Monthly Archives: August 2013

Who Am I?

 It was at the graveside service of a recent funeral.  A friend of the family walked by me to approach the casket to place some earth on it.  She paused for a moment and said quietly, so that only I would hear it:  you were meant to do this.  It was absolutely intended as a compliment.  I even took it as such, saying thank you, or that is kind of you.  But something about it made me uneasy.

Over the last days, I’ve been thinking about why.  One reason is that the words implied that the rabbinate is me, and I am it.  There is no distinct identity, or even worse, there is only one identity, that of rabbi.  This is a danger of the rabbinate in particular and clergy work in general.  Others conflate your identity with your status, your role with your reality – and then you begin to do the same thing!  You think of yourself first and foremost as a rabbi.  Even in your own mind that is what primarily defines you.

I am reading Shakespeare’s As You Like It, just about half way through.  In so many ways it is a play of mirrors.  The forest is a mirror image of the civilized world.  Characters mirror each other – there are two fools, two noble men, etc, each providing the other with the opportunity to see what they really are and what they are not.  When I look in the mirror, I don’t see a rabbi.  Or if I do, that part of me is way down the line, there but sort of in the background, behind the eyes, a small part of who I am of what makes me me.

‘You were meant to do this.’  Not so much.  I consider myself extremely lucky to have work to do that I truly enjoy, and that I can do competently.  But I could have done many other things.  This might sound crazy, but I honestly believe I could have been happy working as a house painter.  I did that for 4 summers, and quite enjoyed it.

I’ve heard a number of rabbis say over the years that if they aren’t leading the service, if they aren’t in the pulpit, they generally don’t go to shul.  Why bother?, one said to me.  Not so for me.  I would be perfectly content to sit in the pews.  And one day I will.  But for now, there is work that needs to be done.  I’ll do it – after all, its my job.

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Politics from the Pulpit

Just a few weeks ago I was giving a sermon in which I discussed the Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden cases.  I suggested in my remarks that although what they did was clearly wrong, and also against the law (not always the same thing, by the way!), the end result of their actions may be positive for us and our society.  You can find the text of the sermon on the Beth El web site, http://www.bethelbalto.com.

About half way through the sermon someone got up and walked out.  I later found out that person had expressed to others how disappointed they were that I had chosen to address an issue from the pulpit that they perceived of as being political.  

The question of politics from the pulpit is not a new one by any means.  In the narrowest sense, it is actually illegal for a member of the clergy to endorse a political candidate while speaking from the pulpit.  Most clergy would extend this prohibition to any forum, pulpit or otherwise.  That is a clear no-no, and I would never presume to tell someone how they should vote.

That being said, I would hope that Jews would want to know what our tradition says about the issues of the day, and the truth is there are few issues of the day that are NOT perceived of as being political.  For example, abortion is a politically charged issue today, no question.  But Judaism has a lot to say about abortion.  Or euthanasia, or organ transplantation.  Or health care in general, for that matter.  Or many other contemporary issues medical or otherwise.

I feel part of my job as a rabbi is to let people know what their tradition has to say about these modern questions.  They don’t have to listen to what the tradition says, and they don’t have to agree with it either.  But they should at least know.  

Last thought.  Again, I would always be careful to stay away from particular candidates (although I will criticize politicians from the pulpit if I feel they have done something morally wrong).  But by and large, I feel like issues are fair game.  It seems to me it is healthy to take an issue out, put it on the table, and examine it in broad daylight, so to speak.  Talk about it.  Listen to someone else’s point of view, and not just the op-ed page of the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal.  

One of the sad things about today’s political climate is that it has become so polarized it is hard to even have a conversation about issues that truly matter to us and our society.  That is a shame for all of us, and we all are diminished because of it.  I’ve been told that people will go home after services and talk about the rabbi’s sermon.  If so (it doesn’t happen in the rabbi’s house!) than maybe a sermon that touches on a ‘political’ issue will at least provide the opening for a meaningful conversation.  After all, there is a lot to be said, and a lot to be gained by saying it!

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the sermon center

the sermon center

aka our dining room table – ideas tossed around, books consulted, drafts written and then rewritten; breakfast and lunch served upon request

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August 28, 2013 · 12:44 am

the Cutting Room Floor

They do it with music, with film, with books.  There is always something worked out, close to final form, and for whatever reason it is not part of the final creation.  We see it today when music box sets are released with extra track and outtakes.  Or when an ‘editor’s cut’ or ‘extended edition’ of a film is released.  Maybe one day they’ll do it with sermons as well – the ‘long version,’ or ‘the rabbi’s cut.’  There must be some catchier potential title.

Anyway, what follows is a snippet that almost made it into one of my HHD sermons this year.  Alas, it just didn’t work in the end, so it was left behind.  But I thought you might like to take a peak and read what might have been:

     I want to tell you a story about a little Jewish boy who grew up in a small town.  He lived in a mostly secular home, but his parents made sure he went to Hebrew school.  His parents took him every year to services – not only Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but also Sukkot and Simhat Torah, and sometimes even Shavuot in the spring.  He had a bar mitzvah, and felt proud to stand in front of the congregation and read form the Torah.

     He knew Judaism was important, but as he grew older, he was interested in so many other things and he was pulled in many different directions.  Rock and roll got his attention.  (he was about 12) So did girls. (he was about 14) He played varsity sports in high school, club sports throughout the year, and that took a lot of his time.  He didn’t go to Jewish dances, he didn’t date Jewish girls, he didn’t even have many Jewish friends.  But all the while he knew that come the High Holy Days he would be in shul with his parents.  Didn’t matter if he had to miss school, didn’t even matter if he had to miss a game.  In high school, he got to know his rabbi in confirmation class, and the rabbi had a passion for Jewish intellectual life that made an impression on the now teenager.  And from the time he was little, for as long as he could remember, he had a bubbe who told him again and again and again – sometimes by something she did, sometimes by something she said, and sometimes by something she didn’t say – how important Judaism should be in his life.

     He grew to adulthood.  On the surface he was an entirely secular young man, but inside – in his heart and in his mind and in his soul – he knew he was a Jew.  One Saturday morning, living now in a large city, he decided he would go to synagogue.  He was pulled in many different directions, by many different values, but he was also pulled by his Judaism.  He walked into the synagogue and sat at the back, in the last row, hoping no one would notice him.  He felt uncomfortable, out of place, awkward – but he also felt at home.  

     I suppose you know by now that that little boy, many years later, would become your rabbi.  And I’ve often wondered why I did feel at home that Shabbat morning, sitting in the back of that shul in Boston.  I didn’t know a soul.  I couldn’t read the Hebrew or follow the service or the Torah reading.  I was terrified that someone would come up and ask me to do something.  So why did I feel at home?  I don’t know for sure, but I can tell you one thing I do know – it had a lot to do with my parents and what they taught me.  And my rabbi, how he connected with me and respected me.  And my synagogue.  And my bubbie, and what she expected from me, and from herself.

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My Theology on One Foot (maybe one and a half feet!)

My thanks to my brother in law Bob for helping me order my thoughts about this post.

First off, maybe most importantly, I wonder.  I have doubts.  I question.  My sense of God waxes and wanes, sometimes feeling quite strong, at other times faint, like a dim echo.  

Here are some things I don’t believe:  the ‘Hebrew school’ God idea – a stern old man with a flowing white beard, sitting somewhere in the sky on a throne.  I also don’t believe in a God that rewards and punishes, a God that keeps a checklist, watching everything we do, putting some kind of cosmic smily face near our names when we do a good deed, and some kind of red demerit mark when we falter.  And yes I know that reward and punishment is classic Jewish theology, and in fact is a core tenet of the book of Deuteronomy, but I can’t accept it.  I’ve seen too many good hearted folk worn down unfairly by life, and too many sour hearted people get away with living selfishly and never giving back to the world around them.  There is a classic rabbinic answer to this problem, but I am not going there either (it all gets worked out in the world to come – just can’t put my eggs in that basket!).  Lastly,  I don’t believe that God prefers one faith tradition over another.  That is to say, God does not think Jews are better than Christians or Muslims are better than Jews or Hindus are better than Buddhists.  If anything, assuming that would limit God.  Do we imagine God is so small that only one faith tradition would please God?

Here are some things I do believe:  there is a vast and deep sense of mystery in the universe, a sense that I experience through thought, sound, sight, taste, relationships, study, prayer, music, the beauty and pain of life.  Through the miracles that we see every day – from the sublime (the birth of new life) to the simple (the wind gently blowing through the trees on a summer night).  Those moments call to my spirit, those experiences speak to me of something beyond me, something that can inspire us, can challenge us, can remind us that when we have failed we can do better, and that we have an incredible capacity inside of our beings for goodness, kindness, hope, love, creativity.

Judaism is one of the structures I use in my life to tap into that sense of mystery.  Judaism gives me opportunities to seek that source, to reach out in wonder and gratitude, it reminds me of the importance of humility (a crucial lesson for a rabbi), and it enables me to mark sacred time.  Perhaps most importantly, it reminds me that the world of the spirit, the inner world, is far more important than the world of material things.  

I want to be clear about this – other faith traditions can certainly do for other people what Judaism does for me, and do it just as well.  But Judaism is MY faith tradition, that has been lived by my ancestors for generations, that has been placed in front of me in my life.  A great treasure chest filled with wisdom and meaning.  How can I not open that chest and claim what is mine, living it in my life to the best of my ability?

And one last thing.  This treasure chest doesn’t come from God.  It comes from us (the human side of the coin).  It is our best attempt to come to terms with what God can mean in our lives, with what God might want from us.  It is a system we have created to make space for God’s presence – in our lives, and also in the world.  But it is a human system.  In a way that makes it even more miraculous that it works so often and so well.

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Two Rivers

Binghamton NY, the town I grew up in, sits at the juncture of two rivers – the Chenango and the Susquehannah.  There is something about the coming together of two rivers.  Each with their own history, each passing through different towns, running behind different homes, leaving their imprint on different lives.  And then joining together, forcefully blending all that they know, all that they have seen, everything they have touched.

I’ve been here in Binghamton for the last 26 hours or so, the longest time I’ve spent here in many years.  My wife and I are dropping our oldest off at college.  There are some new roadways, a few new intersections.  Many of the old places have closed their doors, while others remain.  But the truth is the town hasn’t changed much.  And so much of it speaks of my past.  This happened at that street corner, that soccer field where I played high school ball, there the home of an old and dear friend, a short cut I used a thousand times, the actual home I grew up in.  That is one river, the river of the past, of where we’ve come from, of how we are shaped by the experiences we had, even when young, perhaps especially when young.

Then there is the other river, connected, joining at times with the river of the past – and that is the river of time.  The most powerful river of all – its water churning, rushing along, moving and moving and moving, inexorable.  We are always in this river, but we feel it the most when we watch our children grow, reach new milestones, suddenly change from children to teenagers, from teens to young adults.  Then the river rushes along, its roaring in our ears, pulling us, pushing us, reminding us of where we are in our own lives, of the number of summers that we’ve seen, the hopes and dreams we have lived and sometimes lost.  

Time stops for no man, is the old saying.  And King Solomon wrote in the Book of Ecclesiastes long ago “for everything there is a season.”  Both are true.  Only sometimes we know it more than others.

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Walking and Thinking On A Country Road

There is something reflective, even meditative, about some of James Taylor’s greatest songs.  Country Road and Sweet Baby James spring to mind – the lone traveler, lost in his/her thoughts, on a journey, far from home, still a ways to go.

People often ask me where I get ideas for sermons.  They assume it all comes from the internet these days, but it isn’t true.  For me, a lot of it still comes from something I’ve read, whether in the paper, or a book.  Things I see, or things I experience can be flash points as well.  Just the other day I was driving down 83 under the most beautiful blue sky, going to see someone in the hospital who had been told they had two weeks to live.  There is a sermon in there, for sure.  One day I might even preach it.

I do a lot of my thinking about things when I am out walking or running.  That is when I can turn thinks over in my mind, try them out, understand a connection.  One of the great challenges of our age is finding a few minutes to actually think something through.  There is so much ‘thought clutter’ out there, to coin a term – constant information, the buzzing and dinging of incoming emails, texts, alerts, let alone carrying a phone with you all the time so people can call you anywhere, and on and on and on.  I am sometimes amazed that when I can find some quiet, uninterrupted thinking time, I still have a few ideas floating around in my head.  

That is in part why I have learned over the years that I cannot work in my office.  Not to say I don’t go to my office – I sit in it for hours each day, more hours than I probably should.  But it is very rare when I write anything in my office – whether sermon, eulogy, wedding charge, whatever it might be.  It just isn’t possible to get any thinking work done there.

So I am glad I have other places to create that quiet that I sometimes crave.  My home dining room, with my loyal pooch laying at my feet is one such place.  so is the track at the local high school.  Or just about any walk, on any day, in any weather, on that proverbial ‘country road.’  Thanks James.

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