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Finding Comfort in Hesed – Shabbat Nahamu 5780

Two days ago we observed the low point of the Jewish year, the fast of Tish’ah BeAv., the ninth day of the month of Av. It is, of course, a day on which we remember all of the greatest tragedies of Jewish history: the destructions of the First and Second Temples, Jerusalem laid waste, exile, dispersion, expulsion, and genocide. It is the only full, 25-hour fast aside from Yom Kippur, and still holds a great resonance for many of us, even though most of the events we recall on this day happened hundreds and thousands of years ago.

Ophel Archaeological Park, at the southern end of the Western Wall, the exterior wall of the Temple Mount plaza, destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE

It was difficult on this particularly challenging Tish’ah BeAv to think only of the past. Our present moment is filled with so many things to mourn: more than 154,000 dead in America, and approaching 700,000 dead around the world; the social isolation and economic fallout and joblessness caused by the pandemic; ongoing street protests against police brutality; federal troops on the ground in some cities, lobbing tear gas and arresting American citizens; the undeniable rise of anti-Semitism.

Where are the words of comfort for this time? 

On Thursday morning, as we chanted the Shaharit / morning service in mournful tones, we recited the haftarah / prophetic reading unique to Tish’ah BeAv, words from the prophet Jeremiah (8:23), who is arguably the best prophet when it comes to grief and loss:

מִֽי־יִתֵּ֤ן רֹאשִׁי֙ מַ֔יִם וְעֵינִ֖י מְק֣וֹר דִּמְעָ֑ה וְאֶבְכֶּה֙ יוֹמָ֣ם וָלַ֔יְלָה אֵ֖ת חַֽלְלֵ֥י בַת־עַמִּֽי׃

Oh, that my head were water, My eyes a fount of tears! Then would I weep day and night for the slain of my poor people.

Water, of course, is not only associated with tears; it is also the source of life. Jeremiah is requesting not only the ability to cry with abandon, but also to live and give life. Water also suggests, in a more spiritual sense, the sustaining salvation, the life-force that is Divine in nature (cf. Isaiah 12:3, which we say at havdalah every Saturday night, as Shabbat draws to a close: Ush’avtem mayim besasson mimmay’anei hayeshua / Draw water in joy from the wells of salvation.) Who will give me the spiritual sustenance to face the great challenges of this broken world? Where will I find, in my parched soul, the nourishment to rise again tomorrow morning and confront yet another day of devastation? How can I care for those around me, when I am not sure I can even care for myself?

On this Shabbat Nahamu, this Shabbat of comfort, I ask, where is that comfort?

I think that it is only natural at this time to look heavenward, hands outstretched, and ask God directly for some kind of help. In the enduring words of Psalm 121:1, Esa einai el heharim, me-ayin yavo ezri / I lift up my eyes to the mountains; from where will my help come?

In the wake of the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in the year 70 CE, our ancestors must have been devastated. Everything that they knew about the order of the world had changed effectively overnight. There would be no more sacrifices; there would be no more priesthood. The central pillar of their connection to God was gone.

Now, it may have taken nearly two millennia for us to be able to say this, but maybe the Romans did the Jews a sort of favor. Yes, you have heard me say this before: we now offer the words of our hearts and minds in place of animal sacrifices, surely a less-barbaric approach to worship, and definitely a form more palatable to vegetarians. Our tradition also became portable, decentralized, no longer tied to a particular place and building, and somewhat more democratic, not held in the hands of a few Kohanim / priests, but rather distributed amongst the scholars called rabbis, wherever they lived. 

But there is something more. In particular, the destruction of the Temple and the end of the sacrifice system gave us another path to forgiveness. Consider the following passage, which appears on the bottom of p. 14 if you have the classic Siddur Sim Shalom:

Avot deRabbi Natan 4:5

פעם אחת היה רבן יוחנן בן זכאי יוצא מירושלים והיה רבי יהושע הולך אחריו וראה בית המקדש חרב אר״י אוי לנו על זה שהוא חרב מקום שמכפרים בו עונותיהם של ישראל. א״ל בני אל ירע לך יש לנו כפרה אחרת שהיא כמותה ואיזה זה גמ״ח שנאמר כי חסד חפצתי ולא זבח

Once, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai left Jerusalem, and Rabbi Yehoshua followed after him. Rabbi Yehoshua saw the Holy Temple destroyed, and he lamented: ‘Woe to us, for this is destroyed—the place where all of Israel’s sins are forgiven!’ Rabban Yohanan replied, “My child, do not be distressed, for we have a form of atonement just like it. And what is it? Gemilut hasadim, performing acts of lovingkindness, as it says, ‘For I desire hesed / lovingkindness, not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6). 

This charming story from the midrashic interpretation of Pirqei Avot called Avot deRabbi Natan is a classic rabbinic re-framing of Jewish life. Yes, the Beit HaMiqdash, the Temple is destroyed, and Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai and Rabbi Yehoshua were there to witness the destruction and to continue to see the ruins for some time after. Rabban YbZ, despite having been there for the cataclysm (and, as the midrash tells us, smuggled out by his students in a coffin), is not fazed by the loss of the center of the Jewish world. Instead, he reminds R. Yehoshua that, despite the fact that we can no longer offer sacrifices, we have another means of bringing about teshuvah, of repairing ourselves in the wake of transgression: gemilut hasadim, acts of lovingkindness.

And to put a fine point on it, YbZ quotes the book of Hosea, written eight centuries before any of these events take place. The Qadosh Barukh Hu (Holy Blessed One) does not desire our animal sacrifices. Do you think God needs us to burn animals on an altar? What God really needs from us is for humans to go out of their way to treat others respectfully; to go the extra mile to take care of those in need; to commit to tzedaqah, charitable acts of righteousness; to literally clothe the naked and feed the hungry and house the homeless and comfort the bereaved and free the oppressed.

Rabban YbZ did not quote my favorite “refrigerator-magnet” verse from the prophet Micah (6:8), but he could have:

הִגִּ֥יד לְךָ֛ אָדָ֖ם מַה־טּ֑וֹב וּמָֽה־ה’ דּוֹרֵ֣שׁ מִמְּךָ֗ כִּ֣י אִם־עֲשׂ֤וֹת מִשְׁפָּט֙ וְאַ֣הֲבַת חֶ֔סֶד וְהַצְנֵ֥עַ לֶ֖כֶת עִם־אֱ-לֹהֶֽיךָ׃ 

“[God] has told you, O man, 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.”

Hevreh, I must say that I have been thinking a lot lately about what the world will be like, in a couple months (let’s hope it’s not too much more than that) when a vaccine for this virus is available, and enough people get the vaccine so that our lives can return to something resembling normalcy.

Will we continue to cautiously tiptoe around one another, maintaining our social distance? Will we avoid gathering in public places: theaters, restaurants, libraries, synagogues, like we used to, for fear of aerosolized viruses? Will I be able to shake anybody’s hands ever again?

Or will we all run outdoors and give hugs to passing strangers? Will we commit ourselves anew to offering our hands in assistance to neighbors in need? Will we reach out with both arms to others as we do justice, love goodness, and walk modestly with God?

The way out of our current state is not by reading kinnot, poems of lament, like the ones recited on Tish’ah BeAv. On the contrary: the kinnot, and indeed the Book of Eikhah / Lamentations that we read on Wednesday evening, the fasting, the self-denial, the eschewing of leather shoes, signs of luxury are there to remind us that there is an end to suffering; that suffering, in fact, precedes redemption. That we can actually bring about the comfort we seek by recommitting to gemilut hasadim

We will be redeemed. But we do not have to wait for a vaccine to do hesed right now! Yes, gemilut hasadim includes some activities that must be performed in person, and maybe some of those things should not be done right now. But if you have money, if you still have a job, you can give tzedaqah. Find the organizations that are doing good work for people, and donate. Seek out the institutions that you want to ensure will still be here when all is said and done (synagogues, for example, which rely on charitable donations to survive), and make a donation.
We have a means to bring about redemption. Let us recommit to hesed to ensure that our world grows in justice and goodness, so that we may continue to walk modestly with God. That will surely bring us some comfort, even as we remain apart from one another.

Safam’s “Nahamu, Nahamu” performed by alumni of the collegiate Jewish a capella group Pizmon

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 8/1/2020.)

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A National Day of Mourning / Shabbat Hazon 5780

You may find this hard to believe, but I once saw the hip-hop group Public Enemy live in concert. It was 1991, and I happened to be visiting a friend at Yale when they played in New Haven. I knew very little about what we called “rap” in the 1980s, and although I had the sense that Public Enemy was somewhat controversial, I figured it might be a way to expand my musical horizons.

Public Enemy

I enjoyed the show, and I was blissfully unaware that some of the controversy surrounding the group was about somebody who was by then a former member, Professor Griff, whose real name is Richard Griffin. Griffin had been kicked out of the group in 1989 for making anti-Semitic statements in an interview with the Washington Times. Among the things he said were, ”The Jews are wicked. And we can prove this,” and that the Jews are responsible for ”the majority of wickedness that goes on across the globe.” 

So when an interview of Richard Griffin surfaced two weeks ago, by celebrity Nick Cannon  (who, I must admit, I had never heard of – perhaps you get a sense that pop culture is not really my bag?), in which Cannon indulged in some classic anti-Semitic accusations (e.g. that “Zionists” and “Rothschilds” hold lots of power), I was surprised to learn that apparently Griffin had not made amends for past transgressions. Cannon, who as a result of the interview lost his position as host of comedy improv show Wild ‘N Out, offered a pareve non-apology for his remarks.

Meanwhile, Philadelphia Eagles’ wide receiver DeSean Jackson recently posted an inflammatory statement on Instagram, incorrectly attributed to Adolf Hitler, about how the Jews “blackmail” and “extort” America, and their intent for “world domination.” Mr Jackson later apologized, and has been in dialogue with a 94-year-old Holocaust survivor in an attempt to learn. (I must say that I am indeed puzzled that a Black person could deliberately quote Hitler, whether the quote was real or not.)

But the upshot of these incidents is that my favorite Pittsburgh Steeler, offensive tackle Zach Banner (OK, so I had also not heard of Mr. Banner before last week) posted a moving video in response to Mr. Jackson, in which he drew on his experience as a Pittsburgh resident in the context of the Tree of Life shooting. In it, he stated:

…We need to understand Jewish people deal with the same amount of hate and similar hardships and hard times. I’m not trying to get emotional right now, but I want to preach to the black and brown community that we need to uplift them and put our arms around them. Just as much when we talk about Black Lives Matter and elevating ourselves, we can’t do that while stepping on the back of other people to elevate ourselves, and that’s very, very important to me, and it should be important to everyone. . . .

We can’t preach equality but in result flip the script and change the hierarchy, if that makes sense. Change your heart, put your arm around people, and let’s all uplift each other.

Steelers Offensive Tackle Zach Banner

Mr. Banner’s words speak for themselves; we must all be united in the struggle against hate.

In a similar vein, basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, now a columnist for the Hollywood Reporter, wrote a column asking, “Where is the outrage over anti-Semitism in sports and in Hollywood?” Mr. Abdul-Jabbar, noting the disturbing recent rise in anti-Jewish hate crimes in recent years, called out rapper Ice Cube, basketball player  Stephen Jackson, and Chelsea Handler (who is, in fact, Jewish) for promoting anti-Semitic material, and drew a direct link from the spreading of such material via social media to the Tree of Life massacre.

With all of the concern right now in the world for how Black people have been treated by white America, something which I have spoken about repeatedly over the last several weeks, we cannot lose sight of the fact that anti-Semitism has a much longer history than European exploitation of African peoples. We cannot forget that anti-Semitism is pernicious and ever-present; it is, you might say, the “Ur-racism.” We cannot forget that anti-Jewish conspiracy theories still infuse much of the world. We cannot forget that these theories motivate actual killers, and we will not forget that one of those killers was driven by this nonsense to murder people that many of us actually knew personally, a half a mile away from where I stand.

So thank God for Black allies like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Zach Banner. Thank God that there are people who understand the power of language, the danger of ideas. Thank God that there are some who get that hatred of any group is all cut from the same cloth, that, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it in 1963 in his essay, “Religion and Race,” “What begins as inequality of some inevitably ends as inequality of all.”

Five days from now is Tish’ah BeAv, the saddest day of the Jewish year, the only full 25-hour fast aside from Yom Kippur. It is a day on which we recall all of the greatest tragedies of Jewish history: the destruction of the First and Second Temples, the Expulsion from Spain, the crushing of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and so forth. It is a day for literally sitting on the floor and weeping, for not bathing or doing anything that brings enjoyment. It is the day of the Jewish calendar on which we recall our oppression and dispersion and persecution throughout our lengthy history.

Detail from the Arch of Titus, showing Romans carrying away holy objects from the Second Temple

But Tish’ah BeAv is not merely a day on which to be hungry, thirsty, and miserable. It is also a day on which doing so should make us reflect on our behavior, on our words, and our relationships, stirring our souls in the direction of action. We read Eikhah, the Book of Lamentations, to remind us of the destruction of Jerusalem; indeed, the very first verse, which portrays Jerusalem as a bereft widow, always fills me with woe:

אֵיכָ֣ה ׀ יָשְׁבָ֣ה בָדָ֗ד הָעִיר֙ רַבָּ֣תִי עָ֔ם הָיְתָ֖ה כְּאַלְמָנָ֑ה רַּבָּ֣תִי בַגּוֹיִ֗ם שָׂרָ֙תִי֙ בַּמְּדִינ֔וֹת הָיְתָ֖ה לָמַֽס׃

Alas! Lonely sits the city once great with people! She that was great among nations is become like a widow; The princess among states has become a slave.

The Talmud teaches us (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma 9b) that the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE due to the most serious transgressions according to Jewish law: murder, idolatry, and inappropriate sexual liaisons. But the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE due to sin’at hinnam, causeless hatred among the Jews.

And, ladies and gentlemen, the world is still filled with causeless hatred. And one of the messages of Tish’ah BeAv is that we are responsible for eliminating it. We remember what and who we have lost; we acknowledge our suffering; and we rebuild as we head toward the coronation days of Rosh HaShanah.

And so I call on all of us to consider this Tish’ah BeAv not just a national day of mourning for the Jews, but a national day of mourning for all of us: for the 150,000 Americans who have succumbed to Covid-19, yes, but also for all of the forms of destruction wrought by sin’at hinnam, causeless hatred – from the destruction of Black Wall Street in Tulsa to the internment of American citizens of Japanese ancestry during World War II to the Shoah to the Tree of Life murders to the killing of George Floyd by a police officer. This Thursday is a day on which all of us should reach deep down inside ourselves to find and acknowledge the sin’at hinnam within each of us as individuals and as a society, and to pledge to stamp it out.

Antique illustration of people (veiled women, men and kids) praying at the Place of Weeping (part of the Western Wall, Wailing Wall or Kotel in the Old City of Jerusalem, Israel)

And that of course applies to the Jews as well as to everybody else; just as Messrs. Abdul-Jabbar and Banner have called out anti-Semitism promoted by Black people, so too must we the Jews call out racism and other forms of hatred in our own community when we see it.

At this particular moment in history, we have a lot for which to mourn, on this most mournful day of the Jewish calendar. But let us turn this mourning into a call to action, to improve ourselves and work harder to fix this broken world, to reach out to others in partnership and in the spirit of teaching and learning from one another, so that detestable ideas of any sort about other groups of people may be expunged from the collective human heart.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 7/25/2020.)

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A Tish’ah Be’Av Message on Recent Ominous Events in Israel – Devarim 5778

It was one of those weeks that a rabbi dreads: I had a good chunk of this sermon already written when I was walloped on Thursday by two big pieces of news out of Israel. Those of you who were here last Shabbat know that I spoke about my visit to the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv two weeks ago. I was planning to follow up on that discussion, but the news kind of hijacked the sermon, so I had to retool extensively at the last minute.

Here is what happened on Thursday (7/19/2018):

  1. The Knesset passed a very controversial bill into law. Known as the Nation-State Law, the law states that Israel is the “national home of the Jewish people.” Now this is not really a revolutionary idea, and to some extent many Jews in Israel and around the world already think of it as exactly that. But there are a couple of problematic features, some of which were toned down in the final version of the bill. The law downgrades Arabic from being an official language to having a “special status.” Israel is a multi-cultural democracy, and the challenge that democracy faces when one ethnic or religious group is favored over another is in play here. Can Israel in fact continue to be a democracy if 15% of its citizens are further alienated?Another problematic feature of the law is the following passage:“The state shall act within the Diaspora to strengthen the affinity between the state and members of the Jewish people.” The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) has characterized this clause as “patronizing to Jews outside of Israel, ignoring the fact that Israel-Diaspora relations are a two-way street.” The JFNA believes that this language was promoted by religious parties to “limit the impact of Diaspora Jewry on religious pluralism in Israel… [It] was meant to avoid claims that Israel needs to further religious pluralism in Israel as part of an effort to advance its connection with Diaspora Jews.”
  2. Rabbi Dubi Haiyun, the rabbi of Congregation Moriah in Haifa, a Masorti (Conservative) congregation, was arrested by local police at 5:30 AM at his home, at the behest of the local Rabbinate, ostensibly for performing marriages not sanctioned by the State. Rabbi Haiyun was questioned extensively and released, but it appears that the Israeli Rabbinate, which controls matters of personal status in Israel, wanted to “rough him up.” Many rabbis, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, perform weddings outside the bounds of the official Israeli Rabbinate for various reasons; these weddings are not recognized by the State, and neither are civil unions. This is one more sad chapter in the ongoing struggle with the Israeli Rabbinate’s hegemony over Judaism in Israel, something which has contributed to the growing rift with the largely-non-Orthodox North American Jewish population.

rabbi dubi haiyun
Rabbi Dubi Haiyun

Now, I must say that I am not inclined to air Israel’s dirty laundry in public. But I am certainly inclined to put this in the greater context of what it means to be Jewish today, and in particular what it means to be Jewish in the Diaspora.

Why are the Jews still here? Why are we here today, in Pittsburgh of all places, very far from where we started? Why are we celebrating a new baby girl today, and a young couple about to be married? Why are we singing ancient words in a foreign language that none of us speak?

I have a theory about this: it’s because of argument. Two Jews, three opinions. It’s all over every page of the Talmud. It’s an ancient and modern tradition. We don’t agree with each other on anything.

Actually, let me refine that: it’s because of respectful disagreement- agreeing to disagree, and yet still to hang together as a tribe.

Today we commemorate the destruction of the Second Temple (among other things) as we observe the fast day of Tish’ah Be’Av. Since the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 CE, Judaism thrived in Diaspora precisely because there was no one central authority. Yes, there came to be voices on the Jewish bookshelf who speak very loudly: Moshe Rabbeinu, of course, but also Rabbi Akiva, and Rambam and Ramban and Rashi, and many others. Some of those guys disagreed with each other quite vehemently. (Do you know why your mezuzot are at an angle? As a compromise between Rashi, who believed that they should be upright, and his grandson Rabbeinu Tam, who argued that they should be horizontal.)

But we have no pope. We have no supreme authority whose word is Divine. We are all just trying to understand God and what God wants of us, and nobody has a lock on the truth. We are all Jews, attempting to find our way through life, making a living, raising families, and trying to frame essential moments in holiness.

I was mulling over unity and disunity in Israel when I was struck by a line from the beginning of Devarim / Deuteronomy, which we read from today (Deut. 1:5):

בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן, בְּאֶרֶץ מוֹאָב, הוֹאִיל מֹשֶׁה בֵּאֵר אֶת-הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת לֵאמֹר

On the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to expound this teaching (Torah).

Ramban (13th century Spain, then moved to Israel; was a proto-Zionist, believing that making aliyah / moving to Israel is a mitzvah / commandment) says the following about “Moses undertook to expound this Torah”: This implies that he was also repeating the commandments already given and adding certain details.

The implication of Ramban’s comment is that Moshe is already disagreeing with himself, already modifying his first take. We are a people who have been arguing with ourselves from, if you will, the very beginning.

And yet, what has managed to keep us Jewish is that very disagreement. Why are we still here? Because it is the argument which has kept us in dialogue with ourselves; we have continued to revisit our texts and traditions over and over, to interpret and reinterpret, and derive value from them that continues in every generation to teach us to lead better, holier, more fulfilling lives.

So what does that mean for Israel? As long as the disagreement is civil, as long as we can live with each other and continue to talk with each other and celebrate and grieve together, then Judaism will continue for at least another 2,000 years. As long as we can respect each others’ opinions and customs, and acknowledge that we can all daven (pray)at the Kotel / Western Wall or anywhere in Israel according to our own customs, and not be assaulted by police or people throwing chairs or whatever, then we will continue to thrive as a people.

If, however, the Orthodox authorities continue to work against the interests of the non-Orthodox world, if the democratic character of the State of Israel continues to suffer, the future does not look so bright. The Talmud tells us that the very reason we fast tonight and tomorrow for Tish’ah Be’Av, the reason the Second Temple was destroyed, is because of sin’at hinnam, because the Jews’ behavior was rife with baseless hatred.

I prefer a vision of tolerance, of democracy, of peace and mutual respect and understanding.

Israel’s largest base of support in the Diaspora is non-Orthodox Jews. It is us, ladies and gentlemen.

Last week, to drive the point home about Rabin’s life, and his personal understanding of the costs of both war and peace, I shared with you what was widely known to be his favorite song: HaRe’ut, the Fellowship. Today I am going to share with you another song which captures, to me and particularly to many Israelis, the challenges of every Jewish person’s relationship with Israel. Titled “Ein li eretz aheret” / “I have no other country,” it was originally recorded by Gali Atari in 1982 (lyrics by Ehud Manor, melody by Corinne Allal, who also performed it).

אין לי ארץ אחרת
גם אם אדמתי בוערת
רק מילה בעברית חודרת
אל עורקיי, אל נשמתי
בגוף כואב, בלב רעב
כאן הוא ביתי

לא אשתוק, כי ארצי
שינתה את פניה
לא אוותר לה,
אזכיר לה,
ואשיר כאן באוזניה
עד שתפקח את עיניה

Ein li eretz aheret
Gam im admati bo’eret
Rak mila be’ivrit
hoderet el orkai el nishmati
Beguf ko’ev, belev ra’ev
Kan hu beiti 

Lo eshtok
ki artzi shinta et paneha
Lo avater lehazkir la
Ve’ashir kan be’ozneha
Ad shetifkah et eineha

I have no other country
even if my land is aflame
Just a word in Hebrew
pierces my veins and my soul
With a painful body, with a hungry heart,
Here is my home.

I will not stay silent
because my country changed her face
I will not give up reminding her
And sing in her ears
until she will open her eyes

I love Israel passionately; although I am 100% American, there have been times when I have felt that Israel is the nation where I truly belong, even with all of her challenges.

After Rabbi Haiyun was released by the police, he went to Jerusalem to do what he had originally been scheduled to do: teach at a forum about Tish’ah Be’Av convened by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, which apparently the President features every year as a reminder that we have to overcome sin’at hinnam, baseless hatred, even today, in Israel and around the world.

rivlin panel

President Rivlin reminded those present that the kinnot, the dirges we will chant tomorrow morning on Tish’ah Be’Av are not merely medieval expressions of mourning. Rather, they must teach us how to be different people. How to begin again after destruction.

And I would add that all of the lamenting of Tish’ah Be’Av teaches us how to make sure that we continue to talk to each other and live with each other respectfully, even while we disagree, to work for the betterment of ourselves as individuals, our relationships, the State of Israel, and everything that we do as Jews. If we do not, shame on us all.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 7/20/2018.)