow up in poverty than black children in 95% of similar American cities? That black infant mortality puts Pittsburgh in the 6th percentile? That’s not compared to white people – that’s only compared to black people.

Did you know that the food insecurity rate in Allegheny County is 14.2% overall, but for children it is 17.8%? That means that nearly 1 in 5 kids go hungry regularly.

Did you know that at any given time, there are a couple of thousand homeless people in Allegheny County? Some of them can even be found in our own neighborhood.

We are surrounded by people in need, and we cannot remain indifferent. 

Why are we here this evening?  On this, the holiest night of the year, a night on which we focus on improving ourselves, a night on which we pre-emptively invalidate frivolous vows (that is the purpose of the Kol Nidrei prayer), we should consider making some vows that we will strive to keep:

  • To be aware of those around us who are in need
  • To reach out to them, whether directly, in person, or through all the various charitable organizations that do so
  • To think pro-actively about how we can make a difference in the lives of others

And you can turn that awareness into actual deeds right now: you can fill up those bags for the Squirrel Hill Food Pantry. You can donate to any number of organizations that help those in need. You can volunteer to work in a shelter or soup kitchen.

And, as with Justin Horner and his flat tire, you do not even have to look very far to find somebody in need of help. The point, ladies and gentlemen, is to be aware of others, to think beyond yourself, and to stop and give aid.

On this day of teshuvah / repentance, of self-denial and self-judgment, our task is to challenge ourselves not to succumb to information overload, not to tune out the ever-present challenges of poverty, of suffering, of those who have less than we do.

Rather, this is the essential message of our tradition: we must surmount our indifference and to turn it into action. This is a fundamental value of Judaism. All of this belongs to you. Now go out there and make 5780 a year that counts.

Gemar hatimah tovah.  Have not an easy fast, but a challenging fast.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, evening of Yom Kippur 5780, October 8, 2019.)

Continue reading the final installment in the “All of This Belongs to You” series: All of This Belongs to You: Finding Resilience in Jewish Tradition – Yom Kippur Day 5780

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The Nexus of Politics and Judaism – Shabbat Nahamu 5779

I have recently received a few comments that my sermons have been “too political.” So I just wanted to clarify something as a kind of prologue: I try to speak to contemporary issues, issues that are in the air all around us. I cannot speak about abstractions, about things that we are not necessarily thinking about. And the clergy-person that does not address what’s on people’s minds is irrelevant. I am trying my best not to be irrelevant. My job is to teach how our texts guide us in our daily interactions with the world, with both the mundane and the existential.

At the same time, my goal is not to inflame. I do not label any public figures with unfair or inaccurate descriptors. I do not use hyperbolic or inflammatory language. I do try to avoid calling out specific people, where possible, or God forbid, mentioning political parties. It is not my goal to get everybody heated up and arguing at kiddush. On the contrary, I hope to elevate the dialogue by emphasizing what Jewish tradition teaches about the issues in play.

As you know, I think it is essential for us to remember that learning the words and concepts of the Jewish bookshelf improves our lives and our society, and I can tell you this: if the principles of compassion, of derekh eretz / respect, of justice, of acknowledging the kedushah / holiness in each of us and in our relationships with each other were kept in front of us at all times, the world would be a much better place, and perhaps far less polarized.

***

On this day, Shabbat Nahamu, the Shabbat of comfort, my hope is to bring us some comfort in Jewish text. The first Shabbat after Tish’ah BeAv, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, is so titled because it is the opening salvo of the First Haftarah of Consolation which we read this morning, from the prophet Isaiah. As we count off the seven weeks from Tish’ah BeAv until Rosh Hashanah, we should feel ourselves recovering from the desolation of Tish’ah BeAv, moving from mourning the tragedies of our history to seeing ourselves as elevated in the glory of God’s sovereignty.

Relief from the Arch of Titus in Rome, depicting Roman soldiers carrying away the implements of the Second Temple following the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE

And the challenge facing us at this time is, how do we find comfort when the nation is still reeling from the needless deaths of 31 people two weekends ago? When we in Pittsburgh are still in mourning for the 11 members of our community who were so brutally taken from us nearly 10 months ago?

How do we find comfort when the issues surrounding who is allowed to come into this country, and who is allowed to stay, continue to roil our national conversation?

How can we find comfort when our government is proposing to favor immigrants who are not poor? I’ll tell you this, folks: if such a principle existed when my family members came here in the late 19th and early 20th century, I wouldn’t be standing before you, and most of you would not be here either.

How do we find comfort when our elected officials, many of whom are themselves descended from poor immigrants, continue to support policies that separate families at our borders?

How do we find comfort when we know that foreign actors are continuing to try to disrupt our democratic processes?

How do we find comfort when virtually every day brings some new revelation regarding our ongoing abuse of God’s Creation? This week it was the plastic content in Arctic ice.

At the program on Saturday evening, as our 25-hour fast began, we heard from speakers who addressed our grief. Our member Danielle Kranjec, Senior Jewish Educator at Hillel-Jewish University Center, spoke about how she and her students experienced the 18th of Heshvan. Richard Carrington, who works in the poor neighborhoods of Pittsburgh trying to free children from the cycle of gang violence, spoke about the 203 funerals that he has attended for the kids he has worked with, children he could not save. Representatives of Casa San Jose spoke of the gratitude they had for the haven this country has offered them from dysfunctional Latin American governments and the violent, failed societies from which they came.

How can we indeed feel comforted?

Some might argue that we, the Jews, have to look out for ourselves. And that is certainly true, to some extent. “Im ein ani li mi li?” said our sage Hillel, 2000 years ago (Pirqei Avot 1:14): “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me.” But then Hillel goes on: “Ukhshe’ani le’atzmi, mah ani?” “And when I am ONLY for myself, what am I?”

Ve’im lo akhshav, eimatai?” “And if not now, when?”

Indeed.

Many of you know another mishnah from earlier in the same chapter of Pirqei Avot (1:2), one that was a kind of Jewish pop song a few decades back:

שִׁמְעוֹן הַצַּדִּיק הָיָה מִשְּׁיָרֵי כְנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה. הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים

Shim’on the Righteous was one of the last of the Great Assembly. He said: The world rests on three things: on the Torah, and on service [to God], and on acts of lovingkindness.

But let’s face it: three is an excellent literary device if you’d like to make a point. So the rabbis did not limit themselves to only one statement of the things upon which the world stands. So at the end of chapter 1 of Pirqei Avot, there is another take:

רַבָּן שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן גַּמְלִיאֵל אוֹמֵר, עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַדִּין וְעַל הָאֱמֶת וְעַל הַשָּׁלוֹם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (זכריה ח) אֱמֶת וּמִשְׁפַּט שָׁלוֹם שִׁפְטוּ בְּשַׁעֲרֵיכֶם

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel used to say: on three things does the world stand: On justice, on truth and on peace, as it is said: “execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates” (Zechariah 8:16).

Whenever this sort of thing happens in traditional texts, you know some rabbi is going to eventually come along to ask the question: why do we need these two statements? Wouldn’t one have been enough? Does the world stand on three things, or six?

Sure enough, in the Jerusalem Talmud (Ta’anit 4:2), there is a passage that addresses this:

תמן תנינן שמעון הצדיק היה משירי כנסת הגדולה הוא היה אומר על שלשה דברים העולם עומד על התורה ועל העבודה ועל גמילות חסדים ושלשתן בפסוק אחד (ישעיהו נא) ואשים דברי בפיך זו תורה ובצל ידי כסיתיך זו גמילות חסדים ללמדך שכל מי שהוא עוסק בתורה ובגמילות חסדים זכה לישב בצילו של הקב”ה

There they taught: Shimon the Righteous was of the remnants of the Men of the Great Assembly. He used to say ‘the world rests on three things – on the Torah on the Service and on Acts of Loving-kindness.’ The three of them are found in one verse (Isaiah 51:16):

וָאָשִׂ֤ים דְּבָרַי֙ בְּפִ֔יךָ וּבְצֵ֥ל יָדִ֖י כִּסִּיתִ֑יךָ לִנְטֹ֤עַ שָׁמַ֙יִם֙ וְלִיסֹ֣ד אָ֔רֶץ וְלֵאמֹ֥ר לְצִיּ֖וֹן עַמִּי־אָֽתָּה׃

[God said] I have put My words in your mouth and sheltered you with My hand; I, who planted the skies and made firm the earth, have said to Zion: You are My people!

“I have put My words in your mouth…” refers to Torah, “…and sheltered you with My hand…” refers to acts of lovingkindness, to teach you that anyone who is occupied with Torah and acts of lovingkindness merits to sit in the shadow of the Holy One.

So the Gemara here is explaining that the first statement of three comes from Isaiah, an affirmation that we are God’s people. Shim’on the Righteous is interpreting this to say that by living Torah, by learning and teaching it and applying it by performing acts of lovingkindness, deeds that reinforce the qedushah between people, we will merit God’s presence in our lives. We will earn a coveted spot in the shadow of the Qadosh Barukh Hu

But I must say, I need a little more than that. I can “sit in the shadow of the Qadosh Barukh Hu” all day while the rest of the world crumbles around me. Rather, I need something else. Hence the need for the other statement of three. The Gemara goes on:

תמן תנינן רבן שמעון בן גמליאל אומר על שלשה דברים העולם עומד על הדין ועל האמת והשלום ושלשתן דבר אחד הן נעשה הדין נעשה אמת נעשה שלום א”ר מנא ושלשתן בפסוק אחד (זכריה ח׳:ט״ז) אמת ומשפט שלום שפטו בשעריכם

There, Rabban Shim’on ben Gamliel said: The world stands on three things: on truth, on justice, and on peace, as is said, “Execute truth, justice, and peace within your gates” (Zech. 8:16). These three are interlinked: when justice is done, truth is achieved, and peace is established (Pirqei Avot 1:18).

So this one, says the Gemara, is an entirely different way of viewing the world. Not about the specificities of Torah or service to God, but rather about essential values. We have to seek justice, says the prophet Zechariah. We have to speak truth. That is when peace will come. And Zechariah is even more explicit in the following verse:

וְאִ֣ישׁ ׀ אֶת־רָעַ֣ת רֵעֵ֗הוּ אַֽל־תַּחְשְׁבוּ֙ בִּלְבַבְכֶ֔ם וּשְׁבֻ֥עַת שֶׁ֖קֶר אַֽל־תֶּאֱהָ֑בוּ כִּ֧י אֶת־כָּל־אֵ֛לֶּה אֲשֶׁ֥ר שָׂנֵ֖אתִי נְאֻם־ה׃

And do not contrive evil against one another, and do not love perjury, because all those are things that I hate—declares the LORD.

We have to dedicate ourselves to justice and truth and avoid purposefully reviling one another. And not just justice for us, for the Jews, but for the whole world. That’s what the world stands on. Only then will peace come.

So it may be easy to say that, but how do we get there?

The essence of politics, ladies and gentlemen, is agreement and disagreement. We all agree that there are problems to be solved, and we have multiple paths forward, different ways to approach these challenges. We can agree with each other or disagree, and not only on the solutions, but on the problems themselves.

But we have to do it truthfully, and we have to agree that justice is the abiding principle. And I would like to suggest something that we can all consider, yet another value expressed in Pirqei Avot, and that is “kaf zekhut” – giving somebody with whom you disagree the benefit of the doubt.

Before you dismiss outright what somebody else firmly believes, consider their position, and see if you can even make their argument for them. There is always another side. The only way we can gain true comfort, justice, truth, and peace, is to be able to listen to and seek to understand the other with a fair, even-handed ear, to seek common ground, and to find the political means to bring people together rather than drive them apart.

Only then will we find comfort; only then will we truly sit together in the shadow of the Qadosh Barukh Hu.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/17/2019.)

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Democracy and Judaism – Qorah 5779

Parashat Qorah raises particularly resonant questions regarding leadership: Who leads? Who appoints them? From where does the true mandate for leadership come? What happens when a troublesome vocal minority challenges that leadership? Consider these sources for discussion.


Zechariah 8:16(16) These are the things you are to do: Speak the truth to one another, render true and perfect justice in your gates.
זכריה ח׳:ט״ז(טז) אֵ֥לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר תַּֽעֲשׂ֑וּ דַּבְּר֤וּ אֱמֶת֙ אִ֣ישׁ אֶת־רֵעֵ֔הוּ אֱמֶת֙ וּמִשְׁפַּ֣ט שָׁל֔וֹם שִׁפְט֖וּ בְּשַׁעֲרֵיכֶֽם׃

Deuteronomy 17:16-18(16) Moreover, he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses, since the LORD has warned you, “You must not go back that way again.” (17) And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess. (18) When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the levitical priests.דברים י״ז:ט״ז-י״ח(טז) רַק֮ לֹא־יַרְבֶּה־לּ֣וֹ סוּסִים֒ וְלֹֽא־יָשִׁ֤יב אֶת־הָעָם֙ מִצְרַ֔יְמָה לְמַ֖עַן הַרְבּ֣וֹת ס֑וּס וַֽה֙’ אָמַ֣ר לָכֶ֔ם לֹ֣א תֹסִפ֗וּן לָשׁ֛וּב בַּדֶּ֥רֶךְ הַזֶּ֖ה עֽוֹד׃ (יז) וְלֹ֤א יַרְבֶּה־לּוֹ֙ נָשִׁ֔ים וְלֹ֥א יָס֖וּר לְבָב֑וֹ וְכֶ֣סֶף וְזָהָ֔ב לֹ֥א יַרְבֶּה־לּ֖וֹ מְאֹֽד׃ (יח) וְהָיָ֣ה כְשִׁבְתּ֔וֹ עַ֖ל כִּסֵּ֣א מַמְלַכְתּ֑וֹ וְכָ֨תַב ל֜וֹ אֶת־מִשְׁנֵ֨ה הַתּוֹרָ֤ה הַזֹּאת֙ עַל־סֵ֔פֶר מִלִּפְנֵ֥י הַכֹּהֲנִ֖ים הַלְוִיִּֽם׃

I Samuel 8:11-19(11) He said, “This will be the practice of the king who will rule over you: He will take your sons and appoint them as his charioteers and horsemen, and they will serve as outrunners for his chariots. (12) He will appoint them as his chiefs of thousands and of fifties; or they will have to plow his fields, reap his harvest, and make his weapons and the equipment for his chariots. (13) He will take your daughters as perfumers, cooks, and bakers. (14) He will seize your choice fields, vineyards, and olive groves, and give them to his courtiers. (15) He will take a tenth part of your grain and vintage and give it to his eunuchs and courtiers. (16) He will take your male and female slaves, your choice young men, and your asses, and put them to work for him. (17) He will take a tenth part of your flocks, and you shall become his slaves. (18) The day will come when you cry out because of the king whom you yourselves have chosen; and the LORD will not answer you on that day.” (19) But the people would not listen to Samuel’s warning. “No,” they said. “We must have a king over us…”שמואל א ח׳:י״א-י״ט(יא) וַיֹּ֕אמֶר זֶ֗ה יִֽהְיֶה֙ מִשְׁפַּ֣ט הַמֶּ֔לֶךְ אֲשֶׁ֥ר יִמְלֹ֖ךְ עֲלֵיכֶ֑ם אֶת־בְּנֵיכֶ֣ם יִקָּ֗ח וְשָׂ֥ם לוֹ֙ בְּמֶרְכַּבְתּ֣וֹ וּבְפָרָשָׁ֔יו וְרָצ֖וּ לִפְנֵ֥י מֶרְכַּבְתּֽוֹ׃ (יב) וְלָשׂ֣וּם ל֔וֹ שָׂרֵ֥י אֲלָפִ֖ים וְשָׂרֵ֣י חֲמִשִּׁ֑ים וְלַחֲרֹ֤שׁ חֲרִישׁוֹ֙ וְלִקְצֹ֣ר קְצִיר֔וֹ וְלַעֲשׂ֥וֹת כְּלֵֽי־מִלְחַמְתּ֖וֹ וּכְלֵ֥י רִכְבּֽוֹ׃ (יג) וְאֶת־בְּנוֹתֵיכֶ֖ם יִקָּ֑ח לְרַקָּח֥וֹת וּלְטַבָּח֖וֹת וּלְאֹפֽוֹת׃ (יד) וְאֶת־שְׂ֠דֽוֹתֵיכֶם וְאֶת־כַּרְמֵיכֶ֧ם וְזֵיתֵיכֶ֛ם הַטּוֹבִ֖ים יִקָּ֑ח וְנָתַ֖ן לַעֲבָדָֽיו׃ (טו) וְזַרְעֵיכֶ֥ם וְכַרְמֵיכֶ֖ם יַעְשֹׂ֑ר וְנָתַ֥ן לְסָרִיסָ֖יו וְלַעֲבָדָֽיו׃ (טז) וְאֶת־עַבְדֵיכֶם֩ וְֽאֶת־שִׁפְח֨וֹתֵיכֶ֜ם וְאֶת־בַּחוּרֵיכֶ֧ם הַטּוֹבִ֛ים וְאֶת־חֲמוֹרֵיכֶ֖ם יִקָּ֑ח וְעָשָׂ֖ה לִמְלַאכְתּֽוֹ׃ (יז) צֹאנְכֶ֖ם יַעְשֹׂ֑ר וְאַתֶּ֖ם תִּֽהְיוּ־ל֥וֹ לַעֲבָדִֽים׃ (יח) וּזְעַקְתֶּם֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֔וּא מִלִּפְנֵ֣י מַלְכְּכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר בְּחַרְתֶּ֖ם לָכֶ֑ם וְלֹֽא־יַעֲנֶ֧ה יְהוָ֛ה אֶתְכֶ֖ם בַּיּ֥וֹם הַהֽוּא׃ (יט) וַיְמָאֲנ֣וּ הָעָ֔ם לִשְׁמֹ֖עַ בְּק֣וֹל שְׁמוּאֵ֑ל וַיֹּאמְר֣וּ לֹּ֔א כִּ֥י אִם־מֶ֖לֶךְ יִֽהְיֶ֥ה עָלֵֽינוּ׃

Berakhot 55a:11With regard to Bezalel’s appointment, Rabbi Yitzḥak said: One may only appoint a leader over a community if he consults with the community and they agree to the appointment, 

as it is stated: “And Moses said unto the children of Israel: See, the Lord has called by name Betzalel, son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah” (Exodus 35:30). The Lord said to Moses: Moses, is Betzalel a suitable appointment in your eyes? Moses said to Him: Master of the universe, if he is a suitable appointment in Your eyes, then all the more so in my eyes. The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to him: Nevertheless, go and tell Israel and ask their opinion. Moses went and said to Israel: Is Bezalel suitable in your eyes? They said to him: If he is suitable in the eyes of the Holy One, Blessed be He, and in your eyes, all the more so he is suitable in our eyes.
ברכות נ״ה א:י״אאמר רבי יצחק אין מעמידין פרנס על הצבור אלא אם כן נמלכים בצבור 

שנאמר ראו קרא ה׳ בשם בצלאל אמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא למשה משה הגון עליך בצלאל אמר לו רבונו של עולם אם לפניך הגון לפני לא כל שכן אמר לו אף על פי כן לך אמור להם הלך ואמר להם לישראל הגון עליכם בצלאל אמרו לו אם לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא ולפניך הוא הגון לפנינו לא כל שכן

Pirkei Avot 2:3(3) Be careful [in your dealings] with the ruling authorities for they do not befriend a person except for their own needs; they seem like friends when it is to their own interest, but they do not stand by a man in the hour of his distress.משנה אבות ב׳:ג׳(ג) הֱווּ זְהִירִין בָּרָשׁוּת, שֶׁאֵין מְקָרְבִין לוֹ לָאָדָם אֶלָּא לְצֹרֶךְ עַצְמָן. נִרְאִין כְּאוֹהֲבִין בִּשְׁעַת הֲנָאָתָן, וְאֵין עוֹמְדִין לוֹ לָאָדָם בִּשְׁעַת דָּחְקוֹ: 

Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrahi, ca. 1445-1525, Chief Rabbi of Constantinople

And according to our holy Torah’s decree at Exodus 23:2, “Incline after the majority,” we follow the will of the majority. Indeed, one who disputes with the majority is called a sinner. And it makes no difference whether that majority is made up of rich people or poor, sages or laypeople, since the entire community is called a court for communal matters.

Exodus 23:2(2) You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong—you shall not give perverse testimony in a dispute so as to pervert it in favor of the mighty—שמות כ״ג:ב׳(ב) לֹֽא־תִהְיֶ֥ה אַחֲרֵֽי־רַבִּ֖ים לְרָעֹ֑ת וְלֹא־תַעֲנֶ֣ה עַל־רִ֗ב לִנְטֹ֛ת אַחֲרֵ֥י רַבִּ֖ים לְהַטֹּֽת׃

Rabbi Francis Nataf (contemporary), Redeeming Relevance; Numbers, Ch. 3 Korach and the Limits of Popular Government

Moreover, ordinary Jews are supposed to have access to their leaders and be represented by them on the political playing field. If the Korach story doesn’t warn against political activity per se, it does warn of the dangers that exist in allowing those easily swayed by personal charisma too much power in choosing their leaders. In that case, direct democracy – where all decisions are decided by the general public – may well be a recipe for disaster.

Questions for further discussion:

  1. How can we learn from the Qorah story regarding the various challenges that democracy has?
  2. What does this imply for our particular political moment? Particularly regarding the current tendency to the extremes?

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Memory: The Golden Lacquer of Jewish Life – Second Day Shavuot 5779 / Yizkor

If I were to ask you, what are the primary features of Jewish life, what would you say?

I might argue that the glue that holds all of this together is memory: memory of our personal Jewish journeys, memory of our collective experience, memory of those who came before us. We pay attention to that last one in particular on Yizkor days, but of course our memory is always with us.

I participated in a panel last week at Rodef Shalom Congregation as a part of their annual congregational meeting. Rabbi Aaron Bisno of Rodef Shalom, Rabbi Jeff Myers of Tree of Life, Cantor Julie Newman of Tiferet, and I discussed the future of synagogues, moderated by Rabbi Danny Schiff. Rabbi Schiff’s first question was, “What is causing the disengagement from synagogues today?” Not a simple question, and of course nobody knows exactly what the answer is. But certainly we have a great challenge before us in making the synagogue “work” the way it has done in the past.

One reason, I think, that it is so much harder today to create the communal Jewish experience in synagogues is that we have become much less reflective as a society. We are so much more in the current moment than ever; the way the news cycle turns over, we hardly process yesterday’s craziness before today’s madness hijacks our attention. And that frantic pace has infected the entire range of our lives. Twitter is not a reflective medium. And I find this deeply troubling.

But Judaism, and synagogues in particular, offer us the reflective framework to reflect, if we only take it. Our tradition, which ideally infuses our lives with holiness, offers a refuge from the cut-and-thrust of life today. And we really need that refuge.

It was with great pleasure that I encountered a recent piece by New York Times columnist David Brooks that captured a beautiful metaphor for Jewish life. In it, he describes the centuries-old Japanese craft known as Kintsugi bowls. These are ceramic bowls that are hundreds of years old, but what makes them special is not the age or the design of the bowl, but that they have at some point been broken, and then the shards are put back together with the Kintsugi technique, which dates to the 15th century, and uses a combination of gold and lacquer.

Kintsugi bowl

The resulting bowl has exquisite gold veins running through it, making an otherwise-ordinary bowl unique. Every one is different; every pattern is special. As Brooks puts it,

There’s a dimension of depth to them. You sense the original life they had, the rupture and then the way they were so beautifully healed. And of course they stand as a metaphor for the people, families and societies we all know who have endured their own ruptures and come back beautiful, vulnerable and whole in their broken places.

What fascinates me about this concept is that it is very Jewish:

  • On a personal level, what is broken can be made whole again (cf. Yom Kippur). In fact, the Jewish holiday cycle reinforces over and over the idea that we are all individually broken, and that we can always seek and achieve wholeness once again.
  • From the perspective of the Jewish nation, it is our brokenness that has enabled us to continue as a people (cf. Tish’ah Be’Av). Destruction and rebuilding are an essential piece of Jewish history; our nation is conceived in emerging from slavery; the Second Temple follows the destruction of the First; the yearning for rebuilding has spurred us onward since the destruction of the Second Temple; establishment of the State of Israel followed the Sho’ah, and so forth.
  • Memory is the golden lacquer of Jewish life. What makes us unique and special is our personal and collective memories, our having been broken through loss and suffering, and then repairing ourselves with the reinforcement of remembrance.

We are not the people who shy away from brokenness. On the contrary, Judaism highlights the fragility of human life. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, during the central Untaneh Toqef prayer of the Musaf service, we are reminded in a stream of Tanakhic and midrashic references of our frailty and our capacity to be healed once again:

אָדָם יְסוֹדוֹ מֵעָפָר
וְסוֹפוֹ לֶעָפָר
בְּנַפְשׁוֹ יָבִיא לַחְמוֹ
מָשׁוּל כְּחֶרֶס הַנִּשְׁבָּר
כְּחָצִיר יָבֵשׁ וּכְצִיץ נוֹבֵל
כְּצֵל עוֹבֵר וּכְעָנָן כָּלָה
וּכְרוּחַ נוֹשָׁבֶת וּכְאָבָק פּוֹרֵחַ
וְכַחֲלום יָעוּף

Our origin is dust, and our end is dust.
With one’s soul a person brings bread
[Jewish text compares humanity to] a broken vase
Dried-up grass and a withering bud
A passing shadow and a fading cloud
Blowing wind and blossoming dust
And like a dream that floats away.

As we recite these words on High Holidays, we acknowledge that we are as much a product of our cracks as we are our whole pieces, that the essence of life is being broken and repaired; that our brokenness makes us stronger, more beautiful, more resilient.

Leonard Cohen (zikhrono livrakhah / may his memory be for a blessing) sang, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

Montreal, May 2019

It has been speculated that Cohen was referencing here the concept, from Rabbi Isaac Luria’s kabbalistic formulation, of the shevirat hakelim, the breaking of the vessels. It’s a complicated tale, but in brief, when God created the world, said Rabbi Luria in 16th-century Tzefat, the primordial vessels (kelim) were unable to contain the light poured into them, and they shattered, casting sparks of light into the universe. Creation of the world necessitated the breaking of these vessels. The world begins with an act of brokenness, and those Divine sparks that are still out there for us to uncover are there due to that breakage.

The cracks within each of us are there for good reason – they help us see the Divine, the kedushah / holiness in ourselves and the kedushah in others.

Like the Kintsugi bowls, our lives, our personalities, are enhanced by the fracturing and repairing. We are made more beautiful by our unique flaws, and the Godly light that shines through each of us, reflected by the golden glue of memory, helps us illuminate each other and the world.

And all the more so, on a Yizkor day, a day on which we remember those who came before us, we recall that those who gave us life did so not that we should be perfect, not that we should be without flaw, but quite the opposite. Our parents, our spouses, our siblings, all those whom we remember today, their imperfections were what made them who they were, made them holy. And so too did they see the cracks in us that make us all individually, uniquely human and yet infused with Divine light.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have often remarked that we, the Jews, do death and mourning very well. Yizkor, yahrzeits, plaques, shiv’ah, sheloshim, qaddish, etc.. We have the tools with which to wrap our minds and hearts around the grief that comes with loss. We have the communal framework that enables us to support each other in times of great pain. We are awesome at reflection and remembrance.

But even more so, it is the memory of losing those whom we love most that makes us who we are. That memory is what holds the shards of our souls together, that stitches us back up, scarred from the experience, but ultimately making us stronger, more nuanced, more human, more able to perceive and reflect the holy sparks all around us.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, second day of Shavuot 5779, 6/10/2019.)

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We Are Not Defined By Those Who Hate Us: Report From Hungary – Vayyiggash 5779

We have almost arrived at the end of Bereshit, Genesis, the Torah’s first and longest book, and the one that tells the story of the family of Avraham, the family that yields Yisrael and monotheism and really our entire heritage. And the end of the book turns on the story of Yosef and his tale of exile and redemption. And in today’s parashah, Vayyiggash, we have the denouement,  when Yosef reveals himself to his brothers and is reunited with his father Ya’aqov. It is the moment when, you might say, the chickens come home to roost. Or, rather, that the chickens all move to Egypt and begin the process that leads to their enslavement.

I must say that I feel like I have learned some uncomfortable truths over the last seven weeks, the most salient of which is that we the Jews can no longer count on our safety here in America. Perhaps that safety was an illusion of the last several decades; my sense growing up in the 1980s was that the arc of humanity’s progress, led by America’s inspiring democracy and tolerance, would ultimately stamp out anti-Semitism for good. After all, we defeated the Nazi regime, we prevailed over the Soviet Union and the mistreatment of their Jews, and we are Israel’s strongest ally and supporter.

October 27th brought home for me the feeling that this is not the case. And as we all scramble to catch up with the rest of the Diaspora world in terms of providing security for our institutions, the loss of innocence is palpable. The hatred of Jews has not only not gone away, but it is growing, on both the left and the right.

Many of you know that I spent Hanukkah in Budapest. My sister and her family live there, and my Israeli son flew in to stay with us as well. Also, my wife still has Hungarian cousins, people who survived World War II and stayed there. So we had family gatherings for the holiday. But the reality of contemporary Hungary was an unpleasant backdrop to the visit.

To begin with, Hungary has a bad record when it comes to the Jews. The Hungarian government during World War II collaborated with the Nazis and participated in sending its Jews to death camps, including my father-in-law. A few years back, the openly anti-Semitic political party Jobbik advocated in the Hungarian Parliament for drawing up a list of all Jews in the country who pose a “security risk.” Hungarians today have, as polls have shown, among the highest rates of anti-Semitic attitudes in Europe.

If any of you have been following the news, you know that the current government is dominated by the right-wing party Fidesz, led by the Prime Minister, Viktor Orban. Mr. Orban’s leadership is so strong that he has successfully eroded democratic freedoms in Hungary: there is no more free press – virtually all news outlets are controlled by friends of Orban; the independence of the courts has been limited, and just this week it was announced that a new series of “administrative courts” will be established which will be effectively controlled by Orban and his buddies.

Perhaps you remember the flow of refugees, mostly from Syria, that the Hungarian government built a fence to keep out three years ago? While Germany has welcomed refugees and tried to integrate them into German society, Hungary has tried to prevent them from entering.

And in October, the government passed a law banning homeless people from “living in public places.” The law is vague, but in effect, it criminalizes homelessness. This is not only ridiculous, it’s cruel. My Hungarian brother-in-law said it reminded him of the famous poem by Pastor Martin Niemöller :

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—

    Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—

    Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

    Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

In 2014, the Orban government unveiled a new memorial sculpture in Freedom Square in Budapest, called the “Living Memorial,” ostensibly to recall those who were killed by the Nazis. It depicts the angel Gabriel, pure and innocent and representing Hungary, and a nasty German eagle swooping down, claws bared. On the side, in multiple languages, including Hebrew, it says merely, “In memory of the victims.” No other commentary.

living memorial

The problem with the memorial is that it whitewashes Hungary’s collaboration with the Nazis and assistance in deporting her Jewish citizens. Critics have created a massive protest wall of photos, memorabilia and statements right in front of the memorial to counter and portray the truth of what really happened.  To the government’s credit, these materials have remained there for five years, although they have been vandalized by neo-Nazis.

And the other item of note is that the Hungarian government is building a Holocaust memorial museum, although, citing concerns about further blurring of the Hungarian role in the Shoah, the Israeli Holocaust museum Yad Vashem has furiously criticized the project.

Add to that Mr. Orban’s portrayal of Hungarian-born Jewish financier George Soros as a sinister character, an outside influencer seeking to corrupt Hungary through his support of NGOs and the Central European University in Budapest. The billboards that were seen around Hungary in 2017 were remarkably disturbing, drawing on traditional anti-Semitic tropes of the Jew as one who undermines Christian society.

soros

From Hungary in 2017. Text reads, “National consultation about the Soros plan – Don’t let it pass without any words.”

What do we learn from this?

When Robert Bowers walked into Tree of Life with an assault rifle and began shooting, he was motivated by hatred of Jews. But not only that: he was driven by a fear that is promulgated in the hate-filled, dark corners of white nationalist websites, that Jews like George Soros are trying to bring immigrants and refugees to this country to lessen the political power of white, Christian Americans.

When an assortment of right-fringe hate groups marched in Charlottesville a year and a half ago, among the things they chanted was, “Jews will not replace us.” I did not understand this at the time – I thought the meaning of the slogan was that Jews themselves will not literally take the jobs of white Christians or their positions of authority in government and civic life. But no – what they were saying was, “We will not let the Jews replace us with non-white, non-Christian immigrants and refugees.” As if the Jews are pulling all the strings. As if the Jews are actively smuggling people from all over the world into America to destroy our society.

The wall on our southern border; the attacks on our free press; the use of George Soros, Janet Yellen, and Lloyd Blankfein in a campaign ad to stir up fear on the far right; the disinformation that we hear daily. Anti-Semitism is not only here with us, back and better than ever, ladies and gentlemen, but it is also the lynchpin in white nationalism. Hungary is a case study for where some of our fellow citizens want us to be. Thank God, we are not there yet. But now is the time for vigilance.

When I went to synagogue last Shabbat, there were two guards outside the building. Not only did they ask for my ID (which I carried with me even though there is no eruv in Budapest), but they asked me several questions: Where are you from? Why are you here this morning? Where are you staying? This is, sadly, par for the course in Europe, and will likely be standard procedure in America soon as well. Like Ya’aqov’s entire family, we are returning, in some sense, to Egypt. The good old days are over.

My son and I spent a day in Vienna, a short train ride from Budapest last week; upon returning, the Hungarian police barely glanced at my American passport, but his Israeli passport was scrutinized. They bent it, shined a flashlight through it, asked more intrusive questions and for more identification, which he did not have. We have different last names, so they did not believe me when I said he was my son. It was not until I showed them a photo on my smartphone of his American passport, which he did not have with him, that they let us back into Hungary.

Now, I do not know if they were roughing us up because of Hungarian attempts to keep out unwelcome immigrants, or because his passport was from Israel. But does it really matter?

At this point, when my wife read this sermon, she said, wisely (as she always does), “Seth, you have raised the spectre of anti-Semitism, something which rabbis have done for generations, but you have not offered us any positive thing to grasp onto. Living a Jewish life is not only about knowing that there are people who hate us. We are not defined by anti-Semitism.”

Given that I’ve already reached the end of my Shabbat-morning quota, I am going to leave a more complete response to this for the next sermon, probably in two weeks. (Next Shabbat is the monthly Discussion Service.) But here is a little something:

Despite the climate in Hungary, the Budapest Chabad organization held a public candle-lighting for Hanukkah every evening in a busy square in front of the major train station. There were plenty of police for protection, but people came out to participate. I was told that there was a big bar mitzvah happening at one of the city’s synagogues last Shabbat morning. Jewish life goes on in Hungary.

Our response to hatred is not to try to fade into the woodwork. It is, rather, to live Jewishly and proudly, to put our Jewish values into action, and remain strong and vigilant. To quote 20th-century French philosopher Edmond Fleg:

I am a Jew because my faith demands no abdication of the mind.

I am a Jew because my faith demands all the devotion of my heart.

I am a Jew because wherever there is suffering, the Jew weeps.

I am a Jew because wherever there is despair, the Jew hopes.

We weep, we hope, and we commit ourselves again and again to our tradition, to our ancient wisdom, to our values. As we continue to face an imperfect world, one in which we know there are people who malign us, Lo alekha hamelakhah ligmor, velo atah ben horin lehibbatel mimmena (Pirqei Avot 2:21). It is not up to you to finish the task, nor are you free to desist from it. We continue to practice our customs and live our values, to build a better society, a better nation, a better planet.

There is much work to be done in facing our contemporary challenges, here and abroad. Our ancestors have always faced these challenges, and so will we.

Shabbat shalom.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 12/15/2018.)

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I’m a Fundamentalist: Shabbat – Bereshit 5779

Usually, when I return to the beginning of the Torah, my thoughts turn to the aspects of Creation that concern our relationship with and responsibility to it. That is, our obligation “le’ovdah ulshomerah,” “to till it and to tend it,” (Gen. 2:15).

But one of the best things about Parashat Bereshit (the first weekly reading in the Torah) is that there is just so much to talk about! So something else occurred to me this week.

Rashi asks the essential question up front about Bereshit: Why start here? Why didn’t the Torah begin with the lawgiving parts of Shemot / Exodus, specifically 12:2:

הַחֹ֧דֶשׁ הַזֶּ֛ה לָכֶ֖ם רֹ֣אשׁ חֳדָשִׁ֑ים רִאשׁ֥וֹן הוּא֙ לָכֶ֔ם לְחָדְשֵׁ֖י הַשָּׁנָֽה׃

This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.

(That’s Parashat Bo – not quite the end of the Exodus narrative, but more or less the first passage of the Torah which is a series of laws.)

And Rashi answers himself by saying that the reason the Torah starts with Bereshit is that it is of utmost importance for all of us to know that God created the world.* That is a fundamental aspect of our existence, and what amounts to a postulate for all that follows. I must say that, although Rashi and I would most likely disagree on the precise meaning of “God created the world,” or for that matter, the meaning of the word “God,” Rashi is definitely onto something here. The premise that God’s metaphorical hand is active in the world, in its creation and ongoing functioning, is clearly a cornerstone of Jewish tradition, no matter how we understand this parashah.

the earth

As you are surely aware by now, we are in the early stages of a process that will ultimately yield a new strategic plan, and there are plenty of good reasons for why now is the time for Congregation Beth Shalom to do so. I was able this week to see some of the data collected so far by the congregational survey that many of you filled out. We have now received about 220 of them, which is wonderful. One of the things that is instantly clear from some of the data is that the principles of Conservative Judaism are important to a majority of the respondents, and that many believe that a focal point for our activities should be teaching those principles and how to fulfill them.

Now, as you can imagine, this is very good news to me, because that is what I do all day long, and most evenings as well. And, as you know, there is a lot of stuff to teach in Judaism. The question always comes down to this: In the limited time that we all have, what are the essential things upon which we should focus?

I have to concede that I am a fundamentalist. No, not like what you’re thinking of when you hear that word: I am clearly not a literalist, not an extremist, not an ultra-nationalist, not one who shuns modernity. Rather I am a fundamentalist in that I believe that what we need to focus on, in this world of infinite choice and limited time, are the fundamental aspects of Judaism. So what are the fundamentals? In my humble opinion, they are these:

  • Shabbat / Sabbath
  • Kashrut / Holy eating
  • Talmud Torah / Learning the words of our tradition and making them come alive today
  • Ritual / Connecting our actions and thoughts and feelings with our tradition
  • Community

(No promises, but I am going to try to make this a series.)

Let’s talk about Shabbat. This is first on the list for so many reasons, not the least of which is that it is “created” in Parashat Bereshit. When we read the beginning of the Torah on Simhat Torah Tuesday morning, right after we finished the end of Devarim / Deuteronomy, the first aliyah ended with the following (and, by the way, the custom is for the whole congregation to recite this first, because it’s so essential):

וַיְכֻלּ֛וּ הַשָּׁמַ֥יִם וְהָאָ֖רֶץ וְכָל־צְבָאָֽם׃

The heaven and the earth were finished, and all their array.

וַיְכַ֤ל אֱ-לֹהִים֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔י מְלַאכְתּ֖וֹ אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֑ה וַיִּשְׁבֹּת֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔י מִכָּל־מְלַאכְתּ֖וֹ אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשָֽׂה׃

On the seventh day God finished the work that God had been doing, and God ceased on the seventh day from all the work that God had done.

וַיְבָ֤רֶךְ אֱ-לֹהִים֙ אֶת־י֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔י וַיְקַדֵּ֖שׁ אֹת֑וֹ כִּ֣י ב֤וֹ שָׁבַת֙ מִכָּל־מְלַאכְתּ֔וֹ אֲשֶׁר־בָּרָ֥א אֱ-לֹהִ֖ים לַעֲשֽׂוֹת׃

And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation that God had done. (Gen. 2:1-3)

We also chant this, of course, twice every Friday evening: once in the synagogue service and once at home right before reciting qiddush. You might read from this that the framers of our tradition thought it to be fairly important.

And they were right. Shabbat is not just important: it’s essential. It’s the keystone of Jewish life.

And we need Shabbat more than ever. One of the biggest impediments to greater involvement in synagogue activities cited in the responses to the survey was time. We don’t have enough time.

And you know how unhealthy that is. I don’t need to quote you any academic studies or articles to tell you that we are all overworked, under-slept, overtired; that we don’t spend enough time with our family; that we don’t have time to eat properly; that we feel overwhelmed by the constant noise, the constant feeling of go-go-go; that we are constantly assaulted with paid messages vying for our attention: buy this, vote for that one, eat here, and on and on and on.

I am as busy as anybody here who is busy. My family is as crazed as yours, with pickups and dropoffs and instrument lessons and dance lessons and Back to School Night and everything else. And my family and I all manage to shut down for Shabbat. No appointments. No shopping. No Facebook. No television. And you know what? It’s fantastic.

(BTW, from time to time you see people who take “vacations” from social media. You can absolutely do that every 7th day. I highly recommend it.)

Our ancestors knew this, and even though they didn’t have Facebook or TV or cars or smartphones, they understood the value of shutting down every seventh day.

And what is the Shabbat dinner table, if not the altar on which we build family and community?

shabbat dinner

One of the most dismal numbers in the Federation’s community study, which came out at the beginning of 2018, was the number of Conservative-identified Jews who had been to a Shabbat meal in the past year. Do you want to guess what that number was?

It was 44%. That to me is shockingly low. But it is also an opportunity – an opportunity to teach the fundamentalist value of Shabbat: of dining together with friends and family, of shutting down and reconnecting in real time, of learning a little something of Jewish tradition, of holy eating, of expressing gratitude for what we have.

So in this regard, I have some wonderful news: We can do something about that. We are in fact doing something about that figure. And by we, I mean, all of us.

I would make a reasonable guess that most of us in this room are in that 44%. Part of the reason that you are here this morning is that you “get” Shabbat. You understand the value that it brings to you and your family. You understand how it shapes your week, how it gives you some time to unwind, to do something heady and holy and healthy.

You know that, to quote Ahad Ha-Am, “More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews. You know that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his infinitely ethereal prose, called Shabbat a “palace in time” and you can feel the power in his observation that (The Sabbath, p. 93):

On the Sabbath it is given us to share in the holiness that is in the heart of time. Even when the soul is seared, even when no prayer can come out of our tightened throats, the clean, silent rest of the Sabbath leads us to a realm of endless peace, or to the beginning of an awareness of what eternity means. There are few ideas in the world of thought which contain so much spiritual power as the idea of the Sabbath.

You know that God’s having rested on the seventh day is as meaningful as God’s having created the world in the first six.

And that’s why you have to help us out in creating a Shabbat meal program.

A few brave volunteers have planned a pilot program for members of Beth Shalom inviting others into their homes for a Shabbat dinner on October 19th. The ultimate goal, and it might take a couple of years for us to do this, is to personally invite all of the other members of this congregation into our homes.

This is the realization of a fantastically fundamentalist move. If done properly, it will hit all five of the fundamentalist buttons: Shabbat, kashrut, Talmud Torah, ritual, and community.

But we need you to make it happen. We need you to be a part of it, you who “get” Shabbat. Here’s the link:

bethshalompgh.org/shabbatdinners/

Be a fundamentalist with me! Shabbat shalom!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 10/8/2018.)

 
* What Rashi says is a little more complicated: “If the nations of the world should say to Israel, ‘You are thieves! You have conquered the land belonging to the seven nations of Canaan,’ they can reply, ‘The whole world belongs to the Holy One. He created it and gave it to whomever He wanted to. He first willed to give it to them, and then He willed to take it from them and give it to us.’” (Translation from The Commentators’ Bible by Michael Carasik.)

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