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Love, Theology, and Vaccinations – Terumah 5781

I was recently asked by a member of the congregation, with whom I was meeting via Zoom, “Rabbi Adelson, what’s your take on God?”

I glanced at the time in the lower right corner of my screen. We had 17 minutes until my next Zoom meeting, and we had not yet discussed the other items about which we were ostensibly meeting.

I apologized first by saying that we did not have time to properly cover the subject, but I stumbled through a clearly-unprepared elevator pitch which indirectly referenced Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (“the process that makes for salvation”) and Martin Buber (the Unconditional Thou) and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (“radical amazement”). And then I suggested we discuss God again at a follow-up meeting.

Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan

Lurking in the background, of course, was the question of the pandemic, and the classic conundrum regarding theodicy, that is, explaining the theology of human suffering. If I really, truly, believe that God is there for us and is benevolent, how can we account for a pandemic that has caused us so much misery?

I must concede that I detest the sort of theology, and the kind of rabbi, that declares that human suffering is the result of our misbehavior. Yes, the Torah states that in many places; the second paragraph of the Shema is a prime example, when it effectively says, “If you do the mitzvot, you receive rain and healthy crops and fertility and you will eat and live well, and if you do not do the mitzvot, the skies will dry up and you will suffer.” That is not a theology that I can accept. And although it certainly has its adherents in Jewish thought, it also has many detractors.

Rather, I continually return to the idea that our deeds, guided by the framework of mitzvot which God has given us, help make this world a better place for ourselves and for others. We have the opportunity, every day and all day long, to improve ourselves and our world by acting on the Jewish imperative to follow this code of behavior. And it is in this way that God works through us to counter the forces of chaos and evil that bring us down.

I read a few days ago that, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, life expectancy for Americans decreased by about 2 years in 2020. That seems like a shockingly high decrease, but I suppose it is not surprising, given our circumstances.

And the question that we face every single day is, when will this end?

Let’s go ahead and throw God into this one: When will God end this?

And the answer is, when we humans fully understand that we are partners with God in this endeavor, in a loving, holy framework.

As that Kaplanite process that makes for salvation, God is there with us as we continue to seek and to deliver vaccines. God is with us as Buber’s Unconditional Thou when we mask up and stay away from each other to prevent further spread. God is with us when we are simply struck dumb with awe at our present circumstances, and perhaps our inability to discern God or grasp God’s presence in our lives at this time, as we peer heavenward and call out, in the words of Psalm 130, “MiMaamaqim” – from the depths.

As we all know, there is good news on the horizon. Different research groups around the world have produced vaccines that will come to our rescue. And yet, the horizon seems, for many of us, impossibly far away. Ad matai, we ask in the words of Psalm 94, which we recite every Wednesday, until when? For how much longer must we be distant from one another? 

One current line of thinking, promoted by Dr. Anthony Fauci, for one, is that we need to get to an 85% vaccination rate before herd immunity will be effective at preventing the spread of the disease. I heard that number, and I thought, “How on Earth are we going to get to 85%?” During an ordinary year, the rate of influenza vaccination is about 50% or less. (For example, here.) Perhaps we have a better shot at a higher rate due to our extraordinary situation – far more people are aware of the nature of the pandemic and the numbers of people who are dying from COVID-19 than might be paying attention to the flu from year to year. But 85%?

How are we going to cut through all that vaccine skepticism, and misinformation spread by social media, and reach all of those people who have been misled to believe that this is all one giant hoax, or that the vaccines contain microchips?

I think there is only one way to do so, and it is hinted at in Parashat Terumah, which we read today. Right up front, the parashah includes a curious commandment from God (Shemot / Exodus 25:2):

דַּבֵּר֙ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְיִקְחוּ־לִ֖י תְּרוּמָ֑ה מֵאֵ֤ת כָּל־אִישׁ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִדְּבֶ֣נּוּ לִבּ֔וֹ תִּקְח֖וּ אֶת־תְּרוּמָתִֽי׃

Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.

What does the word “terumah” mean? Here, the translation is “gifts,” although that is a poor approximation. A better read is, “donation,” but the shoresh, the root of the word, is actually resh-vav-mem, meaning, to lift up. So these donations were actually a means of lifting up the donors.

And the latter half of the verse goes even further. It’s not just a donation, but a donation that relies upon the heart of the donor. Every Israelite “whose heart so moves,” shall donate. (Later in the Torah, in Parashat Vayaqhel, Moshe has to instruct the Israelites to STOP bringing more materials for the mishkan. Their generosity is overflowing!)

So why did I describe this as curious? God could have commanded the Israelites to bring the stuff for the mishkan, like a tax. God could have made it mandatory. But instead, God relied in this case on their generosity, of their willingness to be elevated through donation, to make this happen. Seems like an unreliable system, no?

And yet, it worked! The internal motivation succeeded, perhaps better than the external command.

There has been a flurry of articles lately about the challenge of combating falsehoods. Certainly part of the driving force behind the insurrection on January 6 was the power and reach of conspiracy theories that are spread mainly via social media. And many of us know people who have been taken in by this dangerous sewer of lies, people with whom we cannot even have a reasonable conversation, because they are not living in the same universe as we are. 

And from what I have read, it seems that the best antidote to a loved one who has succumbed to falsehood is not to try to prove them wrong, or to prove that QAnon is false or that certain public figures are not satanic pedophiles. Rather, the way to reach out to them is through love. To be there, to try to maintain a healthy relationship. If we break those relationships, the situation will only get worse. We cannot allow the mehitzah, the dividing barrier between people to continue to grow; that is a certain recipe for future disaster.

And so too with the vaccine. The only way that we will be able to get to 85% is to reach out to those whom we love, and remind them that we love them. Will there be some that still say no? Of course. But if we create this overflowing, overpowering fountain of love for one another, we might create a space in which all of our hearts are moved; we have a better chance than simply mandating.

Call me naive, but love is the only way to make this all happen. Perhaps this seems like a counter-intuitive strategy. But so too is God’s request for gifts for the mishkan.

The mishkan / portable desert sanctuary

Remember that we are in a partnership with God here, and together, we might be able to move some hearts. We will have to rely on the generosity of the human spirit, in the context of the Godly relationship, for this to happen. Together, in this human-divine relationship, we can get there. We can achieve redemption; we can lift each other up through love. That is one lesson we might learn from Terumah.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 2/20/2021.)

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Remember, and Do Not Forget – Shabbat Zakhor, 5779

In my former life, when I was working as an engineer in Houston, I was reviewing a piping diagram with a fellow engineer with whom I was collaborating. She was from Venezuela. At one point, she turned to me and, point blank, asked, “Are you Jewish?” I replied, “Yes.” She said, “You know the Jews killed Jesus, right?” I said, “Well, according to what I heard, the Catholic church absolved the Jews of guilt for that in 1965 with the Second Vatican Council.” She replied, “Yes, I know about that. But my father told me the truth. That’s the truth.”

I took my piping diagrams back to my cubicle, more than a little stunned.

****

The Shabbat before Purim is always referred to as “Shabbat Zakhor,” because we read a special portion from a second sefer Torah from the end of Parashat Ki Tetze (Deut. 25:17-19), a reminder of the cruel ambush by the Amalekites while the Israelites are in the desert, and our consequent obligation to remember the enemies of Israel by (paradoxically) blotting out that memory. Commentators have pointed to the fact that there is a dual mitzvah / commandment here: to remember (Zakhor et asher asah lekha Amaleq / Remember what Amaleq did to you at the beginning of verse 17) and also not to forget (Lo tishkaḥ, at the end of verse 19).

So we remember and we do not forget. Two separate holy opportunities: positive and negative.

I must say that remembering and not forgetting our enemies has been pretty easy for the past several months, and all the more so for the last week, when anti-Semitism led the news cycle for the better part of the week. Ladies and gentlemen, I have said this before: We are living in a time in which anti-Semitic activity is clearly on the rise, and statistics collected by the ADL and others suggest that this is a global phenomenon.

And what is extraordinarily troubling today is that anti-Semitic ideas are coming at us from different directions. While we traditionally associate Jew hatred with the extreme political right (think Nazism, white supremacism, Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, Father Coughlin and so forth), we are seeing today expressions of anti-Semitic ideas from the political left as well.

Now just to get one thing out of the way, criticism of the State of Israel and the government of the State of Israel or its policies are not necessarily anti-Semitic. Israelis criticize their own leaders and government all the time; Diaspora Jews probably less so, but anybody who has lived in Israel knows that the Jewish State, like every other sovereign nation, is far from perfect. While we who are Zionists, and I am proud to call myself a Zionist, are inclined to advocate for Israel from afar, such advocacy does not preclude the occasional rebuke. Governments consist of actual people, who are decidedly not infallible.

But when critics of Israel cross a line is when they veer off into classical anti-Semitism. I am not going to rehash everything we have read in the news, but it’s essential to understand that when an American elected official references “the political influence in this country that says it is okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” to most Jews this is like fingernails on a chalkboard. The suggestion is that American Jews have a dual loyalty, that we are not truly committed to our nation, that we are somehow pulling nefarious strings behind the scenes to support our interests, that we are duplicitous.

Nobody bats an eyelash when lobbyists for Panamanian or Saudi interests walk the halls of Congress. Nobody accuses Irish-Americans of dual loyalty when they parade on St. Patrick’s Day. OK, so a lot of people are concerned about Russian meddling right now, but nobody is suggesting that Americans of Russian descent (of which you might say that I am one, BTW) are advocating for allegiance to Mother Russia. Didn’t we learn our lesson after the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II? Why the Jews?

(There is a classic tale of the Klan rally, where the Grand Wizard is rallying his troops, and he says, “Who is responsible for all of our problems?” And the crowd yells back, “The Jews!” So one old man in the crowd adds, “And the bicycle riders!” The Grand Wizard turns to the man and says, puzzled, “Why the bicycle riders?” And the man responds with, “Why the Jews?”)

The roots of anti-Semitism precede Christianity, but it is the early church fathers, and in particular John Chrysostom in the 4th century, who amplify negative stereotypes about the Jews. Seeking to distance early Christians from their Jewish roots and Jewish worship, Chrysostom delivered a series of homilies to the church of Antioch called “Adversos Judaeos,” literally, “Against the Jews.” Among the things he stated were that the synagogue was a den of scoundrels and a temple of demons, a refuge for thieves, a cavern of devils and a criminal assembly for the assassins of Jesus.

From the Visigothic kingdom in the Iberian peninsula, which laid down anti-Jewish laws in the 6th century, through the centuries of the dhimmi status imposed in Muslim lands, until the Nazi horror of the 20th century, Jews have been subject to a range of ugly stereotypes, in certain times and places yielding pogroms, expulsions, forced conversions, forced conscriptions, and of course all-out genocide. The ideas sown by religious leaders, political leaders, demagogues, and even scholars have caused our people immeasurable pain, suffering, and mourning. Even as we have joined the family of nations in the 20th century, we continue to nurse our historical wounds.

And so it is no great surprise that, when any public figure indulges in even the most roundabout way in negative stereotypes about Jews, we all get a little upset. To address the complex mess that is the failed negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is not anti-Semitic. To accuse Israel of “genocide” or “apartheid” is. To disagree politically with PM Netanyahu’s choice to incorporate an extremist party (Otzma Yehudit) as his running partner is not anti-Semitic. To suggest ominously that AIPAC, in advocating for American support of Israel, is mandating “allegiance” to a foreign power, is.

When I think of anti-Semitism, I am reminded of an image that is prominently displayed at Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust museum, in the historical narrative section leading up to the Shoah, the Holocaust. It is a Nazi propaganda image:

Du sollst die volker der erde fressen. You shall eat the peoples of the Earth.

Note the symbols in the Jewish parasite’s eyes: a dollar sign, and a hammer-and-sickle. The capitalists and the communists. The left and the right.

Let’s face it, folks: there is no question that anti-Jewish sentiment will always be there, and it will manifest itself on the political right, the left, and the center. The demonic Jew of John Chrysostom will, for some, loom behind Wall Street, and for others he will be ferrying people northward across the Rio Grande.

Anti-Jewish stereotypes will be spewed by religious and anti-religious folks, young and old, Southern and Northern, black and white and Asian and Latino, gay and straight. It will spill off of your computer screen. It will exert itself angrily during marches; it will be discussed calmly on talk shows, and it may (God forbid) cause disenfranchised men to walk into synagogues with assault rifles.

And it will never go away. What can we do?

Shabbat Zakhor, this Shabbat of remembrance, is exactly the right time to invoke the following:

  1. Despite being history’s perpetual victims, we are still here.
  2. Anti-Semitism will never go away, but neither will we; this is the covenant made with our patriarchs and matriarchs that their descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky.  
  3. Remember Amaleq, and do not forget.

Do not forget”: we should always be vigilant, because, as with Haman, the villain in the Esther story, as with Nebuchadnezzar, as with Titus, and Ferdinand and Isabella, and the Crusaders and the Czars and the Nazis and Ayatollah Khomeini we really never know when the zeitgeist will turn against the Jews again. We must not forget the past.

Remember Amaleq”: this is an imperative to continue to parse the words of those who speak in coded and not-so-coded language to foment hatred against us. We are the masters of interpretation: we must be aware of the potential violence and suffering that words can cause. We cannot dismiss anti-Semitism, right or left. We cannot excuse those with whom we align ourselves. We have to call them out. We may never wipe out the sentiment, but we can certainly make known that all the political, social, or cultural privilege in the world did not save the 11 who perished on the 18th of Ḥeshvan (Oct. 27th), or the 6 million of World War II.

On this day, when the world mourns for the 50 people of faith who perished in New Zealand, and the many more who were injured, we have to remember that words matter, that our history teaches us to be wary of those who indulge in stereotypes and play on fears. Our lives, and the lives of many around the world, depend on it.

Zakhor, velo tishkaḥ. Remember, and do not forget.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 3/16/2019.)