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Poles of the Pandemic – Tazria-Metzora 5781

An interesting thing happened in Israel last week. No, not the ongoing saga of who will lead the country, which political parties will form a governing coalition in the wake of the fourth national election in two years, and the most inconclusive of all of them. That is interesting, but it’s dragging along, and quite frustrating for all observers of Israeli politics, and of course Israeli citizens.

Rather, this week included the annual days of mourning and celebration that are right next to each other: Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s memorial day for fallen soldiers, and Yom HaAtzma’ut, the day commemorating the State’s 73 years of independence. Yom HaZikaron is a somber day, with public ceremonies during which Israelis remember their family members and friends and colleagues and army comrades who gave their lives to build and protect their nation; the air raid siren sounds throughout the nation for two individual minutes, and all Israelis stop what they are doing to recall those who are gone. Yom HaAtzma’ut is a happy day, a day of barbecues and musical performances and giant, silly, blue-and-white inflatable plastic hammers. And since Yom HaAtzma’ut immediately follows Yom HaZikaron, the difference between the two days is stark, and one can actually feel the mood change as the sun sets on Yom HaZikaron, separating grief and remembrance from celebration and joy and national pride.

One of the challenges of reading Tazria-Metzora every year when they come around (and all the more so in years when we read them separately, so that we get two weeks of reading about skin diseases), is what to say about this. The rabbis just could not accept that the Torah should really be taken at face value here, but rather that the image of infectious affliction of the skin must be allegorical. 

The Torah is otherwise terse. In many places it says so much with so little; in this case, the Torah seems to say so little of apparent relevance to us today with so much material. There are many such attempts to reinterpret the nega of tzara’at; perhaps the best-known was cited by Sylvia earlier in her devar Torah.

The Slonimer Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Noah Berezovsky, a 20th-century Hasidic rabbi, in his take on Metzora, points to Sefer Yetzirah, a proto-kabbalistic text, for guidance. Sefer Yetzirah observes that the Hebrew word נגע / nega, affliction or disease, which appears many times in Tazria and Metzora (e.g. Lev. 14:32: זֹ֣את תּוֹרַ֔ת אֲשֶׁר־בּ֖וֹ נֶ֣גַע צָרָ֑עַת), is an inversion of the word ענג / oneg, meaning enjoyment. 

Oneg is an expression of joy in engaging with our tradition (think “oneg Shabbat”), while nega is the exact opposite – a deficiency of engagement that is so weighty as to be a physical affliction. The Slonimer Rebbe extrapolates this further to say that investing ourselves in Jewish tradition – tefillah / prayer, Shabbat, kashrut, holidays and so forth, include the two components of (quoting the words from Psalm 34, which we sang earlier in today’s service) sur mera va’aseh tov. Repudiate evil and perform good deeds. We need both of those things to achieve oneg, enjoyment, and of course to avoid nega, affliction.

One of the things that the pandemic has done is to lay bare the stark difference between the oneg of our lives and the nega, the enjoyment and the affliction. We do not have to dig too deeply to come up with examples of how our lives have changed for better and for worse, and sometimes those things are right next to each other.

Some of us have improved ourselves and our world in this time. I would say that I have seen a greater effort on the part of many of us to perform charitable acts for others: to help out those who were homebound in this time, to reach out to friends in need, to be there as a comforting presence, even from a distance, to those who have suffered, to those who grieve lost loved ones, to those who have lost their livelihoods. 

I was thinking about this when a heartwarming story floated across my desk about the largely white Fiji fraternity at Louisiana State University, 90 of whose alumni raised over $50,000 to pay off the mortgage of their longtime cook, a 74-year-old Black woman named Jessie Hamilton, who had been working two other jobs to make ends meet. This is a dramatic act of tzedaqah, but I suppose that one reason this made the news (including the New York Times) is that we are all so much more appreciative right now of such acts of generosity, in the wake of so much loss and grief.

Certainly many of us have become newly aware of the struggle for racial justice in America. While recent events suggest that there is still a long, hard road ahead of us in this regard, to guarantee the safety and education and equal treatment under the law for all of our citizens, nonetheless our public consciousness suggests that we now at least have the potential to move in the right direction.

It seems to me that many of us have also used this time of isolation to improve ourselves personally. I know that I have spent much more time making sure that I get enough exercise by taking regular walks in Frick Park (and I have seen many of my neighbors doing the same, even throughout the winter), and I have been cooking more (I make sourdough bread and fresh pasta regularly now), and I have also spent some time learning to play the banjo, something I hope to inflict on all of you soon enough. And I am sure that many of you have also engaged in similar pursuits.

So there is the oneg, the enjoyment. But we all know what the flip side of this is. We have plenty of nega / affliction to go around right now as well. 

Some of those contemporary afflictions are the plague of misinformation, and the bad actors who are willing to put any falsehood out there via Internet, and the platforms that care only about their bottom line, with no sense of responsibility for how the spreading of misinformation is actually killing people. (By the way, whatever you may think of his method and brand of humor, the English-Jewish actor Sacha Baron Cohen has used his fame to call attention to the very real danger that Facebook, Twitter, et al have caused.)

And we cannot forget, of course, the lies told by public figures that led to the violent insurrection in Washington on January 6th. Our democracy has held, but the cost in lives lost and the invigoration of white nationalist groups that helped foment this attack is truly chilling. 

And of course we probably know this anecdotally, but the emotional distress caused by isolation in this past year is great. It is likely that rates of depression, anxiety, domestic abuse and other social ills are much higher. CDC data released this week showed that overdose deaths from opioid abuse have jumped dramatically in the past year.

These are certainly variants of the nega, the affliction that the Torah goes on and on about in today’s parashah. We are greatly afflicted, and not only due to the loss of over 560,000 lives. We are greatly afflicted, even as some of us have found some oneg, some enjoyment. The oneg and the nega are proximate.

We are hopeful, of course, that we will see an end to this soon. And we certainly will, if we can get as many people vaccinated as possible as quickly as possibly. (Vaccine appointments are very easy to come by now. If you have not received a shot, you should push everything out of the way to do that now.)

And what comes next, of course, will depend on how thoughtful we are about the near future. Given the oneg and the nega of the past year and change, we should not lose out on the opportunity to move forward in a way that, shall we say, accentuates the oneg in our lives.

Sur mera va’aseh tov, says the Psalm. Repudiate evil and do good. As we begin to inch forward slowly into gathering at this time, we should keep the following principles before us:

  1. Sur mera. Repudiate evil. We have to continue to keep each other safe through masking / social distancing, until such times as our public health authorities say that it is OK to let our guard down. The sooner we get our transmission rates down low, the sooner this will all be over. And that means, by the way, that if we know people who are on the fence about vaccination, we should reach out to them in love, and maybe even drive them to get a shot.
  2. Aseh tov. Do good. We should continue to seek ways to improve ourselves, our lives, and our world, and while of course there are many such ways of doing this, I personally recommend considering the many traditional ways of Jewish living: setting aside Shabbat as a holy day of rest and oneg, eating mindfully, engaging with words of Torah, expressing our gratitude to the Qadosh Barukh Hu, and of course raising the bar in terms of our tzedaqah and hesed, our charity and acts of lovingkindness. 

It is through these things that we can lean into the oneg, the enjoyment, and keep away the nega, even as they bump up against one another.  

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 4/17/21.)

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Torch Song for Optimism – Emor 5779

At the convention of the Rabbinical Assembly in Montreal two weeks ago, I led a session for fellow Conservative/Masorti rabbis. It was the first time I had been asked to do so, although I have attended conventions for more than a decade. The chairs asked me to do something musical, so I led the attendees in a bunch of early Israeli and Mandate-period Hebrew songs, from the ‘30s through the early ‘60s, a period of music that I find particularly fascinating, particularly since the composers of the time were effectively creating the soundtrack for a new nation.

Some were about life as a חלוץ / pioneer working the land (“Mah Yafim Haleilot,” “Hora Mamtera,” etc.); some were about love and camaraderie in the time of war (“Yatzanu At,” “Hayu Zemanim”); some were reflective songs about the range of human emotion (“Ruah Stav,” “Kalaniyot”). Afterwards, one of the participants told me about how much she loved these songs, how they had transported her to, as she put it, “simpler times.”

We are fortunate this week in Pittsburgh to hear the music of one of the most hopeful artists in the Israeli pop canon, David Broza. Broza’s career now spans four decades, and while I am sure that he will display his artistry on Thursday evening in playing the Spanish music that he truly loves, there is no question that he will play, probably toward the end of the concert, his most well-known song, the anthem that put him on the map: Yihyeh Tov. This song is almost absurdly hopeful; an ode to peace and a torch song for optimism. In 1977, when the lyrics were written by the poet and songwriter Yehonatan Geffen, peace with Israel’s Arab neighbors was a mere fantasy; the text references, as we shall see, the visit of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to Israel of that year, which ultimately led to the Camp David Accords, signed a year later.

I must confess from the outset that this song makes me cry, not only for its unbounded optimism, but also for the tragic sense of loss that I feel when I read the lyrics closely. I don’t need to review the history of Israel’s armed conflicts since the song was written, but we all know that real peace has not yet arrived.

And the bloodshed continues, yielding so much more pain and grief and loss. Just two weeks ago, there were rockets from Gaza and return fire from Israel, with casualties on both sides.

As was pointed out at the Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day, a very somber day) ceremony that I attended at the convention, led by our Israeli Masorti colleagues, 23,741 Israelis have died fighting in Israel’s wars, and 3,146 more have died in terrorist acts in Israel.

What makes me misty-eyed when I hear this song is that for many Jews in Israel, in America, and around the world, looking forward to a vision of peace as Broza does used to be the norm. Despite the situation in the 1970s, when Israel was still at war with the entire Arab world, when you could not buy Pepsi or Toyotas in Israel due to the Arab boycott, when the “Three Nos” of the 1967 Khartoum Resolution still hung in the air: No peace, no recognition, no negotiations with Israel, even so, there was still a palpable sense of optimism. Mahar, we sang, tomorrow there will be peace.

In the final stanza, the song references Isaiah’s messianic vision of a time of peace:

וְגָ֤ר זְאֵב֙ עִם־כֶּ֔בֶשׂ וְנָמֵ֖ר עִם־גְּדִ֣י יִרְבָּ֑ץ וְעֵ֨גֶל וּכְפִ֤יר וּמְרִיא֙ יַחְדָּ֔ו וְנַ֥עַר קָטֹ֖ן נֹהֵ֥ג בָּֽם׃

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, The leopard lie down with the kid; The calf, the beast of prey, and the fatling together, with a little boy to herd them. (Isaiah 11:6)

Ladies and gentlemen, I cannot live in a context in which we throw up our hands and say, “We tried and failed; end of story.” I cannot live in a world in which we pessimistically believe that every option has been tried and exhausted, and there is nothing left to do; lo yihyeh tov – it will not be good.

I cannot allow myself to think that those 23,741 Israeli soldiers will be solely martyrs to the cause of Israel’s ongoing existence rather than to the cause of peace, and that those numbers will only continue to rise. In every single Amidah, and virtually every Kaddish that we recite, the final request of God is for peace. How can we resign ourselves to eternal struggle, when we accept that people will continue to die? How can we not recommit ourselves again and again to finding a peaceful solution?

How can we abandon the visions of Isaiah, of Yehonatan Geffen, of David Broza? How can we so easily dismiss the possibility of laying down our sword and shield?

It is true that we are no longer living in the “simpler times” that nostalgic songs invoke. Nonetheless, we cannot succumb to the forces of pessimism. I am not going to resign myself to that kind of future. Will you? Will we?

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 5/18/2019.)

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Israel’s Story is More Complex Than That – Tazria-Metzora 5777

Our tradition always features multiple layers of stories, and this period of the year is especially resonant. There is the Exodus story of Pesah / Passover, leading to the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai on Shavuot. There is the agricultural framework of the spring harvests. There is the counting of the omer, climbing the 49 rungs as we ascend toward the Sinai moment of contact with God.

Last week we commemorated Yom HaShoah, the day on which we remember those who perished in the Holocaust. Tomorrow evening we mark Yom HaZikaron, the day of remembrance for those who have fallen defending the State of Israel. And then Monday evening and Tuesday we celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, marking 69 years since David Ben Gurion declared the establishment of the State.

In Israel, Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron are particularly somber days. On both days, there are sirens that sounds throughout the country, two minutes on each day, during which everything, and I mean everything, grinds to a halt. All over Israel, people stop what they are doing and stand. Cooks stop cooking. Barbers stop cutting hair. Office workers stop sending email. People who are driving stop their cars, get out, and stand quietly. It’s extraordinarily powerful.

In the spring of 2000 I was studying at Machon Schechter, the rabbinical and graduate school affiliated with the Masorti/Conservative movement, for my first year in cantorial school. On Yom HaZikaron, I went to Har Herzl, the military cemetery in Jerusalem where there is an annual solemn ceremony commemorating all those who gave their lives defending the Jewish state, attended by most of the leaders of Israel. I was actually waiting in the security line with hundreds of other people when the siren went off, and I must say there is nothing quite so powerful as standing, packed in tight, surrounded by people, none of whom are moving or talking. It was surreal and unforgettable.

Most American Jews have a difficult time understanding the power of Yom HaZikaron in particular. Few of us, particularly those of us born after World War II, know somebody who died on the battlefield. But in Israel, everybody does. Most people have served in the Israel Defense Forces, really the great equalizer of Israeli society. Everybody remembers a friend, a cousin, a neighbor, who gave his or her life for the Jewish state. Everybody takes a moment to remember them on that day.

Yom Hazikaron

And everybody also understands the narrative that this week suggests. Of course Yom HaShoah is a week before Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut – it makes total sense. And many Israelis are all imbued with the notion that the Shoah led to the establishment of the State. That the Jewish people, devastated by the death machine of National Socialism, arose from the ashes to build a tough, scrappy nation that is now an economic power, the only democracy in the Middle East, the pride of world Jewry.

My father-in-law, Judy’s father, Ervin Hoenig (alav hashalom), was a Shoah survivor who helped build the state. In 1944, when he was 19, the Nazis deported him and the roughly 100 other Jews from his small village in Slovakia to Auschwitz. He survived the selection upon arrival; many of the others in his transport did not, including his mother. He labored in a nearby work camp for seven months.

When the camp was liquidated and most of the prisoners were forced to march west, he got “lucky”: he had been injured and was in the infirmary, but, knowing the Nazis would not leave anybody behind, he summoned all of his strength to sneak down into the basement and hide among sacks of potatoes and corpses. And then the Nazis left, and it was quiet for two weeks until a Soviet regiment of Mongolian soldiers arrived to liberate the camp.

After studying at the university for a few years in Prague, Ervin eventually found his way to Israel, where upon arrival he was handed a rifle and immediately transported into the front lines of the War for Independence to serve with the Palmach, one of the Jewish paramilitary organizations that fought against the Arab armies.

And there are many such stories. Israel emerged from the gas chambers, just as Ezekiel’s dry bones of the valley were re-animated, flesh and sinews magically knitting together to form living beings. (We read that haftarah / prophetic reading two weeks ago on Shabbat Hol Hamoed Pesah.)

But the story of modern Israel is not so cut-and-dried. It’s a wee bit more complicated. One striking thing that Ervin told me about was how in the early years of the State, the Israelis who were not survivors did not “get it,” did not understand the depth of the Nazi horror. “What was wrong with you people?” they would say to him. “Why didn’t you fight back? Why did you just let them round you up and take you to the camps?”

The narrative of the creation of the State of Israel, at least in those earlier years, was not necessarily about the Shoah. While there is no question that the UN vote for partition on November 29, 1947 passed because the Jews had the sympathy of the world, Ben Gurion’s people were not Holocaust survivors. They were Zionist ideologues. They were pioneers. Most were people who immigrated to Mandate Palestine before the war, hundreds of thousands of Jews from around the Jewish world to help build what would become a new state.

They came, in the words of the poem by Naftali Herz Imber that ultimately became the national anthem of Israel, “Lihyot am hofshi be-artzeinu,” to be a free people in our land. They came for the purposes of self-determination, to re-establish a place that the Jews, long strangers in strange lands, could call home, a place that would settle them among the other nations of the world, a place of pride.

This is an Israel that did not come into being in 1948. It did not even really begin with the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the same year that Congregation Beth Shalom began, in which the British crown pledged to establish “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. Nor did it begin with the first wave of Zionist aliyah in 1882.

You might say that this Israel dwelt in the hearts of Jews all over the world for millennia – Hatiqvah bat shenot alpayim, the hope of 2,000 years – as they sat in ramshackle synagogues in Poland or in the markets of Persia, wailing by the waters of Babylon in Baghdad and waiting patiently for the messiah in Morocco. The return of those prior to World War II came from an ancient yearning for a national identity and a home to go with it.

The resurrection-after-the-Holocaust narrative is over-simplified. It neglects the Jaffa Orange, a key to early agricultural success, entirely. It leaves the political heavy-lifting of Theodor Herzl and Chaim Weizmann out, not to mention the early Zionist writers Ahad Ha-Am and Hayim Nahman Bialik.

But national stories are like that. Consider American history: the Boston Tea Party. Paul Revere’s ride. There is always more to the story than such simple narratives can provide.

And Israel’s contemporary reality is equally complex. Every now and then I meet American Jews who are afraid to travel to Israel for safety reasons, because they have bought into the media-induced perception of Israel as a place where citizens live in constant fear of terrorist activity. But I know, having spent far more of my life there than in any other country save this one, that you are far safer walking down the street in Israel than in America, for a whole bunch of reasons.

And I also know that the political dialogue is never as simple as some would have it as well. Anti-Israel critics tend to characterize Israel as a monolithic oppressor of millions of Palestinians, that even the lefty intellectuals sipping cappucinos in Tel Aviv cafes and Jewish students on American university campuses are somehow monsters who deny civil rights to innocent, stateless victims. And on the other hand there are zealously pro-Israel activists who profess that Israel’s leaders can do no wrong, and even deny that there is such a thing as a “Palestinian.”

Life is not that simple. There are nearly 13 million people on that tiny strip of land – Jews, Christians, Muslims, Druze, Circassians, Karaites, Samaritans, black, white, Asian, etc. – and we should all continue to seek a way that they can all live side-by-side, each under his own vine and fig tree.

If you would like to expand your understanding within this complexity, you might want to check out the podcast produced by the Forward called “Fault Lines.” It features a reasoned, respectful, intelligent discussion between a hawk and a dove, Rabbi Danny Gordis and journalist Peter Beinart.

It is essential that we, as Hovevei Tziyyon, lovers of Zion/Israel, not reduce Israel to any such simple narrative, that we seek out the multiple narratives of Israel to better inform our relationship with it, so that we will all continue to act on those two millennia of yearning, so that the State of Israel will continue to be reishit tzemihat ge-ulateinu, the dawn of the flowering of our redemption.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 4/29/2017.)