Friday, November 23, 2012

Getting Back to the Table by Letting Out the Goat - Shabbat Thanksgiving 5773

On this "Shabbat Thanksgiving," there are many things for which we should be thankful.

First, that we survived the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. Many of us were inconvenienced by the storm, and some of us had major damage to our homes. But by and large this community was spared the devastation that parts of the South Shore of Long Island, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and New Jersey suffered. We should not forget, even as we celebrate two benei mitzvah today, that there are now many in our region who lost everything.

Second, many members of this community have been forthcoming in helping others in need in the wake of the storm. That is what makes us a qehillah qedoshah, a holy congregation, and I applaud those of us who have taken the initiative to contribute in every way possible to relief efforts.

Third, that the Iron Dome defense system in Israel was quite successful in shooting down rockets that were headed to residential areas. Some reports said that the success rate was near 90%.

Finally, that the cease-fire in Israel is (mostly) holding for the third day. This is very good news for the members of our partner Conservative congregation in Ashkelon, Kehillat Netzah Yisrael, where life had more or less come to a standstill for eight days. It is also personally good news for me, since my son lives in Nes Tziyyonah, out of range of the Qassam rockets which make up the bulk of those coming from Gaza, but within range of the larger rockets like the Fajr-5 rockets supplied by Iran. (During the eight days of rockets, there was only one air-raid siren in Nes Tziyyonah; my son and his neighbors gathered in the stairwell, the safest part of their apartment building, until it passed, thankfully uneventfully.)

It is worth noting, by the way, that this is, in fact, the second cease-fire in 2012 brokered by the Egyptians. Back in March, after four days of less-intense rocket attacks and Israeli airstrikes, a similar deal was struck. And here we are, eight months later, in the same place. And so, while we might be grateful for this lull, we should also fear the next shower of rockets and what will come from it. Because there will be more rockets, more sirens, more lives lost and disrupted; the only question is when.

Or maybe there is a way to break this pattern.

There is a well-known folktale from Jewish tradition that goes like this: A man goes to his rabbi. He says, “Rabbi, my house is too small! My wife and I and our four children are barely able to live, because we are constantly in each others’ way. What should I do?”

The rabbi thinks for a moment, then says, “Do you have a goat?”

Yes,” says the man cautiously.

Bring the goat inside the house,” suggests the rabbi.


Just do it,” says the rabbi.

So the man brings in the goat, which takes up more space and wreaks havoc within the tiny house. He goes back to the rabbi.

Do you have a cow?” asks the rabbi.

But rabbi, it’s already crowded and miserable! If I bring in the cow, it will just get worse!”

Bring in the cow.”

The man reluctantly does so. The animals are now eating their food, sitting on their tiny couch, keeping them up at night. He goes back to the rabbi.

Bring in your chickens,” says the rabbi.

But rabbi...”

Just do it.”

So he does. He’s now at his wits’ end, tearing his hair out from the stress of a small house filled to the brim with people and animals. He goes back to the rabbi.

Now take all the animals out,” says the rabbi.

The man sprints home and gets rid of all the animals. A day later, he returns to the rabbi.

Rabbi, I want to thank you so much! Our house is now so roomy!”


Did the house change? No. But the man’s perspective changed.

In the summer of 2000, when I was working in Jerusalem as a music specialist for the Conservative movement’s Ramah day camp, talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority broke down.  Fatah Chairman Yasir Arafat rejected PM Ehud Barak’s offer of a state that would include almost all of the West Bank and Gaza, plus control over Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Immediately after, Arafat ordered the violent Intifada, and years of suicide bombings hardened Israeli resolve against peace talks. Israel decided that the PA was no partner for peace, and has not engaged seriously with them since.

In 2005, Israel pulled out of Gaza unilaterally.

In 2006, the Palestinian territories held free elections. Hamas won a majority of seats in Gaza, and soon after seized control over the Strip.

In 2008, after thousands of Qassam rockets had fallen on Sderot and other communities near Gaza, Israel launched a ground offensive, Operation Cast Lead, to demolish terrorist infrastructure in Gaza. There was a heavy toll of civilian and combatant lives.  Rockets have continued to fall sporadically in the south of Israel, but in the intervening years Hamas has grown more powerful and more deadly.  

And then came the events of the past week and a half. Meanwhile, PA President Mahmoud Abbas watches on the sidelines from the West Bank.

Over the past 12 years, our perspective has changed. Everybody has grown more and more pessimistic about the chances for peace. Current PM Netanyahu is far more interested in saber-rattling over Iran than talking with anybody on the other side of the Green Line.

Ladies and gentlemen, there is only one possible way out of this, and it’s not a sure thing, but it is better than the current situation.

The only possible solution is the two-state solution. Israel and the PA, supported by all the major international players, must swallow their pride and sit down at the table and talk. All other outcomes are unsustainable; let me explain:

1. Maintaining the status quo. Every few years, Israelis are shelled heavily, and then retaliate until the next cease-fire. Obviously, this cannot continue forever, because each time the rockets fly, they are more accurate, more intense, with bigger payloads and longer ranges.

2. The one-state solution. Israel annexes all the territories and grants citizenship to everybody in the territories. This is suicide - Israel will not be able to maintain itself as a democracy with a Jewish character when the largest political group is Palestinian.

3. Unilateral withdrawals from parts of the West Bank. As many have pointed out, Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza may have yielded an economic benefit for Israel by no longer requiring heavy military protection from the settlements in Gush Qatif, within the Gaza Strip. But whatever benefits reaped have been negated by the thousands of rockets that have been launched by Gaza-based terrorists.

But the reason that the Gaza withdrawal did not have a positive effect on the region is because of its unilateral nature. Israel did not consult with anybody; no peacekeeping forces were installed; no structure was in place to make a smooth transition; no other governmental powers were there to support either side. This vacuum led to the rise of Hamas, and we all know how that has turned out.

Ladies and gentlemen, I think about this a lot. And as far as I can tell, the only other possible path is the two-state solution. Those of us that balk at the idea of sitting down at the table with any Palestinian group should recall that we do not make peace with friends; we make peace with enemies. We don’t have to like each other, but we do need to talk.

If Israel sits with Mahmoud Abbas and hammers out a peace agreement such that a Palestinian state is established in the West Bank, soon enough the economy will improve, employment will improve, Palestinians will be able to have some kind of normal life, and they will (as they have done in the past) go about their business and focus less energy on hating the Jews.

And what about Gaza, you ask? This is the important part. Hamas not, at least right now, a partner for peace, because from where we sit right now it is unlikely that they will acknowledge Israel’s right to exist.  As Israel’s ambassador the US and military historian Michael Oren stated in an op-ed piece in the New York Times a few days ago:
Negotiations leading to peace can be realistic with an adversary who shares that goal. But Hamas, whose covenant calls for the slaughter of Jews worldwide, is striving not to join peace talks, but to prevent them. It rejects Israel’s existence, refuses to eschew terror, and disavows all previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements.”
Ambassador Oren goes on to speak optimistically about the chances for peace with the PA:
Egypt and Jordan tried more than once to defeat Israel militarily, only to recognize the permanence of the Jewish state and to sign peace accords with it. Similarly, the Palestine Liberation Organization, guided by nationalism rather than militant theology, realized it could gain more by talking with Israel than by battling us. The result was the 1993 Oslo Accords, the foundation for what we still hope will be a two-state solution. By establishing deterrence, Israel led these rational actors toward peace.”
What Oren fails to say is that while deterring Hamas, Israel can at the same time reach out to the PA and build that Palestinian state. Once that state is built in the West Bank, then the people of Gaza will see the benefits of peace that their cousins are reaping, and throw of the yoke of Hamas and the curse of eternal war.

We have to set aside the fear. We have to look above the comfort zone of “noto get to “yes.” We need to take bold steps. Cooperation right now between Israel and America and the PA on economic and security matters is at an all-time high. Now is the time, during this cease-fire, for Israel to look east to the West Bank, rather than south to Gaza, and reach out. It is time to take out the goat and the cow and the chickens, and work from a new perspective.

Otherwise, it will all happen again, sooner and stronger and more deadly.

Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu ve’al kol Yisrael, ve-imru Amen.
May the One who makes peace on high bring piece upon us and upon all Israel, and let us say Amen.

Shabbat Shalom, a Shabbat of peace.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, November 24, 2012.)

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Hodu Ladonai - Invoking God on Thanksgiving

To regular readers of this blog, it may be obvious that I do not eat turkey (or anything that was born with legs), and so as the appointed Thanksgiving chef chez Adelson, I served a gorgeous eggplant parmesan with all the trimmings (roasted sweet potato, asparagus with lemon and olive oil, orange-cranberry sauce, and our favorite butternut squash soup; the squash, as well as the tomatoes in the main course, were from our garden). Before we made motzi (the blessing over the bread, which was in this case a pumpernickel bagel), we all expressed gratitude for the most important things in our lives. My three-year-old, in a moment that I now regret not capturing on video, gave thanks for "silly things."

This quintessentially American holiday is nominally about gratitude, but as it is a secular occasion, we do not tend to associate our giving thanks with God. In fact, many of us refer to Thanksgiving (somewhat ironically) as "Turkey Day," removing the thematic element altogether and limiting the festivities to the merely physical.

Judaism is rife with opportunities to be grateful. Jewish liturgy in particular is saturated with variations on the theme of thanks; hodayah / thanks is one of the five major modes of tefillah / prayer. Each Amidah (the silent prayer recited while standing at the three statutory services every day) includes standard "thank-you" language toward the end, and many of the Psalms include themes of gratitude. One of the warm-up passages of the morning service (Pesuqei Dezimra / verses of song) opens with the following (I Chronicles 16:8):
הוֹדוּ לַיהוָה, קִרְאוּ בִשְׁמוֹ, הוֹדִיעוּ בָעַמִּים עֲלִילֹתָיו
Hodu ladonai qir'u vishmo, hodi'u va'amim alilotav
Acclaim Adonai; invoke God's name / Make God's deeds known among all people.
The word here translated as "acclaim" might also be translated as "thank," thus rendering the verse as a statement of gratitude for those things that God has done for us. When coupled with the curious fact that the Hebrew word for turkey is "hodu," one might suggest that this verse is the perfect Jewish encapsulation of Thanksgiving: giving thanks for the good things that God has given us.

When you celebrate Thanksgiving, don't forget to mention God. Happy digestion!

Rabbi Seth Adelson

Friday, November 2, 2012

Climbing the Sefirotic Tree: God, Climate Change, and Sandy

This Shabbat is Global Hunger Shabbat, an annual program hosted by the American Jewish World Service. Temple Israel is officially participating in Global Hunger Shabbat for the third year running.  I was planning to speak this morning about hunger, and to study with you some texts from Jewish tradition about world hunger and about the challenges raised in bringing aid to those who are hungry around the world.

And then came the storm. As I began to write this sermon on Tuesday evening, 90% of Long Island households were without electricity, seven tunnels leading to Manhattan were filled with water, members of this community and had been forced to leave their uninhabitable homes, and the world was still reeling from news of Hurricane / Superstorm Sandy’s devastation. 

So as important as it is for us to speak about hunger, the aftermath of the storm and its implications in a Jewish context are more pressing at the moment.

Ladies and gentlemen, whenever there is a natural disaster such as this, when people lose their homes and livelihoods and even their lives, we look for answers. Many of us naturally turn to God, and there will always be preachers -- rabbis, ministers, priests, imams -- who will cite our violation of God’s word as the reason behind the disaster.  For example, some blamed the Haitian earthquake on the depravity of the citizens of Haiti, or Hurricane Katrina on the homosexual community of New Orleans. A quick Google search will reveal that there are already online statements by religious folks pointing to similar reasons for Sandy. (For example, Rabbi Noson Leiter of “Torah Jews for Decency.”)

I am not that kind of rabbi. I don’t believe in that kind of God. My God is a good God, a source of blessing, who bestows upon us daily miracles of life and love and stability in times of trouble. My God is the God that works through us, that enables us to help others and ourselves. My God is a positive force for all that makes this world function: the laws of physics that ensure that, for example, the Earth continues to rotate on its axis, and that the sun continues to provide us with energy, and that all of the biological principles that allow us to function as individuals as well as part of the larger ecosystem continue to apply.

And most importantly, God gives us the ability to raise ourselves up through our intellect.

God gave us the power to understand the laws of science that make this both an orderly and a chaotic world. As humanity moves forward in its understanding of the natural forces that make, more to the point, hazardous tropical storms unleash their dangerous winds on big population centers, we gain a greater understanding of God’s Creation. And as the amassed scientific knowledge of humanity increases, we grow, in some sense, closer to the God who gave us this ability.

The medieval kabbalists envisioned God as a tree of ten sefirot / spheres of Divine emanation, arrayed in a pattern similar to a hopscotch course. 

The lowest sefirot are the ones that we are most familiar with - the Shekhinah, God’s presence, is the one that is said to have dwelt in the Temple in Jerusalem when it was standing, 2,000 years ago.  The sefirot at the top, like the elusive Keter, just below the infinite Ein Sof, are so far removed from us that we are unable to discern anything about them.

And yet, as the collected body of human knowledge of science grows, as our awareness of the principles that guide God’s creation increases, we ascend in our understanding of God.  We “climb,” as it were, that sefirotic tree and are better able to grasp God’s higher, more spiritual aspects.  We will never reach the top, but we continue to move upwards toward Keter, the crown of God’s glory.

Those preachers who like to pin storms on God are in effect denying that God gave us the ability to discern between natural and metaphysical forces, denying that the pursuit of scientific knowledge and climatic patterns and modeling is a Divine gift. They are not giving the credit that humanity deserves in reaching higher, toward the more elusive sefirot.

Aha! you might say. What about what the Torah teaches us about Sodom and Gomorrah? What about the story of Jonah? What about the second paragraph of the Shema, which we read this morning, the one that says that if you fulfill the mitzvot / God’s commandments, you will receive blessings and that if you don’t, you will be cursed?

Yes, those stories and black-and-white ideologies appealed to our ancestors. But we are blessed with a much more thorough and nuanced understanding of how our world works. Yes, in our daily tefillot / prayers between Sukkot and Pesah we say after the first paragraph of the Amidah,

 מַשִּׁיב הָרוּחַ וּמורִיד הַגָּשֶּׁם
Mashiv haruah umorid hagashem
You, God, are the one who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall.
And yet, at the same time, we concede that wind and rain are both meteorological phenomena that are the result of weather patterns that can be (somewhat) predicted by computer models. So why should we continue to say mashiv haruah umorid hagashem?

Tefillah is not meant to be understood literally. It is a poetic blueprint for the ideal, for what could be. We pray to remind ourselves that we should strive to create the world that is more perfect, even though we know that life is itself imperfect.

Likewise, during birkat hamazon / the blessings after eating, when we say, 

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יי. הַזָּן אֶת הַכּל
Barukh atah Adonai, hazan et hakol.
Praised are You, God, who feeds everybody.
we seem to be stating that there is food for all.  And yet we all know that we live in an imperfect world, in which food is not evenly distributed. (And, by the way, a new book by Frederick Kaufman reveals that there is, in fact, more than enough food to feed the world; people starve because they cannot afford it, not due to shortages. Hence the need for Global Hunger Shabbat.)

Back to Sandy. This storm must be seen in the context of the growing number of natural disasters around the world, storms that are increasing in frequency and intensity.

Ladies and gentlemen, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo held a press conference on Tuesday in the storm’s wake, he recalled his days as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, when he visited multiple disaster sites, and went on to say that “we have a 100-year flood every two years now.” And he also said this:

“There have been a series of extreme weather events. That is not a political statement; that is a factual statement. Anyone who says there is not a change in weather patterns is denying reality.”

The governor did not use the words “climate change” or “global warming,” but he did concede that we are facing a new meteorological reality, one in which it is not unreasonable to expect that New York’s subway tunnels will flood, that the power will be out for a week, and that lives will be lost more frequently.

Nobody can deny that the Earth’s temperature has risen 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit over the past century, a substantially greater and faster rise than has historically occurred, and that this is causing havoc with our meteorological patterns. There is no denying that ocean levels have risen 9"-10" in the last 100 years. There is no denying that these catastrophic storms and floods are happening more often. There is no denying that the polar ice caps are melting. And there is no denying that we humans are playing a role in these events: by favoring cars over public transit; by eating far more meat and dairy than we need to (methane produced by animal farming accounts for 70% of global warming effects); by being generally profligate with our energy consumption.

Of course, no climatologist will state conclusively that any single weather event is the direct result of climate change. This can only be demonstrated within the context of years of careful research. (There was a New York Times post on their “Green” blog about this). But that is what makes them scientists and not charlatans. The principles of academic rigor prevent such statements. But all of the trends I just listed are unimpeachable.

Meanwhile, there is a way out. The Talmud teaches us that among the first mitzvot that a rabbi should teach a convert to Judaism about are the obligations to leave sections of your fields un-harvested, so that hungry people with no resources can come and take food for themselves. We learn from this that one of the essential teachings of Judaism is that we are all responsible for the welfare of our fellow people, regardless of their status.

Climate change, and the more frequent large storms that it has yielded, is not God’s work. It is ours. We got ourselves into this, and we can get ourselves out. And ultimately the only way to do so will be by working together - by taking responsibility for the mess that we have created.

We will continue to climb the sefirotic tree, learning more and more about Creation and how to manipulate it for our benefit. But until we put our God-given intellect into cooperating for the betterment of all humanity, the ideal blueprint that we invoke when we step into a synagogue to join our voices together in prayer will remain only a blueprint, and not reality.

Rabbi Seth Adelson