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Love, Theology, and Vaccinations – Terumah 5781

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

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

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

Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mishkan / portable desert sanctuary

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

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

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We Can Change the World – Terumah 5778

A rabbi, a priest, an imam, and a Buddhist monk get into a pickup truck and drive to the football stadium to see the Big Game. The rabbi is driving. When they get there, they change from their “work” clothes into the colors of their favorite team, and join a couple of nuns already in the stands, who chide them for being late. The rabbi gestures to the others as if to blame them. Then their team scores! They all jump up and down and hoot and holler.

Some of you may know that this was actually an advertisement for a large Japanese auto manufacturer that ran during the Super Bowl two weeks ago. At the end, before flashing the company’s logo, the slogan, “We’re all one team” appears on-screen.

The ad had two major flaws: one was that, with the exception of the nuns that seem to have been thrown in at the last minute, all of the clergy were male. But even bigger than that, what rabbi drives a pickup truck?!

We’re all one team.

Except when we are not.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield of CLAL, who spoke in Pittsburgh nine days ago to a room full of rabbis, priests, and ministers, invoked this ad and reminded us that, well, actually, we are not all one team.

It is fascinating to me that, in this time of great political, racial, and sometimes religious division in our nation, the Madison Avenue ad execs are trying to convince us that we are all one team. Because, at least with respect to the choices that we are making through the democratic process, we are not.

Consider another Super Bowl ad, ironically, for another automotive company that was heavily criticized for misappropriating the words of Dr. Martin Luther King. The people who made that ad were most likely trying to tap into a similar desire of the rabbi-priest-imam-monk ad, that is, our desire to find a rallying point, a connection across racial, ethnic, religious, and political divides in this very fractious moment. And that ad seems to have failed miserably.

The message that Rabbi Hirschfield left us with was, try to consider the other. Try to be a fan, and not a fanatic. We who stand for the rule of law, a shared vision for the betterment of society, and a moderate approach to religion in its integration with contemporary life are all playing the same game, even if we aren’t exactly on the same team; we all agree on the rules.

A little back-story here: I was going to take this sermon in a different direction. I had actually written the rest of this sermon on Tuesday, and it was about what Judaism offers, and why we should be playing on this team.

But then, on Wednesday, a troubled young man with an AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifle walked into a high school in Parkland, Florida, and began shooting.

We have all witnessed quite a bit of palpable anger, frustration, and grief in these last couple of days. The crying out: how could this have happened once again, and so soon? The throwing up of hands in the air in frustration: will nothing change? The traded accusations, the pointed fingers.

On my social media feed, the ire was directed at politicians, who offered their cliched “thoughts and prayers.” And rightly so. Cynically-offered thoughts and prayers, in place of actual promises of legislative solutions, are useless, and have clearly not brought about any change.

But prayer, if we are acting on it correctly, can in fact help. Our team, the team that actually offers real prayer as a kehillah kedoshah, a holy community, can bring about change. Let me explain how.

For thousands of years, Jews have gathered in synagogues large and small to act on the holy opportunities of prayer: chanting the words of our liturgy, hearing the Torah read, learning together, and so forth. Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and other religious groups also gather in their houses of worship for similar services. The content, style, language, features, and of course theology of all these services vary tremendously. But what do they have in common? They bring people together for holy purposes, for the purpose of finding (to use the Hebrew term) kedushah / of seeking holiness.

And when people gather in prayer, they have the potential to change the world.

heschel king torah

The Jewish prayer experience is not meant to be passive. It’s not supposed to be about mumbling ancient words in a language we do not understand. It’s REALLY not supposed to be about waiting for the person up in front to mumble through a page of obscure Hebrew. Rather, it is about having an active mind, of being aware of yourself and your world, of opening up our hearts and minds to the reality of today. It’s about understanding the possibilities of a world that could be, a blueprint for a time without fear and hatred, violence and oppression.

Tefillah / prayer is about resonating with our ancient words. It is a subset of Talmud Torah, the holy opportunity to learn and discuss the words of our tradition. The Talmud asks (Kiddushin 40b):

וכבר היה רבי טרפון וזקנים מסובין בעלית בית נתזה בלוד

?נשאלה שאילה זו בפניהם תלמוד גדול או מעשה גדול

נענה רבי טרפון ואמר מעשה גדול

נענה ר”ע ואמר תלמוד גדול

נענו כולם ואמרו תלמוד גדול שהתלמוד מביא לידי מעשה

Rabbi Tarfon and the Elders were reclining in the loft of the house of Nitza in Lod, when this question was asked of them:

Is study greater or is action greater?

Rabbi Tarfon answered and said: Action is greater.

Rabbi Akiva answered and said: Study is greater.

Everyone answered and said: Study is greater, as study leads to action.

Tefillah, when performed with the proper intention as a form of study, leads to action. And particularly in a house of worship such as this; it turns the potential of people gathered for a holy task into action. It raises us up in kedushah / holiness so that we can go out together and make this world a better place.

And there are concrete examples of the way prayer has changed the world. Consider some of of our team’s greatest victories. Consider the American civil rights movement, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other clergy. Consider the movement led by Mahatma Mohandas K. Gandhi to free India from British rule. Consider Zionism, led by both secular and religious personalities who drew on the ancient yearning of the Jewish soul to return to Israel. We are living in a time in which gathering for prayer is still effective in bringing about major change.

Gandhi

Prayer / tefillah reminds us of the words of Deuteronomy (30:12),

לֹ֥א בַשָּׁמַ֖יִם הִ֑וא לֵאמֹ֗ר מִ֣י יַעֲלֶה־לָּ֤נוּ הַשָּׁמַ֙יְמָה֙ וְיִקָּחֶ֣הָ לָּ֔נוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵ֥נוּ אֹתָ֖הּ וְנַעֲשֶֽׂנָּה׃

It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?”

It is not in the heavens. We write our prayers, we fill them with our emotions and ideas, and we are God’s hands. We are in charge of our destinies here on Earth.

We can change our world. We are not powerless.

Here is where we really ARE on the same team: we, the fans, not the fanatics, we do not want our children to walk into schools in fear. We cannot allow music lovers, or church goers, or people dancing in gay nightclubs to feel that they are not safe. We cannot justify the complacency of politicians in gerrymandered districts who have to answer to nobody but the powerful lobbies who give them money for their next campaign.

And here’s what our team can do: We can change the world. That’s what churches and synagogues and mosques and mandirs and all other houses of faith are for: to bring people together for a holy purpose. And what purpose could be more holy than saving lives?

One of the essential messages of the Purim story, if you look beyond the costumes and the graggers and the drinking and partying, is that Esther saved the Jews of Persia because she spoke up. She was not silent in the face of impending murder.

Now is not the time to be silent. Now IS the time for prayer. And to turn the potential from the prayers of everybody who is on our team, the prayerful team, into action.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 2/17/2018.)

 

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Be a Sanctuary – Terumah 5777

I was in Baltimore last week, at the annual convention of the Rabbinical Assembly. It was an opportunity to reconnect with colleagues, to learn from each, to share best practices, to daven together and sing together and break bread together.

Perhaps my favorite session from the three-day convention was when we gathered in small groups to share our favorite texts from the Jewish bookshelf. In my group, we had some great pieces, including the classic line about this Jewish month: משנכנס אדר מרבין בשמחה – Mishenikhnas Adar marbim besimhah – From the time that we enter the month of Adar, our joy increases (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ta’anit 29a) It’s a statement not only of the joy of Purim (and Lord knows this world needs a little more joy!), but also how the absence of joy makes us appreciate it that much more.

Another colleague spoke about a different piece from the Talmud (Yoma 35b), one that we recently learned as a group at Beth Shalom’s Sulam for Emerging Leaders seminar, about how the great sage Hillel doesn’t have enough money to get into the ancient beit midrash on Friday afternoon to learn the words of our tradition, so he climbs up on the roof and tries to listen through the skylight, and then it snows, and they find him buried in 4 feet of snow on the roof, and light a fire on Shabbat to save him, a gross violation of Shabbat. But the rabbis acknowledge that somebody who wanted so desperately to learn should not have been excluded from the beit midrash, and therefore deserved to have the Shabbat violated on his account.

Good material, indeed.

The piece of text that I cited as my favorite is the one that just keeps coming back to me, over and over, as what you might call a central theme of my work as a rabbi. It’s from Parashat Qedoshim, which we will not read until May.

קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ, כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם

Qedoshim tihyu, ki qadosh ani Adonai Eloheikhem

Be holy, because I, your God, am holy. (Leviticus 19:2)

If there is one thing that I want every person that I encounter in my work as a rabbi, Jewish, non-Jewish, whatever, to know and understand, it is that we all have the potential to seek qedushah / holiness, to raise the holiness quotient in this very broken world. That joy, learning, synagogues, prayer, singing, bar mitzvah, communal engagement, etc. are all attempts to infuse our lives with holiness, and to remind us that we should zealously seek holiness in all our relationships, and to remind us that there is a spark of the Divine within every single human being.

That is what our tradition is for. That is the lesson that Judaism brings to the world. All the rest, to borrow from another classic piece of text, is commentary. And every other elaboration, every other story or custom or law from our tradition, somehow relates back to that fundamental bottom line of qedushah.

Our bar mitzvah spoke a little earlier about the mishkan, the portable sanctuary that our ancestors used while wandering in the desert to perform the sacrifices commanded by God. Building the mishkan, it seems, was the Israelites’ initial path to qedushah. Right up front, before all the layers upon layers of detail that the Torah gives in order to build this glorified tent, there is a statement about the reason that God commands them to build it:

וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ, וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם

Ve’asu li miqdash, veshakhanti betokham.

Make me a sanctuary, and I shall dwell among them. (Ex. 25:8)

Build this sanctuary, says the Qadosh Barukh Hu, the Holy Blessed One, and I’ll come and actually take up residence among you.

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Moshe must be thinking, “What? After taking 2,000,000 enslaved people out of Egypt with no army, THIS is what you want me to do?” And the Torah devotes almost as much time and space to describing the mishkan as it does to telling the tale of the Exodus.

But there is a reason for it: this sanctuary is the source of holiness. It was not enough merely to take themselves out of the house of bondage, but rather to seek something higher – to be in holy relationship. And that required building a fancy dwelling-place for God, a place from which Divine blessing and guidance and reassurance and strength would emanate.

Every day, we need to remind ourselves that we draw that strength from the depth and breadth of our tradition, and that ultimately the mishkan, that ancient sanctuary, becomes a metaphor for the dwelling of God’s holy presence among and within us. Just as our bar mitzvah said, courtesy of the Malbim, we each need to build that sanctuary in our hearts.

Every morning at the convention, there were multiple tefillah / prayer options. There was, of course, the “traditional” service, more or less what we do in the weekday morning service here at Beth Shalom. Then there were two non-traditional options: a meditation service and a singing service, where virtually all parts were sung to niggunim. And one morning there was a service led by our colleague Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie in the style of his experimental, floating NYC congregation, LAB/SHUL. It was a vastly abbreviated service, with words projected on a screen, snippets of ordinary weekday tefillot, mixed in with other songs and chants drawn from our tradition.

These are the things the RA is doing now to help Conservative rabbis expand their sources of inspiration for tefillah / prayer: This is where we are today, since there is a disconnect between our traditional form of tefillah and where most Jews are today, a disconnect that mandates our re-imagining how we access God and our tradition. I did meditate one day, but on other days I went to the singing services, and a melody that was repeated endlessly became, it seemed, the unofficial anthem of the convention, drawing on the sanctuary theme of Terumah:

Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary

Pure and holy, tried and true

With thanksgiving, I’ll be a living

Sanctuary for You.

One could read “Ve’asu li miqdash” as, “Build a sanctuary for Me,” which is the traditional reading, or you could read it along the lines of the Malbim: “Turn me into a sanctuary.” Make of me a holy vessel. Make me a vehicle for delivering qedushah to the world.

And there is even more. A little later in Terumah, we read the following (Lev. 25:22):

וְנוֹעַדְתִּי לְךָ שָׁם, וְדִבַּרְתִּי אִתְּךָ מֵעַל הַכַּפֹּרֶת מִבֵּין שְׁנֵי הַכְּרֻבִים אֲשֶׁר עַל-אֲרוֹן הָעֵדֻת–אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר אֲצַוֶּה אוֹתְךָ, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.

There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you from above the cover, from between the two keruvim [i.e. cherubim, depictions of angels] that are on top of the Ark of the Pact, all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people.

Picture this for a minute. This is a great visual. Look up there, above the aron ha-qodesh. You’ll see the wings of the keruvim, reaching to each other backwards over the top of the Ark of the Covenant.

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Right between the wings of the keruvim. That’s where God will meet us and speak to us. That’s the originating point for all the qedushah that comes to us. That is the point of emanation.

But since the mishkan has not been in use for 3,000 years, all we have left is the portable, metaphorical sanctuary within ourselves. And that we have to build.

We have to create the space. We have to stretch ourselves upward and forward like keruvim / angels, so that our wings touch. It’s not so easy to make that magical place where God will dwell within and without us.

So how do we do that? How do we build that inner sanctuary? How do we infuse our lives and the lives of all others around us with holiness?

By heightening our awareness. By listening. By acting on the Jewish values drawn from our tradition: being grateful, humble, compassionate, loving, joyous, greeting everybody with a cheerful face, dedicating ourselves to ridding this world of all forms of persecution, oppression, hatred, bigotry, and fear.

By dedicating ourselves to our community.

By making Jewish ritual our own, so that we can use it to access those moments of qedushah.

By reinforcing the message of radical inclusion into our midst.

By protecting the unprotected.

By seeking peace.

By being sanctuaries. And by offering sanctuary where needed.

By singing together:

Turn yourself into a sanctuary. Make a space for holiness within you and around you.

Shabbat shalom.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 3/4/2017.)