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Festivals Sermons

Fantasy Ushpizin: The Seven Guests I Would Love to Have in My Sukkah This Year – Sukkot 5781

Do you remember how, when you were very young, your mother could make everything better? She had magical powers. When you got hurt playing with other kids down the block; when you had a stomach ache; when you saw a really scary movie and couldn’t sleep; when you were devastated by a horrible grade or being teased or when the president encouraged a white nationalist group to “stand by,” (OK, so just kidding about that last one), your mother would give you a hug and make it all go away.

America needs a mom right now. 

One of the traditions of Sukkot is that of Ushpizin, the custom of inviting our tribal ancestors to come dwell with us in the sukkah at evening meals. The custom is a kabbalistic one, apparently derived from a statement in the Zohar:

Zohar 3:103b:8

תָּא חֲזֵי, בְּשַׁעֲתָא דְּבַר נָשׁ יָתִיב בְּמָדוֹרָא דָּא, צִלָּא דִּמְהֵימְנוּתָא, שְׁכִינְתָּא פַּרְסָא גַּדְפָהָא עָלֵיהּ מִלְּעֵילָּא, וְאַבְרָהָם וַחֲמִשָּׁה צַדִּיקַיָּיא אָחֳרָנִין שַׁוְיָין מָדוֹרֵיהוֹן עִמֵּיהּ

“Come and see: When one sits in this dwelling, the shade of faith, Shekhinah spreads Her wings over him from above, Abraham and five other righteous heroes come to dwell with him!”

Maybe the Shekhinah, God’s presence, is the mother who is going to spread her wings over all of us as we dine in our sukkot this year. Wouldn’t that be nice? 

The Aramaic term “ushpizin,” you may have heard me say in the past, is a Hebraicization of the Medieval Greek word hospition, meaning an inn, also connected to the Latin root hospes, which is the source of our English words hospitality, host, and hospital. The custom is that each night of Sukkot, for seven nights, we welcome Sarah and Avraham, Rivqah and Yitzhaq, etc. (You can see the whole egalitarian list in Siddur Lev Shalem, pp. 424-5)

OK, so the Zohar did not include the women, only men. But we know better.

But it is also an interesting exercise, as we are inviting towering figures from the Tanakh into our sukkot, to also ask ourselves, if we could invite any person into the sukkah as a guest, whom would we invite?

And to keep this focused, I have picked Jewish values for each of the seven nights, so each of the ushpizin will represent a certain value. The values are: Hemlah / compassion, nedivut / generosity, redifat shalom / seeking peace, anavah / humility, adivut / civility, manhigut / leadership, and Talmud Torah / learning the wisdom of the Jewish bookshelf.

And since we are all nervous this year about having guests (or being guests) in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, the idea of spiritual guests rather than physical guests is a welcome practice! 

Caveat: it would be impossible for me to come up with a list of names about whom all would agree. Most likely someone on this list will be objectionable because of something in their history: something unsavory they did, but as with the Biblical characters of the classical ushpizin, the people we admire from more recent history are complex and sometimes in the wrong, and that does not necessarily detract from their accomplishments or the values they lived.

And for sure, I know that you could come up with a better list than I can. But that’s what makes this exercise so much fun! 

  1. Hemlah / Compassion – German Chancellor Angela Merkel

Chancellor Merkel is our ushpizah for compassion. Back in 2015, a month or so after I moved to Pittsburgh, there was a huge migrant crisis in Europe, people flowing through Turkey, primarily from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. As you may recall, European nations responded differently. While Hungary’s autocratic prime minister Viktor Orban threw up fences and confined thousands of refugees to a Budapest train station, Merkel and her government took in over a million people. They resettled them, arranged housing and job training and language instruction. This was a stunning act of unparalleled compassion and generosity. While there was of course a political backlash and no shortage of cultural issues surrounding the resettlement, the overarching message was clear: asylum seekers are people, and we have to be responsible for our fellow human beings.

  1. Nedivut / Generosity – Bill and Melinda Gates

Say what you will about the founder of Microsoft, but it is undeniable that Bill Gates is generous. The foundation that he and his wife created invests nearly $5 billion per year in international programs that focus on poverty, hunger, and public health, among other things. Now, if Bill and Melinda were actually in my sukkah, I of course would use it as an opportunity to vent about why he let Windows push out DOS, which was just fine with me. But among the people in their tax bracket, they have been a model of generosity. And all the more so in the time of this pandemic, when the resources and leadership regarding public health and vaccines that the Gates Foundation supplies are more important than ever.

  1. Redifat shalom / pursuit of peace – Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin  

Rabin was a soldier, a man of war who commanded forces in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948-49. And yet, over the course of his life, he became a man of peace. Yes, it was the Norwegians who coordinated the Oslo Accords. But in order to make peace actually happen, Rabin and Shimon Peres had to agree to talks with the PLO, then clearly understood to be the mortal enemy of Israel. When Rabin found himself shaking the hand of Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn, he could not even believe such a thing had happened. 

Wherever you stand on the Oslo process and its tragic failure, there is no question that Rabin taught us all an essential message: you cannot make peace without talking to your enemy.

  1. Anavah / Humility – Rosa Parks

Yes, what Rosa Parks did on a Montgomery, Alabama bus in 1955 by not relinquishing her seat was an act of defiance, but her action was a humble one. Three months after the brutal murder of Emmett Till, Ms. Parks, a seamstress for a local department store, exerted her will not by marching, not with a bullhorn, but by sitting down, one of the more humble human activities. Her action led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott a few days later, a seminal moment in the nascent civil rights movement. Ms. Parks later described what she did, somewhat ironically as, “an opportunity to take a stand,” a proud description of a humble moment.

  1. Adivut / Civility – President Abraham Lincoln

So you think the United States is divided today? When Abraham Lincoln accepted the Illinois Republican Party’s nomination for Senate in 1858, he began by paraphrasing the assertion from the Christian Bible: “A house divided against itself, cannot stand.” Through the deep division that led to and continued after the bloody Civil War, Lincoln stood eloquently and steadfastly for the abolitionist cause. As president, he emancipated the enslaved people in this nation, and as the war drew to a close, he stated in his Second Inaugural Address: 

“Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.” 

To understand one’s enemy as a human being, something that the Torah exhorts us to do in multiple ways, is a challenge that we all have; Lincoln (for whom, by the way, there is a street named in Tel Aviv), rose to that challenge with grace, even as he sent Union troops to quash the Confederacy.

  1. Manhigut / leadership –  Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand

Not even a month after the brutal massacre by a white supremacist at a Christchurch mosque, Prime Minister Ardern managed to compel the New Zealand parliament ban most semi-automatic weapons. She is only the second head of state to give birth in office, and her successful management of the coronavirus pandemic embarrasses the rest of the developed world: 19 New Zealanders have died, out of a population of 5 million. By comparison, the per capita rate of death in the United States is 165 times higher. I would say that Ms. Ardern has been a model leader.

  1. Talmud Torah – Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

Rabbi Steinsaltz passed away in August, and there has been no other contemporary rabbi whose authority and knowledge is as respected across the Jewish world. His father, although descended from the first Slonimer rabbi, was a Communist Zionist and had no interest in religion; young Adin Steinsaltz not only excelled in secular studies, but also became a ba’al teshuvah, and ultimately accomplished what may be the most important Jewish task of the current age: popularizing the study of Talmud by translating it into contemporary Hebrew and English. He wrote many other books for popular consumption, and was at one point the head of a (failed) effort to re-establish the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem.

***
That is my list; I strongly encourage you to play this “fantasy ushpizin” game with your family as you gather in your own sukkah this year. America may not have a mom to give us a hug, but we do have the Shekhinah, and perhaps these illustrious guests will bring us all some comfort.

Mo’adim lesimhah! Haggim uzmanim lesasson!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, first day of Sukkot 5781, 10/3/2020.)

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Sermons

Israel, History, and the Current Moment – Mattot-Mas’ei 5778

On this trip to Israel, I experienced Israel’s true national religion: kaduregel, known to the rest of the world as football, but that game which we Americans call soccer. From the moment we landed at Ben Gurion Airport, when our taxi driver insisted on trying to talk to me about soccer all the way to Tel Aviv, to the games I watched with my son at various scenic locales (on the Tel Aviv beach, literally in the streets of Jerusalem, in the airport as we waited for our departing flight), the constant subject was the World Cup, which is a far bigger deal, apparently, than either the Stanley Cup or the Superbowl. (I know! Hard to believe!)

Soccer is all about this moment, about the exhilaration of scoring, of winning, of watching the sublime mechanics of team sports and admiring the talents of super-human players. It is something that unites Arab and Jew, Christian, Muslim and Druze, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, Labour and Likud, black and white, and so forth. In that exceptionally divided land, the World Cup brings everybody together. Sure, when I saw the Russia-Croatia game seated outdoors at a Jerusalem restaurant surrounded by screens, the crowd seemed evenly split between those cheering for Russia and those rooting for Croatia, but it’s all in good fun.

However, just as present in the Israeli psyche and across the land in memorials, museums, politics and places, is history. The past. And while there is history in soccer (this is the first time that England made the semifinal in 28 years, for example), once the World Cup is over, the excitement lays low for another four years.

Not so with the history of Israel. You can’t ever get away from history in the Promised Land. Not in a place with names from the Tanakh (the Hebrew bible), with memorial statues and plaques wherever you look, where you are greeted in the airport by a bust of Ben Gurion and a mosaic from an ancient synagogue, where every tourist itinerary includes visits to sites that are thousands of years old. Depending on how you count, there have been about 17 different ruling bodies over the historic land of Israel in the last 3,000 years, from the time of King David’s unified rule; each left their mark on the land, a land that is as soaked in blood as it is in qedushah, holiness.

One thing that drove this point home for me on my most recent trip was the Yitzhak Rabin Centre, a relatively new museum, only about 13 years old, on the campus of Tel Aviv University. I had never been there before.

The way that this museum works is that it is structured around Rabin’s life; you start at the top of a downward spiral, learning about his early years and his rise as one of Israel’s foremost military leaders, coming eventually to his two terms as Prime Minister and of course, his assassination at the hands of a Jewish right-wing extremist angered by Israel’s signing of the Oslo peace accords. Along the course of his life, entryways lead off to rooms on the side that include more general descriptions of the Israeli and world context that are the background to Rabin’s personal story. All the while, in the center of the building, you hear the music of Rabin’s favorite song, HaRe’ut / “The Fellowship”. Written after the first year of the War of Independence by the Israeli poet Hayyim Gouri and set to music by Sasha Argov, who created the popular sounds of the new state, the song captures marvelously the yearning for those comrades who died for the sake of establishing the new State of Israel:

על הנגב יורד ליל הסתיו
ומצית כוכבים חרש חרש
עת הרוח עובר על הסף
עננים מהלכים על הדרך

כבר שנה לא הרגשנו כמעט
איך עברו הזמנים בשדותינו
כבר שנה ונותרנו מעט
מה רבים שאינם כבר בינינו

אך נזכור את כולם
את יפי הבלורית והתואר
כי רעות שכזאת לעולם
לא תיתן את ליבנו לשכוח
אהבה מקודשת בדם
את תשובי בינינו לפרוח

הרעות נשאנוך בלי מילים
אפורה עקשנית ושותקת
מלילות האימה הגדולים
את נותרת בהירה ודולקת

הרעות כנערייך כולם
שוב בשמך נחייך ונלכה
כי רעים שנפלו על חרבם
את חייך הותירו לזכר

Al hanegev yored leil hastav
Umatzit kokhavim heresh heresh
Et haruah over al hasaf
Ananim mehalkhim al haderekh.

Kvar shana, lo hirgashnu kim’at
Eikh avru hazmanim bisdoteinu.
Kvar shana, venotarnu me’at
Ma rabim she’einam kvar beineinu.

Akh nizkor et kulam
Et yafei hablorit vehatoar
Ki re’ut shekazot le’olam
Lo titen et libenu lishkoah
Ahava mekudeshet bedam
At tashuvi beinenu lifro’ah.

Hare’ut, nesanukh bli milim
Afora, akshanit veshoteket
Milelot ha’eima hagdolim
At noteret behirah vedoleket

Hare’ut, kin’arayikh kulam
Shuv bishmekh nehayekh venelekha
Ki re’im shenaflu al harbam
Et hayyekh hotiru lezecher

Venizkor et kulam
Et yafei hablorit vehatohar
Ki re’ut shekazot le’olam
Lo titen et libenu lishko’ah
Ahava mekudeshet bedam
At tashuvi beinenu lifro’ah.

An autumn night descends on the Negev
And gently, gently lights up the stars
While the wind blows on the threshold
Clouds go on their way.

Already a year, and we almost didn’t notice
How the time has passed in our fields
Already a year, and few of us remain
So many are no longer among us.

But we’ll remember them all
The elegant, the handsome
Because fellowship like this will never
Permit our hearts to forget
Love sanctified with blood
will once more bloom among us

Fellowship, we bear you with no words
Gray, stubborn and silent
Of the nights of great terror
You remained bright and lit

Fellowship, as did all your youths
Again in your name we will smile and go foreword
Because friends that have fallen on their swords
Left your life as a monument

But we’ll remember them all
The elegant, the handsome
Because fellowship like this will never
Permit our hearts to forget
Love sanctified with blood
will once more bloom among us

he song brings tears to my eyes whenever I hear it. And so I was walking through this museum, constantly tearing up as the beautiful and tragic story of Yitzhak Rabin unfolded: a man of war who sought peace and paid the ultimate price. His is merely one chapter in the many ironies of that small strip of land, and the pain and glory and frustration and pride that are all mixed together in the Israeli narrative.

Contrary to what you might think, I do not believe that this museum is a naive peacenik display that presents a hagiography of Rabin while appealing to the left’s desire to continue to pursue foolishly the two-state solution when everybody else agrees that it is dead. Not at all. Rather, this museum displays over and over the nearly insurmountable challenges that Israel faces: the need to protect her people and her territory alongside the horrible, painful costs of war, the essential relationship between military strategy and peaceful coexistence. Rabin lived and died knowing that both war and peace are expensive, just in different ways.

Last Shabbat I davened on Shabbat morning at the Masorti (Conservative) synagogue on Agron St. in central Jerusalem, where of course I bumped into fellow travelers, including the Federation’s regular visiting rabbi, Danny Schiff. Rabbi Adam Frank, who is the rabbi of that congregation, has the somewhat-enviable position of having a different traveling group of American Jews every Shabbat, He could actually give the same sermon every single week, although the handful of Jerusalem-based regulars might eventually complain. (He is a proud vegetarian, like myself, and have heard him give the “you-should-be-vegetarian-too” sermon at least twice.)

But last week it was about history and current events. It was about how Israel is portrayed in foreign media and on American college campuses, and how the reality of the situation is far more complex, one that requires a far greater knowledge of history than most people have. He told the following story:

Suppose you watch a TV show in which you see a pack of wolves – mean, snarling, slobbering wolves – howling and chasing after a fox – a cute, furry, defenseless fox. The wolves chase, the fox runs, and eventually the fox evades the mean, ugly wolves and makes it to her lair. Relieved, you turn off the TV.

What you do not see is what follows: the fox returns to her young, dropping the wolf cub it had taken into the mouths of her own pups.

Now, the image is perhaps over-simplified, but the message is clear: there is always more to the story. It is never as clear-cut as, “The Palestinians are the aggressors; they are building tunnels with cement that could be used to build new homes for their people, and sending burning kites over the border to destroy Israeli crops.” Nor is it as simple as, “The Israelis have created an open-air prison in Gaza, limiting the transfer of resources as they continue to oppress the Palestinian people.” Just as there is no “apartheid” or “genocide” being committed by either party. And it is definitely not so simple as for either side to point and say, “But they started it.”

There is history. There is context. And it can be hard to see through all of the spin.

Yitzhak Rabin was a leader who knew war and peace, who understood context and history, who did not seek power for selfish reasons, but sincerely cared about his work for all of the people crowded together in that tiny, highly-charged area. I wish that there were leaders like him today.

Yes, the history of the land of Israel is complex, painful, and ubiquitous. Yes, there are many grievances on both sides. Yes, compromise hurts. But so does the status quo. And, as with soccer, there are things that unite us, and it is up to us to find them and build on them.

As Jews, we are commanded to offer words of prayer three times daily. In the course of every Jewish service, we offer statements about Israel: about restoring us to our land, about rebuilding and bringing peace to Jerusalem / Yerushalayim / Ir shalom, the “City of Peace.” The one prayer a week we offer for Medinat Yisrael, the modern State of Israel, which we read on Shabbat morning, reminds us not only that we seek strength for those who defend the State, but also strength to its leaders in bringing about the peace for which we pray.

The Psalmist (34:15) tells us, “Baqqesh shalom verodfehu.” Seek peace and pursue it. The life and legacy of Yitzhak Rabin teach us that those who have fought and lost comrades can ultimately seek peace, and the greater lessons of history show that this is the ultimate challenge. As Rabin did, we must rise from the depths of pain and loss to the challenge of reaching out for the greater good.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 7/14/2018.)