Friday, July 18, 2014

A Double Minyan for Peace, or, Seeing the Holiness in Others - Mattot 5774

On Tuesday evening, I experienced an evening minyan like no other. I was not here at Temple Israel, where there was the regular evening minyan at 8 PM, thanks to those who made the effort to come.

No, this minyan was unique. It was at Temple Sinai in Roslyn, and it was part of a Long Island Board of Rabbis (LIBOR) program that brought together Jews and Muslims from the area for learning and prayer. It was part of a world-wide program called Boharim BaHayyim, Choose Life, and such meetings were held all over the world: in Israel (where there were four such meetups in Jerusalem alone), in Kuwait, in the US and Canada, in several European countries. 

Tuesday was Shiv’ah Asar beTammuz, the 17th of Tammuz, which is one of the five minor fast days of the Jewish calendar, a sun-up to sundown fast, commemorating (among other things) the day upon which Moshe broke the tablets of Torah that he received on Mt. Sinai, and the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem by the Babylonians after the siege of 586 BCE. It was also the eighteenth day of Ramadan. So observant Jews and Muslims around the world were fasting together on this day, and given the current situation in Israel and Gaza, some of us took this as an opportunity to meet, learn, pray, and break bread together after the fast. (An article about the international event also appeared on the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot’s website, and Nechama Liss-Levenson, a Great Neck writer and member of Great Neck Synagogue, blogged about the event for the Forward.)

The meeting at Temple Sinai attracted about 60 people, about half Jews and half Muslims. Among the Jews, there were representatives of Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox communities.

So, after some introductory speeches, Rabbi Lina Zerbarini of the Sid Jacobson JCC taught a passage from our textual tradition, which we discussed as a group. The text, from the Talmud Yerushalmi (30b), raises the question of the greatest principle found in the Torah:
ואהבת לרעך כמוך ר' עקיבה או' זהו כלל גדול בתורה
בן עזאי אומ' זה ספר תולדות אדם זה כלל גדול מזה
Rabbi Akiva taught: “‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ [Leviticus, 19:18] This is the most important rule in the Torah.” Ben Azzai says: “’This is the record of Adam’s line. When God created man, He made him in the likeness of God,’ [Gen. 5:1] And this is an even more important rule.”
Why does Ben Azzai argue that this statement regarding the creation of human in God’s image is greater than loving your neighbor? Because it is essential to acknowledge the spark of Divine holiness that is present in each of us on this Earth - rich and poor, black and white, American and Pakistani, Jewish and Christian and Hindu and Buddhist and Muslim and secular and, yes, even the atheists. This latter principle should lead to the first one; that is, seeing the holiness in others should enable us to love them as we love ourselves.

A visiting Islamic scholar, Imam Ibrahim Negm, who is a special advisor to the Grand Mufti of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, invoked a similar principle from Muslim tradition. He said that you cannot call yourself truly faithful until you understand and appreciate the value of the faith of others. This fits nicely in-between the two Torah principles identified in the Talmud.

And then that minyan. The Jews went first. Temple Sinai’s bimah faces west, but the Jewish custom is that if there is a sefer Torah in the room, we face the Torah. So we gathered on the bimah together and recited the traditional ma’ariv, while the Muslims in the room sat patiently and observed in their seats. After we concluded with Mourner’s Qaddish, we returned to our seats while the Muslims, men and women, removed their shoes, gathered at the back of the room, and performed their evening prayer, known in Arabic by the name maghrib, a cognate to our ma’ariv.

I wonder how often it has happened that Muslims have gathered to pray in a synagogue? (It is worth pointing out here that both Muslims and Jews acknowledge each other’s tradition as purely monotheistic, and therefore that neither a synagogue nor a mosque is a place of avodah zarah, of idol worship. Not all Jewish authorities agree that this is the case for Christian houses of worship.)

At the end of both the Jewish and Muslim prayers is, interestingly enough, a prayer for peace. Just as we say “Oseh shalom bimromav,” they conclude by saying, “As-salaam aleikum.” How ironic, and yet not so.


Some of you may have noticed that Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi passed away a little more than two weeks ago. Reb Zalman, as he was generally known, was a key figure in the Jewish Renewal movement. He came from the Chabad-Lubavitch fold, but left them to forge his own path in the middle of the 20th century, drawing on a variety of religious traditions that brought him away from his Hasidic background. His obit in the New York Times said the following:

"His exposure to Eastern religion, medieval Christian mysticism and LSD... helped him formulate some of the innovations he brought to contemporary Jewish practice...

[Reb Zalman] “realized that all forms of religion are masks that the divine wears to communicate with us,” [a friend was quoted as saying]. “Behind all religions there’s a reality, and this reality wears whatever clothes it needs to speak to a particular people.”

Speaking as one who stands up and advocates for Jewish tradition on a daily basis, I must confess that some of his ideas were too far beyond the pale of what is normative in Judaism to be appealing to me. But what does indeed resonate with me is the idea that all religious traditions have similar objectives: to get us in touch with the Divine, to encourage us reach out to one another in healthy, inspiring ways, to spur us to do good works in this world.

He was, in this regard, not too far away from Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, from whose work the Reconstructionist movement emerged. Rabbi Kaplan rejected the idea of Jewish chosenness, arguing instead that all religious paths to God are effectively equal.

Now, I know that these sorts of ideas make some of us uncomfortable. If all religions serve the same goals, why should we be in any way particularistic? In other words, why be Jewish, when being Christian might be just as good and much easier? Kaplan’s response to this is that the Torah is ours; our ancestors have carried it with them for centuries and given it to us. I would add the rhetorical question, “Who are we to leave such a rich, glorious tradition? Who are we to deny our own heritage, to abandon what we have received from our parents and grandparents and all who preceded them?”

But the larger point here is that just as our tradition is rich and glorious and valuable and meaningful, inspiring centuries of Jews and, let’s face it, launching other religious traditions, so too are the teachings of the other great religions. And while we differ over dogma and rituals, the goals are ultimately the same. Love your neighbor as yourself. See the holiness in yourself as well as others. Pursue peace with all your being. Our tradition teaches this, and we should learn it and live it; and likewise for everybody else.

We need not fear the other. On the contrary, we should strive to see the divinity in each human being on this Earth. We cannot live a holy life until we understand and value the needs of everybody else around us, and appreciate their life and faith and fundamental human rights.

We must instead cooperate with all of the good, open, moderate people in this world, the ones who are willing to talk, and to bypass and constrain the bad actors. In our own corner, we have to work to eliminate the Jewish extremists like the group that carried out the brutal murder of 16-year-old Muhammed Abu Khdeir. And across the border, we have to reach out beyond Hamas to the people of Palestine and Gaza. (A credible poll from the past week by Palestinian pollsters indicated that roughly 70% of Gaza’s population does NOT support Hamas.)

Let’s face it. Just as Gaza has been hijacked by terrorists, who are more insistent on shooting rockets into Israel then taking care of their own people, so too have certain parts of the Muslim world been hijacked. And parts of Judaism and Christianity. There are even violent Buddhist nationalists in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, and Hindu nationalists in India who have persecuted Muslim minorities there.

But about 30 Muslims came the other night to break bread with Jews right here on Long Island, and hundreds more around the world did the same. We need to find more ways of bringing people together, not just one day a year, not just in the 30 or so gatherings that were held on Tuesday evening around the world, but again and again in more places and more contexts, in synagogues, in mosques, in churches, in ashrams, in temples of all sorts. We need to seek and appreciate the divinity in others.

As I wrote these words, I received the not-particularly-surprising news that Israel has launched its ground invasion. I hope and pray with all my being that our valiant IDF forces are able to take out terrorist infrastructure with a minimum of pain and loss and suffering on both sides, a minimum of lives lost. But we know that people will die, some ordinary people, some good people, some civilians. We should not lose sight of the divinity of a single person who loses a life or is injured, and we should continue to pray that this round will pass quickly.

But we should further pray that a long-term solution is found more quickly, that the good people of Gaza throw off the yoke of Hamas, that the good people of Israel are safe and secure and never again subject to hourly bombardment by terrorists of any stripe.

As a part of the illustrious tradition that God gave to us, every weekday, three times a day, we offer in the Shemoneh Esreh, the weekday Amidah, a series of berakhot / blessings that follow the pattern of: Praise - Request - Thanks - Peace.

I really wish, some times more than others, that we could save those thanks to God for when we get the peace. But tefillah / prayer does not work that way. On the contrary, it’s a blueprint for what could be. We thank God in advance for what we hope will be a better world.

And that goes double for the ma’ariv / maghrib minyan in which I participated on Tuesday evening. A blueprint. An aspiration. A hope.

I assure you that I am not as naive as I might seem. But I am filled with hope. We have to keep hoping for peace, concluding every service with a plea to God for peace, and taking baby steps toward peace, even in our darkest hours.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 7/19/2014.)

Friday, July 11, 2014

Let's NOT see this movie again. Ever. - Pinehas 5774

At the beginning of Parashat Pinehas, which we read this morning, there is a curious, unique phenomenon. In the very third verse (Numbers 25:12), we read the following:
לָכֵן אֱמֹר:  הִנְנִי נֹתֵן לוֹ אֶת-בְּרִיתִי שָׁלוֹם
Say, therefore, “I grant [Pinehas] my covenant of peace.”
The curiosity here is that the letter vav in the word “shalom,” as it appears in the Torah scroll (although it does not appear that way in our humash) is broken in half. The context is that the zealot Pinehas has just stabbed to death an Israelite man and his Midianite paramour, a flagrant act of violence that seems to be in line with God’s command. However, the broken vav, and the broken shalom / peace, suggests that peace achieved through violence is flawed. It is not the kind of peace that we desire, or that the world needs.

I think that it is impossible not to read these words divorced from the current situation in Israel, where the citizens of the Jewish state want peace, security, and safety, and Hamas continues to send indiscriminate rockets into Israel, over 500 in the last several days. 

There is a saying in modern Hebrew:
את הסרט הזה כבר ראינו
Et haseret hazeh, kvar ra'inu.
We’ve seen this movie before.

Every time this expression creeps back into the daily lexicon, I am reminded that it is getting harder for me to maintain my youthful idealism. Because not only have we seen this film, but we already know that there will be a sequel.

Amidst the onslaught of information pouring out of Israel this week regarding the current situation, a surprising article caught my eye. It was surprising not because there was information in it that was new to me, but rather because of the forum. It was the New York Times, and my sense of the way that the Times reports on Israel is that they usually lead with the Palestinian body count, and bury the explanation of why Israel was attacking in the first place. The result is that Israel generally appears to be the primary aggressor, although this of course not always the case. (Some of us would surely argue that this is never the case.)

But in this case, the article was about Israel’s approach to bombing terrorist sites in Gaza. Now, as you may know, Hamas has installed its rocket launchers and terrorist infrastructure in the alleys of residential neighborhoods, adjacent to schools and hospitals, in courtyards of mosques, and so forth. As you may also know, the IDF goes out of its way to warn residents before bombing these places: by placing phone calls in Arabic with instructions to vacate, by dropping leaflets, and by “knocking on the roof” - that is, firing a non-explosive missile at the building to scare out those who have not yet evacuated.

If you have been following the news carefully about the last two Gaza incursions since Israel disengaged in 2005, you know about these warnings. The army’s goal, of course, is to destroy the ability to terrorize rather than lives. Of course, nobody wants to lose their home to an Israeli shell, but better the building than the lives of the people therein.

As quoted in an article published by Honest Reporting, former Commander of British Forces in Afghanistan, Col. Richard Kemp said of Israel’s previous operations in Gaza: “the Israeli Defense Forces did more to safeguard the rights of civilians in a combat zone than any other army in the history of warfare.”

But while this pattern of warning is not only curious and surprisingly considerate (what other army warns its targets in advance to get out of the way?), it has also been largely underreported in the mainstream press, perhaps because it does not fit the Israel-as-aggressor storyline. (BTW, a follow-up analysis in the online magazine Slate revealed the Times’ bias even in an article that was at least superficially friendly to Israel, as did the Honest Reporting article mentioned above.) The Times somehow missed the fact that Hamas is deliberately telling Gazan civilians to ignore the warnings, and instructing them to act as human shields.

Israel is in a very delicate position here. Every couple of years, Gaza erupts into a show of force by Hamas and Islamic Jihad and perhaps other factions. Israel shows restraint (note that the first few hundred rockets of this installment were fired into Israel with no response - over 650 rockets were launched into Israel since the beginning of the year till the start of this operation - and only when the situation is truly unbearable for the Israeli populace, then come the airstrikes and the ground war. Furthermore, we all know that it is only a matter of time until the next round of rockets, which will have an even greater range, and the next Israeli incursion. And while the warnings do in fact reduce civilian casualties, Israel still comes off in the mainstream media looking like the aggressor.

But Israel is far more savvy regarding public opinion than ever before, and hence the warnings. Not that anybody in the international court of public opinion wants to give Israel any credit for doing so.

This week, I not only read just about everything I could about the situation, but I also listened in on three conference calls for rabbis on the current situation in Israel. The first featured Avihai Mandelblit, PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief of staff; the second featured Israel’s consul general in New York, Ido Aharoni, and IDF spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner. The third was with Israeli’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer. All of them said essentially the same thing: that the goal of the current IDF operation, Protective Edge, was to restore peace and quiet in the areas that are now being targeted by Hamas rockets. Among the additional points of interest were the following:

  • The current escalation by Hamas actually preceded the kidnapping and murder of the three young Israeli men and the aftermath of the incident.
  • Hamas is acting now out of desperation, having lost much of the support of two of its best patrons in terror, Syria and Iran, to their own internal issues..
  • Of the nearly 600 rockets in the barrage of the last few days, only a small subset were actually headed to populated areas, and most of those were successfully shot down by the Iron Dome system (provided by Uncle Sam). The technology, by the way, is good but not foolproof - it has about a 90% success rate.
  • Amb. Ron Dermer pointed out that the Iron Dome system is actually beneficial to the Palestinian cause as well. If there were more missiles falling in populated areas and more death and destruction within Israel, there would be greater calls on the IDF to move faster and retaliate more heavily in Gaza, resulting in more Palestinian deaths.
I must confess that in evaluating all of this, I am still troubled by the primary goal. Yes, it is important to restore peace and security, so that Israelis can go on about their lives and work and recreation as normal.

But the problem is that this is only a short-term goal. Who is thinking long-term here? And, recalling Pinehas and the broken vav, is there not a better way to achieve peace, and decades of quiet and stability rather than years, and the resulting economic benefit for both sides?

Let’s look at this another way: This is the third such major attack on terrorists and their infrastructure in Gaza since 2005  The military refer it to “trimming the grass”. Each time Hamas improves its technology; they are now manufacturing better-quality rockets in Gaza, and soon they will be able to blanket Israel with missiles. Each time, Israel quiets them for a a year or two. Then the barrage will resume. And hence the movie sequel.

In this round, there are now so-called M-302 missiles, which can reach Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Israel’s two largest population centers. There will be more M-302s, and maybe even the next missile up, with better accuracy. Soon, virtually all of the Israeli population, from Haifa to Eilat, will be subject to bombing.

Nobody wants to negotiate with terrorists. Let’s be clear - that’s what they are. Lt. Col. Peter Lerner pointed out that if Hamas had invested their resources in civilian infrastructure instead of terrorist infrastructure, they would be in a very different place. But that’s not where they are; that is not who they are.

The bad actors in the Arab world, whether it’s Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hizbullah, ISIS, or the next wave of Islamists, would rather put their energy into military, rather than economic development. And that yields even more movie sequels, and more fractured peace all over the region.

But what can Israel do? What can we do?

We are certainly not going to simply flatten Gaza, as many armchair military strategists have boldly suggested. We are not barbarians. We are not murderers. We do not kill civilians.

We are not going to invade and take back Gaza. Who wants that?  

(My own chief military advisor, my wife, suggests the following: invade Gaza, root out Hamas, hand it over to Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah, and get out. Tell them, “Elect whoever you want, but kindly remember that if you wage war on us we’ll be back.” I don’t think it’s quite so simple, given the complexity of the Palestinian street.)

We can only continue the current situation for so long.

Ladies and gentlemen, all the goals are short-term. We have to think long-term. We have to think past maintaining the temporary safety and security, and find a way to create a healthy, de-militarized Gaza. We don’t negotiate with terrorists, but we have to find a solution.

We’re the most clever people in the world. Even the most ardent Jew-haters will boldly concede that. We can figure this out. It will take international partners and cooperation and eventually we will have to trust them, and they will have to trust us, and trust, as you know, is in dreadfully short supply. But we can do this. We can find a complete peace, a shalom of sheleimut, of wholeness. We can repair that vav.

Meanwhile, what can we here in Great Neck do?

Call your Israeli friends and relatives and tell them that you are thinking of them. Email our elected officials about support of Israel in her time of need. Communicate through social media. Share personal stories. (If you are not on Facebook, you might want to sign up and go to the Temple Israel page to receive updates from our sister kehillah in Ashkelon, which is the largest population center close to Gaza. Our Facebook-master and Vice President Dan Goldberger is posting there regularly.)

Let’s not ever resort to name-calling or gross generalizations about the other side. The real criminal actors here are the terrorists of Hamas and their ilk; ultimately, we will have to find a way to work around them, to engage directly with reasonable Palestinians; and I pray every day that there will be more of them with whom to engage.

In Psalm 29, which we chant every Friday evening during Qabbalat Shabbat, and every Shabbat morning when we carry the Torah around, we say (v. 11):

ה' עֹז לְעַמּוֹ יִתֵּן; ה' יְבָרֵךְ אֶת-עַמּוֹ בַשָּׁלוֹם
Adonai oz le-amo yiten, Adonai yevarekh et amo vashalom. May God give strength to His people, and may God bless His people with peace.

Let us continue to be strong as we seek not only quiet, but real shalom, real lasting peace, so that we will never see this movie again.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 7/12/2014.)

Friday, July 4, 2014

Responding Jewishly to Terror and Grief - Balaq 5774

It was about 9 PM in Israel when I heard the news. My 13-year-old son and I were on Highway 90, just north of Beit She'an, driving south to Ben Gurion Airport for our 12:45 AM flight to JFK. He heard it several minutes before it came over the radio, because he was in communication with his friends via his smartphone. He announced, almost too casually, “Abba, did you know about the three kidnapping victims?” “Yes,” I said. “They found their bodies.”

I gasped audibly. So loudly, in fact, that he jumped. “Why are you so shocked?” he asked.

Why indeed? I must confess that this was not the outcome that I had expected. A living Israeli is worth far more to Hamas than a dead one. Gil'ad Shalit was exchanged for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners. I figured that somebody in the territories had masterminded a plan to get 3,000 or 5,000 more. But no – the original plan seemed to have backfired.  

My son further asked me, “Why do you care so much? You're not Israeli.”

“But I'm Jewish,” I replied. “I don't live in Israel, and about half of the Jews in the world do not live in Israel. But we are all one people. And when members of Am Yisrael, the nation of Israel, feel pain, whether they are citizens of the State of Israel or France or Canada or Argentina or India, we all feel that pain.”

“Oh,” he said, and that proceeded to think quietly about this revelation.

And while we continued to drive in silence and my thoughts went to the parents of Eyal, Naftali, and Gil’ad, I could feel the tears welling up behind my glasses, threatening to obscure my view of Highway 90, which is a voluptuous stretch of highway with an eternally gorgeous view of the Jordan valley. Even at night, the mountains just across the Jordan valley, referred to as the Gil’ad (an ironic view for the piece of news which had just arrived) were distant, haunting, calling to me across an ancient river and a modern and much-politicized border.

What can we do in times of loss like this? Are we helpless?  How should our faith help us in times like these both spiritually and practically?  What is the appropriate Jewish response?

One answer is to gather solemnly to recite words from our tradition. I think the experience that many of us had this past Tuesday evening, when members of this community came to Ma’ariv to memorialize the three slain young men, was cathartic.  We need to be among our own, we need community, to surround ourselves with those who understand our grief, who understand why we are so personally moved by a tragedy so far removed from us physically.
As Oryah and I drove through the center of Israel Monday night, Israelis interviewed on the radio said things like, let’s let Tzahal / the IDF do what we know they can do - i.e. root out all the Hamas terrorists hiding in the territories and kill them as enemy combatants or round them up and imprison them.

Unfortunately, over the course of the week, the situation worsened. Ladies and gentlemen, we are entering very dark times. As of yesterday, the Israeli police had not declared who killed Muhammed Abu Khdeir, the 16-year-old resident of Shuafat who was murdered and whose body was desecrated following the revelation about the three Israelis, and I am really, really hoping that it was not one of us.

We are not a bloodthirsty people. We are not hooligans. We are not terrorists.

The response, ladies and gentlemen, should be to draw on key Jewish values. We cannot allow the purveyors of terror to pull us down into the swamp with them. We must abide by the law and our morals.  We should not ignore or forgive, but we should respond as Jews.   

On Thursday, I was on a conference call organized by the Rabbinical Assembly, the international organization of Conservative rabbis. Rabbi Brad Artson, who teaches at American Jewish University in Los Angeles, shared some thoughts about how we should respond to the tragic slaying of Naftali, Gil’ad, and Eyal. His position is that we need to reiterate our commitment to four general principles highlighted in the Torah. They are:

1. Ahavat Tziyyon, love of Zion and Israel.
2. Kevod HaBeriyyot, maintaining human dignity.
3. Tzedeq, Tzedeq Tirdof, valiantly pursuing justice.
4. Rodef Shalom, pursuing peace.

Ahavat Tziyyon. We are one nation, and we share a destiny with the State of Israel, built on the Land of Israel. We all agree that we have a natural, historical right as Jews to our own self-determination, and therefore our own state, which the world must acknowledge and support.

Kevod HaBeriyyot. The first time that the word “Torah” appears in the Torah (Ex. 12:49) is a statement that you shall have one Torah for you and for the non-Israelites in your midst. That is, everybody is subject to the same laws, the same equal treatment, the same rights, the same ability to pursue life, liberty, and happiness, and that goes for all people between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.

Tzedeq Tzedeq Tirdof. We have an obligation to seek justice in all its forms. On a micro level, that means that murderers should be prosecuted. On a macro level, that means that we are obligated to protect ourselves when necessary, including taking out terrorist infrastructure. When we must go to war, the Torah is clear: we must go to war. But ultimately our goal is to arrive at peace, which brings us to…

Rodef Shalom. It is our obligation to seek peace, and we should work hard to bring it about. Working toward peace - treaties, security arrangements, trade, international borders, all of the thorny issues that this implies - is a positive mitzvah in our tradition. That does not imply that we merely have to roll over and be passive and give away huge chunks of land and security for peace. But it does mean that we are commanded to work towards peace tirelessly and wisely.

Peace must be just, must reflect our values, must include safety and security for all citizens, and must maintain human dignity for all.

Those are the four principles. But how can we put them into practice?

There are some in the Jewish world who feel that the only way to ensure that justice is served is through military engagement. Certainly, when there are rockets being launched from Gaza into Israel, the Jewish state has no choice. As I wrote this, the New York Times reported that Israel was massing troops on the border of Gaza, perhaps for some kind of “operation.”  This should not, of course, be understood as revenge, as some reports implied, but as security. Israel needs to make sure her citizens are safe.

We should be extremely careful not to allow our grief to cascade into angry calls for revenge. Regarding the use of force, we should always be on the defense, not on the offense. Great military minds may disagree; there are legitimate times when you must strike first. But the complicated nature of this situation calls for caution. At the negotiating table, however, we should leap into battle and not wait for something to happen. In my mind, that would strike the correct balance between the four values that Rabbi Artson raised.

We are a people that prays for peace daily. Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’aseh shalom. And more “operations” will not bring us more peace. On the contrary, we need not only to pray for peace, but to work at it with all of our being. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, an Israeli Chabad rabbi generally recognized as the greatest living Jewish scholar, suggested the following response:

It is true that we do have the right to fight in order to protect our lives, and to kill in a war of self-defense, as well as to punish the perpetrators.

But while revenge responds to a human need (however natural and normal the impulse), it is not in our hands: "Vengeance is Mine, and recompense," says the Lord (Deuteronomy 32:35)...

What, then, can and should we do?

We should do Kaddish.

In saying Kaddish over the dead, we promise to fill the gaps created by their passing, and to continue doing whatever we can so that "His great Name may grow exalted and sanctified."

But saying that is not enough: each and every one of us should also act as best he or she can in order to do Kaddish – by studying more Torah, by fulfilling one more mitzvah, by our physical actions or by giving of our time and money to those in need. Our acts do not serve to elevate the souls of these boys – for they are in a supreme spiritual level that needs no further elevation. Our acts elevate our own souls, curing all the lacks that were and still are in our world.

Rabbi Steinsaltz says that we should focus our energies not on revenge, but on returning to tradition, on improving ourselves, on elevating our souls. I would add that we should return to the negotiating table.

Furthermore, I would also add that we should draw inspiration from the prophet Micah, whose staggeringly-beautiful words we heard chanted this morning. The haftarah concluded with (6:8):

הִגִּיד לְךָ אָדָם, מַה-טּוֹב; וּמָה-יְהוָה דּוֹרֵשׁ מִמְּךָ, כִּי אִם-עֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד, וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת עִם-אֱלֹהֶיךָ
He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you:Only to do justice, and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God.

We have to walk modestly with God, and not speak arrogantly of violence. We have to maintain our principles: Jewish nationhood, human dignity, justice and peace. And we have to seek to elevate our souls. As painful as this episode has been, we cannot call out for revenge. We need to take care of our people, to bring the guilty to justice, and seek a solution for all the young men and women of this world.

Am Yisrael Hai. The nation of Israel lives.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, July 5, 2014.)

Friday, June 13, 2014

Wearing Metaphorical Tzitzit - Shelah Lekha 5774

A few days ago, my wife was speaking on the phone to a friend about plans for tomorrow, which is of course Fathers’ Day. I overheard her say, “Well, Seth will do whatever I plan for him on Fathers’ Day.” Upon hearing this, I remarked, in all seriousness, “Oh, it’s Fathers’ Day?” It’s my job to remember when Shavuot falls, or Rosh Hodesh, or the 17th of Tammuz (which is a minor fast day - falls on Tuesday, July 15th this year - plan ahead!). But Mothers’ Day, Valentines’ Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, even? Fahgettaboutit.

I occasionally have a hard time remembering all the things that I need to remember. Of course, now that my schedule is entirely owned by Google Calendar, it’s even harder for me to recall my next appointment, let alone what’s happening three weeks from now. This is a peril that we all face in the Information Age: too much information! I cannot keep it all straight, and that’s why I have electronic devices to help me out. Of course, relying on the computer or smartphone is only compounding the problem.

But here is something for which we may need reminders: being Jewish. Doing Jewish things in Jewish time. Reminders of the value of Judaism. Reminders of our heritage. Reminders to keep the important stuff in view, because there are so many distractions. There are so many ways to avoid the great intangibles: God, the Torah, and all of the non-remunerative value that comes from investing our ever-limited attention in Jewish life.

But what are the most important features of being Jewish? That is the essential Jewish question of our time.

There are some in the Jewish world who say that the answer is fulfilling 613 mitzvot in excruciating detail, and that’s the end of the story. That preserving the traditions and customs associated with fulfilling Jewish law, classically understood as God’s word to us, is the most important thing. And that approach has yielded a bounty of activity and success in the the Jewish world. Let’s face it: those of our people who are zealously committed to the fulfillment of halakhah / Jewish law and custom to the tiniest jot and tittle are reproducing at a much faster rate than the rest of us.

Problem is, it is possible, and even easy, to pursue halakhah without thinking too deeply about what it all means. Actions are important, but the thought behind the action is just as important if not more so. And when the end goal is the action itself, the fulfillment of the minutiae of halakhah, does the intention matter so much?

There is even a strain of Jewish thought that says that mitzvot have no intrinsic value or meaning - that they are simply commandments that must be followed. For example, there is a mitzvah / commandment in the Torah known as shilluah ha-qen, the requirement of shooing away the mother bird before taking her young from the nest (Deut. 22:6-7). The Mishnah (Berakhot 5:3) tells us that this should not be interpreted as displaying mercy so that God will be merciful to us.Rather, it is merely a statute to be followed, just like so many others in the Torah, because it is there.

But I cannot be Jewish in this way. I need to connect with my tradition with my heart and mind, to understand that God asked us to do certain things for a reason. I have trouble performing particular actions just because that is the way it has always been done; I need motivation, and cannot suspend my reason and logic (and I’d guess that most of us here are in the same boat).

Tefillah / prayer, for example, can be deeply meaningful, but only if you actually wrestle with the text. The mere recitation of words in a foreign language because ancient rabbis dictated a standard framework for tefillah is uninspiring. And prayer merely for its own sake is a hard sell. But the combination of meaning, words, themes, music, meditation, and choreography brings me clarity, improves my concentration, helps me to examine myself, gives me a daily dose of qedushah / holiness and humility, and frames my day. Ladies and gentlemen, that is meaning.

At the other end of the Jewish spectrum, there are those who feel that Jewish values are the most essential feature of Jewish life, that we should behave not according to ancient law codes and customs, but rather that our behavior should be guided by traditional values evident in Jewish text: tiqqun olam (repairing the world), hakhnassat orhim (welcoming guests into your home), biqqur holim (visiting the ill), derekh eretz (respect), praise and gratitude and so forth.

But values are not enough. There is an intermediate position, a path that pursues both the traditional actions, the mitzvot, and also encourages thought about the values that drive them. And that’s the kind of Jew that I want to be. Sign me up for that: the marriage of action and intent.

I want to be part of the Jewish world that not only fasts on Yom Kippur, but also sees the fast as being connected to repentance and being cleansed and making better choices next time. I want to live the Judaism that relates the Pesah seder with the message of freedom and urges us to act in the continuing struggle against slavery in all its forms today. I want to engage with a Judaism that celebrates the joy of Shabbat positively, and does not see the day of rest and enjoyment as merely a burdensome series of prohibitions.

And in my mind, this type of Judaism is suggested by today’s parashah. We chanted the passage which we know and love as the third paragraph of the Shema, the one about the tzitzit (Numbers 15:37-41). The passage says explicitly that wearing the tzitzit (plural: tzitziyyot) is to remind us of the mitzvot and not to stray from the right path. But then it goes on to invoke the Exodus from Egypt, a seminal event in the establishment of the Jewish nation. The passage thereby suggests that the purpose of the mitzvot is not only their performance, but connecting them with our history, our peoplehood, and our obligation to remember where we came from and the obligations we have to aid the oppressed, the bound, the enslaved.

The tallit gadol, which many of us are wearing right now, is generally thought of as a ritual article, that is, something worn during services. But many also follow the custom of wearing a tallit qatan under our clothes, so that we are always reminded of all of the above all day long. (If you put on a tallit gadol, you are also fulfilling the mitzvah of tzitzit). And, of course, here at Temple Israel we encourage women to take upon themselves this mitzvah as well; even though it has traditionally been observed by men, the Talmud (e.g. Menahot 43a) and many prominent rabbis throughout history (e.g. Rashi, Rabbeinu Tam, Rambam) indicate that women are not merely encouraged, but required to perform the mitzvah of tzitzit (similarly, Jewish sources also permit women to wear tefillin, including the great Maimonides).

But I’d like to suggest the following: when we are not in the synagogue, we need reminders. We need metaphorical tzitziyyot. We need to be reminded of the important things: yes, the values; yes, the customs; yes, the laws. We need to connect the doing with the understanding. We need for Judaism to create meaning for us. If not, it will be simply crowded out by all the distractions in our lives.

Ladies and gentlemen, the struggle for the Jewish future will be a struggle for meaning - for understanding the values embedded within Jewish practice, for relating those things to how we live our lives on a daily basis. We need the “why” behind the “what,” and that is the The tallit is so integral to Jewish life that we see it every time we look at the flag of the state of Israel; it is such an intimate part of our experience as Jews that there is a custom of burying one’s tallit with the deceased - it is effectively the only thing we take with us when we leave this world.

So how do we maintain those reminders? How do we don those metaphorical tzitziyyot? By going out of our way to set aside holy moments for ourselves in which we recall the richness of our ancient heritage. By making the Shabbat special, a day apart from the craziness of the week, in whatever ways we can, traditional or otherwise. By choosing a diet that reflects our holy relationship with God’s Creation. By sanctifying our relationships and always seeking to partner with God in repairing this world. By seeking out the ancient wisdom in our textual heritage through all the contemporary means available in the Information Age (it has its advantages!).

Find those metaphorical tzitziyyot, and keep the reminders of the important features of Jewish life in front of you. To all my fellow dads, happy Fathers’ Day! See you on the 17th of Tammuz.

Shabbat shalom!

~Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 6/14/2014.)