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The Hope that Overcomes Fear – Shelaḥ Lekha 5782

It is always an interesting time to be in Israel! You probably heard that the governing coalition fell apart while we were there, meaning that they will go to elections for the fifth time in three years. This coalition actually held together longer than anybody expected – about a year – and they at least passed a budget, which the State desperately needed. But the likelihood is that the next round will yield a right-wing government, and perhaps the return of Bibi as PM, despite his ongoing corruption trial.

But this was a particularly appropriate time to be in Israel, if not simply because the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Mega Mission was the first large group (about 240 strong, on seven buses!) to come to Israel since before the pandemic. It seemed that the whole nation was grateful that we were there, touring Israel, visiting people and museums and organizations and of course contributing to the tourist economy.

Bike trip with fellow Pittsburghers between Rosh HaNikra and Nahariya

It was also appropriate because of a curious calendrical phenomenon: that while we were there, Israeli synagogues read Parashat Shelaḥ Lekha, and upon our return, here we are again. This is due to the fact that, since Israel only observes seven days of Pesaḥ and we observe eight, and the eighth day this year was on Shabbat, we in the Diaspora have been one week behind Israel in the Torah-reading cycle since the week after Pesaḥ. (Don’t worry – it will all be resolved again in a few weeks!)

But two weeks of Parashat Shelaḥ Lekha is particularly appropriate because it opens with – get this – a bunch of chieftains sent to tour the Land of Israel. As you may recall, ten come back with a bad report (i.e. There are giants there who will squash us like bugs!), and the other two, Kalev and Yehoshua, report their modest confidence in being able to successfully enter and conquer the land. (It is worth noting here that the ten fearful reporters cause Moshe great anguish, such that he later refers to them as הָעֵדָ֤ה הָֽרָעָה֙ הַזֹּ֔את, “that evil community” (Num. 14:27), considered one of the sources identifying a minyan, a prayer quorum, as 10 people, according to the Talmud, Tractate Megillah 23b).

OK, so we know the end of the story: ultimately, the Israelites end up in Israel. But the problem at this particular moment in the Torah’s narrative is that this inaccurate, inflammatory report generates fear among the people. They are suddenly not so sure that they want to inherit the land which has been promised to them, particularly if doing so will guarantee that they will be squashed like bugs. 

On Shabbat afternoon in Jerusalem, after I had attended a spirited service at Shira Hadasha, had a lovely picnic lunch with some other trip participants, and managed a wee Shabbat shlof (nap), I attended a shi’ur with Rabbi Danny Schiff, who spoke about the themes of optimism and hope as presented in this tale from Shelaḥ Lekha, and seasoned with yet another great passage from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. This one is from his book, To Heal a Fractured World:

A morality of hope lives in the belief that we can change the world for the better, and without certain theological beliefs it is hard to see where hope could come from, if not from optimism. Optimism and hope are not the same. Optimism is the belief that the world is changing for the better; hope is the belief that, together, we can make the world better. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope an active one. It needs no courage to be an optimist, but it takes a great deal of courage to hope. The Hebrew Bible is not an optimistic book. It is, however, one of the great literatures of hope.

Kalev and Yehoshua are agents of hope. They know that, although there are certainly perils which await the Israelites in the land, they are still hopeful that they can overcome them. 

The extraordinarily timely question before us is, what is the story we tell about Israel? Do we tell the fearful story, the one about all the existential challenges facing the Jewish state, or do we tell the hopeful one? Do we expect that the political landscape of the Middle East will somehow change for the better, or do we rise to the challenge of making it change? Do we speak of Israel’s failures, and there are many, or do we catalog her hopes and dreams and successes?

Pride flag displayed by the American consulate in Jerusalem

On the last day of the mission, we heard a lecture by the journalist and author Matti Friedman, whose credits include five years working for the Associate Press bureau in Jerusalem until he became disillusioned with what the AP does in Israel. Friedman spoke about the perception that the AP and other media outlets create due to their hyper-focus on the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Among the items he pointed out was the fact that the journalistic presence in Israel is much higher than in most places. The AP, for example, has about 40 staff members on the ground in Israel, a nation which, including the Palestinian territories, contains about 14 million people. That staffing figure is not too different from the number of AP employees in China, a nation that has roughly 100 times as many people. Meanwhile, the number of homicides in Jerusalem, including terrorist activity, is roughly one-tenth that of Indianapolis, a city about the same size as Jerusalem.

So our perception of how dangerous Jerusalem is, for example, or the human toll of the conflict there is blown vastly out of proportion merely by the number of AP stories generated in that city, while by comparison the world is not too concerned about violence in Indianapolis, which is far more dangerous.

This is of course not to say that we should not be concerned about the political situation in Jerusalem, or in Israel vis-a-vis the Palestinian territories and a final-status agreement there, or the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, and so forth. To be sure, we should be aware of and engaged with those issues, and of course make our voices heard where appropriate. But it is worth remembering that the way we speak of Israel, like the story of the ten “bad” chieftains following their reconnaissance mission, shape our understanding of and our relationship to the State of Israel today. 

***

I have often described myself as an optimist. And I still am. But given R. Sacks’ definition, I think I might be more hopeful than optimistic. It is up to us not to wait for Mashiaḥ, to wait for peace to happen by itself, to wait for an equitable solution for all the 14 million people living on that tiny strip of land, but actually to make it happen.

And one way we act on that hope, according to Rabbi Sacks, is by committing ourselves to details of Jewish life, the mitzvot, the holy opportunities of our tradition. These details – actions, learning, ritual – not only sensitize us to the needs of others around us and to the values which we uphold, but also remind us of our essential connection to that land, even from so far away in the Diaspora. And they also teach us that hope requires us to be involved, not merely playing armchair philosopher or engaging in online back-and-forth, but actually doing something: being involved with a community, with other people, visiting the land of Israel, committing our resources through charitable contributions or other means.

I have hope for Israel. I have hope which overcomes fear. 

And I have the mitzvot, the details of Jewish life, which continue to keep us engaged and active, and maintain that hope.

And I have hatiqvah bat shenot alpayim, the hope that comes from 2,000 years of yearning within the Jewish soul, which helped to create the State of Israel and so too will ultimately forge a better world.

Graffiti in Jerusalem

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 6/25/2022).

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I’m a Fundamentalist: Tallit – Shelah Lekha 5779

(This is the fourth installment in an occasional series on the fundamentals of Jewish life. The others are:

I’m a Fundamentalist: Shabbat – Bereshit 5779

I’m a Fundamentalist: Refrigerator-Magnet Texts

I’m a Fundamentalist: Tefillin – Mishpatim 5779

Thank you for reading!)

I must say that I have been recently surprised by the number of people, and in particular Jewish men who are bar mitzvah (i.e. 13 years of age and older) who are declining to wear a tallit (prayer shawl) when they enter our sanctuary. When I was growing up, a tallit was de rigueur for all men and older boys, and in fact a ritual that we looked forward to participating in. (I mentioned earlier that the Torah describes this mitzvah / commandment in the portion we read this morning.)

Now, things are a little different today: with the resurgence of Orthodoxy in the last few decades, many more of us are exposed to the minhag / custom, which has become prevalent in Orthodoxy, that some have of not wearing a tallit until one is married. BTW, the reason that we expect all Jewish men of bar mitzvah age to wear a tallit in synagogue is because we assume that most of us are not fulfilling the mitzvah of tzitzit under their clothing, the tallit qatan. So we urge people to fulfill the mitzvah of tallit gadol, the big one with which we are all familiar.

Also, of course, in a highly integrated community like this, we often have people here who regularly attend Reform synagogues, where wearing a tallit is optional, so they are not inclined to put one on merely because they are in a Conservative synagogue. And we are also living in a time in which nobody likes to be told that they “must” do anything, regardless of where they grew up.

Furthermore, of course we encourage women to take this mitzvah on as well, although we do not require it of women, only adding to the level of confusion. Even though it has traditionally been observed by men, the Talmud (e.g. Menahot 43a) and many prominent rabbis throughout history (e.g. Rashi, Rabbeinu Tam, Rambam) indicate that women are not merely encouraged, but required to perform the mitzvah of tzitzit (similarly, Jewish sources also permit women to wear tefillin, including the great Maimonides).

But I am going to make the case for why you should be wearing a tallit, regardless of your gender.

According to what we read in today’s parashah, the tzitziyyot, the knotted threads that hang from the four corners of the tallit, are mnemonic devices. We need to be reminded of our obligations, not only to God, but also to each other. That is the goal of religious practice, and that is the whole point of the tallit, according to what we read today in Parashat Shelah Lekha. Let me explain:

I recently heard a wonderful episode of the NPR podcast Hidden Brain called “Creating God.” The guest, social psychologist Azim Shariff, described an academic study that showed that Muslim shopkeepers in the souq in Marrakesh, Morocco, gave more money to charity when they heard the azan, the Arabic call to prayer which is sounded from mosques five times a day.

What this demonstrates is that when we are reminded of religious tradition – mitzvot, commandments that compel us to do good things for each other and our community – we are more likely to actually DO those things. We are more likely to work for the common good; we are more likely to remember those around is in need; we are more likely to reach out to others.

We need those reminders: Reminders of the value of our Jewish heritage. Reminders to keep our traditions close, because they bring real value to us as individuals and to our community and the world.

There is a strain of Jewish thought that says that mitzvot have no intrinsic value or meaning – that they are simply commandments that must be followed (Rashi is among those thinkers; so too the modern Israeli commentator/gadfly Yeshayahu Leibovich). For example, there is a mitzvah / commandment in the Torah known as shilluah ha-qen, the requirement of shooing away the mother bird before taking her young from the nest (Deut. 22:6-7). The Mishnah (Berakhot 5:3) tells us that this should not be interpreted as displaying mercy so that God will be merciful to us. Rather, it is merely a statute to be followed, just like so many others in the Torah, because it is there.

But I cannot be Jewish in this way. I need to connect with my tradition with my heart and mind, to understand that God asks us to do certain things for a reason. I need motivation, and cannot suspend my reason and logic, and, I think, so too most of us in the Conservative Jewish world.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are those who feel that Jewish values are the most essential feature of Jewish life, that we should behave not according to ancient law codes and customs, but rather that our behavior should be guided by traditional values evident in Jewish text: tiqqun olam (repairing the world), hakhnassat orhim (welcoming guests into your home), biqqur holim (visiting the ill), derekh eretz (respect), praise and gratitude and so forth.

But values are not enough. There is an intermediate position, a path that pursues both the traditional actions, the mitzvot, and also encourages thought about the values that drive them. And that’s the kind of Jew that I want to be. Sign me up for that: the marriage of action and intent.

An example: in this approach, tefillah / prayer, admittedly a hard sell for most modern people, can be deeply meaningful, but only if you actually wrestle with the text. The mere recitation of words in a foreign language because ancient rabbis dictated a standard framework for tefillah is, well, uninspiring. But the combination of meaning, words, themes, music, meditation, and choreography brings me clarity, improves my concentration, helps me to examine myself, gives me a daily dose of qedushah / holiness and humility, and frames my day.

And in my mind, this type of Judaism is suggested by today’s parashah. We chanted the passage which we know and love as the third paragraph of the Shema, the one about the tzitzit (Numbers 15:37-41). The passage says explicitly that wearing the tzitzit (plural: tzitziyyot) is to remind us of the mitzvot and not to stray from the right path. But then it goes on to invoke the Exodus from Egypt, a seminal event in the establishment of the Jewish nation. The passage thereby suggests that the purpose of the mitzvot is not only their performance, but connecting them with our history, our peoplehood, and our obligation to remember where we came from and the obligations we have to aid the oppressed, the bound, the enslaved.

The tallit gadol, which many of us are wearing right now, is generally thought of as a ritual article, that is, something worn during services. If you wear a tallit qatan, you are always reminded of all of the above all day long.

But I’d like to suggest the following: when we are not in the synagogue, we need reminders. We need metaphorical tzitziyyot. We need to be reminded of the important things: yes, the values; yes, the customs; yes, the laws. We need to connect the doing with the understanding. And we do that through physical rituals.

Ladies and gentlemen, the struggle for the Jewish future will not be merely about reproduction; it will be a struggle for meaning – for understanding the values embedded within Jewish practice, for relating those things to how we live our lives on a daily basis. We need the “why” behind the “what.” And wrapping ourselves up in a tallit is an essential part of that process.

The tallit is so integral to Jewish life that we see it every time we look at the flag of the state of Israel; it is such an intimate part of our experience as Jews that there is a custom of burying one’s tallit with the deceased – it is effectively the only thing we take with us when we leave this world. And I think it’s the only ritual item that makes us feel as if we are being swaddled in our tradition.

So how do we maintain those reminders when we are not wearing a tallit? The metaphorical tzitziyyot remain after we take it off.

We feel swaddled in our tradition when we make the Shabbat special, a day apart from the craziness of the week, in whatever ways we can, traditional or otherwise. And when we make dietary choices that reflect our holy relationship with God’s Creation. And when we sanctify our relationships and always seek to partner with God in repairing this world. And when we seek out the ancient wisdom in our textual heritage.

That is why I’m a fundamentalist when it comes to the tallit: the physical ritual of being wrapped up in a tallit serves as a kind of glue that binds us to our tradition; it reminds us daily of our values and customs and practices and how they improve our lives and our society.

So go on, swaddle yourself up in a tallit, and you will find those metaphorical tzitziyyot when you take it off, and thus keep the reminders of Jewish life in front of you. That is how we will continue to build a better world. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 6/29/2019.)

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Fear and Brexit – Shelah Lekha 5776

A Facebook friend pointed out that if you pronounce the word “Brexit” as if it were Portuguese, you get something sounds a lot like the first book of the Torah in Hebrew: Bereshit. Go figure. ‘Course, we’re still almost two books away from that, so it seems that the Brexit referendum was not some kind of devar Torah in code.

However, you could not get away from it in the news these past two weeks. (It was a welcome change from the American presidential campaign, which already feels like it’s been going on for at least four years.) The British vote to leave the EU has shocked the world, and Europe is in political turmoil. The British pound has dropped precipitously. Scotland is threatening to leave Great Britain to rejoin the EU. The aftermath of the vote has been so shocking that there are millions of Brits who have signed a petition for a second referendum.

From what I have gleaned from the news, there are a few reasons why 17.4 million Britons voted to leave. Among them is the resentment of having to kowtow to the EU leadership in Brussels. But there is no question that one of the major concerns of those who voted to leave the EU is the apparent anxiety over the numbers of immigrants, from within and without the EU, who have come into Britain in recent years. That concern is related to similar sentiments that many have on this side of the Atlantic regarding immigration, and particularly illegal immigration.

Map of Europe

Put another way, many who voted to leave the EU did so out of fear: fear of change, fear of the other, fear of governmental control in a distant land by people who are not like you.

Fear is actually a major theme in Parashat Shelah Lekha. Moshe sends twelve spies, leaders from each tribe, on a reconnaissance mission to scope out the land of Canaan. Upon returning to the Sinai desert, where the Israelites are encamped, they declare that the Promised land is indeed a land of milk and honey. But ten of them raise the fears of the people by claiming that the Canaanites are gigantic and dangerous, with fortified cities that they cannot conquer. And suddenly, Moshe and Aharon are under attack for leading the people to their perceived deaths.

As you know, the story does not end well for those who whipped up the people’s fears. But let’s face it: fear plays a significant role in the palette of human emotion.

What are some things we are afraid of?

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Fear is a natural human response to change and uncertainty. In this world, how can you not be scared? There is so much to fear.

We the Jews are especially accustomed to fear, owing to the fact that we have been persecuted throughout our history. I suppose that it’s somewhat ironic for us as Jews to watch the internal struggles of the EU from across the ocean, when Europe was the scene of so much oppression and misery and murder of our people for so many centuries.

I am reminded of the time that I sat down with my grandparents to record memories of their lives. My grandmother, aleha hashalom, was born in what is today Ukraine, and came to the United States at age 8, settling in Boston. While my grandfather, alav hashalom, was willing to tell as many details of his school-of-hard-knocks tales as he could recall, my grandmother kept saying, “Why do you want to hear about these things? We were poor and miserable, and the Russians hated us.” She had no interest in or reason to recall the past. It was gone. She had left it on the other side of the ocean, and they were far more comfortable on the welcoming shores of Di Goldene Medine (the “Golden Land,” a Yiddish term for America) than they ever could have been in Europe. And, of course, that was a full two decades before the Nazis arrived.

Europeans continue to struggle with the strangers in their midst. The Jews began to achieve European citizenship beginning with the French Revolution in 1789. But as we all know, their European neighbors never quite thought of them as French or German or English or Russian. They were always Jews. Xenophobia is a long-standing tradition in Europe, and so it’s not too surprising that it is an ongoing challenge to this day.

So we should consider, for just a moment, how this fear continues to shape our world, our opinions, our political choices. And we should acknowledge that we as Jews are called to reach out to the stranger, not to fear him/her. Consider the language that we see over and over in the Torah (e.g. Exodus 22:20):

וְגֵר לֹא-תוֹנֶה וְלֹא תִלְחָצֶנּוּ, כִּי-גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם

You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Our history of oppression, going all the way back to Egypt, mandates not only that we treat the foreigners in our midst fairly, but also that we recall actively what it means to be an outsider. The great 12th-century Spanish commentator Avraham Ibn Ezra tells us that this is about power. Just because you have more power than the stranger, he says, does not give you the right to abuse that power. Remember where you came from!

Indeed, remember where we came from, not quite as far back as Egypt. Remember the Pale of Settlement of Eastern Europe. Remember the shtetlakh, where the Jews were confined to live. Remember the pogroms. Remember the forced conscription of Jewish boys into the Czar’s army. Remember the Nuremberg Laws, the ghettos, the Einsatzgruppen. Remember the Shoah, the destruction of European Jewry in the name of fear and hatred fomented by the Nazi state.

We are not required as Jews to love others who are not like us. But we are indeed forbidden from oppressing them, from mistreating them, from taking advantage of them, from hating them. And on some level, it is our duty to bring that message to the greater world.

The 18th-century Hasidic rabbi Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl (yes, THAT Chernobyl) wrote in his Torah commentary, Me’or Einayim, that we all have the potential to feel threatened by others around us, but that the real cause of our discomfort is not the evil in their hearts, but rather the tum’ah, the impurity in our own. Rabbi Shalom Noah Berezovsky, the Slonimer Rebbe, responds in his work, the Netivot Shalom, that,

“To succeed in overcoming the forces of tum’ah that are deliberately placed in our way, we need to be able to eschew our own inner voices, and align ourselves perfectly with the tzaddik in our midst.”

So these Hasidic masters saw our challenge as an internal one rather than an external one. We fear the other because we are responding to our own inadequacy, and our task is to overcome those fears and reach out.

A third Hasidic rabbi, Rabbi Nahman of Breslov, put it so smartly and succinctly that his saying on the subject has become a popular, sing-along tune:

כל העולם כולו גשר צר מאוד, והעיקר לא לפחד כלל

Kol ha-olam kulo, gesher tzar me’od, veha’iqar lo lefahed kelal.

The whole world is a very narrow bridge, and the most important principle is not to fear at all.

We have to overcome fear of the other, because fear is a destructive force. Not that we should not be vigilant; not that we should be careless; but we should make our choices from a place of confidence and intelligence rather than fear.

Verrazano-Narrows Bridge - bridge-info.org

Had our British friends learned this lesson, perhaps the outcome would have been different. But it’s not too late for the rest of us.

Veha’iqar lo lefahed kelal.

Shabbat shalom!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 7/2/2016.)