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Walking Wholeheartedly, or, the Danger of Winning at All Costs – Shofetim 5781

As you surely know by now, I am not a big sports fan, and the Olympics draw my attention only as much as the spirit of friendly international competition appeals to my love of humanity. The story of the Italian and Qatari high-jumpers agreeing to share the gold medal was heartwarming; Simone Biles’ pulling herself out of some of her events was at turns disappointing and inspiring. In the latter case, and particularly in light of Naomi Osaka’s removal of herself from the French Open earlier this summer due to her own exhaustion, Biles’ predicament brought to light something which we often do not see in these competitions: that even people who display seemingly super-human abilities are still real people with real emotions and physical limitations, who sometimes need to protect themselves.

Last week, the New York Times published an opinion piece by former professional skier Zoe Ruhl entitled, “Our Culture of Winning at All Costs Is Broken. It Almost Broke Me.” Ms. Ruhl, now a medical student, was a member of the United States World Cup Telemark ski team, and at age 16 won a World Cup race. She documents how world-class skiing caused her physical and emotional pain, and that the coaches, doctors, and organizations pushed her to push herself harder, and to push all other concerns – school, health, family, life – out of the way in order to win. 

She quit skiing competitively when she was a freshman at Williams College (located in my home town, of course, which is conveniently located near some very good skiing), citing the costs to her body and mind. She describes her departure as follows:

I learned that the dates for nationals were during a school week and would force me to miss classes. I reached out to the heads of the U.S. Telemark Ski Association and appealed to them. I told them I couldn’t miss more school. The association’s board of directors unanimously denied me a waiver.

Here’s how I heard the board’s response: You either care about this sport or you don’t. It felt to me like a choice between giving up my life and health for skiing or quitting. So I made the choice: I was out. I chose to violate my contract. I chose to give up my spot on the team. But really, I chose myself. I chose my future and my well-being.

Though she enjoyed the competition and of course appreciated winning, Ms. Ruhl realized that the cost to herself – her emotional state, her physical health, even her future – was too high. Winning at all costs was not a good strategy. So she gave it up.

Many of us were surprised and perhaps disappointed when Simone Biles temporarily pulled out of Olympic events. The news of Naomi Osaka’s departure following a win at the French Open, because she was threatened with fines and expulsion after refusing to do a press conference, was also shocking. But these women all made the right choices for themselves. They were honest about their limits; they acknowledged that winning at all costs would not be healthy for them in the long run.

Today in Parashat Shofetim, we encountered the following verse, really quite striking in its simplicity of language as well as its spiritual import (Devarim / Deuteronomy 18:13):

תָּמִ֣ים תִּֽהְיֶ֔ה עִ֖ם ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶֽיךָ׃

You must be perfect with the LORD your God.

What does it mean to be תָּמִ֣ים / tamim / “perfect” with God? I’m so glad you asked!

Judging from its context, adjacent to commandments to avoid fortune-tellers, Rashi, the 11th-century French commentator, glosses this with a midrashic interpretation from Sifrei Devarim:

תמים תהיה עם ה’ אלהיך. הִתְהַלֵּךְ עִמּוֹ בִתְמִימוּת, וּתְצַפֶּה לוֹ, וְלֹא תַחֲקֹר אַחַר הָעֲתִידוֹת, אֶלָּא כָּל מַה שֶּׁיָּבֹא עָלֶיךָ קַבֵּל בִּתְמִימוּת וְאָז תִּהְיֶה עִמּוֹ וּלְחֶלְקוֹ:

You must be perfect: walk before God whole-heartedly, put your hope in God and do not attempt to investigate the future, but whatever it may be that comes upon you, accept it whole-heartedly, and then you shall be with God and become God’s portion.

Rashi suggests that we should go about our lives in humility, understanding that whatever life throws at us, we should try to live with it. It is only in this completely upright approach to life that we can share in the portion of holiness allotted to us.*

Being wholehearted is not about being physically perfect or emotionally flawless, but rather that we can acknowledge and accept our flaws, to take the curveballs as they are launched at us, and handle our lives in a way that reflects who we really are, not the theoretically perfect version of ourselves.

We cannot hold ourselves to some ridiculous high standard of perfection, even those of us who are positively God-like in our abilities. No matter how talented, or athletic, or brilliant we may be, we are still human. To aspire to anything more than that is not just unhealthy, it is foolhardy. It is something akin to the Migdal Bavel, the Tower of Babel, back in Parashat Noah. We cannot aspire to be God-like; the results would be disastrous.

So kol hakavod to Simone Biles, and Naomi Osaka, and Zoe Ruhl, for knowing their limits, for understanding that ultimately their emotional and physical health was more important than winning. The whole-hearted approach to life is to not to push yourself to be something you are not, but rather to push yourself to be exactly who you are at all times.

And this is an especially important thing to remember a few weeks before Rosh HaShanah, as we begin to take inventory in ourselves in preparation for the odyssey of the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the ten days of repentance. 

Reb Zusya of Anapol, who lived in 18th century Ukraine, is perhaps best known for saying, “When I get to olam haba, the world to come, the Qadosh Barukh Hu will not ask me, “Why were you not more like Moshe, or more like Avraham,’ but rather, ‘Why were you not more like Zusya?”

And, lest you think that this principle applies only to world-class athletes, let us also remember that the curse of winning at all costs has infected our world in many areas: in politics, at work, in our families and communities.

In politics, winning at all costs can lead to the collapse of democracy; we have seen it in other nations, and we are seeing hints of it here in America as well.

At work and in business, winning at all costs leads to toxic environments and unethical decisions.

In family life, winning at all costs causes emotional rifts that sometimes result in estrangement from those who love us.

In communal life, winning at all costs creates an environment in which dissent is not tolerated, and organizations descend into chaotic infighting.

I’m sure that many of us could think of specific examples in which we as individuals have been hurt by others who pursue winning to the detriment of the people around them.

I noticed this week on Facebook a former ELC parent lamenting the fact that she could not find a recreational sports option for her 10-year-old. She said the following:

This is what I’m finding as I try to find healthy, ongoing rec sports for kids… you can’t casually join a [swim team], it has to be intense training, with parent involvement, fundraising … and often a major commitment at $300-600 a month. My kids aren’t going to be Olympic athletes or necessarily even high school or college athletes yet it feels like there is only the option to invest and train as if that’s the goal? We need more balanced sport-for-healthy-lifestyle instead of just competition and success.

If we are teaching children that young that training to win, at great expense and with great expectations is the only option, what message is that sending? 

One of the most beloved teachers on my bookshelf is Theodor Geisel, best known as Dr. Seuss. I’ll never forget that, on my last day of undergraduate education, my chemical engineering professor read one of his books to our graduating class, Oh, The Places You’ll Go! In that book are the following lines:

Wherever you fly, you’ll be best of the best. Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.

Except when you don’t. Because, sometimes, you won’t.

Im yotz’im magi’im limqomot niflai’m! – Oh, The Places You’ll Go

We are all so fond of winning that we just cannot bear losing. We award trophies and dessert to all our kids, even as we attempt to teach them about good sportsmanship, so that their feelings will not be hurt if they lose. But perhaps we are doing more damage than good. We need to learn to accept loss, to accept the curveballs that are thrown at us. Because, as you all know, there are lots and lots of them over the course of our lives, and being a good sport – living and interacting graciously – is so much more valuable than merely winning. Loss is a humbling motivator for improving ourselves, for improving our world.

We are whole-hearted, tamim, when we find the balance, the grace, the healthy serenity between winning and losing, between pride and humility, between shameless self-advocacy and exposing our vulnerability. 

As we journey through Elul, we should take our hearts in our hands, our whole hearts, and approach teshuvah with the sense of, I am not whole, but I can be once again. It is in this way that we improve ourselves, that we see ourselves as who we are, flaws and all, in order to build on what we have. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/14/2021.)

* Rashi’s logic seems somewhat opaque here, and his application of the midrash is admittedly murky. Given the context, I think that he is suggesting that if we manage to walk through life wholeheartedly, we will not need to consult mediums and soothsayers to tell us the future, since we will be “God’s portion,” i.e. God will be on our side, and hence no need for those other characters, upon whom the Torah frowns. But the greater point is not merely about fortune-tellers, but about our general approach to life.

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Festivals Sermons Yizkor

Once You Learn How to Die, You Learn How to Live – Shavuot / Yizkor 5781

Do we truly understand the value of life? The value of our lives? Do we really appreciate the gift we have been given, while we still have it?

One of the things that the pandemic has taught is just how frail we all are. Think about this for a moment: millions of people around the world taken too soon; young, healthy people suffering from virus effects long after regaining health, the so-called “Covid long-haulers;” the economic fallout – the jobs lost, the industries disrupted, the evictions and lives put on hold, and so forth. All of this due to a tiny piece of RNA wrapped in a protein shell. This microscopic thing, which can barely be called alive, has caused so much damage. It is hard to wrap your brain around. 

And the fallout that it has caused is primarily due to fear of death. We have spent 14 months staying away from people – from loved ones, from strangers in the supermarket, even passing people on sidewalks (I have found myself walking out into the road, perhaps unsafely so, many times) – out of respect, yes, but more essentially out of fear.

And with good reason, of course. 14 months later, nearly 600,000 of our fellow citizens are confirmed to have succumbed to that strand of RNA, and perhaps the figure is even closer to one million. Based on CDC statistics, this virus is about as deadly, per capita, as heart disease and cancer, and far more deadly than auto accidents and Americans with guns. Somehow, however, death seemed so much more close this year, so much more present. 

And we fear death.

A congregant who recently lost his grandfather (not due to COVID-19) asked me for suggestions on the topic of books that deal with death from a Jewish perspective. I came up with a few myself, but I also posed the question to fellow Conservative rabbis, and one suggested the 1997 memoir by Mitch Albom, Tuesdays With Morrie, a book that was on best-seller lists for four years. Probably some of you have read it. I never had, until I stumbled across a copy in one of the Beth Shalom libraries a few weeks back. I figured, maybe I should read this.

In case you do not know, the book is about Brandeis sociology professor Morrie Schwartz, with whom Albom had a close relationship while studying there as an undergraduate. Upon graduation, Albom wandered off into the world to seek his fortune, and did not stay in touch with Schwartz. Instead, he worked hard at building a career as a sports journalist, until one evening he was watching Nightline, and he saw his old professor and friend being interviewed by Ted Koppel (remember Ted Koppel?) about dying of a terminal disease. Morrie had ALS, and was at that point already unable to move his legs. Albom reconnected with him, and then went to visit him at his home outside of Boston over a series of 14 Tuesdays. During each of his visits, Morrie Schwartz unloaded wonderful bits of wisdom – about death, yes, but all the more so about life.

Although Albom is Jewish and so was Schwartz, the book is not really drawn from traditional Jewish ideas about death. While there is one brief moment in which Schwartz, a self-declared agnostic, looks heavenward and suggests that his life is in God’s hands (“I’m bargaining with Him up there now,” he says, p. 163), there is otherwise no reference to any of the things that Jews associate with death and mourning. Nonetheless, it is a very Jewish book, primarily because Morrie’s approach to dying of a terminal illness is to talk about it, to make Albom and the reader aware of their own mortality.

That is what we do. We are not only the people of the book; we are also the people of the schmooze. (Most of you know that I grew up in WASPy, stiff-upper-lip New England; I have never been much of a talker. Somehow, going to rabbinical school changed all that.)

You might make the case that Morrie’s essential argument is that we have no need to fear death, because we are all going to die. Death is an essential feature of life. During one of their early visits, Morrie offers one of his most impactful statements. “The truth is, Mitch, once you learn how to die, you learn how to live.” (p. 82) What he means by “learning how to die” is to be prepared for it, to be aware that it is coming. Once you have done that, you can appreciate life in a much more complete way.

I became aware just this weekend, through an article in the New York Times about a nun, that Catholics have a practice known as “memento mori,” Latin for “remembering death.” The idea is to “intentionally think about your own death every day, as a means of appreciating the present and focusing on the future.” Sister Theresa Alethia Noble of the Daughters of St. Paul convent in Boston has made it her mission to raise the profile of this somewhat obscure practice. Her argument is that we are too focused on the superficial and the inauthentic, the “bright and shiny” things that are constantly occupying space on our screens and in our consciousness.

The article notes that Buddhist mindfulness meditation tries to achieve the same thing, and Morrie Schwartz also invokes the Buddhists. 

But we, the Jews, have our own traditions that keep our mortality in front of us on a regular basis.

You may never have thought about this in these terms, but that is what we do every time we observe Yizkor, when we take a few moments to recall those whom we have lost. One of the traditional things we say during Yizkor are the words from Psalm 16: 

שִׁוִּ֬יתִי ה’ לְנֶגְדִּ֣י תָמִ֑יד כִּ֥י מִֽ֝ימִינִ֗י בַּל־אֶמּֽוֹט׃ לָכֵ֤ן ׀ שָׂמַ֣ח לִ֭בִּי וַיָּ֣גֶל כְּבוֹדִ֑י אַף־בְּ֝שָׂרִ֗י יִשְׁכֹּ֥ן לָבֶֽטַח׃  

Adonai is always before me, at my right hand, lest I fall. Therefore I am glad, made happy, though I know that my flesh will lie in the ground forever.

As ironic as this statement sounds – happiness and death in the same verse – it is absolutely the feeling one gets in reading Tuesdays with Morrie. Teacher and student are united in their joy of connecting and reconnecting, even though one will soon be gone. They enjoy food together; they exchange powerful hugs.

And every time we respond to one reciting the Mourner’s Qaddish, we are doing the same thing. The text of the Qaddish is not even about death, but even though it is an essential part of mourning, it promises life and joy in our praise of God. And every time we celebrate any life cycle event – berit milah, baby naming, bat/bar mitzvah, wedding, etc., we are reminded that life is a cycle – a cycle of joy and grief and loving and loss and thriving and languishing and beginning and ending. 

Why is a Jewish wedding ring a perfect, simple circle, with no stone? Because life is a circle, one in which we all experience all of those beginnings and endings every single day, as we wind our way around.

Elsewhere, Morrie adds, “The most important thing in life is to learn how to give out love, and to let it come in.” (p. 52) As we turn around and around, the way we make our lives full, the way we fill in that circle, is by giving out love, and maybe getting some of it back.

Death is always there. We hear it intoned in our rituals. We bring comfort to those who are approaching death, and when they are gone we are there for those who mourn. We know that we can be happy today, because we also know that there is an endpoint. And we will be remembered by those to whom we gave love.

Perhaps one of the most striking lessons that Morrie Schwartz offers, and one which living a life committed to Judaism also gives us, is the following:

“So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They seem half-asleep, even when they’re busy doing things they think are important. This is because they’re chasing the wrong things. The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.” (p. 43)

Jewish lifecycle events, Jewish holidays, Jewish ritual and song and story and text and halakhah and customs, are primarily focused on connecting us to each other and offering us meaning. While we know where we are headed, we understand that the most important thing that we can do before we get there is to connect, and to re-connect, and to love. That is our purpose; that is what gives our lives meaning.

As we emerge from this pandemic, let us not only remember those whom we have lost, but let us also recommit ourselves to living better, to finding meaning, to engaging with the words of our tradition, to loving more.

That is how we may truly appreciate the gift of life.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, second day of Shavuot, 5/18/2021.)

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Festivals Sermons Yizkor

The Original Non-Fungible Token – Eighth Day Pesaḥ / Yizkor 5781

You might have heard a curious news blip a few weeks back about an extraordinarily unusual art auction. The artwork, by the American artist known as Beeple, was a collage of 5,000 individual digital images, assembled over nearly 14 years. Beeple, whose birth name is Mike Winkelmann, made one image each day, beginning on May 1, 2007, and the collage, entitled “Everydays: The First 5,000 Days” sold for an astonishing $69.3 million, the third-highest price paid for the work of a living artist.

Now, what is most curious about this? That the purchaser has nothing to show for his $69.3 million other than a JPEG file, about 21,000 x 21,000 pixels, with a size of about 320 megabytes. No canvas, no paint, not even a carved, gilt frame. Theoretically, anybody with a computer could easily make and distribute innumerable copies of the file and share it online with a few clicks.

You heard that right: the owner paid nearly $70 million for a computer file.

So how is it that this work could be sold for such an exorbitant sum? Because it is a so-called “non-fungible token,” or NFT.

What’s a non-fungible token, you ask? You’re not alone. Saturday Night Live actually put together a musical skit about it last week, in which a befuddled Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen (played by Kate McKinnon) seems to be at a loss to explain it

As briefly and as simply as I can explain it, an NFT is any unique item of digital content – art, tweets, music, etc. – that can be verified as the original version through a series of secure, verifiable, time-stamped files that attest to its legitimacy. And why the need for this verifiability? So that the creator can sell the original digital content, and its ownership, or transfer of ownership, can therefore be proven. Many people can possess a digital copy, but there is only one non-fungible token of any digital content that exists anywhere, and the proof of that ownership is entrusted to thousands of computer servers, scattered around the world, so that the ownership can always be proven. (Some of you may have heard of Blockchain – NFTs use that technology.)

In short, this enables people to assign a dollar value to something that is effectively a set of ones and zeros that only computers can translate for us. Completely intangible. And the records that make it “real” are entrusted on a whole bunch of secure servers, ostensibly forever.

Other items that have sold as NFTs are the first tweet by Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter, for nearly $3 million, and a digital picture of a column by New York Times Technology columnist Kevin Roose, which netted $560,000, which is I presume far more than Mr. Roose earns in a year. (He donated the money to a charity.)

Now, why is this interesting, other than the absurd amounts of money involved?

First, because it means that art, and specifically ownership of art, has moved beyond the physical product into a kind of spiritual state. It effectively means that you can own an idea, and not just the Earthly manifestation of that idea. (I suppose that the concept is not too different from the principle of intellectual property, except that usually people want to own their intellectual property because it can be used to create physical things of value. That does not seem necessarily to be the situation here. Hence the novelty.)

But second, as curious as the principles behind non-fungible tokens may seem,  the concept suggests something very powerful: that intangible items are truly valuable. And, particularly relevant on a Yizkor day, that our relationships, our sets of memories of those whom we recall today, are something like NFTs in that they are unique, real, and non-fungible. But these relationships are much richer, and effectively priceless.

Let me explain:

When I was in graduate school at Texas A&M University, I recall a discussion with some fellow Jewish grad students over a Shabbat dinner at the Hillel building there. One of my colleagues opined that it was essential to publish academic papers, because it meant that when we were gone, there would be something tangible to show that we had made an impact on the world, in print and therefore “official.” (Since he was a grad student, I’m guessing that he was also trying to rationalize what he was doing in graduate school.)

You could extend this to any particular product: inventing a gadget, say, or building a house. When we create tangible things in this world, we can point to them and say, “Aha! I have left something for the world that will remain after my death.”

But I must say that I disagree with my grad school buddy. An object is just an object; it will eventually crumble and return to dust. A paper in a journal, no matter how essential it might seem right now, will ultimately become obsolete. Yes, it is true that we read words from the Torah today, a book that is still with us after over 3,000 years, but how many other books can you name that are that old? (The Torah is clearly exceptional, for several reasons.)

Rather, I am convinced that the greatest impact that we can have on the world is to place a little bit of the intangible pieces of ourselves – our wisdom, our love, our emotional support, our humor, our personality – into all the people we know. 

And, in fact, that is what every single person on this Earth fundamentally creates during our lifetimes: the intangible dust of relationships. Memories, sentiments, shared experiences, wisdom, cherished moments, expectations fulfilled, or not, and so forth. That is the content of our relationships, much more comprehensive than the pixels arranged on a screen by a digital artist. 

And, almost miraculously, we give out these bits of ourselves to others every time we interact, every time we speak, every moment we share with others. Taken together, all of those create a unique, non-fungible collection of us as individuals, a collection that will remain long after we have departed our physical bodies.

And, unlike an NFT, the content of these vouchsafed bits of ourselves is much more rich. My relationship with my wife, for example, is quite different than my relationship with my 6th-grade teacher, Mr. Welsh. OK, so Beeple spent 5,000 days creating the piece that sold for $69 million. But I have spent already more than 18,000 days on this planet, and within that over 300,000 waking hours, much of that time engaging with others in all the ways that people interact. And nobody can ever take that away from me. Or from you. Or from all the people we know.

The total value of the unique relational moments of my life, if it could be sold, would easily eclipse any NFT by an infinite number of orders of magnitude. 

And that is precisely the point. Our relationships are priceless, and they are forever. Even if one cannot recall a specific interaction, it leaves an emotional residue – cumulative and integrated into the totality of relationship. Even when all those who knew us personally are gone, the dust of our relationships continues to echo in all relationships, in all the collective facets of humanity. 

In a commentary on Shir HaShirim, Song of Songs, from which we read this morning, Rav Avraham Yitzḥaq Kook (1865-1935), the first Chief Rabbi of Mandate Palestine, teaches us that, “Each worldly song is linked to all other songs, and their totality expresses the supernal harmony of the divine whole.” That is, the songs of our individual lives are interconnected. The relational dust that we all leave is a part of the greater song of humanity.

That is, I think, the very meaning of the term “Tzeror haḥayyim,” the bond of life, which appears in the El Male Raḥamim memorial prayer, which we will recite in a few minutes. We are all tzerurim bitzror haḥayyim, bound up in the bond of life together, inextricably interconnected in all the relational material that we share and re-share.

On this day of hazkarat neshamot / remembrance of souls, we recall those whom we have lost by singing their songs, by recalling the holy moments we spent with them, by engaging with that relational residue. We understand that our lives were not only enriched, but in fact defined by those pieces of themselves that they placed in us. Those memories are unique, and together they define those whom we remember today.

We carry them with us. We attest to not only their existence, not only the non-fungibility of their lives, not only how very real they surely still are, but how those relationships shape our lives, our world, our outlook, and our ongoing relationships, which we continue to share with others.

And that, hevreh, is truly priceless.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Eighth Day of Pesaḥ, 4/4/2021.)

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Sermons

What Matters Most – Vayhi 5781

In the flurry of year-end stories (that is, the secular year; our year of 5781 began back in Tishrei, in the fall), a whimsical bit of news floated out of my radio a few days ago, about a curious clock tower in Scotland. The clock in the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh, which looms over the Waverley train station, traditionally runs three minutes fast, in an apparent effort to help people get to their trains on time. But every year, on December 31st, they set the clock back three minutes so that it will chime midnight at the appropriate time, and then set it forward again three minutes. 

The Balmoral Hotel, Edinburgh, Scotland

This year, the management decided not to set the clock back, so that it would chime three minutes early, thus making 2020 apparently three minutes shorter than a usual year. And, as we all know, the past year was hardly “usual.”

As silly as this story is, I must say that there is something heartening about it. It speaks about the optimism we have for the future. Three fewer minutes of 2020, three extra minutes appended to 2021. (Of course, for 5781, it’s a wash.) 

But given how precious our time is, how valuable the holy potential of every moment, those three minutes remind us, in some sense, to keep our wits about us as we remember what matters most: life.

Over my “stay-cation” during the last two weeks, I was able to tune into another Conservative synagogue’s streamed Shabbat services. I tried for a second one, but although I set up Zoom before Shabbat, somehow I got booted off after Kabbalat Shabbat, and so was not able to see Shabbat morning – perhaps you have experienced this yourself. (The Conservative movement’s teshuvah / rabbinic guidance on the use of online services during the pandemic actually mandates that one set up the computer before Shabbat and minimize touching it during Shabbat or Yom Tov, but of course that brings with it the inevitable technological pitfalls.)

But the services that I did see, from one of the largest Conservative synagogues in America, was a highly-polished production, with musicians and a choir and multiple camera shots and a director and technical staff and two rabbis and a cantor and a handful of pre-arranged visitors participating from home and the whole nine cubits. The number of households streaming peaked out at over 1,100.

My reaction to such a production was not necessarily to daven, but to sit back in awe of the level of logistical sophistication, and, of course, money, required to make that happen. And of course I could not help but to compare it to our own online services, which, by comparison, are still in the electronic Bronze Age.

But I must say that I’m happy with what we are doing, even though it’s not perfect, or even close to approximating what a synagogue service should feel like. And, by the way, the vast majority of respondents to our High Holiday survey also indicated that they were pleased with those services. Of course, I know that everybody right now is giving kaf zekhut, that is, tipping the scales in our favor given the circumstances (see Pirqei Avot 1:6). 

We all know that this is an insufficient substitute for actual synagogue services, and we all look forward to the time (bimherah beyameinu / speedily in our days) we will be able to gather again for tefillah / prayer, for kiddush, for schmoozing, for JJEP and meetings and social gatherings and Hod veHadar and learning together and yes, even shiv’ah and for all the communal things that we do.

But right now, we are all in exile. (Ironic, considering that most of us are spending a lot more time at home…)

The widely-anticipated post-holiday virus surge is about to take off; the vaccine distribution is plodding along, although I am very pleased to see that many of our members who work in the medical field have already received it, and there is light at the end of what looks like a very long tunnel. But we are not there yet, even though we can see the Promised Land from the depths of Egypt: Min hametzar qarati Yah; from the narrow place we continue to call out to God (Psalm 118:1).

Parashat Vayhi reminds us that Ya’aqov / Jacob ends his life in exile! So too Yosef. But they both live, and that is what matters most. The parashah opens with:

וַיְחִ֤י יַעֲקֹב֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם שְׁבַ֥ע עֶשְׂרֵ֖ה שָׁנָ֑ה

Vayhi Ya’aqov be-eretz mitzrayim sheva esreh shanah

Ya’aqov lived in Egypt for 17 years.

Vayhi Ya’aqov. Ya’aqov lived. The text does not say, Ya’aqov suffered, or Ya’aqov was miserable and depressed because he was in exile. It just says, he lived. OK, so perhaps he was grateful to be alive, having escaped the famine in Israel and having been ultimately rescued by his estranged son Yosef, whom he thought had been killed by a wild beast years before. Maybe he was not miserable and depressed because he was surrounded by his large and prolific family, and they lived freely and happily with the blessing of the good Pharaoh.

We do not know. But embedded in that word, vayhi, packed into a common grammatical form, is a suggestion of both past and future. Known to grammarians as the “vav consecutive,” it is a phenomenon of Biblical Hebrew that in many circumstances, the letter vav in front of a verb reverses the mood: perfect becomes imperfect; imperfect (as we have here) becomes perfect. 

(It is not entirely accurate to say that this is a question of past vs. future. While Biblical Hebrew does have past, present and future contexts, the verbs do not really have “tense” the way that Modern Hebrew does. But that’s a grammar lesson for another day.)

Vayhi Ya’aqov. Ya’aqov lived: The vav consecutive turns the imperfect, what has not yet been completed, into the perfect, what is complete. The imperfect form without the vav consecutive, yehi, should be literally understood as “he has not completed living.” With the vav in front of it, it reads, vayhi: he completed living. He lived. 

And yet, the incomplete is incorporated into the complete. He lived, and he will yet live. Embedded in the past is the future. A contradiction, perhaps.

Ya’aqov must have known that his future was found in his past. He was, after all, renamed Yisrael, the name later applied to the land promised to him and his parents and grandparents. He must have understood that, although he lived the end of his life and died in exile, that his children and grandchildren would return. He lived, and yet he will live.

And so too the contradiction in our current moment: Vaccines are being administered, and yet the virus is spiking. The end of the worldwide pandemic is near, but we must continue wearing masks and social distancing and refraining from gathering. Normal living is on the horizon, but the current anxiety is not yet abated.

We have lived, and we will live. And we will do the best we can under these circumstances. We will judge 2020 – ourselves, our friends and family, our institutions – with kaf zekhut, the benefit of the doubt. We will mourn those whom we have lost, and who we will lose, and those of us who are still safe and healthy will be grateful for our lives.

Exile will come to an end. We will come forth from Egypt. And we will continue to sanctify every moment, every three-minute increment of holiness. 

I am not one for secular New Years’ resolutions. We made our resolutions back at the beginning of Tishrei, the resolution to recommit to our tradition, to improve ourselves, our behavior, our relationships and our world through the framework of halakhah, the spiritual fulfillment of Torah. One of the names for Rosh Hashanah is Yom HaZikaron, the day of remembrance, because those are days on which we remember that the framework of Torah is our Etz Hayyim, the Tree that brings us life.

But if I were, I would resolve right now to keep living: to remember family and friends and to be in touch with them, to tell them how much you love and appreciate them. To savor every minute as best we can. To not succumb to the feelings of hopelessness or anxiety that many of us surely feel. To look to the future, even as we grieve for what, and who, we have lost. Here is an action item: make it a point to reach out to a distant friend every day. We are all in this together, and everybody is grateful for the call.

That is, perhaps what distinguishes our tradition from those cultures that celebrate the secular new year. A new year is not merely an excuse to party with abandon; it is an opportunity to look back and forward, to acknowledge and be grateful that we are still here, to remember that our history has its high and low points, and that the coming year will surely include both.

We the Jews have survived far greater challenges than this; we have been through exile and dispersion, persecution and genocide. We can surely manage a few more months of wearing masks and staying away from each other. And the way that we have always done that is to remember what matters most: life.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 1/2/2021.)

Categories
Sermons

The Constant Gift of Life – Hayyei Sarah 5781

One of the ways in which I have coped with our pandemic separation is by cooking. This week I did something I had not done in a long time – at least a year. I made a butternut squash soup. It’s a great recipe that I discovered a few years back (of course, I use kosher vegetable stock instead of chicken stock): lots of butter, which makes it so rich, but also with fennel, which rounds out the flavor. It is, however, an extensive kitchen project, with lots of time peeling and chopping and sauteeing and simmering and pureeing. We ate it with Shabbat dinner last night. (Yes, in our house, Shabbat meals are often dairy.)

But, as we learn in Pirqei Avot, Im ein qemah, ein Torah; im ein Torah, ein qemah. If there’s no bread, there’s no Torah; if there’s no Torah, there’s no bread. You have to eat to learn, but you also have to learn to eat. Food and Torah are intimately tied together in our tradition.

In other news, you might say that I “hit for the cycle” this week. (Yes, I’m using a baseball metaphor, even though I think the season is over. Right?) I hit almost every lifecycle event this week.

Last Sunday, on the most beautiful November day of my lifetime, I officiated at the wedding of Abigail Blatt and Eric Yoffee. Eric is the son of our members Carol Beth and Mike Yoffee. It was held in the Yoffees’ back yard, with about minyan of attendees. 

Wednesday, longtime Beth Shalom Cantor Moshe Taube passed away, and we have been preparing for a memorial service for him, which will be held on Thursday evening (11/19).

Cantor Moshe Taube

Thursday, I made a new Jew! We brought Casey Weiss’s husband Doug Frisbee to the miqveh to complete his journey to Judaism. Casey is, of course, the daughter of our members Amy and Lou Weiss.

Friday, we welcomed Carson Weiss, the son of our members Emily and Aaron Weiss (no relation to the previous Weisses), into our people’s covenant with God through the ceremony of berit milah, ritual circumcision. Emily and Aaron were with me last January on the Honeymoon Israel trip, and we now see the fruits of our having welcomed them into this community.

Today, of course, we are celebrating Maddie Zabusky-Stockton’s stepping forward into direct relationship with the mitzvot of Jewish life, as we called her to the Torah as a bat mitzvah.

And also this week I spoke with potential new members, people observing yahrzeits, people recovering from COVID-19, other conversion students, and so forth. Plus I virtually attended the United Synagogue’s first conference about Jews and racism.

And all of this was with the pandemic in the background. All socially-distanced. All masked. All a little more anxious than it would have been under “normal” circumstances. 

And this is how our lives are right now.

A good news item this week was that at least one company that is working on a vaccine published results of a successful trial, indicating that their vaccine was 90% successful in preventing new infections of the coronavirus. Maybe the end of our current predicament is in sight. Let’s hope.

But even so, things are not looking so good, in a more immediate sense. Rates of infection are taking off, here in Allegheny County and all over the world. Hospital beds are filling up again. Ventilators and PPE may soon be in short supply. We may soon be back where we were in April.

Meanwhile, we have to do everything that we can to prevent the spread of this virus. We have to continue to be very careful about being masked when around others, and about maintaining our distance, and about minimizing our exposure. We must continue to be vigilant, particularly as Thanksgiving comes and then the December holidays, because the opportunities to spread the virus will certainly increase if people gather, even in small groups. Please remember the essential message of piqquah nefesh / the mitzvah of saving a life – preventing the spread will save lives, and that is one of our most essential mitzvot / holy opportunities as Jews.

Taking a step back to the Jewish bookshelf, right up front in Parashat Hayyei Sarah, Sarah dies. In the first two verses of Hayyei Sarah, the Torah takes note of the fact that her life, “Hayyei Sarah,” spans 127 years; then she dies, and Avraham mourns her and cries for her. The last word of that second verse, Bereshit / Genesis 23:2, is velivkotah, meaning, “and to cry for her.” In Torah scrolls and in some humashim, including Etz Hayyim, which some of us have, the “kaf” in that word is smaller than the other letters. It is a longstanding scribal tradition that dates back many centuries, maybe more than a thousand years.

The small kaf is a reminder that grief can make us feel small. In the Post-Gazette’s obituary for Cantor Taube, he was quoted as being so wrought with grief when the Nazis invaded Poland, that, in his words:

I could not sing between 1939 and 1945. I couldn’t sing because of the atrocities that happened. Singing is an expression of fulfillment, happiness, of worship. I did worship, but not with singing.

Although he survived the war, being number 22 on Schindler’s List, he carried that sense of having been made small by the Shoah for the rest of his life, and you could hear that in his music, in his voice. Indeed, the numbers of our people were made significantly smaller by the Nazis, and so too was our spirit as a people brought low.

We also lost this week Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, a universally-admired interpreter of Torah for our times. (BTW, there aren’t too many rabbis who get THAT title.)

Of course, there are also times when life makes us feel larger, like the bigger letters in the Torah: joy over happy lifecycle events – weddings and new baby rituals and benei mitzvah – these things can make us feel a little bigger.

But the vast majority of letters in the Torah are the same size. They have the same proportions. They do not stand out from one another.

And that is how our lives go. Sometimes the big letters; sometimes the small letters. But most of the Torah that we live is of average size. Thank God.

Yes, we suffer devastating losses; we grieve and mourn; sometimes we cannot sing. And yet we also find moments in which to celebrate and to mark the passage of time and the milestones in our lives in great happiness. We should never diminish the power of loss or of joy.

And yet we must go on about our lives. We must continue to get married and have children and celebrate benei mitzvah. Although we may feel small, we have to look not only for the big letters of Torah, but also all of those regular letters, the ones we usually hardly notice. With the recent string of births, I hope that we are seeing evidence of a COVID baby boom, which would certainly be a silver lining.

In reflecting on life, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks wrote: 

“It is difficult to feel depressed when you remember fairly constantly that life is a gift. ”

Yes, life is a gift in the sense that we occasionally experience joy to counter our grief. But life is also a gift when you consider his use of the word “constantly” – while we walk this Earth, while we breathe, we experience the constant miracle of being alive. That is why, three times a day, every day, in the Amidah, on Yom Kippur and on Purim, whether we are in mourning or celebrating, we say words of gratitude, in the paragraph thematically dedicated to thanks:

נֽוֹדֶה לְּךָ וּנְסַפֵּר תְּהִלָּתֶֽךָ עַל־חַיֵּֽינוּ הַמְּ֒סוּרִים בְּיָדֶֽךָ וְעַל נִשְׁמוֹתֵֽינוּ הַפְּ֒קוּדוֹת לָךְ וְעַל נִסֶּֽיךָ שֶׁבְּכָל יוֹם עִמָּֽנוּ וְעַל נִפְלְ֒אוֹתֶֽיךָ וְטוֹבוֹתֶֽיךָ שֶׁבְּ֒כָל עֵת עֶֽרֶב וָבֹֽקֶר וְצָהֳרָֽיִם

We will give thanks to You and recount Your praise, for our lives which are committed into Your hand, and for our souls which are entrusted to You, and for Your miracles of every day with us, and for Your wonders and benefactions at all times— evening, morning and noon.

I am grateful to have met Cantor Moshe Taube and heard him sing and been inspired by his music; I am grateful to continue to learn from Rabbi Sacks, and we mourn for them. And I am also grateful to be here today for Maddie’s bat mitzvah, and to have celebrated this week a wedding and a berit milah and bringing on a new member of the tribe. But I am also grateful to have made (and ate) a tasty yet humble (okay… its hard to call it a humble soup when you use a full stick of butter…) squash soup.

Life, this miraculous gift, goes on. Be vigilant. Wear a mask. But look to the moments of ordinary-ness, of constancy, when all the letters are the same size, and we will make it through this together.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 11/14/2020.)

Categories
Festivals Sermons Yizkor

The Dead Support the Living – Yizkor / Shavu’ot 5780

You may know that I love to hike, and during this pandemic, I have been spending more time walking outside than I ordinarily do, particularly in the heavily-wooded Frick Park. That’s a good thing – particularly now that the weather is nice. Good for the spirit, good for the body. 

Red-tailed hawk in Frick Park (photo credit: me)

Judy and I were in the park a few weeks ago, and we noticed a couple of tall trees that looked dead, sort of intertwined with each other. And upon looking closer, we saw that the situation was much more interesting: one of the trees, standing upright, was clearly dead – no leaves, no bark in many places, minimal branches still remaining on its tall trunk. But the other tree was leaning over heavily onto the dead one, and it was still alive. It looked as though the live tree had been knocked over in a storm, and the dead tree had somehow “caught” it, and prevented it from falling.

The dead tree was actually holding up the living one.

We generally think of dead natural things – trees, animals, etc. – as being past their point of usefulness. That is, they are no longer part of the system. But of course that is not true. On the contrary: as you walk around a forest, for example, and you see plenty of dead things on the ground – leaves and tree trunks and occasionally animal carcasses – it is worth remembering that those things are essential parts of the circle of life. They serve as homes to insects, food for fungi, and of course when they break down into nutrients and reenter the soil, they continue to nourish the living plants around them by fertilizing the ground once again.

That is the cycle of life. Life yields death, which yields life again. 

And, in some sense, the same is true for people. Not in physical sense, of course, and not in the sense of death and resurrection, although for sure there are some Jews who believe in that sort of thing. But rather, I would like to propose that the dead nourish and sustain the living, sort of like that dead tree holding up the live one.

How can that be? Lo hameitim yehallelu Yah (Psalm 115:17), we chanted in Hallel earlier today. The dead do not praise God; that is only for the living. Being able to sing words of praise together with our community, that is a sure sign of life.

And yet, those of us who have passed from this world into the next are not only very much here with us, but they support us, the living as well. Let me explain, with an assist from the following midrash:

Moshe Rabbeinu is at the end of his life, and has ascended Har Nevo (Mt. Nebo), as God instructed him to do. God reminds Moshe that, even though he will not enter the Promised Land, he can see it from the mountain.

Moshe appeals to God, saying that it is not fair that he, Moshe Rabbeinu, who took the people out of the Land of Egypt, bringing them forth from slavery, cannot enter the Land of Israel. “I should be the first to cross the Jordan River,” he pleads. “I should lead them into the Land. Why won’t you let me? Why do you not favor me with love, as you favor the rest of Benei Yisrael (the Israelites)?”

“I have favored you with love,” says God. “I gave the Aseret HaDibberot, the Ten Commandments to the people through you. I gave the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, to them through you. That is how I have expressed my love for you.”

“Who, then, will lead the people, if not me?” says Moshe.

“Yehoshua (Joshua) will lead them. It is time for the people to find the courage to travel on without you, Moshe. But you will die knowing that they will never forget you. You will always be an essential part of them. You will be constantly invoked, in song and story, in learning and teaching, in repeating the words of Torah for millennia to come. You will continue to support them after you die, and your words will bring them strength.”

Moshe thinks about this, and then goes back down from Har Nevo to give a final blessing to Benei Yisrael. He climbs the mountain a final time, and, as he is looking out over the Land of Israel, spread out before him to the west across the Jordan River, God kisses his soul, taking his life. 

As a final act of God’s love, God buries Moshe on top of Har Nevo, in a location that has remained secret to this day.

***

How do the dead support the living? In the same way that Moshe Rabbeinu does: through the words that they said; through the actions that they took to sustain us in life; through the inspirations and memories fixed in our hearts and minds, that lead us to seek peace between people and care for those in need and comfort those who grieve. 

We carry them with us, just as we carry with us the Torah that Moshe gave us. When we get to Simhat Torah, the other celebration of Torah, half a year away, we will read, “Torah tzivvah lanu Moshe; morashah qehillat Ya’aqov.” (Devarim / Deuteronomy 33:4) Moses charged us with Torah, as the heritage of the congregation of Jacob. Our heritage includes not only Torah, but also the pieces of our ancestors that we contain: their good deeds, their wisdom, their reputations.

And how will we, the living, support those who will someday remember us when we are gone? By being the best people that we can be in life. By drawing on the Jewish values of learning, of compassion, of gratitude, of community-building, of remembrance. By fulfilling the mitzvot, the holy opportunities communicated to us through Moshe Rabbeinu and upheld by generations. By committing ourselves, every day, to making this world a slightly better place.

Three times a day in Jewish life, and sometimes four, we recite the berakhah Barukh Attah Adonai, mehayyeh hameitim.” Praised are You, God, who gives life to the dead. I know that it’s a not-so-coded reference to the Messianic resurrection of the dead that our ancestors yearned for. The Amidah (standing, silent prayer that is a part of every Jewish service) says, God keeps faith even with those who sleep in the dust: umqayyem emunato liysheinei afar, we sing ever-so-joyously. (BTW, that well-known melody, ubiquitous in American synagogues, was written by Cantor Max Wohlberg for a Junior Congregation service in the middle of the 20th century. He later regretted its spread to the entire Jewish world, because it just did not quite fit the meaning of that paragraph.)

But the berakhah is incomplete. It was liturgy that served a particular purpose at one time, and there are some who feel it has outlived its usefulness (the Reform and Reconstructionist movements changed the language; the Conservative movement left the language but tinkered with the translation). 

How it should be read is not only about God giving life to the dead, but also as the dead giving life back to us. Mehayyeh hameitim. We are in a circle of mutual support: God sustains the dead, who sustain us, who praise God. It’s an eternal loop of life. 

I would be remiss not to mention today that we passed an abominable statistic in America this week. The number 100,000 means nothing in relative terms; our per capita death rate in America due to the coronavirus is lower than many nations. 

But in very real terms, it is a staggering number, more than the number of American soldiers who died in the Korean War and Vietnam conflict combined, and all in the space of a couple of months.

I find myself coming back to the words of President Abraham Lincoln, delivered a little to the east of here, after the battle at Gettysburg in 1863:

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain…

We the living, said President Lincoln, continue the work of those who gave their lives to give us life. They sustain us through their devotion. And as we recall not only our parents and grandparents and spouses and siblings and children who are no longer with us, we also recall those who gave up their lives to this disease, and we too resolve that they shall not have died in vain.

The dead give us life. They hold us up like strong, tall tree trunks. And we continue to remember them, to live their words and their deeds and their wisdom. That is the cycle of life, in which we are all bound.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning / Second day of Shavu’ot, May 30, 2020.)

Categories
Festivals Sermons Yizkor

Ephemeral Joy and the Bond of Life – Pesah Day 8 / Yizkor 5780

The end of Pesah is, to me, always quite anti-climactic. We put the Passover dishes away, toss out foodstuffs that we would never consider eating during the rest of the year, and then life sort of shambles on as normal, as if these eight obsessively, gastronomically limited days were a brief lull. This year, of course, the usual lull will linger longer

My attention was recently captivated by an interview I heard on public radio, on the show On Being with Krista Tippett. She spoke with author and poet Ross Gay, who is also a professor of English at Indiana University. He said something that struck me for its paradoxical insight: that human joy is intimately tied to the operating principle that we are mortal. Let me just share with you how he put it:

… Joy has everything to do with the fact that we’re all going to die. When I’m thinking about joy, I’m thinking about — that at the same time as something wonderful is happening, some connection is being made in my life, we are also in the process of dying. That is every moment… 

The connection between the dying and the joy…  is just the simple fact of the ephemerality of [life] … if you and I know we’re each in the process, [of dying], there is something that will happen between us. There’s some kind of tenderness that might be possible…

… [J]oy is the moments — for me, the moments when my alienation from people — but not just people, from the whole thing — it goes away. And it shrinks. If it was a visual thing, everything becomes luminous. And I love that mycelium, forest metaphor, that there’s this thing connecting us. And among [that] is that we have this common experience — many common experiences, but a really foundational one is that we are not here forever.

And that’s a joining — a “joy-ning.” So that’s sort of how I think about it.

Tippett:

But joy is — our capacity for joy, despite and through that, the fact that we’re all gonna die and that things are going wrong all the time, is also something that joins us together. It’s leveling, in a way.

Gay:

Totally… [I]t is joy by which the labor that will make the life that I want, possible. So it is not at all puzzling to me that joy is possible in the midst of difficulty.

***

These are exceptionally prophetic words, which, like words of Torah, we can only hear and interpret in our current context. The interview was recorded in July of 2019, however, long before COVID-19 was a thing.

Matters of life and death are shared between all of us. I think what Ross Gay is trying to say is that we all carry with us the potential to create joy, to increase happiness in this world, and we also all share the fact that we are going to die. So the potential for joyful living is predicated by the fact that we need it – that in all human relationships there is an implicit shared imperative to foster joy, since our time on Earth is limited.

The first thought that occurred to me as I was listening to this interview was, What a dreadful idea! How can reminding myself of my mortality possibly bring joy?

And then upon second thought, Wait a minute! He’s right. I share that with every other human on the planet. We may speak different languages, have absolutely orthogonal political outlooks, practice different religions, and so forth. But for every single one of us, the clock is ticking. It’s a jumping-off point for every relationship.

Death is, as Krista Tippett suggests, the great leveler, and arguably a cause for joy. And particularly when we lose somebody, it is the motivator for remembering to live. That is precisely the reason we mourn, the reason we say the Mourners’ Qaddish, which is not at all about death – to remember to live, to remember that, in our limited time, we must bring joy.

As I was listening to this a few weeks back, I was making breakfast for my family, whole-grain waffles with maple syrup, a joyful Sunday-morning move, and of course I was not thinking about dying. (I miss waffles. Only one more day of Pesah!)

But living, truly living, is in the joy that we bring to others – by preparing and sharing food with them, for example. And by talking. And by hugging. And by being there in times of need. And by being there for the happy times. And sometimes just by being present, or even present from a distance.

Because, when we are gone, we can no longer really create joy.

My teacher, Rabbeinu (“our teacher”) Neil Gillman, in his 1997 work, The Death of Death, points out that it is death that makes us fully human. “Death,” he says,” is not punishment for disobedience, but rather the inevitable result of the full flowering of our humanity.” He cites the Creation story from Bereshit / Genesis of Gan Eden / the Garden of Eden, as launching human-ness in its complete form; Adam and Eve were in some sense required to understand their mortality before they could be considered fully formed. He cites Martin Buber’s interpretation of the Gan Eden story as an act of compassion on humans by God, avoiding subjecting them to “aeons of suffering.” 

But life, thank God, is not merely suffering. It is all-encompassing, and in remembering to live, we also remember to seek pleasure and company and good times and love. And what makes the joy ultimately overpower the suffering is that we know that our time is fleeting.

We all carry with us a certain number of memories of people who are now gone. We all carry with us what made them who they were. And we remember them when we act in their memory, when we carry on with life, when we bring joy to ourselves and others.

Something that I am trying to do during this pandemic is to be positive. Yes, I think you know by now that I am an optimist. But I have been trying to draw on that well of optimism now more than ever. 

Let’s face it – our options for being joyful right now are somewhat limited, particularly if we live alone. And the entirety of the festival of Pesah, the festival of freedom, the festival of spring, the major holiday that kicks off the cycle of the Jewish year, has had a kind of pall over it. We have not been able to visit with family; we have not been able to exchange hugs and share food and stories with many people with whom we would ordinarily do so.

And yet, we also know that this will come to an end, and when it does, I know we will all be truly joyful.

But I think we have also been given a sort of gift by the pandemic, and that is a glimpse of our own mortality, and that reminder that death makes us human. We are all bound together in life – those of us who are still breathing, and those of us whom we remember on days like these. 

Because, as we will say in a few minutes when I recite the El Male Rahamim prayer, utzror bitzror hahayyim et nishmoteihem. May the souls of those whom we recall today be bound up in the tzeror hahayyim, the bond of life. You will also see a variant form of this written as an abbreviation on some Jewish gravestones, in the form of an acronym: תנצב”ה, which stands for “Tehi nishmatah/nishmato tzerurah bitzror hahayyim .” May her/his soul be bound up in the bond of life. 

We are intimately connected, living and dead, through this bond of life. And although the dead do not give us joy, they certainly give us life through that connection, which enables us to go on seeking and giving joy to others.

And qal vahomer,  all the more so in this time of an afflicted world, we remember not only those who gave us life, but also those who died or are dying at the hands of this vicious virus, which does not discriminate with respect to age, race, gender, religion, socioeconomic status, and so forth. We are reminded that we are all in this together – as Jews, as American citizens, and as human beings, interconnected with all others around the world. 

On this day of Yizkor, of calling to mind those whom we have lost, we must acknowledge our condition: that our lives are ephemeral, and that the joy that we share with others in the brief time that we have been granted is invaluable. We sink or swim not as individuals, but as a community, as a society, as a world.

We are deeply interconnected, mournful and joyful and distant and close all at the same time, all together, bound in that bond of life that makes us human, that calls us back to our shared mortality.

May we all be bound together in that tzeror hahayyim. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, eighth day of Pesah 5780, 4/16/2020.)

Categories
Sermons

The Un-Delivered Sermon: Welcoming Others Into the Synagogue – First Yahrzeit for the Eleven (z”l), Vayyera 5780

Prologue

Today is the first yahrzeit (anniversary of death) for the eleven holy Jewish souls who were murdered down the street from here on October 27, 2018. Today is the 18th day of the month of Heshvan. 18, as we all know, is a popular number in Jewish life, because it is the numerical value of the Hebrew word חי (hai), meaning life.

So the irony will be that, forever, this day that means life from one perspective will always be heavy with a deep sense of communal loss.

Or perhaps that is not irony, but rather just the Jewish way. What do we say when in mourning and on yahrzeit dates? We recite the words of the qaddish, a statement of praise of God in overpoweringly repetitive language: Magnified, sanctified, hallowed, exalted, celebrated, worshiped, honored, extolled, etc.

We, the living, we remember those whom we have lost by praising God, not by reciting words about death. Lo hameitim yehallelu ya, says the Psalm (115:17) which we read on our most joyous days, as part of Hallel. “The dead do not praise God.”

We do. We the living mark death through words of living, words of life.

Given that, I am going to give the sermon that I did not give for Parashat Vayyera last year, on the 18th of Heshvan, because it is about life. It is about, in some sense, the life that was happening here in Squirrel Hill before hatred personified tore into our community.

(I have left it in pristine form, so a few things do not make temporal sense. But think of this sermon as a snapshot, fixed in time.)

Welcoming Others Into the Synagogue – October 27, 2018, Vayyera 5779

Two things happened this week that really got me down.

The first occurred at the Awards Brunch on Sunday, which was truly a lovely affair that honored four deserving women for all that they have done for Congregation Beth Shalom: Lisa Steindel, Judith Kadosh, Kate Rothstein, and Tammy Hepps. I said this on Sunday, but it’s worth repeating: Without volunteers who make things happen, there would be no Congregation Beth Shalom. We cannot do what we do without people like these four who commit their time to making things happen. So thank you once again.)

But the incident that occurred was as follows: Prior to the beginning of the program, I was walking around, offering kippot to bare-headed men, as I often do.

Now, it’s worth noting before going further that while wearing a kippah is an ancient tradition for men, it is not halakhah; that is, it is not technically required according to Jewish law. Nonetheless, it is such a well-established custom that it is as close to a halakhic requirement as possible without actually being halakhah. Although there is no Torah (“de-oraita”) source for the custom of covering one’s head, it is attested to in the Talmud (Qiddushin 31a):

רב הונא בריה דרב יהושע לא מסגי ארבע אמות בגילוי הראש אמר שכינה למעלה מראשי

Rav Huna, son of Rav Yehoshua, would not walk four cubits with an uncovered head. He said: The Divine Presence is above my head, [and I must act respectfully].

This passage might raise more questions than answers, but nonetheless is considered the basis for the customary wearing of the kippah, and in particular doing certain activities: walking, praying, eating, studying, and being inside a synagogue.

Now since we were (א) in the synagogue, (ב) about to eat, and (ג) about to say a prayer before eating, it makes perfect sense that, being an institution that stands for Jewish tradition, we expect men to put on a kippah, and hence my reason for asking.

So there I am, handing out a few kippot, and I offered one to a man I did not recognize. He took it without saying anything, and I walked away. A few minutes later, I noticed that he was not wearing it, so I went back over and asked him to put it on his head. Now, in retrospect, this may not have been the right move, but hindsight often reveals our own propensity to say or do the wrong thing, and I am the first to concede that I am not immune to this phenomenon.

I immediately saw that he was not pleased about having to wear a kippah. He challenged me, saying sharply, “I’m Reform. Is it required?” I said, “We ask that men cover their heads in the synagogue as a sign of respect.” He reluctantly put it on his head.

But that’s not where the story ended. A while later, while we were getting food from the buffet table, he came up to me. He was clearly angry, and he wanted to give me a piece of his mind. He was almost yelling, and he said, among other things, “This is why I hate this place, because you’re so unwelcoming! I feel intimidated when I come here!”

I was taken aback. It had not occurred to me that asking a man to put on a kippah in a synagogue could be so “unwelcoming.”

So there is one story.

The second is about an anonymous letter I received on Monday. Reacting to our program for HIAS’ National Refugee Shabbat, it said the following:

I read the enclosed hand-out in services today; very interesting about the welcoming of strangers. Presentation about HIAS also enlightening. Do these ideals and concepts apply to our synagogue? I cannot recall the last time someone greeted me or handed me a siddur (prayerbook).

….

Now, you may have noticed that in the three-plus years that I have been here, I have tried to create a climate that is as welcoming as possible. Those of you that attended a parlor meeting with me during my first year probably studied with me the first aliyah of Parashat Vayyera, which describes Avraham Avinu’s hospitality in welcoming the guests who come to his tent. The text describes how, when he sees them, he runs to greet them, gives them a place to sit in the shade and water to drink and to wash the dust off their feet, helps Sarah (OK, orders Sarah) to prepare a meal for them, and stands patiently at their side as they eat.

As you have surely heard me say, at a parlor meeting, or in a sermon, or an ushers’ meeting, we have to be more like Avraham and Sarah. We have to run to greet people with a smile, to help them find a comfortable spot and a siddur and whatever they need, and try as best we can to make people feel welcome here.

We cannot judge anybody for who they are. The Torah does not suggest that Avraham interrogates anybody before inviting them in. There is no litmus test for participation in Jewish life. We are not “bodeqei tzitzit,” those who check to see if others are wearing their fringes properly and in the halakhically-correct manner.

By the way, an item of feedback that keeps coming back to me, from the congregational survey as well as from individuals who have spoken to me, is that we have occasionally made people feel unwelcome. There is a perception by some that there are existing synagogue cliques that are impenetrable. Now, not everybody feels this way, and there are plenty of people whom we have in fact welcomed successfully.

But it pains me greatly to know that anybody could walk into this building and feel excluded. If that happens to even one person, shame on us all.

And, by the way, that goes for all types of people who come in here: LGBT folks, for example, or those in interfaith relationships. (I have been told that multiple times, people in such relationships have been told by members of this congregation that perhaps they should consider going to Rodef Shalom. That is entirely unacceptable.)

Ladies and gentlemen, all are welcome here; all who come to seek connection to our beautiful, rich, ancient tradition are to be embraced with open arms. Consider Isaiah’s words (56:6-7; BTW, we read this on fast days at minhah for the haftarah):

וּבְנֵ֣י הַנֵּכָ֗ר הַנִּלְוִ֤ים עַל־יה֙’ לְשָׁ֣רְת֔וֹ וּֽלְאַהֲבָה֙ אֶת־שֵׁ֣ם ה’ לִהְי֥וֹת ל֖וֹ לַעֲבָדִ֑ים כָּל־שֹׁמֵ֤ר שַׁבָּת֙ מֵֽחַלְּל֔וֹ וּמַחֲזִיקִ֖ים בִּבְרִיתִֽי׃

As for the foreigners Who attach themselves to the LORD, To minister to Him, And to love the name of the LORD, To be His servants— All who keep the sabbath and do not profane it, And who hold fast to My covenant—

וַהֲבִיאוֹתִ֞ים אֶל־הַ֣ר קָדְשִׁ֗י וְשִׂמַּחְתִּים֙ בְּבֵ֣ית תְּפִלָּתִ֔י עוֹלֹתֵיהֶ֧ם וְזִבְחֵיהֶ֛ם לְרָצ֖וֹן עַֽל־מִזְבְּחִ֑י כִּ֣י בֵיתִ֔י בֵּית־תְּפִלָּ֥ה יִקָּרֵ֖א לְכָל־הָעַמִּֽים׃

I will bring them to My sacred mount And let them rejoice in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices Shall be welcome on My altar; For My house shall be called A house of prayer for all peoples.”

But wait! There is a challenge here. Isaiah seems to suggest that we have to have some kind of standard. If somebody refuses to wear a kippah, for example, or refuses to put their smartphone away in the service on Shabbat, can we still welcome them?

The answer, of course, is yes, but this is a question with which I continue to struggle: how do we raise the bar of engagement; how do we gently ease folks into the traditions of Jewish life without clobbering them over the head with a kippah and a tallit and tefillin and a siddur? How do we defuse the feeling of intimidation that some have when they walk into an alien environment?

In retrospect, I should not have gone back to the bare-headed gentleman a second time to ask him to put on the kippah; when I offer tefillin to people on weekday mornings (we always have extra sets on hand), I only ask once. But a smile goes a long way, and treating people respectfully is never the wrong thing to do.

So here are a few practical suggestions:

  1. Be an ambassador for Beth Shalom and for Conservative Judaism. Reach out wherever possible. Don’t ignore anybody you don’t know. If you see somebody standing at the side feeling awkward, mosey on over and introduce yourself. Give them a siddur. Take them by the hand if necessary and lead them in.
  2. Like Avraham Avinu, we have to be watching outside the tent to welcome people in. We cannot expect, in today’s world, that re going to walk right in and sign up to be a part of what we do. That’s one reason we created Derekh: to offer programming that goes beyond the synagogue walls. That’s why we are partnering with other organizations to offer concerts, like the Pizmon concert here. You are an ambassador for Beth Shalom and for Conservative Judaism both inside the building and outside.
  3. Connecting back to the whole point of the Awards Brunch last Sunday: volunteers are the ones who really make the SS Beth Shalom seaworthy, and there is always a need for more people to help out. If you’d like to contribute some time but simply do not know how, please come see me, or speak with Debby, our president, or Rabbi Jeremy, who runs Derekh. We will be thrilled to help you find something that suits you. And in particular, one thing we really need right now, to help address the issues I have discussed, is a few brave volunteers to form a Greeting Team, who, like Avraham and Sarah, will discuss and implement new ways to welcome people. 

With your help, we can continue to make sure that our tent is a beit tefillah lekhol ha’amim, a house of prayer for everybody.

Epilogue

That is how it ended a year ago. We still need a Greeting Team, but we are all about life, about making connections between people, about community.

Tomorrow morning we host the New Members’ Welcoming ceremony, in which a whole bunch of families who have joined the congregation within the last year will sit on this bimah, take hold of a sefer Torah, and acknowledge together their stepping forward into the next chapter of their Jewish journey.

We do this in memory of the eleven whom we lost on this day one year ago, and also in acknowledgment that in remembering them, we remember God, we remember our duties here on Earth, and we remember to continue to build this Qehillah Qedoshah, this community bound in holiness, together.

Dedicated to the memory of Cecil Rosenthal z”l, greeter extraordinaire.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 11/16/2019.)

Categories
Sermons

The Value of Life and the Jewish Triangle – Bemidbar 5776

I was struck by a curious item in the news two weeks ago: the gorilla that was shot and killed at the Cincinnati Zoo. (In case you didn’t hear: a 3-year-old boy fell into the moat surrounding the gorilla pen; the silverback, a 17-year-old, 420-pound western lowlands gorilla named Harambe, while not attacking the boy, did drag him around the pen, injuring the boy seriously.)

There were vigils, criticism by various groups, defense of the killing by the zoo spokespeople, and plenty of news articles and opinion pieces for and against. Social media exploded.

I am not in a position to judge whether killing the gorilla was justified or not. The zoo’s “dangerous animal response team” made a quick decision, and they opted for shooting to kill over using a tranquilizer dart, to ensure that the child would survive.

Harambe’s cousins in Africa are critically endangered, and zoos like the one in Cincinnati have attempted to remediate this situation by breeding gorillas in captivity. It is certainly unfortunate that Harambe had to die because of this boy. There is no question that this was a hard decision for the zoo, and that their choice would be scrutinized and criticized. We will never know what would have happened had they gone with the tranquilizer dart, or some other solution.

WesternLowlandGorilla03.jpg
Western lowland gorilla

But what actually struck me about this story was its context in the news. Around the same time there was a shooting with multiple fatalities in a neighborhood in Houston where I used to live. It has also emerged in recent weeks that the homicide rates in both Chicago and Toronto are up by over 50% this year over last. And of course there is the ongoing terror activity in Israel, which claimed four more lives in Tel Aviv this week.

And those stories are dwarfed by the largest humanitarian catastrophe of the last few years – that is, the Syrian civil war. Estimates vary, but perhaps 400,000 people have been killed in Syria in the last five years. And we all know about the refugee crisis here and abroad, driven largely by displaced Syrians.

What emerges when you juxtapose the flap surrounding the gorilla with those other stories is this curious situation where people – actual people – are being killed and driven from their homes, and yet the reaction to Harambe’s death somehow floated to the top of the news, at least on Internet portals.

It is fascinating to me that have become so inured to daily killing and human suffering in our own contexts, outside of the tightly-controlled environment of the metropolitan zoo, in the wild streets of Chicago or Baltimore or even suburban St. Louis, that we seem to have lost a sense for the value of human life.

Of course, it’s hard to wrap our brains around the killing of many; it’s much easier to be outraged by the murder of a single, rare primate in a single, tragic situation.

But it’s worth noting that our tradition teaches us about both.

All lives – the lives of all creatures – are endowed with a spark of the Divine.

We learn from the Torah in multiple places, and it is expanded upon in the Talmud, that we are forbidden from causing animals unnecessary suffering. This principle is known as, “tza’ar ba’alei hayyim,” (and I learned this week that the SPCA in Israel is called, Agudat tza’ar ba’alei hayyim – the association of [fulfilling the mitzvah of preventing] cruelty to animals).

But qal vahomer / all the more so, human life too is sacred, and one of our duties here on Earth is to alleviate human suffering wherever we can. Lo ta’amod al dam re’ekha, says the Torah (Lev. 19:16). Do not stand idly by the blood of your fellow person. We have fundamental obligations to the people around us. And if Syria is too far away, we might consider just the people in our immediate environs.

Where, ladies and gentlemen, is the outcry? Where are the vigils for the victims of authoritarian regimes around the world? Where are the politicians calling for change on America’s streets? Where are the nations who are jumping over each other to take in those who have fled the Syrian chaos? Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany was the only head of state of the G-7 nations to attend the UN’s World Humanitarian Summit at the end of May, something which UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon went out of his way to point out.

And where, indeed, are the Jews, marching to help ensure that everybody gets a fair break in life, a decent education, neighborhoods free of the scourges of crime and drugs and guns?

***

We celebrate today with two young women who have stepped forward into direct relationship with the Torah and its framework of holiness. And not only that, but we continue our celebration of that framework tonight as we usher in the festival of Shavuot.

We call benei mitzvah to the Torah in the synagogue, surrounded not only by family and friends because we are making a public statement: this child is now one of us; she has inherited the mantle of Torah, the set of holy opportunities to fulfill our mitzvot. It is, by definition, a public display of the stepping up of this child.

The most fundamental statement of bar/bat mitzvah is communal; it is that this child is now one essential vertex in the triangle of individual, community, and Torah.

A sizeable chunk of that triangle is dedicated to the acknowledgement that this is an imperfect world, one which routinely tramples idealism and continues to thwart dreams, but that we have an obligation, as individuals and communities in sacred relationship with Torah, to right wrongs, to uplift the oppressed and give a hand to the needy. Lo alekha hammelakha ligmor, velo attah ben horin lehibbatel mimmena. It is not up to you to finish the task, neither may you give up on it (Pirqei Avot 2:21). That holy work is never done.

One neat trick of the Jewish calendar is that Parashat Bemidbar is always read adjacent to Shavuot, a reminder that the Torah was given and received in the desert. It was not given in Jerusalem, or even in Israel! The message is that the Torah does not belong to a particular place or even (!) a particular people. The Torah, and the holy opportunities it gives us, are for everybody.

As we prepare ourselves to celebrate Torah tonight on Shavuot, we should remember that our opportunities for holiness extend far beyond our interconnected Jewish circle here in Squirrel Hill, and much further beyond the Jewish world. The triangle that unites us with Torah demands that we seek justice for all of God’s creatures, as we said on Shabbat morning in the Prayer for Our Country, “lemiqtanam ve’ad gedolam,” from the least of them to the greatest (Jer. 31:33).

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 6/11/2016.)