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It’s Not Good To Be Alone – Bereshit 5782

I must say that this past week we celebrated what I think was the most joyful Simḥat Torah of my lifetime. We were outside in the Ohel (tent) at Beth Shalom both Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning, which made it more comfortable for many families with young children to come and join us. So it was wonderful to sing and dance with abandon, and to celebrate the ancient wisdom of our tradition as we do on Simḥat Torah, and to feel some joy after 18 months of isolation and anxiety. 

I have always been of the opinion, by the way, that if you want to really experience Judaism, and you only have two days out of the year on which to do so, you should be at synagogue on Simḥat Torah and Purim, not on the High Holidays. While the gravitas of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur is certainly powerful, the true joy in Jewish life and practice is found on the celebratory days.

But what concerns me, of course, are the people who were not there, who still do not feel comfortable coming because they are anxious about the Delta variant or cannot get vaccinated for health reasons or have other complicating factors. It is for those people that we of course are still making our services accessible via Zoom, and of course we will continue to do so for some time. 

There is, however, a slight problem with Zooming synagogue services. I’ll come back to that.

***

You may know that I am fond of comparing and contrasting the two Creation stories of Parashat Bereshit; the first Creation story of Bereshit Chapter 1, the one which features six days of Creation followed by Shabbat, is about order, that the world which God created is an orderly one that is, in God’s estimation, “good.”

But the second story, beginning in Bereshit Chapter 2, is the human one, the one in which Adam is fashioned from the adamah, the Earth, and there is almost a sense of human-Divine partnership in that story. Adam is called upon to till and tend the Earth, and to give names to all the creatures and plants in the Garden of Eden. And ultimately, this story is about disorder, about human failure to meet God’s expectations, the messiness of humanity. 

Early on in that second story, Adam is lonely, and God says, (Bereshit / Genesis 2:18):

לֹא־ט֛וֹב הֱי֥וֹת הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְבַדּ֑וֹ אֶֽעֱשֶׂה־לּ֥וֹ עֵ֖זֶר כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ׃

Lo tov heyot ha-adam levado; e’eseh lo ezer kenegdo.

It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him.

It is of course striking that, as the 19th-century Volhynian commentator Malbim notes, that all of the other creatures were created in male-female pairs, yet this human partner to God is unique in that Adam is initially alone. But furthermore, one of the essential features of humanity is, of course, society. There could be no concept of “humanity” without other human beings. 

Rabbi Ovadia Seforno, in 15th century Italy, reads this verse as follows:

The purpose of the human species on earth will not be achieved while the one who is supposed to reflect the divine image will be left to personally carry out all the menial tasks of daily life on earth by being solitary.

In other words, we humans, having been created (in the first Creation story) betzelem Elohim, in the image of God, have a job, and that job is to be God’s hands on Earth, to spread physical manifestations of the qedushah, the holiness embedded in that fundamental relationship with God. And that task clearly cannot be completed by one person. Reflecting the Divine image requires a lot of people; it requires human society.

And so God creates a second human being, to be an “ezer kenegdo,” a term that is not easy to translate. I said “fitting helper” a moment ago, according to the Jewish Publication Society translation. But there is a complication here! The term “fitting helper” does not capture the sense of opposition in the Hebrew.. “Ezer” means helper. But “kenegdo” includes “neged,” which means, “opposing.” So the human partner here can both help and oppose.

If we might envision this moment of the creation of Adam’s ezer kenegdo – when one became two, which became 4 and then 3 and then many others as we journey through the genealogies later in the parashah – as the beginning of human society, then we might read this passage as suggesting that we can stand with or against each other. We can advocate for each other or we can oppose. We can elevate the qedushah / holiness in the world together, or we can disagree about exactly how to go about that and accomplish nothing. We can solve problems, or we can argue about them.

That is one fundamental aspect of what it means to be human, to be in relationship with each other, to be a part of society.

And I am concerned that we are leaning too heavily into the “kenegdo,” the oppositional aspect of humanity today, rather than the “ezer.” 

And while certainly there are some bad actors who are doing this deliberately (e.g. those who knowingly spread false information about vaccines), there are many more of us who are doing this unintentionally. 

What do you mean, Rabbi?

Thanks in part to the Internet, which has allowed people to connect with and gather with each other and create micro-communities across continents and time zones, it is completely possible that today you can find the other people whom you perceive to be just like you all over the world. They think like you, they act like you, they have your particular tastes and inclinations. They watch all the same stuff on YouTube that you do.

So on the one hand, that’s great. It’s wonderful to know that people who have been marginalized for various reasons, for example, can find community.

But on the other hand, once you are socializing and forming communities with people who are far away from you, whom you cannot see in person, you are losing some of the essential aspects of what it means to be in relationship – that is, both the “ezer” AND the “kenegdo.”

And we are all actively creating this, even if we are doing it not on purpose. I am certainly not going to stop Beth Shalom from providing services via Zoom to people all over the world, but of course if you’re Zooming into a bar mitzvah from far away, and not actually coming to visit your friends and family in Pittsburgh, yes, you are sparing the atmosphere some carbon dioxide and contributing less to global warming. But you are also missing something else: the idea that synagogue, and, well, life takes place locally.

And of course this applies across all of our platforms, which both connect us and separate us.

The pandemic certainly has upended our lives in many ways, and the Zoom phenomenon is just one. All of the forces of isolation were in play long decades before the arrival of Covid-19, and even the Internet; sociologists and political scientists and psychologists have been talking about these things for years. (Many of you have heard me speak about the “Bowling Alone” phenomenon identified by sociologist Robert Putnam.)

But just one tiny anecdote that might hit home for us: the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle published a poll this past week regarding the building and use of sukkot in our community over the recent holiday. A few of the written responses that they published echoed this isolation:

  • “Unable to attend live services and visit the sukkah due to worry about leaving my ill wife!”
  • “I used to be Jewish. I am alone. People have not invited me to anything for a number of years.”
  • “Used to have a sukkah every year when my kids were here.”

There were of course some positive responses as well. But these kinds of statements make my heart ache. Social isolation is a problem in particular for people who are homebound, but it is growing for all of us as well. Perhaps we need to do a better job as a community to reach out to people who feel disconnected.

Fortunately, there is a remedy for that: communal organizations. And even more fortunately, we the Jews are very good at being organized: Bend the Arc, Repair the World, ZOA, NCJW, the Jewish Federation, and of course, your local synagogue are all organizations which help to mitigate the challenge of isolation. 

And in particular, in places like synagogues where you might rub elbows with people who are as much ezer as kenegdo, we need to ensure that we continue to be in touch with and serve all people, people of all walks of life, of all ages, colors, backgrounds, gender identities, financial means and yes, even people of all political persuasions.

That is what it means to be in community; that is what it means to be God’s hands in doing the holy work of being made in the Divine image. And that experience, of doing God’s work together in partnership, is a highly local endeavor, one that we do with ALL of our neighbors.

Yes, the pandemic is still going on, and of course we must continue to emphasize vaccination and the wearing of masks. But just as we saw lots of joy over this Simḥat Torah, just as people expressed their tremendous gratitude to me and other leaders of Beth Shalom for making it possible for us to be able to daven together in the building over the High Holidays, we will learn to live with this, we will continue gradually to protect everybody from the disease, and we will gather with even more joy and celebration and just the pure happiness of being together.

So, while I am grateful for Zoom, I am also looking forward to the day when we can all gather freely once again, to be ezer kenegdo to one another, as God intended.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 10/2/2021.)

Categories
Sermons

The Kibitzer and the Stop Sign – Emor 5777

Many of you know that Abe Salem (z”l) passed away this week. He was the former minyan leader and Torah reader here at Beth Shalom. As I was preparing for the funeral, I watched the video he made for the Holocaust Center (we sent out the link with the death announcement), and of course struggled to understand him, because he used to switch back and forth between English and Yiddish. So that got me thinking about Yiddish, and then I realized that one thing that we Jews have given to the world is the kibitzer.

What is a kibitzer? Definitions vary. Some kibitzers are funny people, joking and making fun and generally spreading good cheer. Some kibitzers offer unwanted advice. Some are there to throw off the rhythm of others engaged in serious activities, like playing chess or cards.

kibitzer

My wife recalled to me that when she was a little girl, her mother would play cards with her Hungarian friends, and ask Judy to be a kibitzer, but she was not sure exactly what that meant; neither of them spoke Yiddish. (BTW, I checked my trusty Modern English-Yiddish / Yiddish-English Dictionary, by Uriel Weinreich, and apparently the correct English term for “kibitz” is “kibitz.”

But we all know these characters. They are a standard feature of Jewish life steeped in Eastern European ethnicity. Wherever these Jews gathered, historically, there were kibitzers. Along with the nudnik, the schnorrer, and the yente, they form a certain stratum of Jewish society that serve as social connectors. They were part of the fabric of Jewish life that marked close neighborhoods, in which everybody knew each other (and of course each other’s business). We have a talent for connecting people together, and we have particular people that do it in particular ways.

(FYI: nudnik is a pest; schnorrer is a beggar, or somebody who takes advantage of others’ generosity; and a yente is a busybody.)

Of course, as a group, most American Jews today, even though we are mostly descended from people who knew these roles and the people who played them, we no longer have that sense of ethnic interconnectedness. Squirrel Hill, it seems, is something of a throwback among Jewish neighborhoods, but even so, many have told me that it’s not what it used to be. And

And the same is true for the wider society in which we live. As the saying goes, the Jews are like everybody else, only moreso.

There are many little ways through which we demonstrate our awareness of and respect for others around us. One small example is how drivers behave at stop signs.

stop

Back on Long Island, I used to live right by an intersection with a four-way stop. From my kitchen window, I could see cars driving through the intersection without stopping all the time. Some slowed down. Some did not. (Some seemed to actually speed up as they were approaching.)

Now, I cannot say that I myself have never rolled through a stop, or exceeded the speed limit. But I think it’s notable that we are living in a time in which it is almost expected that, except when one is in the presence of a law enforcement officer, certain illegal driving behaviors are ubiquitous.

The sociologist Robert Putnam, whom you have probably heard me mention in this space before, wrote a seminal work of contemporary sociology called Bowling Alone, in which he documents the decline of interconnectedness in our society, and the consequences thereof. One of his measures of this sense of interconnectedness is, if you can believe this, stop sign behavior.

A long-term study of intersections in New York, cited by Putnam, yielded this: in 1979, when the study began, 37 percent came to a full stop. In 1996, 97 percent did not stop at all.

Traffic laws, health and safety standards, business regulations, and so forth – these are all designed to create a just society in which people are safe from the yetzer hara, the evil inclination of others. They are all reflections of a deeper set of principles, which the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau referred to as the social contract: that in order to live in a free society, we as individuals must surrender a few freedoms to protect most of the others.

The Torah, of course, contains principles of law which govern our public behavior, to benefit the general good. One such example is that when you build a house, you must put a parapet around the edge of your roof, to prevent people from falling off (Deut. 22:8). Another is that if you dig a hole in your yard, and somebody’s ox falls in and breaks its leg, you are responsible to pay monetary damages for the ox (Ex. 21:33). And there are many more such examples.

And a whole order of the Mishnah, one sixth of that earliest rabbinic work, is dedicated to what we call today tort law. It’s called Neziqin, “damages.” And several tractates of the gemara are likewise devoted to these cases.

The point, of course, is not merely to protect people or make sure they do not get hurt, but also to maintain our sense of awareness of the other. If you think about your neighbor’s safety, you are going to want to build a parapet on your roof and not leave dangerous holes in your yard. You want to protect the people around you from harm. You care about them. As with every good habit, it takes practice, consistency, and a healthy dose of mindfulness. That’s what the Torah and the Talmud are going for.

So the stop sign is one side of that interconnectedness: the things that we do to protect others from harm. But the other side is the social connection that happens organically when people gather together. And that brings us back to the kibitzer, and to Parashat Emor, which we read this morning.

It’s not explicitly stated, and it’s not really something you can glean from the English translation, and that message is this: some of the holy opportunities of Jewish life are for you singular, the individual. And some of them are for you plural, the collective. Society writ large. And all of them are, as Katriel suggested earlier, for the sake of Qiddush HaShem, sanctifying God’s name.

Last week, in Parashat Qedoshim, we read the Holiness Code, a kind of guide to the kinds of interpersonal mitzvot / holy opportunities that help set up a just society. But mostly they are for individuals, and the language of the Torah reflects that: Do not profit from the blood of your neighbor. Do not bear a grudge. You should not use dishonest measures in the marketplace. And so forth.

But this week in Parashat Emor, we find the holiday cycle, and those mitzvot are in plural. Since we’re in Pittsburgh, yinz all know what the correct colloquial plural for the second person nominative pronoun is. Yinz shall keep My appointed times. Yinz shall observe Passover for seven days. And so forth.

Why plural for the festival cycle? Because those are the things that we do as a group, as Am Yisrael. The suggestion is, yes, you might be able to maintain the holiness in your individual relationships on a one-on-one basis, but yinz better be celebrating together. Because that’s what Jews do. We are individuals who are part of a collective. When we are together, we make a greater whole, and those are the times when we are closest to God.

And whom do you encounter at these group observances and celebrations? The kibitzers, of course, and everybody else.

So you may want to consider this the next time you come to a stop sign, but even more than that, think about it as we kibitz at the luncheon today, and the next week, and for Shavuot in two weeks, and so forth:

If you are doing Jewish right, you are sensitized to and aware of all the people around you. That is what our tradition is for. And that is what we stand for as we make the words of Jewish life and learning alive for us today.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 5/13/2017.)