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Poles of the Pandemic – Tazria-Metzora 5781

An interesting thing happened in Israel last week. No, not the ongoing saga of who will lead the country, which political parties will form a governing coalition in the wake of the fourth national election in two years, and the most inconclusive of all of them. That is interesting, but it’s dragging along, and quite frustrating for all observers of Israeli politics, and of course Israeli citizens.

Rather, this week included the annual days of mourning and celebration that are right next to each other: Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s memorial day for fallen soldiers, and Yom HaAtzma’ut, the day commemorating the State’s 73 years of independence. Yom HaZikaron is a somber day, with public ceremonies during which Israelis remember their family members and friends and colleagues and army comrades who gave their lives to build and protect their nation; the air raid siren sounds throughout the nation for two individual minutes, and all Israelis stop what they are doing to recall those who are gone. Yom HaAtzma’ut is a happy day, a day of barbecues and musical performances and giant, silly, blue-and-white inflatable plastic hammers. And since Yom HaAtzma’ut immediately follows Yom HaZikaron, the difference between the two days is stark, and one can actually feel the mood change as the sun sets on Yom HaZikaron, separating grief and remembrance from celebration and joy and national pride.

One of the challenges of reading Tazria-Metzora every year when they come around (and all the more so in years when we read them separately, so that we get two weeks of reading about skin diseases), is what to say about this. The rabbis just could not accept that the Torah should really be taken at face value here, but rather that the image of infectious affliction of the skin must be allegorical. 

The Torah is otherwise terse. In many places it says so much with so little; in this case, the Torah seems to say so little of apparent relevance to us today with so much material. There are many such attempts to reinterpret the nega of tzara’at; perhaps the best-known was cited by Sylvia earlier in her devar Torah.

The Slonimer Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Noah Berezovsky, a 20th-century Hasidic rabbi, in his take on Metzora, points to Sefer Yetzirah, a proto-kabbalistic text, for guidance. Sefer Yetzirah observes that the Hebrew word נגע / nega, affliction or disease, which appears many times in Tazria and Metzora (e.g. Lev. 14:32: זֹ֣את תּוֹרַ֔ת אֲשֶׁר־בּ֖וֹ נֶ֣גַע צָרָ֑עַת), is an inversion of the word ענג / oneg, meaning enjoyment. 

Oneg is an expression of joy in engaging with our tradition (think “oneg Shabbat”), while nega is the exact opposite – a deficiency of engagement that is so weighty as to be a physical affliction. The Slonimer Rebbe extrapolates this further to say that investing ourselves in Jewish tradition – tefillah / prayer, Shabbat, kashrut, holidays and so forth, include the two components of (quoting the words from Psalm 34, which we sang earlier in today’s service) sur mera va’aseh tov. Repudiate evil and perform good deeds. We need both of those things to achieve oneg, enjoyment, and of course to avoid nega, affliction.

One of the things that the pandemic has done is to lay bare the stark difference between the oneg of our lives and the nega, the enjoyment and the affliction. We do not have to dig too deeply to come up with examples of how our lives have changed for better and for worse, and sometimes those things are right next to each other.

Some of us have improved ourselves and our world in this time. I would say that I have seen a greater effort on the part of many of us to perform charitable acts for others: to help out those who were homebound in this time, to reach out to friends in need, to be there as a comforting presence, even from a distance, to those who have suffered, to those who grieve lost loved ones, to those who have lost their livelihoods. 

I was thinking about this when a heartwarming story floated across my desk about the largely white Fiji fraternity at Louisiana State University, 90 of whose alumni raised over $50,000 to pay off the mortgage of their longtime cook, a 74-year-old Black woman named Jessie Hamilton, who had been working two other jobs to make ends meet. This is a dramatic act of tzedaqah, but I suppose that one reason this made the news (including the New York Times) is that we are all so much more appreciative right now of such acts of generosity, in the wake of so much loss and grief.

Certainly many of us have become newly aware of the struggle for racial justice in America. While recent events suggest that there is still a long, hard road ahead of us in this regard, to guarantee the safety and education and equal treatment under the law for all of our citizens, nonetheless our public consciousness suggests that we now at least have the potential to move in the right direction.

It seems to me that many of us have also used this time of isolation to improve ourselves personally. I know that I have spent much more time making sure that I get enough exercise by taking regular walks in Frick Park (and I have seen many of my neighbors doing the same, even throughout the winter), and I have been cooking more (I make sourdough bread and fresh pasta regularly now), and I have also spent some time learning to play the banjo, something I hope to inflict on all of you soon enough. And I am sure that many of you have also engaged in similar pursuits.

So there is the oneg, the enjoyment. But we all know what the flip side of this is. We have plenty of nega / affliction to go around right now as well. 

Some of those contemporary afflictions are the plague of misinformation, and the bad actors who are willing to put any falsehood out there via Internet, and the platforms that care only about their bottom line, with no sense of responsibility for how the spreading of misinformation is actually killing people. (By the way, whatever you may think of his method and brand of humor, the English-Jewish actor Sacha Baron Cohen has used his fame to call attention to the very real danger that Facebook, Twitter, et al have caused.)

And we cannot forget, of course, the lies told by public figures that led to the violent insurrection in Washington on January 6th. Our democracy has held, but the cost in lives lost and the invigoration of white nationalist groups that helped foment this attack is truly chilling. 

And of course we probably know this anecdotally, but the emotional distress caused by isolation in this past year is great. It is likely that rates of depression, anxiety, domestic abuse and other social ills are much higher. CDC data released this week showed that overdose deaths from opioid abuse have jumped dramatically in the past year.

These are certainly variants of the nega, the affliction that the Torah goes on and on about in today’s parashah. We are greatly afflicted, and not only due to the loss of over 560,000 lives. We are greatly afflicted, even as some of us have found some oneg, some enjoyment. The oneg and the nega are proximate.

We are hopeful, of course, that we will see an end to this soon. And we certainly will, if we can get as many people vaccinated as possible as quickly as possibly. (Vaccine appointments are very easy to come by now. If you have not received a shot, you should push everything out of the way to do that now.)

And what comes next, of course, will depend on how thoughtful we are about the near future. Given the oneg and the nega of the past year and change, we should not lose out on the opportunity to move forward in a way that, shall we say, accentuates the oneg in our lives.

Sur mera va’aseh tov, says the Psalm. Repudiate evil and do good. As we begin to inch forward slowly into gathering at this time, we should keep the following principles before us:

  1. Sur mera. Repudiate evil. We have to continue to keep each other safe through masking / social distancing, until such times as our public health authorities say that it is OK to let our guard down. The sooner we get our transmission rates down low, the sooner this will all be over. And that means, by the way, that if we know people who are on the fence about vaccination, we should reach out to them in love, and maybe even drive them to get a shot.
  2. Aseh tov. Do good. We should continue to seek ways to improve ourselves, our lives, and our world, and while of course there are many such ways of doing this, I personally recommend considering the many traditional ways of Jewish living: setting aside Shabbat as a holy day of rest and oneg, eating mindfully, engaging with words of Torah, expressing our gratitude to the Qadosh Barukh Hu, and of course raising the bar in terms of our tzedaqah and hesed, our charity and acts of lovingkindness. 

It is through these things that we can lean into the oneg, the enjoyment, and keep away the nega, even as they bump up against one another.  

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 4/17/21.)

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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.)

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Holy Adhesion (Mitzvah, Part 2 of 2) – Behar 5776

I went back to school last week. More accurately, I went to the convention of the Rabbinical Assembly – the professional organization of Conservative rabbis. I of course saw many old friends and colleagues, and we caught each other up on our lives and work, our successes and challenges and so forth.

And of course, what do rabbis do when they get together? Why, play poker and smoke cigars, of course!

They learn. Actually, in an ideal world, that’s what all Jews should do when they get together: Pirqei Avot tells us (3:3) that when two people meet and exchange divrei Torah (words of Jewish learning), the Shekhinah, God’s presence, hovers between them. (And I don’t know about you, but I could use a lot more Shekhinah in my life.)

You see, it’s not just 12-year-olds preparing to become bar / bat mitzvah that learn the words of Jewish tradition. On the contrary: the highest ideal in Judaism is lifelong learning. Why? Because study leads to action, and the lessons of the Jewish bookshelf continue to speak to us from across the ages.

Some of you may know that there was a movement in the first half of the 20th century to eliminate bar mitzvah at age 13 from Jewish life, and replace it with confirmation at age 16. (I’m told that Rodef Shalom Congregation stood by that policy deep into the 20th century (one of the current members of Beth Shalom is, in fact, the first person to have celebrated a bar mitzvah at 13 at Rodef Shalom.) And there was a good reason for it: a 16-year-old is better equipped to approach learning with more sophistication and nuance, and more ready to be launched into the Jewish world as an adult. There is a certain wisdom in delaying the major life-cycle event marking the transition from childhood to adulthood to a time when the candidate has a better sense of his/her relation to our tradition and to the world. (Plug: we will be celebrating the conclusion of our confirmation class in two weeks on the first day of Shavuot, Sunday, June 12th. Be there!)

But the larger point is that Jewish adulthood is not merely about receiving the traditions and mitzvot of Jewish life, but also about striving to understanding why Jewish tradition is relevant to us and how it frames our lives in holiness. I continue to answer that question for myself every day. It’s an ongoing project for me, and one that I hope you will join with me in furthering.

An essential part of that picture, of course, is Torah study. Not “the Torah,” the Five Books of Moses found on the scroll we just returned to the aron haqodesh, the ark, but “Torah” – the collective writings and brain power that yielded two millennia of commentary, interpretation, re-interpretation, and so forth; the halakhic codes, the midrashim, the liturgy, the poetry, even the music that comprise the entire Jewish body of text-based learning and transmission of our heritage from generation to generation.

We are still part of that transmission. We are each links in the chain that connects us back to Mt. Sinai, and the celebration of a bat mitzvah is merely a reminder that we continue to fashion the links that follow us.

I spoke last week about re-envisioning the idea of mitzvah as “holy opportunity.” This is, of course, an essential concept on a day that we celebrate the stepping forward of a young member of our qehillah, our community, into a complete, sacred relationship with the 613 mitzvot of Jewish tradition. The fulfillment of each mitzvah, which has been traditionally understood to be a commandment from God, is a potential gift to yourself and others, an opportunity to elevate our individual selves and the collective community by performing a traditional action. Examples are wearing a tallit, lighting Shabbat candles, sanctifying the holidays with family meals and abstaining from mundane activities, honoring your parents, and so forth.

So it happens that while I was at the convention, between cigars and counting my poker winnings, one of the learning sessions that I attended spoke exactly to that point. It was taught by Dr. Eitan Fishbane, a professor of Jewish Thought at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Dr. Fishbane’s research area is Jewish mysticism and Hasidic thought, and this particular session was (serendipitously) about the concept of mitzvah as described by a couple of medieval rabbis.

And one of these rabbis, a pre-Hasidic commentator from the turn of the 17th century known as (curiously) the Sh”lah (that’s an abbreviation for Shenei Luhot Haberit, suggests that every mitzvah has greater meaning than the action itself; mitzvot have a higher goal – the goal of devequt, cleaving to God.

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Devequt is one of those mystical words that is hard to translate. While it literally suggests “adhesion,” as in, what glue or tape does. (The modern Hebrew word for glue is deveq.) But the image is a mystical one rather than physical. By acting on those holy opportunities, by taking the metaphysical gifts presented before us at the appropriate time, we are cleaving to the Divine, and thereby bathed in God’s love and light. Devequt is a kind of emotional journey attached to the physical fulfillment of mitzvot, and an essential piece of the Hasidic, kabbalistic understanding of Judaism. It’s an elevated state that we all strive for.

So, for example, let’s consider the mitzvah of the shemittah year, the sabbatical year identified in Parashat Behar today. The idea is that every seventh year in the land of Israel, the ground is left uncultivated. You can eat what grows naturally, from last year’s seeds, but otherwise you cannot till and tend the land and the plants.

Seems like an obscure concept, right? Especially to sophisticated urbanites like ourselves, who do not cultivate any significant amount of land, and even if we own patches of lawn do not really grow food for our own sustenance.

And yet, there are deeper meanings here, found in the mitzvah of shemittah, of not working your fields every seventh year.

One is the sense of respect for the land, for Creation. Just as we humans get a break from everyday business every seventh day, so too does the Earth get a break every seventh year. This heightens our relationship with what has been trusted to us for only a short time. But of course, for our agricultural ancestors, that must have been a very anxious year indeed. Today, we are mostly insulated from the vagaries of subsistence farming.

File:Barley field-2007-02-22(large).jpg - Wikimedia Commons

The Slonimer Rebbe regards shemittah as a challenge of faith and trust. By letting the land go untended for a year, we train ourselves to have some faith that we will still be provided for, that the Divine forces of nature will make sure that we will not go hungry. Unlike in the other corners of our lives, when more work, more development, yields greater profit, with the sabbatical year the reverse is true. Refraining from that development yields a spiritual harvest that brings us back to God. That is devequt. Our human experience is heightened by our trusting relationship with Creation, and we are drawn closer to the Qadosh Barukh Hu.

Shemittah (sabbatical year) and yovel (jubilee, when all the land that has been sold is returned to its original owner) may seem irrelevant to us today. But they help us cleave to God. They increase our sensitivity to the land, to society, and to our individual spiritual needs. We all benefit. And so we are elevated personally and collectively.

And with a little bit of study and reinterpretation of the curious laws of the Torah, we can be drawn closer in holiness through the performance of any mitzvah, the big ones and the small ones.

We need to strive for that devequt. We need to reach higher, however we understand God, or God’s role in our lives. And the mitzvot are a framework of holy opportunities to do exactly that.

In a rather well-known episode, the early 20th-century Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig was asked if he was putting on tefillin every morning, a particularly holy opportunity found in our tradition. “Not yet,” said Herr Rosenzweig. Not yet, because he was still on a journey, or because he was not ready, or because he had not found the motivation to act, or because he was afraid it would mess up his hair. We do not know why.

Franz Rosenzweig | Great Thoughts Treasury

But we all have that sense of “not yet” about us. We just have to dig a little deeper to find the meaning, so that we may strive for devequt, cleaving to God. That will ultimately bring our relationship with Judaism and the mitzvot, those holy opportunities, into focus.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 5/28/16.)

 

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Time to Unplug – Vayaqhel 5776

This past Shabbat (March 4-5) was the annual National Day of Unplugging, a program coordinated by Reboot, a Jewish organization which “affirms the value of Jewish traditions and creates new ways for people to make them their own.” Thousands of people all over the world, Jews and others, pledged to “unplug” for this Shabbat, for the reasons identified on the event’s website:

We increasingly miss out on the important moments of our lives as we pass the hours with our noses buried in our iPhones… chronicling our every move through Facebook and Twitter and shielding ourselves from the outside world with the bubble of “silence” that our earphones create…

The National Day of Unplugging… is an outgrowth of The Sabbath Manifesto, an adaption of our ancestors’ ritual of carving out one day per week to unwind, unplug, relax, reflect, get outdoors, and connect with loved ones.

I love this. Of course, I and my family unplug every Shabbat, and we understand and appreciate the value in doing so. In fact, I must say that I look forward to my 25 hours of being present – my attention is not threatened by digital intrusions; my mind and my body are in the same place at the same time for all of Shabbat. It’s a whole day of mindfulness.

Although the National Day of Unplugging takes place on the first Shabbat in March, it is serendipitous that on this Shabbat we read Parashat Vayaqhel. Vayaqhel is notable not only for detailing the construction of the mishkan (the portable sanctuary used to perform sacrifices by the Israelites in the desert), but also because it opens with a re-statement about the importance of Shabbat. In fact, the very first word, vayaqhel, which is related to the word qehillah, congregation, suggest that Moshe “convokes” the whole Israelite community to make this announcement about Shabbat.

Some commentators point out that the unusual use of this term here is not a coincidence.

Rabbinic tradition suggests that this reminder to keep Shabbat was given to the people on the day after Yom Kippur. It is a time when the Israelites are seeking healing and teshuvah / repentance following the great transgression of the molten calf. These two things, Shabbat and the mishkan, that sanctuary and holy gathering place, were the primary vehicles for healing after they indulged in idolatry.

The Slonimer Rebbe, Rabbi Noah Hayyim Berezovsky, writes in his commentary Netivot Shalom that this healing in the wake of the molten calf is essential to understanding the role of Shabbat in our lives. We come at Shabbat from two different directions, he says, the direction of “zakhor” and of “shamor,” referencing the two imperatives that appear in the two different versions of the Decalogue, Ex. 20:8 (zakhor = “remember the Sabbath” and Deut. 5:12 (shamor = “keep the Sabbath”).

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(A midrash tells us that these words differ in the two tellings of the Decalogue because although God said one thing, it was heard at the same moment as both zakhor and shamor. Hence the line in the Friday evening liturgical poem Lekha Dodi: Shamor vezakhor bedibbur ehad – God said “shamor” and “zakhor” in one utterance.)

According to the Slonimer Rebbe, zakhor, remember the Sabbath, speaks of the things that we do to make Shabbat, emphasizing how we bring light and qedushah / holiness into the world through our actions – luxurious family meals, gathering with our qehillah at synagogue and at friends’ homes, prayer that reflects the grandeur of the day, singing joyously, reflecting on our lives, being in the moment.

Shamor, keep the Sabbath, meanwhile, speaks of the things we are forbidden to do, the forms of melakhah / “work” from which we abstain on Shabbat. In order not to work, to avoid melakhah, you must plan ahead and prepare so that you can be free to enjoy the 25 hours of peace, rest, and all the positive aspects of Shabbat. Abstaining from melakhah keeps in check our everyday desires and impulses to manipulate the world.

The two-sided imperative of zakhor/remember and shamor/keep the Shabbat is therefore as much about our lofty, cerebral ideals, as it is the earthly concerns. To do Shabbat right, we must be invested properly in both realms.

So although the Shabbat commandment is just a few lines at the beginning, and the rest of the parashah is dedicated to the mishkan, the importance of the former greatly outweighs the latter. Shabbat is where it’s at – particularly when you consider the fact that the mishkan (and the Beit HaMiqdash, the Temple in Jerusalem) have been out of the picture for 2000 years, but Shabbat comes around every seven days. Shabbat is a sign to us for all times – Ot hi le’olam (Ex. 31:17, which we read in Parashat Ki Tissa last week, and which we say multiple times when we chant Veshamru). It will forever be our sanctuary.

We just have to take advantage of that sanctuary. We have to pause. We have to unplug. We need to refresh. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called Shabbat “a palace in time.” The doors to the palace are open every weekend – we only need to walk right in. We have no need for a fancy altar; we have the Shabbat. Forever.

And yet, as the electronic gears of the Information Age continue to spin faster and faster, as we grow more connected to the devices that make our lives and society go, we need the peace that the observance of Shabbat offers even more.

How many of us find that we are constantly tied to work? That we never have a respite from the constant barrage of stuff, digital or otherwise, coming at us? How many of us dream of the possibility of stepping off the hamster wheel for a few moments? And yet, ironically, we feel all out of sorts when we are disconnected?

Shabbat is an opportunity. For 25 hours every week, we can turn it all off, and live comfortably and happily in the moment with family and friends, untroubled by text messages and WhatsApp and Instagram and what-have-you. It’s a time to be exactly where you are, soaking up the light and the qedushah. It is an opportunity to be unburdened of all of our earthly concerns, a moment of stillness, a time to scan ourselves for where we are holding tension, to inventory our heads to let go of the never-ending to-do list, and to focus on the higher things, to aspire to the Divine, to consider what really matters. It is a retreat from the minutiae of the week.  Shabbat is our sanctuary.

To enter that sanctuary, all you have to do is make this day special. And what really makes my Shabbat feel holy is that disconnection from the digital infrastructure and connection to everything that is right in front of me.

Yes, there are the 39 categories of melakhah, those traditionally forbidden types of “work.” For the record, it is definitely not clear that the use of electronic devices fits into any of those categories, and we will surely talk about that another day.

But even if using your smartphone does not belong in any category of melakhah, there is a greater principle at work here, and that takes us back to zakhor and shamor.

To make this day holy, set apart from the rest of the week, we have to leave aside those things that are “inyanei hol,” mundane matters: bills, scheduling weekday activities, packing for a trip, reading shopping circulars and so forth are all things which take our minds out of Shabbat. In that same category, I think, are most things that you might read or do online. They take us out of the here and now. They cause us to travel outside of the eruv in our heads.

And let’s face it: this requires a certain amount of focus. It requires a commitment to look past those mundane things/ inyanei hol, to get to the really important stuff: spending time with family and friends, enjoying the here and now, learning some words from our tradition.

And hence the National Day of Unplugging. On their website, you can order a mini “sleeping bag” for your phone, and an app that shuts it down for Shabbat. The idea is to get people to try it. Just once.

... YOUR SABBATH MANIFESTO CELL PHONE SLEEPING BAG « Sabbath Manifesto

And so can you. You don’t have to wait for next March to unplug. Choose a Shabbat to try it out. I’m here to talk you through it if you need guidance. I can even hook you up with other families in our midst who do unplug regularly so that you have the support of your qehillah in real time and space.

You can choose to sanctify your life, improve your relationships, lighten your mood and generally feel less stressed by setting aside those 25 hours every seven days.

Try it. Because we need it.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 3/5/2016.)

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Sermons

Seeking Ourselves for the Greater Good – Lekh Lekha 5776

Back in Great Neck (you might have heard me use that phrase a few times already in the last two-and-a-half months) I used to teach a workshop for benei mitzvah families, wherein we spoke about (among other things) our understanding of God. And every single time we had the God discussion, I would emphasize that where you are at age thirteen in your understanding of God is probably not where you’ll be at age 18, or 22, or 40, or 65. I actually wish that somebody had told ME that when I was preparing to become bar mitzvah.

But nobody did, so I had to figure this out for myself.

As we move through life, we change. The character and quality of our interpersonal relationships change. Our outlook changes. Some of the things we value as teenagers eventually seem ridiculous, and things that once seemed irrelevant have value. And even when the circumstances of our lives are not dramatically altered, sometimes the internal journey is much more powerful and revealing.

Consider, for example, our relationships with our parents. Mark Twain gave us the following piece of wisdom: “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished by how much he’d learned in seven years.”

Our understanding of God and ourselves is central to Parashat Lekh Lekha. How does the parashah open? God tells Avram, (Gen. 12:1)

לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ

Lekh lekha me-artzekha, umimoladtekha, umibeit avikha, el ha’aretz asher ar’eka.

Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.

Those two deceptively simple words, lekh lekha, are translated (New JPS) as “Go forth.” But the depth concealed within those three simple syllables is astounding.

First, we know nothing about Avram. Nothing more than his lineage and that (at the end of Parashat Noah last week) his father Terah had once started to emigrate to Canaan, but was sidetracked and remained in Haran. There is nothing that suggests that Avram is the right person to be sent on this journey, or that he is somehow holier or more pious or more intelligent or capable than anybody else.

Second, there is no indication, at least in this verse, that Avram has any clue where he is supposed to go once he has left his family behind; he only knows that God will show him. This is an entirely indeterminate journey.

Third, the imperative “lekh lekha” is grammatically difficult. To translate it literally, it might be saying, “Go unto you.” Given the complexities of translation, particularly from ancient to modern languages, it is nonetheless clear that this phrase speaks volumes.

Yes, it seems that God is telling Avram to leave his ancestral homeland (which would today be located in Iraq) and go somewhere else. But even more so, Avram is also being urged to take not only a physical journey, but a spiritual one as well – to leave the idolatrous landscape of his family, and to start anew in a headspace that only features the one true God. And the drastic nature of his physical journey reflects the challenge of the spiritual journey.

Rashi tells us that the “lekha” suggests, “For your own benefit and for your own advantage.” That is, Avram’s move will be good for him. What follows the opening verse, of course, is a promise that he will sire a great nation, a promise that will ultimately be reiterated to Isaac and Jacob as well.

But we must read this promise as not just a physical benefit, but also a theological benefit. Avram’s journey is to improve himself, to seek the proper way to live, to find his true nature, but it also encompasses his initiation of a monotheistic legacy, which will ultimately impact much of the world.

All the more so, says Rabbi Shalom Noah Berezovsky, the Slonimer Rebbe, in his analysis of Lekh Lekha. We are each endowed with our own unique challenges, our natural characteristics, which may include some unsavory aspects, like anger or lust or pride. But we are also given the opportunity to rise to the occasion to fulfill our own particular roles in this world to do good.

Avram’s spiritual journey, then, is the challenge of self-discovery as well as self-improvement. He is ordered to leave his home, his family, to go off to some unknown place far away. But he will surmount this difficulty and thus fulfill his role as the common ancestor of all monotheistic traditions.

And the Slonimer Rebbe takes it even further: Lekh lekha tells us not only that it is Avram’s role to overcome the idolatry of his youth, but that it is the role of every single Jewish person to repair one’s own soul so that we might go on to repair the world. And furthermore, he says, it is not enough merely to learn Torah, to pray, to perform mitzvot / commandments. Rather, he says, when one arrives in heaven, s/he will be asked, “What did you DO in the physical world?” And what Rabbi Berezovsky is telling us is that even the most pious among us, the ones who davened three times a day, every day and never even so much as looked at an un-hekhshered slice of cheese pizza, we will be challenged to demonstrate that we have pursued the iqqar, the principle item of importance. And that iqqar is not ritual acts or Torah study, but rather tiqqun olam, repairing the world. Doing good works with our hands for the benefit of others in need, for the greater good of humanity. That is the essential physical task of life.

OK, that’s great rabbi, but what do I do? How do I know what my role is in this very fractured world?

Well, so I am sorry to say that I cannot tell you that. That is only something that you can determine for yourself. That is what Avram did by leaving his homeland and moving to Canaan.

But his seeking of himself does not end with his arrival in Canaan; in fact, upon arrival, he almost immediately departs to Egypt. Later we find him moving to and fro in Canaan, digging for wells in Beersheva, journeying to Moriah, what will eventually be called Jerusalem, to climb a mountain that will some day be the spiritual focal point for his offspring, and so forth. His is a lifetime of seeking; he never quite completes the journey.

And so too do we continue to seek. Our journey goes on.

Every week at the conclusion of Shabbat, we recite words from Isaiah (12:3):

וּשְׁאַבְתֶּם מַיִם, בְּשָׂשׂוֹן, מִמַּעַיְנֵי, הַיְשׁוּעָה

Ush’avtem mayim besasson mima’aynei hayeshua.

Draw water in joy from the wells of salvation.

Those wells are within us. Yes, Avram may have traveled all over the ancient Middle East in seeking himself, in going forth unto himself. We do not necessarily have to do that. (Of course, a trip to Israel that includes a visit to the holy sites of Jerusalem and hikes in the desert and a good soak in Yam HaMelah / the Dead Sea can indeed be revelatory.)

We do not have to seek outside of ourselves; we can find the answers about what our individual or collective roles are within, deep in those internal wells of salvation. But we do have to look. And that takes work – not unlike the physical challenge posed by God to Avram to pick up and leave his homeland and his father’s house. And it also takes time, as we mature and learn ever more about ourselves.

As we attempt to frame our lives with meaning, the key question, then, posed by the Torah and by Jewish tradition, is not our understanding of God, but rather how we understand ourselves.

Most of us will probably not receive a direct commandment from God to pick up and leave home. But we will all face a changed understanding of ourselves and how we relate to God and the world as we age. Many of us, I hope, will reach beyond our comfort zone into those deep wells in search of our true selves, to look for that role that we all might play in repairing the world. You don’t have to move to Israel or enroll full-time in the Jewish Theological Seminary to do so, but you do have to dig. Each of us has that potential; I hope that you will act on it.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 10/24/2015.)