Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Purim: An Opportunity to Lighten Up

Purim is, arguably, the only Jewish holiday with a built-in sense of humor. If the holidays gathered for a party, Tish’ah Be’Av would be sulking in a corner, Yom Kippur practicing self-denial in another room, and Purim would be a kibbitzing wise-guy, cracking one-liners and elbowing Pesah in the ribs. Not only do we dress in costume and behave raucously on Purim, but even the serious obligation of the day, the reading of Megillat Esther, is supposed to be rapid and funny. Some have the tradition of chanting the different characters’ lines in the story in silly voices. We fold the scroll like a letter, rather than respectfully rolling it. It is the holiday of anti-gravitas, a day of sheer silliness.

Purim 5775 at Temple Israel of Great Neck
And, as if to drive the point home, the climax of the story includes a line that mandates the tradition to lighten up on Purim. When Esther convinces Ahashverosh to issue an edict that the Jews may defend themselves, the response among the Jews is (Est. 8:16):
לַיְּהוּדִים, הָיְתָה אוֹרָה וְשִׂמְחָה, וְשָׂשֹׂן, וִיקָר
Layhudim hayetah orah vesimhah vesasson viyqar.
For the Jews there was light, happiness, joy, and honor.
This is a total reversal of where they had been - from mourning, sackcloth, ashes, and wailing to light, happiness, and joy. And these are things we all need a little more of. In fact, we invoke this line every Saturday night, year-round, as we bid goodbye to Shabbat during havdalah. Why? Because when Shabbat leaves us, we need a little lift, a reminder that although we return to work and the mundanity of the week, we carry a little light and joy with us.

Purim is, of course, the annual mother lode of joy. Megillat Esther, and really the entire holiday, remind us that we all run a regular deficit of joy and humor, and furthermore that we indeed have the capability of bringing those things into the world. Let this day of happiness and mirth remind us that we can bring those things to others every day, that we can share some of our own light, when we have a little extra to spare. Lighten up! It’s Adar.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally published in the Temple Israel Voice, Feb. 19, 2015.)

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Jewish Mission - Mishpatim 5775

When I was young, I did not think too heavily about personal meaning in my Jewish involvement. We were a family of shul-goers and Torah readers, and our Jewish experience was defined by driving the 20 miles back and forth to our synagogue in Pittsfield, MA several times a week for Hebrew school, for Shabbat morning services, and for other types of Jewish involvement. Being Jewish meant showing up; that was the essential means through which we identified.

For many of us who came of age in the 20th century, being Jewish was about joining a synagogue, spending holidays with family, marrying a member of the community, and trying to make it in the New World despite prevalent anti-Semitism. The desire to be connected to a community, to identify with a people and a faith, was what built great synagogues like this one. Identity was defined by membership, and institutions like this were as much about social life and status as about Judaism.

And, as has often been observed, the Jews are just like everybody else, only more so. Robert Putnam, the professor of public policy at Harvard, demonstrates over and over in his book, “Bowling Alone,” that the concept of membership and group participation as an essential part of our identity peaked in the middle of the 20th century and has been on the decline since.

Today, membership is not enough to sustain identity for most people. As I have said here before, the data show that the fastest-growing religion in America is “None.” (Note: not “nun.”) Americans are far more isolated from one another, and often alienated from faith and ethnic groups. We are, as Putnam suggests, bowling alone. The “social capital” that Putnam describes as the glue that held our society together has largely eroded.

The greatest philosophical challenge of our time, and indeed the challenge facing most faith communities, is meaning. Our sense of how we derive meaning from our lives has changed tremendously.

Today, everything is individualized. It’s not about “us.” It’s all about “I” and my iPhone. (This is somewhat i-ronic, since most of us are today carrying devices that connect us into one central data location, where we are little more than bits of information.) The task, therefore, of the American synagogue is to create meaning on a personal basis for all who enter, to attempt to reach the individual heart and soul of everyone in its orbit.

So how exactly do we do this? The Torah gives us a few hints. Today in Parashat Mishpatim, we read the following (Ex. 22:20-21):
וְגֵר לֹא-תוֹנֶה, וְלֹא תִלְחָצֶנּוּ:  כִּי-גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם, בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.  כָּל-אַלְמָנָה וְיָתוֹם, לֹא תְעַנּוּן.  
You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan.
And there are many other such formulations. Over and over, the Torah exhorts us to pursue acts of hesed, of lovingkindness - for the sojourner among you, the widow, the orphan, the poor, the worker who depends on his daily wages, and so forth.

(BTW, the word “ger,” which in modern Hebrew means a convert to Judaism, is better understood traditionally not as a convert, but as a non-Israelite who lives among Israelites. That is, a ger is a stranger, one without family connections or property, and therefore presence in the margins of society.)

We understand and appreciate the plight of those in need, in all their forms of need, because we came from a needy place. We were subjected to the very worst treatment that humans can concoct. We were slaves, and we emerged from slavery as a nation.

The verse is crying out to us: slavery symbolizes what it means to be oppressed, disenfranchised, downtrodden. We understand this. And the Torah reminds us of this many times; I have not actually counted the number of times that this occurs, but an anecdote floating around out there says that it’s somewhere in thirties. Regardless, it’s far more than the number of times that we are commanded to keep Shabbat or kashrut. (And as you may know, there is no explicit Torah commandment to pray three times daily, or to read the Torah, to recite Qiddush on Friday night, etc. That is another indicator of how important hesed is, relative to those things that we consider essential parts of Jewish life.)

And it is this mitzvah, the mitzvah of recalling slavery for the purposes of doing good works for others in need, more than any other mitzvah, which has the potential to infuse our lives with meaning.

Our holy mission as Jews is to work to improve the welfare of others:  to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to house the homeless, to uplift those whom society has neglected. Our mission is to ensure that all people are treated justly, and to fill our lives with acts of righteousness. That is why we are “Or LaGoyim,” a light unto the nations of the world.

The Viennese psychiatrist and survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, Victor Frankl, published an extraordinarily influential book a year after the end of World War II: Man’s Search for Meaning. What Frankl learned in Theresienstadt and Auschwitz was that in an environment designed to break the human spirit, those who had the best chances of survival were the people who had a sense of purpose. And, Frankl confesses, the ones who survived were not the brightest, the cleverest, or even the strongest physically. “The best of us did not return,” he says.
“There is nothing in the world… that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life. There is much wisdom in the words of Nietzsche: ‘He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.’ I can see in these words a motto which holds true for any psychotherapy. In the Nazi concentration camps, one could have witnessed that those who knew that there was a task waiting for them to fulfill were most apt to survive.”
Frankl goes on to speak of a uniquely modern problem that he calls the “existential vacuum,” the sense felt by many of his patients that life is meaningless. And if, as Frankl notes, as many as 60% of Americans found life somewhat meaningless in 1946, all the more so today: as we are continually distracted by our devices, as we work longer hours for less money and watch helplessly as our children run from activity to activity solely for the purpose of impressing an Ivy League admissions committee, as we recede into the ever-more solitary environment of our comfortable living rooms and digital nests, the existential vacuum has grown.

But there is a way out of the vacuum. What gives our lives meaning? It is doing for others. It is extending our hands to those in need, in all the ways that we can. That is the holy purpose to which we are called: Gemilut hasadim - acts of lovingkindness.

The mitzvot of Jewish life, including the Top Ten that we read last week and the many more that we read today in Parashat Mishpatim, give our lives a framework for holy living. But following Jewish law - observing Shabbat, kashrut, tefillah, holidays, etc. - is not enough for most of us. Whether we pursue the 613 mitzvot with zeal or not, we must add to that the layers of activities that make Judaism a fully meaningful pursuit: reaching out to others for the purposes of hesed.

Almost every synagogue that I have ever visited contains a sculpture or other artwork displaying the tablets that Moshe brought down from Mt. Sinai, and we must always remain close to our textual tradition. But the real, essential role that synagogues must play in the future is to provide structure for going beyond these basic rules, beyond those tablets, to build communities that provide meaning for individuals. We have to create meaning. We have to be platforms that give our members, and the wider community, the chance to fulfill their holy purpose: to reach out to those in need through works of lovingkindness.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Seth Adelson

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Tu Bishvat: A Mystical Opportunity to Repair the World

Living in the town of Tzefat in 16th-century northern Israel, Rabbi Isaac Luria dwelt among Spanish-Jewish exiles who traded heavily in the mystical concepts of kabbalah, ancient received wisdom. Rabbi Luria, sometimes referred to by his acronym, the AR”I (Elohi Rabbi Yitzhaq, the divine Rabbi Isaac), crafted a new approach to kabbalah which envisioned God’s tzimtzum (contraction) in creating the world. This tzimtzum caused the infinite light of God to be poured to overfilling into the vessels that had contained the ten sefirot (Divine emanations) of the Tree of Life, causing many of them to shatter. Some of these vessel fragments became bound up with sparks of the original light in impure qelipot (shells). Rabbi Luria saw one of our goals as Jews to be liberating those sparks from the qelipot, and thus repairing the world.

One ceremony which grew out of the Lurianic school of kabbalistic thought is the Tu Bishvat seder. Modeled on the Passover discussion and dinner that we all know, the mystical Tu Bishvat seder featured the consumption of shelled fruits and nuts as a physical manifestation of our task to repair the world through seeking and opening the metaphorical qelipot. Although Tu Bishvat is identified in rabbinic literature as the day on which all trees in the world turn one year older, the Lurianic kabbalists reframed it as an opportunity to celebrate not only the actual trees, but the Etz Hayyim, the sefirotic Tree of Life, and to return sparks to their primordial source.

We at Temple Israel will attempt to liberate a few sparks on the evening of January 30, as we gather for the N’ranena musical Kabbalat Shabbat service, followed by dinner and a mystical Tu Bishvat experience. Join us as we drink four cups of wine or grape juice, eat tree produce, chant a niggun or two, and connect with the Tree of Life. It will be a sacred moment for the entire family.

Rabbi Seth Adelson

Friday, January 9, 2015

Heritage Trumps Hatred

As we begin the book of Shemot / Exodus and recount once again our descent into Egypt as a family and our ascent from slavery as a people, I am reminded by current events of the enduring value of peoplehood, and how it is a source of comfort in dark times. Within the first few verses of this book, the Egyptian pharaoh describes us as "benei Yisrael," the people of Israel (Ex. 1:9), the definition serving to set us apart as the other, as distinct from the native Egyptian population.

With today's hostage-taking episode in a kosher grocery in Paris, resulting in at least four dead and five wounded, our "otherness" was once again served to us in a particularly cruel stew of terror and hatred. On the heels of the killings earlier in the week at the office of Charlie Hebdo, it is evident that bad actors in this world include both Jews and free speech in the same cross-hairs.

In moments like these, when our inclination might be to respond in anger, I look to our tradition for strength. We are not a vengeful people; we are not bloodthirsty. Rather, tragedies such as these should be met with the same response that Jews have always had to anti-Semitic acts: to rally around our heritage, our tradition; to return to our mitzvot, our Torah; to remain stubbornly proud of who we are and who our God is. Our pride is more powerful than their hatred.

We mourn for those fellow Jews who fell at the hands of terrorists; our hearts go out to their families, to those of the French Jewish community who are feeling ever more besieged, and to all lovers of peace and freedom throughout the world whose hearts ache over the events of the past week. And we reach once again for the story of our national foundation, invoking as we do every time we finish reading the Torah the words of Eikhah / Lamentations (5:22): Hashiveinu Adonai eilekha venashuva, hadesh yameinu keqedem. Return us to you, O God, and we shall return; renew our days as of old.

Let this be a Shabbat shalom, a Shabbat of peace, for benei Yisrael.

Rabbi Seth Adelson

Friday, January 2, 2015

One Big, Happy, Pluralistic, Dysfunctional Family - Vayehi 5775

I returned from Israel last Thursday, flying from Ben-Gurion Airport on Christmas Eve, which in Israel is known as “Wednesday night.”

My son and I spent two weeks having fun around the Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee). One day we went up to Mercaz Canada, the Canada Centre, in Metulla, which is a huge complex built entirely by Canadian Jewish communities. Its central feature, of course, is the regulation-size ice rink, where no professional hockey team ever actually plays, but there is a hockey school for kids and plenty of aspiring skaters come to practice. We spent some time on the ice there, and then warmed up by immersing ourselves in the jacuzzi. Soaking alongside us was an older Israeli couple, whom I will call Yossi and Iris. They were very talkative, and soon I knew everything about their family, of whom they were clearly very proud. At some point, they ascertained that I was a Conservative rabbi, and then Iris asked me, “Is it true that you have women rabbis in your movement?” I responded affirmatively.

Yossi offered that he was very troubled by the extreme measures that some haredi Jews were taking to separate men and women: the gender-segregated buses, the separate sidewalks, and so forth. And then he told me something that made my jaw hit the warm, bubbly water: that there are now stores in Benei Beraq (a predominantly haredi city near Tel Aviv) where men and women shop separately.

“What, you mean that there are two sides, and the men get their cottage cheese on one side, and the women get their cottage cheese on the other side, from a separate refrigerator?”

“Yes,” he replied. We sat and soaked that one up. Iris, a calloused police officer, clucked her tongue and shook her head. She asked me if I had heard about Women of the Wall. “Of course,” I said.

Sitting there in the jacuzzi, I gave them a thumbnail sketch of what it means to be a Conservative Jew: like Orthodoxy, we understand halakhah / Jewish law to be valid and binding, but we account for modernity with conservative changes within the halakhic system. We accept men and women as being equal under Jewish law. We have a historical view of Judaism, understanding our tradition as having unfolded gradually in the context of many places and cultures, rather than having all been given at Sinai. We accept contemporary understandings of the origins of the Torah and of God.

Many of these ideas are not welcome in some quarters of the Jewish world, and some of the ideas that emerge from those quarters I find objectionable. But there is still, at least for now, some mutual sense of belonging. We are all still Jews. And as we soaked there in the hot tub, we shared what you might call a little pluralistic moment - an acknowledgment of the different ways of being Jewish.

We concluded the first book of the Torah today, and as Bereshit drew to a close with the patriarch Jacob on his death bed, each of his sons received some parting words. Some were flowery words of praise; others were clearly critical. For example:

Gen. 49:8 (re: Judah)
יְהוּדָה, אַתָּה יוֹדוּךָ אַחֶיךָ--יָדְךָ, בְּעֹרֶף אֹיְבֶיךָ; יִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לְךָ, בְּנֵי אָבִיךָ.
You, O Judah, your brothers shall praise;
Your hand shall be on the nape of your foes;
Your father’s sons shall bow low to you...

cf. Gen. 49:5-6 (re: Simeon and Levi)
שִׁמְעוֹן וְלֵוִי, אַחִים--כְּלֵי חָמָס, מְכֵרֹתֵיהֶם. בְּסֹדָם אַל-תָּבֹא נַפְשִׁי, בִּקְהָלָם אַל-תֵּחַד כְּבֹדִי:  כִּי בְאַפָּם הָרְגוּ אִישׁ, וּבִרְצֹנָם עִקְּרוּ-שׁוֹר.
Simeon and Levi are a pair;
Their weapons are tools of lawlessness.
Let not my person be included in their council,
Let not my being be counted in their assembly.
For when angry they slay men,
And when pleased they maim oxen.

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

Jacob Jordaens - Self-Portrait with Parents, Brothers, and Sisters. c. 1615. Oil on canvas. The Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia
In some ways we still retain the sense of family. The Talmud (BT Shevuot 39a) tells us that:
כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה
Kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh
All of Israel is responsible for one another.

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

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

But the Jewish world is much more fractured than it used to be. I am not sure exactly why this happened, but I think it might be harder today for us to acknowledge that we are all connected, that our souls are bound together, that we have a shared destiny, common values, and so forth.

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

Let’s consider where we are as a people.

Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Chabad (they get their own category), Reconstructionist, Humanist, secular, apathetic. Yes, the demographic studies of recent years continue to show that we are on a continuum with respect to religious observance and other measures of engagement. But we are also deeply divided, and to some extent, that is the Jewish tradition. From the moment that the Israelites left Egypt, when they began to complain to Moshe Rabbeinu about the lack of food in the desert, continuing through to the Talmudic tradition of rabbinic argument (Beit Hillel vs. Beit Shammai, etc.), to the response to modernity that gave us the range of movements and synagogues and political and cultural rivals, we like to disagree.

Even so, it seems to me that the rift between Orthodoxy and non-Orthodoxy is still growing. It used to be that most American Jews, regardless of their level of Jewish observance, kept a kosher kitchen so that anybody could come over and eat. That is hardly the case today; I suspect that not too many Orthodox-identified Jews would even eat in my house.

Perhaps the greatest point of fracture is intermarriage. You know the numbers, at least anecdotally: two-thirds or more of American Jews marry non-Jews. Yes, that statistic is lower for Conservative-identified Jews (roughly ⅓ of those who grow up in our movement marry out), and much lower for Orthodox. But the reality is inescapable. We are not going to stem the tide of intermarriage. That ship has sailed. The question facing us all now, and particularly here in the Conservative movement is, how can we stay true to our principles of accepting the validity of halakhah and yet not lose all of those Jews?

A colleague of mine, Rabbi Wesley Gardenswartz, the senior rabbi of a large Conservative congregation in suburban Boston, recently floated a trial balloon about intermarriage. As you may know, Conservative rabbis are bound by a standard of rabbinic practice not to perform weddings between Jews and non-Jews. His idea was to perform such weddings, with the proviso that the non-Jewish partner commits to raising Jewish children.

Immediately after going public with the idea, there was an uproar in his congregation that compelled Rabbi Gardenswartz to backtrack.

And furthermore in the “uproar” department,just last week at the USY International Convention, the student leadership of USY voted to change the language in its policy regarding inter-dating for regional officers. While the policy used to say, “It is expected that leaders of the organization will refrain from relationships which can be construed as interdating,” the new language is, “The Officers will strive to model healthy Jewish dating choices. These include recognizing the importance of dating within the Jewish community and treating each person with the recognition that they were created Betzelem Elohim (in the image of God).”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of interdating, but certainly not quite as strong as the original language. (I actually prefer the newer language because, rather than merely being prohibitive, it actually challenges our teens to consider the aspects of holiness in human relationships.) Coverage in the Jewish press has been scathing (the JTA wire article on the subject was titled, perhaps unfairly, “USY Drops Ban on Interdating”).

The issue goes right to the heart of who we are today, not as Conservative Jews per se, but as American Jews. Do we see ourselves as Americans who occasionally dip our toes into the sea of Judaism, or does halakhah infuse all parts of our lives with holiness? Obviously, this issue is so trying because some of the members of our cousins’ club see any tolerance of intermarriage and intermarried Jews as a threat. In their minds, this is not Hillel vs. Shammai; this is Hillel vs. Antiochus and the hellenized Syrians of yore.

Nonetheless, I am convinced that the concept of kelal Yisrael, of the Jewish sense of shared heritage, destiny, and values still resonates. We have made certain strides right here in Great Neck, and that bodes well: the recent Shabbat Project, the joint study and siyyum in memory of those massacred in a Jerusalem synagogue in November, and the ongoing friendly Rabbinic Dialogue are all good signs of healthy, pluralistic engagement and cooperation.

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

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

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(A variation of this sermon was originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 1/3/2015.)

Thursday, January 1, 2015

A New Year's Day Fast

For the first time in recent memory, the minor fast day of the Tenth of Tevet coincided this year with the first day of the new solar year, yielding an arguably odd integration of the secular and religious. This curious combination draws a few observations into stark relief.

While Judaism marks its new year, Rosh Hashanah, as a joyous celebration, one where families gather for prayer and meals and reflect on our hopes for the year to come, it is surely also a solemn time. Rosh Hashanah demarcates the beginning of the Ten Days of Penitence, the period of reflection and introspection leading to Yom Kippur. The former is clearly an introduction to the latter, a day on which we afflict our souls with the hope of achieving spiritual cleansing, when we appeal to the Qadosh Barukh Hu for another chance, for an opportunity to move forward with a clean slate even though we are not worthy.

Compare that with our modern conception of January 1st. How do Americans mark this transition? By celebrating with no higher goal than partying with abandon. Yes, there may be some who make resolutions for self-improvement, but one must wonder how deeply these resolutions penetrate the soul of the resolved.

Meanwhile the Tenth of Tevet, one of a handful of minor fast days sprinkled through the Jewish calendar, commemorates the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonian empire in 587 BCE. Nineteen months later, Nebuchadnezzar’s forces destroyed the First Temple, laid waste to the rest of the city, and exiled the Israelites to Babylon (today Iraq). But we live in a world with a Jewish state in the traditional land of Israel, a much-rebuilt Jerusalem under Jewish and democratic sovereignty. There are those that say that we ought to dispense with fasts related to Jerusalem laid waste; we are no longer lamenting like Jeremiah, or yearning like our ancestors did for 2,000 years. The flip side of the Tenth of Tevet, the Seventeenth of Tammuz, and the Ninth of Av is Hatikvah, the national anthem of the State of Israel.

And so, on this particular fast day, we may recall the opportunity for a second chance that the Jewish New Year promises, an added foil to the debauchery engendered by the secular new year. As we look toward Tu Bishvat and Pesah, which the Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 1:1) identifies as two of the four Jewish new year dates, we remember that we do not live from party to party, but from milestone to milestone and season to season as we continue to rebuild.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Ferguson and the Empathy Gap - Vayyetze 5775

I have to make a confession. I am guilty of something. I failed to empathize.

Actually, it was not merely a failure to empathize, but rather a failure to pay attention at all to the news out of Ferguson, Missouri regarding the events of the past summer.

In my defense, I was busy paying attention to Israel - the rockets, the bomb shelters, the tunnels, the scenes of destruction and death, the body counts, the anti-Semitic demonstrations, and so forth. I was wringing my hands all summer long, glued to my computer screen, waiting for the next piece of bad news.

So somehow I missed the story that resurfaced, somewhat unpleasantly, this week - the story of Michael Brown, the young man who stole a $46 item from a convenience store, and was subsequently shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson in that suburb of St. Louis. I was only dimly aware that the community of Ferguson erupted in mid-August, and that it attracted attention all over the world. All of that was crowded out because my head and heart were in the Middle East.

Michael Brown Ferguson

I have not spent the subsequent three months following the story - the protests, which endured for weeks afterwards, the investigations, the grand jury. I was busy with the EmptiNesters retreat, the holidays, the Shabbat Project, the Rabbinic Management Institute that I attended in LA two weeks ago, and so forth.

Besides, I’m a rabbi. My position demands of me to pay attention to issues affecting the Jewish community, right? Why should this story be so important? Most of the world has no concept of the complexity of the situation in Israel, and it is my responsibility to be aware of and speak to that. I only have so much time and brainpower.

OK, so I have a long list of excuses, none of which are very good.

I should have paid more attention to this story because it speaks to the very heart of who we are as a people, and what our tradition teaches us about caring for the disenfranchised in our midst. A better reason, however, has really nothing to do with the particulars of this case, but it has everything to do with our role in American society.

I think we - not just we the Jews, but all Americans - are running an empathy deficit. I think we are so wrapped up in ourselves that we are failing to pay attention to those around us who are in need. This is not just about civil rights or race or ethnicity or religion or gender issues or the fragmentation of the American family, but it does include all of those things. There are so many things that divide us today that it is easy to just give up - to throw in the towel, as it were, and just look out for number one, or become desensitized.

What has happened to our public sphere? Why are our politics so broken? One possible reason is that we have all stopped caring about each other. What happens in suburban Missouri stays in Missouri. I’m just going on about my life here in Minneapolis, or Miami, or Michigan, or Manhasset. And yes, we in the Jewish community are just as guilty as all the rest of us.

Maimonides tells us (MT Hilkhot Matanot Aniyim 7:13) that in matters of tzedaqah / charity, we are first obligated to our family, then to the needy of our own town, then to those in another town. While many of us may find ourselves moved and challenged by the events in Israel, our family, we should also be concerned with affairs in our own backyard.

Many of us have known anti-Semitism personally and globally. Certainly the events of this past summer have awakened within the Jewish community concerns that not too long ago seemed somewhat passé. But most of us are not personally experiencing discrimination on a daily basis. But are we aware of the discrimination that others face?

Please consider this thought experiment for a moment:
  • You’re leaving work. You’re wearing a suit. You try to get a cab. Not a single one stops for you, even those that are carrying no passengers.
  • You’re trying to find an apartment to rent. You call landlord after landlord, only to find that every single one has curiously just been rented, even the less desirable ones.
  • You’re a professor at one of the most prestigious universities in the world. You have returned at night from an overseas trip, and your front door jams. As you struggle to open your own front door, a neighbor calls the police, who come to arrest you.

Imagining ourselves in these situations is not so easy; these kinds of things do not happen to most of us. But they do happen on a regular basis to black Americans, who all suffer from various forms of discrimination and humiliation throughout their lives. With respect to their interaction with the police, this reality has resulted in relatively frequent incidents where an officer shoots a young, unarmed black man in a situation that has gone awry.

Consider Amadou Diallou, the 23-year-old Guinean immigrant with no criminal record, shot outside his apartment in the Bronx in 1999 because he was mistaken for a serial rapist.

Consider Sean Bell, the 23-year-old resident of Queens who was leaving his own bachelor party in 2006 when he and his two friends, all unarmed, were shot by police because they thought they overheard one of the men say, “Yo, get my gun.” Bell died.

Consider John Crawford, a 22-year-old man shopping in a Wal-Mart in Ohio who was shot and killed by police, just a few days before the Ferguson incident,  because he was carrying an air rifle that he had picked up from a shelf in the store and was carrying it around while shopping.

In all three of those cases, no police officers were convicted of any crimes. Now these are merely anecdotes, and I am not in a position to evaluate these cases in any responsible, legally-correct way. But there are plenty of other examples, and the pattern is undeniable. We have to feel for the families who lost these young men. We should not excuse, but perhaps we can understand the violent reaction that black Americans had to the news surrounding the Ferguson case. We have to grieve for our society as a whole. And we have an obligation to change that reality.

In a report presented to the UN Human Rights Committee by the Sentencing Project, an advocacy organization, statistics show that it is true that young African-American men are more likely to commit certain types of crime. However, it is also true that they are much more likely to be convicted of crimes than whites or Hispanics who commit the same crimes. The report adds the following:

“... [H]igher crime rates cannot fully account for the racial disparity in arrest rates. A growing body of scholarship suggests that a significant portion of such disparity may be attributed to implicit racial bias, the unconscious associations humans make about racial groups...
“Extensive research has shown that in such situations the vast majority of Americans of all races implicitly associate black Americans with adjectives such as “dangerous,” “aggressive,” “violent,” and “criminal.” Since the nature of law enforcement frequently requires police officers to make snap judgments about the danger posed by suspects and the criminal nature of their activity, subconscious racial associations influence the way officers perform their jobs.”

Ladies and gentlemen, we are all saddled with bias. We all make spot judgments about others, consciously or unconsciously, based on their appearance. Any human being who denies this is lying. But one of our tasks as Jews as reinforced over and over throughout the Torah, is to remember what it’s like to be an outsider, as when we were slaves in Egypt, and to treat others accordingly. It is our responsibility to empathize with the plight of the sojourner, the widow, the orphan, the poor, because we understand that as a nation. We may not be able to eliminate our own internal prejudices, but we can certainly challenge ourselves to feel for others and act appropriately.

And this is only heightened by our contemporary reality. Despite the rise of anti-Semitism in the world, we are still living pretty well in America. Except for the rare sideways remark, we are accepted as white (something that was not always true); all doors seem open to us. But that does not give us license to ignore those in our midst for whom many of those doors are still closed. It is all too easy to forget that justice is not necessarily evenly meted out in our society.

To that end, I would like for our reaction to the case of Michael Brown to be something like the moment that occurs at the end of Jacob’s dream at the beginning of Parashat Vayyetze, which we read this morning. Our hero wakes suddenly after dreaming about angels going up and down the ladder to heaven, and is struck with the realization that, אָכֵן יֵשׁ ה’ בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה; וְאָנֹכִי, לֹא יָדָעְתִּי. “Surely the LORD is present in this place, and I did not know it.” (Gen. 28:16)

Jacob’s new awareness leads him to commit to a new relationship with God. In the same way, the Ferguson events might elevate our connection with God by raising our own awareness of what some of our fellow citizens endure every day. That awareness should spur us to action.

My point here is not to excuse either Michael Brown, an alleged petty thief who may have resisted arrest, or Officer Darren Wilson, who may have overreacted to the situation. This is not about race. Rather, my goal on this Shabbat Thanksgiving, a time that we as a nation remember to be grateful for what we have, is to remind us that our gratitude can only be amplified when we remember to feel for the other. It is a primary goal of the Torah to help us to see beyond ourselves, to consider how our actions affect others, and to be aware of our interconnectedness to all our fellow citizens as a part of this society, in short, to be empathic. Even though we all arrived here on different boats, some of us enthusiastically and some of us in literal chains, we are all in the same boat when it comes to building a just society.

Our tradition believes that all people, not just the Jews, are obligated to the Sheva Mitzvot Benei Noah, the seven mitzvot given to Noah following the Flood. One of those mitzvot is the commandment to foster justice. Maimonides suggests that if you do not live in a place with an honest justice system, then you should move away. I do not think that anybody could credibly make that charge about these United States. However, it is surely worth noting that our society is still a work in progress, and that cultivating empathy for all people, and not just our people, will go a long way toward building that nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 11/29/2014.)