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Festivals Sermons Yizkor

Consider Your Mortality – Shavu’ot Day 2 / Yizkor 5782

I heard a particularly inspiring story recently. It is the story of Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds, from Knoxville, Tennessee, who enlisted in the United States Army in 1941 and was sent to serve in Europe in the 106th Infantry Division. During the Battle of the Bulge in December, 1944, Sgt. Edmonds was taken by the Nazis as a prisoner of war, along with over 1,200 other American soldiers. As it turns out, Edmonds was the senior non-commissioned officer in the group, and was therefore the leader of the prisoners. The Battle of the Bulge, for those who do not know, was the Nazis’ last major offensive, and from the American perspective was the largest single battle in WWII, yielding 89,000 casualties, including 19,000 deaths over a period of about 6 weeks.

American troops during the Battle of the Bulge

Late in January of 1945, when the Nazis saw that they were losing the battle, the prison camp commandant instructed Sgt. Edmonds to order all the Jewish American soldiers to appear outside their barracks the following morning. The next day, all 1,275 American prisoners of war in the camp assembled outside the barracks.

The commandant was furious, and held a gun to Sgt. Edmonds’ head, demanding that he identify the Jews. Now, Jewish soldiers had been warned that if they were taken prisoner, they would likely be separated from the non-Jews and sent to death camps or slave labor camps, so they should destroy their dog tags if captured. Edmonds, knowing that if he identified the Jews, he would be signing the death warrant of up to 300 American Jews, responded by saying, “We are all Jews here.”

The Nazi commandant pushed him again to reveal the Jews, claiming that they could not all be Jewish. But Sgt. Edmonds knew that the Geneva Convention required that he give only name, rank, and serial number; religion was not a piece of information he would volunteer. He responded by saying, “If you are going to shoot, you are going to have to shoot all of us because we know who you are and you’ll be tried for war crimes when we win this war.” 

Roddie Edmonds was a humble man; he never told his family this story, but made a brief mention of it in his own diary. After he died in 1985, his son, a Baptist minister, discovered the entry, and managed to get in touch with a few of the Jewish survivors of the POW camp to uncover the whole story.

In 2015, Edmonds was posthumously honored by Yad Vashem as the fifth American, and only American serviceperson to be dubbed one of the Righteous Among the Nations, the title bestowed on non-Jews who rose above the Nazi horror, putting their lives at risk to save members of our tribe.

Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem

If you imagine yourself in Edmonds’ place for a moment, you have to wonder: Could I have been so brave? Could I have done the same thing? Would I have dared the Nazis to kill me to save a few of my comrades?

In that moment, he must have contemplated his own death. He must have thought, “I am ready to die to protect my Jewish fellow soldiers, who have put their own lives on the line for our nation. I will take this Nazi bullet if I have to, in order to save their lives and my own dignity.”

And of course, Sgt. Edmonds made the honorable choice.

How many of us have thought about our own death? I certainly have. Not in a bad way, mind you, but more from the practical perspective. If, God forbid, I were to be taken from this world tomorrow, how would life change for my family? What would my funeral look like? What would be my legacy on this Earth? Will somebody post something on my Facebook profile explaining that I will no longer be responding to direct messages? Will Judy find a new home for all of my suits?

Will my children remember me by reciting Yizkor prayers on the second day of Shavu’ot?

Bhutan

There is a Bhutanese folk saying that in order to be a happy person, you must contemplate your own death five times a day.

In order to enjoy the present, we have to remember that life is a finite gift. We only have so many days on this Earth, and it is up to us to use them as best we can. We only have so many opportunities to connect with others, to share our love with family and friends, to do good works in our community and for the world.

We only have so many opportunities to save a life.

We have to remember that we are going to die, so that we can appreciate the precious few years we have been given.

In a few minutes, we will recite one of the key passages of the Yizkor service, Psalm 16:8-9 (p. 331 in Lev Shalem):

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

God is always before me, at my right hand lest I fall.

Therefore I am glad, made happy, though I know that my flesh will lie in the ground forever.

We tend to think of Yizkor, more properly called Hazkarat Neshamot, remembering the souls, as recollection of those who have passed. But it is just as much a recollection of our own souls; a reminder to those of us who are alive that we can be happy now despite our mortality. Just like the Bhutanese, who derive their daily happiness from contemplating death, we, the Jews, understand that life is meant to be enjoyed, and that joy is heightened by its natural limit.

The quote from Psalms compels us to consider our mortality in a healthy way. And as we remember our parents and grandparents, spouses and siblings and children and aunts and uncles and cousins and dear friends whom we have lost, we have to remember the ways in which they used their time not only to give us life, but to make our lives better, to make our world better.

There has been, of late, a lot of public death and mourning in the news; three major mass shootings in three weeks, and a great deal of soul-searching and of course posturing about how to respond.

If I had one wish for our society, it would be that we value our precious few moments of our collective life so much that we do everything in our power to prevent others from taking it away. I will know that God truly is at my right hand if, when we as a nation stumble, we remember that our first task on this Earth is to do no harm, and indeed to stop others from harming if we can. 

And perhaps if we remember God’s presence, if we can center the imperative of, “Va-anaḥnu kore’im umishtaḥavim umodim,” that we bow, bend our knees in solidarity, and give thanks before the King of Kings, or Ruler of Rulers, and we recall our essential duty to conserve the life we have been graciously loaned from on high, we might as a society be able to pull ourselves out of the depths.

As we turn now to the service of Hazkarat Neshamot, of recalling those souls, I call on you now to reflect not only on those who gave you life, on those whom we remember, but also to take this opportunity to reflect on our own mortality, to remember our holy imperatives given to us by God, to remember the heroism of those who have saved lives, and of course to consider how we might save even more. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, second day of Shavu’ot, 6/6/2022.)

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Sermons

The Two Sides of Ḥanukkah – Shabbat Ḥanukkah / Miqqetz 5782

Although I have been a rabbi for more than 14 years, I have never delivered a sermon on Shabbat Ḥanukkah, because I am almost always in Israel at this time, visiting my Israeli son. And, by the way, I am happy to report that he has been granted leave from the IDF to come visit us in Pittsburgh in a little more than a week. I have not seen him in nearly two years.

Something that I’ve noticed in Israel during Ḥanukkah is that the popular messaging there about the holiday is a little different than it is here. In America, Ḥanukkah is about candles and presents. There, it’s more about the historical victory over Greek culture. Not the military aspect, so much as the Maccabees’ success in taking back Jewish life from the Hellenistic influence of the Seleucid Empire and the Hellenized Jews who were in favor of assimilation. That is, the celebration of Ḥanukkah is a statement of, “We are the Jews who lean into our history and tradition, and do not seek to assimilate into the surrounding culture.”

It’s a theme that I think tends to get lost in America, when the very celebration of Ḥanukkah here derives so much from its overbearing Christian cousin. Ironically, we mark Ḥanukkah here with practices born of assimilation.

I am reading right now author Dara Horn’s new book, People Love Dead Jews, a collection of essays about the fascination that we and the rest of the world have with the tales of Jewish persecution, murder, and genocide. 

In her chapter on the anti-Semitism of the Soviet Union, she distinguishes between what she calls “the Ḥanukkah version of anti-Semitism” and “the Purim version of anti-Semitism.” Ḥanukkah anti-Semitism is that which destroys Jewish civilization from the inside by pressuring Jews to gradually become non-Jews, while Purim anti-Semitism is a little bit more direct: kill all the Jews. 

The Ḥanukkah version, perhaps more subtle, is accomplished by what is described in the first chapter of the I Maccabees (1:14-15). The Hellenized authorities convinced some of the Jews to build a gymnasium in Jerusalem (according to the gentile custom, notes the book), and some Jewish men reversed their circumcisions so they could compete at the gym, and spurned the Torah and its berit, our covenant with God.

So amidst all of the fun we have here, imitating our Christian neighbors by layering gift upon gift (as, I am told, some do for “eight crazy nights”), one might see how this message gets lost. (Not that I am impugning this practice – I’m mostly just bitter because my parents never gave me gifts for Ḥanukkah.) 

But Ms. Horn is not far off: assimilation has, throughout history, created a powerful gravitational force that has pulled many Jews away from Judaism and out of Jewish life. While we have signed up eagerly for this kind of assimilation here in the Land of the Free, the Soviet Union, and the czars before it employed this sort of anti-Semitic tactic to solve what they perceived to be their Jewish problem.

So that’s one side of Ḥanukkah. But then there is the other side, one that perhaps we might have a better feel for in this corner of the world: the symbol of light, and our duty, while we are busy not assimilating ourselves out of existence, to make sure that we act in a way which illuminates the world.

On the Tuesday evening before Thanksgiving, we held the annual Interfaith Thanksgiving service here at Beth Shalom, and I am happy to say that a handful of Beth Shalom members were there, along with folks from many other local faith communities. 

Rabbi Mark Goodman, in his role as the Director of Derekh, coordinated the service with some of our interfaith partners, but this year’s program was much less a religious ceremony and much more an opportunity to learn about all sorts of local social service organizations that are performing good works in our city. 

Among the fourteen organizations represented were such groups as 

  • the Alliance for Humanitarian Initiatives, Nonviolence and Spiritual Advancement 
  • Repair the World 
  • Days for Girls 
  • Foundation of Hope 
  • Global Links 
  • Casa San Jose 
  • JF&CS 

and so forth. Each was given a few minutes to introduce themselves, and after the brief ceremony, participants were encouraged to speak to representatives of the organizations.

Interfaith Thanksgiving 2021 at Beth Shalom

One presenter, Cheryl Lowitzer of Open Hand Ministries, told a captivating story. Open Hand’s mission is to help bridge the wealth gap between black and white Pittsburghers by among other things, helping black families to buy homes. Most of us know how complicated buying and owning a home is. But for families who were excluded from home ownership by various means (e.g. redlining) for generations, the obstacles are much higher. 

Among the things that Open Hand Ministries does is to help candidates with budgeting, reducing their debt, determining and improving credit scores, managing mortgages, and so forth. They also help families with repairing homes, using their own contractors at reduced rates. As Cheryl described it, the overarching goal of Open Hand is to help people manage their money so that it does not manage them.

Ms. Lowitzer told the story of one 60-year-old woman, whom they helped to buy her family’s first home ever. Upon achieving her goal, the woman remarked, “I’ve been paying for someone else’s dream for over 20 years. Now I’m going to fulfill my own dream.”

This is an organization that is truly making a difference in people’s lives, and I was grateful for the opportunity to learn about Open Hand, and the other organizations present that evening. 

You may know that the psalm most closely associated with Ḥanukkah is Psalm 30, which opens with (Tehillim / Psalms 30:1)

מִזְמ֡וֹר שִׁיר־חֲנֻכַּ֖ת הַבַּ֣יִת לְדָוִֽד׃

A psalm of David. A song for the dedication of the House.

The word חנוכה / Ḥanukkah means, literally, “dedication. The “bayit” (house) referred to here is the Beit HaMiqdash, the Temple in Jerusalem. Given that the psalm may have been written 800 years before anybody had heard of a Maccabee, it is clearly not referring to the dedication in the Ḥanukkah story, but more likely the original ḥanukkat habayit, the dedication of the First Temple, built by Shelomoh haMelekh, King Solomon.

But if you can imagine how powerful it must have been for this woman to dedicate her own house, fulfilling a dream that neither she nor her parents or grandparents or great-grandparents have been able to fulfill, that might give you a sense of the power of Ḥanukkah, the power of light over darkness.

Further down in Psalm 30, we read (v. 6)

בָּ֭עֶרֶב יָלִ֥ין בֶּ֗כִי וְלַבֹּ֥קֶר רִנָּֽה׃

Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning. (KJV*)

Light is a symbol of the victory over the dark; although we may suffer in dark times, redemption is always there, around the corner. 

But symbols must lead to action. Joy doth not come with the light, unless we maketh it do so. If the Ḥanukkah candles do not lead us to a place where we do something concrete, something where we actually improve the quality of life of people near us, then we have missed the point. If we allow Ḥanukkah, or any Jewish holiday, merely to wash over us in joy and gifts and over-consumption of greasy foods, then we have not heeded the message.

Our goal in this season, as much as it should be to maintain our traditions, to remember our berit, our covenant, to resist assimilation by passing on moments of joy and gravitas and prayer to our children, should also be to act. To make a difference. To cast more light through action. To bring about ḥanukkat habayit – figuratively or literally to help dedicate a house.

A joyous and meaningful Ḥanukkah to you all, and may you be re-dedicated in this season to improving the lives of others.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 6th day of Ḥanukkah, 12/4/2021.)

* King James Version translation. I don’t usually use King James, preferring the new Jewish Publication Society translation. However, in this case, it just seems to work so well.

Categories
Sermons

I’m Done With Outrage – Ḥayyei Sarah 5782

In the opening moments of Parashat Ḥayyei Sarah, Avraham loses his wife Sarah, and he cries for her, mourns for her, eulogizes her, and buries her.

There is no question that Pittsburgh’s Jewish community is still in mourning, three years after the horror that was perpetrated in our neighborhood by a murderer motivated by “the Great Replacement Theory,” the detestable idea held by white nationalists that Jews are engineering the “replacement” of white people by importing dark-skinned immigrants from elsewhere.

Charlottesville, Virginia, August 2017, where marchers chanted, “Jews will not replace us.”

There is no question that the fabric of this community was irreparably torn on that day. You may know that it is customary when in mourning to wear a piece of torn clothing (we usually represent this with those ubiquitous black ribbons, although the real tradition is to actually tear your shirt). If it is a parent whom we have lost, that torn shirt may be sewn up, but may never be entirely repaired. So too will we as a community never be entirely repaired from that Shabbat morning, the 18th of Ḥeshvan*.

Even as we remember those whom we lost, even as we recall the last time we saw Cecil Rosenthal in the Beth Shalom office, patiently waiting for minḥah, or Dan Stein in the JCC locker room, we nonetheless also have to remember that life goes on. That is, of course, why we say the words of the Mourner’s Qaddish, which mentions not death but life, and the God-given framework of life which enables us to go from day to day, from week to week, from year to year. These ancient customs carry us from the depths of shiv’ah to the end of a year of mourning and onward, to the point where we can celebrate with a young couple who will soon be married, as we have done today.

Cecil Rosenthal

It is not coincidental that the American Jewish Committee released its third annual report on the state of anti-Semitism this past week. The survey is based on the perceptions and experiences of 1,433 American Jewish adults, and compares with attitudes about anti-Semitism within the general American public. Now it is worth highlighting that this survey is not based on incidents reported to law enforcement, but rather on the experiences of the respondents. 

And, as you might expect, Jews not only perceive rising rates of anti-Semitism, but also that their perception of anti-Semitism is much higher than that of the general public.

We should all be concerned about anti-Jewish attitudes and perception, particularly in light of what happened here three years ago. But we should also put this in perspective: anti-Semitism is truly an ancient hatred. It has always and will always be around us. While the rate of anti-Jewish acts – from graffiti on Jewish buildings to desecrating Jewish cemeteries all the way up to physical attacks on Jewish people and institutions – may wax and wane, they have never gone away. And they never will. While we might have thought for some time that America is different, we now know that is not reality.

CEO and President of AJC David Harris released a statement regarding the report, in which he said the following:

Now is the time for American society to stand up and say “Enough is enough.” American Jews see antisemitism on the far right and the far left, among extremists acting in the name of Islam, and elsewhere throughout America. It is 2021, and a disturbing number of Jews in America are afraid of identifying openly as Jewish for fear of attack. Where is the outrage? Where is the recognition that antisemitism may begin with Jews but, ultimately, targets the fabric and fiber of any democratic society?

While I agree with Mr. Harris that anti-Semitism, like all forms of hate, is a pernicious phenomenon that eats away at all of us, I must say that I am done with being outraged. Yes, we should make people aware of anti-Semitism in all its forms. Yes, we should chastise public figures of all sorts who dip their toes into anti-Semitic waters. Yes, we should be vigilant in protecting ourselves from physical threats.

But outrage? There is enough outrage in our world. Our society has turned the outrage knob to eleven. Social media platforms, and to some extent more traditional media outlets are in fact outrage machines.

So rather than add to the outrage, I want to us to make sure that our response to rising anti-Semitism is an intentional one.

Consider the words of our neighbor and friend, Reverend Canon Natalie Hall, who is now the Interim Rector of the Church of the Redeemer on Forbes. Reverend Hall spoke at the memorial service hosted by the 10.27 Healing Partnership on Wednesday in Schenley Park, and she invoked the words of Psalm 23 to make a point which really resonated with me.

Rev. Canon Natalie Hall, Oct. 27, 2021. (Courtesy of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle)

She noted that the tone of the psalm, which speaks of being sheltered and protected by God in the context of threatening evil, takes a surprise turn toward the end. The next to the last verse reads (Tehillim / Psalms 23:5):

תַּעֲרֹ֬ךְ לְפָנַ֨י ׀ שֻׁלְחָ֗ן נֶ֥גֶד צֹרְרָ֑י דִּשַּׁ֥נְתָּ בַשֶּׁ֥מֶן רֹ֝אשִׁ֗י כּוֹסִ֥י רְוָיָֽה׃

You prepare a banquet for me in the presence of my enemies; my head is anointed with oil; my cup runs over.

Said Rev. Hall:

Enemies. What a startling turn. At the end of a walk with the Almighty, we’re invited to a table with those who differ from us. Adversaries. People who don’t know, understand, or even like one another. It’s here that we’re refreshed with overflowing cups. Why? Because God knows it’s hard to hate your neighbors when you share dinner.

In the closing picture painted by the psalm, we are dining “neged tzorerai,” sitting opposite those who despise us. It is a reminder that at the end of the day, we can be outraged about those that hate us; we can twist ourselves up in anguish and lament the state of the world and the hatred therein; we can write impassioned opinion pieces and write checks to AJC and ADL and decry the backward-thinking, knuckle-draggers who are the source of all of our tzuris*.

Or we can sit down to dinner, at the table that God has set, facing our enemies, and seek a different way.

The best response to anti-Semitism is not outrage – it is the same response that our people have had throughout our history. It is to mourn our dead. It is to grieve through the words of our ancient texts. It is of course to protect ourselves through physical and legal means. And it is to lean into the framework of our tradition: prayer, Shabbat, the 613 holy opportunities of Jewish life. 

We remember, we mourn, we are vigilant, and then we go on about our lives, wounded as we are, knowing that there will always be people who hate us for no good reason.

Outrage is not helpful. Although it is a natural human reaction, it only leads to more outrage. And don’t you think there is enough of that going around already? 

Laura Ellsworth, speaking at the recent Eradicate Hate Global Summit in Pittsburgh (about which I spoke last week), pointed out that no politicians were involved with planning the summit, and that was by design. Although a select few politicians addressed the conference, Laura affirmed to us that politicians do not necessarily have an interest in tamping down hate, because they capitalize on hate for their own purposes. And the same is surely true of outrage.

Being outraged at each other accomplishes nothing, and might even make the problem worse. Anger often yields more anger, which yields more hate.

But of course we cannot either slide into indifference, whether by our non-Jewish neighbors who fail to see anti-Semitism in their midst, or the indifference of Jews who would rather crawl under a rock and hope that the monster goes away. It will not.

Our goal, then, in this regard is to be intentional. To use the tools at our disposal to study, to prosecute, to legislate. We have to channel our energies into productive solutions. Those solutions will not be easy, but if we are sitting down at that table in the presence of our enemies, perhaps we can at least begin the conversation.

A final thought by way of Dr. Barry Kerzin, the personal physician to the Dalai Lama and the founder of the Altruism in Medicine Institute, which offers training in mindfulness and resilience for nurses in Pittsburgh and other locales.

Dr. Kerzin with the Dalai Lama

Dr. Kerzin spoke at the Eradicate Hate Summit as well, and he opened with a story about the survivors of the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. For decades, the survivors were extraordinarily angry and filled with hate toward the Americans.

About fifteen years ago, Dr. Kerzin recounted, an extraordinary thing happened. Those survivors were able to turn their hate into love. They began advocating for worldwide denuclearization, and the anger fell away. It brought them new meaning for their lives, and their perspectives changed.

We will never cure the world of anti-Semitism, and I will certainly never excuse the actions of those who attack Jews for being Jewish. But Dr. Kerzin’s message is that it is possible to replace hate with love. And that requires that we do not turn away; rather, that we continue to mourn, that we hold fast as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, and that we sit at the table that God has set for us, facing our enemies, and try to to replace outrage with love. It is only then that our metaphorical cups may be refreshed and overflowing.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 10/30/2021.)

* Jews commemorate a deceased loved one on the anniversary of that person’s death according to the Jewish calendar. This day is referred to as the yortzayt (more commonly spelled yahrzeit), Yiddish for “year-time.” October 27, 2018 was the 18th day of the Hebrew month Ḥeshvan, in the year 5779. Since the Jewish calendar is lunar, the two dates only coincide only about once per decade.

** That’s the Yiddish pronunciation of the Hebrew word tzarot, meaning “troubles.” It is apparently related to the word tzar or tzorer, “enemy” – that is, your tzar is the one who causes you tzuris. It is not related, as far as I know, to the title of the historical Russian king, the source of much tzuris for generations of Jews in Russian lands.

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Kavvanot

Urban Nature Walks 101

Sitting in my office for the first day at Congregation Beth Shalom, I caught sight of our ELC teaching staff being escorted outside the building by one of my personal rebbes, Dr. Gabe Goldman, nature educator par excellence and Pittsburgh-area resident. He took them on a walk around the building to seek out teachable locations for helping young children to explore the natural environment within our otherwise urban setting. Gabe coordinated instruction for the Jewish Environmental and Nature Education (JENE) fellowship program when I was a JENE fellow at Camp Ramah in New England back in the summers of 2004 and 2005, and he taught me volumes about Judaism and the environment, which continue to infuse my work as a rabbi.

view from office window
Gratitude: the view from my new office window

One of the items he shared with us back in the day was a phrase that I continue to use when I take groups out into nature, meant to be shouted out upon finding something special: “Mah rabu ma’asekha!” “How numerous are Your works!” It’s from Psalm 104:24, the Psalm that retells Creation by highlighting all of its elements, and we recite this verse as a part of the daily morning service. It speaks not only of what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called “radical amazement,” our awe in response to the Infinite, but also of our gratitude for everything around us, for the air we breathe and the water that sustains us and the lush green of the trees and grasses and bushes and so forth.

As this new chapter in my life opens, I am grateful not only for God’s numerous works, but for all that my teachers have given me and all that I have learned merely by taking a closer look at what grows all around us. Go outside, take a deep breath, and enjoy the rest of summer. Mah rabu ma’asekha!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson