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The Constant Gift of Life – Hayyei Sarah 5781

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

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

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

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

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

Cantor Moshe Taube

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

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

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

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

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

And this is how our lives are right now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In reflecting on life, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks wrote: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

Categories
Festivals Sermons

Remaining Human – Shabbat Hol Hamo’ed Sukkot 5777

One of the major themes I presented during my series of High Holiday sermons is that the point of fulfilling mitzvot, of “doing Jewish,” if you will, is to connect those holy opportunities with our lives, to bring meaning to who we are and how we live today.

Along those lines, what does building and “dwelling” in the sukkah teach us? That life is uncertain. That even after the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Return, after having been through the process of repairing our relationships with each other and with God, that we are still vulnerable. That although we might be inclined to look around ourselves and say, “Hey, this isn’t so bad. I’ve got another year in front of me. 5777 is looking pretty good,” that we should not forget that things could change. The story is not yet over.

In my mind, I always strongly associate Sukkot with the sights / sounds / smells of fall: trees aflame in color, winds to herald the winter chill, the scent of dead leaves and damp sod. Sukkot is the end of the holiday cycle, and it suggest frailty. Everything comes to an end, chants the latter half of Tishrei. And yet, it’s a joyous time – zeman simhateinu, the season of our joy, as it is called in our liturgy. This is hehag, THE festival.

I recently read an opinion piece from the Wall Street Journal by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, in which he reminds us of the need to remember to sanctify life as we sail into the future.

This is not the future of the Jetsons or Star Trek, but rather the future in which artificial intelligence eventually puts everybody out of work. Consider the fact that right here in Pittsburgh, even as we speak, there are driver-less cars prowling the hilly streets for the ride-sharing service Uber. It is only a matter of time before millions of people who drive for a living – cabbies and truckers and bus drivers and railway engineers – will be unnecessary and hence lose their jobs. It will not end there.

https://images.duckduckgo.com/iu/?u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.borgenmagazine.com%2Fwp-content%2Fuploads%2F2015%2F05%2FBig_Data_Development1.jpg&f=1

Rabbi Sacks points to a trio of futurist authors, who suggest not only that we will soon enough have automated surgeons and teachers and journalists and attorneys, but that the future will belong not to those who can capture our hearts, but those who control our data. “Google, Amazon and Facebook,” he says, “already know us better than we know ourselves. People will eventually turn to them for advice not only on what to buy but on what to be. Humans will have become strings of genomes, little more than super-algorithms.”  Think, The Matrix. The system will only get out of us what it needs based on our numbers.

The antidote to this particularly dire vision is our ongoing commitment to recalling the sanctity of human life. We can never be reduced to numbers if we are reminded of our fundamental humanity.

Although the coming technological change is unprecedented in its scope, there is no question that Judaism has managed such change historically. I spoke on Yom Kippur about Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai’s choosing Yavneh over Jerusalem, that is, learning Torah over sacrificing animals. RYBZ chose to move forward, to choose Torah – words – over the barbaric practice of offering rams and sheep up to God on a fiery altar. In addition to progressing from the Bronze Age to the Information Age, we have managed expulsions and slaughters, dispersions and forced conversions. We have survived assimilation and secularism. We made it through the disco years and decades of questionable taste.

We know how to handle change.

But the future will require the acknowledgment that no matter how much Big Data knows about us and can convince us to behave this way or that, that we continue to learn and teach, to seek holiness in our relationships with each other, to elevate ourselves through our traditions. The futurists, says Rabbi Sacks, point to a new form of idol-worship for today, and citing a verse from Psalms, he says:

“Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human’s hands.” When technology becomes idolatry it ceases to be life-enhancing and becomes soul-destroying. The moment humans value things, however intelligent, over people, they embark on the road to ruin.

So what does this have to do with Sukkot, Rabbi?

This is why this festival is so essential. Actually, let me expand to the entire month of Tishrei. Rabbi Sacks wrote about the essential concern of Rosh Hashanah as being the creation of humans in the image of God. It is this Godliness, with which our humanity is imbued, that leads us to seek forgiveness from each other during the first half of the month of Tishrei, and to celebrate with each other, even as we are reminded of our essential vulnerability, in the second half.

Sukkot is tactile. It’s not a heady holiday like Yom Kippur. It involves building, and marching around with greenery, and slapping willow branches against the ground with all your might in climactic ecstasy with the conclusion of this festival (join us tomorrow morning for Hoshana Rabbah if you want to find out what THAT’s all about). And then we conclude with singing and dancing with the Torah in joyous abandon. This is a physical journey much more so than an emotional one.

One of the pleasures of Sukkot is sukkah-hopping – going to friends’ sukkot to hang around, to schmooze, to eat, to spend quality time with each other. A good friend of mine, a former congregant in New York, is convinced that Sukkot is the secret weapon in the Jewish arsenal of re-engaging disaffected American Jews. He has a grand scheme to put free, easy-to-build sukkot in the hands of people who would otherwise not buy one, with the only condition that they use it during the holiday. This festival brings people together, he reasons. It is joyous and fun and builds community and connection. If more Jews participated in the mitzvah of leshev basukkah, he figures, then we have a better shot at rebuilding our connection to Judaism.

He has asked to remain anonymous, but he donated four such sukkot to this community this year, and so there were four more families celebrating in their own sukkot in Pittsburgh in 5777. Maybe next year we’ll get even a few more.

The Slonimer Rebbe taught that Yom Kippur appeals to the middah (attribute) of yir’ah, of fear of God, but the middah for Sukkot is ahavah, love. The two balance each other out, and so the month of Tishrei includes equal measures of yir’ah and ahavah. But let’s face it: in simply counting the number of people in the room, far more Jews are motivated by yir’ah to show up on Yom Kippur. Couldn’t we use a little more ahavah in Jewish life?

Our goal as Jews is to avoid living in the dystopian future of The Matrix; we cannot become subjects to our technology. We have to continue to be human, to live in the here and now, to worship only the God of Abraham and Sarah. Ritual binds us to reality, and qal vahomer, all the more so on Sukkot, when the rituals are all so physical.  These holy opportunities are all the ways that we maintain our connections to the physicality of Creation, to God, and to each other. This is how we maintain our humanity, the sacredness of life in all of its loving, fearful, vulnerable glory.

So while the future may be filled with robots and data, and may be more and more dehumanizing, the antidote might be found by peering through the sekhakh (the greenery on the roof of the sukkah) in order to see the stars, while we dine and socialize in those frail booths, and feel the ahavah, the love of this holiday. Hag sameah!
~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 10/21/2016.)