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Opening Doors, Avoiding Walls – Ki Tavo 5778

Do you remember the scene in the movie, Moonstruck, from 1987, when Loretta Castorini (Cher) puts her fiance Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello) on a flight to Italy to go see his dying mother, and as she’s watching the flight take off, a woman standing next to her, with white hair and covered entirely in black, says the following:

Woman: You have someone on that plane?

Loretta: Yeah, my fiancé.

Woman: [angry] I put a curse on that plane. My sister is on that plane. I put a curse on that plane that it’s gonna explode, burn on fire and fall into the sea. Fifty years ago, she stole a man from me. S’aprese il mio uomo! Today she tells me that she never loved him, that she took him to be strong on me. Now she’s going back to Sicily. Ritorna in Sicilia! I cursed her that the green Atlantic water should swallow her up!

Loretta: I don’t believe in curses.

Woman: [shrugging] Eh, neither do I.

Well, I must concede that I don’t really believe in curses, either. At least, not that kind of curse.

But actually, there is a kind of curse in which I do believe. And a kind of blessing, too.

One of the features of Parashat Ki Tavo is the litany of blessings and curses: good things that, the Torah says, we will receive if we follow the mitzvot, the traditional opportunities for holiness that the Torah prescribes, and the dire, grisly things that will happen if we fail to observe the mitzvot.

Here is the challenge that we all have as modern Jews: none of us actually believe that. Yes, there may be a few pious ones among us that truly believe that fulfilling every jot and tittle of halakhah (Jewish law) as it has come down to us will appease God’s anger. But I am fairly certain that if I were to push most of us on whether or not we take this passage of blessings and curses literally, it would not be too long before we concede that the world does not really work that way.

And there is nothing wrong with that! As some of you have surely heard me say before, the rabbis of the Talmudic period ask more or less the same question in Massekhet Berakhot (7a), which can be paraphrased as, why does the scoundrel sometimes thrive and prosper and the meticulously pious person sometimes die young of cancer? (A similar question is asked in Pirqei Avot 4:19 by Rabbi Yanai.)

One possible response to this conundrum is that the Torah is speaking not about individuals, but to us as a people. That is, if the majority of people are flouting the mitzvot, then bad things will happen to the Jews. This is not necessarily a theology that I embrace, in particular because it leads to thinking along the lines of, the Jews of Europe brought the Shoah, the Holocaust, upon themselves due to their sins. (Rabbi Ovadia Yosef actually said this.) Nonetheless, I think that there is something here we can latch onto that will be helpful.

So I am going to make the case for why you should step out of your theological comfort zone to consider that blessings and curses are real. It’s just that they don’t quite happen the way the Torah suggests.

What are some of the blessings that we have, not necessarily as individuals, but as a society?

(Food / health care / shelter / great neighborhood, etc.)

What are some of the curses?

(Racism / sexism / anti-Semitism / sin’at hinnam / cancer / allergies / climate change / pollution, etc.)

I am going to propose that the way we should read this part of Ki Tavo in the current moment is not “I keep Shabbes therefore my family will thrive,” or “I make sure my mezuzah is kosher so my great uncle will not have a heart attack.” Rather, the way we should read this is, “I take responsibility for my neighbor, so my community will thrive.” Or, “I commit my time and my money to making sure that more people have enough to eat, so I can sleep well at night knowing that fewer people are hungry.”

In other words, we reap what we sow. Collectively. We all need to be in this for the common good.

Some of you know that we always study a little text between minhah and ma’ariv on Shabbat afternoon. We actually have these nice new Pirqei Avot books that a few of you helped to purchase, with commentaries by Rabbi Gordon Tucker and Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum. A few weeks back, we read the following (Avot 4:2):

בן עזאי אומר, הוי רץ למצוה קלה, וברח מן העבירה:  שמצוה גוררת מצוה, ועבירה גוררת עבירה; ששכר מצוה מצוה, ושכר עבירה עבירה

Ben Azzai liked to say: Run to perform a trivial mitzvah / commandment as vigorously as you would to a consequential one, and flee from transgression, for one fulfilled mitzvah brings another in its wake, just as one transgression brings another in its wake. The reward for fulfilling a mitzvah is the desire to fulfill another mitzvah, whereas the reward for transgression is another transgression.

Very interesting, right? This ancient rabbinic take on the idea of mitzvot is that the reward for a mitzvah is not that Israel receives rain, or that you get a bunch of grandchildren, or a raise at work. Rather, the reward is that you get to perform another mitzvah.

Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, in her commentary, offers this very ethereal perspective:

Commandments and transgressions are… two guides to the spiritual and moral topography of life, enabling the learner to identify the openings through which one may profitably pass, on the one hand, and the walls that will constitute dead ends, on the other. Choose an opening, any opening at all, teaches Ben Azzai, and avoid the walls as best you can… Life consists of the dynamic alteration of pursuit and flight… This motion is necessitated by the fundamental human inability to know the full consequences of every action…

What she is saying is that mitzvot open doors, which lead to new passageways, which lead to more openings. When we fail to fulfill the mitzvot, we hit walls. What is nice about her take, I think, is that the mitzvot are thus a way that we open ourselves up, and connect to one another. When we throw up walls, we separate from one another; we stymie the building of community; we inhibit connections; we thwart progress as a people, a nation, a world.

magritte lembellie

Rene Magritte, L”Embellie

So while you might think that putting on tefillin on a weekday morning, or not eating shrimp, or reciting the Shema before you go to bed might be deeply personal choices that only affect you, these actions ultimately reflect back on us in deep, interconnected ways. I said it last week, and I’ll say it again: daily tefillah / prayer is meant to connect us to each other, those in the room and those beyond. When we fail to act on the holy opportunities of Jewish life, we hit a wall.

And the more walls we bump into, ladies and gentlemen, the harder it will be for us to solve the great challenges, or shall we say curses, of our time.

The more we connect, the greater our blessings. The more we separate, the greater the scourges of opioid addiction, climate change, poverty, homelessness, hunger, gun violence, sin’at hinnam / causeless hatred in all its pernicious forms.

The way we turn our curses into blessings is to work harder to recommit to our framework of qedushah, of holiness. When we perform mitzvot, and not just the tzedaqah kind, good things happen. When we don’t, well, you know what happens. We all have the potential to build a better reality. All we need to do is open another door.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 9/1/2018.)

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The Rabbi’s Annotated Mixtape – Re’eh 5776

Based on a recent article in the Forward, How To Make an Unorthodox Playlist For Your Orthodox Rabbi, I put together some annotations to reveal the tanakhic, midrashic, and philosophical references for these songs. Enjoy!

 

  1. Highway 61 Revisited (Bob Dylan)

Oh, God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”

Abe said, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”

God said, “No” Abe say, “What?”

God say, “You can do what you want, Abe, but

The next time you see me comin’, you better run”

Well, Abe said, “Where d’you want this killin’ done?”

God said, “Out on Highway 61”

Genesis 22:1-2

Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test. He said to him, “Abraham,” and he answered, “Here I am.” And He said, “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.”

 

  1. Halleluyah (Leonard Cohen)

Well I’ve heard there was a secret chord

That David played and it pleased the Lord

 Legends of the Jews, Louis Ginzberg, vol. 2, p. 927

At midnight the strings of David’s harp, which were made of the gut of the ram sacrificed by Abraham on Mt. Moriah, began to vibrate. The sound they emitted awakened David, and he would arise at once to devote himself to the study of the Torah. Besides study, the composition of psalms naturally claimed a goodly portion of his time.

 

Well your faith was strong but you needed proof

You saw her bathing on the roof

Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya

 David / Bat Sheva (2 Sam. 11:2)

Late one afternoon, David rose from his couch and strolled on the roof of the royal palace; and from the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful…

She tied you to her kitchen chair

And she broke your throne and she cut your hair

And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

 Samson / Delilah (Judges 16:19)

She lulled him to sleep on her lap. Then she called in a man, and she had him cut off the seven locks of his head; thus she weakened him and made him helpless; his strength slipped away from him.

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  1. Who by Fire? (Leonard Cohen)

And who by fire, who by water

Who in the sunshine, who in the night time

Who by high ordeal, who by common trial

Who in your merry-merry month of May

Who by very slow decay

And who shall I say is calling?

 Mahzor Lev Shalem, p. 143

How many will pass on, and how many will be born;

Who will live and who will die;

Who will live a long life and who will come to an untimely end;

Who will perish by fire and who by water; who by sword and who by beast; who by hunger and who by thirst; who by earthquake and who by plague…

 

  1. Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything there is a Season) (The Byrds / Pete Seeger)

To everything (turn, turn, turn)

There is a season (turn, turn, turn)

And a time to every purpose, under heaven

A time to be born, a time to die

A time to plant, a time to reap

A time to kill, a time to heal

A time to laugh, a time to weep

(Ecclesiastes 3:1-4; this is a direct quote, except the words “Turn, turn, turn”)

 

  1. What is Life (George Harrison)

What I feel, I can’t say

But my love is there for you any time of day

But if it’s not love that you need

Then I’ll try my best to make everything succeed

 I and Thou, Martin Buber, p. 11

The Thou meets me through grace – it is not found by seeking. But my speaking of the primary word to it is an act of my being, is indeed the act of my being…

 The primary word I-Thou can be spoken only with the whole being. Concentration and fusion into the whole being can never take place through my agency, nor can it ever take place without me. I become through my relation to the Thou; as I become I, I say Thou.

Tell me, what is my life without your love

Tell me, who am I without you, by my side

Pirqei Avot 1:14

[Hillel] used to say:

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself alone, what am I?

 

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Challenging the Binary Theology of Devarim – Eqev 5776

There is an ancient Talmudic story of the rabbi who loves golf so much, that he simply cannot resist going out on Yom Kippur for a quick nine. So Musaf comes to an end, and he’s out the back door on the way to the golf course. He’s on the first hole, teeing off, and the Qadosh Barukh Hu (God) notices what the rabbi is up to. So God declares to the Heavenly Court, “Watch this!” And He causes a great wind to come up, just as the rabbi’s club is on the downswing, and it blows the ball right into the cup. A hole in one.

An angel asks God, “Why did you do that?” God smiles, and says, “Who can he tell?”

I do not shy away from theology. On the contrary: I think that we need to address God in prime time, because the only way we’ll get past the challenges to be found when discussing God is to tackle them head-on.

What are those challenges? What makes the concept of God so difficult for modern people to wrap their heads around?

  • It’s hard to believe in things we can’t see
  • The human origins of religion
  • The “challenge” of science
  • God does not control the weather, at least the way that the ancient people understood it
  • The difficulty of suffering / evil in the world (Shoah, Katrina, etc.)
  • The problem of gender

Now let’s deconstruct the joke. (I know – that’s the best way to kill a joke!)

Going back to the rabbi and the Yom Kippur golf miracle, what’s problematic about that story is that it is constructed of traditional notions of how we understand God: that is,

  • Sitting on a throne on high, presiding over a heavenly court of angels,
  • Micro-managing things that go on here on Earth,
  • Capable of creating strong winds and heavy rains.

But let’s face it: maybe God does not work like that: interceding directly in our lives to change people and/or things. And if God does not function that way, then perhaps all of what we have received as tradition in Judaism is therefore somehow missing the mark.

But we can, and should, strive to understand God differently. And yet, a key piece of our tradition that feeds into the challenge of contemporary theology is something we have encountered already twice today, the second paragraph of the Shema, drawn from Parashat Eqev. In particular, the following lines (it’s on p. 156 of your siddur also; Deut. 11:13-17):

יג וְהָיָה, אִם-שָׁמֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ אֶל-מִצְו‍ֹתַי, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם, הַיּוֹם–לְאַהֲבָה אֶת-ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם, וּלְעָבְדוֹ, בְּכָל-לְבַבְכֶם, וּבְכָל-נַפְשְׁכֶם.  יד וְנָתַתִּי מְטַר-אַרְצְכֶם בְּעִתּוֹ, יוֹרֶה וּמַלְקוֹשׁ; וְאָסַפְתָּ דְגָנֶךָ, וְתִירֹשְׁךָ וְיִצְהָרֶךָ.  טו וְנָתַתִּי עֵשֶׂב בְּשָׂדְךָ, לִבְהֶמְתֶּךָ; וְאָכַלְתָּ, וְשָׂבָעְתָּ.  טז הִשָּׁמְרוּ לָכֶם, פֶּן יִפְתֶּה לְבַבְכֶם; וְסַרְתֶּם, וַעֲבַדְתֶּם אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים, וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתֶם, לָהֶם.  יז וְחָרָה אַף-ה’ בָּכֶם, וְעָצַר אֶת-הַשָּׁמַיִם וְלֹא-יִהְיֶה מָטָר, וְהָאֲדָמָה, לֹא תִתֵּן אֶת-יְבוּלָהּ; וַאֲבַדְתֶּם מְהֵרָה, מֵעַל הָאָרֶץ הַטֹּבָה, אֲשֶׁר ה’ נֹתֵן לָכֶם.

13. If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Lord your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul, 14. I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil. 15. I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and thus you shall eat your fill. 16. Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them. 17. For the Lord’s anger will flare up against you, and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that the Lord is assigning to you.

In other words, the Torah defines our covenant with God in binary terms: if we do the mitzvot, we get rain, and therefore good crops (remember that to our ancestors living in the Middle East, rain was essential for life). If, however, we do not uphold our end of the covenant, there will be no rain, and we will die. Binary. Either this or that. One or zero.

... of july there wasn t one firework in the sky rain rain please go

When I was at the Jewish Theological Seminary, as a student in one of Rabbi Neil Gillman’s theology courses, we were actually encouraged to challenge our understanding of how God works.

So we learned not only to address theology directly, but also to revisit our most fundamental assumptions about God, the Torah, and Jewish practice. And that is why the second paragraph of the Shema, the least-known part of the most-familiar prayer in the Jewish canon is particularly captivating to me.

There is almost something embarrassing about these lines, because we do not literally believe it. A common Sefaradi custom is that in congregations where every word is recited aloud, two verses in the middle of this paragraph are NEVER chanted audibly during services. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, one of Rabbi Gillman’s teachers at JTS and founder of what ultimately became the Reconstructionist movement, replaced that paragraph with another in his first Reconstructionist siddur.

But here’s the upshot: we are Yisrael – the people who struggle with God. And we can struggle with this theology. In fact, we have been doing it for two millennia. Here is just one example from the Talmud (BT Berakhot 7a), where the rabbis imagined Moshe Rabbeinu asking God about the eternal problem of why there is suffering in the world, even among those who follow the mitzvot:

אמר לפניו רבש”ע, מפני מה יש צדיק וטוב לו ויש צדיק ורע לו? יש רשע וטוב לו ויש רשע ורע לו

Moshe asked before God, “Master of the Universe, why is there one righteous person enjoying prosperity and another righteous person afflicted with adversity? Why is there one wicked person enjoying prosperity and another wicked person afflicted with adversity?”

In other words, Moshe is asking God that, given the information that we see on a daily basis, this traditional theology is woefully inaccurate. And we all know this intuitively; committing oneself to mitzvot does not ward off terminal diseases; likewise, eating shrimp (e.g.) will not cause you to lose your livelihood; all the more so, it cannot be that if Hayyim eats shrimp, that Yankel loses his job. So the way the covenant is framed in Parashat Eqev cannot be accurate.

In what amounts to a conclusion to this passage, the rabbis merely throw up their hands and say, effectively, “Well, we do not really know how God works.”

דא”ר מאיר שתים נתנו לו ואחת לא נתנו לו שנא’ (שמות לג, יט) וחנתי את אשר אחון אע”פ שאינו הגון ורחמתי את אשר ארחם אע”פ שאינו הגון

… R. Meir said (that God granted two of Moses’ requests and refused one.) As it is said,”I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious” (Exod. xxxiii. 19), i.e. although he may not be deserving; “And I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (ibid.), i.e. although he may not be deserving.

Not very satisfying, right?

And so we have continued to search as a people for answers to why this whole covenant thing is not so simple. And meanwhile, we continue reciting the second paragraph of the Shema, twice a day, evening and morning.

Amber waves of grain | Beautiful places | Pinterest

But perhaps one thing that Rabbi Gillman tried to teach us was that the search is as valuable as the answer; that the philosophical argument is really what sustains us. “I am a liturgical traditionalist,” he told us, “but not a literalist.” That is, unlike Rabbi Kaplan, he continues to recite the traditional words of tefillah, including the bit about mitzvot and rain, but re-interprets those words to suit his theology.

When the traditional text is uncomfortable, we do not toss it out; rather we seek a different way to understand God.

One way we can tackle the second paragraph of Shema is to consider our values as a society.

“If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Lord your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul,”

If we take the holy opportunities of tefillah / prayer, Shabbat, celebrating holidays and lifecycle events, kashrut, etc. seriously, and if we understand that fundamentally these activities are about maintaining and improving the sanctity in all of our relationships,

“… I will grant the rain for your land in season, …”

then we will sensitize ourselves to the everyday holiness to be found all around us, and we will make good choices that will support healthy living and good-neighborliness, yielding a better, more just, more equitable society. We will be bathed in the cleansing rain of respect, gratitude, humility, cooperation, and mutual understanding.

“Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them….”

Do not worship at the altars of greed, selfishness, materialism, anger, fear, or hatred,

“For the Lord’s anger will flare up against you, and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain…”

because you will destroy yourselves in the resulting chaos. Your parched souls will lead you to an unpleasant end; while your cities will be swallowed by rising seas and the forces of terror and racism will overwhelm your democratic institutions.

****

What we learn from this forlorn paragraph of the Shema is that there are real consequences to our actions, even though they may not be what our ancestors thought they were. And we can understand God’s role in our world quite differently. When we make the holy choice, we improve our world collectively. God, however we envision or understand God, has fashioned our world in this way.

Not, “If you do X then you get Y,” not binary, not one or zero, but rather, the message is that we have to work to create a world in which God’s presence may be felt.

We all have that potential, as individuals and as a community. And that might be a better approach to understanding God.

Shabbat shalom!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/27/2016.)

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