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High Holidays Sermons

Back to Basics: Values / Integrity – Kol Nidrei 5781

As I hope you have noticed by now, the theme for this High Holiday sermon series is “Back to Basics.” In the context of the pandemic, our options for Jewish engagement have been somewhat limited (as with every other sphere of life, of course). As such I am taking this opportunity to go “Back to Basics”: to consider the essential items of Jewish life. These essential items are halakhah (Jewish law), minhag (customs), values, and story. We spoke about halakhah and minhag on Rosh Hashanah, and this evening’s subject is values. (If you missed them, you can read them on this blog, and you can also hear them on our podcast, the Beth Shalom Torah-Cast.)

Once upon a time, American Jews loved to play the game, “Who is a Jew?” We were filled with pride to see Dinah Shore or Kirk Douglas on our screens, looking so beautiful and strong and goyish, but we knew the truth. “He’s one of us,” we would boast to each other. I know that many of us are bursting with pride, alongside the grief, as the first Jewish female Supreme Court justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, lay in state last week. 

But then there are plenty of Jewish people of whom we are not proud, members of our tribe who are among the highest-profile criminals and detestable public figures today. I won’t mention any names, but I am sure you can come up with a list in your own head.

(BTW, Christians have it easier in this regard: they generally only count church-goers as Christians. But we count people differently: once a Jew, always a Jew. We could excommunicate these people, like we did with Barukh Spinoza (actually, we lifted the herem / excommunication on Spinoza a few years back), but we cannot deny the Jewishness of people whom we would rather not claim.)

And that hurts. Because we like to think that our Jewish values are universal; that somehow we all acquire them in Hebrew school or they are instilled in us by our parents; that even if we eat treyf (non-kosher food) and proudly violate Shabbat in public that the pintele yid, the tiny spark of Jewishness within us, will somehow keep us connected to the fold.

But it does not work that way. Our values will only hold if we act upon them, if we teach them to our children, if we model them for each other, if we remember that the Qadosh Barukh Hu is paying attention to our behavior.

I think it is very hard right now, six-and-a-half months into a worldwide pandemic, with maybe another year of isolation in front of us, and then coupled with all of the other chaos in the world, political and social and economic and spiritual, to be optimistic about the future. Many of you know that I am a self-described optimist, and yet I have found myself severely challenged by our current predicament. Everything is not OK.

And then I remember that we have a spiritual framework. Our Jewish heritage of learning, of action, of values is there to uphold us in times of trouble. Our ancestors, who survived many centuries of turbulence and upheaval, pogroms and genocide and dispersion, did so by leaning into their tradition. Etz hayyim hi, they sang, lamahazikim bah. The Torah is our Tree of Life if we reach out and grasp it. Our great-great-grandparents grasped and grasped and held on for dear life, and as a result, we are still here.

Part III: ערכים / Arakhim / Values

So tonight’s subject is values. Upholding our values at this time is more important than ever. If we are going to pull through this pandemic as a society, we have to remember that we have guardrails on our choices and behavior, not only from halakhah (Jewish law) and minhag (Jewish custom), but also drawn from our values. Values like:

  • Honesty
  • Empathy
  • Compassion
  • Taking care of the needy among us
  • Gratitude for what we have
  • Justice
  • Seeking peace
  • Pursuing the common good
  • Seeing the Divinity in all of Creation, including all people and all of God’s creatures

All of these have sources in Jewish text, in the Tanakh or in rabbinic literature. I am going to focus on one essential value this evening, one that I think is absolutely the key to all of them: integrity. While there are many sources on integrity from the Jewish bookshelf, here are a few that resonate with me:

Micah 6:8

הִגִּ֥יד לְךָ֛ אָדָ֖ם מַה־טּ֑וֹב וּמָֽה־ה’ דּוֹרֵ֣שׁ מִמְּךָ֗ כִּ֣י אִם־עֲשׂ֤וֹת מִשְׁפָּט֙ וְאַ֣הֲבַת חֶ֔סֶד וְהַצְנֵ֥עַ לֶ֖כֶת עִם־אֱ-לֹהֶֽיךָ׃

God has told you what is good, And what the LORD requires of you: Only to do justice And to love goodness, And to walk modestly with your God.

Some of you may know that this one is on my list of “refrigerator-magnet” texts – those that are just so pithy and essential that you should have them on your fridge. The prophet Micah tells us that the most essential path is that of acting from a place of justice and hesed, lovingkindness, but also to approach life modestly, that is, to approach all of your interactions with others from a place of holy humility.

Devarim / Deuteronomy 25:16

אֶ֣בֶן שְׁלֵמָ֤ה וָצֶ֙דֶק֙ יִֽהְיֶה־לָּ֔ךְ אֵיפָ֧ה שְׁלֵמָ֛ה וָצֶ֖דֶק יִֽהְיֶה־לָּ֑ךְ לְמַ֙עַן֙ יַאֲרִ֣יכוּ יָמֶ֔יךָ עַ֚ל הָֽאֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לָֽךְ׃

You must have completely honest weights and completely honest measures, if you are to endure long on the soil that the LORD your God is giving you.

The key to a long and happy life, says the Torah, is to deal with all others fairly. The essence of living a just life is treating everybody equally, not only measuring out your goods in the marketplace in an honest way, but also by measuring out your love and deeds and favor honestly and fairly.

Pirqei Avot 4:1 

אֵיזֶהוּ מְכֻבָּד, הַמְכַבֵּד אֶת הַבְּרִיּוֹת

Who is honored? The one who honors all of God’s creatures.

The way that we gain honor is not by expecting others to submit to you, but exactly the opposite. If you interact with the people around you from a place of respect, from honesty and good intentions, then those things will come back to you.

What does it mean to act with integrity? It means that we treat all people fairly and respectfully, regardless of who they are. It means that we are honest with ourselves and others in all our dealings. It means that we model upright behavior for others, and understand that the image of ourselves that we put out into the world should be one that others want to emulate.

Some of you may know that the Kol Nidrei prayer is among the more controversial pieces of liturgy in our tradition. Yes, we the Jews like to argue, even over what’s in the siddur / prayerbook. 

But Kol Nidrei is one of the few prayers in the Jewish canon that was controversial from the outset. It first appeared, as far as we know, in the 10th century, and its purpose was originally to nullify vows that one made with oneself and did not fulfill in the past year, vows like, “I’m going to learn to speak French this year,” or “I’m going to go on a diet, right after Simhat Torah.” A few centuries later, the renowned scholar Rabbenu Tam, one of Rashi’s grandchildren, changed the tense from past to future, making Kol Nidrei a pre-emptive nullification of such vows. 

Vows, promises that we make to ourselves, to others, or to God, are important; in addition to passages in the Torah about various types of vows, there is a whole tractate of the Talmud, Nedarim, devoted to issues surrounding vows. Right up there with being a person of integrity is the principle of keeping one’s word.

However, Kol Nidrei also provided material for anti-Semites. Misunderstanding the point of the prayer, which nullifies only those vows that we make with ourselves, the Jew haters of this world took Kol Nidrei as evidence that you can’t trust a Jew. And some rabbis railed against Kol Nidrei for centuries, because they thought that the less-scrupulous among us would take it as license not to live up to one’s word with impunity.

But you might think of Kol Nidrei today as a kind of relief valve, in particular for the very difficult kinds of resolutions we make with ourselves on Yom Kippur, like, “This year I’m really going to make peace with my estranged sibling,” or, “I’m going to give more tzedaqah.” The promises that we might make to ourselves, when we know that the Book of Life is closing, and we know that we really should do these things, but maybe we have tried and failed at self-improvement in the past. And we might very well fail again.

Keeping your word is very much a part of the value of integrity. And our tradition wants you to keep your word, especially to the others around you. Kol Nidrei does not excuse you from that.

OK, Rabbi, that all sounds very interesting. I want to act on this Jewish value of integrity. How do I do this?

I’m so glad you asked! Here are some ways we can act on this value:

In the personal sphere, that is, in your most immediate relationships, with your children, family and friends:

  • Do what you say you’re going to do.  Be the parent/friend/sibling/spouse that everybody can count on.
  • Follow through on promises, both the good (“I’ll be there to see your baseball game / play”) and the bad (“If you do that again, you’ll be punished.) The Talmud teaches us (BT Bava Metzia 49a) “Let your yes be yes, and your no be no.”
  • Model the behavior you know is best for the others around you. Teach integrity by acting with integrity.

In the communal sphere, that is, in interacting with the people in your neighborhood, your synagogue, your school, your workplace:

  • Decide what are the three characteristics for which you want to be eulogized.  Then consider if your actions and words reflect those characteristics.
  • Integrity means respecting your interlocutor and trusting that reasoned arguments are the only honorable way to have discourse. It is very easy in today’s world for disagreements to devolve into insults. Remember the spark of qedushah/holiness in all people when engaging in this way.
  • Do not criticize unless you are willing to be part of the solution. Always be prepared to offer up suggestions alongside criticisms, and be prepared for the possibility that others may not want your suggestions.

As a citizen of this nation and of the world:

We may not be able to solve all of the complicated problems in the world right now (I do not need to enumerate them for you), but if we were all to take a leap forward on the integrity scale, I think there is a good chance we could at least ease some of the pain. The world needs a good deal of healing right now, and although you might feel quite small, remember that you have real power, which you exercise every time you interact with somebody, whether it is your neighbor, a store clerk, or a stranger on the street. 

You have the potential, with your words and your deeds, to make someone’s day brighter or darker, to build up another’s confidence or to destroy it, to lift up your community by working for the common good or tear it down in your own self-interest. This power demands that we always act with integrity. 

At least three times per day in Jewish prayer tradition, we say, “Elohai netzor leshoni mera, usfatai middabber mirmah.” God, keep my tongue from evil, and my lips from deceit. The Talmud (BT Berakhot 17a) tells us that we should conclude every Amidah with these words. It is a reminder that our words count as much as our actions in creating a world based on integrity.  This is an effective daily meditation on our potential to impact others.

The Zen Buddhist priest, angel Kyodo williams, says the following in her book, Radical Dharma

We cannot have a healed society, we cannot have change, we cannot have justice, if we do not reclaim and repair the human spirit.

If we model integrity in the personal, communal, national and worldwide realms, we have the potential to heal and uplift the human spirit. If we act out of selfishness, deception, bias, prejudice, and fear, we will only continue to see our world crumble. 

The choice is ours. Pick the road of integrity, for the benefit of all of our fellow people. Remember your obligation to raise the level of qedushah / holiness in this world. Seek the betterment of yourself and others. I am confident that, by acting on the Jewish value of integrity, we can regain a more civilized world. We are all in this together.

Shanah tovah! 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, evening service of Yom Kippur 5781, 9/27/2020.)

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Sermons

Names, Not Numbers – Bemidbar 5780

When I was a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, students would make funny videos for Purim that we would share at the Purim se’udah, the festive daytime Purim meal. One that I will never forget featured a rabbinical student stuck in the beit midrash, the big study hall where students would gather to learn traditional texts together. The doors are locked and he cannot get out, and it’s time to daven minhah (recite the afternoon service). So he gathers together a minyan (prayer quorum) of familiar, well-loved books: the dictionary of rabbinical Hebrew and Aramaic by Rabbi Marcus Jastrow, the book of Talmudic terminology by Rabbi Yitzhak Frank, a volume of Talmud edited by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and so forth. He stands them up in a circle, as if they are davening with him. These books were so familiar to all of us that we referred to them not by their titles, but by the names of their authors. Rabbi Jastrow, z”l, although he passed away in 1903, was a dear friend to all of us through his dictionary.

Rabbi Marcus Jastrow

Parashat Bemidbar begins with a census. (A particularly hot topic right now, of course, because 2020 is a census year here in America.) Bemidbar is the first Torah reading in the book of the same name, which is called “Numbers” in English. Why Numbers? Because it begins with a whole lot of census data. (Hebrew names of the books and the parashiyyot / weekly Torah readings are derived from the first significant Hebrew word at the beginning of the book or parashah; the English names, mostly Greek, are thematic.)

We, the Jews, have been obsessed with numbers (not the book, but the concept) particularly since the late 19th century, when Jewish historians and demographers in Eastern Europe began the enterprise of studying their people. And yet, as you can see, there is a basis for this obsession in the Torah; this is one of a few passages that counts the Israelites. 

And yet, I am drawn to the fact that immediately after God gives Moshe the imperative to count the people, the Torah then launches into names. “Ve-eleh shemot ha-anashim asher ya’amdu ittekhem.” (Bemidbar / Numbers 1:5) “And these are the names of the people that will stand with you.” And because of this passage, the Torah preserves not only the names of Moshe and Aharon and Miriam, not only the names of the twelve tribes, that is, the twelve sons of Ya’aqov, but also such names as Shelumiel ben Tzurishaddai and Elishama ben Ammihud, two of the tribal chieftains that were identified this morning. And let’s face it: I’m sure Shelumiel and Elishama were great guys, along with Pagi’el ben Okhran and Gamaliel ben Pedahzur, but they are not exactly well-known figures in Jewish life. 

The 16th-century Italian commentator Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, noting the presence of this list of names up front in a passage primarily about numbers, tells us that there is a reason that the names are mentioned here, instead of merely the numbers. Everyone of that generation, he says, was identified individually by a name that expressed his/her personal character. Not all of those names are in the Torah, of course, but Seforno wants us to think of them as individuals, not merely numbers.

Other commentators observe that the census was completed, to use contemporary parlance, with non-anonymized data, i.e. they counted the people by name, not merely by numbers. And why? The 14th-century Provençal commentator Rabbi Levi ben Gershom points to a traditional Jewish superstition about counting people: if they do it by name, rather than number, he suggests, it would not bring a plague upon the Israelites. 

(You may know that there are a few related customs when trying to figure out how many people are in the room to make a minyan, a quorum of ten people, like using a scriptural verse that contains ten words, or the tremendously charming and somewhat confusing, “Not one, not two,” method. My father, the mathematician, really likes that one.)

Indeed, even the commandment from God to count the people suggests the personal nature of the count. The text uses the idiom, “Se’u et rosh kol adat benei Yisrael.” (Bemidbar 1:2) “Lift up the head of each of the Israelites.”

We do not merely count people. We recognize their names; we lift up their heads, as if to see their faces, as if to acknowledge their humanity.

Perhaps some of us have known people with numbers tattooed on their arms. My father-in-law’s number was A-7082; his name was Ervin Hoenig. Part of the Nazi system of dehumanization was to replace names with numbers. 

At this time, when we mourn so many that our nation has lost due to the mishandling of the virus response by our authorities, we might remember that each of the roughly 100,000 dead Americans each had a story, each had people who loved them, each had lives in which they sought meaning and love and companionship.

From the New York Times’ listing of names of 100,000 COVID-19 victims, 5/24/2020

People are kind of hard-wired to count ourselves. The Zoom software that many of us are using now tells us exactly how many devices are connected.

But the value of gathering – for prayer, for learning, for mourning, for celebrating – is not how many people showed up to a service or a program or how many times an online video was streamed.  Rather, it is whether or not lives were touched by the content. Dr. Ron Wolfson, professor of education at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, who has dedicated much of his recent work to helping synagogues improve themselves, points out that it does not matter how many people show up to a class or a program or even a service, but rather, how many relationships were made or strengthened.

I suppose that is the essential challenge that we face right now as a community. How do we build or enhance relationships when we are so far apart from each other? Do online minyanim, for example, reinforce personal connections?

Building relationships is an essential part of Jewish community, of course. But the most valuable thing, and the foundation of all relationships, is Torah. That is why our tradition suggests that the depth of commitment to learning Torah is so great. That is why Rambam (Mishneh Torah Hilkhot Talmud Torah 3:10-11) teaches us that Torah cannot be acquired if you are well-fed, or during the day, when there are too many distractions. One must be hungry and focused to truly learn Torah.

Rambam, writing in the 12th century, was mostly drawing on early rabbinic literature from a millennium earlier. In the wake of the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, these ancient rabbis turned Judaism from a centralized, hierarchical, sacrificial worship system into a portable, democratic, knowledge-based system that depended on teaching and learning and passing on that knowledge from generation to generation. (If you’re interested in learning more about this, please come to my session via Zoom at the Pittsburgh community’s Tikkun Leil Shavuot on Wednesday evening, 5/27.)

This is what these rabbis said in the 2nd century:

Pirqei Avot 6:4

כַּךְ הִיא דַּרְכָּהּ שֶׁל תּוֹרָה, פַּת בְּמֶלַח תֹּאכַל, וּמַיִם בִּמְשׂוּרָה תִשְׁתֶּה, וְעַל הָאָרֶץ תִּישַׁן, וְחַיֵּי צַעַר תִּחְיֶה, וּבַתּוֹרָה אַתָּה עָמֵל, אִם אַתָּה עֹשֶׂה כֵן, (תהלים קכח) אַשְׁרֶיךָ וְטוֹב לָךְ. אַשְׁרֶיךָ בָּעוֹלָם הַזֶּה וְטוֹב לָךְ לָעוֹלָם הַבָּא

Such is the way [of a life] of Torah: you shall eat bread with salt, and rationed water shall you drink; you shall sleep on the ground, your life will be one of privation, and in Torah shall you labor.

Pirqei Avot 6:5

[This mishnah identifies the forty-eight ways in which Torah is acquired]

בְּתַלְמוּד, בִּשְׁמִיעַת הָאֹזֶן, בַּעֲרִיכַת שְׂפָתַיִם, בְּבִינַת הַלֵּב, בְּשִׂכְלוּת הַלֵּב, בְּאֵימָה, בְּיִרְאָה, בַּעֲנָוָה, בְּשִׂמְחָה, בְּטָהֳרָה, בְּשִׁמּוּשׁ חֲכָמִים, בְּדִקְדּוּק חֲבֵרִים, וּבְפִלְפּוּל הַתַּלְמִידִים, בְּיִשּׁוּב, בַּמִּקְרָא, בַּמִּשְׁנָה, בְּמִעוּט סְחוֹרָה, בְּמִעוּט דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ, בְּמִעוּט תַּעֲנוּג, בְּמִעוּט שֵׁינָה, בְּמִעוּט שִׂיחָה, בְּמִעוּט שְׂחוֹק, בְּאֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם, בְּלֵב טוֹב, בֶּאֱמוּנַת חֲכָמִים, וּבְקַבָּלַת הַיִּסּוּרִין

… by study, attentive listening, proper speech, by an understanding heart, by an intelligent heart, by awe, by fear, by humility, by joy, by attending to the sages, by critical give and take with friends, by fine argumentation with disciples, by clear thinking, by study of Scripture, by study of mishnah, by a minimum of sleep, by a minimum of chatter, by a minimum of pleasure, By a minimum of frivolity, by a minimum of preoccupation with worldly matters, by long-suffering, by generosity, by faith in the sages, by acceptance of suffering…

[…and that’s only 24 of the 48!]

How do we learn Torah and apply it to our lives? Through serious, hard work and dedication, with a minimum of qalut rosh – lightness of the head. And why is this so important? So that we do not become numbers. So that we are names. We are people, with a history, and a past, and a nation, and a homeland, and a whole lot of ancient yearnings.

What is really of value? Not how many of us there are, but rather our stories, our laws, our values, our interpretations, yes, even our holy disagreements. Those are the things that make us human. Those are the things that make us Jewish.

Let the numbers be for the people who are interested in things.

We understand the value of people, of names, of stories, and in telling and re-telling our national saga. Forget the Romans; that is why we, the Jews, are still here. Torah has sustained us until this very moment. Torah gives our names meaning; Torah fills our lives with context and depth.

Numbers? No thanks. As a former engineer, I’ve had my fill of numbers. I’ll take the names instead.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 5/23/2020.)

Categories
Sermons

Don’t Give Up on the World – Noah 5780

Have you ever been in the situation where you’ve tried and failed at something multiple times, and then you finally achieved your objective, but still it was not quite good enough?

And yet you learned to live with that imperfection, right? I feel like this happens to me all the time.

There is a captivating midrash (explanatory story external to the Torah text) that speaks of God’s creation of the world as an iterative process rather than a one-time event. It draws on language that we read last week in Parashat Bereshit (the very beginning of the book of Genesis):

אָמַר רַבִּי יְהוּדָה בַּר סִימוֹן, יְהִי עֶרֶב אֵין כְּתִיב כָּאן, אֶלָּא וַיְהִי עֶרֶב, מִכָּאן שֶׁהָיָה סֵדֶר זְמַנִּים קֹדֶם לָכֵן. אָמַר רַבִּי אַבָּהוּ מְלַמֵּד שֶׁהָיָה בּוֹרֵא עוֹלָמוֹת וּמַחֲרִיבָן, עַד שֶׁבָּרָא אֶת אֵלּוּ, אָמַר דֵּין הַנְיָן לִי, יַתְהוֹן לָא הַנְיָן לִי. אָמַר רַבִּי פִּנְחָס טַעְמֵיהּ דְּרַבִּי אַבָּהוּ (בראשית א, לא): וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת כָּל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וְהִנֵּה טוֹב מְאֹד, דֵּין הַנְיָין לִי יַתְהוֹן לָא הַנְיָין לִי

Rabbi Yehudah bar Simon said: it does not say, ‘Yehi erev’ / ‘It was evening,’ but ‘Vayhi erev’ / ‘And it was evening.’ (Bereshit / Genesis 1:5) Hence we derive that there was a time-system prior to this. Rabbi Abbahu said: This teaches us that God created worlds and destroyed them, saying, ‘This one pleases me;    those did not please me.’ Rabbi Pinehas said, Rabbi Abbahu derives this from the verse, ‘And God saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good,’ (Bereshit / Genesis 1:31) as if to say, ‘This one pleases me, those others did not please me.’ (Bereshit Rabba 3:7)

The midrash says that prior to the six-day creation story that we read last week, God had already created and destroyed many previous versions of the world. We understand this to mean that each of these creations was somehow flawed, and God knew that a better one was possible. The midrash does not suggest how many of these pre-worlds there were – it could have been 3 or 97 million.

And yet, we know that this world is, of course, flawed. Very much flawed. We live in a far-from-perfect universe.

And yet, when it comes to Noah, God does not destroy the world entirely; Noah and his family are saved. And this despite the opening language of today’s parashah (weekly Torah reading), in which we read no less than four occurrences of the shoresh (tri-literal Hebrew root) shin-het-tav, meaning to ruin, corrupt, violate: e.g. Vatishahet ha-aretz… vatimale ha-aretz hamas (Bereshit / Genesis 6:11). The world was corrupt and filled with lawlessness. And the text does not exempt Noah himself – he is described as “ish tzaddiq, tamim hayah bedorotav” – a righteous man, blameless in his generation. It was just fine up until the bedorotav – in a sea of corruption and lawlessness and violence, to call somebody righteous relative to his peers is faint praise at best.

Noah’s Ark. France, Paris, 1240s. Pierpont Morgan Library, MS M.638, fol. 2v

So God puts all of God’s chips on this one, only somewhat dysfunctional family, along with one set of each type of creature. Which leads us to wonder, why didn’t God simply start over once again, like the midrash explains? For God, the world must seem like a kind of cosmic-scale Etch-a-Sketch. Why not just erase the Etch-a-Sketch and start again?

And the answer must be, of course, that God saw some kind of value in not starting over from scratch. This build was far from perfect, but there was something that worked. Cosmos 97 million point one, while deeply corrupt, had some redeemable features.

And particularly, you might say that it was something about the human spirit that must have intrigued the Qadosh Barukh Hu (Holy Blessed One, i.e. God) to maintain this version of humanity. We all know that people are not perfect; that we are complicated, that we are deceitful, that we are inclined to mistreat one another and the Earth. We know that people are bad at seeing the consequences of their actions, particularly in the long term.

And yet, even as the palette of humanity has yielded malfeasance of many different varieties, we have also filled this world with great creativity and fantastic music, art, architecture, technology, literature and so forth.

So God stuck with Noah, this guy who was not too bad.

And let’s consider the state of the world today:

We have just passed one secular year since the anti-Semitic massacre that occurred a few blocks from here, the deadliest attack on Jews in America ever, and we are approaching the first yahrzeit (annual day of mourning) for those whom we lost on that day.

Wildfires are spreading near Los Angeles, something which has become a regular occurrence. Several important Jewish institutions, including the American Jewish University, where Rabbi Jeremy was ordained, and the Skirball Center, a fantastic Jewish museum, are in the evacuation zone. My brother-in-law has been told that he may have to evacuate as well.

Floods devastated Houston once again this year.

Great Britain has its knickers in a twist over Brexit. Syria has become a Turkish and Russian free-for-all. Venezuela continues to be a tragic, starving mess. Brazil continues to allow the rainforest to be consumed for the sake of development.

Our nation is facing a constitutional crisis of sorts; for only the third time in American history, a president faces charges of high crimes and misdemeanors. 

Thomas Friedman, a generally clear-headed, sober, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the New York Times, wrote a particular disturbing column this past week in which he stated that, “Not in the Cold War, not during Vietnam, not during Watergate did I ever fear more for my country.” Friedman’s concern is that the magical mix of deceitful politicians coupled with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s stated unwillingness to take down deliberately false political advertisements may, in fact, break America.

I must say that, despite the current governmental challenges in Israel (after two elections, politicians have been unable to form a governing coalition), aliyah is looking pretty good right now. (And you all know that I am a big supporter of American aliyah – the best thing that we can do to support Israel and work for positive change in Israeli society and policies is to move there.)  

But back to Noah. We have reason right now to want to throw up our hands in defeat. To concede that we cannot change the current trajectory, that we cannot fix what is so severely broken. That the depth of corruption and lawlessness all around is so thick that the world is unredeemable. We can probably think of a whole bunch of reasons to want to throw in the towel right now. But we cannot. 

Rather, I want us all to think like God at the beginning of Parashat Noah. I want us to consider the flawed world that we have, and accept that although change is difficult, that we have the ability, and indeed the imperative to try to improve it. God could have chosen to shake that Etch-a-Sketch once again; but instead of doing that, God doubled down on the less-than-perfect Noah, who, by the way goes on to fail even more, with the whole vineyard episode.

No, we cannot hide out, drunk in our own tents and ignore the brokenness around us. Rather, we must pick ourselves up and act.

Noah, hardly a perfect person, was tapped to be the seed of humanity. Moshe, who, when we get to the book of Shemot / Exodus, will try to flee from his destiny, and yet will ultimately lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Yonah (Jonah), as we read on Yom Kippur, has no confidence in himself to save the people of Nineveh, but eventually does so. Our tradition is built upon heroes who are anything but heroic.  They are ordinary – that is to say, flawed – people who accomplish great things. That is something that we can all relate to.

And if these Biblical archetypes do not inspire, consider the modern folks who have created real change for the better despite dire circumstances. Consider Rosa Parks, whose simple act of refusing to move on a public bus became a symbol that inspired the civil rights movement. Consider Malala Yousefzai, whose teenage advocacy on behalf of education for Pakistani girls led to an assassination attempt by a Taliban gunman, which she survived, and then went on to win a Nobel Prize. Consider Theodor Herzl, a Hungarian journalist covering the Dreyfus Affair, whose vision of a Jewish state where Jews would not be subject to the deep-seated anti-Semitism of Europe ultimately became a reality. Consider those who toiled in anonymity for years to create vaccines against horrible diseases; those who led rebellions against tyrannnical governments in public squares, Tiananmen and Tahrir and elsewhere; those artists and writers and investigative reporters who call out the bad actors in society.

None of these people are perfect; all of them live in the same broken world in which we do. And yet they stood up and made change happen. That could be any one of us. 

Some of you know that one of my favorite go-to “refrigerator-magnet texts” is Pirqei Avot 2:21, in which Rabbi Tarfon tells us:

לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה

Lo alekha hamelakhah ligmor, velo attah ben horin libbatel mimmena

It’s not up to you to finish the task, but neither are you free to give up on it.

No matter how deep the dysfunction of this world, think like God! Grab hold of the good and run with it. You’re not perfect, we’re not perfect, and the results will not be perfect, but you may just change the world for the better.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 11/2/2019.)

Categories
Sermons

Not Just Checking the Box – Tzav 5779

One of the most fundamental concepts in Jewish life is that of Torah lishmah, learning the words of our tradition merely for the sake of learning. Consider the following from Pirqei Avot (6:1):

רַבִּי מֵאִיר אוֹמֵר כָּל הָעוֹסֵק בַּתּוֹרָה לִשְׁמָהּ, זוֹכֶה לִדְבָרִים הַרְבֵּה. וְלֹא עוֹד אֶלָּא שֶׁכָּל הָעוֹלָם כֻּלּוֹ כְדַי הוּא לוֹ

Rabbi Meir says: Anyone who involves himself in Torah for its own sake merits many things, and moreover the entire world is worthwhile for his sake; He is called “friend,” “beloved,” “lover of the Omnipresent,” “one who loves humankind,” “delighter of the Omnipresent,” “delighter of [all] creatures.” He is clothed in humility and reverence, and it prepares him to be righteous, devout, upright and trustworthy, and it distances him from sin, and draws him near to merit. We enjoy from him counsel and comprehension, understanding and strength, as it is said (Proverbs 8:14): “Mine is counsel and comprehension, I am understanding, mine is strength.” It gives him kingship and dominion, and [the ability to] investigate in judgment, and the secrets of the Torah are revealed to him, and he becomes like an ever-strengthening spring, and like a river that does not stop. He is modest and long-tempered, and forgives insult to him; And it enlarges him and raises him above all [that God] made.

Torah lishmah is the key to perfecting ourselves. All of the fundamental human traits that we desire—humility, lovingkindness, reverence, uprightness, faith, compassion, gratitude, modesty, forgiveness and so forth—flow from learning, from analyzing, from interpreting the words of our tradition.

I recall reading some time ago that the difference between the Western approach to education and that of the East is that while in the East education is understood to be the way to improve yourself, in the West we use education as a means to acquire skills that help us manipulate the world to our own personal benefit. The difference is one of focus: internal vs. external. Torah lishmah, like the Eastern tradition, is primarily an internal activity. It leads us to be better people.

***

The university admissions fraud scandal, revealed two weeks ago is, unfortunately, not too surprising. In an educational system that is already clearly skewed in favor of those who grow up with means, does it surprise anybody that people who can afford to pay half a million dollars to guarantee their kid admission to Yale will do so, even through illegal channels.

But in many ways, it is symptomatic one of the greatest challenges that our society faces. We are all striving to push, to achieve, to do, that we rarely take time to consider our values. We take for granted that we must push harder, but we sometimes cannot see the humanity around us: the loved ones who need us most, the neighbors, and indeed neighborhoods in distress, the ways in which our personal choices might undermine the common good.

We are so obsessed with quantifiable achievement—grades, test scores, numbers of hours spent in extra-curriculars—that we enable a framework in which our children spend more and more time in activities that will make their university applications stand out from the crowd, that will give them the edge. We are so in love with brands – Harvard, Stanford, Georgetown, etc. – that we encourage our teens to check more boxes, to “diversify,” to extra-curricular themselves to the point of exhaustion.  

What do we want our children to be? Do we want them to be overstretched automatons? Do we want them to be successful money-making machines? Or do we want them to focus on the non-quantifiables?

In my experience, when asked, parents tend to say things like, “I want my child to be a good person, to make good choices, to know right from wrong, to be respectful, to be happy.” Nobody ever says, at least not in front of a rabbi, “I want my child to live in a fancy neighborhood and drive an expensive car.”

So how did we get here? Are we all just fooling ourselves?

Greed, avarice, egotism, selfishness. These are the traits that have enabled the bad actors who produced this scandal. And who is responsible for this? We are. We all are. Because no matter what we might tell ourselves, our children seem to think that the key to happiness in life is getting into a well-known university. Because they are all running themselves ragged chasing after that fantasy. And where do they get that idea? From us. Adults.

Marissa Tait, Beth Shalom’s Youth Director, tells me that our teens are all over-scheduled. Taken in isolation, each one of the following activities are important and laudable:  They take SAT classes, do sports, go to JLine, various school clubs, sing with HaZamir, and of course they are staying up every night until midnight or later doing their homework for all of their AP classes.

They are all deeply invested in these things. However, with the expectation, according to author William Deresiewicz in his book, Excellent Sheep, that every college applicant has 7-10 extra-curriculars, might it be possible that these kids hardly have time to be kids? As parents, shouldn’t we be asking ourselves if we are giving our children the tools necessary to build the character traits that will make them benei Adam, human beings?

How can you appreciate what you have learned if you have no time to do so? How can you improve yourself, building on the values your education endows you with, if you are too busy checking all the boxes? How can you acquire depth, recognize historical patterns that continue to play out today, acknowledge the poetic vulnerability of the human soul if you do not have time in which to reflect?

Entirely coincidentally, the Making Caring Common Project of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education issued a report this week about how parental messaging regarding the focus on college admissions is actually damaging to teens.

The report notes that

…an intense focus on academic achievement has squeezed out serious attention to ethical character both in a large majority of high schools and a large number of families. Many parents—particularly, middle- and upper-income parents—seeking coveted spots for their children in elite colleges are failing to focus on what really matters in this process. In an effort to give their kids everything, these parents often end up robbing them of what counts.

Furthermore, the process

…corrodes the development of core aspects of young people’s ethical character, often fueling their self-interest, compromising their integrity, and depleting their capacity to either know themselves deeply or to authentically articulate their identity in a college application.

The point we have reached is a destructive one. The literature shows that rates of anxiety and depression have been rising for some time.

So what is the antidote to all of this?

Among the strategies that the report suggests are,

  • “Help your teen contribute to others in meaningful ways”;
  • “Advocate for elevating ethical character”; and
  • “Model and encourage gratitude.”

Hmm. Where might one learn these things?

Pulling back the lens, considering our teens and all the rest of us, what we need is not the checking of boxes and the micro-management of our packaged identities. What we need instead is meaning. Connection. Highlighting the holy moments. And we have a framework for that: it’s called Judaism.

Yes, Shabbat. Yes, holidays. Yes, highlighting the holy moments through lifecycle events such as bar mitzvah. Yes, tefillah / prayer that is self-reflective. All of those things are valuable.

But all the moreso, real learning. Studying the words of our tradition. Torah lishmah. Torah for its own sake. Because that is how we improve ourselves; that is how we internalize the true value of tzedaqah / charitable acts of righteousness, gratitude, empathy, humility, and so forth.

Talmud: Berakhot 35b

אמר רבה בר בר חנה אמר רבי יוחנן משום רבי יהודה ברבי אלעאי: בא וראה שלא כדורות הראשונים דורות האחרונים, דורות הראשונים עשו תורתן קבע ומלאכתן עראי – זו וזו נתקיימה בידן, דורות האחרונים שעשו מלאכתן קבע ותורתן עראי – זו וזו לא נתקיימה בידן

Rabba bar bar Ḥana said that Rabbi Yoḥanan said in the name of Rabbi Yehuda, son of Rabbi El’ai: Come and see that the latter generations are not like the earlier generations. The earlier generations made their Torah study a regular activity and their work occasional, and these were both successful for them. However, the latter generations who made their work regular and their Torah occasional, neither work nor study was successful for them.

We need to make sure that Torah lishmah is an essential feature of our lives. We need to focus more on the soul, on improving our internal character.

Here at Beth Shalom, particularly through Derekh, offer all those tools, for adults, for teens, for everybody. We are offering Torah lishmah, Torah for its own sake in many ways, through programs and discussions that take place not only on Shabbat, but all week long.

Come take advantage of them. You will improve yourself and your life, and the more that we do so the greater chance we have of building a better world, one that reflects all of the values that we say we hold dear. And just maybe we will together help teach our children to be benei Adam, human beings.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 3/23/2019.

Categories
High Holidays Sermons

Increase the Love: Ha’Olam / The World – Yom Kippur 5779

Wait! You might want to read the first three items in the series before you read this one:

Increase the Love: Ani / The Self – Rosh Hashanah 5779, Day 1

Increase the Love: HaMishpahah / The Family – Rosh Hashanah 5779, Day 2

Increase the Love: Beyahad / Community – Kol Nidrei 5779

***

In the final installment of this High Holiday sermon cycle, we are widening the circle a whole lot more today. Beyond ourselves, beyond our family, beyond our community, it is upon us to love the world. Today we address the fourth letter in אהבה / ahavah / love: the second heh is for העולם / ha’olam / the world. The idea that I am trying to keep in front of us all this year, this prime year of 5779, is to increase the love.

Because the world needs some lovin’. Think of where we are right now. Think of all the tumult going on in the world. Forget American politics: think of how Great Britain has been torn apart over Brexit. Think of natural disasters – hurricanes and typhoons. Think of the Rohingya Muslims who have been slaughtered by the Buddhist population of Myanmar. Think of the violence that has erupted in India because of fake news stories shared on social media. Think of nationalist governments in Russia and Hungary that are busy eroding freedoms and judicial authorities, and the other nations like Italy and Sweden and Poland that are moving that way. Think of the tidal wave of refugees around the world, people uprooted from their homes by war and malfeasance. Think of the mess that is Syria.

Something that we say when we enter the Ten Days of Teshuvah / Repentance (of which today is the tenth day) is a line from the prophet Isaiah: “Shalom, shalom larahoq velaqarov.” Greetings, greetings to all who are far and all who are near. In this season of teshuvah, repentance, and renewal, we see ourselves as connected to everybody, be they close or far away geographically or spiritually. We remember them all; we welcome them all.

love lady bugs

We, the Jews, have been on this planet for thousands of years. For much of this time we have lived as strangers in strange lands, sometimes at peace with our neighbors, sometimes not.

But at this particular moment in time, when there are 7.6 billion people on Earth, far more than it can handle; when sin’at hinnam / baseless hatred is running high all over the world; when political rifts divide us so angrily, and social media bubbles and algorithms exacerbate those rifts; when terrorism and war and displacement have ruined so many lives and upended stable political orders, there is only one thing that can save us:

Ahavat olam. Love of the world.

We invoke love explicitly in tefillah / Jewish prayer in the paragraph right before we say the Shema, the essential credo of Judaism. In the morning, we remember that the gift of Torah is the essential statement of God’s love for us Jews; in the evening, we mention God’s eternal love for the people of Israel: Ahavat olam beit Yisrael ammekha ahavta. With an eternal love have You loved the house of Israel.

And yet, that phrase, ahavat olam, can also be translated as “love of the world.” The suggestion then would be that God loves us with the same love with which God loves the entire world. All people. I like that reading.

And just as God loves the whole world, so should we. It is the farthest reach of Maimonides’ concentric circles of caring. And even though all love must start within us and flow outward, even though Maimonides tells us that our first obligation to perform tzedaqah / acts of righteousness is for those closest to us, we cannot neglect the rest of the world.

In Israeli scholar Yuval Harari’s take on the cognitive history of humanity called Sapiens, he tells the following story:

On 20 July 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the surface of the moon. In the months leading up to their expedition, the Apollo 11 astronauts trained in a remote moon-like desert in the western United States. The area is home to several Native American communities, and there is a story – or legend – describing an encounter between the astronauts and one of the locals.

One day as they were training, the astronauts came across an old Native American. The man asked them what they were doing there. They replied that they were part of a research expedition that would shortly travel to explore the moon. When the old man heard that, he fell silent for a few moments, and then asked the astronauts if they could do him a favor.

‘What do you want?’ they asked.

‘Well,’ said the old man, ‘the people of my tribe believe that holy spirits live on the moon.  I was wondering if you could pass an important message to them from my people.’

‘What’s the message?’ asked the astronauts.

The man uttered something in his tribal language, and then asked the astronauts to repeat it again and again until they had memorized it correctly.

‘What does it mean?’ asked the astronauts.

‘Oh, I cannot tell you. It’s a secret that only our tribe and the moon spirits are allowed to know.’

When they returned to their base, the astronauts searched and searched until they found someone who could speak the tribal language, and asked him to translate the secret message. When they repeated what they had memorized, the translator started to laugh uproariously. When he calmed down, the astronauts asked him what it meant. The man explained that the sentence they had memorized so carefully said, ‘Don’t believe a single word these people are telling you. They have come to steal your lands.’

moon

Human history has demonstrated over and over that the members of Homo Sapiens do not love each other enough. And we have certainly not loved God’s Creation. Another poignant detail that Harari includes in his book is that wherever humans have lived, they have more or less destroyed the natural environment – the flora and fauna, the topography, the rivers and lakes and oceans.

Our member Jordan Fischbach spoke about this at a Lox & Learning session this past Sunday morning: Pittsburgh currently averages zero days per year where the temperature is over 95 degrees F; in 30 years, the average will be 20 days/yr over 95 degrees. Sea levels are rising, and they may rise as much as eight feet by the end of this century. Remember when the flooding like we are seeing right now in North Carolina and in Houston last year was unusual? Given all the data, we know that we are responsible for climate change, yet are failing to address the challenge.

But maybe – just maybe – we are at a moment in which we can change. That is, after all, the whole point of these days, the Ten Days of Teshuvah / Return, beginning with Rosh Hashanah and concluding today.

At the Rabbinical Assembly convention last April, a rabbinic colleague of mine, Rabbi Susan Grossman in Columbia, MD, spoke about how she had found that some members of her community were unable to talk to each other in today’s political climate: people were not going to Thanksgiving dinners with their family because of deep ideological disagreements. (I have heard of similar cases here in PGH.) So she developed a plan to work on this – she brought in a group that helps facilitate conversations that bring people together.

She also told the following story, which I found particularly moving:

During one of our many interfaith programs, I met a woman wearing a hijab and a beautifully embroidered Bedouin dress. I complimented her on her dress and we got to talking. She was a Palestinian pediatrician, the grandmother of two little boys, one of whom was playing on the beach when he was hit and killed by an Israeli rocket during the Gaza War a few years ago. She stood stiffly before me, clearly bitter and angry. My heart broke for her. How could it not? I opened my hands, palms up, inviting her to take them. She did. We took a step toward each other; two mothers sharing tragic news. I looked into her eyes and said truthfully, deeply, that I was so sorry; losing a child, a grandchild, is the worst thing that can happen to anyone; what a tragedy it is that we haven’t found a way for both Israelis and Palestinians to live in their own states in peace.

Her stance softened, sadness replaced the anger I first had seen. She looked at me, gauging me, and I, her. I acknowledged how I could not compare my experience to hers and began to share how Hamas rockets had rained down on me and the families with me when we were in Israel in the days leading up to the Gaza War. I asked her if perhaps we could work together for all our children’s sake. She squeezed my hands, gave a small nod, and said, ‘You are a good Jew.’ I replied, ‘There are many.’ We returned together to the program. I doubt I changed this woman’s attitude about Israel at all. But perhaps next time she meets a Jew she won’t automatically see an enemy.

Every Shabbat morning, and on all holidays here at Beth Shalom, when we recite our Prayer for the Country, we invoke the messianic vision of Isaiah: “Lo yisa goi el goi herev, velo yilmedu od milhamah / Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they anymore learn war.”

Now, while many of you know me to be an optimist, I am not a Pollyanna, a naif who believes that Isaiah’s vision can be implemented overnight. Although once upon a time, John Lennon’s lyric, “Imagine all the people, sharing all the world” lit a fire in my idealistic teenage soul, in the decades since I have come to understand that everything is a little more complicated than that. Humanity will always be a work in progress.

But I do know this: an essential question of the current moment is this: How can we all live here together without destroying each other and the planet?

It might be easy to throw up our hands and say, the world is a lost cause. There is no way that anything I can do can change the trajectory of all the forces in play. I can’t solve climate change. I can’t stop the Iranians or the North Koreans from producing nuclear weapons. I can’t even get people who are driving by on my street to slow down for the sake of children playing nearby.

But everything that we can do to take even simple steps toward increasing the love in this world might help.

Do you remember the Lorax?  The book by Dr. Seuss?  “I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees.”  It contains a powerful message about the use and abuse of God’s creation for selfish purposes.

lorax1

The book concludes by highlighting a word that is absolutely perfect for Yom Kippur.  One word: “Unless.”

This day of prayer, fasting, and self-denial can come and go, and we can be unchanged; we can fail to be transformed by it, unless:

  • Unless we commit ourselves to being responsible for one another.
  • Unless we learn to be sensitized to the needs of others, and step out of our own worlds into theirs.
  • Unless we understand that the long-term needs of the wider society are more important than our own short-term personal needs or desires, and that working for the benefit of the community and the world not only benefits us as individuals but is vital in the long term.
  • Unless we internalize that all of our choices matter – paper or plastic, wind or solar or coal, incandescent, CFL, or LED, and on and on.
  • Unless we see ourselves as connected to the entire world: to the 12-year-old sewing sneakers in Vietnam, to the denizens of Brazilian favelas, to starving Yemeni victims of that country’s civil war, to those terrorized by Boko Haram in Nigeria, to undocumented immigrants in our own neighborhood.
  • Unless we look past ourselves, past our families, and past our own immediate Jewish community to the greater challenges that we face on our planet.

unless

And yes, that’s what this day is all about: increasing the love by improving ourselves, by taking the next step forward.

So given that Judaism is a tradition of action, and that our goal is to increase the love, what can we do?

We can follow the advice of our rabbis on this day. In a little while, when we recite the Untaneh Toqef prayer, we will conclude by saying, “Utshuvah utfillah, utzdaqah ma’avirin et ro’a hagezerah.” Repentance, prayer, and charity will annul the severity of the decree.

  1. Teshuvah / Repentance: we need to look seriously at how we have behaved – as individuals, of course, but also as a nation, as a people, as a species – and determine how to move forward in a way that is healthier for all of us. That might mean working on behalf of fair wages for migrant workers in America, or working toward finding a cure for Zika, or considering the relationship between our economy and our carbon footprint.
  2. Tefillah / Prayer: There is nothing wrong with actually praying, of course, but perhaps we might read this as awareness: be aware of what is going on in the world, and try to figure how your actions might affect people in your neighborhood or far away. Check out the damage that meat consumption causes to the environment. Google the true cost of cheap clothing. Consider how refugees are turning European politics upside-down.
  3. Tzedaqah / Acts of righteousness: Put your money and your time where your mouth is. Find a charity that is doing something good in the world. There are many. You have to do some research first (always a good idea to check out any charity on the website charitynavigator.org), but there is so much to be done, so many ways to love this world.

Love of the world has the power to lessen the severity of the decree, to strengthen bonds between people, to change the outcomes for the better. And you might not be able to love the world enough by yourself, but if we all commit to doing just a little something, imagine the power that we all have together. As Pirkei Avot, the 2nd-century collection of Jewish wisdom tells us, “Lo alekha hamelakhah ligmor, velo atah ben horin lehibbatel mimmena.” It’s not up to you to finish the task, but neither are you free to give up on it. Consider the following:

One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed a boy picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean.

Approaching the boy, he asked, “What are you doing?”

The youth replied, “Throwing starfish back into the ocean.  The surf is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they will die.”

“Son,” the man said, “don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and thousands of starfish?  You can’t make a difference!”

After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the surf.  Then, smiling at the man, he said. “I made a difference for that one.”

Think about it, ladies and gentlemen. You can leave this service today unmoved by our ancient liturgy and the words of our tradition. You can break the fast tonight and be exactly the same person tomorrow that you were yesterday.

Or you can use this day, this holiest day of the year, to figure out how to increase the net love in the world. You can figure out a new way to reach out. Maybe you’d like to volunteer in helping refugee families here in Pittsburgh adapt to a new life. Maybe you can advocate on behalf of those who need food or shelter. Maybe, if you have the means, can help fund a charitable organization to help children in Africa get access to better nutrition.

All you have to do to act on ahavat olam, love of the world, is to step forward, to pick up a starfish, and toss it into the water.

Love. Ve-ahavta lere’akha kamokha. Love your neighbor as yourself; increase the love.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Yom Kippur day, 9/19/2018.)