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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.)

Categories
Sermons

What Do Rabbis Do? – Vayyetze 5782

What does a rabbi do?

Are we teachers? Service leaders? Pastors? 

Am I employed by Beth Shalom to perform (God forbid!) your mother’s funeral? Or to help your daughter give a devar Torah for her bat mitzvah?

Do rabbis give advice? Pray for healing? Lead by being symbolic exemplars? Counsel people going through divorce or grieving a loss or celebrating a joyful moment? Plan and execute Purim, Simḥat Torah, Tu Bishvat, Tish’ah BeAv, and so forth? Work with people converting to Judaism, or teach in the Hebrew school? Do they serve a public role in the community as representatives and advocates? Serve on committees tasked with administrative duties for our qehillah (congregation)? Help members of our community deepen their connection to Judaism?

The answer to all of those questions is of course, yes. Rabbis do all of those things, and many more.

But if you had to encapsulate what rabbis do in one sentence, what would it be?

Not so easy to answer, right? 

I have some good news: Congregation Beth Shalom is now officially engaged in the process of hiring an Assistant Rabbi. This is very good news for you, because many of you know that I am stretched very thin (…), and the congregation as a whole will benefit if we have two people working in the rabbinic trenches. Our committee met for the first time this week, and we hope to be interviewing candidates as early as December. (Watch for upcoming info on two open forums in which you can participate.)

Surely some of you are thinking, “But how will we pay for another rabbi? Don’t we have a bunch of other rabbis around? Why do we need another one?”

First, I would like you to invite you to direct all questions regarding financing to our President, Alan Kopolow, and he will be happy to answer them.

But please know that Rabbi Mark Goodman, our interim Director of Derekh and Youth Tefillah, will hand off his responsibilities to the Assistant Rabbi when his term comes to an end in June. Additionally, the new Assistant Rabbi will be my partner in doing many of the things that I do from day to day and week to week. The other rabbis on staff (Rabbi Shugerman, Rabbi Freedman) have other areas of responsibility, and usually do not share in my tasks, particularly the pastoral and adult education roles. 

Hiring an Assistant Rabbi will allow us to deepen our rabbinic relationships with the community. It will ensure that you, a healthy-sized congregation of 600 families, are better served for all of the pulpit and pastoral responsibilities that are right now only attended to by yours truly. I’ll come back to this thought in a moment, but first a word from our sponsor this week, Parashat Vayyetze.

Vayyetze contains, right up front, one of my favorite scenes from the Torah. (Yes, I know I have a number of these, but this one is definitely in the Top 5.)

Our hero, Ya’aqov, is fleeing his brother Esav, and he stops for the night to have a schluff. While asleep, he has a vision of angels going up and down a ladder, and upon waking, he realizes that he is in a holy place, and exclaims (Bereshit / Genesis 28:16-17),

אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ ה’ בַּמָּק֖וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי׃ וַיִּירָא֙ וַיֹּאמַ֔ר מַה־נּוֹרָ֖א הַמָּק֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה אֵ֣ין זֶ֗ה כִּ֚י אִם־בֵּ֣ית אֱ-לֹהִ֔ים וְזֶ֖ה שַׁ֥עַר הַשָּׁמָֽיִם׃ 

“Surely the LORD is present in this place, and I did not know it! … How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.”

Has anybody here ever had a revelatory moment quite like that?

Marc Chagall, Jacob’s Ladder (1973)

It is a striking statement. Ya’aqov had not thought that there was anything special about this place, or this particular time, and yet he is suddenly aware of God’s presence, of the holiness of this single point in the spacetime continuum.

One thing that we might learn from this is that sometimes extraordinary things happen in otherwise ordinary circumstances. That is, you never know when the miraculous might occur, and you may not even realize that you are in the middle of a miracle until after the fact.  

And so it might very well be a good idea to expect it! The 15th-16th c. Italian commentator R. Ovadiah Seforno says that after the fact, Ya’aqov regretted not being ready for this moment:

ואנכי לא ידעתי שאלו ידעתי הייתי מכין עצמי לנבואה ולא כן עשיתי

And I did not know it. That if I had known [that God is present in this place], I would have prepared myself for prophecy; but I did not.

In retrospect, Ya’aqov realized that he missed his chance. He gets another one four chapters later, when he wrestles with an angel and is bestowed the name Yisrael. But here, he was not ready. God showed up – a miraculous moment – and Ya’aqov was caught off guard.

Do not think, ladies and gentlemen, that the synagogue is the only place where qedushah / holiness happens. On the contrary: what we learn from this passage is that holy moments can happen anywhere.

I might frame my job as a rabbi to be to remind you to connect the dots between what we learn from the Jewish bookshelf, here in the synagogue and elsewhere, with what we do with the rest of our lives. That is, the rabbi’s job is to deepen your understanding and appreciation for our tradition, so that it will stick with you; that you will remember the lessons taught by Avraham and Sarah, Rivqah and Yitzḥaq, Ya’aqov and Leah and Raḥel; that these pieces of ancient wisdom will be there when you need them, wherever you are in your Jewish journey. 

We need to be ready – ready for nevu’ah / prophecy, as Seforno suggests, or maybe ready just for the opportunity to raise the general level of qedushah / holiness in our midst: by making the right choices for ourselves and for others; by greeting another person with a smile; by being a better, more respectful neighbor; by seeking to understand before we criticize; by committing to learn an inch deeper, an centimeter wider. (The Talmudic text that I taught earlier suggests that all that it takes to get the yetzer hara off of somebody’s back is to drag them into the Beit Midrash!)

That is the value of our tradition. And the role of the rabbi is to help you find the wisdom, and to be ready, because you don’t want to miss that holy moment when it comes. 

I was asked recently by one of the members of our current Intro to Judaism class what the biggest challenge to contemporary Judaism is. And, lamentably, the answer is apathy. Indifference to our tradition.

And the survey data that we collect about ourselves (e.g. the recent Pew study) reinforces this: we see a gradual hardening on the far theological right, and everybody else, from Modern Orthodoxy leftward, is gradually drifting away. You know this from the realities of your own family members. Assimilation and disinterest continue to take their toll.

My primary role as a rabbi is not only to endeavor to inspire those who may be drifting away, but also to inspire you who are not, you who are still showing up for Jewish life, to deepen your commitment, to be role models for contemporary Jewish engagement, to demonstrate your appreciation and love of Jewish text, Jewish ritual, Jewish living. My primary goal is to make you care – to show you the value in our tradition, and how it can improve your life and our world. That is, to be ready for all holy moments that come your way; to recognize that God is always in the place where you are. 

And the same will be true of our new Assistant Rabbi. Ladies and gentlemen, as we embark on this process, please know that foremost in my mind is that the successful candidate will inspire you to think about our tradition not only on Shabbat morning or at a Lunch and Learn or a shiv’ah house, but in every waking moment, and sometimes when, like Ya’aqov, when and where you sleep as well.

What do rabbis do? They help us to be ready for the holy moments, the times when God is in this place, and God knows we need more inspiration to do so.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 11/13/2021.)