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#ComeBacktoShul – Vayiqra 5782

I was in church last Sunday afternoon. Admittedly, it was the first time I’d been to a church service in a while. 

I participated in an interfaith prayer gathering in support of the people of Ukraine at St. Paul’s Cathedral, presided over by Bishop Zubik of the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese. In attendance were people from across the religious spectrum of the region, including Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, and Christian spiritual leaders, as well as over 500 attendees. While some of the overtly Christian language was uncomfortable to me, the overarching message was a resonant one: we stand with the Ukrainian people. In addition to words of prayer and remarks by some of the clergy participants, including a very moving personal story from Father Ihor Hohosha of St. George Ukrainian Catholic Church, the service was occasionally punctuated by people calling out, “Slava Ukraini!” “Glory to Ukraine!”

It was inspiring to see so many people together in one place – the first indoor gathering of that size that I have attended in two whole years, and all the more so to unite across theological lines in support of a cause.

One might criticize such a gathering by saying, “OK, that’s great. But what the Ukrainians need is actual, material support – arms, military personnel, humanitarian aid, and so forth. What good does having an interfaith prayer service do?”

Actually, ladies and gentlemen, prayer accomplishes a lot. And that’s why we are about to launch Beth Shalom’s #ComeBacktoShul campaign. I’ll come back to that in a few minutes.

What does tefillah / Jewish prayer accomplish? And why engage in it?

Here are the major communal and individual benefits:

  1. Tefillah / prayer brings us physically together. As you know, you have to have a minyan, a quorum of 10 people for it to be a complete service. That means you have to show up, something which is hard enough today even without a worldwide pandemic. And, as we have all learned in abundance over the past two years, being in the same room with other people is much better than seeing your fellow participants on your screen.
  2. Tefillah makes us feel like a community. אל תפרוש מן הציבור, “Do not separate yourself from the community,” says Pirqei Avot. When we have at least 10 people together in a room, we feel interconnected. We understand that we are parts of a greater whole. We build a qehillah qedoshah, a congregation founded in holiness.
  3. Prayer sensitizes us to the needs of the other. If you are doing it right, engaging in tefillah reminds you that, in this solitary moment of ritual, we are connected to God, to each other, to our ancient tradition. It reminds us that connection requires being open to and aware of the people around us. There is a custom that many have of giving tzedaqah during the weekday morning service, because that is a moment in which we are most sensitized to the needy around us. (We cannot pass the tzedaqah box on Shabbat, because handling money is forbidden on Shabbat; nonetheless, even on Shabbat, tefillah should lead us to see the Divine spark in everybody.)

    One of the first things that we say as part of the morning service is from Rabbi Isaac Luria, the 16th-century kabbalist (you can find this on p. 102 in Lev Shalem):

הריני מקבל עלי מצות הבורא: ואהבת לרעך כמוך

I hereby accept the obligation of fulfilling the Creator’s mitzvah: Love your neighbor as yourself. 

We cannot even begin to daven without first acknowledging that we are in relationship with the people around us.

  1. Tefillah is meditation. Jews are never silent, even when they pray. Our meditation is not like Eastern meditation; our mantra is in Hebrew, and has many more words. But if you are truly mindful about your prayer, if you are truly in the moment and successfully let go of the other things that are tugging at your attention during services, our prayer tradition functions the same way. That too is very hard. But if you commit yourself to doing it regularly, you will achieve the same thing that you might achieve in other kinds of meditation. 
  2. Tefillah teaches Torah. The highest ideal in Jewish life is learning; the most essential mitzvah out of all 613 is engaging with words of Torah. If you are paying attention, prayer is study, and study is prayer; they reinforce and build on each other. 
  3. Tefillah means “self-judgment.” If you are doing it properly, prayer is an opportunity to check in with yourself, to evaluate where you are, what you have done right and wrong, and to see if you can tip the scales in the right direction. As with all of the items above, tefillah is a tool for improving yourself and improving your community and your world. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi taught that, as we open our mouths in prayer, we should start by saying, “Dear God, whatever jealousies and resentments I might harbor in my heart, please remove this judgment from me.” Self-judgment.

Yes, for Jewish prayer there is a high bar. Even if you cannot read Hebrew, you still have to be able to manage transliteration. And you have to know when to respond, and when to be silent, when to stand/sit, when to bow, and so forth. And to understand the meaning of the words – to be able to glean something from them, that takes real work. I had many semesters of liturgy and liturgical Hebrew in Cantorial School, and I still encounter words or idioms I do not understand. 

But of course some of those things do not require a deep knowledge. The mere act of gathering as a community so that we can feel connected to one another is an outcome that we can all achieve, even if you don’t know the words, or when to bow.

And yet, every time we gather for a service, we raise the level of qedushah / holiness in ourselves, in our relationships, and in our community. And in doing so, all of the benefits I just mentioned help us work toward improving this world.

So even though Ukraine is very far away, our gathering to say words of prayer on behalf of the Ukrainian people will surely help, even though we might not see the results immediately. Every prayer helps a little bit.

Which brings us back to why we are here. Yes, we are here this morning to celebrate with a bar mitzvah as he is called to the Torah. Yes, we are here to be with each other, to have lunch together. 

But more pointedly, we are here to pray. And we do that every day at Beth Shalom, twice a day, morning and evening.

And we need you to come back to pray with us. In person.

Thank God, our rates of transmission are as low now as they were last summer. Thank God, many of us now are boosted. We hope that soon young children will be able to be vaccinated as well. I am grateful, and I am sure that you are too.

I have heard recently from multiple members of Beth Shalom, in different ways and using different language, that right now, after two years of pandemic, they feel disconnected from our community. Well, folks, there is just one solution to that: #ComeBacktoShul. 

We need you to be here. Physically. In-person. We need you to come back. We are waiting for you.

And we need you to bring a friend. Find the people whom you know have not returned, and invite them to come back as well. We will welcome everybody with group air hugs all around.

So here are a couple of practical considerations:

  1. We are still wearing masks in the building, at least for a couple of more weeks. We want to be sure that everybody feels safe. It’s not going to be so easy for us to simply start to gather again. It still makes me a bit nervous to be around unmasked people right now. But that is a temporary thing. We’ll get used to it again.
  2. We are serving food again, and I hope that we’ll be able to start up our weekday-morning breakfasts soon.
  3. We will continue to make our services available via Zoom. However, within the coming months we will no longer be, as we have been for the past two years, in the mode of “she’at hadeḥaq,” which is rabbi-speak for “an urgent situation.” As the urgency of the moment recedes, we are going to return to the mode where a minyan is constituted only by people in the room, and we will not count Zoom participants toward that minyan. That will be a big change for our weekday minyanim, so you might want to consider helping us out morning and evening, so that we can continue to make a quorum. I anticipate that (if everything continues moving the right direction) this change will be coming around Pesaḥ.

The prophet Isaiah tells us that the Jewish center of worship is an ecumenical space, one that is for everybody. Isaiah says (56:7):

 כִּ֣י בֵיתִ֔י בֵּית־תְּפִלָּ֥ה יִקָּרֵ֖א לְכָל־הָעַמִּֽים׃

For My House shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.

Rabbi David Qimḥi, a late 12th/early 13th c. French commentator, also known by his acronym רד”ק (Radaq), said this about this verse:

וגם אל הנכרי כל שכן לשבים לדת ישראל:

And if Isaiah’s words applies to non-Jews, all the more so to those who are returning to Jewish worship.

This house is open to you, and to everybody. Now is the time to return. We need you to join us in prayer. The world needs you; the people of Ukraine need you. #ComeBacktoShul. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 3/12/2022.)

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Less Stuff, More Compassion – Vayyishlah 5782

A funny thing happened to me this week.

The older of our two cars, a 2007 Toyota, was parked in front of our home in Squirrel Hill on Tuesday night. Judy went out on Wednesday morning, started up the car, and was absolutely freaked out by a fearful roar of the engine. It sounded like the muffler had fallen off. 

But no. As it turns out, some enterprising thief or thieves had gotten underneath the car and stolen the catalytic converter, which is apparently a 10-minute job that is worth it for the expensive metals, particularly platinum, found inside of it.

Catalytic converter

OK, so this is annoying for a whole bunch of reasons, as I am sure you can imagine. But let’s face it: a car, while essential for getting from place to place, is an expensive hunk of metal. Despite the fact that this vehicle was my first major purchase after completing rabbinical school, I do not have any particular affection or nostalgia for it. At some point, I’ll probably have to replace it with something that will look and feel a lot nicer, at least for a little while. I consider myself fortunate in that I can afford two cars.

But I had a fairly spartan childhood, growing up in rural New England. In my family, we almost never received Ḥanukkah gifts – for us, gift-giving was something that non-Jews did in December, and there was a clear, almost rabbinic opinion in my family that Ḥanukkah had nothing to do with Christmas, and that “giving in” to gift-giving was like celebrating Christmas. It just did not feel appropriate. 

So I suffered in resentful silence as my friends (virtually all of whom were not Jewish) received the newest, coolest toys, and all I got was a few pieces of chocolate wrapped in gold foil, and, if we were lucky, a few homemade latkes served with applesauce.

Truth is, my parents were experts at not buying stuff. We were all skilled in the art of re-using and recycling, way before it was cool, and turning the junk of others into our own treasure. Here is some true Adelson Family folklore:

Where we grew up, there was no municipal garbage pickup. We had to drive our garbage to the landfill (known affectionately as “the dump”) and actually toss it onto the pile, where it would soon be covered with soil. I’ll never forget the smell, which was not pleasant. 

Williamstown, Massachusetts, where I grew up

But the dump was fun in other ways – there was a recycling area where you could pick through the discarded periodicals of others, and also a spot where you could find large items that some considered garbage; but for us it was an opportunity to find slightly imperfect appliances and furniture at a VERY reasonable cost. So sometimes we came back from the dump with more stuff.

When my mother sensed that a critical mass of our household refuse had amassed in the garage, she would say, “Lennie, it’s time to go to the dump.” And my father would say, “Why? Whaddaya need?”

Now, with the anti-materialist deprivations of my childhood far behind me, I feel like I have too much stuff. I’ve got a whole house full of it. And, as I am sure is the case with many of you as well, most of it we almost never use.

As a society, of course, we think a lot about buying stuff at this time of year: the sales, the holiday pitches, family get-togethers, etc. Black Friday, the day when retail businesses go into the black, is coming up this week. And let’s face it: right now, supply-chain issues aside, the US economy needs a boost. (And perhaps some booster shots, as well!)

So it caught my eye that in Parashat Vayyishlaḥ, there is a particularly significant episode of gift-giving. Our hero Ya’aqov, preparing for being reunited with his brother Esav 20 years after effectively stealing their father Yitzḥaq’s blessing and fleeing, is expecting the worst. He assumes that Esav is still angry, and he has heard that Esav is coming with 400 men. So what does Ya’aqov do to attempt to head off a potentially deadly confrontation? He sends gifts: 550 animals – goats, sheep, camels, and even donkeys.

His reasoning is stated in the Torah (Bereshit / Genesis 32:21):

אֲכַפְּרָ֣ה פָנָ֗יו בַּמִּנְחָה֙ הַהֹלֶ֣כֶת לְפָנָ֔י וְאַחֲרֵי־כֵן֙ אֶרְאֶ֣ה פָנָ֔יו אוּלַ֖י יִשָּׂ֥א פָנָֽי׃

If I propitiate him with presents in advance, and then face him; perhaps he will show me favor.

This is very interesting verse for a number of reasons:

  1. The use of term minḥah, which we think of as meaning, “the afternoon service,” although here we reveal its original meaning, “offering.” (When the Temple was functioning in Jerusalem, prior to its second and final destruction by the Romans in the year 70 CE, the minḥah sacrifice was the daily offering in the afternoon.)
  2. There are four idioms containing the root peh-nun-yod, meaning “face,” which is clearly a leitwort / thematic word of this chapter. The root also appears in the place name Peni-el, literally “face of God,” where Ya’aqov has the wrestling match with the angel.
  3. One of those idioms is akhapperah fanav baminḥah, which is hard to translate. Our translation says, “If I propitiate him with presents,” although the verb here is to atone. Ya’aqov seeks to “atone to his face,” or something similar.

Ya’aqov knows, as we all do, that people like gifts. Giving a gift tells the recipient, I care.  I love you. I am concerned with your welfare. Or, in this case, I’m sorry for what I did to you 20 years ago. I am atoning to your face.

But gifts can also be a kind of shortcut, an attempt to say something meaningful without actually saying it! 

In recent years, since there is so much more shopping that happens online, we have not heard about the Black Friday debacles that have happened in the past: people lining up all night, and stampeding when stores open, to get to the heavily discounted holiday gift items. You may recall that there was a Walmart employee who was trampled to death on Long Island about a decade ago. So thank God that sort of thing isn’t happening right now.

We like having stuff!  Ya’aqov liked stuff too – he left his father-in-law Laban’s house with all the best animals. The offspring of that hand-picked herd, the unnaturally-selected cream of the woolly crop, was delivered to Esav to ameliorate him, because Ya’aqov assumed that his brother also liked having new stuff.

But really, the problem here is that gifts do not necessarily resolve long-standing estrangements. Gifts do not even solve simple disputes. They might make the recipient more willing to talk to the giver, and perhaps lighten the mood. But the issues are still there.

Perhaps Ya’aqov made his offering under the misguided notion that it would right past wrongs.  Perhaps he feared Esav so much that he was unable to “atone to his face” verbally, to ask for forgiveness, to apologize, to try to make amends.  So he gave him a whole pasture-full of ruminants.

And the plan may not have even worked! When the brothers meet, in the following chapter, Esav runs to greet Ya’aqov, kisses him, and immediately declines the gifts. “יֶשׁ־לִ֣י רָ֑ב אָחִ֕י יְהִ֥י לְךָ֖ אֲשֶׁר־לָֽךְ׃,” says Esav. “I have enough, my brother; let what you have remain yours.” I don’t need your charity.

Radaq, Rabbi David Qimḥi, writing in Provence in the 12th-13th c., says that Esav realizes in that moment that he has abased himself, and is filled with compassion for Ya’aqov and genuinely forgave his brother. Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, 15th-16th c. Italy, tells us that this change happens when Esav sees his brother; it is only when they see each other face-to-face that all is forgiven.

Ya’aqov fails the key test: instead of actually seeking forgiveness through reaching out to his brother, he tries to buy him off with gifts. Ironically, the true hero in this case is Esav; he is filled with compassion, not moved by gifts. He didn’t need more stuff.

What is more valuable than material goods? Genuine, true expressions of love. Honesty, compassion, sympathy, and earnest attempts to forgive those from whom we are estranged. Showing our faces.

We read in the Talmud, Massekhet Shabbat,

These are the things which people may do and thus enjoy their fruits in this world, while the principal of the investment remains for the world to come: honoring one’s parents, the practice of loving deeds, and making peace between people, and the study of the Torah surpasses them all.

The most valuable gifts we can give are not tangible; they are expressions of love and compassion. Material goods might make us momentarily happy; but personal investment in our relationships and knowledge will pay off throughout this lifetime, and the next.

So don’t worry about the supply-chain issues. What your family and friends and maybe even estranged relatives need is for you to reach out and tell them how much you love them, how much you appreciate them, and how much you care. They don’t need more stuff; they need to see your face. They need you.

Wassily Kandinsky – Unstable Compensation, 1930

A joyous Thanksgiving to you and yours, and may you have a happy, illuminating Ḥanukkah!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 11/20/2021.)