Monthly Archives: December 2013

Our Messy World

sermon text from 12/14/13


          It is a bit of a strange thing to say, but I’ve always felt it would have been better if the book of Genesis had ended with last week’s Torah portion, instead of the one we read this morning.  At the end of last week’s portion everything seemed to be in such a nice, tight package.  Joseph and his brothers had reconciled, in a moving vignette of weeping and hugging.  Jacob comes to Egypt, and he is reunited with his beloved son Joseph for the first time in over 20 years.  When Jacob comes he brings all of the Israelites, and they settle in Goshen, quickly becoming prosperous.  Even Joseph’s personal journey seems to have reached a resolution – the arrogant Joseph who too pleasure in telling his brothers about his dreams of ruling over them has become humble and forgiving.  And the concluding verse of last week’s portion is the Torah’s equivalent of ‘and they lived happily ever after:’  “So Israel settled in the country of Egypt, in the region of Goshen;  they acquired holdings in it, and increased greatly.”  It is a perfect ending – everyone happy, everyone forgiven, everyone safe and sound, que the credits, let them ride off into the sunset.

     The only problem is that Genesis didn’t end last week – it ends this week.  And the picture that the Torah leaves us with is much less rosy, much messier, more more difficult and ambivalent, almost as if the Torah’s authors undid every good thing from last week, pulling the rug right out from under our feet.  In this week’s reading Jacob appears to be bitter and even a bit vindictive, purposefully choosing his younger grandson Efraim for the blessing that should have gone to the older grandson, Menashe.  Jacob should know better than anyone how problematic this is, and he does it anyway.  He then calls his sons to his death bed, and tells each of them in turn what they’ve done wrong in the course of their lives.  Then when Jacob dies, the Torah makes it quite clear that the reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers that seemed so genuine last week was actually not so much.  When Joseph goes to visit Jacob he goes by himself, not with his brothers.  And when they travel together to take Jacob to Israel for burial, the brothers need to use a messenger to communicate with Joseph.  He is clearly not approachable, keeping himself apart from his brothers, not what you would expect if everything was fine between them.  

     And then there is the communication between the brothers and Joseph on the way – the brothers lie to Joseph, telling him that their father Jacob told them to remind Joseph not to harm them, something Jacob never did.  And Joseph’s response also is interesting.  On the surface it sounds wonderful – here is what he says to them:  “Have no fear!  Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result, the survival of many people.   Do not be afraid – I will sustain you and your children.” 

     Sounds nice!  But read between the lines a little bit.  What does he say to them? – ‘you intended me harm,’ reminding them just when they are most afraid of him that he has NOT forgotten what they’ve done.  And also, what he does not say in his response?  I forgive you!  So if you are one of the brothers, you are left thinking A) Joseph has not forgotten what we’ve done, and B) he has not forgiven us for it either.  It is also interesting that in this scene the brothers are bowing down to Joseph, again a fulfillment of his dreams from the beginning of the story, coming from his arrogant sense that he should be the one in charge.  So the pretty picture we had at the end of last week’s portion of Jacob, Joseph, the brothers, and the relationship between them, by the end of this week’s portion, is gone.

     So why didn’t the Torah just leave us where we were last week, feeling good about everything, and just move on to the book of Exodus?  And I think the answer is this:  we all know that we don’t live in the world reflected in last week’s Torah portion where everyone gets along, everything is great, and everyone is happy.  That is just not real life!  But we do live in the world where this week’s Torah portion takes place.  A world where families wrestle with tension, where jealously and anger motivate people as often as goodness and kindness, where people have regrets about things they’ve done in their lives, where illness exists, and where forgiveness is hard to find, and even harder to grant.  That is real life – messy, and difficult, and challenging.  This week’s portion might not feel as good as last week’s, but it certainly feels more familiar.

     And that in my mind is one of the great things about the Torah – it is not afraid to show us that life is hard.  It is not afraid to show us that human beings – even great human beings – are flawed.  But at the same time it suggests to us that in a difficult world, dealing with people’s imperfections, including our own, we can make a meaningful life, we can be partners with God in making the world a better place, and we can become members in a sacred community.  

     I love the moment in shul when we read the last verses of a book of the Torah, the moment we just enacted a few minutes ago.  What happens?  We stand together, the entire congregation.  The reader chants the last verse of the book, and we respond with the phrase חזק חזק ונתחזק – be strong, be strong, and together we will be strengthened.  The meaning of the phrase is probably this:  hazak!  you, the reader of the last verses, be strong!  Well done!  And then the second hazak – you, the person who had the honor of saying the blessings over those last verses, you should be strong – well done!  And then v’nithazeik – we are strengthened together, because we, as a congregation, enabled this moment to happen – without the minyan, the Torah would not have come out of the ark and we would have missed the chance.

     But in thinking about the world we live in every day, the world of this week’s Torah portion, we might understand the phrase differently.  Hazak!  There are times when you just have to be strong to face life’s challenges.  Then the second hazak – there are times  when you have to be strong for others, to be there for them and help them during a difficult time in their lives.  And then, v’nithazeik – together we will truly be strengthened – supporting one another, caring for one another, as individuals, and as a sacred community. 

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Me and My Smartphone

If you spend any time sitting in meetings you’ve seen the following:  ‘x’ number of people sitting around a large table;  about half of them at any given time looking down into their laps, where they hold a smartphone in their hands;  they scan email, sometimes respond to it, send a text or two, probably check their FaceBook page.  They’ll return their attention to the meeting for a bit, and after a few minutes go by, they are back to their phones.  It is compulsive, as if they can’t NOT look at their phones.  I actually once saw a man at a meeting who had his smartphone in the inside pocket of his blazer.  His hand reached for it, then he willfully put his hand back on the table.  A minute or so later his hand was again making its way toward the pocket, but again he put brought it back to the table.  Finally, after another minute, the hand went into the pocket, pulled out the phone, and his eyes were locked on the screen.  Third time is the charm.

This is more than habitual, it is addictive, it is emotional.  We are so wired into technology that we don’t even know it.  It is incredible to think that the very first iPhone came onto the market just under 6 years ago!  From the technology not even existing to our hands literally twitching when not holding our phones, all in such a short period of time.  We all know we are not going back.  But none of us know where we are going.

In a new film called ‘Her’ the director Spike Jonze show us one possible destination.  The movie is about a lonely man who is the early adaptor of a new computer/smartphone operating system.  It is eerily responsive to his needs, seemingly understanding what he wants before he does himself.  The film is being billed as an offbeat love story – man finally meets his basheirt, she just happens to be his phone!

Sound preposterous?  Maybe not so much.  Have you ever been in someone’s car listening to them talk to the GPS?  “Why did you take me this way?!  Didn’t you know there was traffic?”  I was a little spooked myself when I started using the new IOS on my iPhone.  One morning I woke it up to check the weather before walking the dog.  There was a message on the home screen:  ‘The temperature is 38 degrees.  It will take you about 16 minutes to drive to work right now.’  The problem is I never told it where I work!

The point of the new Spike Jonze film isn’t that we are becoming more and more connected to our computers and phones.  The point is that as we become more and more connected to our phones, we become less and less connected to each other.  Why bother to face the challenges of a relationship with a real person, which can be messy, even painful sometimes?  After all if your phone knows you better than any person can, if your phone is attentive only to your needs and has no needs of its own, why would you want people anyway?

Imagine a Betty Ford clinic for phone addicts.  The well to do travel from distant points to recover some sense of autonomy, to figure out a way to just say no and put the phone down.  Sound preposterous?  There was a reason that Blackberry (z”l) phones were called ‘crackberries.’

Of course Judaism has a built in answer – Shabbat.  Take a day out of your week and leave the phone at home.  Preferably in a drawer, out of sight if not out of mind.  It is a zen idea – by disconnecting, you connect to things that are more important.  Family and friends.  Soul and spirit.  Deeper wisdom and a greater God.  Easy to do?  No way, at least not anymore.  We are in too deep.  Hands will be twitching.  But in the end I think it will prove a relief.  Lifting our eyes from our phones more often, we’ll not only see each other better, but the world around us as well.

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The wonders of nature speak to us of God’s presence – this from the 148th Psalm:

Praise God from the Heavens. Sun and moon, shining stars, praise God, at Whose command they were created, at Whose command they endure forever – fire, hail, SNOW, storms, mountains and hills, fruit trees and cedars…

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December 11, 2013 · 12:46 pm

Conservative Rabbis and Intermarriage – Redux

My post on this topic from last week generated a broad response and many hits.  Following are a few reflections:

1.  This issue is of intense interest to people.  There were over 500 hits on the post in the first day, at this point pushing a total of 700 hits.  People in the liberal Jewish community are concerned about intermarriage, it is on their minds, and they are wondering how to address it.  My sense is people look at it as not a question of will this happen in my family, but when will it happen, and they want to be prepared.  They understand this is a new world and the old responses, like sitting shiva for a child who was intermarrying, are no longer even on the table (nor should they be).  But people aren’t quite sure what the ‘new’ response should be.  They sense it should be about inclusion, acceptance, welcoming, but at the same time they want their children to remain Jewish and they want Jewish grandchildren!  And that leads to point number two.

2.  The responses the post generated were clearly split into two groups.  On the one hand, ‘professional’ Jews, who work in the community and who have an ideal picture of what Jewish life should be like.  Most of these folks are still invested in toeing the old party line – that we must figure out a way to stem the tide of intermarriage (remember that the Pew Study indicates the rate in the liberal Jewish community is now hovering at %70!) – quite a tide to stem!  This group still seems to believe that if we can only create the right program, figure out the correct response, get enough Jewish kids to go to Jewish camp and day school, the problem will take care of itself.  The second set of responses came from ‘ba’al habatim’ – the Jews in the pews.  They may or may not have read the Pew Study, but anecdotally they know the scene – 7 out of 10 young Jews in the liberal Jewish community are intermarrying.  It is purely a numbers game, and with those numbers, they know their friend’s children, their own children, have a significant chance of marrying someone who is not Jewish.  They are willing to accept that, in fact in many cases I think families are resigned to it – it is the new normal.  But, as  I wrote above, they still want their children to remain Jewish, and they want Jewish grandchildren.  And they believe that their clergy, their rabbis and cantors, should play a role in helping that to happen.  They see this as a moment of religious crises, precisely the kind of moment when you want your clergy present, but they feel their clergy is absent.  And they are not satisfied when we say ‘have the kids talk to us before the wedding, then have them join the shul and send their kids to our Hebrew school after the wedding.’  That is like saying we’ll send you the syllabus, and we want you to hand in the paper at the end, but you can’t take the class.

3.  Last thought for now.  One response suggested that it would be better for Conservative Judaism to disappear than for Conservative rabbis to officiate at interfaith weddings.  Really?  With the numbers trending the way they are, we might actually get to find out whether that statement is true.  Think of it like this:  it may be that THE key to survival and success in the liberal Jewish commmunity will be figuring out how to attract interfaith families, and then how to help them create a Jewish home that is both comfortable and meaningful.  The question in the Conservative Movement is are we ready to tackle that challenge? 


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Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world…

A vignette.  Visited a member of the congregation this afternoon at an independent living home.  She is well into her 90s, mentally sharp but physically having a tough time.  We spent some time, chatted, caught up, even laughed a bit.  Just as I was leaving the door across from her unit opened and an elderly gentleman came out.  We talked as we walked down the hall.  It turned out he is exactly the same age as my member, and what is more when they were little they lived across the street from each other.

‘You just never know,’ he said.  ’90 years ago we lived across the street, played together as little children, grew up together.  Then we lost touch.  She had her life and I had mine.  In the end we both needed a place like this, and one day after she moved in I went over to introduce myself, having no idea who she was.  Suddenly we realized that 90 years later we were right back where we started, living across the hall from each other.  Who would’ve thought it?’

Life is a long journey, certainly if you live into your mid-90s.  A journey both physical and psychological, of the intellect and the spirit.  But how often does it happen that at the end of the road we are right back where we started?  Probably more often than we think.

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Conservative Rabbis and Intermarriage

The Jewish Daily Forward reported this week that the Conservative Movement has begun a discussion about the participation of interfaith families in synagogue life, and more provocatively, about the possibility of Conservative rabbis officiating at interfaith weddings.  The first half of the discussion is a no-brainer, and the truth is many Conservative shuls have already resolved questions of how non-Jews can participate in services.  For example, the Forward article reported that the CJLS (Committee of Jewish Laws and Standards) voted to allow non Jews to open the ark during services two months ago.  Really?  Who knew?  At my shul we’ve been doing that for close to twenty years now.  

But the big issue, the elephant in the room, is the question of whether or not Conservative rabbis will be able to officiate at interfaith weddings someday.  A year ago I would have said the Movement will not make a change about this issue in the foreseeable future.  Now, with the Pew Study results hanging over our heads, I wonder if we might see a change within the next five years.  I imagine if it happens it would reflect the position that the Reform Movement reached some time ago – the rabbi is permitted, at his or her own discretion, to officiate at interfaith weddings, provided the couple plans to raise a Jewish family and create a Jewish home.  In the end, if Conservative Judaism goes in this direction, the Movement as a national body would create the permission, and then individual rabbis would decide whether or not they would be comfortable officiating.

The old argument against sanctioning interfaith weddings has been that you make it too easy for people.  If the rabbi will NOT officiate, the Jew is less likely to intermarry in the first place, and in the event that he/she does, the non-Jew will be more likely to convert.  A stand against intermarriage was understood as being a stand FOR Jewish identity.  The problem is it hasn’t worked!  As we’ve held that position over the years, the Movement has just gotten smaller and smaller, in part because intermarried couples, turned down by the Conservative rabbi the Jewish partner grew up with, take their ‘business’ down the street to the Reform shul where the rabbi agreed to be at their wedding.  

Rabbi Chuck Simon, director of the Movement’s national Men’s Club organization, and long a proponent of what we might call ‘radical outreach,’ had the courage to publicly say that Conservative rabbis need to reconsider, and perhaps begin officiating at interfaith weddings.  This is something that individual rabbis within the Movement cannot do without a national stamp of approval, preferably from both the United Synagogue and the Rabbinical Assembly.  If and when that happens, it will be up to rabbis in real communities, on the ground, to make their own decisions.

Although I haven’t fully settled the issue in my own mind, I am leaning towards officiating at such weddings.  At the end of the day I often weigh such questions by thinking about what possible bad can come out of doing something, and what good can come out of it.  More and more, given our current situation and demographics, I have a hard time finding much downside.  And the upside?  Well, when a young couple comes to my office, in love, excited about the relationship they have been blessed with, hoping to raise a Jewish family, I can heartily wish them a mazaltov/congratulations.  Then, instead of saying ‘call the Reform rabbi down the street,’ I could say when were you thinking of having the wedding?  What a nice way to begin a conversation!


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From Sea to Shining Sea

These lyrics, from America the Beautiful, have long captured the essence of America’s great expanse.  From one coast to the other, the long plains, the rolling hills, the great mountains and rivers, all of it framed by the glimmering waters of the vast oceans with their ceaselessly rolling waves.  If you’ve ever driven across the country you know the power of these words, how expertly and perfectly they manage to express not only a great stretch of land, but also the human feeling that comes with it.  The smallness, somehow mysteriously coupled with the sense that this is ours and we are part of some grand narrative. 

In a rabbi’s mind the words can also be understood as a metaphor.  From sea to shining sea, from birth to death, we travel the long road of our lives, with twists and turns, bumps in the path, days of beautiful sunshine and gentle breezes and others filled with dark clouds and cold winds.  There is a physical journey to life, but also a spiritual one.  We strive to grow in soul, to learn and laugh, to live with conviction and meaning.  We travel from one sea to the other accompanied by friends and family, some joining our path only for a short time, while others are with us for all of our years.  

I saw the journey yesterday, in a single hour, all of it, from one sea to the other.  One of the sacred privileges of being a rabbi.  A beautiful baby boy had his bris, his parents so deeply grateful for his presence in their lives.  That at noon.  I rushed from there to a graveside funeral of a family’s beloved matriarch, just a few months short of her 100th birthday.  Her grandchildren spoke beautifully about the impact she made in a century of life, about her grace and spirit.  Just by chance the little boy, not yet a month old, and the old woman, at the end of her full and remarkable life, had the same last name.  

At the bris I thought to myself, unspoken, let this boy have the blessings of the woman I’ll soon bury.  Long life, family and friends, health, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren.  At the funeral I thought how blessed this woman has been in her life, and what a grand journey awaits that little boy.  May it be long and filled with meaning.

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