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You Be the [Bad] Judge – Vayḥi 5782

Do you feel that you are a good judge of people? Personality, potential effectiveness at work, ability to get along with other folks, and so forth?

I do not have much confidence in my own ability to judge people, and I have been thinking about this lately, mostly in the abstract, because of our search for an Assistant Rabbi.

I tend to see the good in everybody, and I assume the best of intentions even when evidence is clearly to the contrary. It might be because I grew up in a small town in rural New England, where we just sort of assumed that the people around us were all good and well-intentioned. Or maybe it’s just my personality – I am a naturally trusting person. Or perhaps I should thank my parents for raising me to be non-judgmental.

Fortunately, seeing the good in everybody, and a willingness to overlook deficiencies in others comports well with rabbinic wisdom on the subject. In Pirqei Avot, for example, a second-century CE collection of rabbinic wisdom, we read the following:

1:6

יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן פְּרַחְיָה אוֹמֵר, … הֱוֵי דָן אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם לְכַף זְכוּת

Yehoshua ben Peraḥiah taught:.. When you judge others, tip the balance in their favor.

2:5

הִלֵּל אוֹמֵר, … אַל תָּדִין אֶת חֲבֵרְךָ עַד שֶׁתַּגִּיעַ לִמְקוֹמוֹ

Hillel taught: … Do not judge another until you stand in her/his situation.

When we are assessing the character or choices of others, it is upon us to do so generously, to understand that we might only see a part of the story, that we might misinterpret their motivations, and that we should therefore put a finger on the scale in their favor. The rabbinic shorthand invoked by Pirqei Avot is “kaf zekhut” – literally the pan of a metaphorical scale containing one’s merits, as opposed to the one containing the liabilities, when those characteristics are being evaluated. It is our obligation to incline toward kaf zekhut where possible.

Humans are complicated; even those who are generally good-natured can make mistakes, or can be swayed by the forces and situations around them. We all have the potential to make the wrong choices, and sometimes we do, but those errors in judgment do not necessarily crowd out one’s overall good intentions.

And, of course one of the other features of rabbinic Judaism is that our tradition provides us avenues for self-improvement: teshuvah, of course, repentance, but also guides for living such as the framework of mitzvot and the ethical considerations that come with them. Our tradition, and our people, are naturally self-reflective, perhaps in a way that does not comport with contemporary society and the current rapid pace of life, and the reduction of human communications to two-dimensional, 280-character  pronouncements.

The complexity of humanity, it seems, is getting harder for us to wrap our brains around, when our only choices are to “like” or “not like” something. You have to be for or against, yes or no, vaccinated or unvaccinated, etc.

But we are not binary creatures, limited to ones and zeroes. And that is surely true of the Avot and Imahot, the patriarchs and matriarchs of the dysfunctional family featured in the book of Bereshit / Genesis. 

Parashat Vayḥi, which concluded that book this morning, includes the captivating scene just prior to Ya’aqov’s death, when he poetically addresses his 12 sons. Most are pleasant words, blessing-like descriptors, which bode well for the tribes they represent.

But given the idea of kaf zekhut, of judging others with a generous eye,  there is one passage that has long captured my attention, when Ya’aqov actually distances himself, on his deathbed, from Shim’on and Levi. (You may recall that I am descended from the tribe of Levi, and so Ya’aqov’s words sting with an ancient, generational pain.)

שִׁמְע֥וֹן וְלֵוִ֖י אַחִ֑ים כְּלֵ֥י חָמָ֖ס מְכֵרֹתֵיהֶֽם׃
בְּסֹדָם֙ אַל־תָּבֹ֣א נַפְשִׁ֔י בִּקְהָלָ֖ם אַל־תֵּחַ֣ד כְּבֹדִ֑י כִּ֤י בְאַפָּם֙ הָ֣רְגוּ אִ֔ישׁ וּבִרְצֹנָ֖ם עִקְּרוּ־שֽׁוֹר׃
אָר֤וּר אַפָּם֙ כִּ֣י עָ֔ז וְעֶבְרָתָ֖ם כִּ֣י קָשָׁ֑תָה אֲחַלְּקֵ֣ם בְּיַעֲקֹ֔ב וַאֲפִיצֵ֖ם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

Simeon and Levi are a pair;
Their weapons are tools of lawlessness.
Let not my person be included in their council,
Let not my being be counted in their assembly.
For when angry they slay men,
And when pleased they maim oxen.
Cursed be their anger so fierce,
And their wrath so relentless.
I will divide them in Jacob,
Scatter them in Israel.

This is, really, a shocking passage. These are Ya’aqov’s final words to two of his sons. Where is the kaf zekhut? What on Earth could Shim’on and Levi have done that warranted such harsh words from their father? 

Well, it ain’t pretty. They slaughtered the family of Hamor and his son Shekhem, members of the Hivite tribe (one of several Canaanite tribes).

In brief, Shekhem took Ya’aqov’s daughter Dinah* by force. When he subsequently asks for her hand in marriage, Ya’aqov and family insist that Hamor agrees to circumcise all of the adult males in their clan. On the third day following the circumcision, when the men are all in pain, in come Shim’on and Levi to kill them all, claiming that they are defending the honor of their sister. It is a brutal, shocking story on all fronts, and their actions are difficult to defend. (Bereshit chapter 34, Parashat Vayyishlaḥ)

Did you miss that one in Hebrew school? Yeah, I thought so. It doesn’t make for good family discussions in the car ride home.

Was Ya’aqov justified in cursing two of his sons? Was it the right thing to effectively estrange himself from them, saying, “Let not my being be counted in their assembly”? Could he not have allowed for the possibility that they have done teshuvah, that they have repented? To me this is quite jarring. It seems exactly the opposite of the principle of kaf zekhut. Could he not, on his deathbed, have found at least something positive to say?

So he must have had a reason for doing so, and also for promising that these two tribes (and particularly the Levites) would be spread among the other tribes. In later centuries, the tribe of Levi had no tribal land of their own, but as religious functionaries lived throughout the region, so at least this aspect of the backstory checks out.

The 15th-century Spanish commentator Yitzḥaq ben Moshe Arama (who, by the way, fled the Inquisition in 1492 and died two years later in Naples) teaches us that 

Ya’aqov here utters a truth which Aristotle has publicized in his Ethics. Anger and temper, though undesirable qualities, may sometimes prove useful in arousing heroism in people. Soldiers in battle are spurred to bravery and courage by anger and indignation… [Ya’aqov believed that] it was advisable that the qualities of anger and passion that had been concentrated in Shim’on and Levi should be dispersed among all the tribes of Israel… A little spread everywhere would prove useful, but if concentrated in one place, would be dangerous.

Arama’s theory is that too much anger is extreme, but a little bit is helpful. It seems as though Ya’aqov, in acknowledging the complexity of human personalities and emotion, is distancing himself from two of his sons as a protective measure. He wants their characteristic anger distributed throughout the Israelite nation, dilute enough to be safe, but nonetheless available when warranted.

How might we interpret this for us today?

Each of us reflect, in some sense, the range of personality that Ya’aqov sees in his sons. We are sometimes happy, sometimes angry, sometimes down, sometimes yearnful, and so forth. None of us are entirely angry, or entirely happy, or 100% of any particular aspect of humanity.

In assessing others with kaf zekhut, giving the benefit of the doubt, we should do our best to remember that sometimes we are ruled by our emotions, and hope that the Shim’ons and the Levis within us are kept at bay, and that we see instead the lion of Judah, the fair judgment of Dan, the richness of Asher, the natural beauty of Naftali.

So, whether you are inclined to see the good or the bad in people, it is worth remembering that all of us are blessed with a rich variety of traits, not easily separated from one another, or discerned at first glance. When we are judging others, we should keep this in mind while trying to view the entire picture. That is what Ya’aqov teaches us with his final words. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 12/17/2021.)

* Despite her hardship, long-suffering Dinah does not get a deathbed blessing from her father. *sigh*

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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.)

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We Need Each Other – Vayhi 5776

I mentioned last week that I was in Tzefat on my last day in Israel. After walking meditatively through that city’s famous cemetery and visiting the graves of Rabbi Yosef Karo, the author of the Shulhan Arukh, Rabbi Isaac Luria (the AR”I, Elohi Rabbi Yitzhaq, the godly Rabbi Isaac), creator of Lurianic Kabbalah, and Rabbi Shelomo Halevi Alqabetz, the payyetan / liturgical poet who composed Lekha Dodi, I walked further up the hill into the center of the city.

FROM SPAIN TO SAFED: THE LURIANIC KABBALAH
R. Luria, R. Alqabetz, R. Cordovero

If you’ve been there, you know that Tzefat consists mostly of little alleyways winding around the hill. It’s a maze – all the printed maps are wrong – and it is actually impossible to actually find your way through Tzefat unless you live there. You can really only stumble into the artists’ colony or the central business district.

At one point as I’m wandering, I had a brief encounter that caused me to think deeply about Jewish pluralism. I see a woman coming toward me who looks like a nun in a black habit. As she drew closer, I realized that this was not a nun, but a Jewish woman in a black robe that covered everything except her face. I was face-to-face with one of the very traditional women who have opted for the Jewish version of the Muslim burqa. (Technically, for those of us who are familiar with women’s dress codes in the Muslim world, it was really a chador, a full-length robe open only around the face, favored in Iran and Afghanistan. You can watch an investigative report about these women from Israeli television, in Hebrew, here.)

Now this is very troubling to me – in some ways, it is an affront to all that Judaism stands for, and particularly the egalitarian principles which Conservative Judaism has pioneered. (BTW, Orthodox and Haredi authorities in Israel have railed against the burqa women as well.)

But even while most rabbinic authorities have rejected the so-called “frumka,” some advocate gender-segregated buses, sidewalks, and even supermarkets in their neighborhoods. I am sure that many of us are aware of the battles that have taken place at the Kotel (the Western Wall of the Temple Mount complex) over mixed-gender services and women’s services. (And if you have not been there lately, you should know about the Ezrat Yisrael area set aside for egalitarian services below Robinson’s Arch – it’s much nicer than the traditional area of the Kotel – quiet, serene, removed from the chaos and political hubbub nearby.)

But I suppose that the pluralist in me has to acknowledge that even while I disagree with these extreme forms of gender separation, and particularly the radical covering-up-ism taken on by a couple of hundred women in Israel, that these are also among the Jewish paths to God. While I think that there are security issues with anybody walking around in public with their face obscured (as with a true burqa), I suppose that women who choose to cover themselves up to avoid the wanton gazes of men have something of a leg to stand on.

If we are really committed to pluralism, we have to accept a wide range of Jewish behaviors in both directions. I do not judge members of this community who eat treyf or go shopping on Shabbat. I tolerate (well, actually I encourage) a wide range of understanding God. I have become aware that many more Jews are being cremated, which is a true affront to Jewish tradition on multiple levels. I try not to be annoyed when mobile phones ring in shul / synagogue on Shabbat.

We in the middle of the Jewish continuum have an obligation to love and accept all Jews who come our way, regardless of their choices. As a Conservative rabbi, I advocate for kashrut, Shabbat, and traditional Jewish burial, as well as halakhic change to account for a changed contemporary landscape.

On the other hand, however, perhaps pluralism must have its limits. Just as our upstanding, moderate Muslim colleagues repudiate the extremists in their midst, so too must we. We Jews should never tolerate murder or revenge in the name of Judaism. We should never tolerate the perversion of our teachings for radical purposes. (And, on a related note, we should distance ourselves from the behaviors of Jewish extremists caught on video at a recent wedding, celebrating the murder of 18-month-old Palestinian Ali Dawabshe and brandishing knives and guns.)

And really, as contradictory as this sounds, it’s hard for me to get past the feeling that women who cover themselves up so as to obscure their bodies to such an extent may be beyond the pale. The statement that they are making is that men have no control whatsoever. It makes sense to me that in a contemporary context, men should take as much responsibility as women in protecting human dignity and in respecting one another. If either men or women insist that it is only the woman’s duty to fend off inappropriate glances, to me it feels like pre-emptively blaming the victim.

Let’s take a moment to remind ourselves here regarding what it means to be a Conservative Jew: like Orthodoxy, we understand halakhah / Jewish law to be valid and binding, but we account for modernity with conservative (i.e. minimal) changes within the halakhic system. We accept men and women as being equal under Jewish law. We accept the historical view of Judaism, understanding our tradition as having unfolded gradually in the context of many places and cultures, rather than having all been given in final form at Sinai. We accept contemporary understandings of the origins of the Torah and of God. These Conservative “changes” flow naturally from our tradition; they are not a break with it.

Many of these ideas are not welcome in some quarters of the Jewish world, and some of the sentiments and principles that emerge from those quarters I find objectionable. But there is still, at least for now, some mutual sense of belonging. We are all still Jews. And as I passed Geveret Burqa there in Tzefat, we shared what you might call a little pluralistic moment – an acknowledgment of the different ways of being Jewish, even if I am disappointed that she would take the Jewish value of tzeni’ut, modesty, to a rather absurd extent.

We concluded the first book of the Torah today, and as Bereshit drew to a close with the patriarch Ya’aqov on his deathbed, each of his sons received some parting words. These fatherly praises and admonitions speak to me of pluralism. For example:

Gen. 49:8 (re: Yehudah)

יְהוּדָה, אַתָּה יוֹדוּךָ אַחֶיךָ–יָדְךָ, בְּעֹרֶף אֹיְבֶיךָ; יִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לְךָ, בְּנֵי אָבִיךָ

You, O Judah, your brothers shall praise;

Your hand shall be on the nape of your foes;

Your father’s sons shall bow low to you…

Gen. 49:5-6 (re: Shim’on and Levi)

שִׁמְעוֹן וְלֵוִי, אַחִים–כְּלֵי חָמָס, מְכֵרֹתֵיהֶם. בְּסֹדָם אַל-תָּבֹא נַפְשִׁי, בִּקְהָלָם אַל-תֵּחַד כְּבֹדִי:  כִּי בְאַפָּם הָרְגוּ אִישׁ, וּבִרְצֹנָם עִקְּרוּ-שׁוֹר.

Simeon and Levi are a pair;

Their weapons are tools of lawlessness.

Let not my person be included in their council,

Let not my being be counted in their assembly.

For when angry they slay men,

And when pleased they maim oxen.

At this stage, the Israelite nation is really only a family. Jacob is here driving home the point, at the end of his life and effectively the end of the family narrative, that our family has internal strife. Not only do we disagree with each other, we are sometimes openly hostile. Not too dissimilar today – our internecine struggles are effectively ancient.

And yet, despite the harsh words from Ya’aqov, Shim’on and Levi continue to be counted among the Israelites. Ya’aqov does not write them out of his will, or out of the family. I am from the tribe of Levi.

In some ways we still retain that sense of family. The Talmud (BT Shevuot 39a) tells us that:

כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה

Kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh

All of Israel is responsible for one another.

We are all dependent on one another, all connected. We have always thought of ourselves in this way. We even have our own term for our connectedness: kelal Yisrael. Loosely translated, it means, “All of us Israelites.”

We are kind of like a giant cousins’ club. Since the late 19th century and the beginnings of the Zionist movement, some have called this phenomenon “peoplehood.” One of the major results of this sense of peoplehood in modern times is the State of Israel; a more mild form is the pride that American Jews used to take in playing “Spot the Jew”: knowing that the Three Stooges and and Dinah Shore and Kirk Douglas were all Jewish. (Re: Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah song.)

But the Jewish world is much more fractured than it used to be. The landmark Pew Research Center study on American Jews from two years ago showed a religious hardening on the right and growing disengagement on the left, with a disappearing middle. I think it might be harder today for us to acknowledge that we are all connected, that our souls are bound together, that we have a shared destiny, common values, and so forth.

Nonetheless, I believe we are indeed still one people. We are all Jews, even if large fractions of the Jewish world do not accept other large fractions. The concept of kelal Yisrael still resonates. And certainly, the rising tide of anti-Semitism in some quarters of the world might serve to remind us all that those who hate us surely do not care about our divergent approaches to halakhah or whether or not we ordain female rabbis or call women to the Torah.

Women of the Wall wear prayer shawls as they pray at the Western Wall ...
Women of the Wall.

Pluralism means that we should tolerate each other, acknowledge each other. We who proudly call women to the Torah will never agree with those who must walk and ride and shop in single-gender environments. Those of us who support the State of Israel with all our hearts will never understand our fellow Jews who protest its very existence. We do not have to agree, but we have to at least acknowledge each other as fellow members of the tribe. And I think that we are still doing that. We may be a dysfunctional family, but we are still a family.

We have to continue to work together, for the benefit of our extended cousins’ club. I very much hope that we will.

Shabbat shalom!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 12/26/2015.)