Tag Archives: Ki Tetse

No Justice, No Peace – Ki Tetse 5777

Last Monday, Rabbi Jeremy and I were fortunate to be able to attend a local interfaith commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Aug 28 1963 March on Washington. Faith leaders from all over the region gathered at the JCC to learn together and share sermons about the need for justice in our society today, a need that is as great as it was 54 years ago when Dr. King gave his most famous speech. Dr. King’s dream is still alive; it is, of course, unfulfilled. 169 local priests, ministers, rabbis, and imams signed a joint declaration, which we read at the ceremony, re-affirming our obligations as clergy to fight hatred and to stand together for compassion and inclusion.

... Who Refused to Celebrate the 50th Anniversary of March on Washington

This section of Devarim / Deuteromony is all about justice. It begins with the statement in last week’s parashah, “Tzedeq, tzedeq tirdof,” “Justice: you shall pursue justice,” (that’s my translation), and the Torah’s requirement to appoint impartial judges and law enforcement officers. The thread of justice continued this week with an assortment of other commandments that maintain the holiness in human relationships. For example, the obligation to pay a day laborer promptly and not take advantage of him (Deut. 24:14), or the commandment not to despise the foreigner among you, because we know what it’s like to be foreigners (23:8). We have to allow needy people to pick up produce that has fallen to the ground, and otherwise glean from our fields (24:19, e.g.), but they are not allowed to take more than their share (23:25).

We have an obligation to make sure that our society is a just one. And, as Maimonides explains at the end of the Moreh Nevukhim, the Guide for the Perplexed, the mitzvot (holy opportunities derived from the Torah) are there not only for us to fulfill, but also for us to extrapolate moral behavior according to the spirit of the law. This principle is known in Hebrew as “lifnim mishurat hadin,” that we should behave within the line of the law. So yes, having a just society means setting up legitimate courts, honest weights and measures, and making sure that some of your  produce is set aside for the poor; these are all explicit in the Torah. But extending that line, creating a just society also means that we have an obligation to step forward in the event that your leadership does not. It means that we each have a personal responsibility to make sure that our society is just, and we might fulfill that by supporting organizations that protect the right of everybody to vote, for example, or by making sure that our laws do not discriminate against individuals on the basis of race, gender, religion, and so forth, or by working to ensure that our public schools offer a worthy education to all who enter.

There has been much recent concern over public statues that feature people who stood for abhorrent things, like slavery. This was, of course, part of the back-story for the events that took place in Charlottesville, VA a few weeks back. I think that there are certainly good arguments for taking down statues to Confederate leaders.

But there is also another way. What do we do with the symbols of an unseemly past? We teach. We talk about them. We study.

There are many such examples in our siddur (prayerbook). To cite just one, consider the image of resurrection that is featured in the second berakhah of the Amidah, the standing prayer that we recite each day. Yes, you heard that right: resurrection. When we say, “Barukh Attah Adonai, mehayye hameitim,” we are saying, praised are You, God, who brings the dead back to life. It is a paean to the ancient understanding that when the Anointed One, the mashiah (messiah) comes, faithful Jews will be resurrected and get on El Al flights to return to Israel, which will be united again under the kingship of a descendant of King David. In today’s Jewish world, some groups have elevated classical messianism to the point where it is an essential part of their theology, despite the fact that no such idea exists in the Torah.

But messianism has always been an uncomfortable area for contemporary Jews, including your faithful rabbinic correspondent. We don’t treat each other justly for some eschatological reward (something to which we can look forward at the end of times). Rather we treat each other justly because it is the right thing to do in the here and now, that the reward comes from elevating the qedushah / holiness in our relationships.

And so, while the Reform movement replaced “mehayye hameitim” with “mehayye hakol,” restoring life to all, we in the Conservative movement say the original text, while reinterpreting the berakhah to mean that God is the source of all life. It does not have to be about messianic resurrection; it can be about how God works as a force in nature all around us, providing the spirit that nourishes all of us in life and in death. We take our traditional text and reinterpret the words, thereby conserving the tradition and making it work with our contemporary values.

But of course, that requires explanation, and you will find one if you look in the margin of Siddur Lev Shalem on a page with the Amidah (e.g. p. 186). In the Conservative movement, we have a long and glorious history of re-interpretation. So the message for today is, whether we take down statues or not, let’s make sure that we make our interpretation explicit.

Let’s make sure that every child knows that slavery was deeply wrong, that racism is wrong, that anti-Semitism is wrong, that anti-immigrant-ism is wrong. Let’s make sure that our elected officials and judges and law enforcement officers do not unfairly target people with different skin color. Let’s make sure that we acknowledge the divinity in EVERY human being, the Godly spark that motivates us all to do good for each other in this world.

It is a long-standing Jewish tradition to recite a prayer for the secular authorities of the jurisdiction in which we live. (One of the most interesting features of old siddurim is to find the prayer for the emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or, as referenced in Fiddler on the Roof, a blessing for the czar and/or czarina).

Week after week we pray for our country, that of the United States of America. They are roughly the same words that we have been saying for many years (Lev Shalem, p. 177).

We are living in a time in which many people are in pain. Many in our this great and prosperous nation are suffering from disenfranchisement, from the scourge of readily-available, inexpensive addictive drugs, from the cycles of poverty which afflict us from generation to generation, from the growing gap between rich and poor, from the closing of steel mills and coal mines to the looming threat of unemployment from self-driving cars and trucks and the coming automation of, well, everything. We are frustrated by stagnant wages and the outrageous cost of health care. We are frightened at the prospect of emboldened racists and anti-Semites parading through our streets, and the attendant regression in race relations. We are once again roiled by the fear of immigrants in our midst. We are living in a time of great philosophical divide in our country, and the reluctance to compromise on a range of issues.

As the center of American Judaism, we have what to teach the world about these things. We, particularly as Conservative Jews, understand listening to all sides, left and right. We understand the value of maintaining tradition while reinterpreting and explaining for today to reflect contemporary sensibilities.

In our prayer for the country, we said the following:

Help [the inhabitants of this country] understand the rules of justice You have decreed, so that peace and security, happiness and freedom, will never depart from our land.

If there were ever a time that we needed those words, it would be right now. If there were ever a time in which we needed those ideals, it is the current moment. And so we have to get out there and teach our Torah, our values.

To have peace, happiness, freedom, and security, we need justice. And justice requires thoughtful reflection, to making sure that the choices we make will ultimately support the institutions that we have set in place. We cannot respond out of hatred and fear of the other. We cannot support authority figures who seek only to destroy institutions and prop up the bigotry-mongers. We cannot violate the sacred ideals of democracy and individual protections which immigrants to this great nation have sought for centuries. We have to make sure that our leaders follow not only the rule of law, but also the spirit. Lifnim mishurat hadin.

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We have the potential to reignite those values. Because, in the words of Pirqei Avot (the 2nd-century collection of ancient rabbinic wisdom), “Im lo akhshav, eimatai?” If not now, when?

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 9/2/2017.)

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United We Stand (Against the Yetser Hara) – Ki Tetse 5775

I was asked a very important question last week at kiddush. So important, in fact, that it became the basis of today’s derashah.

I’ll come back to the question itself, but first, let me give you the context. Those of you who were here last week may recall that I spoke about the future, about building this community, about tradition and change (and particularly the “change” part of that equation). I suggested three basic principles for moving forward:

  • to ask good questions about why we do what we do, and not to accept “Because we’ve always done it that way!” as an answer;
  • to be open, that is, open to new people coming in and joining us, and even to seeking them out to invite them in; and
  • to think in terms of the relationships that we build here as a community, rather than merely programmatically.

Many of you responded favorably to the ideas that I presented, and I am happy about that. (If you were not here, please note that you can read the sermon on my blog: themodernrabbi.com, but please note that it’s always better live!)

At kiddush afterwards, a couple of members pulled me aside and asked (I’m paraphrasing here), “Rabbi what are you going to do to heal the rifts between members of the congregation?” To unpack this question a bit, I will have to assume that it was precipitated by the sermon – that is, “OK, it’s nice to talk about change and building community. But in order to do so, we must first be able to get along with each other. What are you going to do about that?”

One of the foundations of the very idea of a kehillah, a congregation, is that we have some commonalities. We must at the very least get along with each other, but we should also have some principles to which we all agree. In our case here at Beth Shalom, some of those principles are the guiding values of Conservative Judaism: a positive, historical approach to halakhah and Jewish life; an acceptance of contemporary authority in our Jewish choices; a commitment to egalitarianism, the idea that women and men are understood to be equal with respect to Jewish law and ritual; a willingness to engage with modernity and not isolate ourselves, to make choices and changes that are respectful of tradition and yet sensitive to where we are and who we are today.

But let’s face it: even if we agree on these values, that does not mean that we all agree about everything. In fact, as one of my teachers at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Bill Lebeau, taught us, the synagogue in which everybody agrees about everything and there are no political divisions is a dying shul.

There is a classic story that I am sure some of you know and love, the one about the congregation where they can’t agree whether to stand or sit during the Shema. Half stand, half sit, and they are arguing with each other in a particularly non-decorous manner. They resolve to go to find the oldest living member of the congregation, Mr. Goldberg, to find out what the original custom was. He is in an assisted living facility, lying in bed, and a group of congregants descends on him.

“Mr. Goldberg,” says a stander, “It was always the tradition to stand during Shema, right?”

Goldberg says nothing, seems to stare off into space.

“Mr. Goldberg,” says a sitter, “We always sat for Shema, correct?”

Goldberg still does not react.

The synagogue president comes forward. “Mr. Goldberg, you have to help us. Right now, half are standing, half are sitting, and all are yelling at each other.”

Goldberg’s face lights up. He raises his hand with a flourish. “That’s the tradition!” he says.

Disagreement has been the Jewish tradition for at least two millennia; it is the basis of most discussions in the Talmud. In fact, you might make the case that it is exactly Judaism’s tradition of diversity of opinion which has enabled us to survive for these thousands of years, since the Romans destroyed the second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. Had we not moved from a tradition of hierarchical, regimented, centralized sacrificial worship during Temple times to the more democratic mode of teaching, learning, and personal fulfillment of ritual, we may have simply disappeared when the center was destroyed. But we are still here, and where are the Romans?

We may argue, or not see eye-to eye, or we may not even like each other. But it is essential, for the good of this congregation, the wider Jewish community, and the world at large that we treat each other respectfully, even as we disagree. In fact, it is an imperative of rabbinic Judaism to do so.

We learn in the Talmud (Shabbat 127a)

אלו דברים שאדם עושה אותם ואוכל פירותיהן בעולם הזה והקרן קיימת לו לעולם הבא, ואלו הן: כיבוד אב ואם וגמילות חסדים והבאת שלום שבין אדם לחברו ותלמוד תורה כנגד כולם

These are the deeds that yield immediate fruit and continue to yield fruit in the world to come: honoring parents; doing deeds of lovingkindness; and bringing peace between people; but the study of Torah outweighs them all.

Among the holiest tasks we can perform is to create peace bein adam lehavero, between each other. And that is something that we must all pursue.

Even greater than that, Parashat Ki Tetse speaks to the power of togetherness. The 20th-century Slonimer Rebbe, Rabbi Shalom Noah Berezovsky, observed that there is one place in Ki Tetse where the text refers to the Israelites as going out to war as a troop (Heb: mahaneh; Deut. 23:10):

כִּי-תֵצֵא מַחֲנֶה, עַל-אֹיְבֶיךָ,  וְנִשְׁמַרְתָּ מִכֹּל דָּבָר רָע

When you go out as a troop against your enemies, be on guard against anything untoward.

While it seems that the Torah is speaking about actual war, the kind fought over territory, Rabbi Berezovsky reads it not as a war between peoples, but the individual war that we all fight against the yetser hara, the evil inclination. So this becomes not an unholy battle with dangerous weapons and blood and death, but a holy battle for control of our souls. It is this battle that we are heading into as we round the halfway point of Elul in our ascent to the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the ten days of repentance bracketed by Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

In this battle for the soul, says the Slonimer Rebbe, we must go out together, united as a troop. We join for the purposes of restoring kedushah, holiness, to our lives. “By losing some of our own identity by subjecting it to the needs of the collective,” he writes, “we are given the hedge against the yetser hara.” He points out that the Talmud (Sanhedrin 39a) suggests that the power of minyan, of a quorum of ten Jews for some ritual purposes, lies in the understanding that when ten of us gather together, the Shekhinah, God’s presence, is there too.

In other words, the Torah is teaching us that united we stand (against the yetser hara), and divided we fall. This is a huge lesson for today, when we live in dramatically independent times.

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It is this togetherness that enables us to be a kehillah kedoshah, a holy community. We are a communal people; we need a minyan to attain a particular level of kedushah. How much more so do we need togetherness to achieve kedushah as a community for all our endeavors, for all the things that synagogues do, from running a nursery school to tending to our cemetery to hosting cultural events to having individual conversations with each other in the parking lot. We have to maintain the level of kedushah in all of our activities.

To that end, I have introduced an overarching theme for the upcoming High Holidays: Connection, Community, and Kedushah, which we are representing graphically by the letters CCק. Yes, the holidays are a time to gather with family for meals (and fasting), to seek teshuvah / repentance, to hear some fabulous sermons, etc. But they are also about maintaining our personal connections with each other, gathering as a community, and seeking kedushah / holiness. And these are things that can only take place when we think of ourselves as a united troop, one in which we are connected to each other, giving up (as the Slonimer suggests) a little piece of our own personal independence for the sake of the greater good, the collective.

Now I know, some of you are thinking, “Oh, you naive rabbi. That all sounds so pat. But you really want me to be nice to so-and-so, that lousy (insert epithet here)?”

And the answer is, yes. Yes, you can. Actually, you have to, for the benefit of this congregation.

We are going to build. I am happy to report that I have heard from a number of people in the past two weeks that will be joining Beth Shalom as new members and re-joining veteran members, and that is wonderful. (Is anybody here right now that has just joined or is about to?) And so we will incorporate all of them into our kehillah kedoshah, and know that those of us who are new may not agree with those of us who have been here for a long time. And that’s OK, just as long as we treat each other with respect, in public and in private. We would not want to give the yetser hara a foothold.

Really, we’re not going to agree. And you don’t have to like everybody. But we all have to be civil and respectful to each other. Not doing so is NOT OK. Everybody here is welcome.

Remember that it is diversity of opinion that has enabled us to survive, along with our willingness to stick together. Let’s increase our diversity, and work together to continue to build.

Shabbat shalom!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/29/2015.)

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