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Sermons

If I Am Only For Myself: The Toxicity of “Company Over Country” – Noah 5782

הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי? וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי

[Hillel] used to say: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I?…

Pirqei Avot 1:15

I was extraordinarily shocked this week to hear reports of the testimony from whistleblower Frances Haugen, who worked at Facebook in their “civic integrity department,” about how Facebook’s leadership has been aware, from their own extensive research, of potentially toxic effects of its products on its users’ mental health. Despite this research, showing, among other things, that the use of Instagram (which is owned by Facebook) increases thoughts of suicide and eating disorders among teenage girls, Facebook has done effectively nothing to prevent these toxic effects. 

But in particular, the thing that shocked me the most was that at Facebook meetings, CEO Mark Zuckerberg would often conclude by repeating the mantra, “Company over country.”

The accusation that weaves through Ms. Haugen’s testimony is that Facebook has, except in a few limited circumstances, consistently chosen to try to keep your attention focused on Facebook or Instagram or WhatsApp, because the more you keep your eyeballs on those products, the more money Facebook makes, regardless of the cost to our mental health.

We must ask ourselves, how many fewer people could have died of Covid-19 if no misinformation had been spread via Facebook and other social media platforms? How many fewer young women would be suffering from eating disorders or other emotional health issues without the influence of Instagram? How many of us would be spending better quality time with our children, if our noses were not permanently pointed at our screens? Would there have been a home-grown terrorist attack on the halls of Congress, the seat of American democracy, without these tools?

But the problem does not end with Facebook. The wider problem with the very idea of “company over country” is that it sounds like our social contract is broken, that the ties that bind us together as a nation are dangerously frayed; that we have lost the social capital in our society that holds us together, that we have forgotten that we are all in relationship with one another. It is easy for us to recall the first part of the mishnah from the great 1st-century sage Hillel, “Im ein ani li mi li?” If I am not for myself who am I? But perhaps it is more difficult to remember the second part: “Ukhsheani le’atzmi mah ani?” And if I am ONLY for myself, what am I?

And the challenge here is not limited to our social and emotional health. What about the warming climate? The microplastics in the ocean? The chemical contaminants that are now found in our drinking water, and throughout our ecosystem?

Humans are brilliant at manipulating our environment with our God-given intellect and abilities. We are always striving to create new technologies that help us do that even better and cheaper and easier. But we are very, very bad at anticipating negative long-term consequences of such manipulation. We all rush to embrace new technologies, because if something makes your life easier and better, why wouldn’t you? 

But we rarely have the patience or the collective will to determine how these innovations will ultimately affect us over years of use and exposure, how they will affect our brains, our bodies and our environment. And when that change is incremental – rapid in terms of geologic time, but very slow in human years – it is even harder to see and respond to.

Ukhshe-ani le’atzmi mah ani? What am I? Who are we? And what are we destroying by being only for ourselves, and not looking out for others? By focusing on company over country, by looking out only for number one rather than considering the common good?

Parashat Noaḥ opens with a general observation about the state of the world, of the people of his generation (Bereshit / Genesis 6:11):

וַתִּשָּׁחֵ֥ת הָאָ֖רֶץ לִפְנֵ֣י הָֽאֱ-לֹהִ֑ים וַתִּמָּלֵ֥א הָאָ֖רֶץ חָמָֽס׃

The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness.

Vatishahet,” here translated as “became corrupt,” could be better understood as “destroyed.” The Earth was destroyed before God, in the passive (nif’al) voice. Medieval commentators want to make it clear to us that people did this, we were the destroyers. God’s Creation did not merely corrupt itself, as the passive voice suggests. Ibn Ezra, for example, writing in 12th-century Spain:

The meaning of לִפְנֵ֣י הָֽאֱ-לֹהִ֑ים before God is that the humans acted brazenly, like a servant, who in the presence of his master, disobeys him and thereby shows that he does not fear the master.

And this is in the wake of God’s imperative to humanity, which we read last week in Parashat Bereshit (2:15):

וַיִּקַּ֛ח ה’ אֱ-לֹהִ֖ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֑ם וַיַּנִּחֵ֣הוּ בְגַן־עֵ֔דֶן לְעׇבְדָ֖הּ וּלְשׇׁמְרָֽהּ׃

God took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden, to till it and tend it.

The first people had a mission: to take care of the world. And, only one parashah, a few chapters later, like deceptive servants with no respect for their Creator, they abused Creation for their own purposes.

So what does God do to remedy this unfortunate situation? A flood, to start again. To give (as our bar mitzvah said earlier) humanity a second chance.

Ladies and gentlemen, if we have no respect for what we have been given, if we have no fear or reverence for our Master and Creator, if we continue to take, to steal, to abuse, to manipulate, our future looks bleak indeed.

We are destroying. We are corrupting the Earth and ourselves once again. We have placed company over country, time and time again. And we cannot be sure that there will be a second chance this time. 

So what are we going to do about it?

We could wait until the flooding is so bad that climate refugees are streaming into Pittsburgh. We could just wait for another mass shooting, streamed to Facebook Live. We could wait for the troops of chaos mustered by white supremacist groups to cause democracy to crumble. We could inspire even more young women to feel inadequate about themselves. We could install air conditioning in our sukkot, to keep ourselves from sweating as fall temperatures rise, and just let the challenges continue to mount.

There are naysayers in the world, and I am hearing their voices more frequently, who are saying that we are doomed. That we will never be able to prevent the corruption of all life that will lead to the ultimate cataclysm.

Noah, the Eve of the Deluge – 1848, John Linnell

But here is where I prefer to be an optimist. And here is the solution, ladies and gentlemen:

Prayer. Tefillah.

But not like you think. Not necessarily to move God to act to save humanity from itself. But rather, the human side of prayer, prayer which brings us together. Prayer that focuses us and galvanizes us to act. Prayer that serves as the fulcrum of the arm of intention.

Worldwide prayer. Prayer across communities. Prayer across continents and timezones. Praying together in multiple languages, in multiple religious contexts.

We have to say words of prayer together so that we can think together and act together and understand that we are all in this together.

And of course, some of you are thinking, “Oh, come on, Rabbi. Religion is going to solve this?” 

Well, I have news for you:  People of faith are great at one thing: Gathering. We gather for community, to harness intent and to tap into our spiritual well. It is through gathering with a holy purpose that we can arouse the worldwide will to take on the intransigence of governments and corporations, who actually have the power to save us from ourselves.

We have many microcosmic prayer groups scattered all over the world. But people of faith – people who understand the value of religious traditions and teachings and reverence for what God has given us – have much more strength if we are united, so that we can stand together against the corrupt, destructive path of “company over country.”

Google announced this week, perhaps inspired by Facebook’s missteps, that they will no longer place ads alongside climate change denial. Many of the world’s automakers have pledged to turn their fleets electric in the coming decade. Some governments are coming around to the need to rein in the “company over country” model. Those are all good pieces of news.

But what will really make sure that we understand that we will only solve these challenges together? It will only happen if we can lead the world to a better place through shared meditation, shared words of peace and reverence and contrition, gathering together, however that might happen, to respect the qedushah / holiness in one another, to break bread together and sensitize ourselves to the needs of the other, to see humanity over company and country, and to seek the common good over myopic selfishness.

Ukhsheani leatzmi, mah ani? If I am only for myself, what am I?

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 10/9/2021.)

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Sermons

Building Bridges of Prayer – Bo 5781

The 46th president of the United States, just before he was sworn in on Wednesday, did something remarkable: he prayed. As his predecessor boarded Air Force One to head out of town, Joe Biden went to the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, presumably to daven (pray) the Catholic equivalent of shaharit / the morning service.

As you know, I am a big fan of prayer. I do it every day, and I am convinced that tefillah / prayer is good for you. It is the original Jewish form of mindfulness meditation. Tefillah centers me; in the morning it gets me ready to face the day; in the evening it is a gentle, reflective conclusion, an opportunity to check in with myself. 

I am convinced that if we all did just a little more prayer, if we all took reflective moments more frequently, our world would be a better, kinder, gentler, more united world. And of course that applies to all of us – not just the Jews, of course, or the Christians, but all of us, and even those who do not belong to a particular faith tradition. Prayer, whatever form it takes or whatever you call it, has the potential to bring us all together, to build bridges.

The television coverage that I saw on Wednesday morning did not actually show the president-elect in prayer, just the exterior of the church. Nonetheless, to see this very public, yet also very private moment of prayer brought tears to my eyes.

A little while later, Father Leo O’Donovan, a Catholic priest, gave the invocation before the swearing-in, and he said the following:

There is a power in each and every one of us that lives by turning to every other one of us, a thrust of the spirit to cherish and care and stand by others, and above all those most in need. It is called love, and its path is to give ever more of itself. Today, it is called American patriotism, born not of power and privilege but of care for the common good – “with malice toward none and with charity for all.”

In Father O’Donovan’s words, I hear the yearning to be once again “one nation, under God,” acknowledging the love and faith that should bind us together as a society in pursuit of the common good. 

And so we find ourselves this week in perhaps a more prayerful stance as a nation, and it is absolutely serendipitous that we read from Parashat Bo this morning, including arguably the most essential items in the story of yetzi’at Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt.

One of the key features of the Exodus narrative is that the freedom, the redemption from slavery that Moshe and the Israelites seek includes as a fundamental principle the ability to worship the one true God. By definition, slavery (in Hebrew, עבדות avdut, from the shoresh עבד, to serve), precludes service to God. Integral to that freedom for the Israelites is the license to worship God, the autonomy to be a servant of faith rather than a servant of other people. 

Almost every time, when Moshe approaches Pharaoh to ask for freedom, he says something similar to what we find up front in Parashat Bo, Shemot / Exodus 10:7: שַׁלַּח֙ אֶת־הָ֣אֲנָשִׁ֔ים וְיַֽעַבְד֖וּ ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵיהֶ֑ם Shalah et ha-anashim veya’avdu et Adonai eloheihem. Let the people go to worship the Lord their God! 

Freedom, as the Torah sees it, includes that holy relationship with the Qadosh Barukh Hu.

And so too today: building a better future in our very divided country necessitates God’s presence in our lives, however we understand that presence.

Now, do not go reading this as a screed against atheists, or a repudiation of the separation of church and state. On the contrary: we need a greater sense of shared faith in this country, among the diverse people of this nation, because, as Father O’Donovan suggested, that will, through love, enable us to build a better nation, infused with a unified pursuit of the common good. As servants of God who see the Divine spark in each other, who see our shared humanity, we can and should work together to build bridges, to create a stronger, more resilient society and a healthier democracy. Even those who reject theology outright can, I hope, get on board with seeking the common good through shared love of humanity, of our fellow citizens.

And a key piece of this sense of shared love is interfaith cooperation.

You may know that I grew up in an area with relatively few Jews. Until I went to college, virtually all of my friends and neighbors and classmates were Christian, mainline Protestants and Catholics, and my family was among a handful of Jewish families in my home town. We all knew each other, and I think it is fair to say that, to some extent, we the Jews felt like outsiders. Not that our neighbors treated us badly or as enemies, but there was definitely a mutual awareness of our difference. Sometimes this awareness bred resentment, as, for example, when well-meaning Christian friends failed to understand that we did not celebrate Christmas. It was sometimes hard to see past this, given some of the history of Christian/Jewish relations. There was a time in my life when I would not have wanted to listen to the words of a Catholic priest giving an invocation at an official gathering.

My sense is that things are somewhat different today; the religious landscape in America has changed. Many of us now look at each other across religious divisions as allies. Yes, of course there are issues that divide us. But what we who are partners in faith share is much greater, and much more powerful.

Rabbi Jeremy Markiz and I were at a meeting on Thursday of the Priest-Rabbi dialogue, a discussion between local Catholic and Jewish clergy which meets from time to time to discuss interesting theological issues. At this meeting, we read a statement from 2002 produced by a group of influential North American Christian scholars attempting to reframe the historically fraught relationship between Jews and Christians. Among the principles expressed in this document were, “God’s covenant with the Jewish people endures forever,” and, “Ancient rivalries must not define Christian-Jewish relations today.”

Our discussion broke toward the points of disagreement among Christian theologians and within the Jewish world about some subtleties of our beliefs. But the greater message is well-taken: today we are allies in the struggle against disorder, disunity, and distrust. We are united in facing the challenges of poverty and racism, hunger and homelessness, mental health and addiction and isolation. 

I heard a podcast this week from the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem about Parashat Bo, taught by Pardes teacher Tovah Leah Nachmani, about emunah / faith. She pointed to a commentary by Ramban, aka Nachmanides, who lived in 13th-century Spain. In surveying Parashat Bo, Ramban points to the symbols of emunah found in this parashah: the annual observance of Pesah / Passover that we read this morning, and the wearing of tefillin (Ex. 13:16, the last line in the parashah). Ramban suggests that these symbols (the Hebrew term is ot, sign) of faith are meant to remind us of the role that God plays in our lives. There will not be an Exodus in every generation, says Ramban, but every year when we celebrate Pesah we remember that power. The tefillin that we put on every morning are an ot, a sign of the binding promise that God has made with us to help us live better lives through the framework of mitzvot.

Ms. Nachmani expands on Ramban’s line of thinking to include Shabbat and regular tefillah, such that we have daily, weekly, and annual signs before us: The weekly reminder of Shabbat, also described as an ot (beini uvein benei Yisrael, ot hi le’olam – Ex. 31:17) gives us a taste of the true peace that will someday come if we commit to the common good. 

Faith and freedom are intertwined; we must keep those symbols of faith in front of us; we must use them to remind ourselves to reach out to our neighbors in love. We must also remind ourselves that we have partners, who do not celebrate Pesah or wear tefillin, yet who also have faith; these signs of faith can also lead us to dream about what we can accomplish when we are all praying together.

We remembered this past week the strength of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, what he accomplished, inspired by God and the words of the biblical prophets. Consider that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel had the vision to reach out to and march with Dr. King as a partner in faith, at a time when many of us were not thinking far beyond our own community. 

Our future depends on building bridges of prayer and bridges of emunah / faith. Our Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, and Buddhist friends and neighbors are all interconnected with us; we may differ on how we approach or understand the Divine and the role that the holy relationship plays in our lives, but we mostly agree on the outcome: that we can build a better world through shared prayer, faith, and love.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 1/23/2021.)

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Kavvanot

Stand Up For Truth, and Pray for Our Country

Siddur Lev Shalem for Shabbat and Festivals, The Rabbinical Assembly, 2016, p. 177.

We recite this aloud at Congregation Beth Shalom every Shabbat morning, right after reading the Torah. In recent years, I have leaned into this prayer with increasing urgency. It is a long-standing tradition for Jewish services to include a prayer for the nation in which we live; right now, in 21st-century America, we need to do so more than ever.

We have witnessed horrible things in the past week: a Confederate flag carried through the halls of Congress; a “Camp Auschwitz Staff” t-shirt; a truck full of Molotov cocktails at the ready; a police officer beaten to death with a fire extinguisher. As more images continue to pour out, my shock only grows.

While trying to wrap my head around what happened at the United States Capitol on January 6, I continue to return to the fundamental importance of truth. One piece of wisdom from our tradition, found in the 2nd-century CE rabbinic collection known as Pirkei Avot (1:18), invokes what you might call the “Jewish holy trinity”: Emet, Din, Shalom – truth, justice, and peace are integrally intertwined. Without truth and justice, there can be no peace.

But to put a finer point on it, we need in particular to remember the mitzvah / holy obligation from the Torah (Shemot / Exodus 23:7):

מִדְּבַר־שֶׁ֖קֶר תִּרְחָ֑ק וְנָקִ֤י וְצַדִּיק֙ אַֽל־תַּהֲרֹ֔ג כִּ֥י לֹא־אַצְדִּ֖יק רָשָֽׁע׃

Keep far from falsehood; do not bring death on those who are innocent and righteous, for I [God] will not acquit the wrongdoer.

While the context suggests not accepting the testimony of deceitful witnesses, so that innocent people will not be put to death, the text can and should also be translated as,

Do not lie, because lying will cause the death of innocent and righteous people, and God will never forgive us for that.

There is a reason why we still recall the national myth of George Washington, who could not tell a lie about chopping down the cherry tree, and we still refer to “Honest Abe” Lincoln. That is because the truth saves lives, and falsehood is murderous.

As we continue to pray for our country, remember that we the Jews in particular know the danger of falsehood. All anti-Semitism is rooted in falsehood: the medieval blood libel accusations, the 19th-century forgery of the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, the lies that led to the murder of 6 million Jews in Europe a mere fourscore years ago, the lies that killed 11 Jewish worshippers at a synagogue in our neighborhood two years ago.

We cannot tolerate lying in our own sphere of influence, and we must not tolerate lying on a national or international scale.

Rather, we must stand up for truth. We must distance ourselves from falsehood, because, as we have witnessed this week, falsehood leads to bloodshed.

So I am going to keep leaning into this prayer, until such time as we can put the lies behind us and move forward together.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 1/9/2021.)

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Sermons

Prepare For High Holidays This Year Like Never Before – Ki Tavo 5780

You are walking through the world half asleep. It isn’t just that you don’t know who you are and that you don’t know how or why you got here. It’s worse than that; these questions never even arise. It is as if you are in a dream.

Then the walls of the great house that surrounds you crumble and fall. You tumble out onto a strange street, suddenly conscious of your estrangement and your homelessness.

A great horn sounds, calling you to remembrance, but all you can remember is how much you have forgotten. Every day for a month, you sit and try to remember who you are and where you are going. By the last week of this month, your need to know these things weighs upon you. Your prayers become urgent.

So begins my go-to book at this time of year, Rabbi Alan Lew’s This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared. The book is filled with stories that help illustrate the journey of this part of the Jewish year, the arc that begins with destruction, Tish’ah Be’Av, and spirals upward through rebuilding, coronation, repentance, and celebration.

Rabbi Lew’s essential message is this: if you pay attention, if you are in fact prepared, the holiday odyssey is so much more powerful. We have the opportunity before us to change our behavior for the better, and in doing so change the world for the better.

The key to this betterment is preparation. Being ready. God tells Moshe to be ready before he ascends Mt. Sinai to get the tablets. (Ex. 34:2):

וֶהְיֵ֥ה נָכ֖וֹן לַבֹּ֑קֶר וְעָלִ֤יתָ בַבֹּ֙קֶר֙ אֶל־הַ֣ר סִינַ֔י

Vehyeh nakhon laboqer, ve’alita vaboqer el har sinai.
Be ready by morning, and in the morning you shall ascend Mt. Sinai.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are something like Mt. Sinai. That is the gravity with which we should approach these days. And we have to be prepared, just like Moshe. 

I know that the young woman whose bat mitzvah we celebrated today prepared extensively for this day; she read the entirety of today’s Torah reading. (Kol hakavod!)

What does it take to make a Jewish adult?

No bat mitzvah or bar mitzvah happens without extensive preparation. Learning to read from the Torah, learning to chant parts of the service, preparing a devar Torah to deliver to the congregation. 

However, that is really only the icing on the cake, the finished product, as it were. In order to reach that point, a child must spend years learning Hebrew, learning about Jewish practices and customs and law and holidays and values and texts. A Jewish child learns from her or his parents, watching them engage with Jewish life, participating in preparing Shabbat and holiday meals, helping to put up a sukkah, searching for hametz, coming to synagogue with them, observing them acting on Jewish values of gratitude and humility and compassion. A Jewish child learns to question: Why do we do this? What does this mean? Why is this night different from all other nights? Didn’t we say, “Next year in Jerusalem” last year? 

In all, 13 years of preparation, of investment of time and money and will, go into making a Jewish adult. And then she is not even really an adult yet. There are still more years of learning and growing to do. A lifetime, in fact; I’m still not sure if I have made it to adulthood.

It can be very easy, too easy to merely roll up to the High Holidays, to the Ten Days of Teshuvah, without preparing. Sure, you figure, we have a family meal, my suit is dry-cleaned, we have our High Holiday tickets, and so forth.

But those things are not so important. What is really important for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? Three simple things – items that you know because they are identified in what you might call the centerfold of RH and YK services: the Untaneh Toqef prayer, right after we ask the grave question of “Who will live and who will die in the coming year?” 

Utshuvah, utfillah, utzdaqah ma’avirin et ro’a hagezerah
But repentance, prayer, and charity remove the severity of the decree

And I think that this year, knowing that we will not all be gathered together with our collective energy in the same physical space, we need this preparation more than ever. More than any High Holiday cycle in your lifetime. We need it to ensure that this High Holiday season will have meaning. We need it because the world seems so off-kilter right now, and we are going to be really grateful for the spiritual framework of this time. So I give you these three things to think about in the two weeks you have left before Rosh Hashanah:

Teshuvah / Return or Repentance

Rambam, arguably (everything in Judaism is “arguably”) the greatest single interpreter of Jewish life. He writes the tractate Hilkhot Teshuvah (the laws of repentance) as a part of his halakhic compendium Mishneh Torah while serving as a court physician in Cairo in the 12th century. Among the ideas about teshuvah that he emphasizes is the idea that our lives are in the balance in this season. We must look back on our deeds of the past year, and consider that we have equal amounts of merits and transgressions; they balance each other out. And it is our task at this time to ensure that we are working a little harder than usual to make sure that we lean into the “merits,” to make sure that the balance tips the right way.

That is why, Rambam says, we begin sounding the shofar in the month of Elul. We do it every weekday morning at the end of our Shaharit service (if you need a little more shofar in your life right now, you can tune in on this Zoom link every weekday morning at about 8:10 to hear it). I’m also blowing it on the roof of Beth Shalom during ELC pickup.

The shofar’s call, says Rambam, cries, עוּרוּ יְשֵׁנִים מִשְּׁנַתְכֶם! Uru yeshenim mishenatkhem! Wake up from your slumber, you who sleep! The shofar reminds us that we have to be prepared; to stretch ourselves, to do better in this season.

Now is the time to reflect on your actions in the last year. To ask for forgiveness where necessary. To attempt to mend broken relationships. To work a little harder at living Jewishly, at pursuing Jewish values, at fulfilling mitzvot, the holy opportunities of Jewish life.

And that, of course, leads us to…

Tefillah / Prayer

Folks, I have to remind you all of something extraordinarily important about this season: even though we are meeting virtually, even though this may not feel like being in synagogue, it absolutely is. This is real prayer. I know, it’s not ideal, but it is what we have right now. 

So make it real prayer. Daven. Shuckle. Meditate. Sing. Do it all in earnest this year. Even if you feel like you have never successfully prayed before. Now is the time. I am proud, and you should be too, that Beth Shalom’s services have remained uninterrupted since March. You can join us every day, so that you can be a little bit more prepared.

Tzedaqah / Charity

This past week there was a powerful article in the New York Times about how the pandemic recession has impacted families.

A government survey in late July revealed that nearly 30 million Americans claimed that they did not have enough to eat. Those households include one in three of those with children. A food bank in Memphis reported that they had served 18,000 families between March and August, ten times more than in the same period last year.

There is a need right now, more so than in recent memory. The virus has caused a tidal wave of unemployment, and people are hungry. Fortunately, there is a temporary halt on evictions, but with family budgets stretched thin, there are many who may not be able to buy food. 

Give to charities now, particularly food banks. It’s good for those who need to eat, and it’s good for your soul as well.

This is really a simple formula: teshuvah, tefillah, tzedakah. But investing in those three things will help you be ready.

***

Bat mitzvah is not just about showing everybody that you can read Torah or lead services or give a credible devar Torah. It is about being ready, about paying attention, about acting on the holy imperatives of Jewish life. We celebrate with our bat mitzvah family today, but we also acknowledge that the task before us, in this season in which we really need some teshuvah / return, in which we crave normality, for a return to something resembling life as we used to know it, that task is harder than ever.

But you can make it happen. You just have to pay attention, listen to the sounding of the shofar waking us up from our slumber, seek forgiveness, pray, and commit some of your economic resources to the benefit of others if you can. 

And then you’ll be ready. And God knows that we need to be prepared this year as we enter 5781.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 9/5/2020.)

Categories
Sermons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carob

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

Categories
Sermons

Waiting for the Promised Land – Mattot/Mas’ei 5780

Two weeks ago my family and I were on vacation, tent camping in the Allegheny National Forest, and it was simply wonderful. It’s easy to socially distance when you’re out in the woods, and the hiking and biking were joyful and restorative. Despite the inconvenience of regularly checking for ticks, I actually really love being out of doors, and for me there is nothing quite like it. More importantly, we had no wi-fi or even a mobile phone signal for most of the time, so it was fairly easy to forget, at least for a few days, about the public health catastrophe that is going on all around us.

But we cannot ignore this, folks. It is not going away. I think the State of Pennsylvania made a critical tactical error in labeling this phase of re-opening “Green,” because it seems to me that this suggests, “Go for it.” People poured into bars and restaurants, flew off to the beaches in South Carolina and Florida, and in Allegheny County we went from almost no new cases to a couple of hundred a day. And I cannot even muster the energy to try to comprehend how the governor of Georgia decided to outlaw local mask-wearing orders. I am beside myself.

Let’s be clear here, folks: we did this to ourselves. Our politicians have ignored the directives of actual scientists and experts and have lacked the intestinal fortitude to clamp down, and we the people have refused to comply with simple, sensible health measures. As a result, this journey of grief and unemployment and depression will last much longer, and many more Americans will die.

Speaking of journeys, the end of the book of Bemidbar / Numbers documents the various places that the Israelites traveled to and set up camp on their 40-year journey from slavery in Egypt to redemption in Israel. It is one of a handful of passages in the Torah that list stops along the way. The question is asked by some commentators, why bother to list these locations? They are in the desert, unremarkable places that hold no other significance.

One theory, promoted in a midrash, is that God wanted the Israelites to have a record of where they had been, so they could recall the travails of the journey. “Here is where you were tired and needed to rest; here is where you felt ill; here is where you were thirsty and needed water.” Perhaps. 

But the Jewish journey that began in the Torah and effectively continues up until today includes stops in many places that we will never recall. How many of us can name the towns where our great-grandparents were born? Or their great-grandparents? And yet, we know how they suffered. They suffered at the hands of Cossacks and Spaniards and Arabs and Persians and Romans and Babylonians. They suffered through famines and plagues, and were often blamed for these things by their gentile neighbors. They suffered through blood libels and anti-Semitic laws and accusations and suspicions. They were forcibly conscripted into the Czar’s army, forcibly converted to Christianity and Islam, forcibly taken from their homes and put on trains and sent to death camps.

In the context of today’s pandemic, I must say, I am certain that we will survive. We will still be here when this is over. 

We will still be here because we have survived worse than this. Much worse, in fact.

A few of you may know that I host a bi-weekly meeting for what I refer to as the Hanhalah Team of the synagogue, the senior staff. It includes Rabbi Jeremy Markiz, director of Derekh and Youth Tefillah, our Etxecutive Director Ken Turkewitz, Youth Director Marissa Tait, ELC Director Hilary Yeckel, and JJEP Director Rabbi Larry Freedman. And we had a meeting on Thursday that was tremendously frustrating. The ELC is open and functioning safely for about 60 kids in small, non-intermixing pods; that’s the good news. But for the rest of us, planning for the coming year – the High Holidays, JJEP’s classes, youth activities, Derekh activities, youth tefillah – all of them are effectively up in the air. We feel as though people are Zoomed out. We are working in an environment in which we cannot make decisions about the future, because we simply have no idea what the future looks like.

It’s not just frustrating. It’s downright painful. We all care about living and teaching our tradition, and since being Jewish so heavily depends upon being around others, it has made our lives so difficult.

But let’s face it: things could be much, much worse. Has veshalom / God forbid.

We always open these meetings with a devar Torah, and Rabbi Freedman regaled us this week with a wee bit of optimism: the Promised Land is coming. It’s actually not that far away. Yes, we are still in the desert, and we will be for a while. But next week we start reading the book of Devarim / Deuteronomy, and we know what happens next.

But maybe that’s why all those stops along the way from Egypt to Israel are there: to remind us that 40 years was a VERY long time. To remind us that the journey can be easily forgotten when recalling its endpoints. To remind us that there were headaches and hunger and thirst and loss along the way.

The silver lining is this: we are gathered here this morning, a testament to the fact that the Jews have survived 2,000 years of dispersion and destruction and suffering and loss. And how did we do this? By recounting the journey. And by leaning into the words of our tradition: the Torah, and of course the words of prayer, the words of our siddur. And let me just bring this to a close by pointing us all to one particular line in our siddur, one that is so often overlooked because it is mumbled through quickly in a transitional moment in the service. 

It’s found in Yequm Purqan, p. 412 in Sim Shalom and 176 in Lev Shalem. We only say this on Shabbat morning; it is a request for health and welfare for the congregation, and also includes a wish for our children. Open up and take a look for a moment:

זַרְעָא חַיָּא וְקַיָּמָא, זַרְעָא דִּי לָא יִפְסוק וְדִי לָא יִבְטול מִפִּתְגָּמֵי אורַיְתָא

Zar’a haya veqayama, zar’a di la yifsuq vedi la yivtul mipitgamei oraita. 

May [our] children thrive, never ceasing to speak words of Torah.

It’s in Aramaic. Why? Because that was the language that our ancestors spoke for many centuries, and therefore understood it better than Hebrew. We do not know exactly how old it is, but it first appears in the 13th-century French Mahzor Vitry.

Prayer, you may recall, is a blueprint for a better world, a vision of a society that could be. The point of this wish is to remind us that, just as we have carried our Torah with us for millennia, we want our children to do so as well.

It is a beautiful plea; a statement of yearning that, whatever challenges we face right now, in whatever spiritually-barren place in which we find ourselves, that our children receive and carry with them the words that have kept us alive and nourished us up until this very day.

Ladies and gentlemen, as we continue to face this pandemic, the dysfunction of our governing structures and the lamentably growing death count, remember that the silver lining is that our children will know Torah; that its wisdom and values and guidance will never depart from their lips. And now go out and make that happen. That is how we will get through this. The Promised Land is not far away.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 7/18/2020.)

Categories
Kavvanot

Praying for Our Country: A Thanksgiving Thought

If you have been to Congregation Beth Shalom in the last few years, you might have heard me say this: Tefillah is not intended to be rushed through, intoned meaninglessly. Pirkei Avot (2:13) tells us that our words of prayer should not be rote recitation, but rather pleas for mercy and supplication before God. It should never be that we mumble empty words of tefillah, trying to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible, without connecting those ancient words with ourselves.

The same is true for the English “Prayer for Our Country” that we recite each Shabbat morning (p. 177 in Siddur Lev Shalem). There is a good case to be made that the words of this prayer are arguably more essential right now than ever before, as our nation faces great challenges:

  • The challenge of division, wherein people on opposite sides of the aisle cannot speak to each other civilly, or at all;
  • The challenge of distinct narratives, in which online echo chambers reinforce that division;
  • The challenge of hatred of those not like us; of hatred of all kinds; of fear of the immigrant and refugee;
  • The challenge of race; of fashioning a just society in which all are given a fair shot in life regardless of the color of their skin; and
  • The challenge posed by the erosion of our democratic ideals and the diminishing respect for scientific inquiry.

Jasper_Johns's_'Map',_1961
Jasper Johns, Map, 1961.

As we pray now for an end to hatred and bigotry, to poverty and racism, let us remember that we all need each other; that we cannot sing together until all voices join in. We have no choice but to rise above party and group identity, to reach beyond boundaries of religion and race and ethnicity for the sake of the common good.

We celebrate Thanksgiving this week, a holiday on which we as a nation recall our gratitude for what we have. Perhaps on this Thanksgiving, we will all spend some time reflecting on those things that still connect us, be grateful for them, and consider what we need to do to build on those connections.

Let this Thanksgiving be a prayerful one.

 

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 11/17/2018.)

 

Categories
Sermons

We Can Change the World – Terumah 5778

A rabbi, a priest, an imam, and a Buddhist monk get into a pickup truck and drive to the football stadium to see the Big Game. The rabbi is driving. When they get there, they change from their “work” clothes into the colors of their favorite team, and join a couple of nuns already in the stands, who chide them for being late. The rabbi gestures to the others as if to blame them. Then their team scores! They all jump up and down and hoot and holler.

Some of you may know that this was actually an advertisement for a large Japanese auto manufacturer that ran during the Super Bowl two weeks ago. At the end, before flashing the company’s logo, the slogan, “We’re all one team” appears on-screen.

The ad had two major flaws: one was that, with the exception of the nuns that seem to have been thrown in at the last minute, all of the clergy were male. But even bigger than that, what rabbi drives a pickup truck?!

We’re all one team.

Except when we are not.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield of CLAL, who spoke in Pittsburgh nine days ago to a room full of rabbis, priests, and ministers, invoked this ad and reminded us that, well, actually, we are not all one team.

It is fascinating to me that, in this time of great political, racial, and sometimes religious division in our nation, the Madison Avenue ad execs are trying to convince us that we are all one team. Because, at least with respect to the choices that we are making through the democratic process, we are not.

Consider another Super Bowl ad, ironically, for another automotive company that was heavily criticized for misappropriating the words of Dr. Martin Luther King. The people who made that ad were most likely trying to tap into a similar desire of the rabbi-priest-imam-monk ad, that is, our desire to find a rallying point, a connection across racial, ethnic, religious, and political divides in this very fractious moment. And that ad seems to have failed miserably.

The message that Rabbi Hirschfield left us with was, try to consider the other. Try to be a fan, and not a fanatic. We who stand for the rule of law, a shared vision for the betterment of society, and a moderate approach to religion in its integration with contemporary life are all playing the same game, even if we aren’t exactly on the same team; we all agree on the rules.

A little back-story here: I was going to take this sermon in a different direction. I had actually written the rest of this sermon on Tuesday, and it was about what Judaism offers, and why we should be playing on this team.

But then, on Wednesday, a troubled young man with an AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifle walked into a high school in Parkland, Florida, and began shooting.

We have all witnessed quite a bit of palpable anger, frustration, and grief in these last couple of days. The crying out: how could this have happened once again, and so soon? The throwing up of hands in the air in frustration: will nothing change? The traded accusations, the pointed fingers.

On my social media feed, the ire was directed at politicians, who offered their cliched “thoughts and prayers.” And rightly so. Cynically-offered thoughts and prayers, in place of actual promises of legislative solutions, are useless, and have clearly not brought about any change.

But prayer, if we are acting on it correctly, can in fact help. Our team, the team that actually offers real prayer as a kehillah kedoshah, a holy community, can bring about change. Let me explain how.

For thousands of years, Jews have gathered in synagogues large and small to act on the holy opportunities of prayer: chanting the words of our liturgy, hearing the Torah read, learning together, and so forth. Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and other religious groups also gather in their houses of worship for similar services. The content, style, language, features, and of course theology of all these services vary tremendously. But what do they have in common? They bring people together for holy purposes, for the purpose of finding (to use the Hebrew term) kedushah / of seeking holiness.

And when people gather in prayer, they have the potential to change the world.

heschel king torah

The Jewish prayer experience is not meant to be passive. It’s not supposed to be about mumbling ancient words in a language we do not understand. It’s REALLY not supposed to be about waiting for the person up in front to mumble through a page of obscure Hebrew. Rather, it is about having an active mind, of being aware of yourself and your world, of opening up our hearts and minds to the reality of today. It’s about understanding the possibilities of a world that could be, a blueprint for a time without fear and hatred, violence and oppression.

Tefillah / prayer is about resonating with our ancient words. It is a subset of Talmud Torah, the holy opportunity to learn and discuss the words of our tradition. The Talmud asks (Kiddushin 40b):

וכבר היה רבי טרפון וזקנים מסובין בעלית בית נתזה בלוד

?נשאלה שאילה זו בפניהם תלמוד גדול או מעשה גדול

נענה רבי טרפון ואמר מעשה גדול

נענה ר”ע ואמר תלמוד גדול

נענו כולם ואמרו תלמוד גדול שהתלמוד מביא לידי מעשה

Rabbi Tarfon and the Elders were reclining in the loft of the house of Nitza in Lod, when this question was asked of them:

Is study greater or is action greater?

Rabbi Tarfon answered and said: Action is greater.

Rabbi Akiva answered and said: Study is greater.

Everyone answered and said: Study is greater, as study leads to action.

Tefillah, when performed with the proper intention as a form of study, leads to action. And particularly in a house of worship such as this; it turns the potential of people gathered for a holy task into action. It raises us up in kedushah / holiness so that we can go out together and make this world a better place.

And there are concrete examples of the way prayer has changed the world. Consider some of of our team’s greatest victories. Consider the American civil rights movement, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other clergy. Consider the movement led by Mahatma Mohandas K. Gandhi to free India from British rule. Consider Zionism, led by both secular and religious personalities who drew on the ancient yearning of the Jewish soul to return to Israel. We are living in a time in which gathering for prayer is still effective in bringing about major change.

Gandhi

Prayer / tefillah reminds us of the words of Deuteronomy (30:12),

לֹ֥א בַשָּׁמַ֖יִם הִ֑וא לֵאמֹ֗ר מִ֣י יַעֲלֶה־לָּ֤נוּ הַשָּׁמַ֙יְמָה֙ וְיִקָּחֶ֣הָ לָּ֔נוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵ֥נוּ אֹתָ֖הּ וְנַעֲשֶֽׂנָּה׃

It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?”

It is not in the heavens. We write our prayers, we fill them with our emotions and ideas, and we are God’s hands. We are in charge of our destinies here on Earth.

We can change our world. We are not powerless.

Here is where we really ARE on the same team: we, the fans, not the fanatics, we do not want our children to walk into schools in fear. We cannot allow music lovers, or church goers, or people dancing in gay nightclubs to feel that they are not safe. We cannot justify the complacency of politicians in gerrymandered districts who have to answer to nobody but the powerful lobbies who give them money for their next campaign.

And here’s what our team can do: We can change the world. That’s what churches and synagogues and mosques and mandirs and all other houses of faith are for: to bring people together for a holy purpose. And what purpose could be more holy than saving lives?

One of the essential messages of the Purim story, if you look beyond the costumes and the graggers and the drinking and partying, is that Esther saved the Jews of Persia because she spoke up. She was not silent in the face of impending murder.

Now is not the time to be silent. Now IS the time for prayer. And to turn the potential from the prayers of everybody who is on our team, the prayerful team, into action.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 2/17/2018.)

 

Categories
Kavvanot

Gandhi on Prayer

A friend recently forwarded this quote, attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, about prayer. Gandhi came from a prayer tradition quite different from the Jewish one, and yet his words speak powerfully about our own experience with tefillah (prayer). I have appended comments, Rashi-style:

Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.

ghandi

“A longing of the soul

We need to express that longing, to acknowledge the need to heal our spirits, to seek wholeness in a fragmented world.

The soul does not speak English or Hebrew or Aramaic. It speaks yearning. It speaks prayer wordlessly.

“Admission of one’s weakness”

We go through life trying to demonstrate to everybody else and to ourselves how strong we are, how resilient we are, how talented we are.

We do not willingly admit weakness.

It is only through prayerful moments that we allow ourselves to admit even privately that we are vulnerable, that we are broken, that we need more from God or from others or from the universe.

“Better to have a heart without words than words without a heart”

Tefillah / prayer is not intended to be an empty recitation of words in a language we do not understand.

Rather, the ancient yearnings of our ancestors, found on the pages of the siddur, transport our own longing; those words provide a conduit for the heart, a tap into the soul.

As we learn in Pirkei Avot (2:18), Al ta’as tefilatekha qeva, Do not make your prayer a prescribed routine, but a plea for mercy and grace before God. Your words of tefillah should not be fixed, but filled with kavvanah: intention, spontaneity, honesty to yourself.

So as we sing / chant / mumble / meditate on the words of our own tradition, as we let the longing of our souls flow, remember that the kavvanah, the heart behind the words, matters more than the words themselves.

Shabbat shalom.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

 

Categories
High Holidays Sermons

רשע: The Wicked Child Sees Only the Present – Rosh Hashanah 5778, Day 2

How many of us have experienced information whiplash this year? Not just information overload, which I think many of us have managed to live with in the past decade or so, but the sense of having our emotions pulled one way or another by current events, only to be pulled another direction a day or two later? I love coffee, but I had to dramatically reduce my consumption of caffeine this past year to cut down on my anxiety regarding the state of the world. Who would have thought there would be Nazis marching with rifles and helmets in Virginia? Who would have thought that a foreign power would try to manipulate elections?

I think it’s essential that we keep some perspective about the world, and not let events of the present moment throw us too far off the path of forward progress. Yes, the present may be disorienting, but we must try to put everything into proper perspective.

Recap: These four sermons are about our past, present, and future, as seen through the eyes of the famous “Four Children” of Pesah. Yesterday, we spoke about the wise child as being the one who sees past, present, and future.

Today, we’re going to talk about the רשע (rasha), the wicked child. What does the wicked child see? Only the present. It’s all about me, right now.

That cannot be us. Us Jews. We have to think broader than that. And if there is anything that our tradition teaches, it is this: we cannot be the wicked child. We have to see beyond the present moment.

Teaching the Four Sons in the 21st Century | My Jewish ...

Operating system vs. App

I recently heard an appealing image in the podcast, Judaism Unbound (if you don’t know what a podcast is, please ask your grandchildren). Many of us today are carrying smartphones around, and there are two overarching software features to a smartphone: the operating system and the apps. The operating system (OS) is the environment that you see when you turn the system on: the screen where you see all the things you can possibly do. It’s the wizard behind the screen that is making everything function, all the bells and whistles that your smartphone features. You turn it on, and the OS is working. It makes everything go, connects everything together.

The apps (applications) are individual programs that do a specific task. You open one to check and send email. You open a different one to see if it’s going to rain. You open another to see when your next appointment is. Another will help you find a restaurant with vegetarian options for dinner. You get the idea – specific tasks.

The operating system is like your house; it provides space and structure and utilities. The apps are items in the house that do certain things: the blender, the bookcase, the shower.

So the Judaism Unbound hosts have been tossing around the idea of whether Judaism is an operating system or an app. Traditionally speaking, of course, the rabbis who created what we know as Judaism during the Talmudic period (i.e. the 1st through 5th centuries CE), thought of Judaism as the operating system.

Ours is a tradition that has something to say about all facets of our lives: not only how we interact with God or what we eat, but how we speak to each other, how we maintain our physical health, how we learn, how we interact with our relatives and neighbors, how we create a just society, even how we make love. As they taught us to say in Hebrew school (not that we really understood this so well), Judaism is not a religion; it’s a way of life.

And that is the way we have conceived of our tradition for two thousand years.

But we are living in a time, say some, in which fewer of us are thinking about Judaism as an operating system, but rather as an app. That is, when you want it or need it, you open the app. You come to the synagogue. You celebrate a lifecycle event. You speak to a rabbi about a personal issue. And then when you’re done, you’re on to the next app, and you close Judaism until the next time you need it.

That may very well be the case for some of us. Let’s face it – many of us are not even opening the Judaism app at all. Only about half of the Jews in America make an appearance in synagogue on Yom Kippur, but that’s only one measure; most likely far fewer are connecting to the wisdom on the Jewish bookshelf in any substantial way; few are supporting Jewish charities; few find spiritual value in the traditional offerings of Judaism. I would not be totally surprised if, on an average Shabbat morning, there are more American Jews in yoga studios than in synagogues.

Leaving Judaism aside for the moment, the challenge that we are facing as a society is what you might call “application-based thinking.” All the information that is flying at us all the time, all of the constant distraction, is forcing us to compartmentalize our lives in a way that is not only unhealthy for us as individuals, but also as a society. We are moving so fast, trying to accomplish so many things, that we’ve lost sight of the big picture. We are focusing on the moment, on the task at hand without questioning how this particular task fits into the grand scheme.

As an example, I will freely concede that I have become addicted to my own mobile phone. Except for the 25 hours of Shabbat every week, which in my household is a sacred technology-free time, during the rest of the week, like many of you, I compulsively check my text messages, my Facebook notifications, my Twitter and Instagram feeds, my two email accounts, my WhatsApp, and of course the New York Times and the Post-Gazette.

And yet, I am amazed at the numbers of people I see coming into the synagogue, ostensibly to spend a moment doing something holy, who cannot put their phones down on Shabbat and holidays, even for an hour that they are sitting in the pews, even when we ask them to do so.

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Ladies and gentlemen, if all we see and consider is what is on the screen for a few moments, that is our inner wicked child taking over. That is living only in the present.

Another example: I’m going to tread very lightly here, but let’s return for a moment to American politics. What is afflicting our system is not necessarily the personalities involved, but rather the imperative to seek short-term political victories over long-lasting policy decisions that benefit us as a society. Sound-bites and insults have become the norm of political discourse, and few politicians, let alone voters, are willing to think too far beyond that.

We have reached a point where few can even entertain, let alone articulate, the position of the other side, and in such a situation, nothing can be accomplished that will further the project of building this country. I fear a future of languishing – of neglect of infrastructure, of failure to confront the devastating consequences of the phenomena that are gnawing at our citizenry: not enough rehab beds for opioid addicts, the outrageous cost of health care, the stagnation of wages for half of America.

True leadership in our body politic requires the long view, of past and future at the same time.

Let’s face it: the present is an illusion. There is no present at all. Dr. Dan Gilbert, a Harvard social psychologist, has said in his TED Talk, The Psychology of Your Future Self, The present is merely a wall, a kind of mehitzah (divider between men and women in some traditional synagogues), if you will, between the past and the future. Who we are at any given moment is just one point of data along a shifting continuum; nobody in this room is finished growing, developing, changing. It does not matter if you are 19 or 90. We’re all still moving forward into the next iteration of ourselves.

And just as politicians and the news media focus only on the “now,” so too are we, the citizens, not taking the long view; we are thinking only about ourselves, in this moment: how will this impact me right now? That is not how a healthy society functions. We’re all in it together.  Ultimately, what affects our neighbors affects us.

The רשע, the wicked child sees only the present, because there is nothing more important in their world than themselves.

When are we the wicked children?

  •     When we see suffering in this world, and we look away.
  •     When we put metaphorical stumbling blocks before the blind – that is, those who are blind to the consequences of their choices.
  •     When we withdraw from the community.
  •     When we put the value of saying yes over doing the right thing.
  •     When we seek financial gain in place of the sanctity of our interpersonal relationships.

I do not have time to give examples of each of these, but I am sure that we can all think of times when we have made the wrong choice, the one that highlights ourselves over the greater good. If we are truly honest with ourselves, we might even see examples of this in our behavior every single day.

So how might we get beyond the present? How might we find our way into the long view?

Ladies and gentlemen, I encountered a wonderful idea in Rabbi Alan Lew’s book about the high holidays, This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, generally my go-to source for inspiration at this time of year. (I rarely recommend books in this way, but if you need some high  holiday inspiration, you might want to invest in this book. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever read about Judaism.) Rabbi Lew has a talent for infusing his Jewish commentary with ideas drawn from the Buddhist tradition of meditation.

One of the names of Rosh Hashanah is Yom HaZikkaron, the day of remembrance. Traditionally, we understand this to mean that these days are days on which we remember God, and God remembers us. We ask to be remembered in the Book of Life for a good year. We try to remember the good deeds of the past year, and how we hope that these exceed our transgressions, which, with chagrin, we also remember.

Rabbi Lew reframes the idea of Yom HaZikkaron. Rather than remembrance, he says, we should refer to this day as the day of mindfulness. That on these days, we should be mindful of time, of where we have been and where we are going, and mutual awareness between us and the Qadosh Barukh Hu:

“If God were not aware of us, this whole pageant of teshuvah and forgiveness wouldn’t make much sense. Who would there be to return to? How could we ever be forgiven if there weren’t an awareness out there that knew precisely what we have done and how we feel about it now? And if Rosh Hashanah did not provide us with the perspective of heaven – with the opportunity to see ourselves with perfect clarity as if from the outside – how would we ever achieve this kind of clarity? How would we ever manage to get far enough outside ourselves to see ourselves accurately?” (p. 137)

Mindfulness, which some have translated into Hebrew as “Eranut,” drawn from the word ער, er, awake, is, of course, one of the portals of Derekh. It is an entry point to Judaism, an area in which we at Beth Shalom are now offering innovative activities for you. (E.g. meditation once per month on Shabbat mornings at 9 AM, starting in November.)

One traditional understanding in Judaism that may be help us to not be the wicked child, to see beyond the present, is the idea of the yetzer hatov and yetzer hara, which are usually translated as “the good inclination” and “the evil inclination.” But a more accurate traditional understanding of the yetzer hatov is, “the inclination to selflessness,” and the yetzer hara as “the inclination to selfishness.”

When we live only in the present moment, we are governed by our yetzer hara, the inclination to selfishness. On the other hand, when we successfully think about past and future, about lessons learned and potential consequences, about ancient and modern wisdom, we are being governed by our yetzer hatov, the inclination to selflessness. When we realize how our lives are intertwined with our community, how our fate is bound up with that of our fellow citizens, that is the yetzer hatov acting. That is when we see beyond the present moment, when we see the past and the future, and the betterment of others around us.

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I am inclined to think that our knowledge and awareness of God on these days is reflected in a more practical way in our awareness of the individuals and society around us.

Now, that’s not an easy thing to do. But Judaism provides direction.

One of those things that help to bring out the yetzer hatov is tefillah / Jewish prayer. Prayer is a kind of mental training, similar to meditation or yoga. It is entering a mode of focus, of reciting an ancient formula that connects our hearts and minds to our hands and mouths. I love the meditative aspects of tefillah; that is one reason that I ask you to engage in some moments of silence and create some internal space to strive to hear the still, small voice of the Divine during the Amidah prayer – we want to give everybody in this room the opportunity to find that meditative focal point. If you feel unable to connect with the words on the written page, listen to that inner voice as your guide.

After prayer, the second thing of primary value in our tradition is Jewish text learning. “When I pray, I speak to God,” said Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, professor of Talmud and chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, “When I study, God speaks to me.”

Think, for example, about the internal struggle reflected in the words of Hillel found in Pirkei Avot: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And If I am only for myself, what am I?” Those words from the Mishnah are more than 1800 years old. And yet they continue to echo in the challenge that we each face as we continue the daily struggle between the yetzer hatov and the yetzer hara, the inclinations to selflessness vs. selfishness.

To get to the best gems of rabbinic literature, you have to be open to reading and discussing the words of our tradition.

Even if you are ambivalent about traditional theology, or the idea of “organized religion” (You call this “organized”?!), the words of our tradition will speak to you, because they are not about God, per se. They are about humanity, about intellectual stimulation, about making this world a better place, about self-improvement. These words are about you, and about us.

In 2007 when I was completing rabbinical school and applying for jobs, I had an interview with a team from a large west coast congregation. Toward the end of the interview, they asked me the following:

“A congregant comes to you and says, ‘Rabbi, I feel as though I really need some spiritual engagement, but I work like a dog and I just can’t make it to synagogue on Shabbat. I need to go to the beach.’ What do you say to that person, Rabbi?”

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I explained that, after trying unsuccessfully to get this theoretical Shabbat beach-goer to a Talmud class or a discussion on theology, I concluded that the only solution is to say, “Well, you should know that God is also at the beach.”

 

I did not get the job.

But I think the answer is not to answer Mr. Beach Guy at all. When he comes to me to ask the question, I have to grab him at that moment, sit him down with Pirkei Avot or the beginning of Massekhet Berakhot, the first tractate of the Talmud, and start learning right then and there. That is, to give him the perspective on the depth and richness of our ancient collected wisdom, something that many of us somehow missed in Hebrew school.

I think that we have no choice but to force ourselves to see beyond the present; to recall the past and prepare for the future. We have to let the words of our tradition infuse our lives, to let them draw us out of the app and into the operating system.

While it may be obvious that none of us wants to be the רשע, the wicked child, it is sometimes a lot harder for us to see beyond the present. But that is exactly what we need to do.

To read the next in the series, The Simple Child Sees Only the Past, click here.

Shanah tovah!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, second day of Rosh Hashanah 5778, 9/22/2017.)