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What Matters Most – Vayhi 5781

In the flurry of year-end stories (that is, the secular year; our year of 5781 began back in Tishrei, in the fall), a whimsical bit of news floated out of my radio a few days ago, about a curious clock tower in Scotland. The clock in the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh, which looms over the Waverley train station, traditionally runs three minutes fast, in an apparent effort to help people get to their trains on time. But every year, on December 31st, they set the clock back three minutes so that it will chime midnight at the appropriate time, and then set it forward again three minutes. 

The Balmoral Hotel, Edinburgh, Scotland

This year, the management decided not to set the clock back, so that it would chime three minutes early, thus making 2020 apparently three minutes shorter than a usual year. And, as we all know, the past year was hardly “usual.”

As silly as this story is, I must say that there is something heartening about it. It speaks about the optimism we have for the future. Three fewer minutes of 2020, three extra minutes appended to 2021. (Of course, for 5781, it’s a wash.) 

But given how precious our time is, how valuable the holy potential of every moment, those three minutes remind us, in some sense, to keep our wits about us as we remember what matters most: life.

Over my “stay-cation” during the last two weeks, I was able to tune into another Conservative synagogue’s streamed Shabbat services. I tried for a second one, but although I set up Zoom before Shabbat, somehow I got booted off after Kabbalat Shabbat, and so was not able to see Shabbat morning – perhaps you have experienced this yourself. (The Conservative movement’s teshuvah / rabbinic guidance on the use of online services during the pandemic actually mandates that one set up the computer before Shabbat and minimize touching it during Shabbat or Yom Tov, but of course that brings with it the inevitable technological pitfalls.)

But the services that I did see, from one of the largest Conservative synagogues in America, was a highly-polished production, with musicians and a choir and multiple camera shots and a director and technical staff and two rabbis and a cantor and a handful of pre-arranged visitors participating from home and the whole nine cubits. The number of households streaming peaked out at over 1,100.

My reaction to such a production was not necessarily to daven, but to sit back in awe of the level of logistical sophistication, and, of course, money, required to make that happen. And of course I could not help but to compare it to our own online services, which, by comparison, are still in the electronic Bronze Age.

But I must say that I’m happy with what we are doing, even though it’s not perfect, or even close to approximating what a synagogue service should feel like. And, by the way, the vast majority of respondents to our High Holiday survey also indicated that they were pleased with those services. Of course, I know that everybody right now is giving kaf zekhut, that is, tipping the scales in our favor given the circumstances (see Pirqei Avot 1:6). 

We all know that this is an insufficient substitute for actual synagogue services, and we all look forward to the time (bimherah beyameinu / speedily in our days) we will be able to gather again for tefillah / prayer, for kiddush, for schmoozing, for JJEP and meetings and social gatherings and Hod veHadar and learning together and yes, even shiv’ah and for all the communal things that we do.

But right now, we are all in exile. (Ironic, considering that most of us are spending a lot more time at home…)

The widely-anticipated post-holiday virus surge is about to take off; the vaccine distribution is plodding along, although I am very pleased to see that many of our members who work in the medical field have already received it, and there is light at the end of what looks like a very long tunnel. But we are not there yet, even though we can see the Promised Land from the depths of Egypt: Min hametzar qarati Yah; from the narrow place we continue to call out to God (Psalm 118:1).

Parashat Vayhi reminds us that Ya’aqov / Jacob ends his life in exile! So too Yosef. But they both live, and that is what matters most. The parashah opens with:

וַיְחִ֤י יַעֲקֹב֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם שְׁבַ֥ע עֶשְׂרֵ֖ה שָׁנָ֑ה

Vayhi Ya’aqov be-eretz mitzrayim sheva esreh shanah

Ya’aqov lived in Egypt for 17 years.

Vayhi Ya’aqov. Ya’aqov lived. The text does not say, Ya’aqov suffered, or Ya’aqov was miserable and depressed because he was in exile. It just says, he lived. OK, so perhaps he was grateful to be alive, having escaped the famine in Israel and having been ultimately rescued by his estranged son Yosef, whom he thought had been killed by a wild beast years before. Maybe he was not miserable and depressed because he was surrounded by his large and prolific family, and they lived freely and happily with the blessing of the good Pharaoh.

We do not know. But embedded in that word, vayhi, packed into a common grammatical form, is a suggestion of both past and future. Known to grammarians as the “vav consecutive,” it is a phenomenon of Biblical Hebrew that in many circumstances, the letter vav in front of a verb reverses the mood: perfect becomes imperfect; imperfect (as we have here) becomes perfect. 

(It is not entirely accurate to say that this is a question of past vs. future. While Biblical Hebrew does have past, present and future contexts, the verbs do not really have “tense” the way that Modern Hebrew does. But that’s a grammar lesson for another day.)

Vayhi Ya’aqov. Ya’aqov lived: The vav consecutive turns the imperfect, what has not yet been completed, into the perfect, what is complete. The imperfect form without the vav consecutive, yehi, should be literally understood as “he has not completed living.” With the vav in front of it, it reads, vayhi: he completed living. He lived. 

And yet, the incomplete is incorporated into the complete. He lived, and he will yet live. Embedded in the past is the future. A contradiction, perhaps.

Ya’aqov must have known that his future was found in his past. He was, after all, renamed Yisrael, the name later applied to the land promised to him and his parents and grandparents. He must have understood that, although he lived the end of his life and died in exile, that his children and grandchildren would return. He lived, and yet he will live.

And so too the contradiction in our current moment: Vaccines are being administered, and yet the virus is spiking. The end of the worldwide pandemic is near, but we must continue wearing masks and social distancing and refraining from gathering. Normal living is on the horizon, but the current anxiety is not yet abated.

We have lived, and we will live. And we will do the best we can under these circumstances. We will judge 2020 – ourselves, our friends and family, our institutions – with kaf zekhut, the benefit of the doubt. We will mourn those whom we have lost, and who we will lose, and those of us who are still safe and healthy will be grateful for our lives.

Exile will come to an end. We will come forth from Egypt. And we will continue to sanctify every moment, every three-minute increment of holiness. 

I am not one for secular New Years’ resolutions. We made our resolutions back at the beginning of Tishrei, the resolution to recommit to our tradition, to improve ourselves, our behavior, our relationships and our world through the framework of halakhah, the spiritual fulfillment of Torah. One of the names for Rosh Hashanah is Yom HaZikaron, the day of remembrance, because those are days on which we remember that the framework of Torah is our Etz Hayyim, the Tree that brings us life.

But if I were, I would resolve right now to keep living: to remember family and friends and to be in touch with them, to tell them how much you love and appreciate them. To savor every minute as best we can. To not succumb to the feelings of hopelessness or anxiety that many of us surely feel. To look to the future, even as we grieve for what, and who, we have lost. Here is an action item: make it a point to reach out to a distant friend every day. We are all in this together, and everybody is grateful for the call.

That is, perhaps what distinguishes our tradition from those cultures that celebrate the secular new year. A new year is not merely an excuse to party with abandon; it is an opportunity to look back and forward, to acknowledge and be grateful that we are still here, to remember that our history has its high and low points, and that the coming year will surely include both.

We the Jews have survived far greater challenges than this; we have been through exile and dispersion, persecution and genocide. We can surely manage a few more months of wearing masks and staying away from each other. And the way that we have always done that is to remember what matters most: life.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 1/2/2021.)

Categories
High Holidays Sermons

Increase the Love: Beyahad / Community – Kol Nidrei 5779

Wait! You might want to read the first two items in the series before you read this one:

Increase the Love: Ani / The Self – Rosh Hashanah 5779, Day 1

Increase the Love: HaMishpahah / The Family – Rosh Hashanah 5779, Day 2

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Remember the movie Avatar, from 2009? It was about a tribe known as the Na’vi, who worship an invisible-yet-omnipotent god named Eywa, and draw their support from a gigantic tree. If it did not occur to you when you saw it that the writers were drawing on some aspects of Jewish tradition, let me explain: “navi” is Hebrew for “prophet,” Eywa is a simple rearrangement of Yahweh, the ancient name of our one, true God, and the Hometree is a likely reference to the “Etz Hayyim,” the “Tree of Life,” i.e. the Torah. Na’vi society is marked by interconnectedness, with Eywa and with each other through the Hometree. What makes their society seem so seductive is the deep, mystical connection that they all share with all living things in their world, plant and animal – a kind of universal, communal love.

Pandora-HomeTree

We do not generally think of Judaism as a religion of love. That is a theme that, it seems, is usually left to Christians, who often tout the idea that “Jesus loves you.” Nonetheless, those of you who were here for Rosh Hashanah certainly know that love is actually a foundational principle in Judaism, promoted by none other than Rabbi Akiva, the greatest sage of the Talmudic period.

We in the Jewish world could benefit from a greater emphasis on love. That is why the overarching theme of these High Holidays has been ahavah / love – because one of our primary goals today should be to increase the love in this world. We spoke on the first day of Rosh Hashanah about love of self, and on the second day about love of family.

And I hope that by the time this sermon cycle is complete, you will feel the same way. Love will be our theme for 5779, and I am hoping that you will find this theme emerge in the various ways that we at Beth Shalom approach Judaism.

Here is another piece of Jewish wisdom that I want you to have in your list of go-to, pithy Jewish statements on love. It is found in every siddur / prayerbook, right up front. You’ll find it in your Mahzor Lev Shalem on p. 35, and also in the High Holiday Guide on p. 5. It’s known as Mitzvat HaBorei, and it is a unique kind of blessing created by Rabbi Isaac Luria, the 16th-century creator of Lurianic Kabbalah, a branch of Jewish mysticism. Rabbi Luria said that we should begin every day by saying the following:

הריני מקבל עלי מצוות הבורא: וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ

Hareini meqabbel alai mitzvat haborei: Ve-ahavta lereiakha kamokha.

I hereby take upon myself the mitzvah / commandment of my Creator: love your neighbor as yourself.

In other words, says Rabbi Luria, we should start every day not only by expressing our gratitude to God for waking up healthy and capable (which is the first thing that happens in every morning service at Beth Shalom, every day of the year), but also by remembering our love for the people around us. In fact, this is so essential that Rabbi Luria’s framing suggests that this love is kind of encoded into us. God’s primary reason for creating the world, you might say, is so that we might love our neighbors.

And we say that before we emphasize the requirement to love God, which is in the Shema. So what is the message? We need to love each other before we experience Divine love. Not just our family members, mind you, but our neighbors.

Continuing the theme from Rosh Hashanah, Maimonides’ concentric circles of responsibility continue to radiate outward; today we are going to talk about love of community. That’a a loosely-defined word, of course, but since we are in Mr. Rogers’ hometown, let’s go with his definition: the people in your neighborhood.

Let’s face it, folks: this is probably the hardest type of love. We can learn to love ourselves. Love of our families is kind of a given. Love of the world in general (which we will discuss tomorrow) might be easier in the abstract. But loving the people in your neighborhood, with whom you might fundamentally disagree about important, personal issues? People with whom you most likely occasionally argue with over taxes or city services or synagogue budgets? People who might drive you nuts because they throw their leaves in your yard or fail to shovel the snow off the sidewalk in front of their houses? Can you love the jerk who clearly could have let you take a Pittsburgh left but didn’t? That’s hard.

I want you to consider, for a moment, a Pittsburgher whom you may have heard of, named Bill Strickland. He is probably best known among the Jews for being a driving force in founding the Akko Center for Arts and Technology (“A-CAT”), a career-training center for Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs in northern Israel.

(We will be visiting A-CAT on Beth Shalom’s trip to Israel, which departs Oct. 28th. I am leading this trip, and 25 members of our neighborhood will be joining us.)

But what Bill is best known for is creating the Manchester Bidwell Corporation, which began with a school in the disadvantaged neighborhood in which he grew up on the north side of Pittsburgh, and has now expanded to similar schools around the country and in a few international locations as well.

Bill tells his story in a TED Talk, which I highly recommend that you watch some time in 5779:

His odyssey began in high school, where he was on his way to failing out, and he met a teacher who taught him how to make pottery. This teacher cared about Bill, and Bill soon discovered that learning how to throw pots gave him something to latch onto, something that made him proud of himself. His schoolwork improved enough for him to get into the University of Pittsburgh, and while he was still an undergraduate there, he launched a vision that would take him decades to build.

His vision was this: if you demonstrate to kids in poor neighborhoods that you care about them – create for them a learning environment that is well-appointed and respectful, with teachers that show their appreciation – then those kids will respond by working harder, pursuing careers, and generally becoming productive members of society. He started by creating the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, an after-school program to teach children in Manchester about pottery, but continued to build until his programs, primarily focused on job training, now reach thousands of people, adults and children, giving them a range of skills they need to make it in today’s world. In Bill’s own words:

My view is that if you want to involve yourself in the life of people who have been given up on, you have to look like the solution and not the problem. As you can see, [the center I built in Pittsburgh] has a fountain in the courtyard. And the reason it has a fountain in the courtyard is I wanted one and I had the checkbook, so I bought one and put it there… [I was] on the board of the Carnegie Museum. At a reception in their courtyard, I noticed that they had a fountain because they think that the people who go to the museum deserve a fountain. Well, I think that welfare mothers and at-risk kids and ex-steel workers deserve a fountain in their life. And so the first thing that you see in my center in the springtime is water that greets you — water is life and water is human possibility — and it sets an attitude and expectation about how you feel about people before you ever give them a speech. So, from that fountain I built this building.

In 1996, he was awarded the very prestigious MacArthur Genius Fellowship award.

I met Mr. Strickland a few months back at the Pursuer of Peace dinner at Rodef Shalom, and he is every bit as warm and genuine as he appears in his TED Talk. I remember thinking at the time, this is a man who has found a solution to one of the most challenging, intractable problems of our society. I’m shaking the hand of a true inspiration. How powerful is that? Better than meeting just about any celebrity.

Because what he did was truly an act of love, paid forward from the love shown to him by his first pottery teacher. Bill could have taken the opportunity before him by earning his degree at Pitt and headed off into the world to make a good living in business or law or medicine or finance, and never even consider looking through the rear-view mirror to the blighted neighborhood in which he grew up.

But he didn’t do that. Instead, he did exactly the opposite. And that was truly an act of ve-ahavta lereiakha kamokha, loving your neighbor as yourself. And what he created continues to give back, to radiate love within the community.

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So how do we act on this love of your neighbor? How do we create a community based on love with people whom we may not necessarily like, or even know?

Most of us think of Judaism as a tradition of law. In fact, many of us understand that our relationship with God is based on our fulfillment of halakhah, which is usually translated as “Jewish law,” although a more accurate translation is “going” or “walking.” That is, halakhah is how we walk through life – including the obligations not only to keep Shabbat or kashrut / dietary laws, but also keeping the responsibility to tzedaqah / charity, or to learn the words of our tradition, or to teach our children how to be people, as we discussed on Rosh Hashanah.

How does a tradition of laws guide us to be better people? How does it help shape our interactions with others to benefit the community?

Well, some of our mitzvot, our holy opportunities, are directly about helping others: giving tzedaqah, that is, performing righteous acts, is an obvious one. But did you know that our tradition requires you to build a railing on your roof (if you have a flat roof that people walk on) to prevent people from falling off? How about the obligation to use fair weights and measures in the marketplace? What about the obligation to bury an unclaimed corpse, the highest form of hesed / loving-kindness? Did you know its against our law to withhold earnings from a day laborer lest they go home empty-handed?

By the way, my very favorite mitzvah in the entire Torah is this: If you find your enemy’s ox or donkey in your yard, you must return it! (Exodus 23:4) Think of how ironic and yet essential that particular opportunity is: the person who might very well be inclined to kill you – his is the one whose donkey the Torah tells you to return. Now, probably most of our neighbors do not own donkeys, but the same would be true with your enemy’s wallet or cellphone. Think about that: the Torah expressly protects your enemy’s possessions.

Maimonides, at the end of his famous text, Guide for the Perplexed, insists that the fulfillment of mitzvot, the meticulous attention to halakhah / Jewish law are not, in fact, the ultimate objective. Rather, these things are the means to an end. The line of intent that the 613 mitzvot form is meant to be extrapolated, such that we go beyond the letter of the law, lifnim mishurat hadin, in rabbinic-speak, to do those things for others that are not mandated by the Torah, but rather are the right things to be done. So, while it is a mitzvah to honor your parents and to give tzedaqah, it is an extrapolation, for example, to volunteer your time at a homeless shelter, or to build gardens in impoverished neighborhoods so that people in food deserts can get some good produce.

And yet, I think that the way we live today has made it even harder to connect in a way that enables us to build an interdependent community, one in which we support each other in love. Although more wired than ever, from my perspective we are, ironically, living more isolated lives. The challenges here are great, but, I think, not insurmountable.

Dr. Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (my rabbinic and cantorial alma mater) and a scholar of American Judaism, recently wrote a trenchant article on the role that our tradition can play in the revitalization of community in America.  The article is entitled, “Are We Witnessing the End of Enlightenment?” His opening observation is that the current moment seems to be characterized by a “wholesale retreat from values of human dignity, thoughtful rationality and tolerance of difference—values that Jews, most other Americans, and many individuals and peoples around the world, have long held dear.” He points to suspected culprits like technology that is moving faster than our interpersonal relationships can keep pace with, globalization that is causing rapid economic upheaval, and the various forms of anxiety caused by the Information Age.

It seems undeniable… that all is not well in 21st century North America at the apex of Enlightenment. Social theorists have long worried that the breakdown of traditional communities and roles would cast many of us adrift in multiple ways, and it seems that that in fact has occurred.

The challenge that we have as contemporary Jews is how we take our traditional values and apply them in a way that works today. The entire world is struggling with the challenges posed by modernity; at least we the Jews have our traditional framework to hold onto.

Our ancient wisdom, Eisen says, which we continue to study and and act upon – gives us guidance today, to wit, “concrete laws governing daily human interaction.” He cites the “Holiness Code” of Leviticus (that is, Parashat Qedoshim, my bar mitzvah parashah) and Maimonides as proponents of societal transformation through traditional Jewish behaviors.

We in the Conservative movement, who balance tradition and change, are exceptionally well-placed to assist this transformation, and Dr. Eisen envisions more such communities. He suggests that we build communities marked by “face-to-face relations,” shared experiences, shared celebrations and shared grief, and we endeavor to affirm all members of the community as valued and needed. These communities “teach via experience that differences of politics and generation need not stand in the way of cooperation and mutual respect… [enabling us to] work in the larger, ever-contentious world.”

In short, we need communities based on love. And furthermore, when you consider that today fewer and fewer Americans belong to organizations of any kind, religious or otherwise, our synagogues still stand for building an interconnected society. Our berit, our covenant, helps us to stand against the isolation of the contemporary American landscape; we lead in partnership and dialogue.

We know what it means to go through life with a community of capital-M Meaning, and face up to illness and death with the support of such a community. The deep satisfaction of singing “etz hayyim hi” (“it is a tree of life”) as we return the Torah to the ark is not just a function of the music, or the power of shared voices. The words conjure up gratitude at the life that Torah makes possible for us. We cannot imagine living without this Torah. We gratefully choose to walk these paths of peace again and again.

What is the foundational principle of a qehillah qedoshah, a sacred community like this one? It is love. Love of our neighbors, love of family, love of self.

We need, our society needs strong communal centers that give back to the community. Our future as Americans depends on the sustainable future of this synagogue. Because here, we teach Mitzvat haBorei every single day: It is our daily obligation to love our neighbors as ourselves.

And that is why we need, as a synagogue, to tackle our future strategically. That is why we are currently engaged in United Synagogue’s SULAM for Strategic Planners program, and are working on our strategic plan (did you fill out the survey??). That is why we are working on building solar panels on our roof, to emphasize both physical and environmental sustainability. That is why we in the past year we joined the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, enabling us to be in partnership with Jewish, Christian, and Muslim organizations all over Western Pennsylvania. That is why we are taking journeys to Israel and to the scene of the civil rights struggle in the South. That is why we are here in times of joy and times of grief, in prayerful moments and social moments. That is why we continue to rethink what we do and how we do it.

That is a vision of love of community: ensuring the ongoing strength and viability of not only Congregation Beth Shalom, but all the houses of faith in our neighborhood, so that we all can continue to function in bringing people together in this ever-more-disconnected world.

Now is the time to integrate, to cooperate, to reach out, to walk the paths of peace, to recall that we are all connected through our Etz Hayyim / Tree of Life, to prevent further unraveling of community. That is the daily imperative that we invoke when we recall Rabbi Isaac Luria’s Mitzvat HaBorei, the essential obligation of our creator: love your neighbor as yourself.

Shanah tovah!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Yom Kippur evening, 9/18/2018.)

 

The final installment:

Increase the Love: Ha’Olam / The World – Yom Kippur 5779