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How to Leave a Better World for Our Children in Five Easy Steps – Re’eh 5780

One of the most challenging things for me right now, in this pandemic time, is the deep dissatisfaction I am feeling; I am living with a gnawing sense that whatever I do, it is not enough. Yes, to some extent I have that feeling in “normal” times as well – it’s a rabbinic affliction. But something about the isolation and limitations on human interaction in this time has vaulted that feeling of “It’s not enough” to the top of my list of regular anxieties. 

My work, which, you may know, is mostly NOT leading services and giving sermons, but rather talking with people and teaching, is not particularly satisfying right now, because I know that no matter how much I do, no matter how well we at the synagogue plan for High Holidays or JJEP or benei mitzvah celebrations, no matter how many people I call, it will not be enough. And so too at home. No matter how much time I spend with my family, it is not enough. No matter how awesome it was to go tent camping out in the woods this summer, it is not enough.

A recent family dinner, cooked over a campfire in Laurel Hill State Park

And I am continually asking myself, “When this is all over, will I be able to look back and say, did I use this time as best as I could? Could I have done better? Could we have done better?”

As you know, we have been learning some great midrashim / rabbinic stories between minhah and ma’ariv on Shabbat afternoon, in a series I have titled, “My Favorite Midrash.” One that we covered recently, certainly a favorite midrash of mine, is about one of the more curious characters of rabbinic literature, a fellow who is known as “Honi haMe’aggel,” Honi the Circle-Maker. He is so called because of his unique talent of drawing circles in which rain falls. Seemingly unrelated to this remarkable gift, the following midrash is also told (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ta’anit 23a):

יומא חד הוה אזל באורחא חזייה לההוא גברא דהוה נטע חרובא אמר ליה האי עד כמה שנין טעין אמר ליה עד שבעין שנין אמר ליה פשיטא לך דחיית שבעין שנין אמר ליה האי [גברא] עלמא בחרובא אשכחתיה כי היכי דשתלי לי אבהתי שתלי נמי לבראי

One day, Honi was walking along the road when he saw a certain man planting a carob tree. Honi said to him: This tree, after how many years will it bear fruit? The man said to him: It will not produce fruit until seventy years have passed. Honi said to the tree-planter: Is it obvious to you that you will live seventy years, that you expect to benefit from this tree? He replied to Honi: I myself found a world full of carob trees. Just as my ancestors planted for me, I too am planting for my descendants.

Carob

The midrash does not tell us about how many carob trees the man found, nor how many he planted. He was probably not too concerned about whether or not he had planted enough trees; the larger point is that he made an effort to ensure that there would be some for his grandchildren.

While my first inclination is to read this story as referring to our responsibility to take care of God’s Creation, such that we can bequeath it in good condition to those who come after us, I think it is also possible to read this as a metaphor not only for our physical environment, but for our spiritual milieu as well. 

The beginning of Parashat Re’eh is very concerned about the idea of the Land of Israel as the yerushah, the inheritance of the Israelites. Various forms of the Hebrew word “lareshet” / to inherit appear five times in the first two aliyot we read this morning. It is clear that the Torah wants us to see Israel as the reward; it is the gift for being party to the covenant, for fulfilling the mitzvot. It is what the Torah’s original audience needed to hear; that they would inherit this land as a sign of God’s love to them.

And so, as I am thinking about the emotional state of the world, the divisive nature of American politics right now, and the numbers of people we have lost unnecessarily to the pandemic, and the grief and pain that this loss as well as the economic devastation it has caused, I am left with the following question:

What do we want our children to inherit? What will their spiritual inheritance be?

Do we want them to inherit a polarized world, one in which people not only cannot see the other side of an argument, but openly denigrate those who hold opposing views? Do we want them to inherit a world in which coarse language is the norm, that prevarication goes unpunished, that advocacy for your team always wins out over thoughtful, considered positions? In which news is not fact, but merely spin? In which people on different sides of any particular issue cannot even speak to each other or break bread together, because they view the other as stupid or heartless?

I come back to the line at the end of today’s reading (Devarim / Deuteronomy 12:28):

שְׁמֹ֣ר וְשָׁמַעְתָּ֗ אֵ֚ת כָּל־הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה אֲשֶׁ֥ר אָנֹכִ֖י מְצַוֶּ֑ךָּ לְמַעַן֩ יִיטַ֨ב לְךָ֜ וּלְבָנֶ֤יךָ אַחֲרֶ֙יךָ֙ עַד־עוֹלָ֔ם כִּ֤י תַעֲשֶׂה֙ הַטּ֣וֹב וְהַיָּשָׁ֔ר בְּעֵינֵ֖י ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶֽיךָ׃

Be careful to heed all these commandments that I enjoin upon you; thus it will go well with you and with your descendants after you forever, for you will be doing what is good and right in the sight of the LORD your God.

How do we plant the carob trees for our grandchildren? How do I use this pandemic time to create a foundation for a better world, so that my children’s spiritual inheritance will be tov veyashar, good and right?

Hevreh, the framework of mitzvot that God has given us is the formula by which we can live better. It was given to us a long time ago, and if more of us were to follow it, the world we will leave to our children will be a much better one. Here is, if you will, a simplified formula for success:

  1. Keep Shabbat. Doing so encourages respect for yourself and those close to you. Keep your conversations and your activities local and low-key. Be with your nearby family and friends. Don’t spend money; avoid technology. Connect with the here and now, and leave behind the elsewhere and the later.
  1. Keep kashrut (the Jewish dietary laws). It encourages respect for God’s Creation. The lines in what we can or cannot consume are there to remind us that there are limits to what is Divinely-acceptable behavior. Maintain the holiness in the natural world.
  1. Pray daily. Connect with yourself; hold your mind and your heart in self-judgment, and leave room for doubt. You may not be right about every single thing.  Introspection leads to intentionality, which leads to patience, planning, and presence of mind in all the spheres of life.
  1. Observe Jewish holidays, and make sure you know why. Yom Kippur teaches us humility. Pesah teaches freedom for all. Hanukkah teaches enlightenment. Sukkot teaches simplicity. Simhat Torah celebrates learning. Purim celebrates standing up for what is right.
  1. Learn Torah. The wisdom of the ancient Jewish bookshelf teaches us how to be human beings, not cogs in a machine. It sensitizes us to the needs of others, and forces us to consider how our behavior impacts this world.

It is a simple formula. But of course you are thinking, “Rabbi, I’ve been Jewish all my life and while I may do some of those things, it’s just too much for me to take on something that I’m just not used to doing.”

Let me tell you why you need to reach higher: because the world depends on your mitzvot. Because our heritage – the world our children inherit – depends on your willingness to think and behave for the benefit of the common good. And that is what every single one of those things is about.

What kind of world do you want our children to inherit? One in which everybody is looking out for themselves, seeking personal gratification at any cost? Or one in which we cooperate to solve the big problems, in which we acknowledge the humanity in each other and the Divinity of Creation, in which we seek the holiness that is waiting for us under the surface of every relationship?

The choice is yours. Reach higher. Think of those carob trees, bearing fruit 70 years hence.

And I know this is hard, but try not to worry too much about whether you have done enough. If you take on this formula of five things, I am certain that you will be able to look back and say, “Yes. That was good and right.”

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 8/15/2020.)

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Shall There Be No Needy? – Re’eh 5779

These are good times in which to be living if you are a vegetarian. You may know that I have been a “Jewish vegetarian” since 1988 – that is, I eat anything that does not qualify as “meat” for kashrut purposes. So while many traditional vegetarians do not eat fish, I do. Kosher fish, of course.)

These are good times because of the explosion of interest in plant-based foods, and the growing availability of meat-like products, like the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger. And I heard earlier this week that KFC just began test-marketing a plant-based chicken-like product in one of its restaurants in Atlanta. Apparently, it tastes like chicken.

I must say that the Torah was extraordinarily prescient in its time for setting limits on food. The laws that appear in Parashat Re’eh (pp. 1072-74 in the Etz Hayim humash) draw fairly clear lines: for land animals, only ruminants (which are, by definition, all herbivores) with a split hoof. For sea creatures, only those with fins and scales. No birds of prey. (Yes, I know there are a few critters that fall into grey areas, but such are the glorious complexities of God’s Creation.) 

And there are good reasons for us to limit our consumption. It is a reminder that not all things are nor should they be available to humans to eat or otherwise cultivate. Although God has given us the power and the know-how to manipulate our environment for our benefit, that should not be a boundless endeavor. There are just some things we should keep our hands off of.

But there is another way of reading Parashat Re’eh that I had not previously put together. Just after Deuteronomy chapter 14, in which those lines of consumption are drawn, in the following chapter we encounter what may be one of the most striking statements in the Torah (Deut. 15:4, 1077):

אֶפֶס, כִּי לֹא יִהְיֶה-בְּךָ אֶבְיוֹן:  כִּי-בָרֵךְ יְבָרֶכְךָ, ה’, בָּאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן-לְךָ נַחֲלָה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ.

There shall be no needy among you – since the Lord your God will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion…

And here is the striking part (15:7-8):

כִּי-יִהְיֶה בְךָ אֶבְיוֹן … 

If, however, there is a needy person among you…

Now, hold on there a minute. Did the text not just say that there will be no needy among you? How can that be? 

OK, so regardless, if there is a needy person among you: (1078)

לֹא תְאַמֵּץ אֶת-לְבָבְךָ, וְלֹא תִקְפֹּץ אֶת-יָדְךָ, מֵאָחִיךָ, הָאֶבְיוֹן.  ח כִּי-פָתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח אֶת-יָדְךָ, לוֹ; וְהַעֲבֵט, תַּעֲבִיטֶנּוּ, דֵּי מַחְסֹרוֹ, אֲשֶׁר יֶחְסַר לוֹ.

… do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs.

The logical conclusion that we can draw is that the world free of needy people will never exist. It is a blueprint for a world that could be, an ideal to which we should aspire.

And of course, that begs the question: how are we working to build that world?

There is a classic rabbinic textual-interpretation principle known as “semikhut parashiyyot,” literally, the juxtaposition of passages. The idea is that adjacent stories or concepts in the Torah are near each other for a reason; they must therefore comment on each other. 

One traditional example of this principle is that many items of the list of 39 avot melakhah / Shabbat prohibitions – things like hammering, weaving and building – are drawn from semikhut parashiyyot. In Parashat Vayaqhel, the Torah’s description of the building of the mishkan / tabernacle follows a restatement of the requirement to rest on the seventh day. The rabbis conclude that the activities related to creating the mishkan were therefore forbidden on Shabbat. 

So, using this principle of semikhut parashiyyot, we must ask,

”What do dietary restrictions have to do with the ongoing existence of poverty?”

And the answer emerges on two different levels. 

On an individual level, we might derive from this the fundamental requirement to be mindful of our food will ensure that we are also mindful of the nutritional needs of others. That is, drawing lines in what we eat should remind us of the imperative to make sure that all people around us have food, particularly those most likely to be food-insecure – i.e. evyonim – poor people. 

We should therefore take seriously the mitzvah of opening our hands to evyonim, as the Torah instructs, by supplying them with food. There are many means of doing so; one, the Squirrel Hill Food Pantry, is nearby and run by Jewish Family and Community Services. (As in past years, we will have donation bags available prior to the High Holidays.) 

But on a greater scale, I think we have to consider our manipulation of the natural world on a grand scale to provide food, and perhaps we might consider how our food choices affect our environment, which in turn will lead to greater numbers of food-insecure people around the world. Now, I don’t have time to address all the issues therein, but consider the following:

  1. Lots of people to feed (7.6 billion!), diminishing agricultural lands.
  2. Climate change is disrupting agriculture in various ways.

Vegetables.  We all need to be eating more vegetables. And the vegetables need to be of greater quality. And the only way we can really do that is to make sure that we are eating vegetables in the proper season. How many of us have traveled to foreign countries and discovered that the vegetables that they eat are tastier and cheaper? Our vegetables come from far away, and the entire system is geared toward longer shelf-life and year-round availability, not local and tasty.

We just love packaged, processed foods! But you know what? They are generally not good for you, nor good for the Earth. The more highly-processed foods are, the more energy they take to produce, and the more energy, the greater the contribution of greenhouse gases.

Waste. Americans throw away nearly 40% of the food we produce. That is staggering, considering all the energy we put into producing that food – $160 billion, and it is equivalent to putting 3.3 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere unnecessarily. Our Torah teaches us not to waste: the mitzvah of bal tashhit (Deut. 20:19-20) is understood by Maimonides to apply to wasting anything of value. 

Meat. Meat production, and in particular beef, is a major source of climate-change-causing gases, particularly methane. Also, water: it takes 106 gallons of water to produce one ounce of beef; soy requires only 22 gallons; chicken only 17 gallons. Greater water consumption also requires more energy to make that water useable, which brings us back to greenhouse gases.

If we all ate a few more locally-grown vegetables and just a little less meat, we would be well on our way to making our food consumption more sustainable. 

If we could, at the same time, figure out how to waste less – I know, it’s not so easy – that would certainly help.

I’m not trying to convert you to vegetarianism. For some, Shabbat is not Shabbat, or a simhah is not a simhah without meat.

But I am suggesting that you might want to consider eating less meat.  Be mindful.  Be deliberate in your food consumption as our tradition demands us to.  

Rabbi Jeremy and I were at the miqveh yesterday morning as we brought a candidate for conversion to complete her journey to becoming Jewish. Before immersing herself, she recited a kind of pledge that is found in the Rabbi’s Manual for Kabbalat Ol Mitzvot, which literally means, “taking upon oneself the yoke of mitzvot / commandments.” Among these statements of commitment to the holy opportunities of Jewish life, she pledged that one of the ways that she will be committed to Jewish life is:

“By incorporating kashrut into my life and by sharing my bread with others who are hungry.”

These two things clearly belong together, and not only because they are both found in Parashat Re’eh; they also belong together because our local awareness and our global conscience regarding not only the boundaries, but also the essential needs surrounding food should be intimately linked.

What cannot be forgotten in this picture is the essential requirement  (p. 1077) that will make it possible for there to be no needy among you – that we keep the Torah, the mitzvot that God has given us. If we do this by fulfilling not just the letter of the principles of kashrut, but also the global spirit therein, maybe, just maybe, we will achieve that theoretical world of no needy people.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 8/31/2019.)

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Drawing Lines in the Data – Earth Day / Shemini 5777

Last Monday, the 7th day of Pesah, Beth Shalom member Chris Hall spoke during morning services about the relationship between science and religion, and one element that he presented is that they answer different questions. In my mind, there is no conflict between science and religion because while science might tell us how the world works, it does not attempt to answer, “Why?” That is for the theologians.

We might be tempted to dismiss the Torah’s story of Creation because it conflicts with the story that current scientific opinion tells us. But I think it is essential for us to consider what we learn from both. While astrophysicists have determined that the universe is about 14 billion years old, and that the after-effects of the Big Bang can still be measured to this day, we learn nothing from this about our responsibility for the world we have received. That we can learn from the book of Bereshit / Genesis. What is our relationship to the Earth, says Bereshit? Le’ovdah ulshomerah. “To till it and to tend it.” (Gen. 2:15)

Now granted, we haven’t read that parashah since October, so I am not going to dwell on it today. But something that does appear in Parashat Shemini is a list of things we are permitted to eat and not eat. And there is a lesson to be drawn from that as well.

But first, a little science.

Today, you may know, is not only Kylie’s bat mitzvah. It is also Earth Day, the annual, global awareness-raising event that brings people together around the world to remember the obligations of Genesis. To that end, I would just like to share a few items with you:

  1. 2016 was the hottest year on record, the third straight year in a row of record-setting temperatures since record-keeping began in the 1880s. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/18/science/earth-highest-temperature-record.html
  2. This past February, the average global temperature was 1.76 degrees Fahrenheit above the average for the 20th century. That may not sound like a lot, but in climatology terms, it’s huge. https://www.usatoday.com/story/weather/2017/03/17/globe-second-warmest-winter-on-record/99303812/
  3. The great plume of plastics that continues to grow in the Pacific Ocean is now flowing northward into the Arctic Ocean. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/19/climate/arctic-plastics-pollution.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=photo-spot-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news

I could cite numerous other such bits of data: how much oil we consume each day, how much food we throw away, how much carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere per hamburger eaten, and so forth. But what does it mean to us? How might we regard that information and take action? What might our Jewish tradition teach us about our responsibilities vis-a-vis Creation?

On this Earth Day, let us turn to kashrut, the principles of holy eating, for answers.

What does the word “kasher” (accent on the second syllable) mean? Fitting, appropriate. (“Kosher” is the Yiddish/Ashkenazi pronunciation.) The word does not appear in the Torah at all, but in rabbinic literature is used to denote anything that may be used for a holy purpose, not just food. What makes something kasher? That it is legally permissible under Jewish law to eat it or use it for ritual purposes.

In Parashat Shemini, we read a list of animals that are appropriate to eat. Some are identified by certain categories – the split-hoofed ruminants, like cows and deer and sheep – and some are named specifically, mostly the birds. The Torah does not tell us why these are allowed and not camels or shrimp or alligators. All we know, at least from the parashah, is that God does not want us to eat those other things, which are called “tamei” (impure) or “sheqetz(literally, an abomination; this is the Hebrew origin of the Yiddish slur sheygetz / shiktza, and why one should never use these terms).

It is curious that the Torah provides no rationale. Did the authors want us not to ask why? Was the answer known to the ancients, and so obvious that it did not need to be stated? Perhaps this “why” is left dangling for us to discover ledor vador, in each generation according to what is relevant in its time.

Or maybe it is that the only reasoning we might be able to glean from this passage is that, well, some things are in and some things are out. That when God gave Creation to us, to till and to tend, that there were simply some natural limits to our behavior. That not all things are available to us. That while we are permitted to take advantage of some things, others are off limits. That we must leave some parts of Creation untilled and untended.

Perhaps, as Midrash Tanhuma (Parashat Shemini, #7) suggests, the goal of kashrut is to teach us mindful consumption:

“The mitzvot [of kashrut] were given solely in order to train people. For what does it matter to the Qadosh Barukh Hu / God about the ‘purity’ or ‘impurity’ of the animals we eat?”

Perhaps we might learn from this that the drawing of boundaries in the natural world should lead to our ethical behavior in other spheres: in our relationships with others, in our relationships with ourselves, in our relationships with the animal realm. Perhaps the drawing of lines in what we consume as individuals will lead us to draw lines in how we as a society consume our resources, to determine where our limits are as we continue to advance as a civilization.

Where are our lines?

How will we know when we have crossed them? When the Arctic ice is gone? When the giant, swirling heap of plastic currently in the Pacific Ocean has filled the Chesapeake Bay? When the bumblebees are gone?

I recall a curious incident in a rabbinical school theology class. Most of my classmates were not science people; they had degrees in literature, or history, or Judaic studies. I know you may find this hard to believe, but I was somewhat unusual in that I had two degrees in chemical engineering. I do not recall the apropos, but the subject of science vs. God came up, and I said that our understanding of God changes, but science does not. Several of my classmates jumped on this, saying, “But science does change.”

Actually, no. As with God, our understanding of science changes. As we move forward, we learn more about the world that we have been given, and so we adjust our understanding, our theories and formulas, to reflect the data that we collect. But science and God do not change. Their nature and secrets are revealed to us as human civilization matures. Just as God continues to be revealed to us, so does science.

The principles of physics and chemistry and thermodynamics and math that govern how our world works are immutable. And they will neither teach us about faith nor answer the hard questions that we face every day.

But our tradition teaches us to act. And act we must. We must till, we must tend, and we must draw lines. We do not have free reign to use and abuse Creation.  With God-given power comes God-given responsibility.

My personal rabbi on the subject of our responsibility to Creation is the author Theodore Seuss Geisel, best known as Dr. Seuss. In what I consider to be his finest work, The Lorax, Dr. Seuss reminded us of our responsibility vis-a-vis the Earth. The Lorax, after failing to prevent the destruction of a piece of unspoiled land, a beautiful, holy gift of plants and animals and scenery, takes his leave from an altar labeled “Unless.”

unless

We can make personal, individual choices to reduce our own energy footprint. We can use LED light bulbs and compost our kitchen scraps and recycle our plastic and even buy electric cars. We can draw many personal lines in our own behavior.

But unless we as a society make some collective decisions for change on a grand scale, nothing will change. Unless we draw some lines, we will continue to monitor and watch and take data that give us no answers.

The time to act is now.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 4/22/17.)