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Festivals Sermons Yizkor

Joy and Grief – Eighth Day of Pesah, 5777

As I was preparing for the first few days of Pesah, I happened upon a thought-provoking piece of commentary in the Rabbinical Assembly haggadah, Feast of Freedom. It was a quote from the venerable Hertz humash (Pentateuch and Haftorahs: Hebrew Text English Translation and Commentary, edited by Dr. J H Hertz, 2nd ed., p. 397) about what set the Israelites apart from the Egyptians. The source of our ancestors’ faith was the Tree of Life (Etz Hayyim), while the Egyptians emphasized the cult of death:

When we compare the Egyptian attitude towards death with that of the Torah, we see in the latter what appears to be a deliberate aim to wean the Israelites from Egyptian superstition. On the one hand, there is not a word concerning reward and punishment in the Hereafter; on the other hand, there is rigorous proscription of all magic and sorcery, of sacrificing to the dead, as well as every form of alleged intercourse with the world of spirits. Israel’s faith is a religion of life, not of death; a religion that declares man’s [sic] humanity to man as the most acceptable form of adoration of the One God.

The Torah sets up the expectation that we should dwell on life, not on death; that what counts is not what comes next, but what happens here on Earth. We do not, as the ancient Egyptians did, bury people with all their material possessions in array around them. On the contrary, we expect that we will take nothing with us when we leave this life.

And, unlike certain parts of Christianity, our goal is not to behave well in this world so that we may enjoy the next. Our goal is to live a good life right now because that is good for ourselves and good for those around us to do so.

Of course, Judaism has its own framework for mourning. Consider these things: many Jews who are not so rigorous with respect to many of the daily aspects of Jewish practice (kashrut / dietary laws, Shabbat, Talmud Torah / studying the texts of our tradition, etc.) are suddenly very traditional in the context of death and bereavement. People who do not show up for Sukkot or Shavuot will come to say the Mourner’s Qaddish on a Tuesday evening for yahrzeit. As may be obvious today, the Yizkor service still draws a crowd. (I’m told that there was a time in New York’s Garment District when there were back-to-back Yizkor services all day long on the last Yom Tov / festival day, so people in the neighborhood could pop in and then go right back to work.)

But of course there is a reason for it. Grief requires a framework. It’s a powerful motivator to reach out: to tradition, to ritual, to customs that our ancestors have practiced for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

And yet, one might make the case that the larger framework of this day is still that Tree of Life: we read the Torah today, we recited words of gratitude and praise and acknowledgment of the holiness of this day, and all of that is about life, not death or mourning.

redwood stump

Here is a relevant question for this day, for this moment:

Today is a Yom Tov, literally, a “good day.” It is a festival celebrating a joyous moment in our national story. And yet it is also a day on which we remember those whom we have lost, who have departed from this world. Is this a day to rejoice, or to grieve? Can we be happy today? Can we recall with sadness those who have left this world?

As Rabbi Jeremy Markiz, our Director of Youth Tefillah, is fond of saying, it’s a “both-and.” We are joyful, and we grieve. And, of course, our entire reality incorporates happy and sad moments, and everything else on the spectrum of human emotion. Sometimes these emotions bump right up against each other. That’s how life goes.

Even within the context of bereavement, we remember our departed loved ones with both sadness AND joy. We miss the good moments AND the painful moments that we shared. (I always remind families that humorous stories about the deceased are completely appropriate at a funeral; the laughter helps us to work through our grief.)

Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav, the founder of the Bratzlaver hasidic movement, is somewhat famous for emphasizing the joy in life. If you have been in Israel lately, and you happened to be in a public place where an outrageously-decorated van with huge speakers on top suddenly pulled up, and a bunch of guys in tye-dye shirts and peyes (sidecurls) jumped out and started dancing around to the music, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Those are the Bratzlavers. One of Rabbi Nahman’s most famous quotes is:

מצווה גדולה להיות בשמחה תמיד

Mitzvah gedolah lihyot besimhah tamid.

It is a great mitzvah to be joyful all the time.

Now of course, that’s ridiculous. Nobody can be always happy. You cannot even force yourself to do so. Even though the Mishnah advises us (Pirqei Avot 1:15) to greet everybody with “sever panim yafot,” a cheerful countenance, we occasionally have to smile with gritted teeth.

There was a fascinating article in the New Yorker last summer about happiness. It was about the Aristotelian theory of happiness and how research into the human genome suggests that this approach to happiness is more effective than hedonism, that is, pursuing physical pleasure for its own sake.

In his Nicomachean Ethics, [Aristotle] described the idea of eudaemonic happiness, which said, essentially, that happiness was not merely a feeling, or a golden promise, but a practice. ‘It’s living in a way that fulfills our purpose,’ [said] Helen Morales, a classicist at the University of California, Santa Barbara…

The researchers determined that the expression of some genes was affected by our moods, and specifically that misery and loneliness were likely to yield negative health effects. So they tested for the expression of these genes in people who pursued either hedonistic or eudaemonic happiness, and found that only Aristotle’s way was the true way to stave off the expression of the undesirable genes.

Aristotle2

The study indicated that people high in eudaemonic happiness were more likely to show the opposite gene profile of those suffering from social isolation: inflammation was down, while antiviral response was up.

Hedonistic happiness yielded nothing.

So how do we achieve that eudaemonic happiness? What is the magic formula to living a healthy life?

For Aristotle, it required a combination of rationality and arete—a kind of virtue, although that concept has since been polluted by Christian moralizing. “It did mean goodness, but it was also about pursuing excellence,” Morales told [the author]. “For Usain Bolt, some of the training it takes to be a great athlete is not pleasurable, but fulfilling your purpose as a great runner brings happiness.” Fredrickson, meanwhile, believes that a key facet of eudaemonia is connection. “It refers to those aspects of well-being that transcend immediate self-gratification and connect people to something larger,” she said.

In other words, connection, community, and qedushah / holiness, the magic formula that the Etz Hayyim, the Tree of Life offers us. Eudaemonic happiness comes from living within the framework of our tradition, which emphasizes life over death, of meaningful joy derived from the holy opportunities offered here at Beth Shalom in the context of Jewish practice and wisdom.

Jewish life gives us purpose; it is a practice that inherently brings us happiness and health. The joy comes from that framework, from pursuing connection, community, and qedushah / holiness.

Recalling those who gave us life, who brought us smiles and loved us and supported us and taught us and nourished us, that can be a joyous thing when it is part of our eudaemonic practice. Yes, it’s solemn. Yes, it’s a weighty matter. But it is, nonetheless, joyful.

Meaning. Purpose. That’s what ultimately makes us happy, and enables us to contend with grief. And that meaning must depend on our embracing today, to find meaning in our everyday interactions, to frame them in holiness, to seek out the opportunities to improve our relationships with others and with the world.

So yes, even as we recall those whom we have lost, we derive meaning and hence happiness in doing so. This is healthy and leads to better outcomes for all of us.

So yes, today is in fact a joyful day, one on which we allow ourselves space to grieve as well. It’s a “both-and.”

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, end of Pesah, 4/18/2017.)

Categories
Sermons

Responding to Richard Spencer (or, Torah is Love) – Vayyiggash 5777

Some of you know that my first experience in graduate school was at Texas A&M University, in College Station, Texas. A&M is one of the largest public universities in the country – today nearly 60,000 students, although when I was there it was only about 43,000 (still pretty big). However, in Texas, if you’re Jewish, you are much more likely to go to the University of Texas in Austin. A&M’s Jewish population is only a few hundred, whereas UT’s is a couple thousand.

Ironically, it was my attending Texas A&M which brought be back to Judaism. Although I had grown up in a fairly traditional household, I had found that at as an undergraduate at Cornell, I was not so interested in Jewish life. It took relocation to the buckle of the Bible Belt, to one of the most socially and politically conservative corners of this country, to one of the most heavily fundamentalist Christian enclaves, to rediscover my heritage. The Hillel rabbi at A&M, Rabbi Peter Tarlow, figured strongly in my return. (His wife, by the way, Dr. Sara Alpern, is a Pittsburgher.)

Texas A&M opt-out bill faces obstacles | The Baylor Lariat

Rabbi Tarlow retired a few years back, and the new Hillel rabbi is a young, energetic fellow named Matt Rosenberg. Rabbi Rosenberg was faced with an unusual challenge recently: Richard Spencer, the white supremacist leader who has come to the fore in recent months, was invited to speak on campus by an alumnus who is known for supporting such causes. Apparently, Texas A&M has a policy that any alum can rent a room in the student union on campus for any event, and the university has no right to cancel an event of which it disapproves.

So, given that Spencer was coming to speak on campus, and given that there was nothing that anybody could do to prevent it, a whole host of student groups mounted an anti-Spencer campaign. The university itself hosted a protest rally at the same time as Spencer’s speech in Kyle Field, the legendary stadium that is home to the Aggie football team and the Twelfth Man tradition.

Among the loudest protesters was Rabbi Matt Rosenberg, who spent tireless weeks rallying A&M students against Spencer. When the day came, Rabbi Rosenberg found himself in Mr. Spencer’s press conference before the speech, and was called on by Spencer to ask a question. The exchange did not go well; Rabbi Rosenberg conceded that it was not one of his best moments. (You can see this online here.)

Rabbi Matt Rosenberg: You come here with a message of radical exclusion; My tradition teaches a message of radical inclusion and love. That love is embodied by Torah. Will you sit down and study Torah with me and learn to love?

Richard Spencer: OK, I can’t promise to study with you. That’s kind of a biggie… I will say this. I will promise to talk with you. And I will say this: Do you really want “radical inclusion” into the State of Israel? And, by that, I mean, radical inclusion: maybe all the Middle East could go move into Tel Aviv or Jerusalem? Would you really want that? … You’re not answering.

RMR: I’m not.

RS: Look, in terms of the Jewish people, why are they a people? They are a people precisely because they did not engage in radical inclusion. Jews exist precisely because you did not assimilate to the gentiles. It’s axiomatic. That is why the Jews are a coherent people with a history and a culture and a future. It is because you had a sense of yourselves. I respect that about you. I want my people to have that same sense of themselves. I want my people to survive in the future.

***

In his own defense in the Forward, Rabbi Rosenberg pointed out that he had never been trained in debating skills. I am pretty certain that I would not have done any better, because frankly, I did not see that coming.

What Spencer did, in a few sentences, was to twist all of recent Jewish history to suit his own purposes.  There are multiple reasons why the Jews are still here: Yes, because we have held fast to our traditions and our ancient texts; yes, because we have stuck together, but also yes, because for thousands of years we were prohibited from mixing with non-Jews – by ourselves, our own customs and institutions, but even more so by the people who oppressed us: the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Romans, but also the English, who kicked the Jews out of England and Wales in 1290, the French, who kicked the Jews out of France in 1306, the Austrians, who kicked the Jews out of Austria in 1421, and so forth.We cannot forget the Spanish Expulsion in 1492, and the centuries of persecution which preceded it. We cannot forget the pogroms of 19th-century Eastern Europe. We cannot forget Germany of the 1930s and ’40s. And the waves of Arab hatred and riots of the 1950s. And the Iranian revolution of the 1970s. And let us not forget the Jews of Silence, the Soviet Jews, who, once applying to leave for Israel, were punished by the Soviet authorities.

In short, it is people like Richard Spencer who have kept the Jews isolated throughout history. And here is the irony: freedom is a double-edged sword. As much as clinging to our traditions and texts has kept us distinctive, so too has that distinction been reinforced by those who despise us. Let’s face it: why is the intermarriage rate in America so high? Because we have finally gained acceptance. Jews actually make appealing spouses to non-Jews, something that not too long ago was anathema. And you may know that many of those Jews who can now marry non-Jews (since they will now marry us) still feel proud to be Jewish, still feel connected to Judaism in some way. In prior centuries, the only way to join the wider society was to become not Jewish. Today, all doors are open.

So when Richard Spencer tried to cast Jews as an isolationist success story, about people who maintained their identity because they refused to mix with others, he was spinning history for his own agenda, cynically using the Jewish tale of persecution across the ages to justify that very persecution. His people, the haters, are the ones who kept us apart, who kept us in ghettos. His people passed humiliating laws and carried out expulsions and forced conscriptions and forced conversions. People of his kind promulgated the blood libels and ultimately genocide.

White Nationalist Richard Spencer Sparks Protests at Texas A&M

But that was only half of his statement. The other half was about Israel, and it’s an argument that is even more loathsome. He said facetiously, “Maybe all the Middle East could go move into Tel Aviv or Jerusalem? Would you really want that?” His hyperbole played on the fallacious argument that Israel is an apartheid state and used it to justify the separation of Jews from non-Jews. Spencer’s subtext was, “You Jews should understand keeping another people down, right? Because you’re doing it right now in Israel.”

Spencer smiled at this point, because he knew that he had hit Rabbi Rosenberg where it hurts most.

Where to begin on this one? Should I start with my son’s soccer team, HaPoel Deir Hanna, on which Jewish and Arab 16-year-olds, young citizens of the democratic State of Israel, cooperate on the field, on the same team? Should I mention the Muslim and Christian members of the Knesset? Should I recap the entire history of Jewish-Arab conflict on that small strip of land, the opportunities lost, the blood that has flowed on both sides? The very present and immediate need for Israeli security?

The reality of Israel, her internal demographic realities and external struggles are much more complex than can be captured in a provocative soundbite. But Israel is an open, democratic society that has its share of challenges, just as every nation does.

Rabbi Rosenberg was right: the Torah is love. Earlier this morning, as we do every single morning of the Jewish year, we said this explicitly when we wrapped our tzitziyyot (the fringes hanging from the four corners of our tallitot / prayer shawls) around a finger, as we prepared to recite the Shema. “Ahavah rabbah ahavtanu.” With great love you have loved us, God. And you have demonstrated your love by giving your Torah to the world. And it is up to us to “lilmod ulelamed, lishmor vela’asot, ulqayem et kol divrei talmud Toratekha be’ahavah,” to learn and teach, to keep and do, and uphold all the teachings of your Torah in love. Torah is love. Love is Torah. And it is upon us to share this love with everybody – to share with the world the idea of “Ve’ahavta lerei’akha kamokha” (Lev. 19:18) – love your neighbor as yourself, with that ahavah rabbah, that great, unbounded love.

What can we learn from this? That we have to be ready to make the case for who we are, not only to respond to haters like Richard Spencer, but also to ourselves. What we must have on the tips of our tongues is the following:

We are Jewish, and continue to be Jewish, because our tradition has value: it brings us knowledge about ourselves and others, it brings us joy, it provides a framework to celebrate and grieve as a community. And it teaches us love through the ancient words of Torah. And that is why we are still here.

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So, Mr. Spencer and your white supremacist friends, please don’t look to the Jews to justify your twisted rationale for hate. Rather, learn from our history and our tradition and see that respect and love for all is the source of our continued existence. That is humanity’s divine obligation. That is Torah. That is love.

Shabbat shalom.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 1/7/2017.)

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High Holidays Sermons

4 Whys #4: Why Do We Need Torah? – Yom Kippur 5777

As you surely know by now, this is the fourth and final sermon on the topic of “Why?” On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we covered, “Why be Jewish?” On the second day, “Why do we need the mitzvot, and Shabbat in particular?” Last night, we discussed why we need Congregation Beth Shalom.

Today’s why is, “Why do we need Torah?” Why do we need to learn the words of our ancient tradition, our stories, our customs and principles and values and laws?

***

I recently heard a podcast that positively blew my mind. It was on Radiolab, which is an NPR program about ideas, often featuring scientific subjects.

The idea featured in this particular episode is about inter-connectedness, about networks, but not how we usually think of them. It was uncovered primarily by a professor of forestry from University of British Columbia, Suzanne Simard, whose research has demonstrated, effectively, that trees are networked with each other through something called a mycorrhizal network, and that this network helps the trees support each other.

The way it works is as follows: in the soil, there are tiny, nearly invisible tubes called mycorrhiza, which are parts of various kinds of mushrooms. Fungi. There can be miles of these tubes in a pinch of soil. The tubes affix themselves to the roots of trees, and engage in a kind of exchange with them: the tree provides sugar to the mushrooms, and the mushrooms provide minerals to the tree.

Brain Hibiscus rosa-sinensis is the example of an ideal leaf The Fungi ...
Note to plant pathologists: yes, I know this is not the kind of fungus we’re talking about here. But it’s a pretty photo nonetheless, don’t you think?

OK so far? It’s even better than that.

Not only is there an exchange between the fungi and the tree, but the fungi, which are connected to many of the other trees nearby, actually share nutrients through the network between trees. And the trees support each other – when one tree needs more nutrients, the other trees will, with the help of the network, send them. When there is a shortage of one type of nutrient, the mycorrhizal network will hoard that nutrient and dole out to the neediest trees. The network also ropes in the assistance of other creatures – bacteria and insects – to help maintain the whole system.

It’s almost as though the forest is “thinking,” like some kind of huge plant brain; strategizing, sharing, supporting.

What is truly revelatory and beautiful about this is that it seems that there is no such thing as a lone tree. Each tree is linked into the whole system. Prior to discovering the network, Dr. Simard had noticed that when you pulled out one tree, sometimes another nearby tree of a different species would die, clearly a result of upsetting the balance in the network.

So why am I telling you this?

When I heard this story, my mind immediately went to us, the Jews, and how we are linked together.

When you think about it, it’s downright unbelievable that we are still here. I mentioned this briefly on Rosh Hashanah – we outlasted the great empires that ruled Israel, that destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, that dispersed us all over the world. We have long since bid goodbye and good riddance to the Babylonians, the Romans, the Ottomans, the Russian czars, the Fascist regimes of the middle of the 20th century.

What has kept us alive? I would like to propose that our metaphorical mycorrhizal network, the invisible, powerful connection that has maintained our network and supported us is Torah. Not THE Torah, that is, the Pentateuch, the first 5 books of the Bible, but “Torah,” without any definite or indefinite article. It is a much more comprehensive term. Torah is what flows from THE Torah.

It refers to the entire Jewish bookshelf.  Torah obviously begins with the Torah, which we read through each year. But that is just the beginning – Torah in its greater sense is all of our collected learning, including the rest of the Tanakh (Torah, Nevi’im, Ketuvim – the entire Hebrew Bible), and it flows through the collected network of rabbinic texts which make up the Jewish bookshelf: the Talmud, commentaries and supercommentaries on the Torah, midrashim, halakhic codes (Jewish law), mussar (ethical commentaries), Hasidic stories, kabbalistic literature, the words of tefillah (prayer), Jewish music and artistic interpretation, and on and on.

“Torah” in its greater sense is the ongoing project of two thousand years of intellectual development: debating the meaning of our ancient texts across generations, continents, and centuries; it is the thread that connects us to each other, to our ancestors, to our families, to Israel, to our people.

Torah (in its greater sense) is what holds us all together. It is our unseen, yet essential network. None of us are individual trees; we are the Jewish forest, connected by a textual, mycorrhyizal network, sharing and distributing all of that wisdom, ancient and modern.

What holds us together is words. Centuries ago, we were dubbed by the Muslim world as Ahl al-Kittab, the People of the Book. But we took that moniker proudly as our own: we are Am haSefer.

“Ours is not a bloodline,” write Amos Oz and his daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger in their book, Jews and Words, “but a textline.” What connects us from generation to generation is not Hanukkah candles or matzah or even Yom Kippur. It is not our being an extended cousins’ club. It is not mah-jongg, or eating Chinese food on Christmas. It is our collected body of wisdom. What connects Moshe (Rabbeinu) on Mt. Sinai to Moshe (Maimonides) in 12th century Cairo to Moshe (Mendelssohn) in 18th century Berlin is that thread of interpretation that makes the matzah come alive for us today. Without the text, it’s just a lousy, unsalted cracker.

In what is one of the best-known stories found in the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud Gittin 55b-57a), Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai effectively launches rabbinic Judaism by having his students smuggle him out of besieged Jerusalem in a coffin.

The year is 69 CE. The Jews have been revolting against the Romans for a few years, trying to preserve their way of life, their land, and particularly their Temple, the Second Temple in Jerusalem, wherein they have been sacrificing animals and produce to God for nearly a thousand years. The Romans, led by Vespasian (who is not yet the Roman Emperor), have taken Israel by force, and have surrounded Jerusalem.

After having been smuggled out as a corpse, Rabban Yohanan arrives at Roman military headquarters, and pops out of the coffin in front of Vespasian. A lively debate ensues in which the Romans exhibit their inclination to live by the sword, and Rabban Yohanan counters with proto-rabbinic wisdom: “All neighbors who do harm to others find that they have done it to themselves,” he says. Vespasian understands that he is in the presence of a very wise man.

Then something happens that changes the course of Jewish history.

Rabban Yohanan has predicted that Vespasian will soon be the emperor, and sure enough, while they are speaking, a messenger arrives to crown him as Caesar. Vespasian says to him, “I am now returning to Rome, and will send somebody else to take my place. You may, however, make one request of me, and I will grant it.”

Rabban Yohanan says, “Give me Yavneh and all its sages.” That is, give me a little, out-of-the-way, sleepy seaside town where I can assemble a crack team of rabbis to figure out what comes next in Jewish life.

He did not say, give me back Jerusalem. He did not say, just let me keep the Temple and let the Kohanim continue making sacrifices for the Jews.

He said, give me space to start writing the first chapter in the textline. I need a forest where I can plant some fungi.

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Sometimes, we have to conquer our fears of the future and embrace change. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai and the rabbis of Yavneh fashioned from the rubble of the Roman destruction not a Third Temple, but rather what we know today as Judaism. Thanks to Rabban Yohanan and his scholars, Judaism was re-invented. We, the Jews underwent a paradigm shift, eliminating the barbaric rituals of animal sacrifice and replacing it with the meditations of our hearts. This was the biggest historical turn for our people since leaving slavery in Egypt and receiving the Torah, 1300 years prior.

We all need to be a little bit more like Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai: facing down our fears, letting go of what was, and embracing the future. That’s why I spoke last night about re-envisioning this synagogue, about the vision of Beth Shalom as a center of contemporary Jewish life and learning for the whole region.

And that brings me back to our mycorrhizal network, about our need for Torah, about our need for connection to each other through our ancient wisdom. But first, a collective “Al het.”

Al het shehatanu lefanakha. For the sin we have sinned against you God, by practicing Judaism without seeking meaning within it.

If there is a bottom line to everything that I have said over the past ten days, it is that Judaism’s future depends on our willingness to let it bring meaning to our lives.

Why are we like so many individual trees, not connected to the network? Because we have failed as a community to look to our textual heritage. Because we have assumed that being Jewish meant lighting Hanukkah candles and saying kaddish and “having a bar mitzvah,” without making any serious effort to connect these things to who we are, how we live, what we feel. Because Judaism loves to tell us more about how to do something rather than why.

The key to the Jewish future is the mycorrhizal network of Torah. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai pulled off a nervy stunt to get an audience with Vespasian so he could ask, not for ritual, not for ancient sacrifices, NOT EVEN FOR JERUSALEM, but for Torah.

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As disconnected trees, we will die. As trees whose roots intertwine with the tiny underground tubes, connecting us to our Etz Hayyim, our tree of life, we will thrive.

That’s why we are still here. That’s what makes us a community, a qehillah, brought together for a holy purpose, sustained and nourished by the words of Torah, thousands of years of collected knowledge that is still fresh and fragrant today.

****

Why have I devoted these four sermons, nearly 100 minutes of talking, over 10,000 words, to answering the question of “Why?”

I told you on the first day of Rosh Hashanah that these are essential questions that we must be asking if we want there to be a future to progressive Judaism.

But more importantly, I want to make you care. I want you to understand the value of what we have inherited. I want you to ask why, and then go seek out the answer. And sometimes, all it takes to appreciate what we do as Jews is a new take, a fresh perspective, a captivating insight.

And beyond that, we should never do anything merely because “that’s the way we’ve always done it!” That answer is insufficient for me, and it will not further the cause of connecting Jews with Judaism.

We need to ask “Why?” more. And we need to dig deeper into the Jewish bookshelf to find the answers.

Shanah tovah!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Yom Kippur 5777, 10/12/2016.)

Categories
Sermons

Renewing Our Relationship With Judaism -Ki Tetse 5776

I am always captivated by passages in the Torah that list laws, because they give us some insight into what our ancestors valued. Today’s parashah was especially rich with such laws, and among them some of my favorites:

  • returning your neighbor’s donkey
  • not abusing an employee
  • leaving some of your harvest for the needy
  • not taking chicks from the nest while the mother is there
  • stoning to death a disobedient son
  • stoning to death a newlywed woman in whom “the tokens of her virginity” were not found

Wait a minute – back up.  I’m sorry about those last two.

And, in some sense, so is Rabbinic Judaism.  Yes, those are in the Torah, but we have never actually stoned anybody to death (thank God!). In fact, the rabbis of the Talmud went to great lengths to show that the applicability of these laws is so limited that they could never actually be carried out.

Fortunately, we do not practice the religion of the ancient Israelites. Judaism is not the literal application of the laws as written in the Torah.  Rather, Jewish law has been codified by our sages who interpreted the Torah in subsequent centuries.  In other words we practice rabbinic Judaism, which is much more reasonable.

Given the issues surrounding some of the laws described in the Torah, there is a debate in rabbinic literature that continues to this day: Do the mitzvot have some internal value, or moral worth, or are they simply commandments that we must follow without searching for any higher message?

Maimonides (1135 – 1204 Spain -> Egypt) sees reason behind each commandment. For example, he believes that the mitzvah of shilluah haqen, shooing away the mother bird in order to take the chicks teaches us compassion for all of God’s creatures.

הכן מצות שילוח הקן מעוררת אותנו לתמיהה ...

In his seminal work of philosophy, Moreh Nevukhim, “Guide of the Perplexed,” Maimonides connects the suffering of animals with the suffering of people:

“Since therefore the desire of procuring good food necessitates the killing of animals, the Law enjoins that this should be done as painlessly as possible…  [the suffering of animals] does not differ from that of man, since the love and tenderness of the mother for her young ones is not produced by reasoning but by imagination, and this faculty exists not only in man but in most living beings…  If the Law provides that such grief should not be caused to cattle and birds, how much more careful must we be that we should not cause grief to our fellow people!”

The mother hen and her chicks, says Rambam, are representative; the mitzvah applies equally to humans, if not literally, then figuratively.

But not everybody agrees with Rambam.

Ramban – Nachmanides (1194 -1270 Spain -> Israel) states clearly and unapologetically  that “The ruling on the mother bird is not based on the Almighty’s pity for the animal.”  To Ramban, this is merely one more decree, albeit one that does teach us to avoid cruelty.  No further conclusions may be drawn.

Elsewhere, Rashi (1040-1105 France) states in a commentary on a different passage that the reason one should not steal (e.g.) is not because it is “wrong” to steal; rather, because God commanded us not to steal.

There are modern commentators that come down on either side of this equation. But I must say that this rabbi is with Rambam. Our inner motivations in following Jewish law should be in line with our behavior. We do not merely fulfill mitzvot like so many sheep, but rather use them as a tool to bring greater holiness into our lives. Our goal in taking these holy opportunities is to extrapolate these commandments for the greater good.

It is therefore not enough merely to shoo the mother bird away before taking the chicks, but also a lesson about minimizing suffering for all of God’s creatures, no matter their size or significance, and even as we use some of them wisely to produce our food. And that message is as much reinforced by the mitzvot surrounding kashrut, holy eating, as it is by the obligation to return not only your neighbor’s donkey, but your enemy’s donkey as well.

***

You may be aware that Rosh Hashanah is a little more than two weeks away…

This is a time to reset the dials of our lives, or, to use more contemporary language, it’s time for a full system restore.

We tend to think of the High Holidays as being associated with the Book of Life (Besefer hayyim… nizakher venikatev… lehayyim tovim ulshalom), the extended metaphor of God’s weighing our souls. But I would like to offer a different perspective.

Perhaps we can dedicate this time not just to wiping the slate clean regarding our actions, but also our relationship with Judaism. Not merely a behavioral renewal, but rather a theological and ideological renewal

I’ll tell you what I mean:

In some ways, it is easier just to perform the rituals of Jewish life without thinking about them.

I remember so clearly the day back at the Jewish Theological Seminary, in a class on practical theology, and hearing education professor Dr. Steve Brown telling a roomful of future rabbis, cantors, and  educators-to-be that the language of hiyyuv, of obligation, does not speak to people today, so there is no point in trying to use it.  I recall feeling let down – like, what kind of Jewish world is this where nobody sees themselves as being obligated to anything?

I have since learned to take a more nuanced view. For many of us, our relationship with Judaism is based more on sociological motivations – history, cultural connections, the need for moral guidance in complicated times, the desire to “resonate” with our ancestors, and so forth, than it is with the traditional perspective of fulfilling obligations.

The challenge, however, will be to maintain our connection in the future, when that particular set of sociological conditions goes away. And that’s why we need to re-examine our relationship with our textual tradition now.

We relate easily to the narrative portions of the Torah, the stories of our ancestors (and their dysfunctional family) as our national myths, our history; we can learn from them; we can sometimes strive to interact with them (What would Moshe do? What’s troubling Rashi? etc.).

And it is particularly difficult to relate to the vast swathes of the Torah that are about irrelevant things, like the sacrificial cult in the Temple, which has not been active for nearly two millennia, and will likely never be re-established.

Somewhere in the middle, though, between narrative and sacrifices, are the lists of laws.  Here in the depths of Devarim, we find lots of them.  Some we like.  Some make us uncomfortable.  Thank God for the lens of rabbinic literature for helping us to understand that we do not ACTUALLY have to put anybody to death.  (Aside from the difficult moral quandaries that this would place us in, it would also not be so good for synagogue membership.)

And the essence of our relationship with the Torah and Judaism is building those personal connections with the text; wrestling with it; agreeing and disagreeing with it, and so forth.

As the High Holidays approach, now is the time to consider how we might renew our covenant, and particularly here at Congregation Beth Shalom.

Judaism is as much about thinking and learning as it is about doing (i.e. prayer, saying qaddish, mitzvot, etc.). Ours is an intellectual tradition. In this season of return, perhaps we can consider returning to the foundational principles of the synagogue: that it should be not only a beit tefillah, a house of prayer, but also a beit midrash, a house of study. Let’s rededicate ourselves to learning about and redefining our relationships to Judaism through learning, discussing, and passing our textual heritage from generation to generation.

Along those lines, there are two things I want you to know about:

  1. I am starting up a learners’ service that will meet on one Shabbat morning per month, the second Shabbat morning of each month. I think that the entire community has the potential to benefit from learning more about tefillah / prayer. Due to various logistical considerations, it will not start until December. It will be primarily for beginners, but even veteran daveners will be able to learn as well.
  2. The other thing is that, in collaboration with a number of key members of the congregation, I have put together a concept for this community that will help transform Beth Shalom into that beit midrash in addition to being a beit tefillah. The concept is the Open Community Beit Midrash program at Beth Shalom. We will be approaching major donors with this concept as a part of the greater fundraising plan connected with our centennial year celebration. But the goal is to offer a whole new range of programming, the likes of which have not been seen in Squirrel Hill. The centerpiece will be the Open Community Beit Midrash, wherein all will be welcome to come and learn, regardless of their background, knowledge, experience, membership status, sexuality, whatever. This new arm of Beth Shalom has the potential to renew and reinvigorate not just this synagogue, but the greater Pittsburgh Jewish community.

I’ll speak more about this concept on Yom Kippur itself, but I wanted to give you all a taste while we were on the subject of renewal.

Meanwhile, use these holidays to reconsider your commitment to our intellectual heritage.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 9/17/2016.)

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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.

leonard cohen to release live album with new sons leonard cohen s ...

  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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Sermons

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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Sermons

The Value of Life and the Jewish Triangle – Bemidbar 5776

I was struck by a curious item in the news two weeks ago: the gorilla that was shot and killed at the Cincinnati Zoo. (In case you didn’t hear: a 3-year-old boy fell into the moat surrounding the gorilla pen; the silverback, a 17-year-old, 420-pound western lowlands gorilla named Harambe, while not attacking the boy, did drag him around the pen, injuring the boy seriously.)

There were vigils, criticism by various groups, defense of the killing by the zoo spokespeople, and plenty of news articles and opinion pieces for and against. Social media exploded.

I am not in a position to judge whether killing the gorilla was justified or not. The zoo’s “dangerous animal response team” made a quick decision, and they opted for shooting to kill over using a tranquilizer dart, to ensure that the child would survive.

Harambe’s cousins in Africa are critically endangered, and zoos like the one in Cincinnati have attempted to remediate this situation by breeding gorillas in captivity. It is certainly unfortunate that Harambe had to die because of this boy. There is no question that this was a hard decision for the zoo, and that their choice would be scrutinized and criticized. We will never know what would have happened had they gone with the tranquilizer dart, or some other solution.

WesternLowlandGorilla03.jpg
Western lowland gorilla

But what actually struck me about this story was its context in the news. Around the same time there was a shooting with multiple fatalities in a neighborhood in Houston where I used to live. It has also emerged in recent weeks that the homicide rates in both Chicago and Toronto are up by over 50% this year over last. And of course there is the ongoing terror activity in Israel, which claimed four more lives in Tel Aviv this week.

And those stories are dwarfed by the largest humanitarian catastrophe of the last few years – that is, the Syrian civil war. Estimates vary, but perhaps 400,000 people have been killed in Syria in the last five years. And we all know about the refugee crisis here and abroad, driven largely by displaced Syrians.

What emerges when you juxtapose the flap surrounding the gorilla with those other stories is this curious situation where people – actual people – are being killed and driven from their homes, and yet the reaction to Harambe’s death somehow floated to the top of the news, at least on Internet portals.

It is fascinating to me that have become so inured to daily killing and human suffering in our own contexts, outside of the tightly-controlled environment of the metropolitan zoo, in the wild streets of Chicago or Baltimore or even suburban St. Louis, that we seem to have lost a sense for the value of human life.

Of course, it’s hard to wrap our brains around the killing of many; it’s much easier to be outraged by the murder of a single, rare primate in a single, tragic situation.

But it’s worth noting that our tradition teaches us about both.

All lives – the lives of all creatures – are endowed with a spark of the Divine.

We learn from the Torah in multiple places, and it is expanded upon in the Talmud, that we are forbidden from causing animals unnecessary suffering. This principle is known as, “tza’ar ba’alei hayyim,” (and I learned this week that the SPCA in Israel is called, Agudat tza’ar ba’alei hayyim – the association of [fulfilling the mitzvah of preventing] cruelty to animals).

But qal vahomer / all the more so, human life too is sacred, and one of our duties here on Earth is to alleviate human suffering wherever we can. Lo ta’amod al dam re’ekha, says the Torah (Lev. 19:16). Do not stand idly by the blood of your fellow person. We have fundamental obligations to the people around us. And if Syria is too far away, we might consider just the people in our immediate environs.

Where, ladies and gentlemen, is the outcry? Where are the vigils for the victims of authoritarian regimes around the world? Where are the politicians calling for change on America’s streets? Where are the nations who are jumping over each other to take in those who have fled the Syrian chaos? Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany was the only head of state of the G-7 nations to attend the UN’s World Humanitarian Summit at the end of May, something which UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon went out of his way to point out.

And where, indeed, are the Jews, marching to help ensure that everybody gets a fair break in life, a decent education, neighborhoods free of the scourges of crime and drugs and guns?

***

We celebrate today with two young women who have stepped forward into direct relationship with the Torah and its framework of holiness. And not only that, but we continue our celebration of that framework tonight as we usher in the festival of Shavuot.

We call benei mitzvah to the Torah in the synagogue, surrounded not only by family and friends because we are making a public statement: this child is now one of us; she has inherited the mantle of Torah, the set of holy opportunities to fulfill our mitzvot. It is, by definition, a public display of the stepping up of this child.

The most fundamental statement of bar/bat mitzvah is communal; it is that this child is now one essential vertex in the triangle of individual, community, and Torah.

A sizeable chunk of that triangle is dedicated to the acknowledgement that this is an imperfect world, one which routinely tramples idealism and continues to thwart dreams, but that we have an obligation, as individuals and communities in sacred relationship with Torah, to right wrongs, to uplift the oppressed and give a hand to the needy. Lo alekha hammelakha ligmor, velo attah ben horin lehibbatel mimmena. It is not up to you to finish the task, neither may you give up on it (Pirqei Avot 2:21). That holy work is never done.

One neat trick of the Jewish calendar is that Parashat Bemidbar is always read adjacent to Shavuot, a reminder that the Torah was given and received in the desert. It was not given in Jerusalem, or even in Israel! The message is that the Torah does not belong to a particular place or even (!) a particular people. The Torah, and the holy opportunities it gives us, are for everybody.

As we prepare ourselves to celebrate Torah tonight on Shavuot, we should remember that our opportunities for holiness extend far beyond our interconnected Jewish circle here in Squirrel Hill, and much further beyond the Jewish world. The triangle that unites us with Torah demands that we seek justice for all of God’s creatures, as we said on Shabbat morning in the Prayer for Our Country, “lemiqtanam ve’ad gedolam,” from the least of them to the greatest (Jer. 31:33).

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 6/11/2016.)

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Sermons

Holy Adhesion (Mitzvah, Part 2 of 2) – Behar 5776

I went back to school last week. More accurately, I went to the convention of the Rabbinical Assembly – the professional organization of Conservative rabbis. I of course saw many old friends and colleagues, and we caught each other up on our lives and work, our successes and challenges and so forth.

And of course, what do rabbis do when they get together? Why, play poker and smoke cigars, of course!

They learn. Actually, in an ideal world, that’s what all Jews should do when they get together: Pirqei Avot tells us (3:3) that when two people meet and exchange divrei Torah (words of Jewish learning), the Shekhinah, God’s presence, hovers between them. (And I don’t know about you, but I could use a lot more Shekhinah in my life.)

You see, it’s not just 12-year-olds preparing to become bar / bat mitzvah that learn the words of Jewish tradition. On the contrary: the highest ideal in Judaism is lifelong learning. Why? Because study leads to action, and the lessons of the Jewish bookshelf continue to speak to us from across the ages.

Some of you may know that there was a movement in the first half of the 20th century to eliminate bar mitzvah at age 13 from Jewish life, and replace it with confirmation at age 16. (I’m told that Rodef Shalom Congregation stood by that policy deep into the 20th century (one of the current members of Beth Shalom is, in fact, the first person to have celebrated a bar mitzvah at 13 at Rodef Shalom.) And there was a good reason for it: a 16-year-old is better equipped to approach learning with more sophistication and nuance, and more ready to be launched into the Jewish world as an adult. There is a certain wisdom in delaying the major life-cycle event marking the transition from childhood to adulthood to a time when the candidate has a better sense of his/her relation to our tradition and to the world. (Plug: we will be celebrating the conclusion of our confirmation class in two weeks on the first day of Shavuot, Sunday, June 12th. Be there!)

But the larger point is that Jewish adulthood is not merely about receiving the traditions and mitzvot of Jewish life, but also about striving to understanding why Jewish tradition is relevant to us and how it frames our lives in holiness. I continue to answer that question for myself every day. It’s an ongoing project for me, and one that I hope you will join with me in furthering.

An essential part of that picture, of course, is Torah study. Not “the Torah,” the Five Books of Moses found on the scroll we just returned to the aron haqodesh, the ark, but “Torah” – the collective writings and brain power that yielded two millennia of commentary, interpretation, re-interpretation, and so forth; the halakhic codes, the midrashim, the liturgy, the poetry, even the music that comprise the entire Jewish body of text-based learning and transmission of our heritage from generation to generation.

We are still part of that transmission. We are each links in the chain that connects us back to Mt. Sinai, and the celebration of a bat mitzvah is merely a reminder that we continue to fashion the links that follow us.

I spoke last week about re-envisioning the idea of mitzvah as “holy opportunity.” This is, of course, an essential concept on a day that we celebrate the stepping forward of a young member of our qehillah, our community, into a complete, sacred relationship with the 613 mitzvot of Jewish tradition. The fulfillment of each mitzvah, which has been traditionally understood to be a commandment from God, is a potential gift to yourself and others, an opportunity to elevate our individual selves and the collective community by performing a traditional action. Examples are wearing a tallit, lighting Shabbat candles, sanctifying the holidays with family meals and abstaining from mundane activities, honoring your parents, and so forth.

So it happens that while I was at the convention, between cigars and counting my poker winnings, one of the learning sessions that I attended spoke exactly to that point. It was taught by Dr. Eitan Fishbane, a professor of Jewish Thought at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Dr. Fishbane’s research area is Jewish mysticism and Hasidic thought, and this particular session was (serendipitously) about the concept of mitzvah as described by a couple of medieval rabbis.

And one of these rabbis, a pre-Hasidic commentator from the turn of the 17th century known as (curiously) the Sh”lah (that’s an abbreviation for Shenei Luhot Haberit, suggests that every mitzvah has greater meaning than the action itself; mitzvot have a higher goal – the goal of devequt, cleaving to God.

Megan's Bio Blog: The Properties of Water

Devequt is one of those mystical words that is hard to translate. While it literally suggests “adhesion,” as in, what glue or tape does. (The modern Hebrew word for glue is deveq.) But the image is a mystical one rather than physical. By acting on those holy opportunities, by taking the metaphysical gifts presented before us at the appropriate time, we are cleaving to the Divine, and thereby bathed in God’s love and light. Devequt is a kind of emotional journey attached to the physical fulfillment of mitzvot, and an essential piece of the Hasidic, kabbalistic understanding of Judaism. It’s an elevated state that we all strive for.

So, for example, let’s consider the mitzvah of the shemittah year, the sabbatical year identified in Parashat Behar today. The idea is that every seventh year in the land of Israel, the ground is left uncultivated. You can eat what grows naturally, from last year’s seeds, but otherwise you cannot till and tend the land and the plants.

Seems like an obscure concept, right? Especially to sophisticated urbanites like ourselves, who do not cultivate any significant amount of land, and even if we own patches of lawn do not really grow food for our own sustenance.

And yet, there are deeper meanings here, found in the mitzvah of shemittah, of not working your fields every seventh year.

One is the sense of respect for the land, for Creation. Just as we humans get a break from everyday business every seventh day, so too does the Earth get a break every seventh year. This heightens our relationship with what has been trusted to us for only a short time. But of course, for our agricultural ancestors, that must have been a very anxious year indeed. Today, we are mostly insulated from the vagaries of subsistence farming.

File:Barley field-2007-02-22(large).jpg - Wikimedia Commons

The Slonimer Rebbe regards shemittah as a challenge of faith and trust. By letting the land go untended for a year, we train ourselves to have some faith that we will still be provided for, that the Divine forces of nature will make sure that we will not go hungry. Unlike in the other corners of our lives, when more work, more development, yields greater profit, with the sabbatical year the reverse is true. Refraining from that development yields a spiritual harvest that brings us back to God. That is devequt. Our human experience is heightened by our trusting relationship with Creation, and we are drawn closer to the Qadosh Barukh Hu.

Shemittah (sabbatical year) and yovel (jubilee, when all the land that has been sold is returned to its original owner) may seem irrelevant to us today. But they help us cleave to God. They increase our sensitivity to the land, to society, and to our individual spiritual needs. We all benefit. And so we are elevated personally and collectively.

And with a little bit of study and reinterpretation of the curious laws of the Torah, we can be drawn closer in holiness through the performance of any mitzvah, the big ones and the small ones.

We need to strive for that devequt. We need to reach higher, however we understand God, or God’s role in our lives. And the mitzvot are a framework of holy opportunities to do exactly that.

In a rather well-known episode, the early 20th-century Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig was asked if he was putting on tefillin every morning, a particularly holy opportunity found in our tradition. “Not yet,” said Herr Rosenzweig. Not yet, because he was still on a journey, or because he was not ready, or because he had not found the motivation to act, or because he was afraid it would mess up his hair. We do not know why.

Franz Rosenzweig | Great Thoughts Treasury

But we all have that sense of “not yet” about us. We just have to dig a little deeper to find the meaning, so that we may strive for devequt, cleaving to God. That will ultimately bring our relationship with Judaism and the mitzvot, those holy opportunities, into focus.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 5/28/16.)

 

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Torah and Science: Living with Contradiction – Bereshit 5776

My daughter is in third grade. She loves being Jewish, and Judaism is the fabric of her life. Last year, in second grade, she started to express ambivalence about God and the Torah. She had encountered the theological conundrum that many of us face as young adults or even later in life. How can we accept the story of Creation as truth, when scientific inquiry has yielded a vastly different story? How can we accept the Torah as legitimate if it is not verifiably true, according to scientific principles? Doesn’t the whole Judaic enterprise come crashing down if the Torah conflicts with science? (OK, so she didn’t really ask those particular questions, but in any case I was not expecting this for many more years…)

I have arrived at my own response to these questions, and we’ll come back to that in a few minutes. But meanwhile I would like to take you on a wee tour of the first chapters of Bereshit / Genesis.

There are not one, but two Creation stories in Bereshit. The first is the six-days-of-Creation- followed-by-God’s-resting-on-the-seventh-day story. That is all of chapter 1 of Bereshit (begins on p. 2 / 3), plus the first few verses of chapter 2 (p. 6 / 13).

The second story is a different take on Creation, and features “HaAdam” and “HaIshah” (the man and the woman) as the first two human characters. It begins in the second half of 2:4 (p. / 13), and continues for the rest of chapter two (until p. 10 / 17).

These two stories are very different for a number of reasons: the first is ordered, numbered, logical. It constantly reminds us that God admires Creation and labels it “good.” It suggests the tone of an engineer designing a linear, sensible world, in which everything is measured and put in its proper place. The creation of humans, man and woman together, occurs at the end of the process, because we all know that human beings will inevitably foul this orderly, organized world.

The second story, however, is somewhat more chaotic. It presents a different order of things, in which HaAdam, the man, is fashioned from the ground (“adamah”) much earlier in the process, and is almost a partner in Creation. The woman appears later, only after God realizes that the man must be lonely (2:18). The woman, of course, is fashioned from the rib of the man, and for this reason the second story seems to suggest a much more complex relationship not only between HaAdam and God, but also between HaAdam and HaIshah, a complexity that will play itself out in events later in the parashah.

In addition to the content of the story, it is also immediately apparent that the style of writing between the two stories is quite different; the first is almost mechanical, while the second tells a story of the interplay between the three characters (God, man, woman) as the world comes into being. They use different names for God, and draw on a different vocabulary. The second story speaks of emotion; it describes one origin of the human condition.

Torah

The classic medieval commentators, who detected these differences, tried to resolve the two stories by explaining that the second story is merely an elaboration on the first. (Rashi, for example, glosses this difficulty by citing a hermeneutical principle that suggests that the Torah frequently states a general idea, e.g. the creation of people, and follows it with specific details, e.g. that HaAdam helped in naming all the plants.)

But the commentators can only take it so far because their agenda is to resolve problems, to make sure that the Torah seems like a unified document, that everything flows nicely and is not contradictory.

Problem is, it breaks down under close scrutiny!

A better way of understanding these two stories, of which we are capable because we live in the 21st century and not the 11th, is that they do not have to comment on each other. There is no need to resolve them to make sense. Rather, here is one story, and here is another.

Why is this OK? Because we can handle it. We are committed enough to our Judaism to accept that this is just one more contradiction of many: How, for example, can God be all-good and all-powerful if humans suffer needlessly? How could Moses have taken dictation from God about his own death (as we discussed on Simhat Torah, Baba Batra 15a)? How could Haman be a descendant of King Agag of the Amalekites if King Saul and the judge Samuel killed all of them? How can it be that the shofar is permitted on Rosh Hashanah but not on Shabbat? How can it be that the Talmud explicitly permits women to be called to the Torah, but contemporary Orthodoxy still forbids it?*

Anybody who wants you to believe that everything makes sense in Jewish life is trying to sell you a bill of goods. It doesn’t. And we have lived with many of those contradictions for thousands of years, sitting there on the Jewish bookshelf.

Please now recall our guiding principle when discussing the Torah: “What does this mean to us?”

Let’s return now to another contradiction: the Torah tells us a few things about the creation of the world. But those of us who have had a secular education (i.e. just about all of us) know and understand that science tells us a story that cannot possibly be resolved with either story found in the Torah: that the universe is nearly 14 billion years old, that it originated in an infinitely dense point that suddenly exploded outwards (the “Big Bang”), that the Earth is hardly the center of the universe, that various forms of life evolved gradually from simple self-replicating proteins to the many complex species that exist today.

“Miller-Urey experiment-en” by GYassineMrabetTalk✉This vector image was created with Inkscape.iThe source code of this SVG is valid. – Own work from Image:MUexperiment.png.. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Miller-Urey_experiment-en.svg#/media/File:Miller-Urey_experiment-en.svg

Yes, there are people who will tell you that the six-day story of Bereshit chapter 1 is meant to be interpreted such that each day represents a much longer time (an average of two billion years per day!), and that the order in which things were created roughly echoes the way that scientists have envisioned the unfolding of the universe. While this explanation might satisfy some, I cannot accept it – it requires too much force to squeeze the first Genesis story into that scheme. How is it, for example, that there could have been liquid water (1:2) at the beginning if the initial act of Creation (i.e. before vayhi or, “let there be light”) was a cataclysmic explosion? And how could there have been green plants and fruit-bearing trees (vv. 1:11-12) when there were not yet Sun, Moon, and stars (1:14:18)? And then what happens to the second Creation story? No, I am sorry to say that this does not work for me, either.

So what is a scientifically-minded chemical-engineer-turned-cantor-turned-rabbi to do? The only possible answer to these questions is not to try to resolve them. They can occupy two different parts of our brains, and not be troubled by each other. Just like the two Creation stories that disagree with each other are side-by-side in the opening chapters of the Torah, so too can these two perspectives sit side-by-side in our heads.

Because, really, the apparent challenge of the scientific story vs. that of the Torah is a bogus challenge. They do not need to be resolved, because they are, in fact, answering different questions.

There was an article in the New York Times magazine back in April about the language of science vs. religion which spoke to these apparent contradictions. The author, T. M. Luhrmann, pointed to recent scholarly articles that suggest that religious belief and scientific understanding occupy two entirely different areas of our consciousness. We use different words and concepts when discussing faith or science. Religion speaks to “Why?”; science answers “How?” Religion uses the subjective language of belief, but science is about observed laws and principles and measurable evidence.

Ms. Luhrmann cites a story that suggests that the non-intermingling of the two areas is both healthy and common, courtesy of the anthropologist and physician, Dr. Paul Farmer,

…about a woman who had taken her tuberculosis medication and been cured — and who then told Dr. Farmer that she was going to get back at the person who had used sorcery to make her ill. “But if you believe that,” he cried, “why did you take your medicines?” In response to the great doctor she replied, in essence, “Honey, are you incapable of complexity?”

In one realm, that of the rational person living in a time of great technological advancement based on the principles of science, the Big Bang model answers all of the questions surrounding the origin of the universe. It is an answer that makes sense through the lens of academic inquiry.

In another frame of mind, that of the Jewish person of any era who turns to our national Jewish story to help make sense of this world, the stories of Bereshit answer our greater questions.

The Torah and the Big Bang are indeed contradictory, but they can both be understood to be true in some sense. They are different lenses through which we can understand our world. They occupy different places in our consciousness; you might say that the Big Bang belongs to the mind, while Bereshit resides in the heart.

The Torah teaches us values, how to live a meaningful life, why we should care about others. It helps us to answer the question of “Why?” Science is not concerned with meaning – it toils in the “What?” and the “How?”

We need both the “Why?” and the “How?” and the answers that follow them. We need both science and Judaism, so that we can be in balance with ourselves and our world. We need the Big Bang, and we need Bereshit.

Shabbat Shalom!

* See Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 23a. The reason given in the Talmud for not calling women to the Torah is “kevod hatzibbur,” “the honor of the community.” However, in a world in which women can be doctors, lawyers, CEOs, professors, and perhaps President of the United States, why would calling a woman to the Torah be shameful to the community? Furthermore, traditional Jews who indulge in the apologetic claim that women are exempt from mitzvot because they are “on a higher spiritual plane” and therefore don’t need them are perhaps unaware that it seems ridiculous that women are on a higher spiritual plane but nonetheless cannot be called to the Torah. Wouldn’t we want those endowed with extra “spirituality” to be the ones who lead us in prayer?

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 10/10/2015.)

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Halakhah and The Big Picture – Re’eh 5775

I am particularly fortunate to have started this week in Pittsburgh for Parashat Re’eh. It’s one of my favorites. OK, so it’s true that I have a lot of favorite parashiyyot, but this is an especially good one. I do enjoy the passages of the Torah that include numerous mitzvot / commandments, not only because they give us insight into how our ancestors lived and the values they held, but also because they continue to shape our lives today.

But let’s face it: there is quite a bit of obscure and/or curious stuff in the Torah – commandments that don’t apply to anybody today, like those related to sacrifices, or obligations for agricultural behaviors or activities that are irrelevant to contemporary non-farmers, or things that are just downright strange.

For example, in today’s parashah we encounter the obligation not only to not worship like the Canaanites do, but indeed to destroy their altars. (Has anybody met any Canaanites lately?) Also, there are commandments to tithe from our produce, to eat only certain kinds of animals, and to be particular about not eating their blood with the meat. There is the commandment to take care of the needy people around you, and the strange law about piercing the ear of the slave who opts to stay with his master rather than go free. And then there is a whole range of holiday practices.

For us today, we immediately understand the relevance of kashrut and holiday observances – most of us have been doing some of these things for our entire lives. But to an outsider looking in, this parashah might look like a jumble of eccentric behaviors that make no particular sense.

And I might argue that, if we were to look at these things objectively, devoid of context, we might also think that it is odd, for example, to avoid eating leavened things for a week, or to build and live in a temporary hut outside your home for a different week.

But I think that sometimes it is a good idea to pull back the camera to try to see the greater picture.

I recently heard a TED talk about ants, featuring the ecologist Deborah Gordon, who studies ant colonies for a living. What is striking about ants, she says, is that ants function as a collective unit without speaking, without memory, and without a visible leader. And for sure they don’t have the Internet or smartphones. And yet, they have a highly complex society that functions quite well even though not a single one of them can actually see the larger picture. No ant understands how it fits into the colony, and nobody is telling it what to do, but somehow it all works together like some magnificent symphony.

Aluminum cast of a fire ant colony.
Aluminum cast of an ant colony

One principle that makes an ant colony function is that it has rules. Some ants forage, other ants are soldiers, the queen lays eggs, and so forth. Those rules are governed by what is encoded in the ants’ DNA.

From the human perspective, we don’t see how the ants function as individuals. We only see the final product: that the ants build extensive homes underground, and forage for food, sometimes in your pantry, and somehow manage to survive the winter to build a new colony next year. And all of this depends on the series of rules for how the ants work.

But humans are not like ants. We think; we communicate; we argue; we create; we destroy; we doubt; we cooperate; we sabotage; and so forth. Each of us as individuals has the potential to help or wound, to be selfish or to participate with others.

And that is why we need a framework. That is why human societies have always had guidelines. Laws. Courts.

And the Torah is our framework, including its obscure laws and its odd commandments. The mitzvot are our rules, and as a people, we have spent the better part of the last two millennia trying to figure out exactly how to carry out these rules. We call that system of rules, “halakhah,” which the Hebrew scholars among you will know is from the verb lalekhet, to go. Halakhah is how we walk through life.

And, just like the ants, it is difficult, and some might even say impossible, for us to see the true bigger picture. Yes, our intellect allows for us to understand more than the ants. But the larger spiritual picture is blurred; all we know is that we have a fundamental drive to reach higher, to seek holiness, to seek purity, to seek the Divine.

Our greatest sages have spent two millennia analyzing and interpreting the meaning, the reasons for, and how to carry out the mitzvot, and we continue to do so ledor vador, in each generation in its context.

You see, when it comes down to it, we don’t really know why the Torah asks us not to mark our bodies permanently, or burn animals on an altar. Even the obvious things, those mitzvot which we are naturally inclined to keep: we don’t even really know why the Torah instructs us not to murder others, or honor your parents, or abstain from sexual indiscretion. We will never really be clear on the big picture. But that is what makes Judaism interesting, and has allowed for an ongoing discourse across the ages over the meaning of what we read in the Torah. An absolute, definite answer would be boring; our tradition allows for continual renewal.

All we can really say for certain is that this template for holy living is what makes our world function. It affects the greater good. It works down here and on high. It is tried and true for 5775 years.

Now I can hear the skeptics among us who might be thinking, “OK, Rabbi, that sounds just peachy. But come on – does it really matter if I pray, or put on tefillin, or avoid shellfish?”

And the answer is yes. 100%. Why? Because you know as well as I that the America of today is one of limitless choice. We are so bombarded with “freedom” that simply choosing a toothpaste or a salad dressing from the hundreds on offer takes up far too much of our time, taking bandwidth away from things that are far more important. And the message that we continually reinforce to our children is, “What do you want?”

We need boundaries. We need framework. Some choices are acceptable, and some are not. All of us who are parents know that, but it applies to adults and children equally. What does infinite choice yield? Indecision. Paralysis. Disunity. Dissatisfaction. The feeling that even though you chose this product, or this school, or this spouse, there might be a better one behind door number 2.

Jewish life gives us a frame through which our lives are endowed with stability and purpose. And we need that more than ever.

Now, that does not mean that the boundaries do not change. Of course they have, and they will continue to change. It is a good thing for the Jews, and Maimonides says so outright in the Mishneh Torah, that prayer replaced sacrifice. It is a good thing that the slavery described in the Torah is no longer permitted. It is wonderful that we at Beth Shalom treat men and women as absolute equals under Jewish law. It is a good thing that we view halakhah through the lens of modernity; Jewish law changes with us, slowly but always for the better.

So, while the Torah includes a number of imperatives that are no longer applicable, we continue to read it and respond to it with change. The history behind the evolution of halakhah is an essential piece of this holy framework.

It’s up to us to find ways to interpret the Torah for today. That is the principle upon which I have built my rabbinate. We have to read the Torah in today’s context; not in the context from which it emerged; not in the context of 12th-century Egypt (Maimonides) or 16th-century Tzefat (Rabbi Yosef Karo, who authored the Shulhan Arukh). We welcome all of those guys to the table, but we have to seek our own meaning. We have to set the boundaries as a community, and the way we do that is the same way that our ancestors have done so for two thousand years: we open the book, and we dig into the text. (The berakhah for Torah study is “La’asoq bedivrei Torah” – to get busy with the words of Torah.)

As I move forward from this starting point here in Pittsburgh, I hope to continue doing exactly that. You will hear me say this over and over: the highest mitzvah in Jewish life is not keeping Shabbat or kashrut or daily tefillah / prayer or even honoring your parents. The highest mitzvah (Mishnah Pe’ah 1:1) is talmud Torah, interactive study of our ancient texts.

And that is how the whole system functions. We may not see the big picture, but within that microcosm, the arba amot shel halakhah, the four cubit radius of our own personal spheres of Jewish existence, we have a holy framework for living that is guided by our personal and communal understanding of Torah. And by following that framework, we each contribute individually to the overall picture.

Shabbat shalom!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/15/2015.)