I saw a particularly moving video this week. It captured an installation by the artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg that appeared on the National Mall in Washington, DC last fall. It included 143 square sections of ground in which a total of 620,000 small white flags had been planted, one flag for each of the 620,000 Americans who had died of Covid-19 as of September, 2021. (You may be aware that we are now approaching 1 million official deaths, although the actual toll is surely higher.)
The video showed people strolling through this huge field of flags, writing names of loved ones they lost and messages about them on the flags, reflecting on the immensity of grief, hugging each other and crying and trying to make sense of it all. It was quite painful and very moving. (It might have been coincidental that the installation opened to the public two days after Yom Kippur, and remained open until just after Shemini Atzeret, two days of the Jewish calendar on which we remember those whom we have lost with prayers of Yizkor, prayers of remembrance for those who are no longer with us. But maybe it was not a coincidence.)
For a long time to come, we will be trying to wrap our heads around these two years of grief and pain and loss and anxiety and sickness and death. We will continue to feel the after-effects – the economic fallout, the political consequences, the social ills – perhaps for decades.
But those whom we have lost will always be remembered. We, the Jews, are good at memory. We are especially good at navigating the moments of grief that we face; through mourning and bringing comfort; through the framework of our tradition, our liturgy, our ancient texts.
And we remember those who gave us life by completing their work on Earth, by honoring their best qualities, making them our own.
My grandfather, my mother’s father, grew up in poor circumstances. His father abandoned him and his brothers, and his mother was sickly and not capable of caring for them, so my grandfather was taken in by a foster family. He worked a couple of different jobs in his life: at various points he drove a taxi, worked as a salesman, and during the Depression he had a candy store, which he lost (according to my grandmother) because he would give away freebies to every soul who came in with a sob story.
Despite the hardships he faced, my grandfather was a sweet man who never let his circumstances bring him down. And my mother reminds me occasionally that he always complimented my grandmother after dinner. She had not always been a great cook, but no matter the quality of the meal, my grandfather, without fail, had words of praise for his wife.
It’s a small thing: consistent gratitude. Everyday thankfulness. A simple, “That was wonderful, dear! Thank you.” My grandfather knew that, although he did not have a lot, he certainly appreciated what he did have.
And it is a lesson that I carry with me, even though my grandfather passed away 16 years ago, even though the last years of his life were marked by dementia, during which he did not even recognize his own family. I try to uphold that consistent sense of being grateful for what I have.
Back in January I was at a rabbinic retreat, and learned about a so-called “story cycle” in the Talmud (Moed Qatan 28a) about ancient rabbis trying to avoid the Mal’akh haMavet, the Angel of Death. A story cycle is a collection of related stories which are collected in one place in the Talmud. Sometimes they are the same story retold multiple times with different details and elaborations in each version; sometimes they are only loosely connected with a shared theme.
Most of us probably think of the Mal’akh haMavet in the context of the Passover story, which we all reviewed a week ago for the first nights of Pesaḥ: for the tenth and final plague to which the Egyptians are subjected, the Mal’akh haMavet passes over the homes of the Israelites, on the way to take the first-born children of the Egyptians, including that of the Pharaoh himself. (That is, of course, where we get the name “Passover.”)
But the Mal’akh haMavet is a familiar character in rabbinic literature, appearing in many places. And in this story cycle, it is clear that he has a certain code: he cannot take the souls of people who are engaged in righteous acts. So, for example, Rav Ḥisda is so pious that the words of Torah never depart from his lips; he is constantly studying and reviewing and repeating our ancient holy texts. And so when the Mal’akh haMavet comes to take him, he is foiled by the continuous flow of holy words from Rav Ḥisda’s mouth. So the Mal’akh haMavet sits down on a cedar bench nearby, and the bench cracks, making a loud noise. Rav Ḥisda is momentarily distracted, pauses in his recitation of holy words, and so the Mal’akh haMavet takes his soul.
Other stories on the page make it clear that all the ancient rabbis for whom the Mal’akh haMavet comes are trying to avoid death. And even though one, Rav Naḥman, concedes that death is painless, nonetheless Rav Naḥman also adds that the living world is better, because, in his words, in the world-to-come,
Rav Naḥman said to Rava, “[In the world-to-come], who is important? Who is honorable? Who is complete?”
Put another way, we are all equal in death, and the world of the dead is unremarkable. Life is where it’s happening; all of the good stuff is here on Earth, not in the afterworld.
Now that is interesting, because some religious traditions, and even some Jews, think that the afterlife is the goal. That better living in “Olam haBa,” the world-to-come, is our goal here on Earth. That the reason we keep the mitzvot, the 613 holy opportunities of Jewish life, is so that we can merit a place in Olam haBa.
So one implicit message of this passage is, “not so much.”
Truth is, normative Judaism does not have a lot to say about Olam haBa. Yes, it is certainly mentioned as a desirable destination. But let’s face it folks: the bottom line of Jewish living, of the mitzvot and our rituals and our dietary guidelines and our holidays and our prayer and our values is to ensure that we act as holy people, that we elevate the holiness in all our relationships right here on Earth, in the world of the living. We learn Torah and act on its imperatives for Olam haZeh: this world. Not for Olam haBa, the world-to-come.
To paraphrase Rav Naḥman, it is in this world that we can be important, honorable, and complete. In this world we can attain these things by valuing what is truly important, by maintaining the honor of others, by helping to complete God’s work here on Earth.
And how do we do that, exactly?
We do it by remembering.
We remember our story. We tell it over and over to our children, just as we all did one week ago at the Pesaḥ seder.
We remember our ancestors, Avraham and Sarah, Rivqah and Yitzḥaq, Raḥel and Ya’aqov and Leah, and Moshe Rabbeinu and Miriam haNevi’ah (the prophetess) and Eliyahu haNavi and on and on. We remember their values and deeds, and we act on them.
And we remember our parents and grandparents and spouses and aunts and uncles and cousins and children and teachers and friends and neighbors. We remember what they taught us. We remember what they valued. We even remember when they failed us, because we learned from those failures as well.
You know why life is better than death? Because we carry all of those things with us, and we can act on them. We take the wisdom of those who came before us to help improve ourselves, to intensify the holiness in our marriages, to teach our children to be better people, to do good works for others.
We, the living, remember those who came before us so that we can carry out the good deeds of the dead. We live to maintain their honor. We live to complete them. To express gratitude; to praise others; to be friendly and personable and affectionate; to pick up others when they fall, and occasionally to right their wrongs.
To be alive is to remember, and to act on what has been handed to us.
And so we remember, and we live for them.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning / eighth day of Pesaḥ, April 23, 2022.)
Leading up to Pesaḥ / Passover, I always try to remind anybody who will listen that the most important part of the seder experience is not the meal, but the discussion surrounding the meal. I know – eating is more fun than talking about tradition and history and customs and ideas and holiday themes and slavery and freedom. But I want to try to give you a discussion topic today that I think you will really WANT to have with your family, whether they are there in person or meeting via Zoom or however you are gathering.
It is this: Lashanah haba-ah biyrushalayim. The last three words in the haggadah: Next year in Jerusalem. That should be our mantra this year.
Because this year, this Pesaḥ, we can see Jerusalem from a distance.
What do I mean by that? First, let’s consider the role of Jerusalem in Jewish life.
In the year 70 CE, the Romans destroyed the Second Beit haMiqdash / Temple in Jerusalem. The Beit haMiqdash was the center of Jewish life up until that time – it was where the kohanim (Jewish priests) sacrificed animals to God, according to the instructions found in the Torah, some of which were described in Parashat Tzav, which we read from this morning. Following this destruction, the Beit haMiqdash has never been rebuilt.
(As you have heard me argue before, the Romans actually did the Jews a kind of favor; Maimonides makes the case, more than a millennium later, that it was ultimately God’s intent to bring us to tefillah / prayer as our primary form of worship in lieu of sacrificing animals. Not everybody agrees with Maimonides, but that is a subject for another day.)
About 65 years after the Roman destruction, following the Bar Kokhba rebellion of 132-135 CE, the Roman authorities banned Jews from living in Jerusalem and its outskirts.
(Another aside: when you read tonight about the five rabbis – R. Eliezer, R. Yehoshua R. El’azar ben Azariah, R. Aqiva, and R. Tarfon – who gathered at Benei Beraq to discuss the Exodus all night long, that may be a description of an all-night Bar Kokhba rebellion planning session. When one of their students pops in to say, Rabbeinu, higi’a zeman qeri’at Shema shel shaḥarit / “Our teachers, the time has come to recite the morning Shema,” that may have been the sentry’s code for, “Hide the maps! The Romans are coming!”)
From the early 2nd century forward, the entirety of the rabbinic enterprise was dedicated not only to creating a religious system to replace the kohanic / sacrificial system, but also to remember and highlight the grandeur of the Beit haMiqdash, and the “good ol’ days” of its existence, even as they replaced its centralized, hierarchical system with the democratic, decentralized system of Rabbinic Judaism that we have today.
In doing so, the rabbis elevated Jerusalem, also known as Tziyyon / Zion, as the focal point of our yearning. We find this throughout rabbinic literature, manifest in the messianic desire of rebuilding Jerusalem and the Beit haMiqdash of course, but also in passages like this from the Talmud, Massekhet Qiddushin 49b:
עשרה קבים חכמה ירדו לעולם תשעה נטלה ארץ ישראל ואחד כל העולם כולו עשרה קבים יופי ירדו לעולם תשעה נטלה ירושלים ואחד כל העולם כולו …
Ten kavim of wisdom descended to the world; Eretz Yisrael took nine of them and all the rest of the world took one. Ten kavim of beauty descended to the world; Jerusalem took nine and all the rest of the world in its entirety took one.
90% of the world’s beauty is in Jerusalem, and 90% of the world’s wisdom is in Israel. This yearning continues until this very day; you can find it on many pages of the siddur, including multiple berakhot in the weekday Amidah, which we recite three times per day, while facing, and bowing in the direction of Jerusalem.
The medieval Spanish poet, Yehudah haLevi, who lived in the 11th/12th century, captures this ancient desire so beautifully in his primal poem, Libi vemizrah:
My heart is in the East, and I in the uttermost West– How can I find savor in food? How shall it be sweet to me? How shall I render my vows and my bonds, while yet Zion lieth beneath the fetter of Edom, and I in Arab chains? A light thing would it seem to me to leave all the good things of Spain — Seeing how precious in mine eyes to behold the dust of the desolate sanctuary.
In some sense, Yehudah haLevi is yearning not for the rebuilt Beit haMiqdash, but rather the idea of returning to this “precious” jewel of a ruined city. Were it not for the desire to see Jerusalem, his exile in Spain would be impossible to bear.
And furthermore, the Talmud tells us that there are really two Jerusalems, and our yearning is arguably greater for the heavenly Jerusalem, Yerushalayim shel Ma’alah (BT Ta’anit 5a):
Rabbi Yitzḥak said to Rav Naḥman that Rabbi Yoḥanan said … The Holy One, Blessed be He, 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.
Rabbi Yoḥanan’s suggestion is that the heavenly Jerusalem is the greater prize; that will not be rebuilt until the Earthly Jerusalem, Yerushalayim shel Matah, is rebuilt.
So why am I telling you all of this today? What does it mean for us at this particular moment?
When we say, Lashanah Haba-ah Biyrushalayim tonight and tomorrow night, we should lean into our own immediate yearning. We have been in exile for more than a year; we have been yearning for the East, our hearts at the end of the West, since Adar of 5780.
Yes, I know that is not a long time, compared to the nearly two millennia that our ancestors waited for the opportunity to rebuild Yerushalayim shel Matah / Earthly Jerusalem.
Yes, I know that even with all the grief that the virus has caused – the sickness, the death, the anxiety, and all the various socio-economic consequences – these things are still small compared to the way our people have suffered throughout the centuries of displacement.
And yes, I know that it does not really help to look at one’s predicament and say, “Oh, but it could be so much worse.”
Nonetheless, the point at which enough of us will have been vaccinated such that we can begin to gather safely again, to re-open businesses, to see our families and friends, will actually feel to many of us like a major redemption. People have told me that they have cried when receiving their shots; many, I know, are saying a berakhah. I certainly recited sheheheyyanu when I got my first dose two weeks ago. This is my Jerusalem right now.
So as we all gather this evening, here are a few discussion questions you can ask:
Why do we say, “Lashanah haba-ah biyrushalayim,” if most of us are not actually planning to move to Israel in the next year?
What might “Yerusahalayim” represent this year?
What might we do to make sure we get there more quickly?
You might guide the discussion by seasoning it with the difference between the Earthly and Heavenly Jerusalems, and while we can all visit and/or move to the Earthly Jerusalem, the Heavenly one is more of an idea that encompasses our yearning, our individual goals of freedom at this moment.
And, by the way, you do not have to wait until the end of the seder to discuss this, because right up front in the “Maggid” section, in which we tell the story, when we say, “Ha laḥma anya,” this is the bread of poverty that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt, it also says, a little further into that Aramaic passage:
This is the bread of poverty that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat; let all who are in need come and partake of the Pesaḥ sacrifice. Now we are here, next year we will be in the land of Israel. This year we are slaves, next year we will be free people.
Let me rephrase that for you:
Now we are living apart; in the coming year, with the help of the Qadosh Barukh Hu, we will be free once again to greet each other, to hug each other, to dine together, to worship together, to sing and dance together. That is freedom; that is a vision of Yerushalayim shel Ma’alah for which I am yearning right now.
A few weeks back, New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo wrote a compelling piece titled, Go Live in Another Decade. I Recommend It, about comparing our current moment to the past. In trying to understand how we got here, to this moment of deep division, of people marching in the streets for racial justice and militia groups brandishing rifles and plotting the kidnapping of a governor, of casting doubt on the reliability of our election process and the politicization of public health, Mr. Manjoo chronicles his deep dive into the chaos of the 1960s. He discovered the wealth of video available on YouTube of news coverage and pop culture from the second half of the 20th century, and zooms in on one speech given by President Lyndon Johnson, his first address of Congress five days after the assassination of JFK and his having been sworn in as president aboard Air Force One in Dallas.
If you listen to the speech, you can feel the heaviness in the room as the Congress applauds the new president, who concedes his reluctance at having to take on the duties of the highest office in the land at such a soul-crushing moment. Johnson speaks of unity in the task of righting wrongs, in improving the lot of people around the world and at home, at facing the challenges of racism, of “poverty, misery, disease, and ignorance.” He reinforces the idea that the “strong can be just in the use of strength, and the just can be strong in the defense of justice.”
And, pointing to the divisiveness of that decade, President Johnson says the following:
The time has come for Americans of all races and creeds and political beliefs to understand and to respect one another. So let us put an end to the teaching and the preaching of hate and evil and violence. Let us turn away from the fanatics of the far left and the far right, from the apostles of bitterness and bigotry, from those defied of law and those who pour venom into our nation’s bloodstream.
I profoundly hope that the tragedy and the torment of these terrible days will bind us together in new fellowship, making us one people in our hour of sorrow.
It brought tears to my eyes.
A question that we must ask ourselves at this moment, as Jewish Americans, is, “What is our role in seeking the unity that we need right now?”
As you might expect, I find those answers in the framework of Jewish tradition, starting with a quote from the Talmud (BT Kiddushin 39b):
אלו דברים שאדם אוכל פירותיהן בעולם הזה והקרן קיימת לו לעולם הבא אלו הן כבוד אב ואם וגמילות חסדים והכנסת אורחים והבאת שלום בין אדם לחבירו ותלמוד תורה כנגד כולם
These are the matters that a person engages in and enjoys their benefits in this world, and the principal reward remains for the World-to-Come, and they are: Honoring one’s father and mother, acts of loving-kindness, hospitality toward guests, and bringing peace between one person and another; and Torah study is equal to all of them.
Yes, you have heard me say that last one many times as a foundational statement of Jewish life, that Torah study is equal to the weight of all other mitzvot combined.
But go back one, to “hava-at shalom bein adam lehavero.” Making peace between one person and another. Quite high up on this list of essential mitzvot is the obligation to repair relationships, to bring people together, to heal interpersonal wounds. Ladies and gentlemen, we are all failing at this task.
In 1963, President Johnson was speaking to a nation doubled over in pain, not only from the assassination of JFK, but also from protests over racial injustice, Cold War fears of communism spreading abroad and possibly infiltrating at home, American military involvement in distant lands, and of course political division.
Ladies and gentlemen, it is OK to disagree. It is not OK to denigrate people on the other side. It is worth remembering that, while there are certainly bad actors in this world, there are always going to be honest people, good, well-intentioned people, people of faith, with whom you will disagree vehemently. And their opinion, no matter how offensive or ridiculous or oppositional to everything that you believe, if it is based on reasonable, factual assumptions and honest assessment of the situation, is just as valid as yours.
Political division is creating personal rifts between people. I know of people in the same family who cannot even speak to each other and friendships that have been broken as a result.
And, lest you think that electing one person over another in a few weeks will change that, please allow me to burst your bubble. We are going to have to work very hard if we are going to find our way out of this morass. It is not as simple as casting a ballot, or posting a meme on Facebook, or putting a sign in your front yard.
I would rather refocus our energies on fulfilling the spirit of Exodus 23:5:
If you see the donkey of your enemy lying under its burden, and you might be inclined not to help him, you must make every effort to help him.
Should you help your enemy if he votes for a different party than you? Of course. But what if there is a Confederate flag flying in his front yard? What if he was recently released from prison after serving time for a murder or rape conviction? What if he is the head of the local chapter of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement against Israel?
Not so easy, right?
I would love to hear a leader stand up in front of the American people and speak about love, about loving your neighbor, about working together, even when we disagree, to solve the big challenges we know we all face: the challenges of education, of health care, of unemployment, of mass incarceration, of the ongoing scourge of mass shootings, of the abuse of opioids, of the challenges posed by a warming climate.
I would be happy to see our leaders choosing country over party, understanding that it’s not all about winning, and that they are elected not to throw mud at the other guy, but rather to reach out across the aisle in partnership.
I would be overjoyed to see our journalists and media outlets help us all to understand that the truth cannot be reduced to a soundbite or a tweet, that patience and intellectual engagement are necessary to help find the solutions to the challenges we face.
Tomorrow, hevreh, is Simhat Torah, the day on which we complete the cycle of reading the Torah and go back to the beginning again. And in rejoicing with the Torah (which we will of course be doing, albeit a little subdued from our ordinary celebration; we will just have to remember to dance and sing twice as hard and twice as loud in 5782), we remember that Torah is long form.
Yes, if you unroll a sefer Torah, you’ll see that it does not even reach half the circumference of the Beth Shalom Ballroom. But all the “Torah” in the more general sense, all of the Torah that flows from it, fills not a room or a building, but our entire lives. It is a lifetime’s worth of learning, of reflecting, of growth and change and reading again and revisiting and re-interpreting. Learning that Torah never ends, just as our own individual pursuits of self-discovery and self-improvement never end.
Torah is long form. We cannot ignore or erase the verses we do not like, but we must contend with them on the page.
And the same is true for being a good citizen, for making a functioning democracy, for building a just society, as our tradition commands us; we work together, even with those with whom we disagree, to improve our world, to solve the big challenges. Total ideological purity is not a reasonable goal.
There is another tradition that we will perform tomorrow, one that may be familiar to some of you. The Hatzi Kaddish before Musaf on Simhat Torah is often sung to a series of holiday melodies from throughout the Jewish year – tunes from Hanukkah and Purim, the Three Festivals, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and even Tish’ah BeAv. It is referred to as the “Yahres Kaddish,” the Kaddish of the whole year.
It is a musically frivolous moment, coming at the end of a raucous service at the end of a long holiday season. But there is also a reflective quality to it – a reminder that this is the end of the holiday season, as we enter Marheshvan, the bitter month of Heshvan in which there are no joyous days,
and we look back to the year that has passed,
and we look forward to the one that we have just begun,
and we consider our joy and our grief and our pleading to be sealed in the Book of Life and our remembrance of those who have passed,
and we sense the cool wind of fall and smell the fallen leaves,
and we remember that we are frail, that we are older, that we have suffered loss even as we move from strength to strength.
And we remember that one of our fundamental duties, as we look to the next holiday and begin the cycle anew, drawing on our memories and what we have learned and our apprehension of what is to come, and the inexorable march of time, is the obligation to make peace between people. That is an essential role that we the Jews aspire to fulfill on this Earth.
President Johnson’s words were prophetic. As we mourn the 213,000+ fellow citizens who have died needlessly, and we remember all those for whom we grieve today during the Yizkor service, I too hope “that the tragedy and the torment of these terrible days will bind us together in new fellowship, making us one people in our hour of sorrow.”
As I hope you have noticed by now, the theme for this High Holiday sermon series is “Back to Basics.” In the context of the pandemic, our options for Jewish engagement have been somewhat limited (as with every other sphere of life, of course). As such I am taking this opportunity to go “Back to Basics”: to consider the essential items of Jewish life. These essential items are halakhah (Jewish law), minhag (customs), values, and story. We spoke about halakhah and minhag on Rosh Hashanah, and this evening’s subject is values. (If you missed them, you can read them on this blog, and you can also hear them on our podcast, the Beth Shalom Torah-Cast.)
Once upon a time, American Jews loved to play the game, “Who is a Jew?” We were filled with pride to see Dinah Shore or Kirk Douglas on our screens, looking so beautiful and strong and goyish, but we knew the truth. “He’s one of us,” we would boast to each other. I know that many of us are bursting with pride, alongside the grief, as the first Jewish female Supreme Court justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, lay in state last week.
But then there are plenty of Jewish people of whom we are not proud, members of our tribe who are among the highest-profile criminals and detestable public figures today. I won’t mention any names, but I am sure you can come up with a list in your own head.
(BTW, Christians have it easier in this regard: they generally only count church-goers as Christians. But we count people differently: once a Jew, always a Jew. We could excommunicate these people, like we did with Barukh Spinoza (actually, we lifted the herem / excommunication on Spinoza a few years back), but we cannot deny the Jewishness of people whom we would rather not claim.)
And that hurts. Because we like to think that our Jewish values are universal; that somehow we all acquire them in Hebrew school or they are instilled in us by our parents; that even if we eat treyf (non-kosher food) and proudly violate Shabbat in public that the pintele yid, the tiny spark of Jewishness within us, will somehow keep us connected to the fold.
But it does not work that way. Our values will only hold if we act upon them, if we teach them to our children, if we model them for each other, if we remember that the Qadosh Barukh Hu is paying attention to our behavior.
I think it is very hard right now, six-and-a-half months into a worldwide pandemic, with maybe another year of isolation in front of us, and then coupled with all of the other chaos in the world, political and social and economic and spiritual, to be optimistic about the future. Many of you know that I am a self-described optimist, and yet I have found myself severely challenged by our current predicament. Everything is not OK.
And then I remember that we have a spiritual framework. Our Jewish heritage of learning, of action, of values is there to uphold us in times of trouble. Our ancestors, who survived many centuries of turbulence and upheaval, pogroms and genocide and dispersion, did so by leaning into their tradition. Etz hayyim hi, they sang, lamahazikim bah. The Torah is our Tree of Life if we reach out and grasp it. Our great-great-grandparents grasped and grasped and held on for dear life, and as a result, we are still here.
Part III: ערכים / Arakhim / Values
So tonight’s subject is values. Upholding our values at this time is more important than ever. If we are going to pull through this pandemic as a society, we have to remember that we have guardrails on our choices and behavior, not only from halakhah (Jewish law) and minhag (Jewish custom), but also drawn from our values. Values like:
Taking care of the needy among us
Gratitude for what we have
Pursuing the common good
Seeing the Divinity in all of Creation, including all people and all of God’s creatures
All of these have sources in Jewish text, in the Tanakh or in rabbinic literature. I am going to focus on one essential value this evening, one that I think is absolutely the key to all of them: integrity. While there are many sources on integrity from the Jewish bookshelf, here are a few that resonate with me:
God has told you what is good, And what the LORD requires of you: Only to do justice And to love goodness, And to walk modestly with your God.
Some of you may know that this one is on my list of “refrigerator-magnet” texts – those that are just so pithy and essential that you should have them on your fridge. The prophet Micah tells us that the most essential path is that of acting from a place of justice and hesed, lovingkindness, but also to approach life modestly, that is, to approach all of your interactions with others from a place of holy humility.
You must have completely honest weights and completely honest measures, if you are to endure long on the soil that the LORD your God is giving you.
The key to a long and happy life, says the Torah, is to deal with all others fairly. The essence of living a just life is treating everybody equally, not only measuring out your goods in the marketplace in an honest way, but also by measuring out your love and deeds and favor honestly and fairly.
Pirqei Avot 4:1
אֵיזֶהוּ מְכֻבָּד, הַמְכַבֵּד אֶת הַבְּרִיּוֹת
Who is honored? The one who honors all of God’s creatures.
The way that we gain honor is not by expecting others to submit to you, but exactly the opposite. If you interact with the people around you from a place of respect, from honesty and good intentions, then those things will come back to you.
What does it mean to act with integrity? It means that we treat all people fairly and respectfully, regardless of who they are. It means that we are honest with ourselves and others in all our dealings. It means that we model upright behavior for others, and understand that the image of ourselves that we put out into the world should be one that others want to emulate.
Some of you may know that the Kol Nidrei prayer is among the more controversial pieces of liturgy in our tradition. Yes, we the Jews like to argue, even over what’s in the siddur / prayerbook.
But Kol Nidrei is one of the few prayers in the Jewish canon that was controversial from the outset. It first appeared, as far as we know, in the 10th century, and its purpose was originally to nullify vows that one made with oneself and did not fulfill in the past year, vows like, “I’m going to learn to speak French this year,” or “I’m going to go on a diet, right after Simhat Torah.” A few centuries later, the renowned scholar Rabbenu Tam, one of Rashi’s grandchildren, changed the tense from past to future, making Kol Nidrei a pre-emptive nullification of such vows.
Vows, promises that we make to ourselves, to others, or to God, are important; in addition to passages in the Torah about various types of vows, there is a whole tractate of the Talmud, Nedarim, devoted to issues surrounding vows. Right up there with being a person of integrity is the principle of keeping one’s word.
However, Kol Nidrei also provided material for anti-Semites. Misunderstanding the point of the prayer, which nullifies only those vows that we make with ourselves, the Jew haters of this world took Kol Nidrei as evidence that you can’t trust a Jew. And some rabbis railed against Kol Nidrei for centuries, because they thought that the less-scrupulous among us would take it as license not to live up to one’s word with impunity.
But you might think of Kol Nidrei today as a kind of relief valve, in particular for the very difficult kinds of resolutions we make with ourselves on Yom Kippur, like, “This year I’m really going to make peace with my estranged sibling,” or, “I’m going to give more tzedaqah.” The promises that we might make to ourselves, when we know that the Book of Life is closing, and we know that we really should do these things, but maybe we have tried and failed at self-improvement in the past. And we might very well fail again.
Keeping your word is very much a part of the value of integrity. And our tradition wants you to keep your word, especially to the others around you. Kol Nidrei does not excuse you from that.
OK, Rabbi, that all sounds very interesting. I want to act on this Jewish value of integrity. How do I do this?
I’m so glad you asked! Here are some ways we can act on this value:
In the personal sphere, that is, in your most immediate relationships, with your children, family and friends:
Do what you say you’re going to do. Be the parent/friend/sibling/spouse that everybody can count on.
Follow through on promises, both the good (“I’ll be there to see your baseball game / play”) and the bad (“If you do that again, you’ll be punished.) The Talmud teaches us (BT Bava Metzia 49a) “Let your yes be yes, and your no be no.”
Model the behavior you know is best for the others around you. Teach integrity by acting with integrity.
In the communal sphere, that is, in interacting with the people in your neighborhood, your synagogue, your school, your workplace:
Decide what are the three characteristics for which you want to be eulogized. Then consider if your actions and words reflect those characteristics.
Integrity means respecting your interlocutor and trusting that reasoned arguments are the only honorable way to have discourse. It is very easy in today’s world for disagreements to devolve into insults. Remember the spark of qedushah/holiness in all people when engaging in this way.
Do not criticize unless you are willing to be part of the solution. Always be prepared to offer up suggestions alongside criticisms, and be prepared for the possibility that others may not want your suggestions.
As a citizen of this nation and of the world:
Demand integrity of our elected politicians and our election process
Vote your principles and not necessarily your private interests. We love to believe that these will always dovetail but sometimes they do not.
Winning at all costs is an unsustainable strategy. Might does not necessarily make right.
We may not be able to solve all of the complicated problems in the world right now (I do not need to enumerate them for you), but if we were all to take a leap forward on the integrity scale, I think there is a good chance we could at least ease some of the pain. The world needs a good deal of healing right now, and although you might feel quite small, remember that you have real power, which you exercise every time you interact with somebody, whether it is your neighbor, a store clerk, or a stranger on the street.
You have the potential, with your words and your deeds, to make someone’s day brighter or darker, to build up another’s confidence or to destroy it, to lift up your community by working for the common good or tear it down in your own self-interest. This power demands that we always act with integrity.
At least three times per day in Jewish prayer tradition, we say, “Elohai netzor leshoni mera, usfatai middabber mirmah.” God, keep my tongue from evil, and my lips from deceit. The Talmud (BT Berakhot 17a) tells us that we should conclude every Amidah with these words. It is a reminder that our words count as much as our actions in creating a world based on integrity. This is an effective daily meditation on our potential to impact others.
The Zen Buddhist priest, angel Kyodo williams, says the following in her book, Radical Dharma:
We cannot have a healed society, we cannot have change, we cannot have justice, if we do not reclaim and repair the human spirit.
If we model integrity in the personal, communal, national and worldwide realms, we have the potential to heal and uplift the human spirit. If we act out of selfishness, deception, bias, prejudice, and fear, we will only continue to see our world crumble.
The choice is ours. Pick the road of integrity, for the benefit of all of our fellow people. Remember your obligation to raise the level of qedushah / holiness in this world. Seek the betterment of yourself and others. I am confident that, by acting on the Jewish value of integrity, we can regain a more civilized world. We are all in this together.
As I stand here today, filled with pride as my daughter was called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah, I cannot help but think about how, just a few weeks after you were born, we were at a Shabbat dinner at Temple Israel of Great Neck, and I was leading the song based on the words of Rabbi Nahman of Breslov, “Kol ha’olam kulo, gesher tzar me-od, veha’iqqar lo lefahed kelal.” The whole world is a narrow bridge, and the most essential thing is not to fear at all. She was so tiny; I was actually holding her in one hand.
Our lives are, in fact, moving forward along that narrow bridge. And nothing has reminded me of the precarious nature of human life more than the coronavirus pandemic, which has brought a new level of fear back into our day-to-day existence like no other experience in recent memory.
But you, Hannah, you hold the future in your hands, along with all your peers. And we will depend on you lo lefahed – not to be afraid.
When Hannah and I sat down back in the winter to start working on her devar Torah, we reviewed the entirety of Parashat Ki Tetze, which she chanted this morning, we encountered the mitzvah, the holy opportunity, that is referred to in rabbinic literature as “shilluah haqen.” If you find a mother bird in a nest with her chicks, and you want to take the chicks as food, the Torah requires us to shoo away the mother bird, so she will not see you taking her chicks. If you perform this mitzvah, the Torah says, you will be rewarded with long life.
I reminded Hannah that this is my favorite mitzvah. “I know, Abba,” she said.
So why is this my favorite mitzvah? Many of you know that I am a vegetarian, and I certainly do not go about looking for nests and chicks to eat. Rather, it is because the mitzvah of shilluah haqen speaks to so much of what we value as Jews.
First, it relates to a principle that Hannah spoke about earlier: that of tza’ar ba’alei hayyim, the prevention of cruelty to animals. We value the life of all of God’s creatures: maintain life, says the Torah, and you are rewarded with life. Compassion even for God’s smallest creatures is a reflection of the qedushah, holiness in the human spirit.
Closely tied to that is the sense of wise use and respect for the resources that have been given to us. We do need to eat, and many people like to eat animals. So we can do that, provided that (a) we ensure that the mother bird lives to create more life, and (b) that she does not suffer the emotional stress of watching her children taken from her.
And the third item is related to a story that the Talmud tells about this mitzvah. A character named Elishah ben Avuyah, who receives the finest rabbinic education from the best teachers of the ancient world, including Rabbi Akiva, loses his faith. He witnesses a young boy climbing up into a tree to get some chicks from a nest. The boy shoos away the mother bird, fulfilling the mitzvah of shilluah haqen, and then falls from the tree and dies. He does not receive the Torah’s promised reward of long life. Elishah’s entire theological framework falls apart. He becomes the most famous apostate in Jewish tradition, referred to often only as Aher, “the other,” because he othered himself.
What value comes from this story? Why did the rabbis include this and other tales of a famous apostate?
The value is that Elishah ben Avuyah is the outlier. That we can, in fact, maintain faith even in the face of evidence that shakes our understanding of the world. Despite what it says all over the Torah, we know that sometimes bad things happen to good people. And vice versa. Jewish theology (and I am saying this in full acknowledgment that Rosh Hashanah is three weeks from today) is not so simplistic.
Our tradition still holds a great appeal for many of us. Why? Because even though we often understand that literal readings of our text do not always hold up, nonetheless, this ancient framework, which we have upheld for a couple thousand years, is still quite valuable in nurturing and sustaining us.
Hevreh, we are facing challenges unlike any seen before in my lifetime. The pandemic, of course. The resurgence of anti-Semitism, which yielded the bloodiest attack on a synagogue in American history, just a few blocks from where I stand. The ongoing scourge of racism, coded and overt.
And, thrown into the mix is the ability that bad actors possess today to spread falsehood so easily.
Many of you may have heard of QAnon for the first time in recent weeks. I am actually ashamed and embarrassed that this deliberate attempt to manipulate people with the most outrageous types of conspiratorial falsehoods has made it to this level of visibility.
In a related vein, I am concerned that when a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available (bimherah beyameinu / speedily in our days), many people will not receive it due to misinformation. A recent poll indicated that 40% of Americans say they will not get the vaccine; some will refuse it because of their concerns around vaccine safety, which have been thoroughly debunked, and some are convinced that the coronavirus is just a hoax.
And, lest you think that online falsehoods are limited to a gullible American audience, you might be surprised to know that in the United Kingdom, people are attacking telecom workers who are putting up infrastructure for the new 5G data network, because manipulators online have convinced many that 5G technology actually causes COVID-19 sickness.
We the Jews know the dangers of the widespread dissemination of such falsehoods. The infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a Russian forgery originally published in 1903 that supposedly documented the Jewish conspiracy for world domination, was a pretext for state-sponsored Russian pogroms. (It was later published by Henry Ford in the US, by the way.)
It was the falsehoods that Adolf Hitler published in Mein Kampf, and later screamed into a microphone, that enabled the Sho’ah, the Nazi Holocaust that murdered nearly a third of our people during World War II.
It’s easy to lose hope, like Elishah ben Avuyah. This is not the way the world is supposed to work. This is not what God promised us.
But I am going to remind us all that Elishah is an outlier. He succumbed to the fear that God is not with us. We must remember that the forces of lies and chaos have always been there, and it is up to us, to the righteous ones, not to lose faith, not to succumb.
The real value of our tradition is not the literal reward of “long life.” Rather, the real value of our tradition, as well as that of Christianity and Islam and really every other major religious tradition, is the essential behavioral values that are held up by our traditional texts for us to pursue:
The value of compassion, as exemplified by shilluah haqen.
The value of truth (Exodus 23:7): מִדְּבַר־שֶׁ֖קֶר תִּרְחָ֑ק / Middevar sheqer tirhaq. Distance yourself from falsehood.
The value of humility (Isaiah 57:15, which appears in the haftarah on Yom Kippur morning) : מָר֥וֹם וְקָד֖וֹשׁ אֶשְׁכּ֑וֹן וְאֶת־דַּכָּא֙ וּשְׁפַל־ר֔וּחַ לְהַחֲיוֹת֙ ר֣וּחַ שְׁפָלִ֔ים וּֽלְהַחֲי֖וֹת לֵ֥ב נִדְכָּאִֽים׃
… I dwell on high, in holiness; Yet with the contrite and the humble — Reviving the spirits of the humble, Reviving the hearts of the contrite.
The value of community: Kol Yisra’el arevim zeh bazeh (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 27b). All of us are guarantors for each other. We are interdependent, and we must behave as such. And that goes not only for our Jewish neighbors, but for all of them.
The value of freedom, and we have a whole 8-day holiday dedicated to that (Pesah): the responsibility not only to protect our own safety and freedom, but to guarantee those things for others.
The value of tzedakah / charitable giving, for which the Talmud tells us that there is no limit.
And so forth. You know, some people might criticize religious practice as arcane at best, and irrelevant or potentially dangerous at worst. You might have heard people say that all wars have been caused by religion, etc.
But I’ll tell you this: if we follow it, if we commit ourselves to performing the mitzvot, our tradition drives us to be better people. Religious practice, and Jewish practice in particular, living Jewish values, will help create a better world, one marked by the “long life” of which the Torah speaks. And if we lose our faith to the forces of lies and chaos, the world will descend into an unholy pit, from which humanity may never emerge.
So I turn to my daughter Hannah on this day, and implore you thus:
The world that we need you and your peers to create is the one that is hopeful, not hopeless. That is filled with compassion; in which we act with humility; in which we strive for truth and justice in all our dealings; in which we always remember that our essential task in life is to remember the qedushah, the holiness of the other, and act on the Divine imperative to raise the total amount of holiness in this world.
והעיקר לא לפחד כלל
Veha’iqqar lo lefahed kelal. And the most essential thing is not to fear at all. Now build that world.
One of the most challenging things for me right now, in this pandemic time, is the deep dissatisfaction I am feeling; I am living with a gnawing sense that whatever I do, it is not enough. Yes, to some extent I have that feeling in “normal” times as well – it’s a rabbinic affliction. But something about the isolation and limitations on human interaction in this time has vaulted that feeling of “It’s not enough” to the top of my list of regular anxieties.
My work, which, you may know, is mostly NOT leading services and giving sermons, but rather talking with people and teaching, is not particularly satisfying right now, because I know that no matter how much I do, no matter how well we at the synagogue plan for High Holidays or JJEP or benei mitzvah celebrations, no matter how many people I call, it will not be enough. And so too at home. No matter how much time I spend with my family, it is not enough. No matter how awesome it was to go tent camping out in the woods this summer, it is not enough.
And I am continually asking myself, “When this is all over, will I be able to look back and say, did I use this time as best as I could? Could I have done better? Could we have done better?”
As you know, we have been learning some great midrashim / rabbinic stories between minhah and ma’ariv on Shabbat afternoon, in a series I have titled, “My Favorite Midrash.” One that we covered recently, certainly a favorite midrash of mine, is about one of the more curious characters of rabbinic literature, a fellow who is known as “Honi haMe’aggel,” Honi the Circle-Maker. He is so called because of his unique talent of drawing circles in which rain falls. Seemingly unrelated to this remarkable gift, the following midrash is also told (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ta’anit 23a):
יומא חד הוה אזל באורחא חזייה לההוא גברא דהוה נטע חרובא אמר ליה האי עד כמה שנין טעין אמר ליה עד שבעין שנין אמר ליה פשיטא לך דחיית שבעין שנין אמר ליה האי [גברא] עלמא בחרובא אשכחתיה כי היכי דשתלי לי אבהתי שתלי נמי לבראי
One day, Honi was walking along the road when he saw a certain man planting a carob tree. Honi said to him: This tree, after how many years will it bear fruit? The man said to him: It will not produce fruit until seventy years have passed. Honi said to the tree-planter: Is it obvious to you that you will live seventy years, that you expect to benefit from this tree? He replied to Honi: I myself found a world full of carob trees. Just as my ancestors planted for me, I too am planting for my descendants.
The midrash does not tell us about how many carob trees the man found, nor how many he planted. He was probably not too concerned about whether or not he had planted enough trees; the larger point is that he made an effort to ensure that there would be some for his grandchildren.
While my first inclination is to read this story as referring to our responsibility to take care of God’s Creation, such that we can bequeath it in good condition to those who come after us, I think it is also possible to read this as a metaphor not only for our physical environment, but for our spiritual milieu as well.
The beginning of Parashat Re’eh is very concerned about the idea of the Land of Israel as the yerushah, the inheritance of the Israelites. Various forms of the Hebrew word “lareshet” / to inherit appear five times in the first two aliyot we read this morning. It is clear that the Torah wants us to see Israel as the reward; it is the gift for being party to the covenant, for fulfilling the mitzvot. It is what the Torah’s original audience needed to hear; that they would inherit this land as a sign of God’s love to them.
And so, as I am thinking about the emotional state of the world, the divisive nature of American politics right now, and the numbers of people we have lost unnecessarily to the pandemic, and the grief and pain that this loss as well as the economic devastation it has caused, I am left with the following question:
What do we want our children to inherit? What will their spiritual inheritance be?
Do we want them to inherit a polarized world, one in which people not only cannot see the other side of an argument, but openly denigrate those who hold opposing views? Do we want them to inherit a world in which coarse language is the norm, that prevarication goes unpunished, that advocacy for your team always wins out over thoughtful, considered positions? In which news is not fact, but merely spin? In which people on different sides of any particular issue cannot even speak to each other or break bread together, because they view the other as stupid or heartless?
I come back to the line at the end of today’s reading (Devarim / Deuteronomy 12:28):
Be careful to heed all these commandments that I enjoin upon you; thus it will go well with you and with your descendants after you forever, for you will be doing what is good and right in the sight of the LORD your God.
How do we plant the carob trees for our grandchildren? How do I use this pandemic time to create a foundation for a better world, so that my children’s spiritual inheritance will be tov veyashar, good and right?
Hevreh, the framework of mitzvot that God has given us is the formula by which we can live better. It was given to us a long time ago, and if more of us were to follow it, the world we will leave to our children will be a much better one. Here is, if you will, a simplified formula for success:
Keep Shabbat. Doing so encourages respect for yourself and those close to you. Keep your conversations and your activities local and low-key. Be with your nearby family and friends. Don’t spend money; avoid technology. Connect with the here and now, and leave behind the elsewhere and the later.
Keep kashrut (the Jewish dietary laws). It encourages respect for God’s Creation. The lines in what we can or cannot consume are there to remind us that there are limits to what is Divinely-acceptable behavior. Maintain the holiness in the natural world.
Pray daily. Connect with yourself; hold your mind and your heart in self-judgment, and leave room for doubt. You may not be right about every single thing. Introspection leads to intentionality, which leads to patience, planning, and presence of mind in all the spheres of life.
Observe Jewish holidays, and make sure you know why. Yom Kippur teaches us humility. Pesah teaches freedom for all. Hanukkah teaches enlightenment. Sukkot teaches simplicity. Simhat Torah celebrates learning. Purim celebrates standing up for what is right.
Learn Torah. The wisdom of the ancient Jewish bookshelf teaches us how to be human beings, not cogs in a machine. It sensitizes us to the needs of others, and forces us to consider how our behavior impacts this world.
It is a simple formula. But of course you are thinking, “Rabbi, I’ve been Jewish all my life and while I may do some of those things, it’s just too much for me to take on something that I’m just not used to doing.”
Let me tell you why you need to reach higher: because the world depends on your mitzvot. Because our heritage – the world our children inherit – depends on your willingness to think and behave for the benefit of the common good. And that is what every single one of those things is about.
What kind of world do you want our children to inherit? One in which everybody is looking out for themselves, seeking personal gratification at any cost? Or one in which we cooperate to solve the big problems, in which we acknowledge the humanity in each other and the Divinity of Creation, in which we seek the holiness that is waiting for us under the surface of every relationship?
The choice is yours. Reach higher. Think of those carob trees, bearing fruit 70 years hence.
And I know this is hard, but try not to worry too much about whether you have done enough. If you take on this formula of five things, I am certain that you will be able to look back and say, “Yes. That was good and right.”
Today is the first yahrzeit (anniversary of death) for the eleven holy Jewish souls who were murdered down the street from here on October 27, 2018. Today is the 18th day of the month of Heshvan. 18, as we all know, is a popular number in Jewish life, because it is the numerical value of the Hebrew word חי (hai), meaning life.
So the irony will be that, forever, this day that means life from one perspective will always be heavy with a deep sense of communal loss.
Or perhaps that is not irony, but rather just the Jewish way. What do we say when in mourning and on yahrzeit dates? We recite the words of the qaddish, a statement of praise of God in overpoweringly repetitive language: Magnified, sanctified, hallowed, exalted, celebrated, worshiped, honored, extolled, etc.
We, the living, we remember those whom we have lost by praising God, not by reciting words about death. Lo hameitim yehallelu ya, says the Psalm (115:17) which we read on our most joyous days, as part of Hallel. “The dead do not praise God.”
We do. We the living mark death through words of living, words of life.
Given that, I am going to give the sermon that I did not give for Parashat Vayyera last year, on the 18th of Heshvan, because it is about life. It is about, in some sense, the life that was happening here in Squirrel Hill before hatred personified tore into our community.
(I have left it in pristine form, so a few things do not make temporal sense. But think of this sermon as a snapshot, fixed in time.)
Welcoming Others Into the Synagogue – October 27, 2018, Vayyera 5779
Two things happened this week that really got me down.
The first occurred at the Awards Brunch on Sunday, which was truly a lovely affair that honored four deserving women for all that they have done for Congregation Beth Shalom: Lisa Steindel, Judith Kadosh, Kate Rothstein, and Tammy Hepps. I said this on Sunday, but it’s worth repeating: Without volunteers who make things happen, there would be no Congregation Beth Shalom. We cannot do what we do without people like these four who commit their time to making things happen. So thank you once again.)
But the incident that occurred was as follows: Prior to the beginning of the program, I was walking around, offering kippot to bare-headed men, as I often do.
Now, it’s worth noting before going further that while wearing a kippah is an ancient tradition for men, it is not halakhah; that is, it is not technically required according to Jewish law. Nonetheless, it is such a well-established custom that it is as close to a halakhic requirement as possible without actually being halakhah. Although there is no Torah (“de-oraita”) source for the custom of covering one’s head, it is attested to in the Talmud (Qiddushin 31a):
רב הונא בריה דרב יהושע לא מסגי ארבע אמות בגילוי הראש אמר שכינה למעלה מראשי
Rav Huna, son of Rav Yehoshua, would not walk four cubits with an uncovered head. He said: The Divine Presence is above my head, [and I must act respectfully].
This passage might raise more questions than answers, but nonetheless is considered the basis for the customary wearing of the kippah, and in particular doing certain activities: walking, praying, eating, studying, and being inside a synagogue.
Now since we were (א) in the synagogue, (ב) about to eat, and (ג) about to say a prayer before eating, it makes perfect sense that, being an institution that stands for Jewish tradition, we expect men to put on a kippah, and hence my reason for asking.
So there I am, handing out a few kippot, and I offered one to a man I did not recognize. He took it without saying anything, and I walked away. A few minutes later, I noticed that he was not wearing it, so I went back over and asked him to put it on his head. Now, in retrospect, this may not have been the right move, but hindsight often reveals our own propensity to say or do the wrong thing, and I am the first to concede that I am not immune to this phenomenon.
I immediately saw that he was not pleased about having to wear a kippah. He challenged me, saying sharply, “I’m Reform. Is it required?” I said, “We ask that men cover their heads in the synagogue as a sign of respect.” He reluctantly put it on his head.
But that’s not where the story ended. A while later, while we were getting food from the buffet table, he came up to me. He was clearly angry, and he wanted to give me a piece of his mind. He was almost yelling, and he said, among other things, “This is why I hate this place, because you’re so unwelcoming! I feel intimidated when I come here!”
I was taken aback. It had not occurred to me that asking a man to put on a kippah in a synagogue could be so “unwelcoming.”
So there is one story.
The second is about an anonymous letter I received on Monday. Reacting to our program for HIAS’ National Refugee Shabbat, it said the following:
I read the enclosed hand-out in services today; very interesting about the welcoming of strangers. Presentation about HIAS also enlightening. Do these ideals and concepts apply to our synagogue? I cannot recall the last time someone greeted me or handed me a siddur (prayerbook).
Now, you may have noticed that in the three-plus years that I have been here, I have tried to create a climate that is as welcoming as possible. Those of you that attended a parlor meeting with me during my first year probably studied with me the first aliyah of Parashat Vayyera, which describes Avraham Avinu’s hospitality in welcoming the guests who come to his tent. The text describes how, when he sees them, he runs to greet them, gives them a place to sit in the shade and water to drink and to wash the dust off their feet, helps Sarah (OK, orders Sarah) to prepare a meal for them, and stands patiently at their side as they eat.
As you have surely heard me say, at a parlor meeting, or in a sermon, or an ushers’ meeting, we have to be more like Avraham and Sarah. We have to run to greet people with a smile, to help them find a comfortable spot and a siddur and whatever they need, and try as best we can to make people feel welcome here.
We cannot judge anybody for who they are. The Torah does not suggest that Avraham interrogates anybody before inviting them in. There is no litmus test for participation in Jewish life. We are not “bodeqei tzitzit,” those who check to see if others are wearing their fringes properly and in the halakhically-correct manner.
By the way, an item of feedback that keeps coming back to me, from the congregational survey as well as from individuals who have spoken to me, is that we have occasionally made people feel unwelcome. There is a perception by some that there are existing synagogue cliques that are impenetrable. Now, not everybody feels this way, and there are plenty of people whom we have in fact welcomed successfully.
But it pains me greatly to know that anybody could walk into this building and feel excluded. If that happens to even one person, shame on us all.
And, by the way, that goes for all types of people who come in here: LGBT folks, for example, or those in interfaith relationships. (I have been told that multiple times, people in such relationships have been told by members of this congregation that perhaps they should consider going to Rodef Shalom. That is entirely unacceptable.)
Ladies and gentlemen, all are welcome here; all who come to seek connection to our beautiful, rich, ancient tradition are to be embraced with open arms. Consider Isaiah’s words (56:6-7; BTW, we read this on fast days at minhah for the haftarah):
As for the foreigners Who attach themselves to the LORD, To minister to Him, And to love the name of the LORD, To be His servants— All who keep the sabbath and do not profane it, And who hold fast to My covenant—
I will bring them to My sacred mount And let them rejoice in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices Shall be welcome on My altar; For My house shall be called A house of prayer for all peoples.”
But wait! There is a challenge here. Isaiah seems to suggest that we have to have some kind of standard. If somebody refuses to wear a kippah, for example, or refuses to put their smartphone away in the service on Shabbat, can we still welcome them?
The answer, of course, is yes, but this is a question with which I continue to struggle: how do we raise the bar of engagement; how do we gently ease folks into the traditions of Jewish life without clobbering them over the head with a kippah and a tallit and tefillin and a siddur? How do we defuse the feeling of intimidation that some have when they walk into an alien environment?
In retrospect, I should not have gone back to the bare-headed gentleman a second time to ask him to put on the kippah; when I offer tefillin to people on weekday mornings (we always have extra sets on hand), I only ask once. But a smile goes a long way, and treating people respectfully is never the wrong thing to do.
So here are a few practical suggestions:
Be an ambassador for Beth Shalom and for Conservative Judaism. Reach out wherever possible. Don’t ignore anybody you don’t know. If you see somebody standing at the side feeling awkward, mosey on over and introduce yourself. Give them a siddur. Take them by the hand if necessary and lead them in.
Like Avraham Avinu, we have to be watching outside the tent to welcome people in. We cannot expect, in today’s world, that re going to walk right in and sign up to be a part of what we do. That’s one reason we created Derekh: to offer programming that goes beyond the synagogue walls. That’s why we are partnering with other organizations to offer concerts, like the Pizmon concert here. You are an ambassador for Beth Shalom and for Conservative Judaism both inside the building and outside.
Connecting back to the whole point of the Awards Brunch last Sunday: volunteers are the ones who really make the SS Beth Shalom seaworthy, and there is always a need for more people to help out. If you’d like to contribute some time but simply do not know how, please come see me, or speak with Debby, our president, or Rabbi Jeremy, who runs Derekh. We will be thrilled to help you find something that suits you. And in particular, one thing we really need right now, to help address the issues I have discussed, is a few brave volunteers to form a Greeting Team, who, like Avraham and Sarah, will discuss and implement new ways to welcome people.
With your help, we can continue to make sure that our tent is a beit tefillahlekhol ha’amim, a house of prayer for everybody.
That is how it ended a year ago. We still need a Greeting Team, but we are all about life, about making connections between people, about community.
Tomorrow morning we host the New Members’ Welcoming ceremony, in which a whole bunch of families who have joined the congregation within the last year will sit on this bimah, take hold of a sefer Torah, and acknowledge together their stepping forward into the next chapter of their Jewish journey.
We do this in memory of the eleven whom we lost on this day one year ago, and also in acknowledgment that in remembering them, we remember God, we remember our duties here on Earth, and we remember to continue to build this Qehillah Qedoshah, this community bound in holiness, together.
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?”
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
… 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.
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.
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?”
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:
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:
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):
[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:
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.