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Don’t Be Judgy – Naso 5782

I do not read Twitter very frequently – I find that the platform often reflects what is essentially wrong with everything in American society: no depth, no sense of history, no respect, virtually no guard-rails, nothing but an eternal present of often toxic non-dialogue.

Nonetheless, I peeked at it briefly this week, and found myself face-to-face with an interesting, if disheartening thread. It featured a rabbi I follow asking effectively, “If you do not belong to a congregation, please tell me why.” 

The answers ranged from “it’s too expensive” to “I cannot find the kind of community I need/want” to “I am uncomfortable with my local congregation’s embrace of Zionism / Israel” to “I feel judged by people in the congregation for my gender identity / sexuality / skin color / age / family status / financial wherewithal / insufficient knowledge, etc.”

Now, of course, it is extraordinarily easy on Twitter to create a group of malcontents on any particular subject. This is a platform that excels in “broken-tile syndrome” – the tendency to find and highlight flaws.

Nonetheless, it is that last complex of issues surrounding judgment that I find particularly troubling, because I know people that have felt turned away by this congregation for feeling judged. Any new person that walks into a synagogue and feels judged is pretty much going to walk out and never come back. And that has happened here as well.

So we have a problem. A kind of ancient problem, which is that religious traditions are historically “judgy.” Not only do our traditional texts speak of a the God of judgment, not only do we refer to Rosh HaShanah, the day when there are the most people in synagogues, as “Yom haDin,” the Day of Judgment, but the very foundation of an originally tribal religion such as ours is that there is always the in-group, that is, the people who are following our tradition, or at least are members of the tribe, and the out-group: everybody else. That kind of judginess is hard-wired into humanity, as well as Jewish, Christian, and Muslim tradition. (I cannot really speak from an informed perspective on the Eastern traditions, although I cannot believe that there is really any group that does not have at least a modicum of that dynamic.)

And actually, Parashat Naso includes one of the judgiest of judgy passages in the Torah. It’s the ordeal of the Sotah, to which the Torah commanded our ancestors to perform upon a woman suspected of cheating on her husband. Now, thankfully, this ordeal is not considered a legitimate ritual today, and even in the time of the Talmud the rabbis effectively claimed that nobody practiced it.* Nonetheless, there it is in the Torah, so of course we have to wrestle with it.

The ordeal is judgy because (א) the woman is subject to it merely if her husband suspects her; it does not matter what the reality is or if she strenuously denies her guilt; (ב) because it relies on an apparently supernatural judgment that is rendered in her taking a reaction to the potion that is prepared; and (ג) because there is no parallel ordeal for anything that a man might do outside of marriage, although of course “adultery” in the Biblical sense only applied to married women. To contemporary readers, this passage is absolutely unconscionable for many reasons.

So we have judginess in our roots. And add to that our centuries of legitimate mistrust and fear of outsiders: fear of pogroms, of genocide, of anti-Semitic actors and actions in all their various pernicious forms, fear of assimilation. Our history has taught us to be wary of those who are different, who do not fit into our expectations or follow our rules or suit our platonic ideal of who is a Jew. And even within the Jewish community, among committed Jews, we have the tendency to judge the choices of our co-religionists to the right and the left as well as the people within our own midst. 

And it is hard not to do.

But here we are in Pride Month, in case you missed all the rainbow signs on the way into the building. And here we find ourselves in the midst of culture wars over race and gender identity and political division over guns and abortion and voting rights and insurrection. And it is really hard not to judge the people with whom you vehemently disagree. We are living in fundamentally judgy times.

But we are going to have to learn not to be judgy if we are to keep this congregation going. Because today’s Jewish world is quite different from that of the past. Few of us grew up with immigrant parents who were steeped in Old World customs. We have far fewer children than in previous generations. People’s priorities in charitable giving have shifted. Virtually none of us feel like we have time to spare volunteering to help make synagogues run. And of course there are so many more choices today, including, of course, the choice not to participate at all, not to raise our children with Jewish knowledge or values or tradition.

And perhaps the greatest challenge that a large legacy institution such as this one faces is the desire that we all have to meet our individual needs exactly as we want them. Synagogues cannot please everybody, as much as we may try.

And so, with all of that stacked against us, any potential new member who walks in and feels judged for whatever reason is never coming back in. 

Let me be clear on this. It is very simple: we have to welcome everybody who walks in. It does not matter what their knowledge is, who their spouse or partner is, whether they are dressed appropriately, even if they are clearly eating a ham and cheese sandwich. (Well, we would kindly ask them to finish it outside and then warmly welcome them back in.) 

Of course, we must emphasize our engagement with and teaching of halakhah / Jewish law in the building and as a community, and continue to teach the Conservative movement’s contemporary approach. Nonetheless, we cannot judge anybody for their individual choices.

But Rabbi, aren’t there limits? OK, so if they are wearing Nazi symbols or carrying an AR-15 (God forbid!), we should refuse them entry. But otherwise, everybody here should bend over backwards to make sure that folks who walk in are greeted warmly, are treated with respect and dignity, are given honors where appropriate, and not judged for any of their personal choices.

And that means, ladies and gentlemen, sometimes going out of your comfort zone. It means expanding your circle to talk to somebody at kiddush whom you do not know. It means trying to not make somebody feel embarrassed or ashamed about what they know or don’t know about Jewish life and text and practice. It means sharing your enthusiasm for Jewish life and learning and community and Beth Shalom openly and genuinely, without in any way implying that if they do not live like you, they are somehow lacking. We should, as Pirqei Avot teaches us, greet every person with “sever panim yafot,” a cheerful countenance.

On Saturday night at the JCC, during the first real community Tiqqun Leil Shavu’ot that we have had in three years, Rabbi Danny Schiff led a wonderful talk about the oeuvre of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l, the former Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth. One passage that Rabbi Schiff shared was striking in its power and resonance. It is drawn from his 2007 book, The Home We Build Together. Rabbi Sacks wrote the following:

Covenants and contracts are different things and address different aspects of our humanity. In a contract, what matters is that both gain. In a covenant, what matters is that both give. Contracts are agreements entered into for mutual advantage… on the basis of self-interest… By contrast, covenants are moral commitments, and they are open-ended. They are sustained not by letter of law or by self-interest but by loyalty, fidelity, faithfulness. In fact the key word of Judaism, emunah, usually translated as ‘faith’, is better translated as faithfulness. 

Social contract creates a state; social covenant creates a society. Social contract is about power and how it is to be handled within a political framework. Social covenant is about how people live together despite their differences… Social contract is about the use of potentially coercive force. Social covenant is about moral commitments, the values we share and the ideals that inspire us to work together for the sake of the common good.

A qehillah qedoshah, a congregation founded in holiness, is established within the framework of covenant: our covenant with God, and our covenant with each other. And those covenants should lead us to give, not to take.

So if a synagogue sets out to try to meet everybody’s needs, we will fail. That is a contractual relationship that will be impossible to fulfill for 600+ families.

But rather, if we emphasize the covenantal relationship which we all share – the values of gratitude and family and generosity and prayer and learning and humility and halakhah – and strive to be the place that welcomes all with open arms, turning nobody away, then we will continue to grow and thrive. And Rabbi Goodman and I cannot do that alone. That is up to you.

Further along in Parashat Naso, we read the so-called Birkat Kohanim, the priestly blessing that has been bestowed upon our people for literally thousands of years. These are the same words we often hear during the repetition of the Amidah, and they are also traditionally used to bless our children at Shabbat dinner on Friday night (Bemidbar / Numbers 6:24-26):

יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ ה’ וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ׃ יָאֵ֨ר ה’ ׀ פָּנָ֛יו אֵלֶ֖יךָ וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ׃ יִשָּׂ֨א ה’ ׀ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם׃   

May Adonai bless you and protect you!
May Adonai’s face shine upon you and favor you!
May Adonai’s Divine countenance be lifted up to you and grant you peace!

The simple, almost haiku-like nature of this trifold blessing suggests that every one of us deserves God’s blessing, Divine light, favor, and peace, and that this desire is for all of us without any judgment. Nobody is excluded from this blessing. 

And perhaps we should take our cue from God and the Torah in this regard: Our social covenant requires that we offer blessing to all who seek it. Our values mandate that we extend a loving, accepting hand to all who come in. And our future peace depends upon our willingness to be a beacon for that light, as individuals and as a community.

~ Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 6/11/2022.)

*Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sotah 47b. The Mishnah states that the ritual only worked if the husband himself was free of transgression, and for whom can that be true?

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Sermons

There is Only One Side – Naso 5780

:’לֹ֥א תַעֲמֹ֖ד עַל־דַּ֣ם רֵעֶ֑ךָ אֲנִ֖י ה

Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor; I am God. (Vayiqra/Leviticus 19:16)

(The “I am God” bit is often left off; but it is an essential part of the verse. Understanding that we are all in holy relationship, that God dwells in the space between each of us and connects us, is needed now more than ever.)

***

On October 28th, 2018, there was a hastily-prepared memorial service at Soldiers’ and Sailors Memorial Hall for the victims of the previous day’s murders at the Tree of Life building. I remember the silence, the shock and grief, the over-capacity crowd, the sea of umbrellas outside of people who could not get into the hall. 

I remember that the clergy who were invited to join the presenters on the stage were from across the community: Jewish, Christian, Muslim, white, black, and everything else.

Pittsburgh, October 28, 2018

I remember that we stood together, unable to fathom the depth of what had happened, unable to imagine the sheer brutality and hatred required to carry out such an unspeakable act.

I did not watch the video of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police. I could not bring myself to do so. The print details were enough: 8 minutes and 46 seconds. “I can’t breathe.” “Mama!”

Ladies and gentlemen, we are in pain as a society. The coronavirus, the 108,000 dead; the economic fallout, 13% unemployment; and now a slew of events on the national stage that remind us all of the deep ugliness that lurks within the American psyche. The hatred, the systemic racism, the political division, the festering anger toward the judicial system and law enforcement, the resentment that different groups of people feel toward one another.

I attended a peaceful protest of clergy on Monday. One of the African-American preachers riffed on Psalm 94, which we recite in our weekday services every Wednesday.  

עַד־מָתַ֖י רְשָׁעִ֥ים ה’ עַד־מָ֝תַ֗י רְשָׁעִ֥ים יַעֲלֹֽזוּ׃

How long shall the wicked, O Lord, how long shall the wicked exult? (Tehillim / Psalm 94:3)

How long? He cried. How long?!

Pittsburgh, June 1, 2020

How long indeed. 

As you know, we had an 8:30 curfew for three nights last week. I confess that I broke the curfew on each of those nights; on Saturday night because I did not know that there was a curfew (I don’t use computers or listen to the radio or turn on TV on Shabbat or Yom Tov). On Sunday and Monday evenings because I was taking an evening stroll in Frick Park after dinner, and did not quite make it home by 8:30. 

On the latter two nights, I suppose that I broke that curfew because I knew I could. I knew that if a police officer were to stop me, he or she would not interrogate me or knock me to the ground or handcuff me or arrest me and take me down to the station. And if I happened to say the wrong thing or not look sufficiently submissive, she or he would probably be forgiving, tell me to just go home, you’re not supposed to be outside right now.

And that is exactly the point.

I will not have to have “the talk” with my sons, the talk that all black parents must have with their sons. Although I am 6’4” and arguably intimidating if you were to pass me alone at night, I will probably not have to worry that I will be perceived as a threat, and I know that people do not immediately assume that I am up to no good when they see me in public. I can go jogging or bird-watching without fear of anything going wrong.

And that’s because I look white. And I wear a kippah on my head.

But my tradition teaches me to be sympathetic to others; to listen to their needs; to help them when we can.

וְגֵ֥ר לֹא־תוֹנֶ֖ה וְלֹ֣א תִלְחָצֶ֑נּוּ כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃

You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
(Shemot / Exodus 22:20)

We remember where we came from. We remember that we were slaves, so that we understand the oppressed, the enslaved, the disenfranchised. And we remember that we have to stand up for them, whether they are Jewish or not.

I was dismayed to read an opinion piece in the Forward this week, written by some rabbinic colleagues, titled, Every Jew Must Decide Which Side They Are On.

No! Hevreh, there is only one side: the side of humanity. The side in which we build a better society, one in which police officers do not kill unarmed people, and in which peaceable assembly is not accompanied by violence, theft, and vandalism. The side in which there is no need for city curfews. The side in which visibly Jewish people can walk in the street without fear of being attacked. The side in which law enforcement, and indeed the US military, do not use tear gas on American citizens who are lawfully exercising their Constitutional rights. The side in which people are not divided between “sides.”

I am afraid right now that, given the division between people, our society will be torn apart by well-meaning people who point angry fingers at others. Let us not be manipulated into thinking that there is an “us” and a “them.”

There is only one side, and I am on that one. And so is the Torah.

Ladies and gentlemen, the only way we are going to move forward as a society in a way that is safe and respectful and loving is by understanding that we are in this together. 

:’וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ אֲנִ֖י ה

Love your neighbor as yourself.
(Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:18)
[ זה כלל גדול בתורה, this is a great principle in the Torah, adds Rabbi Aqiva.]

Hevreh, there is a lot of blame to go around for how we got here. But blame is also a game that involves picking sides, drawing lines. Let’s face it folks: we are all a little guilty of bringing us to this point. Parashat Naso (Bemidbar / Numbers 5:7) teaches us that when we seek atonement, we must confess our sins, and here are a few we have all done:

We are guilty of not helping raise up our enemy’s donkey, after it fell from a too-heavy burden. (Think metaphorically, folks.) (Shemot / Exodus 23:5)

We are guilty of repeating slander of one another via social media, like the tzara’at skin disease that spreads so easily, and cannot be taken back. (Vayiqra / Leviticus 13:1ff)

We are guilty of not having a system of justice that is applied equally to the rich and the poor. (Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:15)

We are guilty of not following the Torah’s imperative of “Tzedeq, tzedeq tirdof” – צדק, צדק תרדוף. Justice! you shall pursue justice. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 16:20)

We are guilty of standing idly by the blood of our fellow human beings. (Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:16)

But here is the upshot: we are all in this together, and we can change.

What we need now is not anger. Not division. Rather, what we need right now is to listen to one another, to work together, and pull ourselves up out of the mess we have made. 

Our neighbors showed up for us, ladies and gentlemen. And we must show up for them.

And not just that. Get to know people outside your familiar range of friends. It is only through being in relationship with others unlike you that we learn to counteract our own natural biases. We, the Jews, have spent so many centuries in ghettoes and in forced exile and subject to pogroms and genocide that we are reflexively suspect of others unlike us. But now is the time for us to listen to the stories of all of our neighbors, and act through love toward one another. That is the Torah’s great principle.

Parashat Naso includes a piece of text that is well-known in Jewish life, the so-called Birkat Kohanim, which the Torah identifies as the blessing that the kohanim, the priestly class shall bless all the rest of us:

יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ ה’ וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ׃ 

May God bless you and protect you!

יָאֵ֨ר ה’ פָּנָ֛יו אֵלֶ֖יךָ וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ׃

May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you!

יִשָּׂ֨א ה’ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם׃

May God’s face lift up to you and grant you peace!
(Bemidbar / Numbers 6:24-26)

It is up to us to seek God’s face, to look for and understand the divinity in each and every person. It is up to us to find ways to reach out, to learn, to listen, to create spaces in our lives beyond our comfort zones to connect with others. We must all stand on the same side at this time to be blessed and protected. We must seek to change ourselves, to change our behavior, to rid ourselves of the anger and the fear and the hate, to create that single side, the right side of justice and peace and love. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 6/6/2020.)

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Lifting Up God’s Face – Naso 5779

Last Shabbat I mentioned the panel discussion at Rodef Shalom’s annual congregational meeting about the future of synagogues, and one of the items that I identified at this discussion regarding the future of American Judaism is our knowledge of Hebrew. Yes, we live in a time in which readily-available online translations of ancient Jewish text have made the learning of our collected wisdom so much more accessible. That is a good thing; many of you know that we are currently in a kind of renaissance of Jewish learning, aided and abetted by Sefaria and other such platforms.

Nonetheless, there is no question that the Hebrew language, the language of the Jews, is the key to engaging with Jewish life. I learned most of my Hebrew as an adult, and I must say that, even though I learned to “decode” (i.e. read without understanding) when I was quite young, I had no idea what I was missing.

In 1845, at the conference of Reform rabbis in Frankfurt, Germany, a line was drawn in the sand over the Hebrew language. Some Reform rabbis of the time, including Rabbi Abraham Geiger, the “founding father” of Reform, advocated for dispensing with Hebrew in Jewish worship in favor of the vernacular. German, Rabbi Geiger argued, was the “language of the soul,” of philosophy, of civilization; for Geiger, prayer in German struck “a deeper chord.” The Jews of the time did not understand Hebrew, and if the purpose of tefillah / prayer is for our words to connect with our hearts, then tefillah should be in a language we understand.

Rabbi Zecharias Frankel, one of the leading lights of the Positive-Historical School, which ultimately became the Conservative movement, argued that Hebrew is the language of the Jews, the language of the Torah, the language of God. How could we jettison such an essential piece of what it means to be Jewish?

Our sensitivity to language is borne of the historical Jewish need to code-switch. Since the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians, nearly 2600 years ago, Jews have lived in places where they had to speak another language and manage another culture to get along. The Babylonians imposed the Aramaic language on their entire empire, mostly because they had wiped out the Arameans, and so speaking that language implied no political agenda. And from that time forward, Hebrew became the second language for the Jews, taking a back seat to Aramaic, Persian, Greek, Latin, Arabic, Spanish, French, German, and the Jewish dialects of all of those, some of which survived the centuries to be spoken today as Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Provencal, and so forth. We are experts at translation of language and culture, because we have been doing it for so long.

And hence the interest we have in parsing our ancient texts; we are constantly moving from our second language to our first and back again. Most of you have heard me say that it is the continual wrestling with the Torah and Talmud and midrash and poetry and halakhic works that has continued to sustain us to this day. That is one reason we are still here, because, as Pirqei Avot (5:22) suggests,

בּן בַּג בַּג אוֹמֵר, הֲפֹךְ בָּהּ וַהֲפֹךְ בָּהּ, דְּכֹלָּא בָהּ

Ben Bag Bag says, “Turn it over and over, because everything is in it.”

Our ancient words are a lens that help us contextualize our world, to determine what is right, to improve our lives and our communities.

And of course we continue to wrestle.

In that light, we might consider an unusual Hebrew verb, one which has flown by us several times this morning already, and in particular appears, arguably, as what scholars call a leitwort (thematic word) for today’s parashah, Parashat Naso. The verb is the shoresh / root נ-ש-א, from which the very word “naso” is derived. It usually means, “to lift up, elevate.” But its appearances in the Torah are usually idiomatic. Consider the following, the second verse of Naso, and the line from which the name of the parashah derives (Numbers 4:22):

נָשֹׂ֗א אֶת־רֹ֛אשׁ בְּנֵ֥י גֵרְשׁ֖וֹן גַּם־הֵ֑ם לְבֵ֥ית אֲבֹתָ֖ם לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָֽם׃

Take a census of the Gershonites also, by their ancestral house and by their clans.

Now the idiom, “Naso et rosh …” might be literally translated as, “Lift up the head of…” But here it means, “count.” That is, take a census.

And then it appears multiple times in the subsequent verses, which one way that we determine a leitwort. In particular, it appears near the end of the parashah in the passage that we generally know as birkat kohanim, the Priestly Blessing (Numbers 6:24-26).

יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ ה’ וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ׃
יָאֵ֨ר ה’ ׀ פָּנָ֛יו אֵלֶ֖יךָ וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ׃
יִשָּׂ֨א ה’ ׀ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם׃

The LORD bless you and protect you!
The LORD deal kindly and graciously with you!
The LORD bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace!

We also use these words to bless our children on Friday evening. (By the way, we sang this at the ELC graduation on Thursday, as we wrapped our 4-year-olds in a sefer Torah, encircling them with the ancient words of our tradition.)

Did you notice the occurrence of our leitwort? It’s the first word of the third verse: yissa. (If you wondered why there is no letter nun there, there is a reason: the nun is assimilated into the sin; that’s why there is a daggesh hazzaq in the sin, suggesting a “doubling” or “gemination” of the letter.)

But what does it mean here? Again we’ve come against an idiom. Yissa Adonai panav elekha is translated as something like, “May God bestow favor upon you.” But what it literally means is, “May God lift up God’s face to you.”

OK, so now there is something strange in this idiom. Most of us conceive of God as being above us, or all around us, or perhaps as some indeterminate, de-localized force within nature. And many of us conceive of God as not having a particular face. At the beginning of the Amidah, we refer to God as El Elyon – God on high; by comparison, we are lowly and Earthbound.

But whatever your understanding of God, how is it that God might be lifting up God’s face to us? Should it not be exactly the opposite? Should we not turn our faces up to God, for inspiration, for guidance, for knowledge of right and wrong? The second half of the verse, “May God grant you peace,” seems totally reasonable within our range of understanding God; so too the preceding statements. So what gives?

When we pray or study words of Torah, we lift our faces to God. When we pursue outward actions that better our relations with others, God’s face lifts up to us.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the greatest contemporary figures in Jewish thought and one of the most essential thinkers on the totality of the Jewish bookshelf, taught that the reason the Torah forbids images of God is NOT that God has NO image, but rather that God has just ONE image: that of every living, breathing human being. That is, we humans create the image of God with our lives – by doing mitzvot, by sanctifying time, by highlighting the holiness in all other beings and in all of God’s Creation.

It is when you fashion yourself in the Divine image that “Yissa Adonai panav elekha,” God lifts up God’s face to you.

When we as Jews take our Judaism outside of our homes and synagogues into our work and social lives, God looks up to us.

When we give generously and anonymously to those in need, God looks up to us.

When we act in compassion on behalf of those who are mistreated by governments and other organizations, God looks up to us.

When we support our cousins in Israel with our time and energy, God looks up to us.

When we take seriously the obligation to treat all of the people around us with derekh eretz, with respect, God looks up to us.

And, not insignificantly, when we parse the words of our living texts in our ancient language to inspire us to do these works, God’s face lifts up, and God will grant us peace.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 6/15/2019.)