Tag Archives: Talmud

All of This Belongs to You: Be a Jewish Superhero! – Rosh Hashanah 5780, Day 2

(This is the second in the “All of This Belongs to You” series of High Holiday sermons. You may want to read the first before this one: The Greatest Jewish Hand-Off Play Ever)

While I was in Philadelphia with my Israeli son this summer, we stumbled across an exhibit of Marvel characters and memorabilia at the Franklin Institute. And I thought, OK, it’s wonderful that Stan Lee, born Stanley Lieber, a nice Jewish boy from New York, created these characters and this universe and the tremendous wealth of entertainment value that they have all produced, but a museum exhibit? Really?

Now you may know that I am not the most avid consumer of pop culture. I have no clue who Lizzo is. But something that this exhibit made me suddenly aware of was the great power and cachet that the very idea of superheroes has today. On some level, we all wish that we had some superheroes today. Since we’re entering the year 5780, that means we’re back in the ’80s, people! Here’s an appropriate musical cue:

Consider the milieu in which the first contemporary superheroes emerged. American Jewish kids, children of immigrants from Europe, hatched the first comic-book based superheroes because the Jews needed them. Hitler was murdering our people in Europe; Jews in America and elsewhere seemed powerless to convince their governments to stop the transport of Jews to camps, to halt the Nazi death machine. They needed help, help which they did not have. Help which was greater than any government or law-enforcement agency.

And so Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel created Superman in 1933. And Bob Kane (Kahn) and Bill Finger created Batman in 1938. And Joe (Hymie) Simon and Jack Kirby (Jacob Kurtzberg) created Captain America in 1941. And so forth. These, and many others, were the fantasy heroes who would save the Jews.

And there was even precedent for this in Jewish folktales of the middle ages: the golem, a mythical defender of the Jews fashioned out of clay, most famously put into action by the Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Yehuda Leib ben Bezalel, in the 16th century. As some versions of the story go, the clay form would come to life when the Maharal would inscribe the letters of alef-mem-tav, emet, the Hebrew word for “truth,” into its forehead, and then would return to a clay mass when the alef was removed, leaving the word met, dead, in its place.

So it seems that the alef was the animating letter, the one that held the power, the silent letter that carries far more than its own linguistic weight.

And it is the same alef that begins the Hebrew word for love: ahavah. And it is also the same letter with which God speaks to the Israelites en masse at Mt. Sinai, opening the words of the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, with the silent alef of the word Anokhi, I, the letter that speaks volumes without making a sound.

If I were a Jewish superhero, I would certainly wear an alef on my chest.

***

If you were here yesterday, you know that our theme for 5780 is, “All of This Belongs to You.” Now that the American-Jewish project of assimilation has run its course, the outstanding question is, “How might we reclaim our tradition for the needs of American Jews today?”

The welcoming gate pictured here is a typical “sha’ar” – the illustration found in the front of all printings of the traditional Vilna layout of the Talmud, dating to the 1870s. It is an invitation into the text.

My appeal to you today is as follows: be a Jewish superhero! Proud, committed, open, willing to go the extra distance, maybe even bend the rules a bit to get the job done; not limited by convention – the Jewish world needs you!  

The folks who attend services on the second day of Rosh Hashanah are the more committed folks – the ones who are more likely to show up for synagogue events, who are more likely to participate in many of the aspects of Jewish life, to be more engaged.

So I am going to make the pitch to you to stand up for a new American Judaism – to be the superheroes who will forge that path of the Jewish future, the one that maintains and modernizes our heritage and highlights it for generations to come.  

We need a Beth Shalom, a Conservative movement, an American Judaism that reflects who we are and how we live right now. Yes, to some extent Judaism tells us how to live. But we must acknowledge that today, people relate very differently to Judaism, and to religion in general. While at one time, religion was an organizing principle that helped create a society in which you could trust people whom you did not know, our data-saturated and secular law-infused age has, to some, made this type of organizing principle unnecessary.

But that does not mean that Judaism is irrelevant. Quite the contrary! I think that the numbers of high-profile criminals with Jewish names that have floated across our screens in the past few years are only a symptom of what we have lost along the way to complete assimilation.

You have probably heard me say that Judaism, Jewish life, Jewish practice, Jewish learning offer us real value: they help make us better people and help build a better world. 

If only more Jews were to learn and live Jewish values! If only more Jews were to seek out and engage with Jewish practices – halakhah, learning the words of the Jewish bookshelf, and so forth – then perhaps, just perhaps we would not have had the likes of Bernie Madoff, Harvey Weinstein, Michael Cohen, Jeffrey Epstein. 

If more Jews knew their heritage and engaged with it, then maybe we would have a better chance of truly repairing the world.

So that is where you come in.

I recently heard a wonderful interview (On Being with Krista Tippett) with Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, a well-known Reform rabbi and author. He told the following story about the time he gave a tour of his synagogue’s sanctuary to children in the pre-school, and they theorized about what might be behind the curtain in the aron hakodesh, the ark:

One kid, obviously destined to become a professor of nihilistic philosophy at a great university, opined that behind that curtain was absolutely nothing. Another kid, less imaginative, thought it had a Jewish holy thing in there. A third kid, obviously a devotee of American game show television subculture, guessed that behind that curtain was a brand new car.

And the fourth kid said “No, you’re all wrong. Next week when that rabbi man comes and opens that curtain, behind it, there would be a giant mirror.” From a four-year-old. Somehow, that little soul knew that through looking at the words of sacred scripture, he would encounter himself in a new and heightened and revealing way.

Torah, by which I mean not just the scrolls behind the curtain but all of accumulated learning and commentary and argument and behaviors it has yielded over the last three millennia, is not an old, dusty collection of obscure literature. It is us. It is a reflection of who we are and how we live. It is an assessment of our lives, an opportunity to consider who we are and how we can improve ourselves.

It IS a mirror.

But when we truly pay attention, when we embrace and commit ourselves to learning the wisdom of our tradition, we see who we are. It is a mirror that reflects not our outsides, but our insides.

And, truth be told, not everybody wants to stand in front of that kind of mirror. We do not want to be judged. We usually do not want to have to think too deeply about our own shortcomings.

But I want you stand before that mirror and think, How can I infuse my life with just a little more qedushah, more holiness? How can I teach Torah through my words, through my consumption choices, through my philanthropic donations? How can I bring a little more Torah to the world in how I interact with all the people around me? How can the awareness of myself and the world that Torah brings me shed a little more light on us all? 

Can I imagine myself with a giant, red alef on my chest, bringing my whole self into the synagogue, and then out into the world, armed with Torah? Heck – we already have the cape…

And the answer is, yes. Yes you can. You are going to be the alef.

And as a Jewish superhero, you’re going to need a mission. You know, “Fighting for truth, justice, and the American way!” Or “Here I come to save the day!” And here it is: Positive Judaism.

I have recently read a book that provides a blueprint for how to do that. It’s called The Happiness Prayer, by Rabbi Evan Moffic, who is a Reform rabbi who leads Congregation Solel, in Chicago. The premise of the book is that, drawing on the principles of positive psychology, Judaism can be a force for good in our lives and the world. I’m not going to go deep into the background on positive psychology – you can feel free to do that on your own time. 

Rabbi Moffic derives the principles of “Positive Judaism” from a well-known passage in the Talmud that he calls, “The Happiness Prayer.” It goes like this:

אֵלּוּ דְבָרִים שֶׁאָדָם אוכֵל פֵּרותֵיהֶם בָּעולָם הַזֶּה וְהַקֶּרֶן קַיֶּמֶת לו לָעולָם הַבָּא. וְאֵלּוּ הֵן. כִּבּוּד אָב וָאֵם. וּגְמִילוּת חֲסָדִים. וְהַשְׁכָּמַת בֵּית הַמִּדְרָשׁ. שַׁחֲרִית וְעַרְבִית. וְהַכְנָסַת אורְחִים. וּבִקּוּר חולִים. וְהַכְנָסַת כַּלָּה. וּלְוָיַת הַמֵּת. וְעִיּוּן תפילה. וַהֲבָאַת שָׁלום בֵּין אָדָם לַחֲבֵרו וּבֵין אִישׁ לְאִשְׁתּו. וְתַלְמוּד תּורָה כְּנֶגֶד כֻּלָּם:

These are the deeds that yield immediate fruit in this world and continue to yield fruit in the World to Come: honoring parents; doing deeds of lovingkindness; arriving at the beit midrash / house of study early–morning and evening; providing hospitality; visiting the sick; helping the needy bride; attending to the dead; probing the meaning of prayer; making peace between one person and another, and between husband and wife. And the study of Torah outweighs them all.

This prayer appears in many traditional siddurim / prayerbooks, and it is based on passages found in the Talmud (Mishnah Peah 1:1, BT Shabbat 127a). 

Rabbi Moffic universalizes the language somewhat while preserving the prayer’s original intent. He interprets them as follows:

כִּבּוּד אָב וָאֵם / Honor those who gave you life.
גְמִילוּת חֲסָדִים / Be kind
הַשְׁכָּמַת בֵּית הַמִּדְרָשׁ, שַׁחֲרִית וְעַרְבִית / Keep learning
הַכְנָסַת אורְחִים / Invite others into your life
בִקּוּר חולִים / Be there when others need you
הַכְנָסַת כַּלָּה / Celebrate good times
לְוָיַת הַמֵּת / Support yourself and others during times of loss
עִיּוּן תפילה / Pray with intention
הֲבָאַת שָׁלום בֵּין אָדָם לַחֲבֵרו וּבֵין אִישׁ לְאִשְׁתּו / Forgive
תַלְמוּד תּורָה כְּנֶגֶד כֻּלָּם / Look inside and commit

Now, this is a really fabulous template for finding happiness in Judaism, but I really do not have time to explain each of these. You might want to check out Rabbi Moffic’s book. But among these ten items, I think the most important ones are as follows:

גְמִילוּת חֲסָדִים / Be kind

Practice random acts of kindness and senseless beauty, says the bumper sticker. Well, yeah. (They do not have to be random or senseless.) Find ways to do good works for others and for society, because that is how we make this world a better place while endowing our own lives with a sense of meaning. The 20th century Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas explained that suffering is the root of kindness – understanding that we all suffer in one way or another, this suffering is always an opportunity to provide comfort through deeds of kindness. That, says Levinas, is God’s vector in the world; we become God’s hands.

הַשְׁכָּמַת בֵּית הַמִּדְרָשׁ. שַׁחֲרִית וְעַרְבִית / Keep learning

An 80-year-long monumental study of life satisfaction began at Harvard University in 1938. One of the study’s key findings was that the happiest people were the ones who pursued and shared wisdom, which they attained through a lifetime of learning: from travel, from classes, from new experiences, from other people. The Jewish value of learning is not just about the Beit Midrash, the traditional study hall, but also that as we walk through life, we should always strive to acquire more knowledge, more wisdom, more experience. 

הַכְנָסַת אורְחִים / Invite others into your life

One of the major challenges that we face as a society is isolation. Thanks to our newfangled digital devices, it is possible for us to feel connected even when we are not. I’m not judging our use of technology, but I think there are reasons to be concerned. The antidote to this isolation is to reach out to others any way you can. Perhaps the most powerful connector in Jewish life is the Shabbat meal at home, or a festive meal in the Sukkah, and we should all be hosting more of them and inviting more people. But gathering in synagogue is also a powerful tool. I am especially grateful that Beth Shalom is attracting many new members nowadays, and that is due to your talent at hakhnasat orehim. But there is always room to grow – to reach out to somebody else, to get to know someone whom you do not. The power of community is found in the sharing of stories and experiences. By this time next year you I hope for you to count how many times and how many people you’ve hosted, and take stock of the ways in which these instances impacted and enriched your life.  

הֲבָאַת שָׁלום בֵּין אָדָם לַחֲבֵרו וּבֵין אִישׁ לְאִשְׁתּו / Forgive

Related to the challenge of isolation is the fact that all of what we learn about the world through online platforms – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, etc. – is curated to do one thing: keep your eyeballs on that platform as long as possible. And so these platforms are constantly putting in front of you items that they already know you love. The difficulty here is that the algorithms are effectively constantly telling us, “You’re right,” continuously affirming our perspective. How much harder, then, is it for us to excuse the people around us for viewing the world in a way we feel is 100% wrong? And how much easier is it, then, to dig in our heels, even when doing so pushes us apart?

One of the most essential things that we should be thinking about, as we consider the brokenness of the world, is how to bring people together. And the key to doing so, to repairing the world, ladies and gentlemen, is forgiveness. And that does not mean overlooking the misdeeds of others who have treated you badly; it means reaching deep within yourself to find the intestinal fortitude to let go of the animosity and the desire for revenge. 

Forgiveness, says Rabbi Moffic, is actually a form of revenge – “a favor we do ourselves because it releases the energies we would have expended in feeling hurt and aggrieved.” Letting go of the anger we hold onto can be tremendously liberating. I have seen this happen.

עִיּוּן תפילה / Pray with intention

You all know that I pray regularly, and that daily prayer brings real value to my life. And it can bring real value to yours as well, if you commit to it. However, tefillah / prayer is simply not one of those things that you can enter lightly. You really have to be intentional about it, and that is hard. In fact, it does not necessarily get easier the more you do it. But once you get the rhythm, the choreography, the themes, the language, it allows you to access yourself in a way that is unlike any other. It’s like yoga for your head and heart, soothing your soul and sensitizing you to the others around you. You cannot be a part of a minyan, a quorum of ten, without the others in the room, and that is by design. That magic combination of doing something good for your soul, reflecting quietly, reciting ancient words of tradition from a place of humility, and doing it in fellowship with others is healthy for your body, your mind, and your community.

תַלְמוּד תּורָה כְּנֶגֶד כֻּלָּם / Look inside and commit.

As a Jewish superhero, you have to be committed to the prime directive of the Jews, and that is to spread light in a too-dark world. And the way to do this is to know and understand the range of wisdom found on the Jewish bookshelf, and to use it to locate that mirror that Rabbi Kushner described. Our ancient wisdom is our stock-in-trade, the Jewish gift to the world. And you need to know more of it, so that you can bring out the best in yourself and in others. Pirqei Avot (6:1) teaches that the one who learns Torah for its own sake is clothed in humility, reverence, and modesty, and is slow to insult. If only more of us carried those qualities with us at all times!

***
Those are the pieces of the Happiness Prayer that I find most appealing, but you should not take my word for it. If you are going to be a Jewish Superhero, if you’re going to help create the Judaism of the 21st century, to help us reclaim our spiritual heritage, you are going to have to investigate some of this for yourself.

So find a big alef, whether physical or metaphorical, and pin it to your chest. Without the alef, we are met / dead. With the alef, we are emet / truth.

You are the alef. You are the superhero. All of this belongs to you! Now go out and make it happen.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, second day of Rosh Hashanah, 10/1/2019.)

Continue reading the next installment in the “All of This Belongs to You” series: All of This Belongs to You: Do Not Be Indifferent – Kol Nidrei 5780

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All of This Belongs to You: The Greatest Jewish Hand-Off Play Ever – Rosh Hashanah 5780, Day 1

Some of you may know that I am a big fan of the old comedy troupe from England, Monty Python, and spent (or arguably wasted) a good chunk of my adolescence memorizing some of their routines. 

There is a scene in their classic 1975 movie, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” when a feudal lord is preparing his son’s wedding, and is trying to explain to his adult son the importance of marrying the young woman that the father has chosen, because her father owns a lot of property. The son, who does not seem to care for property or farming or being a feudal lord, is completely disinterested. He only wants to sing, and the father is intent on stopping him from doing so, so that he can focus on the wedding.

At one point, the father gestures to the window dramatically, as if to survey all of his fields, and says, “One day, lad, all this will be yours.”

The son, regarding the window, says, “What, the curtains?”

The young man does not see the huge tracts of land that his father wants to bestow upon him. He does not see the legacy he is poised to inherit. He would rather just sing.

****

Ladies and gentlemen, we are in the middle of a paradigm shift in Jewish history. We are witnesses to the one of the most dramatic changes in Jewish life that has ever occurred. Let me explain.

Do you remember Abe Salem, alav hashalom / May peace be upon him? Abe was a key figure in this congregation, the Ritual Director, Torah reader and service leader for nearly a quarter-century. He was a survivor who spoke a barely-understandable patois of Yiddish and English, told nearly- unbelievable stories, like how he had once personally received a pistol from David Ben Gurion, and how in 1939, after fleeing the Nazis in Poland, he was imprisoned in a Soviet labor camp because the Russians suspected him to be a spy.

Abe is gone. He passed away two years ago at the age of 97. Zikhrono livrakhah. May his memory be for a blessing.

Ladies and gentlemen, the texture of the Jewish world is not what it was in the 1950s and 1960s, when synagogues were run by scrappy survivors like Abe. Gone are the Old World sensibilities which drove the community of the past. Gone are the classic bubbies, who devoted their lives to cooking and doling out often-unwanted advice. Gone are many of the institutions that sustained Jewish life: the kosher butchers and bakers that once populated Murray Ave., the daily Yiddish papers. Gone are the Bundists, the Hebraists, the proto-Zionist veterans who left their comfortable lives in America to go serve in the Israeli War of Independence in 1948. 

All that is left is us, ladies and gentlemen. We are the inheritors of our millennia-old tradition. And we are woefully ill-equipped to inherit it.

Because the top of the agenda for our parents and grandparents was assimilation. It was to be American. It was to fit in, not to stick out, not to be a greenhorn. When my grandmother, my mother’s mother, Pinia Reyzl Bronstein, arrived at Ellis Island in 1921, at age 8, speaking not a word of English, she decided that she was going to acquire a perfect American accent, and she quit speaking Yiddish. And when she was raising my mother and her siblings on the North Shore of Boston, they would go to the neighbors’ apartment when they wanted to eat clams, like Americans; she would not dare cook them in her own kitchen while her mother, my great-grandmother Hannah was alive; after she was gone, kashrut disappeared as well.

My grandmother was not so moved by her Jewish heritage. She may as well have left that back in her shtetl, in what is today Ukraine. She knew that to be an American meant that she did not need to keep kosher or to fast on Tish’ah Be’Av.

Did you know that it was not uncommon for American Jews to celebrate Christmas in the first half of the 20th century? Families had trees and even hosted Christmas dinners: 

“In his 1958 study of second-generation immigrant Reform Jews on Chicago’s South Side, clinical psychologist and rabbi Milton Matz revealed that in the second generation parents often agreed that a Jewish child might need a Christmas tree to “hyphenate the contradiction between his Americanism and his Jewish ethnicism.” (Rabbi Joshua Plaut, myjewishlearning.com)

In subsequent generations, parents realized that there might be a contradiction here, and today there are very few Jews who celebrate Christmas. But no matter: the project of assimilation was deeply entrenched.

And in the course of this great project, what did we lose? I’ll tell you:

  • We lost the deep knowledge and familiarity with Jewish living. 
  • We lost the sense of the synagogue as an extension of our living rooms. 
  • We lost the sense of love and appreciation for the text of our tradition, the value of prayer and indeed the value of having a regular prayer practice. 
  • We lost the sense of deep interconnectedness and interdependence within our community. 
  • We lost the sense of the extended family as the essential unit. 
  • We lost almost all of the close neighborhoods in which the people knew and trusted each other and the businesses that depended on proximity. 
  • We have reduced our Judaism to lip-service: many of us declare proudly that we are Jewish without knowing what exactly our tradition teaches us.

It is undeniable that we have also gained: we gained more freedom, more independence. We moved out of cramped, urban environments into leafy, roomy suburbs. We gained entree into all quarters of American society, including into the exclusive clubs and law firms and echelons of government. And still, despite current trends, obvious signs of anti-Semitism are the exception rather than the norm.

Get ready, folks; I am about to do something I almost never do: use a sports analogy:

We are witnesses to the greatest Jewish hand-off play ever. What do I mean?

The American Jewish project of assimilation has run its course. We are done. We are as American as every other immigrant group.

And I am in fact concerned. But I am also hopeful.

Why? Because the receivers of that heritage, that handed-off football, are reclaiming it. Our parents and grandparents carried it for some time, and now it will be ours. Not mine; not the rabbis and the historians and the Judaic Studies professors, but ours as a community.

****

As you probably know about me by now, my primary goal is not only to teach Judaism, but to make the case for why you need it. I’m not so convinced that everybody in the room is on board. Because, if you were, you would be here more often! You may find this hard to believe, but we almost never fill the sanctuary on Shabbat morning even though there are only 1600 seats. 

But my intent is not to make you feel guilty. It’s rather to inspire you to to be a student of your own heritage, work harder and, to reach a little higher in giving shape to your spirituality, to dip maybe a second toe into the water of Jewish life beyond the lifecycle events of baby namings, ritual circumcisions, benei mitzvah, marriage and death. Because doing so will ultimately be repaid to you in ways that you may not yet appreciate.

Nobody had to make this case a half-century ago. Why? Because the Jews were just showing up.

Today is different. The Jews do not just show up. A piece of conventional wisdom says that Jews used to come to synagogue because they were Jewish. Today, Jews come to synagogue to feel Jewish. We are fully-assimilated Americans. When I feel the need to “get my Jew on,” I go to synagogue. Maybe.

Over these days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I am going to give you reasons to show up, to find meaning, to enrich your life and your relationships and to improve the world through Jewish life, learning, and ritual. Now that the project of assimilation is complete, we can, and we must reclaim what is ours, and take our wisdom to make our lives and our world better. All of this belongs to you – now take that football and run with it.

The welcoming gate pictured here is a typical “sha’ar” – the illustration found in the front of all printings of the traditional Vilna layout of the Talmud, dating to the 1870s. It is an invitation into the text.


Perhaps one of the greatest and best-known stories in the Talmud (found in tractate Bava Metzia 59b) is that of the Tanur Shel Akhnai, the oven of Akhnai. It’s about an argument that some rabbis are having about whether the Tanur shel Akhnai is kosher. The halakhic particulars of the oven do not matter, but what does matter is that one rabbi, Rabbi Eliezer, believes the oven is kosher, and so, apparently does God. But all the other rabbis disagree.

On that day, R. Eliezer answered all the answers on Earth (i.e. the halakhic objections) and they did not accept it from him. He said, “If the law is as I say, that carob tree will prove it”; the carob tree was uprooted from its place one hundred cubits, some say four hundred cubits. 
The other rabbis said: “We do not allow proof from a carob tree.” 
R. Eliezer then said, “If the law is as I say, the river will prove it”; the river flowed in reverse direction.
They said: “We do not allow proof from a river.”…
R. Eliezer then said, “If the law is as I say, a voice from Heaven will prove it”; a heavenly voice [i.e. God’s] said, “Why do you disagree with R. Eliezer, who is correct in every way?” 
R. Yehoshua stood on his feet and said, “Lo bashamayim hi.” “[The Torah] is not in heaven,” (Deuteronomy 30:12)…
R. Natan met Eliyahu haNavi and said to him, “What did the Qadosh Barukh Hu / Holy Blessed One do?” Eliyahu said to him: “God smiled and said, “My children have defeated Me, My children have defeated Me.” 

What does this story teach us? For one thing, that the tradition is ours. We received some initial, Divine communications, however they came down to us, and thereafter, we took the tradition and made it our own. And ultimately, we make the tradition. It belongs to us.  We interpret it in each generation as we carry it.

It belongs to us because the tradition of Jewish learning and teaching across the ages is unique in the world. Our “religion” (and I use that in quotes because it is an inadequate term) is not only arcane rituals and mumbling ancient words in synagogue, but rather as much about the body of wisdom called “Torah,” which we continue to learn.

It belongs to us because we all understand and relate to the concept of God differently: some of us understand God as a law-giving being; some of us understand God as a force in nature that works in and around us; some of us understand God as the human imperative to do good for others in this world, and the theological palette is truly limitless. And all of these conceptions of God belong to us as well.

It belongs to us because there is no single right answer on virtually anything in Jewish life. There is no single way to be Jewish. There is no single, correct answer for most questions in Jewish law. We have no pope; there is no single commentator who has a monopoly on interpreting our tradition. Torah, our textual basis is flexible enough to tolerate a wide range of understandings. 

And how do we make it ours today? By re-interpreting once again. By taking the football and running with it.

By acting on the ways that our tradition brings us value today. Here are some examples:

Our tradition teaches us how to be a family: Dine together, particularly on Shabbat. Express gratitude together, with the words of our tradition as well as your own words. Come to Beth Shalom, where we have services and activities for the whole family.

Our tradition teaches us how to be good parents: Bless your children and hold them tight, like each of the Matriarchs and Patriarchs did. Guide them with the wisdom that our ancestors gave us. Teach them the values of derekh eretz / treating others with respect, hesed / acts of lovingkindness, and hakarat hatov / recognition of the good that we have been given. 

Our tradition teaches us how to be good citizens: Seek to understand the people around us; do not swindle or deceive others, do not curse the deaf or put obstacles in front of the blind; share our wisdom and our joy with our fellow human beings, and greet everybody with sever panim yafot / a pleasant face.

Our tradition teaches us how to be an authentic person: Act on the statement of the sage Hillel: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?

Our tradition teaches us how to maintain holiness in all our relationships: Remember that every person on this Earth has within them a spark of the Divine, a modicum of holiness. Never forget that. Strive to seek the holiness in each other in all your dealings, whether in business or in encounters with strangers or in matters of the heart.

And the ritual aspects of Judaism support all of those things. That is why we have them. That is why what we do in the Conservative movement is an excellent approach to being Jewish: we maintain our traditions while acknowledging that the world has changed and we must change incrementally along with it. 

Why do we do what we do?

Because tefillah / prayer gets us in touch with ourselves and sensitizes us to the world around us.

Because observing Shabbat allows us the physical and emotional space to let go of our anxiety and just live in the moment, not swept up in commerce or politics or work.

Because kashrut / the dietary laws remind us on a daily basis of our responsibility not to cross certain lines in God’s Creation. We were not given this world so we can abuse it. And not only that, but it’s worth remembering that what comes out of our mouths should be as pure as what goes in.

Because qehillah / community provides the framework of support that we all need, in times of grief and joy, mourning and depression and celebration and hanging out and schmoozing, and everything in-between. And all the more so in the past year, in the context of what happened a few blocks away from here on the 18th day of Heshvan in the past year. We were there for each other.

Because Talmud Torah / Jewish learning teaches us that all of these things are found on the Jewish bookshelf in abundance. It’s all there, ladies and gentlemen. You just have to reach out and grab it.

I know. You’re thinking, there is so much to Judaism, and I’m so busy, and Beth Shalom offers so many portals into Jewish life. Where can I possibly start? 

Here’s an easy one: host a Shabbat dinner. Look, you’re going to be eating dinner on Friday night anyway – just make it a wee bit more special. I am happy to help you out with home rituals if you need. Invite guests. Enjoy! Then do it again. 

Then consider an online study group – Derekh, our targeted programming arm, is now coordinating them via Zoom. Or drop into Rabbi Jeremy’s Talmud class, or my Lunch and Learn. Stop by the monthly Shabbat morning Discussion service, where we get into the “whys” of what we do. The bar is not as high as you think.

***

Ladies and gentlemen, every time the Torah is put away, we sing, Ki leqah tov natati lakhem, torati al ta’azovu. For I [God] have given you a good heritage; do not forsake My Torah.

We sympathize with the young man in the Holy Grail, who only wants to sing. But we need to see the land, not just the curtains. And we need to dedicate ourselves to that property, the rich heritage of which we are the inheritors, even as we sing.

We take the tradition that our ancestors received at Mount Sinai, and we are still fashioning it to suit our needs today. We continue to make an ancient tradition new. We continue to make it ours. Lo bashamayim hi – it is not in the heavens. It’s down here with us, it’s fourth down and three yards to go. Take the hand-off.

All of this belongs to you. As they say in the Talmud as an invitation into the text: Ta shema. Come and learn.

Shanah tovah!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, first day of Rosh Hashanah, 9/30/2019.)

Continue reading the next installment in the “All of This Belongs to You” series: All of This Belongs to You: Be a Jewish Superhero! – Rosh Hashanah 5780, Day 2

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The Nexus of Politics and Judaism – Shabbat Nahamu 5779

I have recently received a few comments that my sermons have been “too political.” So I just wanted to clarify something as a kind of prologue: I try to speak to contemporary issues, issues that are in the air all around us. I cannot speak about abstractions, about things that we are not necessarily thinking about. And the clergy-person that does not address what’s on people’s minds is irrelevant. I am trying my best not to be irrelevant. My job is to teach how our texts guide us in our daily interactions with the world, with both the mundane and the existential.

At the same time, my goal is not to inflame. I do not label any public figures with unfair or inaccurate descriptors. I do not use hyperbolic or inflammatory language. I do try to avoid calling out specific people, where possible, or God forbid, mentioning political parties. It is not my goal to get everybody heated up and arguing at kiddush. On the contrary, I hope to elevate the dialogue by emphasizing what Jewish tradition teaches about the issues in play.

As you know, I think it is essential for us to remember that learning the words and concepts of the Jewish bookshelf improves our lives and our society, and I can tell you this: if the principles of compassion, of derekh eretz / respect, of justice, of acknowledging the kedushah / holiness in each of us and in our relationships with each other were kept in front of us at all times, the world would be a much better place, and perhaps far less polarized.

***

On this day, Shabbat Nahamu, the Shabbat of comfort, my hope is to bring us some comfort in Jewish text. The first Shabbat after Tish’ah BeAv, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, is so titled because it is the opening salvo of the First Haftarah of Consolation which we read this morning, from the prophet Isaiah. As we count off the seven weeks from Tish’ah BeAv until Rosh Hashanah, we should feel ourselves recovering from the desolation of Tish’ah BeAv, moving from mourning the tragedies of our history to seeing ourselves as elevated in the glory of God’s sovereignty.

Relief from the Arch of Titus in Rome, depicting Roman soldiers carrying away the implements of the Second Temple following the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE

And the challenge facing us at this time is, how do we find comfort when the nation is still reeling from the needless deaths of 31 people two weekends ago? When we in Pittsburgh are still in mourning for the 11 members of our community who were so brutally taken from us nearly 10 months ago?

How do we find comfort when the issues surrounding who is allowed to come into this country, and who is allowed to stay, continue to roil our national conversation?

How can we find comfort when our government is proposing to favor immigrants who are not poor? I’ll tell you this, folks: if such a principle existed when my family members came here in the late 19th and early 20th century, I wouldn’t be standing before you, and most of you would not be here either.

How do we find comfort when our elected officials, many of whom are themselves descended from poor immigrants, continue to support policies that separate families at our borders?

How do we find comfort when we know that foreign actors are continuing to try to disrupt our democratic processes?

How do we find comfort when virtually every day brings some new revelation regarding our ongoing abuse of God’s Creation? This week it was the plastic content in Arctic ice.

At the program on Saturday evening, as our 25-hour fast began, we heard from speakers who addressed our grief. Our member Danielle Kranjec, Senior Jewish Educator at Hillel-Jewish University Center, spoke about how she and her students experienced the 18th of Heshvan. Richard Carrington, who works in the poor neighborhoods of Pittsburgh trying to free children from the cycle of gang violence, spoke about the 203 funerals that he has attended for the kids he has worked with, children he could not save. Representatives of Casa San Jose spoke of the gratitude they had for the haven this country has offered them from dysfunctional Latin American governments and the violent, failed societies from which they came.

How can we indeed feel comforted?

Some might argue that we, the Jews, have to look out for ourselves. And that is certainly true, to some extent. “Im ein ani li mi li?” said our sage Hillel, 2000 years ago (Pirqei Avot 1:14): “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me.” But then Hillel goes on: “Ukhshe’ani le’atzmi, mah ani?” “And when I am ONLY for myself, what am I?”

Ve’im lo akhshav, eimatai?” “And if not now, when?”

Indeed.

Many of you know another mishnah from earlier in the same chapter of Pirqei Avot (1:2), one that was a kind of Jewish pop song a few decades back:

שִׁמְעוֹן הַצַּדִּיק הָיָה מִשְּׁיָרֵי כְנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה. הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים

Shim’on the Righteous was one of the last of the Great Assembly. He said: The world rests on three things: on the Torah, and on service [to God], and on acts of lovingkindness.

But let’s face it: three is an excellent literary device if you’d like to make a point. So the rabbis did not limit themselves to only one statement of the things upon which the world stands. So at the end of chapter 1 of Pirqei Avot, there is another take:

רַבָּן שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן גַּמְלִיאֵל אוֹמֵר, עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַדִּין וְעַל הָאֱמֶת וְעַל הַשָּׁלוֹם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (זכריה ח) אֱמֶת וּמִשְׁפַּט שָׁלוֹם שִׁפְטוּ בְּשַׁעֲרֵיכֶם

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel used to say: on three things does the world stand: On justice, on truth and on peace, as it is said: “execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates” (Zechariah 8:16).

Whenever this sort of thing happens in traditional texts, you know some rabbi is going to eventually come along to ask the question: why do we need these two statements? Wouldn’t one have been enough? Does the world stand on three things, or six?

Sure enough, in the Jerusalem Talmud (Ta’anit 4:2), there is a passage that addresses this:

תמן תנינן שמעון הצדיק היה משירי כנסת הגדולה הוא היה אומר על שלשה דברים העולם עומד על התורה ועל העבודה ועל גמילות חסדים ושלשתן בפסוק אחד (ישעיהו נא) ואשים דברי בפיך זו תורה ובצל ידי כסיתיך זו גמילות חסדים ללמדך שכל מי שהוא עוסק בתורה ובגמילות חסדים זכה לישב בצילו של הקב”ה

There they taught: Shimon the Righteous was of the remnants of the Men of the Great Assembly. He used to say ‘the world rests on three things – on the Torah on the Service and on Acts of Loving-kindness.’ The three of them are found in one verse (Isaiah 51:16):

וָאָשִׂ֤ים דְּבָרַי֙ בְּפִ֔יךָ וּבְצֵ֥ל יָדִ֖י כִּסִּיתִ֑יךָ לִנְטֹ֤עַ שָׁמַ֙יִם֙ וְלִיסֹ֣ד אָ֔רֶץ וְלֵאמֹ֥ר לְצִיּ֖וֹן עַמִּי־אָֽתָּה׃

[God said] I have put My words in your mouth and sheltered you with My hand; I, who planted the skies and made firm the earth, have said to Zion: You are My people!

“I have put My words in your mouth…” refers to Torah, “…and sheltered you with My hand…” refers to acts of lovingkindness, to teach you that anyone who is occupied with Torah and acts of lovingkindness merits to sit in the shadow of the Holy One.

So the Gemara here is explaining that the first statement of three comes from Isaiah, an affirmation that we are God’s people. Shim’on the Righteous is interpreting this to say that by living Torah, by learning and teaching it and applying it by performing acts of lovingkindness, deeds that reinforce the qedushah between people, we will merit God’s presence in our lives. We will earn a coveted spot in the shadow of the Qadosh Barukh Hu

But I must say, I need a little more than that. I can “sit in the shadow of the Qadosh Barukh Hu” all day while the rest of the world crumbles around me. Rather, I need something else. Hence the need for the other statement of three. The Gemara goes on:

תמן תנינן רבן שמעון בן גמליאל אומר על שלשה דברים העולם עומד על הדין ועל האמת והשלום ושלשתן דבר אחד הן נעשה הדין נעשה אמת נעשה שלום א”ר מנא ושלשתן בפסוק אחד (זכריה ח׳:ט״ז) אמת ומשפט שלום שפטו בשעריכם

There, Rabban Shim’on ben Gamliel said: The world stands on three things: on truth, on justice, and on peace, as is said, “Execute truth, justice, and peace within your gates” (Zech. 8:16). These three are interlinked: when justice is done, truth is achieved, and peace is established (Pirqei Avot 1:18).

So this one, says the Gemara, is an entirely different way of viewing the world. Not about the specificities of Torah or service to God, but rather about essential values. We have to seek justice, says the prophet Zechariah. We have to speak truth. That is when peace will come. And Zechariah is even more explicit in the following verse:

וְאִ֣ישׁ ׀ אֶת־רָעַ֣ת רֵעֵ֗הוּ אַֽל־תַּחְשְׁבוּ֙ בִּלְבַבְכֶ֔ם וּשְׁבֻ֥עַת שֶׁ֖קֶר אַֽל־תֶּאֱהָ֑בוּ כִּ֧י אֶת־כָּל־אֵ֛לֶּה אֲשֶׁ֥ר שָׂנֵ֖אתִי נְאֻם־ה׃

And do not contrive evil against one another, and do not love perjury, because all those are things that I hate—declares the LORD.

We have to dedicate ourselves to justice and truth and avoid purposefully reviling one another. And not just justice for us, for the Jews, but for the whole world. That’s what the world stands on. Only then will peace come.

So it may be easy to say that, but how do we get there?

The essence of politics, ladies and gentlemen, is agreement and disagreement. We all agree that there are problems to be solved, and we have multiple paths forward, different ways to approach these challenges. We can agree with each other or disagree, and not only on the solutions, but on the problems themselves.

But we have to do it truthfully, and we have to agree that justice is the abiding principle. And I would like to suggest something that we can all consider, yet another value expressed in Pirqei Avot, and that is “kaf zekhut” – giving somebody with whom you disagree the benefit of the doubt.

Before you dismiss outright what somebody else firmly believes, consider their position, and see if you can even make their argument for them. There is always another side. The only way we can gain true comfort, justice, truth, and peace, is to be able to listen to and seek to understand the other with a fair, even-handed ear, to seek common ground, and to find the political means to bring people together rather than drive them apart.

Only then will we find comfort; only then will we truly sit together in the shadow of the Qadosh Barukh Hu.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/17/2019.)

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Democracy and Judaism – Qorah 5779

Parashat Qorah raises particularly resonant questions regarding leadership: Who leads? Who appoints them? From where does the true mandate for leadership come? What happens when a troublesome vocal minority challenges that leadership? Consider these sources for discussion.


Zechariah 8:16(16) These are the things you are to do: Speak the truth to one another, render true and perfect justice in your gates.
זכריה ח׳:ט״ז(טז) אֵ֥לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר תַּֽעֲשׂ֑וּ דַּבְּר֤וּ אֱמֶת֙ אִ֣ישׁ אֶת־רֵעֵ֔הוּ אֱמֶת֙ וּמִשְׁפַּ֣ט שָׁל֔וֹם שִׁפְט֖וּ בְּשַׁעֲרֵיכֶֽם׃

Deuteronomy 17:16-18(16) Moreover, he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses, since the LORD has warned you, “You must not go back that way again.” (17) And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess. (18) When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the levitical priests.דברים י״ז:ט״ז-י״ח(טז) רַק֮ לֹא־יַרְבֶּה־לּ֣וֹ סוּסִים֒ וְלֹֽא־יָשִׁ֤יב אֶת־הָעָם֙ מִצְרַ֔יְמָה לְמַ֖עַן הַרְבּ֣וֹת ס֑וּס וַֽה֙’ אָמַ֣ר לָכֶ֔ם לֹ֣א תֹסִפ֗וּן לָשׁ֛וּב בַּדֶּ֥רֶךְ הַזֶּ֖ה עֽוֹד׃ (יז) וְלֹ֤א יַרְבֶּה־לּוֹ֙ נָשִׁ֔ים וְלֹ֥א יָס֖וּר לְבָב֑וֹ וְכֶ֣סֶף וְזָהָ֔ב לֹ֥א יַרְבֶּה־לּ֖וֹ מְאֹֽד׃ (יח) וְהָיָ֣ה כְשִׁבְתּ֔וֹ עַ֖ל כִּסֵּ֣א מַמְלַכְתּ֑וֹ וְכָ֨תַב ל֜וֹ אֶת־מִשְׁנֵ֨ה הַתּוֹרָ֤ה הַזֹּאת֙ עַל־סֵ֔פֶר מִלִּפְנֵ֥י הַכֹּהֲנִ֖ים הַלְוִיִּֽם׃

I Samuel 8:11-19(11) He said, “This will be the practice of the king who will rule over you: He will take your sons and appoint them as his charioteers and horsemen, and they will serve as outrunners for his chariots. (12) He will appoint them as his chiefs of thousands and of fifties; or they will have to plow his fields, reap his harvest, and make his weapons and the equipment for his chariots. (13) He will take your daughters as perfumers, cooks, and bakers. (14) He will seize your choice fields, vineyards, and olive groves, and give them to his courtiers. (15) He will take a tenth part of your grain and vintage and give it to his eunuchs and courtiers. (16) He will take your male and female slaves, your choice young men, and your asses, and put them to work for him. (17) He will take a tenth part of your flocks, and you shall become his slaves. (18) The day will come when you cry out because of the king whom you yourselves have chosen; and the LORD will not answer you on that day.” (19) But the people would not listen to Samuel’s warning. “No,” they said. “We must have a king over us…”שמואל א ח׳:י״א-י״ט(יא) וַיֹּ֕אמֶר זֶ֗ה יִֽהְיֶה֙ מִשְׁפַּ֣ט הַמֶּ֔לֶךְ אֲשֶׁ֥ר יִמְלֹ֖ךְ עֲלֵיכֶ֑ם אֶת־בְּנֵיכֶ֣ם יִקָּ֗ח וְשָׂ֥ם לוֹ֙ בְּמֶרְכַּבְתּ֣וֹ וּבְפָרָשָׁ֔יו וְרָצ֖וּ לִפְנֵ֥י מֶרְכַּבְתּֽוֹ׃ (יב) וְלָשׂ֣וּם ל֔וֹ שָׂרֵ֥י אֲלָפִ֖ים וְשָׂרֵ֣י חֲמִשִּׁ֑ים וְלַחֲרֹ֤שׁ חֲרִישׁוֹ֙ וְלִקְצֹ֣ר קְצִיר֔וֹ וְלַעֲשׂ֥וֹת כְּלֵֽי־מִלְחַמְתּ֖וֹ וּכְלֵ֥י רִכְבּֽוֹ׃ (יג) וְאֶת־בְּנוֹתֵיכֶ֖ם יִקָּ֑ח לְרַקָּח֥וֹת וּלְטַבָּח֖וֹת וּלְאֹפֽוֹת׃ (יד) וְאֶת־שְׂ֠דֽוֹתֵיכֶם וְאֶת־כַּרְמֵיכֶ֧ם וְזֵיתֵיכֶ֛ם הַטּוֹבִ֖ים יִקָּ֑ח וְנָתַ֖ן לַעֲבָדָֽיו׃ (טו) וְזַרְעֵיכֶ֥ם וְכַרְמֵיכֶ֖ם יַעְשֹׂ֑ר וְנָתַ֥ן לְסָרִיסָ֖יו וְלַעֲבָדָֽיו׃ (טז) וְאֶת־עַבְדֵיכֶם֩ וְֽאֶת־שִׁפְח֨וֹתֵיכֶ֜ם וְאֶת־בַּחוּרֵיכֶ֧ם הַטּוֹבִ֛ים וְאֶת־חֲמוֹרֵיכֶ֖ם יִקָּ֑ח וְעָשָׂ֖ה לִמְלַאכְתּֽוֹ׃ (יז) צֹאנְכֶ֖ם יַעְשֹׂ֑ר וְאַתֶּ֖ם תִּֽהְיוּ־ל֥וֹ לַעֲבָדִֽים׃ (יח) וּזְעַקְתֶּם֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֔וּא מִלִּפְנֵ֣י מַלְכְּכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר בְּחַרְתֶּ֖ם לָכֶ֑ם וְלֹֽא־יַעֲנֶ֧ה יְהוָ֛ה אֶתְכֶ֖ם בַּיּ֥וֹם הַהֽוּא׃ (יט) וַיְמָאֲנ֣וּ הָעָ֔ם לִשְׁמֹ֖עַ בְּק֣וֹל שְׁמוּאֵ֑ל וַיֹּאמְר֣וּ לֹּ֔א כִּ֥י אִם־מֶ֖לֶךְ יִֽהְיֶ֥ה עָלֵֽינוּ׃

Berakhot 55a:11With regard to Bezalel’s appointment, Rabbi Yitzḥak said: One may only appoint a leader over a community if he consults with the community and they agree to the appointment, 

as it is stated: “And Moses said unto the children of Israel: See, the Lord has called by name Betzalel, son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah” (Exodus 35:30). The Lord said to Moses: Moses, is Betzalel a suitable appointment in your eyes? Moses said to Him: Master of the universe, if he is a suitable appointment in Your eyes, then all the more so in my eyes. The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to him: Nevertheless, go and tell Israel and ask their opinion. Moses went and said to Israel: Is Bezalel suitable in your eyes? They said to him: If he is suitable in the eyes of the Holy One, Blessed be He, and in your eyes, all the more so he is suitable in our eyes.
ברכות נ״ה א:י״אאמר רבי יצחק אין מעמידין פרנס על הצבור אלא אם כן נמלכים בצבור 

שנאמר ראו קרא ה׳ בשם בצלאל אמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא למשה משה הגון עליך בצלאל אמר לו רבונו של עולם אם לפניך הגון לפני לא כל שכן אמר לו אף על פי כן לך אמור להם הלך ואמר להם לישראל הגון עליכם בצלאל אמרו לו אם לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא ולפניך הוא הגון לפנינו לא כל שכן

Pirkei Avot 2:3(3) Be careful [in your dealings] with the ruling authorities for they do not befriend a person except for their own needs; they seem like friends when it is to their own interest, but they do not stand by a man in the hour of his distress.משנה אבות ב׳:ג׳(ג) הֱווּ זְהִירִין בָּרָשׁוּת, שֶׁאֵין מְקָרְבִין לוֹ לָאָדָם אֶלָּא לְצֹרֶךְ עַצְמָן. נִרְאִין כְּאוֹהֲבִין בִּשְׁעַת הֲנָאָתָן, וְאֵין עוֹמְדִין לוֹ לָאָדָם בִּשְׁעַת דָּחְקוֹ: 

Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrahi, ca. 1445-1525, Chief Rabbi of Constantinople

And according to our holy Torah’s decree at Exodus 23:2, “Incline after the majority,” we follow the will of the majority. Indeed, one who disputes with the majority is called a sinner. And it makes no difference whether that majority is made up of rich people or poor, sages or laypeople, since the entire community is called a court for communal matters.

Exodus 23:2(2) You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong—you shall not give perverse testimony in a dispute so as to pervert it in favor of the mighty—שמות כ״ג:ב׳(ב) לֹֽא־תִהְיֶ֥ה אַחֲרֵֽי־רַבִּ֖ים לְרָעֹ֑ת וְלֹא־תַעֲנֶ֣ה עַל־רִ֗ב לִנְטֹ֛ת אַחֲרֵ֥י רַבִּ֖ים לְהַטֹּֽת׃

Rabbi Francis Nataf (contemporary), Redeeming Relevance; Numbers, Ch. 3 Korach and the Limits of Popular Government

Moreover, ordinary Jews are supposed to have access to their leaders and be represented by them on the political playing field. If the Korach story doesn’t warn against political activity per se, it does warn of the dangers that exist in allowing those easily swayed by personal charisma too much power in choosing their leaders. In that case, direct democracy – where all decisions are decided by the general public – may well be a recipe for disaster.

Questions for further discussion:

  1. How can we learn from the Qorah story regarding the various challenges that democracy has?
  2. What does this imply for our particular political moment? Particularly regarding the current tendency to the extremes?

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Not Just Checking the Box – Tzav 5779

One of the most fundamental concepts in Jewish life is that of Torah lishmah, learning the words of our tradition merely for the sake of learning. Consider the following from Pirqei Avot (6:1):

רַבִּי מֵאִיר אוֹמֵר כָּל הָעוֹסֵק בַּתּוֹרָה לִשְׁמָהּ, זוֹכֶה לִדְבָרִים הַרְבֵּה. וְלֹא עוֹד אֶלָּא שֶׁכָּל הָעוֹלָם כֻּלּוֹ כְדַי הוּא לוֹ

Rabbi Meir says: Anyone who involves himself in Torah for its own sake merits many things, and moreover the entire world is worthwhile for his sake; He is called “friend,” “beloved,” “lover of the Omnipresent,” “one who loves humankind,” “delighter of the Omnipresent,” “delighter of [all] creatures.” He is clothed in humility and reverence, and it prepares him to be righteous, devout, upright and trustworthy, and it distances him from sin, and draws him near to merit. We enjoy from him counsel and comprehension, understanding and strength, as it is said (Proverbs 8:14): “Mine is counsel and comprehension, I am understanding, mine is strength.” It gives him kingship and dominion, and [the ability to] investigate in judgment, and the secrets of the Torah are revealed to him, and he becomes like an ever-strengthening spring, and like a river that does not stop. He is modest and long-tempered, and forgives insult to him; And it enlarges him and raises him above all [that God] made.

Torah lishmah is the key to perfecting ourselves. All of the fundamental human traits that we desire—humility, lovingkindness, reverence, uprightness, faith, compassion, gratitude, modesty, forgiveness and so forth—flow from learning, from analyzing, from interpreting the words of our tradition.

I recall reading some time ago that the difference between the Western approach to education and that of the East is that while in the East education is understood to be the way to improve yourself, in the West we use education as a means to acquire skills that help us manipulate the world to our own personal benefit. The difference is one of focus: internal vs. external. Torah lishmah, like the Eastern tradition, is primarily an internal activity. It leads us to be better people.

***

The university admissions fraud scandal, revealed two weeks ago is, unfortunately, not too surprising. In an educational system that is already clearly skewed in favor of those who grow up with means, does it surprise anybody that people who can afford to pay half a million dollars to guarantee their kid admission to Yale will do so, even through illegal channels.

But in many ways, it is symptomatic one of the greatest challenges that our society faces. We are all striving to push, to achieve, to do, that we rarely take time to consider our values. We take for granted that we must push harder, but we sometimes cannot see the humanity around us: the loved ones who need us most, the neighbors, and indeed neighborhoods in distress, the ways in which our personal choices might undermine the common good.

We are so obsessed with quantifiable achievement—grades, test scores, numbers of hours spent in extra-curriculars—that we enable a framework in which our children spend more and more time in activities that will make their university applications stand out from the crowd, that will give them the edge. We are so in love with brands – Harvard, Stanford, Georgetown, etc. – that we encourage our teens to check more boxes, to “diversify,” to extra-curricular themselves to the point of exhaustion.  

What do we want our children to be? Do we want them to be overstretched automatons? Do we want them to be successful money-making machines? Or do we want them to focus on the non-quantifiables?

In my experience, when asked, parents tend to say things like, “I want my child to be a good person, to make good choices, to know right from wrong, to be respectful, to be happy.” Nobody ever says, at least not in front of a rabbi, “I want my child to live in a fancy neighborhood and drive an expensive car.”

So how did we get here? Are we all just fooling ourselves?

Greed, avarice, egotism, selfishness. These are the traits that have enabled the bad actors who produced this scandal. And who is responsible for this? We are. We all are. Because no matter what we might tell ourselves, our children seem to think that the key to happiness in life is getting into a well-known university. Because they are all running themselves ragged chasing after that fantasy. And where do they get that idea? From us. Adults.

Marissa Tait, Beth Shalom’s Youth Director, tells me that our teens are all over-scheduled. Taken in isolation, each one of the following activities are important and laudable:  They take SAT classes, do sports, go to JLine, various school clubs, sing with HaZamir, and of course they are staying up every night until midnight or later doing their homework for all of their AP classes.

They are all deeply invested in these things. However, with the expectation, according to author William Deresiewicz in his book, Excellent Sheep, that every college applicant has 7-10 extra-curriculars, might it be possible that these kids hardly have time to be kids? As parents, shouldn’t we be asking ourselves if we are giving our children the tools necessary to build the character traits that will make them benei Adam, human beings?

How can you appreciate what you have learned if you have no time to do so? How can you improve yourself, building on the values your education endows you with, if you are too busy checking all the boxes? How can you acquire depth, recognize historical patterns that continue to play out today, acknowledge the poetic vulnerability of the human soul if you do not have time in which to reflect?

Entirely coincidentally, the Making Caring Common Project of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education issued a report this week about how parental messaging regarding the focus on college admissions is actually damaging to teens.

The report notes that

…an intense focus on academic achievement has squeezed out serious attention to ethical character both in a large majority of high schools and a large number of families. Many parents—particularly, middle- and upper-income parents—seeking coveted spots for their children in elite colleges are failing to focus on what really matters in this process. In an effort to give their kids everything, these parents often end up robbing them of what counts.

Furthermore, the process

…corrodes the development of core aspects of young people’s ethical character, often fueling their self-interest, compromising their integrity, and depleting their capacity to either know themselves deeply or to authentically articulate their identity in a college application.

The point we have reached is a destructive one. The literature shows that rates of anxiety and depression have been rising for some time.

So what is the antidote to all of this?

Among the strategies that the report suggests are,

  • “Help your teen contribute to others in meaningful ways”;
  • “Advocate for elevating ethical character”; and
  • “Model and encourage gratitude.”

Hmm. Where might one learn these things?

Pulling back the lens, considering our teens and all the rest of us, what we need is not the checking of boxes and the micro-management of our packaged identities. What we need instead is meaning. Connection. Highlighting the holy moments. And we have a framework for that: it’s called Judaism.

Yes, Shabbat. Yes, holidays. Yes, highlighting the holy moments through lifecycle events such as bar mitzvah. Yes, tefillah / prayer that is self-reflective. All of those things are valuable.

But all the moreso, real learning. Studying the words of our tradition. Torah lishmah. Torah for its own sake. Because that is how we improve ourselves; that is how we internalize the true value of tzedaqah / charitable acts of righteousness, gratitude, empathy, humility, and so forth.

Talmud: Berakhot 35b

אמר רבה בר בר חנה אמר רבי יוחנן משום רבי יהודה ברבי אלעאי: בא וראה שלא כדורות הראשונים דורות האחרונים, דורות הראשונים עשו תורתן קבע ומלאכתן עראי – זו וזו נתקיימה בידן, דורות האחרונים שעשו מלאכתן קבע ותורתן עראי – זו וזו לא נתקיימה בידן

Rabba bar bar Ḥana said that Rabbi Yoḥanan said in the name of Rabbi Yehuda, son of Rabbi El’ai: Come and see that the latter generations are not like the earlier generations. The earlier generations made their Torah study a regular activity and their work occasional, and these were both successful for them. However, the latter generations who made their work regular and their Torah occasional, neither work nor study was successful for them.

We need to make sure that Torah lishmah is an essential feature of our lives. We need to focus more on the soul, on improving our internal character.

Here at Beth Shalom, particularly through Derekh, offer all those tools, for adults, for teens, for everybody. We are offering Torah lishmah, Torah for its own sake in many ways, through programs and discussions that take place not only on Shabbat, but all week long.

Come take advantage of them. You will improve yourself and your life, and the more that we do so the greater chance we have of building a better world, one that reflects all of the values that we say we hold dear. And just maybe we will together help teach our children to be benei Adam, human beings.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 3/23/2019.

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Israel Snapshot, Part Two: Hope for the Earthly Israel – Va-era 5778

(If you’re looking for Part One, you’ll find it here.)

The good news about going to Israel, which you all know I do regularly, is that it is always exciting, always a special treat, always an opportunity to reflect on what it means to be Jewish in a world with a majority-Jewish state.

The challenge of speaking about Israel, and particularly anything to do with Israeli politics from the pulpit is that no matter what I say, I’m going to upset somebody. There are those among us for whom any criticism of Israel’s government is forbidden, and there are those for whom any mention of Israel without simultaneously mentioning the Palestinian population living in the territories is an egregious, inhuman oversight.

The way I have always approached Israel is to consider the people who live there: their lives, their desires, their fears, their hopes. I have always sought to remind American Jews of the fact that Israeli life is not necessarily about Israeli politics, or the peace process, or the location of the future Palestinian state, and so forth. It is about going to school, making a living, being able to afford your apartment as cost-of-living increases, and so forth. It’s about completing the bagrut, the series of high-school matriculation exams, before going off to the army. It’s about finding your way through the regular chaos of life, knowing all the while that there are people who live very close by who want to kill you, and yet managing to eke out a living, raise a family, and every now and then go to the beach, or maybe get a vacation to Europe or the US or India.

Oryah and I Yafo

My first trip was 30.5 years ago, for an 8-week academic program called the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program. (It’s an excellent program, and there are scholarships for interested high-school students from Pittsburgh, by the way.)

I lived in Israel for about 15 months in 1999-2000, and I have flown round-trip to Israel in excess of 30 times. I have been to most of the popular tourist sites over and over, and I have also been to many places where tourists rarely go. I hiked from the Kinneret to the Mediterranean over four days; I have climbed many mountains in Israel, from the northernmost to the southernmost; I have been to most of the beaches and soaked myself in virtually every body of water that exists; I was even once turned away by Palestinian police while trying to enter Shechem (which the Palestinians call Nablus, an Arabicization of the Latin “Neapolis,” meaning “new city”), because they insisted on seeing my Israeli ID card, and wouldn’t believe that I wasn’t Israeli and didn’t have one. I had my wallet stolen in Israel twice; I’ve overpaid handsomely in various markets; I’ve had the opportunity to interact with bureaucrats in government offices, auto mechanics, artists, beggars, politicians, kibbutzniks, sushi chefs, police officers, bank tellers, etc., etc.

What draws me back to Israel is as much the seductive theory of the fulfillment of the visions of both Herzl and Ahad Ha’am, as I discussed two weeks ago, as the vibrant reality on the ground – the day-to-day struggle that is normal and familiar to every human being, the palette of human existence. And this reality is the result of the human movement known as Zionism, the collective effort to forge a sovereign, contemporary nation for the Jews. I am still proud to call myself a Zionist, committed to that ongoing dream.

jerusalem

The Talmud speaks of two Jerusalems: Yerushalayim shel ma’alah, and Yerushalayin shel matah – the heavenly Jerusalem and the earthly one (Babylonian Talmud, Massekhet Ta’anit 5a; translation from Sefaria):

וא”ל רב נחמן לר’ יצחק מאי דכתיב (הושע יא, ט) בקרבך קדוש ולא אבוא בעיר משום דבקרבך קדוש לא אבוא בעיר א”ל הכי א”ר יוחנן אמר הקב”ה לא אבוא בירושלים של מעלה עד שאבוא לירושלים של מטה. ומי איכא ירושלים למעלה אין דכתיב (תהלים קכב, ג) ירושלם הבנויה כעיר שחוברה לה יחדיו

And Rav Naḥman said to Rabbi Yitzḥak: What is the meaning of that which is written: “It is sacred in your midst, and I will not enter the city” (Hosea 11:9)? This verse is puzzling: Because it is sacred in your midst, will God not enter the city? Rabbi Yitzḥak said to Rav Naḥman that Rabbi Yoḥanan said the verse should be understood as follows: The Holy One, Blessed be God, said: I shall not enter Jerusalem above, in heaven, until I enter Jerusalem on earth down below at the time of the redemption, when it will be sacred in your midst. The Gemara asks: And is there such a place as Jerusalem above? The Gemara answers: Yes, as it is written: “Jerusalem built up, a city unified together”(Psalms 122:3). The term unified indicates that there are two cities of Jerusalem, a heavenly one and an earthly one, which are bound together.

The same is true of the State of Israel as a whole. When one visits as a tourist, particularly for the first time, I think you are most likely to fall in love with the heavenly Israel, Yisra’el shel ma’alah. When one lives there for an extended period of time, you are likely to run up against Yisra’el shel matah, the very real, very human, very earthly State of Israel. Except for people it is the opposite: we enter the earthly Israel via the heavenly Israel; Rabbi Yohanan’s position is that God will only arrive at the heavenly Jerusalem through the earthly Jerusalem. We might read from this our obligation to build properly Yisrael shel matah in order to reach its heavenly counterpart.

Shel matah is where the cost of living rivals the most expensive nations in the world, where terrified soldiers are called on to make life-or-death decisions on a daily basis, where some men prevent women from singing out loud, where the use of a sefer Torah in public is a political statement.

You might have thought that, since I arrived in Israel just after the American President acknowledged Jerusalem as its capital, that this particular news item would have dominated headlines. But actually, what made a bigger splash when I was there was the swirling allegations and fallout from government corruption.

These corruption cases threaten to topple the Netanyahu government as Bibi himself and one of his key aides, former majority whip David Bitan, face a range of charges. Every Saturday night, anti-corruption protests in Tel Aviv draw tens of thousands of participants.

ISRAEL-POLITICS

Israeli police are planning to recommend that the prime minister be indicted in two corruption cases – one about gifts of cigars and champagne from billionaire supporters, and the other a deal to get favorable coverage from the venerable daily Yediot Acharonot newspaper in exchange for inhibiting the free upstart Yisrael Hayom, owned by my namesake (and possible cousin) Sheldon Adelson.

Meanwhile, Bitan’s replacement, David Amsalem, is known for stating his desire that egalitarian services be banned at the Kotel, and insulting the non-Orthodox Jews (like us) who support them.

I had an opportunity, one of the days that my son was in school and I was footloose and fancy-free, to go visit Rabbi Amy Levin at Kibbutz Hannaton, where she has lived for the last two years. In addition to meeting her grandson Bar, who at 1.5 is absolutely adorable, we discussed the situation on the ground in Israel in light of recent events. Her sense of the Israeli reaction to the United States’ statement about Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, like mine, was, “OK, so what? We already knew that.” The decision changes neither facts on the ground or the status of the peace process.

For the most part, Israelis are unmoved by the statement about Jerusalem as the capital, and skeptical that the embassy will actually move. But that’s because they are hardened by years of struggle. OK, they think, let the Palestinians riot. Let the Arab world seethe in anger. That’s their leaders’ problem, not ours. If they want a state, they are ultimately going to have to stop aiming rockets at our civilian population, and come to the negotiating table, not that we’re holding our breath.

Yes, that may seem insensitive to some. But Israelis have to protect themselves and their nation. And while I personally feel that the official recognition of Jerusalem as the capital might mean the loss of a potential bargaining chip for final-status negotiations, there is also the potential here for re-igniting those negotiations. As any family therapist will tell you (and we all know that the Middle East is one humongous, dysfunctional family), sometimes making a significant change in the family system’s stasis might cause changes elsewhere in the system that will help resolve the problem.

family therapy diagram

So meanwhile, the shel ma’alah, the heavenly Jerusalem, remains unchanged. What remains for us is the future of the shel matah, the reality on the ground. Let’s keep our fingers tied up in the shape of a magen David (the six-pointed Jewish star) and hope for the best:

  • Hope that a sustainable solution for all the populations in that small strip of land will be reached;
  • Hope that corruption in Israel will be sidelined and that her democracy remains strong;
  • Hope that the Kinneret and the Dead Sea will still be there for our grandchildren to enjoy;
  • Hope that the increasingly right-wing Orthodox hegemony over religious issues will be broken;
  • Hope that Israel will continue to face all these challenges with grace, so that she will continue to inspire and lead Diaspora Jewry; and
  • Hope that we can build that Yisra’el shel matah that the people living there, and all of us around the world, truly need.

We are currently working on a Beth Shalom trip to Israel, primarily for empty-nesters, next November. Please let me know if you are interested.

Shabbat shalom!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 1/13/2018.)

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A Post-Election Thought

You may have noticed that I have until now studiously avoided speaking about the presidential election explicitly, even though of course we have all been thinking about it (and perhaps agonizing about it) for months. There are several reasons that I have avoided this subject, and I identified those reasons in the Chronicle article on the subject a few weeks back.

The American people have spoken, and regardless of your own political views, there is no question that this election has upended the establishment. This vote came, I think, from a place of anxiety, of deep frustration and a measure of hopelessness from across large swathes of America. We are a nation gripped by many, seemingly intractable problems: the epidemic of addiction, the decline of manufacturing jobs, the divide between rich and poor and the related squeezing of the middle class, the ongoing challenge of racial justice, the continuing rise in health care costs, the rising temperature of the Earth, and so forth.

I hope that these issues will be addressed by our leaders in the coming months and years. I hope that we will have the fortitude to take on these challenges as an undivided nation.

One thing of great concern to me, however, is that the fissures in American society inflamed by the discourse of the past year will hinder that progress. I am worried about all of the “isms” that have been let out of the bottle: the anti-Semitism, racism, anti-immigrant-ism, anti-Muslim-ism, the mocking of people with disabilities, fat-shaming, and perhaps most troubling, the sexism: flagrantly disrespectful language and behavior meant to denigrate and objectify women.

I want our leaders to reflect the holiness in human relationships; I want those who serve the public to be role models for my children, particularly since such role models seem to become more and more scarce.

I pray that the man who will soon be president will take a different tack, that he will, when he occupies the Oval Office, discover a humility that will compel him to lead in a way that embraces our differences, that acknowledges that America is greatest when it is both diverse and inclusive.

I have been thinking this week a lot about George Washington. President George Washington, who worked more than 300 slaves on his Mount Vernon property even as he led this country; the same President George Washington, who said, in his letter to the Jewish community of Newport, Rhode Island in 1790:

For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.

There is, no doubt, some irony in these words, delivered just three years after the Constitutional Convention declared an African-American man to be counted as only three-fifths of a man for election purposes. And we should also remember that the 19th Amendment, giving women full suffrage, was only ratified in 1920. It is abundantly clear that, 226 years after Washington’s letter, we are still working on the project of making these states a more perfect Union. This journey is not complete.

The Talmud notes that the reason the Second Temple was destroyed in the year 70 CE at the hands of the Romans was due to sin’at hinam, baseless hatred; this malignancy on the human spirit is still found within us. We all have the capacity to hate. But we also have the capacity for ahavat hinam, unbounded love.

As we enter the next in a long line of peaceful transfers of political power, I hope not only that we can rise to the challenges of the 21st century, but that we can also continue the work of eliminating the toxic -isms which continue to plague our society. We must stand up to hatred and fear, name-calling and conspiracy-mongering, bigotry and persecution of all kinds, so that we may continue to move forward together. Let’s make the future one of ahavat hinam, a love that will envelop and empower all within our midst for the betterment of our society.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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