Tag Archives: Yom Kippur

All of This Belongs to You: Finding Resilience in Jewish Tradition – Yom Kippur Day 5780

This is the fourth and final installment in the “All of This Belongs to You” High Holiday sermon series. You may want to read the first three:

The Greatest Jewish Hand-Off Play Ever – Rosh Hashanah 5780, Day 1

Be a Jewish Superhero! – Rosh Hashanah 5780, Day 2

Do Not Be Indifferent – Kol Nidrei 5780

***

One of my favorite books from childhood was The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster. In it, there is a wonderful story about a city where somebody discovers that if you walk while looking only at your feet, you get to your destination much more quickly. Soon everybody in the city is looking down at their feet as they are walking from place to place. And nobody is talking to each other, and nobody is noticing the trees and the buildings and the birds and the flowers. Soon enough, the city starts to disappear.

Our tradition, Jewish tradition, is like a beautiful city, with the most wonderful, architecturally stunning buildings. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel spoke about Shabbat as a “palace in time.” That palace is at the center of this city.

I am not suggesting that Judaism is disappearing, because it certainly is not. But I am suggesting that we all take a better look at what it has to offer. Because there is much more there than what you might think. And if we are only looking at the things with which we are already familiar – the comfortable, the expected – we are missing a whole lot of scenery. And that is what I want you to see more of: the value that Judaism can bring to your life, our community, and the world.

Our theme over these High Holidays, as you really should know by now, is, “All of this belongs to you.” My goal is to remind all of us that, in the wake of the completion of Project Assimilate, it is up to us to reclaim our tradition, to make it ours once again. To make it yours once again, because it belongs to you.

And how will we reclaim it? That can be summed up in one word: meaning. We have to seek out and find meaning in our tradition. And that means looking beyond where you usually look. That means stretching yourself a little bit, to perhaps show up for a different service, for a new program, for a Talmud discussion, for a cultural event, for something that you have not sought out before. Because I’ll tell you this, folks: what we teach can change your life.

And today, in particular on one of the four days of the Jewish calendar in which we actively remember those whom we have lost, there is something that our tradition stands for that is tremendously valuable at this particular moment, in this particular place, and that is resilience.

5779 was a year of grieving. We will continue to grieve, of course, but this new year, 5780, will have to be one of looking forward.

Consider the great catastrophes of Jewish life. The destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. The destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE. The crushing of the Bar Kokhba revolt in 136 CE. The massacres at the hands of the Crusaders in the 11th century. The Expulsion from Spain in 1492. The Sho’ah / Holocaust. And so many other mini-exiles and dispersions and destructions and pogroms and so forth along the way.

And in each case, what have the Jews done? We have buried our dead. We have mourned. We have grieved. And then we got up from shiv’ah and continued doing what we do: worshipping the one true God; learning and teaching and debating about our tradition; supporting each other in times of need; yearning for freedom and working for the freedom of others; finding ways to illuminate this world based on Jewish texts and wisdom.

Many of you probably know journalist Bari Weiss, whose family belongs to Beth Shalom, and who became bat mitzvah in the context of this community in 1997. Her bat mitzvah service was held at the Tree of Life building, because that is where Beth Shalom services were located following the fire in 1996. Ms. Weiss just published a book titled How to Fight Anti-Semitism. In it, she describes the various expressions that anti-Semitism takes. But more importantly, Bari makes the case for how to respond to it.

Among the strategies that she suggests (with an assist from Rabbi Danny Schiff) is that the way we have always overcome anti-Semitism is by doubling down on our identity, and by turning back to tradition. The haters win, she says, when we take our kippot off and try to hide. She points to the statement by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, who said, “Non-Jews respect Jews who respect Judaism, and they are embarrassed by Jews who are embarrassed by Judaism.”

She cites the case of Theodor Herzl, who grew up in a secular Hungarian-Jewish family that was barely connected to Jewish tradition. At one point, young Herzl even made the case for why Jews should convert en masse to Christianity.

And then, while he was working as a journalist in Paris, he had a front-row seat to the trial of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish captain in the French army who was falsely accused of treason. Herzl witnessed the anti-Semitic mobs in Paris chanting “Mort aux juifs!” “Death to the Jews!”, and concluded that the only safe future for the Jews lay in the Zionist imperative to build a Jewish state in Palestine.

When faced with existential threats, we have responded by looking inward, by embracing our peoplehood, our traditions, our community. As Bari wrote in a New York Times op-ed, “The long arc of Jewish history makes it clear that the only way to fight [anti-Semitism] is by waging an affirmative battle for who we are. By entering the fray for our values, for our ideas, for our ancestors, for our families, and for the generations that will come after us.”

Her solution is to “build, without shame, a Judaism and a Jewish people and a Jewish state that are not only safe and resilient but also generative, humane, joyful and life-affirming.”

Must say, I could not have said that better myself! Remember that city? The better we know it, the more familiar we are with its alleyways and architecture, the less likely it is to disappear. The more we own our heritage, the more we claim our Jewishness, the more resilient we will be as individuals and as a people.

The key to fighting anti-Semitism is to lean into tradition. Our resilience in the face of hatred comes from knowing and loving and acting on what is distinctly ours.

And let me tell you something, folks: ours is a rich heritage, one with a pedigree that stretches back thousands of years. And our strength is derived from knowing our tradition, and practicing it. It is a framework that has always nourished us, in times of persecution and in times of freedom.

Has anybody here been to Terezin? It’s the location of the “model” concentration camp, which the Germans called Theresienstadt, about an hour northwest of Prague. If you have been on a tour there, you may have seen the “secret” synagogue, tucked into a hidden basement behind a house. It was created by Jewish prisoners interned at Terezin. On the wall in this otherwise nondescript room, written in 80-year-old, flaking paint, there is a quote that we recite three times every day in the Amidah: “Vetehezenah eineinu beshuvekha letziyyon berahamim” “May our eyes envision Your return to Zion in mercy.” It was a plea for better times, an acknowledgment of the fact that despite this low point of Jewish existence, we as a people, and maybe even as individuals, will soon see better days.

That kind of statement is hard-wired into who we are. The resilience that is in our DNA is found all over our liturgy, our siddur.

In a recent episode of the renowned radio show This American Life, the show’s host and creator Ira Glass reflects on going to synagogue for the first time in many years, to say qaddish on the occasion of his mother’s yahrzeit. And although he admits that he does not really believe in aspects of our tradition, particularly the idea of God, he confesses that the words of Jewish prayer nonetheless hold a very strong power for him:

I always liked going to synagogue as a kid. We went a lot. And so it was nice going back. I know all the Hebrew prayers by heart. And [LAUGHS] I don’t know if this is good or bad, but not having sat in a synagogue in over a decade, it really hit me how every day is a rerun.

Do you know what I mean? They never do a new episode. Every day, the same words, same songs in the same order, stretching back hundreds of years. They read a new part of the Bible, part of the Torah some days. So there’s that, but all the rest is basically exactly the same every day.

And everybody is singing and chanting… And I really was struck at how many of [the prayers] — the Amidah, the Ashrei– are about praising God at length. That’s what the words mean. Even the Kaddish, which you say over and over during services.

יתגדל ויתקדש שמיה רבא

… “May His great name be exalted and sanctified. Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One.” That is what they have you say when your mom dies. Comforting, huh? It’s basically God is great over and over, building up to this beautiful line, really beautiful, that’s basically God is so great. It’s beyond the power of any prayer, or word, or song, or praise. It’s beyond the power of language to capture it…

But weirdly, even… without believing any of the words, I do find it’s a comfort to say the prayer. It’s just– it’s familiar. It’s familiar as the nursery rhymes my mom sang to me as a kid, as the Shema, the prayer that she had me and my sister say every night before we went to sleep. It’s comforting.

Despite the fact that it’s in another language and part of a doctrine I don’t believe anymore, just the fact of it handed to me by my parents and to them by their parents– Frida, and Lou, and Melvin, and Molly– and their parents before them– David, and Elizabeth, and Isidore, and people whose names I don’t even know– and before them, their parents for hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds of years and standing in synagogue that day, standing and saying these words in unison with other mourners, it was comforting.

***

I know that Ira Glass thinks like a radio producer rather than a shul-going Jew, but it’s neither fair nor accurate to say that it’s a rerun every day. Yes, the words may be similar from day to day, and with the appropriate seasonal changes for holidays and so forth, but what makes tefillah / prayer interesting is that every day, month, and year, we are different. What changes is the kavvanah, the intention, the mind-set, what’s on your plate. We change, we grow, we celebrate and we mourn, and our traditions are there as a framework to support us. The liturgy may be set, but as we change, the words of our tradition continue to reveal new things to us – about ourselves, about our community, about life.

Regardless, Mr. Glass gets it: our tradition brings us comfort and strength and resilience, even if you do not entirely buy into it. Or, as the modern Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig would have put it, even if you do not buy into it yet.

Many of us gathered on a Saturday night two and a half weeks ago for the first recitation of Selihot, traditional prayers in which we ask for forgiveness in preparation for this day. At that time, I read a commentary that appears on the pages of your mahzor, p. 298 in the margin if you would like to see it. It comes from Rabbi Rob Scheinberg, a very good friend of mine, whom I have known since my first summer at Camp Ramah in New England in 1980. (Some of you may know that Rabbi Scheinberg was among a handful of rabbis who came to Pittsburgh to help out New Light Congregation in the months after the shooting. Rob was also among the founders of Pizmon, the Jewish a capella group from Columbia University that performed here at Beth Shalom last November.)

Rabbi Scheinberg’s commentary refers to the line that we say every time we put the Torah away. It is the next to last verse in Eikhah (5:21), the book of Lamentations, which we read on Tish’ah Be’Av, the day on which we commemorate all the destructions in Jewish history:

 הֲשִׁיבֵנוּ ה’ אֵלֶיךָ וְנָשׁוּבָה, חַדֵּשׁ יָמֵינוּ כְּקֶדֶם

Hashiveinu Adonai elekha venashuvah; hadesh yameinu kekedem.

Return us to You, O God, and we shall surely return; renew our days as of old.

It is the only hopeful note in the entire book of Eikhah, which is a litany of the destruction of Jerusalem and Israel wrought by the Babylonians 2600 years ago. A midrash (Eikhah Rabba) interprets this verse as referring back to Adam haQadmon, the first humans, following their exile from Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden. Rabbi Scheinberg explains the midrash as follows:

“It means, ‘Renew our lives, as you renewed our lives after we were exiled from the Garden of Eden.’ Hadesh yameinu kekedem is then not a plea for restoration of a formerly perfect condition, but rather it is a plea for resilience, a plea for the ability to renew ourselves after future crises and dislocations, just as our lives have been renewed before.

In other words, the verse is not about requesting to take us back to Eden. It is, rather, about pleading for the capacity to recover quickly from dire circumstances. As Elie Wiesel said, “God gave Adam a secret – and that secret was not how to begin, but how to begin again.”

Ledor vador, from generation to generation, we have begun again and again and again, packing up in one place and unpacking in another; leaving behind the old synagogues and cemeteries and building new ones; starting over in a new culture with a new language. We have been doing it for thousands of years. And what has maintained us, then as now, is our tradition.

And now, in 5780, we have an opportunity to begin again. Only this time we do not need to pack our bags and move.  We have to unpack our emotional suitcases and take stock in what we, the Jews, have, what belongs to us that is unique.  What belongs to you.

And the way to do that is to stare proudly in the direction of the anti-Semites who have crawled out of their holes, put on a kippah, and dive right in.

And we at Beth Shalom give you so many opportunities to do so. We will never be rid of anti-Semitism; but the way to respond, ladies and gentlemen, is to know what we stand for. Nothing suits an anti-Semite more than a Jew who cannot defend the value of his/her own tradition.

So before you leave today, pick up a Derekh High Holiday Guide, which we have lovingly produced to make it easy for you to find your way into Jewish learning. Peruse the offerings. And pick one.

And let me assure you, there are lots of things to choose from. In 2018-19, Derekh hosted 168 events, yielding nearly 2900 encounters in five areas, empowering many members of this community not only to learn, but to take leadership roles in this community.

And if you do not see something you like, do this: come up with your own idea, find two friends, and then drop in on Rabbi Jeremy Markiz to make it happen. That is what Derekh is set up to do.

The response to hatred, to persecution, to anti-Semitism, to grief, and even to cold-blooded murder, ladies and gentlemen, is to double down on Judaism. It is not to hide our kippot and cower behind armed guards. It is, rather, to be loud, proud, and informed. To be the Jewish superhero, with the big red alef on your chest, as I described on Rosh Hashanah. To dwell in that beautiful city, the one with Heschel’s Palace in Time at the center. To know our tradition and to live it. To share it with others. To act on Jewish values and do so boldly.

The anti-Semites won’t like it, of course, but, y’know, haters gonna hate.

This is yours, and if you take the ball and run with it, Jewish wisdom and ritual and prayer and text and community will continue to nourish our people and the world forever.

All of this belongs to you. Ta shema! Come and learn.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Yom Kippur day 5780, October 9, 2019.)

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All of This Belongs to You: Do Not Be Indifferent – Kol Nidrei 5780

This is the third installment in the “All of This Belongs to You” High Holiday sermon series. You may want to read the first two:

The Greatest Jewish Hand-Off Play Ever – Rosh Hashanah 5780, Day 1

Be a Jewish Superhero! – Rosh Hashanah 5780, Day 2

***

Have you seen the TV show, “The Good Place”? It is a sharp and witty comedy about the afterlife, and conceptions of “heaven” (i.e. the Good Place) and “hell” (the Bad Place). [MILD SPOILER ALERT!] In the most recent season, the characters on the show discovered a flaw in the algorithm that determines to which place people go when they die. What they found is that life today is so complicated that none of our decisions can be completely, decisively good or bad.

Buying an organic tomato, for example, is better for the Earth in some respects and maybe better for you. But if it was picked by underpaid migrant workers, shipped on a diesel truck from California, sold in a store where there is no gender parity in their pay-scale, placed in a single-use plastic bag, and then driven home in a large gas-guzzling vehicle, then you’ve racked up exponentially more negative points. And so they determined that nobody was getting into the Good Place anymore, because life has become so perpetually fraught.

(It’s worth noting here that Judaism is not so hung up on the afterlife – we are more about the here and now than about what comes after. Our reward for doing the right thing is found in the quality of our personal and communal relationships. But although that is an excellent sermon for Yom Kippur, that is not the direction we are going this evening.)

Let’s face it: we are all overwhelmed. Overwhelmed with all that needs fixing in our world.  Overwhelmed with emails, texts and notifications. Overwhelmed with the pace and complexity of contemporary life. Overwhelmed by so many choices, and so little reliable guidance. We have difficulty prioritizing our time, particularly because it seems that there is just not enough of it. And who has any time left over for volunteering, let alone doing things that are good for your soul, like daily tefillah / prayer?

Given the above, how can we possibly be the best versions of ourselves?  If the demands on our attention continue to grow, how can we hope to ensure a just society, one in which everybody gets a fair shake?

As many of you already know, the theme of this year’s High Holidays is, “All of this belongs to you.” My plea for you for the 80s, the 5780s, is to acknowledge that the great project of assimilation into American society is done, and that we now need to consider how we can reclaim our tradition.

Too many of us have taken Judaism for granted for too long; we have reduced it to a day or two per year in synagogue, a few home-based rituals, and lifecycle events. But if that is the extent of your Jewish engagement, you are missing most of the richness and value of our heritage, of our customs and rituals, of our ancient wisdom.

To that end, I am going to address this evening an essential message that Judaism offers us and our world, a message that our texts return to over and over. (Get ready – I’m about to do some text, then follow that with a story that drives the point home.)

The Torah teaches us that all of us are responsible for members of society that are less fortunate than ourselves.  Here is just one example (Deut. 15:11):

כִּ֛י לֹֽא־יֶחְדַּ֥ל אֶבְי֖וֹן מִקֶּ֣רֶב הָאָ֑רֶץ עַל־כֵּ֞ן אָֽנֹכִ֤י מְצַוְּךָ֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר פָּ֠תֹחַ תִּפְתַּ֨ח אֶת־יָֽדְךָ֜ לְאָחִ֧יךָ לַֽעֲנִיֶּ֛ךָ וּלְאֶבְיֹֽנְךָ֖ בְּאַרְצֶֽךָ׃

For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.

God expects us to take care of the poor, and the Torah refers more than thirty times to all those in ancient Israelite society who were likely to be destitute: the widow, the orphan, the foreigner, the Levites (who in ancient Israel did not own land, and were therefore among the poor).  The reasons for doing so may be obvious, but just for good measure, and also in multiple places, the Torah gives us a justification based on our national history (Exodus 23:9):

וְגֵ֖ר לֹ֣א תִלְחָ֑ץ וְאַתֶּ֗ם יְדַעְתֶּם֙ אֶת־נֶ֣פֶשׁ הַגֵּ֔ר כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃ 

Do not oppress the stranger, for you know the soul of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

As Jews, we must have compassion for others in difficult situations, because we know, as a people, what that feels like.  This is so important that we commemorate our slavery in Egypt for eight days out of every year by retelling the story and eating the “bread of poverty,” the matzah of Pesah. And to some extent, that is also the message of Sukkot, when we are commanded to leave our comfortable, climate-controlled homes to live in ramshackle huts.

Thank God, most of us have never known true hardship. But our tradition urges us to at least consider it.

In the 19th century, there was an intellectual movement among Lithuanian Jewish thinkers called mussar, meaning “moral conduct.” An important figure in the mussar movement was Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, leader of the famed Slabodka Yeshivah in Lithuania. He took that verse about not oppressing strangers a little further. Rabbi Finkel reads it as requiring us not only to sympathize with others, but to make an effort to feel their joy and their suffering.  Referring to our obligation not to oppress gerim, strangers, he writes:

Please do not explain these words according to their plain meaning, that we are forbidden to oppress a stranger because we too have been strangers and have been oppressed, and thus know the taste of oppression.

Rather, the reasoning behind it is that a person is obligated to feel and to participate in the happiness of his/her fellow, and also their troubles, as if they had afflicted him as well. ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18) – truly just like yourself. One’s relationships to others are not found to be complete unless one can feel oneself and one’s fellow person as being in the same situation, without any separation.

If we feel neither the joy nor the suffering of our neighbors, says Rabbi Finkel, we ourselves are not complete.

It is all too easy to ignore the plight of others around us, particularly people we do not personally know. And yet, says the Torah, for our own welfare, we cannot afford to ignore others in need.  A few weeks ago, in Parashat Ki Tetze, we read about returning lost items to your neighbor (Deut. 22:3):

וְכֵן תַּעֲשֶׂה לַחֲמֹרוֹ, וְכֵן תַּעֲשֶׂה לְשִׂמְלָתוֹ, וְכֵן תַּעֲשֶׂה לְכָל-אֲבֵדַת אָחִיךָ אֲשֶׁר-תֹּאבַד מִמֶּנּוּ, וּמְצָאתָהּ, לֹא תוּכַל לְהִתְעַלֵּם

You shall [also return your neighbor’s] donkey; you shall do the same with his clothes; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent.

Rashi, writing in 11th-century France, tells us that “lehit’alem,” to remain indifferent, means “To conquer your eye, as if you do not see it.”  That is, to actively choose to overlook human loss or suffering that is directly in front of you.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are exposed to poverty, suffering, and the needs of others every day, and we usually do not see it.  Yes, these are complex, multi-faceted issues, and it is easy to be indifferent, particularly in the face of intractable problems.  However, it is incumbent upon us as Jews not to allow ourselves to “conquer our eyes.” We cannot ignore others in need, whoever they are.

The following is a true story that appeared in the New York Times Magazine eight years ago. It speaks volumes about the positions of Rabbi Finkel and Rashi. It’s called, The Tire Iron and the Tamale, by Justin Horner, a graphic designer from Portland, Oregon.

During this past year I’ve had three instances of car trouble: a blowout on a freeway, a bunch of blown fuses and an out-of-gas situation. They all happened while I was driving other people’s cars, which for some reason makes it worse on an emotional level. And on a practical level as well, what with the fact that I carry things like a jack and extra fuses in my own car, and know enough not to park on a steep incline with less than a gallon of fuel.

Each time, when these things happened, I was disgusted with the way people didn’t bother to help. I was stuck on the side of the freeway hoping my friend’s roadside service would show, just watching tow trucks cruise past me. The people at the gas stations where I asked for a gas can told me that they couldn’t lend them out “for safety reasons,” but that I could buy a really crappy one-gallon can, with no cap, for $15. It was enough to make me say stuff like “this country is going to hell in a handbasket,” which I actually said.

But you know who came to my rescue all three times? Immigrants. Mexican immigrants. None of them spoke any English.

One of those guys stopped to help me with the blowout even though he had his whole family of four in tow. I was on the side of the road for close to three hours with my friend’s big Jeep. I put signs in the windows, big signs that said, “NEED A JACK,” and offered money. Nothing. Right as I was about to give up and start hitching, a van pulled over, and the guy bounded out.

He sized up the situation and called for his daughter, who spoke English. He conveyed through her that he had a jack but that it was too small for the Jeep, so we would need to brace it. Then he got a saw from the van and cut a section out of a big log on the side of the road. We rolled it over, put his jack on top and we were in business.

I started taking the wheel off, and then, if you can believe it, I broke his tire iron. It was one of those collapsible ones, and I wasn’t careful, and I snapped the head clean off. Damn.

No worries: he ran to the van and handed it to his wife, and she was gone in a flash down the road to buy a new tire iron. She was back in 15 minutes. We finished the job with a little sweat and cussing (the log started to give), and I was a very happy man.

The two of us were filthy and sweaty. His wife produced a large water jug for us to wash our hands in. I tried to put a 20 in the man’s hand, but he wouldn’t take it, so instead I went up to the van and gave it to his wife as quietly as I could. I thanked them up one side and down the other. I asked the little girl where they lived, thinking maybe I’d send them a gift for being so awesome. She said they lived in Mexico. They were in Oregon so Mommy and Daddy could pick cherries for the next few weeks. Then they were going to pick peaches, then go back home.

After I said my goodbyes and started walking back to the Jeep, the girl called out and asked if I’d had lunch. When I told her no, she ran up and handed me a tamale.

This family, undoubtedly poorer than just about everyone else on that stretch of highway, working on a seasonal basis where time is money, took a couple of hours out of their day to help a strange guy on the side of the road while people in tow trucks were just passing him by.

But we weren’t done yet. I thanked them again and walked back to my car and opened the foil on the tamale (I was starving by this point), and what did I find inside? My $20 bill! I whirled around and ran to the van and the guy rolled down his window. He saw the $20 in my hand and just started shaking his head no. All I could think to say was, “Por favor, por favor, por favor,” with my hands out. The guy just smiled and, with what looked like great concentration, said in English: “Today you, tomorrow me.”

Then he rolled up his window and drove away, with his daughter waving to me from the back. I sat in my car eating the best tamale I’ve ever had, and I just started to cry. It had been a rough year; nothing seemed to break my way. This was so out of left field I just couldn’t handle it.

In the several months since then I’ve changed a couple of tires, given a few rides to gas stations and once drove 50 miles out of my way to get a girl to an airport. I won’t accept money. But every time I’m able to help, I feel as if I’m putting something in the bank.

What an inspiring story!  Would that we all could have such heart-warming interactions!  Better yet, may we all be blessed with finding opportunities to create them.  When Mr. Horner was in need, he was helped by those who clearly understood what it means to need help.  He learned to appreciate those who are willing to help others, and translated that into his own willingness to reach out to strangers in their time of need. And when the family returned his $20 in the tamale, he surely learned that acts of kindness are, in fact, their own reward, a particularly Jewish concept.

These are the principles that the Torah is trying to teach us.  As a people, we must not remain indifferent to the needs of others, because we, the children of Israel, not only know what it’s like to be strangers in a strange land, but that our tradition requires us to participate in their joy and in their suffering. And we also understand the value that action for the benefit of others brings us in the here and now.

Ladies and gentlemen, the essential message of the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance that include Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, is that we have the power to change ourselves for the better.  We can become more compassionate, more understanding, more forthcoming in our outward relationships. 

Fasting and afflicting our souls through abstention from physical pleasures on this day is not for its own sake. Yom Kippur is not some kind of macho endurance test, or an opportunity to lose weight.  It is to remind us that we have obligations to everybody else, that the hunger we experience today is the hunger that too many experience every day, that we may not remain indifferent in the face of suffering. 

Although some have the custom, before Yom Kippur to greet others with, “Tzom qal,” “Have an easy fast,” I do not say this. It is more appropriate to say, “Have a meaningful fast.” But here is another suggestion: Have a challenging fast.”  This day should be, in fact, a challenge to our values, a challenge to our daily routine, to our modes of comfort. To face the challenge of fasting for 25 hours, and yet remain unchanged by that challenge, that would be an embarrassment before God.

Tomorrow morning, we will read the words of Isaiah in the haftarah (58:6-7):

This is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke.  It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe them, and do not ignore your own flesh.

We cannot ignore the hungry, the poor, or the naked, says Isaiah.  I would extrapolate Isaiah’s line of thinking to include the homeless, the neglected, the abused, the emotionally and physically wounded.

Just a few quick statistics:

Did you know that more black children in Pittsburgh grow up in poverty than black children in 95% of similar American cities? That black infant mortality puts Pittsburgh in the 6th percentile? That’s not compared to white people – that’s only compared to black people.

Did you know that the food insecurity rate in Allegheny County is 14.2% overall, but for children it is 17.8%? That means that nearly 1 in 5 kids go hungry regularly.

Did you know that at any given time, there are a couple of thousand homeless people in Allegheny County? Some of them can even be found in our own neighborhood.

We are surrounded by people in need, and we cannot remain indifferent. 

Why are we here this evening?  On this, the holiest night of the year, a night on which we focus on improving ourselves, a night on which we pre-emptively invalidate frivolous vows (that is the purpose of the Kol Nidrei prayer), we should consider making some vows that we will strive to keep:

  • To be aware of those around us who are in need
  • To reach out to them, whether directly, in person, or through all the various charitable organizations that do so
  • To think pro-actively about how we can make a difference in the lives of others

And you can turn that awareness into actual deeds right now: you can fill up those bags for the Squirrel Hill Food Pantry. You can donate to any number of organizations that help those in need. You can volunteer to work in a shelter or soup kitchen.

And, as with Justin Horner and his flat tire, you do not even have to look very far to find somebody in need of help. The point, ladies and gentlemen, is to be aware of others, to think beyond yourself, and to stop and give aid.

On this day of teshuvah / repentance, of self-denial and self-judgment, our task is to challenge ourselves not to succumb to information overload, not to tune out the ever-present challenges of poverty, of suffering, of those who have less than we do.

Rather, this is the essential message of our tradition: we must surmount our indifference and to turn it into action. This is a fundamental value of Judaism. All of this belongs to you. Now go out there and make 5780 a year that counts.

Gemar hatimah tovah.  Have not an easy fast, but a challenging fast.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, evening of Yom Kippur 5780, October 8, 2019.)

Continue reading the final installment in the “All of This Belongs to You” series: All of This Belongs to You: Finding Resilience in Jewish Tradition – Yom Kippur Day 5780

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All Of This Belongs To You – High Holidays 5780

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Being Honest With Ourselves – Ki Tetze 5779

In his short story, Tallit Aheret, (“Another Prayer Shawl”), the great Israeli writer Shemuel Yosef Agnon, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966, speaks of an ineffective Yom Kippur. He goes to his grandfather’s synagogue for services, where his tallit awaits him, and one thing after another distract him from actually praying, from being able to seek teshuvah / return on that day.

He arrives late (during Pesuqei Dezimra, which, BTW, many of us consider “early”), the old men will not offer him a seat, he is attacked by a pitcher of fruit juice, and when he finally dons his tallit, somebody points out that it is not kosher – it is missing one of the four tzitziyyot, the specially-tied strands that hang down at the corners. It is a symbol of death – some have the custom of deliberately making a tallit pesulah (not kosher) before burying it with its owner, by removing one of the tzitziyyot. The speaker grieves for himself, and realizes that the holy day has passed “belo tefillah uvelo kelum.” Without prayer and without anything.

Agnon speaks in a language that is rich with metaphor, but one possible way of reading the story is this: it is absolutely possible to show up for Yom Kippur and go through the motions, and not actually succeed in plumbing the depths that one must plumb in order to achieve teshuvah. I am certain that many of us fast through to the shofar blast at the end and not actually achieve anything – lo tefillah velo kelum – no actual prayer, to put Yom Kippur aside for another year.

The overwhelming number of captivating and indeed relevant mitzvot found in Parashat Ki Tetze is breathtaking. Just a brief sampling:

  • We are forbidden from taking a worker’s tool in pawn, so that she/he cannot make a living
  • Shilluah haqen – we must shoo away the mother bird before taking the nestlings (a curious, yet significant mitzvah)
  • Shikhehah– produce from our fields that is forgotten must be left behind for the needy, and several other associated mitzvot
  • We may not be indifferent to our neighbors (we’ll speak about that one at Kol Nidrei)
  • We must use honest weights and measures in business

That last one is particularly important right now, a mere two weeks out from the beginning of the seventh month of Tishrei, the “holy month” of the Jewish calendar, and in particular the cycle of teshuvah / repentance followed by celebration. But first, a story, this one courtesy of Rabbi David Wolpe:

One Shabbat morning, a rabbi gave her congregation an assignment: study Psalm 153, because we are going to take a deep dive into it during the sermon next Shabbat morning.

The following week, after the Torah is put away, the rabbi says, “Shabbat shalom! I asked you last week to read Psalm 153. Raise your hand if you read it.”

Two-thirds of the people in the room raise their hands.

“Well, that’s too bad,” says the rabbi. “Because there IS NO Psalm 153, and today’s sermon is about lying.”

So we are talking about lying, but not what you might be thinking of. The Torah tells us, as I mentioned, not to have two sets of weights and measures (Deut. 25:15-16)

אֶבֶן שְׁלֵמָה וָצֶדֶק יִהְיֶה-לָּךְ, אֵיפָה שְׁלֵמָה וָצֶדֶק יִהְיֶה-לָּךְ–לְמַעַן, יַאֲרִיכוּ יָמֶיךָ, עַל הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר-ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ.  כִּי תוֹעֲבַת ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ, כָּל-עֹשֵׂה אֵלֶּה, כֹּל עֹשֵׂה עָוֶל

You shall have a perfect and just weight; you shall have a perfect and just measure, that your days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God gives you. For all that do these things, all that do unrighteously, are an abomination unto the LORD your God.

Ibn Ezra, the great 12th-century Spanish commentator, does us the favor of interpolating the latter verse to explain that the “unrighteous” things described are neither limited to falsifying weights and measures to swindle your customer, nor any other deceptive business practice, but any sort of deception or falsehood. The Torah mandates that we treat each other with honesty, and the reward for doing so will be long life.

But I would like to extend the thinking from the external to the internal. Of course, the Torah expects us to deal honestly with each other. But reading between the lines, the Torah also expects us to deal honestly with ourselves.

Welcome to Elul! We are already halfway through the month in which we must start thinking about dealing honestly with ourselves; we’ve been blowing the shofar every morning at minyan for two weeks. This is the time in which we should be taking, if you will, a spiritual inventory, asking ourselves the tough questions, like:

  • Have I mistreated anyone in the past year?
  • Have I not fulfilled promises?
  • Have I let anger cloud my judgment?
  • Have I been too critical of others?  
  • Have I judged others without walking in their shoes?
  • Have I judged myself unfairly?

There are many such questions we could ask ourselves during Elul. (If you would like some more for your own personal review, find them here.)

And here is the REALLY hard part: you have to answer honestly.

I know, I know. You’d really rather watch funny videos on YouTube than answer difficult questions about your behavior. So would I. We are really good at finding ways of distracting ourselves from the hard work.

‘Cause let’s face it: these holidays come up every year. The services are carefully choreographed and lacking in improvised devotion. We recite these ancient Hebrew words of confession and contrition, but really, most of us do not connect them to our actual behavior. And then we go to lunch, or break the fast.

But sometimes, hevreh, and especially in Elul, we have to actually take the blame, which nobody likes doing.

Of course, it is also possible that not all of the blame is yours. We also have to be honest with ourselves when we might be inclined toward what might be called “false modesty.” Maybe I contributed to how a situation went wrong, but I have to be honest with myself about my role.

Without raising your hand, how many of us can think of a time where we really did something wrong? How many of us can think of a time in which we said words that were harmful? Or acted out of spite or anger? How many of us went back, after the fact, and did the best we could to, rather than fixing the situation, try to cover our tracks? How many of us have dug our heels in unnecessarily? How many of us have, rather than offering an earnest apology, have instead doubled down on the wrong thing?

Elsewhere, the Torah (Exodus 23:7) exhorts us, “מדבר שקר תרחק” (Midevar sheqer tirhaq – “You shall distance yourself from falsehood.”) Rabbis often joke that this line is the reason that everybody sits in the back in shul.

But seriously, now is the time to distance ourselves from the falsehood within ourselves. So here is a suggestion:

Find some time in the coming weeks to reflect back over the past year. You might need to isolate yourself in a quiet place, away from any kind of digital technology, to do this. Try to remember the instances where you made the wrong choice, said the wrong thing, damaged a relationship. A year is a long time – there are surely many such potential instances. But if you allow yourself to go back, you might find one or two that absolutely must be addressed. I already have a few items on my list.  

Write them down on a piece of paper and carry it around with you for the next several weeks as a reminder. If the opportunity comes up for you to make a situation right, then do so. If not, well, then there’s Yom Kippur. During the moments when you need that extra help searching for “inspiration” for teshuvah, take that piece of paper out and meditate on it.

After Yom Kippur, recycle the paper, and hope that as that paper is ground up and fashioned into new paper, the transgressions indicated thereupon will help you and everybody else to make better choices the next time, and to be more honest with yourself.

Nobody wants to see herself or himself as having messed up. We have a complex, layered series of self-protections to avoid exactly that. But the point of the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Return, is to swallow our pride and admit our failures. We have all failed in one way or another; the challenge at this time is to be honest with ourselves about it.

And furthermore, nobody REALLY wants Yom Kippur to pass by “belo tefillah uvelo kelum.” We want our words, our fast, our beating of the chest to be honest, to help improve ourselves, our relationships and our world. You can do it. You got this.

Shabbat shalom, and I hope that the remainder of Elul is truly introspective.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 9/14/2019.)

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

Wait! You might want to read the first three 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

Increase the Love: Beyahad / Community – Kol Nidrei 5779

***

In the final installment of this High Holiday sermon cycle, we are widening the circle a whole lot more today. Beyond ourselves, beyond our family, beyond our community, it is upon us to love the world. Today we address the fourth letter in אהבה / ahavah / love: the second heh is for העולם / ha’olam / the world. The idea that I am trying to keep in front of us all this year, this prime year of 5779, is to increase the love.

Because the world needs some lovin’. Think of where we are right now. Think of all the tumult going on in the world. Forget American politics: think of how Great Britain has been torn apart over Brexit. Think of natural disasters – hurricanes and typhoons. Think of the Rohingya Muslims who have been slaughtered by the Buddhist population of Myanmar. Think of the violence that has erupted in India because of fake news stories shared on social media. Think of nationalist governments in Russia and Hungary that are busy eroding freedoms and judicial authorities, and the other nations like Italy and Sweden and Poland that are moving that way. Think of the tidal wave of refugees around the world, people uprooted from their homes by war and malfeasance. Think of the mess that is Syria.

Something that we say when we enter the Ten Days of Teshuvah / Repentance (of which today is the tenth day) is a line from the prophet Isaiah: “Shalom, shalom larahoq velaqarov.” Greetings, greetings to all who are far and all who are near. In this season of teshuvah, repentance, and renewal, we see ourselves as connected to everybody, be they close or far away geographically or spiritually. We remember them all; we welcome them all.

love lady bugs

We, the Jews, have been on this planet for thousands of years. For much of this time we have lived as strangers in strange lands, sometimes at peace with our neighbors, sometimes not.

But at this particular moment in time, when there are 7.6 billion people on Earth, far more than it can handle; when sin’at hinnam / baseless hatred is running high all over the world; when political rifts divide us so angrily, and social media bubbles and algorithms exacerbate those rifts; when terrorism and war and displacement have ruined so many lives and upended stable political orders, there is only one thing that can save us:

Ahavat olam. Love of the world.

We invoke love explicitly in tefillah / Jewish prayer in the paragraph right before we say the Shema, the essential credo of Judaism. In the morning, we remember that the gift of Torah is the essential statement of God’s love for us Jews; in the evening, we mention God’s eternal love for the people of Israel: Ahavat olam beit Yisrael ammekha ahavta. With an eternal love have You loved the house of Israel.

And yet, that phrase, ahavat olam, can also be translated as “love of the world.” The suggestion then would be that God loves us with the same love with which God loves the entire world. All people. I like that reading.

And just as God loves the whole world, so should we. It is the farthest reach of Maimonides’ concentric circles of caring. And even though all love must start within us and flow outward, even though Maimonides tells us that our first obligation to perform tzedaqah / acts of righteousness is for those closest to us, we cannot neglect the rest of the world.

In Israeli scholar Yuval Harari’s take on the cognitive history of humanity called Sapiens, he tells the following story:

On 20 July 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the surface of the moon. In the months leading up to their expedition, the Apollo 11 astronauts trained in a remote moon-like desert in the western United States. The area is home to several Native American communities, and there is a story – or legend – describing an encounter between the astronauts and one of the locals.

One day as they were training, the astronauts came across an old Native American. The man asked them what they were doing there. They replied that they were part of a research expedition that would shortly travel to explore the moon. When the old man heard that, he fell silent for a few moments, and then asked the astronauts if they could do him a favor.

‘What do you want?’ they asked.

‘Well,’ said the old man, ‘the people of my tribe believe that holy spirits live on the moon.  I was wondering if you could pass an important message to them from my people.’

‘What’s the message?’ asked the astronauts.

The man uttered something in his tribal language, and then asked the astronauts to repeat it again and again until they had memorized it correctly.

‘What does it mean?’ asked the astronauts.

‘Oh, I cannot tell you. It’s a secret that only our tribe and the moon spirits are allowed to know.’

When they returned to their base, the astronauts searched and searched until they found someone who could speak the tribal language, and asked him to translate the secret message. When they repeated what they had memorized, the translator started to laugh uproariously. When he calmed down, the astronauts asked him what it meant. The man explained that the sentence they had memorized so carefully said, ‘Don’t believe a single word these people are telling you. They have come to steal your lands.’

moon

Human history has demonstrated over and over that the members of Homo Sapiens do not love each other enough. And we have certainly not loved God’s Creation. Another poignant detail that Harari includes in his book is that wherever humans have lived, they have more or less destroyed the natural environment – the flora and fauna, the topography, the rivers and lakes and oceans.

Our member Jordan Fischbach spoke about this at a Lox & Learning session this past Sunday morning: Pittsburgh currently averages zero days per year where the temperature is over 95 degrees F; in 30 years, the average will be 20 days/yr over 95 degrees. Sea levels are rising, and they may rise as much as eight feet by the end of this century. Remember when the flooding like we are seeing right now in North Carolina and in Houston last year was unusual? Given all the data, we know that we are responsible for climate change, yet are failing to address the challenge.

But maybe – just maybe – we are at a moment in which we can change. That is, after all, the whole point of these days, the Ten Days of Teshuvah / Return, beginning with Rosh Hashanah and concluding today.

At the Rabbinical Assembly convention last April, a rabbinic colleague of mine, Rabbi Susan Grossman in Columbia, MD, spoke about how she had found that some members of her community were unable to talk to each other in today’s political climate: people were not going to Thanksgiving dinners with their family because of deep ideological disagreements. (I have heard of similar cases here in PGH.) So she developed a plan to work on this – she brought in a group that helps facilitate conversations that bring people together.

She also told the following story, which I found particularly moving:

During one of our many interfaith programs, I met a woman wearing a hijab and a beautifully embroidered Bedouin dress. I complimented her on her dress and we got to talking. She was a Palestinian pediatrician, the grandmother of two little boys, one of whom was playing on the beach when he was hit and killed by an Israeli rocket during the Gaza War a few years ago. She stood stiffly before me, clearly bitter and angry. My heart broke for her. How could it not? I opened my hands, palms up, inviting her to take them. She did. We took a step toward each other; two mothers sharing tragic news. I looked into her eyes and said truthfully, deeply, that I was so sorry; losing a child, a grandchild, is the worst thing that can happen to anyone; what a tragedy it is that we haven’t found a way for both Israelis and Palestinians to live in their own states in peace.

Her stance softened, sadness replaced the anger I first had seen. She looked at me, gauging me, and I, her. I acknowledged how I could not compare my experience to hers and began to share how Hamas rockets had rained down on me and the families with me when we were in Israel in the days leading up to the Gaza War. I asked her if perhaps we could work together for all our children’s sake. She squeezed my hands, gave a small nod, and said, ‘You are a good Jew.’ I replied, ‘There are many.’ We returned together to the program. I doubt I changed this woman’s attitude about Israel at all. But perhaps next time she meets a Jew she won’t automatically see an enemy.

Every Shabbat morning, and on all holidays here at Beth Shalom, when we recite our Prayer for the Country, we invoke the messianic vision of Isaiah: “Lo yisa goi el goi herev, velo yilmedu od milhamah / Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they anymore learn war.”

Now, while many of you know me to be an optimist, I am not a Pollyanna, a naif who believes that Isaiah’s vision can be implemented overnight. Although once upon a time, John Lennon’s lyric, “Imagine all the people, sharing all the world” lit a fire in my idealistic teenage soul, in the decades since I have come to understand that everything is a little more complicated than that. Humanity will always be a work in progress.

But I do know this: an essential question of the current moment is this: How can we all live here together without destroying each other and the planet?

It might be easy to throw up our hands and say, the world is a lost cause. There is no way that anything I can do can change the trajectory of all the forces in play. I can’t solve climate change. I can’t stop the Iranians or the North Koreans from producing nuclear weapons. I can’t even get people who are driving by on my street to slow down for the sake of children playing nearby.

But everything that we can do to take even simple steps toward increasing the love in this world might help.

Do you remember the Lorax?  The book by Dr. Seuss?  “I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees.”  It contains a powerful message about the use and abuse of God’s creation for selfish purposes.

lorax1

The book concludes by highlighting a word that is absolutely perfect for Yom Kippur.  One word: “Unless.”

This day of prayer, fasting, and self-denial can come and go, and we can be unchanged; we can fail to be transformed by it, unless:

  • Unless we commit ourselves to being responsible for one another.
  • Unless we learn to be sensitized to the needs of others, and step out of our own worlds into theirs.
  • Unless we understand that the long-term needs of the wider society are more important than our own short-term personal needs or desires, and that working for the benefit of the community and the world not only benefits us as individuals but is vital in the long term.
  • Unless we internalize that all of our choices matter – paper or plastic, wind or solar or coal, incandescent, CFL, or LED, and on and on.
  • Unless we see ourselves as connected to the entire world: to the 12-year-old sewing sneakers in Vietnam, to the denizens of Brazilian favelas, to starving Yemeni victims of that country’s civil war, to those terrorized by Boko Haram in Nigeria, to undocumented immigrants in our own neighborhood.
  • Unless we look past ourselves, past our families, and past our own immediate Jewish community to the greater challenges that we face on our planet.

unless

And yes, that’s what this day is all about: increasing the love by improving ourselves, by taking the next step forward.

So given that Judaism is a tradition of action, and that our goal is to increase the love, what can we do?

We can follow the advice of our rabbis on this day. In a little while, when we recite the Untaneh Toqef prayer, we will conclude by saying, “Utshuvah utfillah, utzdaqah ma’avirin et ro’a hagezerah.” Repentance, prayer, and charity will annul the severity of the decree.

  1. Teshuvah / Repentance: we need to look seriously at how we have behaved – as individuals, of course, but also as a nation, as a people, as a species – and determine how to move forward in a way that is healthier for all of us. That might mean working on behalf of fair wages for migrant workers in America, or working toward finding a cure for Zika, or considering the relationship between our economy and our carbon footprint.
  2. Tefillah / Prayer: There is nothing wrong with actually praying, of course, but perhaps we might read this as awareness: be aware of what is going on in the world, and try to figure how your actions might affect people in your neighborhood or far away. Check out the damage that meat consumption causes to the environment. Google the true cost of cheap clothing. Consider how refugees are turning European politics upside-down.
  3. Tzedaqah / Acts of righteousness: Put your money and your time where your mouth is. Find a charity that is doing something good in the world. There are many. You have to do some research first (always a good idea to check out any charity on the website charitynavigator.org), but there is so much to be done, so many ways to love this world.

Love of the world has the power to lessen the severity of the decree, to strengthen bonds between people, to change the outcomes for the better. And you might not be able to love the world enough by yourself, but if we all commit to doing just a little something, imagine the power that we all have together. As Pirkei Avot, the 2nd-century collection of Jewish wisdom tells us, “Lo alekha hamelakhah ligmor, velo atah ben horin lehibbatel mimmena.” It’s not up to you to finish the task, but neither are you free to give up on it. Consider the following:

One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed a boy picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean.

Approaching the boy, he asked, “What are you doing?”

The youth replied, “Throwing starfish back into the ocean.  The surf is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they will die.”

“Son,” the man said, “don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and thousands of starfish?  You can’t make a difference!”

After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the surf.  Then, smiling at the man, he said. “I made a difference for that one.”

Think about it, ladies and gentlemen. You can leave this service today unmoved by our ancient liturgy and the words of our tradition. You can break the fast tonight and be exactly the same person tomorrow that you were yesterday.

Or you can use this day, this holiest day of the year, to figure out how to increase the net love in the world. You can figure out a new way to reach out. Maybe you’d like to volunteer in helping refugee families here in Pittsburgh adapt to a new life. Maybe you can advocate on behalf of those who need food or shelter. Maybe, if you have the means, can help fund a charitable organization to help children in Africa get access to better nutrition.

All you have to do to act on ahavat olam, love of the world, is to step forward, to pick up a starfish, and toss it into the water.

Love. Ve-ahavta lere’akha kamokha. Love your neighbor as yourself; increase the love.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Yom Kippur day, 9/19/2018.)

 

 

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שאינו יודע לשאול: The Child Who Does Not Know How to Ask is the Future – Yom Kippur Day, 5778

Before reading this sermon, you might want to check out the first three in the series:

Rosh Hashanah 5778, Day 1: The Wise Child Sees Past, Present, and Future

Rosh Hashanah 5778, Day 2: The Wicked Child Sees Only the Present

Kol Nidrei 5778: The Simple Child Sees Only the Past

arba'ah banim

***

Today, we take a look at the שאינו יודע לשאול / she’eino yodea lish’ol, the Child Who Does Not Know How to Ask. That child is our future.

I hosted my first Pesah seder when I was a sophomore in college. I wasn’t able to go home for sedarim that year, so I figured I would do it myself in my co-operative house at Cornell, where I lived. So, figuring I had to make it somewhat traditional, I got from my mother instructions on how to make certain Jewish foods. Tzimmes. Matzah-ball soup. And, although I was effectively vegetarian at that point, I learned how to cook a chicken for my friends.

The next time I hosted my own seder, I did it my way: fully vegetarian. No tzimmes. No matzah-ball soup. (Maybe there was gefilte fish.) I roasted a beet instead of a shank bone to put on the seder plate. My mother was shocked.

The Passover Seder Plate and New Traditions | The Kitchn

Our expression of Judaism has never ceased to change. Customs come and go. Musical tastes and styles change. What they consider traditional Jewish foods among the Persian Jews, for example, is quite different from what they ate in Poland on Rosh Hashanah, and that has everything to do with geographical separation of these communities, and the changes that took place within each.

And, as I have emphasized over these holidays, we are living in a time of great change here in the New World. So great, in fact, that many of us who are intimately tied to traditional Jewish institutions have not even figured out that it’s going on.

Perhaps the greatest challenge in the Jewish world is reaching the growing number of Jews who are not connected to Jewish life or institutions. We all want to do this – Orthodox, Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Federations – but nobody really knows how. Chabad does it by bringing some Jewish rituals into the public square. We in the non-Orthodox world tend to reach out by putting together great programs and hoping that people show up. (We at Beth Shalom are trying to change this model with Derekh, our new programming area with five entry portals.) But we all want the disaffected Jews to find their way in.

Consider also that Jewish North America is quite different than it used to be.

  • Roughly 60% of Jews who have married in the last two decades have married somebody who is not Jewish;
  • We are no longer exclusively white and Ashkenazi (although of course calling Jews “white” is problematic);
  • We no longer have the expectation that a Jewish household consists of one woman, one man, and a couple of children;

Furthermore, Judaism is attracting new members – not those who wish to convert for marriage, but people also genuinely motivated by the appeal of our rich, ancient tradition. And not only that, but many of those of us who grew up with two Jewish parents and had a Jewish education are uncomfortable in traditional Jewish environments because we don’t know Hebrew, we haven’t learned Talmud, we can’t speed through the Amidah like the old-timers seem to do, or we simply find Jewish rituals baffling.

In short, we have many Jews and people married to Jews who are part of the community, but have not found their way in.

I heard about a new program recently, called Honeymoon Israel, which has come up with a new way of reaching out. The program was founded by Mike Wise, who was at one time the head of the Jewish Federation of Buffalo. He was in Pittsburgh back in the spring to discuss launching a cohort of Honeymoon Israel here. Let me explain how it works:

Basically, it’s a week-long trip to Israel at a heavily subsidized price (I think it’s $1800 per couple) for couples aged 25-40 that are within their first five years of marriage (or commitment – marriage is not actually required). At least one partner must be Jewish, and at least one partner must not have been on an organized trip to Israel (e.g. Birthright). Among the organizers’ stated goals are the following (from their website):

  • We particularly welcome participants of diverse backgrounds, including interfaith couples and LGBTQ couples.
  • One of our goals is to create a fulfilling, welcoming experience for people without strong Jewish connections. There are no rules about how “Jewish” you need to be to participate.

Most importantly, each of the trips builds a cohort from a particular metropolitan area. Thus, if you are from Denver, you will be traveling to Israel with 19 other couples from Denver. Same for New York, Atlanta, DC, and, as of next spring, Pittsburgh. That is an essential part of the experience, because when these couples return to their home cities, they have an instant cohort of other Jews with whom to gather for Shabbat dinner or a Passover seder. They have an entree into community.

You see, the goal of the trip is not necessarily connection to Israel, per se, but rather connection to Jews and Jewish life. Israel may be the destination, but this is more about the journey – the Jewish journey after their return. In fact, each couple is screened (there is a waiting list, particularly in the larger cities) and the ones with WEAKER Jewish connections are actually more likely to be selected for the trip. That pretty much guarantees a greater bang for the investors’ buck – reaching deeper into the ranks of disconnected young Jews and giving them a better chance to connect them.

So here is the fascinating part: the demographics of the 2000 or so who have participated include about 70% interfaith couples, and among the remaining 30% about half include a partner who converted to Judaism. About 9% are same-sex couples. As you may imagine, the participants run the gamut of ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds. This is an honest portrait of Jewish America. As such, the trip organizers work very hard to make sure that the language is inclusive, that there is no apparent agenda in terms of conversion or other religious pressure.

Now, there are some among you who are clearly thinking right now, “But rabbi, how can this possibly be a Jewish trip if (א) they are not requiring participants to put on tefillin every day and (ב) a third or more of the participants are not even Jewish?”

The early 20th-century German Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, raised a secular Jew, was on the verge of becoming Christian to further his academic career, but gave traditional Judaism a final shot before taking the plunge. He quickly discovered the richness of our tradition, and went on to write one of the best-known works of contemporary Jewish philosophy, The Star of Redemption, and to establish the Lehrhaus, the contemporary House of Jewish Learning, in Frankfurt. When asked later in life if he was putting on tefillin every day, his answer was, “Not yet.”

Franz Rosenzweig - Wikipedia

Franz Rosenzweig

Let me tell you this, ladies and gentlemen. Yes, we in the Conservative movement accept the traditional idea that halakhah / Jewish law applies to us, that Shabbat and kashrut/dietary laws and daily tefillah / prayer are an essential part of what we do as Jews.

But the approach to take when welcoming marginally-connected folks into the fold should be, “Not yet.” Don’t hit them over the head with dietary restrictions, with shutting down for Shabbat, with diving into Rashi and Rambam.

Rather, we should welcome them by building a network of other Jewish people with whom they can dip their toes in the water. But we need to warmly invite them in rather than push them away by setting the bar too high. We cannot make them feel inadequate for not knowing Hebrew or what Shemini Atzeret is. (Heck, I don’t really know what Shemini Atzeret is!)

Our goal, as contemporary Jews and people who appreciate the value of our tradition, is to open the doors. Just throw ‘em wide open and say, “Come on in! We value you. We want you as a part of our community. We don’t judge you for your sexuality or if your partner is not Jewish. Bring them along!”

Unfortunately, ladies and gentlemen, here is an area where we need to do a little bit of teshuvah. We have been judgmental. I am aware of a number of instances where people who do not match the expectations of others have been told unfriendly things. The tough ones are those who stuck around despite the judginess. The not-so-tough ones probably never came back.

Ladies and gentlemen, we cannot afford to turn our backs on anyone who walks into a synagogue, who seeks to connect with Jewish tradition. Yes, we still have an obligation to halakhah, to Jewish law. But nobody will learn this if they are turned away at the door or made to feel unwelcome.

One thing that Mike Wise mentioned is that in their interviews with potential couples for Honeymoon Israel, there were a lot of tears; many stories of rejection.

But the outcomes have been positive. Honeymoon Israel continues to track their participants afterwards, and have found overall greater levels of engagement with Jewish life, and a greater sense of shared involvement in Jewish life, even when one partner is not Jewish.

We are a synagogue – beit kenesset. A place of gathering. And we should strive to make sure that all are welcome here.

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And for those of you who may be wondering, “But Rabbi, doesn’t the future of Judaism depend on making sure that our children only marry Jews?” I would respond by saying, “Actually, the future of Judaism depends on making sure that all who enter into our synagogues understand the richness of our tradition. The future of Judaism depends on sharing our wisdom and values with the world. The future of Judaism depends on offering a deep sense of connection and spirituality. The future of Judaism depends on supporting each other as a community. Perhaps most importantly, the future of Judaism depends on imparting all of this to our Jewish children and grandchildren. And if some non-Jewish partners get swept up in our enthusiasm for these things, then that is simply wonderful.”

Now of course we are still bound by halakhah, Jewish law in the Conservative movement, but I’ll tell you this: in 5777 I welcomed 15 new Jews into our berit, our covenant. Six of them were women married to Jewish men and their children. That is what we stand to gain by being open.

We need to look for those who do not know how to ask, and help them, gently, assuredly, to find their way in.

And certainly, I understand why many of us are concerned about opening up the tent. We are, as the philosopher Simon Rawidowicz declared in the title of his 1948 essay, “The Ever-Dying People,” on how Jews have always been anxious about their nascent disappearance.

Rabbi David Hartman addresses this issue in his book, A Heart of Many Rooms (Jewish Lights, 1999). He says the following:

“If we can rid ourselves of the obsession with certainty and finality – if we can internalize the spirit of the covenantal idea – then the uncertainties of the modern world will not deter us from renewing the vital interpretive processes that define our religious heritage.”

OK, so I know Rabbi Hartman’s prose is slightly impenetrable, but his point is that embedded in our berit, our covenant, is God’s keeping God’s word to us regardless of the uncertainty that modernity has brought us. It’s going to be OK. But if we want Judaism to continue, we have to be less focused on merely practicing Judaism and more interested in the meaning behind what we do, and making sure that we continue to interpret and redefine for today. Judaism did not stop moving forward in the shtetl of Eastern Europe. Ever since the destruction of the 2nd Temple in 70 CE (remember from the first day of Rosh Hashanah?), Judaism has never ceased to grow and change; that is the source of its resilience. And we have to continue to let it move forward today, given the realities of where Jews are.

And where might we find the meaning that our tradition teaches? How might we engage those vital interpretive processes to which Rabbi Hartman refers? You could throw a dart onto just about any page on the Jewish bookshelf and hit something powerful.

The bottom line of Judaism, drawn from our historical texts, is treating each other well. About society. About the providing for the needy among us; about treating the refugee among us respectfully, about ensuring that the orphan, the widow, the homeless in our neighborhood are taken care of. All of that comes from the same books that speak about kashrut and Shabbat. We read in the haftarah today, the words of Isaiah (58:5-7), speaking of the fast day of Yom Kippur:

“Is such the fast I desire, a day for people to starve their bodies?…

No, this is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke

To let the oppressed go free; …

It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home;

When you see the naked, to clothe them, and do not ignore your own flesh.”

That is the Judaism we must teach to the she-eino yodea lish’ol, the child who does not know how to ask. That is the future we must create.

I spent a good deal of this sermon speaking about the mysterious “they” who are unconnected to Jewish life. Ladies and gentlemen, we are all the ones who do not know how to ask, because we have been conditioned not to ask. We have been intimidated by the apparently high bar of knowledge it seems you must have to enter and learn from Jewish text.

That’s gotta stop. The Jewish future depends on your willingness to invest your mind and heart in our rich tradition, in the words that have enabled us to survive the last 2000 years, through persecution and oppression and genocide.

The challenge, moving forward, is to find your way in. And not just you who are here today, but the many more who are not. And we’re going to help you with that.

Over these holidays, we have built a bridge across the Jewish year, uniting the framework of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with the Pesah theme of the Four Children. When we complete this High Holiday cycle this evening with Ne’ilah, you do not have to wait until Hanukkah or Pesah to reconnect; this thread of Jewish connection, of the Jewish operating system, is there for you all year long. Come back to Beth Shalom regularly; stay connected; watch for the Derekh programming coming your way. Make a little more room in your heart and mind for what we are doing now – what you put into this community will be paid back to you doubly in the satisfaction of creating a better you, and a better world.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Yom Kippur day, 9/30/17.)

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תם: The Simple Child Sees Only the Past – Kol Nidrei 5778

Before reading this sermon, you might want to check out the first two in the series:

Rosh Hashanah 5778, Day 1: The Wise Child Sees Past, Present, and Future

Rosh Hashanah 5778, Day 2: The Wicked Child Sees Only the Present

hashmal arba'ah banim

***

Throughout my life, there have always been two flags on either side of the bimah, or the Jewish  stage: the American flag and the Israeli flag. This is not an arrangement that derives from divided loyalties, but rather a double measure of pride: On the one side the pride of being a citizen of the nation that provided a safe haven for my family members who fled persecution in Czarist Russia and enabled them to thrive in an open, tolerant land, and on the other side the nation that continues to symbolize the dawn of our Jewish redemption, a beacon of hope and democracy in the Middle East and an eternal symbol of our tradition.

So let’s talk about the tam, the simple child: In the Pesah haggadah, what is the answer given to the simple child’s question of “Mah zot?” What is this?

בְּחֹזֶק יָד הוֹצִיאָנוּ ה’ מִמִּצְרַיִם, מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים

It was with a mighty arm that God took us out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. (Exodus 13:14)

The answer given to the simple child dwells only on the past. No complexity: we were slaves, and then we were free. Only history; no present or future.

Although our past is essential to who we are today, we cannot be content to be the simple child, to dwell only on the past. That cannot be us. Let me explain.

What does the past look like? Well, I think it’s different depending on how many years you have been on this earth.

If you are over a certain age, you might see our history of persecution drawn in relief; you might remember the Shoah and its aftermath; you might recall that Jewish identity in the middle of the 20th century went hand-in-hand with remembering the Holocaust, and how the sympathy of the world in the late ‘40s contributed to the creation of the State of Israel (Pew Study 2013: 73% of Jews said that “Remembering the Holocaust” is essential to what it means to be Jewish, more than any other feature of Jewish life). You may also be aware of the arc of upward mobility of American Jews, and in particular the pattern of those who remained culturally Jewish but increasingly looked to religious leaders to be their proxy in spiritual matters.

Those of you who are younger than I am (I am grateful to have walked this earth for 47 very complicated years) might have a different perspective on the past. You grew up in America with no barriers to entering wider society. Anti-Semitism has not seemed particularly relevant, at least until the last year, with the rise of the alt-right. You have never lived in a world without a strong, resilient State of Israel. You may even be increasingly disappointed that Israel may not be the or lagoyim / the light unto the nations that we expect her to be. Your relationship to Judaism is far less connected to institutions, and more do-it-yourself.

So how do we move forward together from this point, as one people who are drawn to two flags?

We cannot be the simple child, only replaying and living in the past. Rather, we have to acknowledge the past and embrace the future. That is, we must embrace the unknown.

 

100 Years of Balfour

Let’s consider Israel.

This is a fascinating year with respect to Israeli history, because we are commemorating two anniversaries this year. On November 2, 1917, the same year that Beth Shalom was established, the British government issued the Balfour Declaration, which stated the following:

“His Majesty’s Government views with favour the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.”

It was a major victory for the political Zionists who had been working with the Brits to secure a Jewish state, with the goal of fulfilling hatiqvah bat shenot alpayim, the hope of 2,000 years.

Remember on Rosh Hashanah, when we spoke about the Romans destroying the Second Temple in 70 CE?  From that point on, that region was controlled by one empire or another.

Successive waves of immigration, starting in the 1860s, had brought tens of thousands of pioneers to the land, so that by 1917 there were already a good number of Jewish pioneers living in Palestine and building the new home for the Jews. But they had not yet received any assurance from any major player that a new Jewish state was even remotely possible. They were working the fields, growing Jaffa oranges, and meditating on the words of Theodor Herzl: Im tirtzu, ein zo agadah. If you desire it, it is not a fantasy.

With the fall of the Turkish Ottoman Empire during World War I, the land that the Romans had labeled Palestine now lay in British hands. Dr. Chaim Weizmann, then president of the British Zionist Federation, worked quickly with British politicians, including Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur Balfour (the one who wrote the famous Declaration), to set the foundation for a new political entity in the region. (Dr. Weizmann went on not only to found the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, but also to become the State of Israel’s first president.)

TIME Magazine Cover: Lord Arthur Balfour - Apr. 13, 1925 ...

The Balfour Declaration paved the way for the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Herzl’s desire became a reality; the Jewish dream of being am hofshi be’artzeinu, a free people in our land, had taken a substantial leap forward. (BTW, the British government reinforced its support for the Balfour Declaration in April of this year.)

Fast forward 50 years after Balfour, to June of 1967. The State of Israel, 19 years old and only tenuously holding on to her tiny piece of land,  She pre-emptively attacked her Arab neighbors, who were busy amassing troops to attack. In what came to be known as the Six Day War, Israel captured not only the Old City of Jerusalem, reuniting the city that had been divided for 19 years, but all the remaining territory of the historical Palestine, plus the Sinai peninsula and the Golan Heights, effectively tripling its area. The world, including Diaspora Jewry, woke up to the fact that Israel was here to stay.

But the heady victory of the Six Day War not only secured Israel’s future and guaranteed her ongoing stability, it also set up fifty years of political complexity on the ground. Not only was she still technically at war with the entire Arab world, but now also in control of an additional 1 million Arabs, who had been building a national identity in resistance to Egyptian and Jordanian control, and who were certainly not grateful to their new landlords. It was only five years later that the Palestinian Black September terrorist operation killed 11 Israelis in Munich, opened up Israelis to ongoing terror at home and abroad.

Herzl and Weizmann and Balfour and Ben Gurion did not anticipate that we would be in the place that we are today: a world in which the intractable challenges of creating safety, security, and peace in the Middle East have cost the region nearly 100,000 lives and, by one estimate, $13 trillion dollars.

So while we continue to celebrate the past, to revel in nearly 70 years of the state of Israel, we also have to be realistic about the future. Many of you know that I am an incurable optimist, and optimists are especially rare right now.

I am also a proud Zionist, one who is committed to an Israel that continues to be strong and democratic. And I am also the father of an Israeli 11th-grader, a kibbutznik who is facing his bagruyot (the high school matriculation exams) with greater anxiety.

But I also believe in talking, in bringing the relevant parties back to the negotiating table. I wish I had the answers.  I don’t know how to bring about peace and security for Israel. But I do know that the status quo is not sustainable, that the arsenals of Hezbullah and Hamas continue to grow, that the next time rockets fly from Gaza they will reach my son’s kibbutz, and that the only way things will change is by looking to the future rather than the past.

We cannot simply look back and admire the string of successes of the last 100 years. Even if we leave aside the question of a Palestinian state or the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran: Israel has serious challenges within, among them many citizens living in poverty, the always growing divide between secular and religious Jews, the politically fractious nature of Israeli politics, and of course the current government’s willingness to throw non-Orthodox Diaspora Jewry under a bus for political purposes.

Those of you who heard my Hamilton impression on the first day of Rosh Hashanah may be relieved that I will not be rapping again. Nonetheless, Washington’s advice to Hamilton from the Broadway show comes back to me here: “Winning was easy, young man. Governing is harder.”

Embracing the future means that we have to keep talking, keep facing all of the serious challenges before us, and look forward.

 

American Jewish Experience: Decline of “Ethnicity”

But Israel is only one of the flags of my identity; the other flag paints my Magen David in red, white, and blue.

The landscape of American Judaism has changed dramatically since this congregation formed in 1917 as the first Jewish congregation established in Squirrel Hill. And that has everything to do with what you might call a decline in a distinct Jewish “ethnicity” among American Jews.

It has often been said that the Jews are like everyone else, only more so. And today, that is more true than it has ever been!

The world of our parents and grandparents was one of exclusion from the wider society. Living apart from the Ukrainians, Russians, and Poles was expected in the old country; when our forebears immigrated to this country many of them maintained their distinct dress, language, foods, songs, and of course religious rituals for a generation or so.

But my grandmother, who was 8 years old when she came to Boston in 1921 from the province of Volhynia in the Ukraine, did not want to be a “greenhorn.” She refused to speak Yiddish. She soon learned that she loved to eat lobster and clams, like so many other Bostonians. She wasn’t so interested in Jewish life. And so she, like many other immigrants, began to shed the ethnic attributes of the old world.

Nearly a century later, where are we as modern Jews? We speak the same language, eat the same foods, wear the same clothes, and hold the same jobs as our gentile neighbors. And, perhaps most significantly, they don’t mind socializing with, and even marrying us. So where does that leave our Jewish identity?

Much of what we think of as Judaism is highly connected to Jewish ethnicity. And now that the ethnicity is mostly gone, the practices associated with Judaism seem, for many, irrelevant.

Today, while our Shabbat morning services are full and lively, we occasionally struggle on weekday and even Shabbat evenings to make a minyan of ten people. Only reluctantly can we get members of the congregation, even those who know and love tefillah, to come on a regular basis to help us make a minyan, a quorum of ten. Even more troubling to me is the idea that the weekday service is there only for people to say kaddish, memorial prayers for their deceased loved ones. I am fairly certain that’s not the original idea of daily tefillah / prayer.

Meanwhile, from where I stand, the number of younger people in our orbit who derive meaning in services seems to decline.

We are in a totally different place today from when this congregation began; the Jews have a completely different view of themselves. We do not necessarily need a social club of our own, since we are welcome everywhere. We do not need a place where people can schmooze or kibitz.

We cannot operate a synagogue based on the models of the past. We cannot only look backward with nostalgia. That is what the simple child does.

Instead, we have to take what we have and move forward. And what we have is the richness of accumulated Jewish wisdom. We have the words of the Torah, which tell us to leave a portion of what we reap in life to those in need. We have the words of the Talmud, which speak of the essential obligation of visiting those who are ill, of performing deeds of lovingkindness, of making peace between people. We have the words of philosophy, which teach us to find the meaning in our concrete, scientific world. We have the words of tefillah, of prayer, which bring us humility and compassion as we reach within ourselves and out to the Divine. We have the ongoing inspiration that is the State of Israel and our connection to it. We have all of these things, even if we do not speak Yiddish or eat gefilte fish.

Sea Breeze Fish Market in Plano Offers Classes, House Made ...

All of that has already been uncoupled from the trappings of ethnicity. But we still need a synagogue, because this is the house that keeps all those things alive. This is the place where we teach them, where we live them. It has been observed that while Jews used to come to synagogue because they were Jewish, today they come to BE Jewish.

Ladies and gentlemen, this particular moment, 100 years after the establishment of Congregation Beth Shalom and 100 years since Lord Balfour set in motion the creation of the State of Israel, we are at a critical juncture. We need to continue to be here as a community, as a synagogue, offering guidance and inspiration and community and connection and qedushah / holiness. We need to continue, as our mission statement says, enriching lives through community, lifelong learning, and spiritual growth.

And we need Israel to be there as or lagoyim, that inspirational light unto the nations, a beacon for Diaspora Jews and for the rest of the world.

And so that’s why we have to think to the future. That’s why we cannot be like the simple child. We cannot merely think wistfully about the past, and expect that the 20th century version of Beth Shalom will always be relevant. We have to look forward. We have to think outside the box. We have to find ways to connect with people that are new and powerful.

And that’s why I am counting on all of you.

Many of us in the room know that this is the only night of the year on which one wears a tallit, a prayer shawl. Traditionally, the tallit is worn only during the day.

It is customary to wear a tallit in the evening on Yom Kippur because our prayer never stops; even though we go home and sleep. We don’t eat, and we deny ourselves a range of physical pleasures. It is as though on this day we never stop pleading with God for forgiveness.

In the spirit of the full 25 hours of kavvanah / intention of Yom Kippur, when you go home tonight, take that one step further. Rather than fantasizing about breaking the fast tomorrow evening, take some time to think about what it is that will make you put more time and energy and resources into building our future together.

Do not think that because you cannot read Hebrew at light speed you are not capable of contributing to the future of Judaism. Do not think that if you do not know Maimonides from Mendelsohn you are unworthy of creating the Jewish future. On the contrary: I’d make the argument that this would make you uniquely qualified to participate in the conversation. If being Jewish matters to you but you do not know exactly how or why, then you are perfectly positioned to help us envision our community for the next 100 years.

I hope you, unlike the tam, the simple child, will look to the future. You chose to be here tonight.  Make the decision to be here next week.  Invest in the future of this community with integrity and pride.  And please don’t just come to me with, “Hey Rabbi, here’s an idea that you should do.” Rather, “Hey Rabbi, here’s an idea that I want to do, and I’m willing to help make it happen.” Because our sustainability depends on your willingness to partner with this community in building together.

To read the final installment in the series, The Child Who Does Not Know How to Ask is the Future, please click here.

Shanah tovah!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, evening of Kol Nidrei, 9/29/17.)

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