Monthly Archives: February 2014

Bob Weir vs the Knickerbockers – and the Winner Is?

Two of my most cherished passions have been moving in opposite directions over the last half year, one rising nicely to a new place of vigor and vitality, the other sinking to a familiar place of dysfunction and despair.  Let me first deal with the downward decline of the New York Knickerbockers, the basketball team I have (mostly) vainly rooted for as long as I can remember.

Last season was a promising one for the Knicks.  Their 3’rd straight playoff appearance, 54 wins, and their first playoff series win since the Ewing era (more than a decade).  Knicks fans felt a sense of tentative optimism as the new season began.  After all, weren’t we really just one Carmelo Anthony dunk away from the conference finals last year?  But instead of rewarding the faithful, the Knicks quickly reminded us that the more than decade long trend of losing, bizarre roster signings, and inexplicable management decisions was the rule, and last year’s winning was the exception.  The Knicks will struggle to win 35 games this year, almost 20 fewer than last season.  They will miss the playoffs.  At least as a Knicks fan I am in a familiar place.

At the same time, I am grateful (pun intended) to be able to say that as the Knicks have declined, Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead, Furthur, and currently Ratdog, has somehow rejuvenated and reinvigorated himself.  It was less than a year ago when Weir collapsed at the Capitol Theater during a Furthur performance, but those there that evening (I was one) know that he was not ‘right’ from the get go.  The late start of the show was an ominous sign.  A disheveled looking Weir stumbling through the opening Feel Like A Stranger made us all wonder what was going on.  When he couldn’t remember even one word of Me and My Uncle, a song he has probably sung thousands of times, we looked away and hoped things would improve.  When he came out for the second set barely able to stand, we wondered why anyone let him come out at all.  And when he finally fell, it was sad and heart wrenching, but it also all seemed inevitable.  

The truth is, you could see it coming.  Looking back, there was the show in New York two summers ago where Weir again struggled, and could barely remember a word to many of the songs that evening.  There was the last night at the Beacon in the spring run of 2012, when Weir came on stage, pale as a ghost, not steady on his feet, staggering once or twice.  Somehow he made it through that show, and even remembered most of the song lyrics.  In the end the show was a hot one, but Bobby looked a shadow of his former self, literally.  Drugs? Booze? Pills?  All of the above?  We will never know.  But it was beginning to look like Bob Weir’s days of being the ‘itinerant minstrel’ were coming to a close.

So I confess I was worried when it was announced that he was reconstituting his solo band, Ratdog.  I honestly wondered if he could carry a show by himself, if he could sing every song, direct the band, keep the focus that is needed to run the show.  After seeing two Ratdog shows last week (the Lincoln Theater in DC), and after hearing from friends who have seen the band in the New York area, I am pleased to report that Bobby Weir looks great, and what is more is singing and playing better than he has in a long time.  The shows have been long (3 hours plus), well played, and filled with great energy, much of it emanating from Mr. Weir himself.  Folks will tell you they haven’t seen Bobby looking this spry in quite some time.  I would agree, and it is indeed a sight for sore eyes.  If you haven’t been in a while, get out and catch a show.

However he got onto his current road, I hope he can continue to walk on it for a long time.  It has been a cold winter here in the mid-Atlantic, but seeing those hot shows last week reminded me of how great music – and great musicians at the top of their game – can bring light and warmth into the darkest and coldest days.  Spring is coming, and with it comes hope.  For everything, that is, except the New York Knicks. 

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The Beauty of Snowbirds

I am in the West Palm Beach airport waiting for my flight back to Baltimore.  I came to Florida early this morning, catching a 6:20 flight and arriving (after a layover in Atlanta) in the Sunshine State at 10:45.  A bit of a whirlwind day.  Picked up at the airport, driven to the club where we hold our annual ‘snowbird’ luncheon.  Had lunch, gave a talk on Ari Shavit’s new book My Promised Land (more on that in a future post) and by 4 I am back in the airport, waiting to get home.  

It makes for a long day, but it is worth it.  I am always amazed at the warm welcome we get from our Beth El ‘south’ family, whether they live full time in Florida or just come down for the winter months.  Some of the people who come to the luncheon haven’t lived in Baltimore for many years.  In some cases they haven’t even been in Beth El in a decade or more.  But they love the shul. They have such warm memories of watching it grow over the years, of simhas they were blessed to celebrate there, or sadnesses that they navigated with the congregation’s help and support.  Their feeling for the shul runs strong, and it has not been diminished by either time or distance.

I learn something every year.  About the history of the congregation.  Or the personality of a long time member.  About how fondly people think about the clergy, the memories they have over the years of what the shul has meant to them, how proud they are of what it has become.  I always leave feeling tired (after all 4:45 IS an early wake up!) but also refreshed and rejuvenated in someway.  

I guess on the one hand it is a reminder of what a congregation can mean to an individual, or a family.  Sometimes you can lose track of that in the scramble to do what you have to do that day, that hour, sometimes even that minute.  But when you step out of the trees and look at the whole forest you can see that the work of the shul actually makes a difference in people’s lives.  Who they are as people, and as Jews, is different because of their connection to the synagogue.  

It is also a reminder that at the end of the day it is their place.  Rabbis and cantors will come and go.  Staff will work for a few years or a few decades, but the congregation is truly made up of its members.  Their lives form the fabric of the congregation’s history, make the place what it is, give it its energy and vibe, its warmth and its feeling.  

That is a good lesson for a rabbi to remember.  And if you have to come to beautiful Florida, where it is 80 degrees and sunny to learn it, well – as they say, it is tough work, but someone has to do it. 

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Deja Vu All Over Again

This famous line from Yogi Berra captures a central concept in Judaism that in Hebrew is called חזרה, or repetition.  It is the idea of going over something again and again until you know it almost, if not entirely by heart.  This was a traditional form of Talmud study, and it is the way the ba’al korei, the Torah reader, learns what he or she will be reading from the Torah.  It is found in the yearly Torah reading cycle, year in and year out reading the same words and stories.  It is even tied in to the daily prayer services and their repetitive nature, with essentially the same prayers said three times a day to the point of memorization.

I was familiar with this idea long before I became an engaged and observant Jew.  For many years, from the time I was in 5th grade all the way through high school, I would read J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy annually  (these days only every other year or so – I have a long reading list!).  And if you grew up in the 60s and 70s you probably have fond memories of spending hours upon hours with friends, a turntable, and the newest record from your favorite band, playing it over and over and over, until the grooves of the record literally began to wear out.

I’ve always believed that that type of intense repetition gives one a level of familiarity, even intimacy, with material that just can’t be achieved in any other way.  When I was in rabbinical school I studied with a professor who literally had the entire text of the Mishnah (all 6 orders) memorized.  Occasionally he would play a strange game of talmudic machismo with us, challenging us to read the first few words of a mishnah – any mishnah – out loud.  He would then complete the text from memory, as well as tell us what tractate, what chapter, and what number mishnah in the chapter we had asked about.  I never saw him get one wrong, and we asked him about mishnayot that were in the middle of long chapters.  Once, during a courageous moment, I asked him how he managed this seemingly herculean feat.  He simply said “I go through the entire mishnah every week.”  Then I asked him why.  His response was fascinating – “I feel this is the only way to know the text the way the rabbis knew it (meaning the Talmudic rabbis).  I suspect he was probably right.

The old story is that a young Talmud prodigy is being interviewed by a Rosh Yeshiva for acceptance into the school.  The boy proudly tells the older scholar that he has been through the entire Talmud, despite the fact that he is not yet bar mitzvah.  The teacher replies:  “I am not interested whether you’ve been through the Talmud – I am interested in whether the Talmud has been through you.”  One way things truly ‘get into’ us – into our bones, into our kishkes – is by going back to them time and again.  And it is a great blessing that we have so many things worth revisiting.  Each trip back brings us a renewed sense of wisdom, meaning, and faith.

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The Courage to Quit

a text version of this past Shabbat’s sermon – 

     It is with some trepidation that I begin my remarks this morning by talking about a NY Yankees player, namely Derek Jeter, the shortstop who announced this week that he will be playing his last season this year.  Orioles fans may breath a sigh of relief at the news actually, because Jeter has tormented the Orioles over the years, among many other teams in the league, and I think that there is no question that as soon as he is eligible he will be elected to the baseball hall of fame.  

     And I bring this up this morning not because I am a Yankees fan, which I am not, but rather because of the straight forward and yet at the same time poignant statement that Jeter released this week in which he announced his impending retirement.  The statement is elegant and beautifully done, very humble, and worth reading if you are interested in such things, but it was this particular paragraph that caught my attention:

 

“Last year was a tough one for me. As I suffered through a bunch of injuries, I realized that some of the things that always came easily to me and were always fun had started to become a struggle. The one thing I always said to myself was that when baseball started to feel more like a job, it would be time to move forward.”

 

     The realization is one thing.  Understanding that you are just not at the top of your game anymore, that you can’t do it the way you used to be able to do it, and maybe it is time to hang up the spikes. I think people have those realizations all the time.  But acting on the realization is a totally different matter, and commonly instead of letting go, people try to hang on.  Jeter not only realized it was time to go – he actually followed up on it, he acted on it.  He had what my friend Chuck Schevitz calls ‘the courage to quit.’

     On the surface that might sound like a term that is oxymoronic.  Because normally we associate quitting with the opposite of courage.  Courage is about sticking it out, courage is about hanging tough in the face of adversity.  Courage is the can do spirit, the Miracle on Ice, facing up to something when the odds are stacked against us.  It is a value that is woven into our society – the one thing we would never want to be called is a quitter.  I remember my high school soccer coach saying to us ‘it is much worse to be a quitter than a loser.’  

     But the truth is, sometimes it takes more courage to admit defeat, to step away – to quit – than it does to keep plowing forward.  Not that tenacity isn’t an important value – it is!  Where would Jews be without tenacity?  But it shouldn’t be the only value.  And I think you could make the argument that knowing when to quit is as crucial a life skill as tenacity is, or determination, or ‘sticktuitiveness.’  And not just in terms of sports, but in many areas of life.  Knowing when to step away from a job, or knowing when to get out of a relationship, or make a change in a college major, or deciding as you get older that it is time to move from weekly basketball games to weekly golf games.  You’ve got to know when to quit, and then you’ve got to have the courage to do it.

     This week we are reading from the Torah Parshat Ki Tissa, the portion that records the events of the Sin of the Golden Calf.  It is a story that we all know quite well – Moses is on top of the mountain for 40 days and nights, as God is communicating to him the laws of the Torah.  Because Moses is gone for such a long time the people begin to get nervous – they haven’t heard from him, or seen him, they don’t know what has happened to him.  They go to Aaron, Aaron facilitates the building of an idol, the people worship the idol, the Golden Calf.  On top of the mountain God realizes what is going on, tells Moses, and Moses rushes down the mountain holding the tablets of the law in his hands.  He reaches the camp, sees the people dancing around the idol, and then וישלח מידיו את הלוחות וישבר אתם תחת ההר – Moses threw the tablets from his hands, and he shattered them at the foot of the mountain.

     Commentators have struggled for thousands of years to understand how Moses could have done what he did.  Rashi, the classic biblical commentator says that Moses saw the people sinning, and he said to himself how can I give the Torah, something that is holy, to people who are sinners, who are ‘unholy’.  But the simplest explanation is in the text itself – Moses was angry, so upset that he was in a rage, not thinking of what he was doing, like a person who is angry and slams their hand against the wall.  He simply lost his head, and in his anger he broke the tablets.  

     But this morning I would like to propose a different explanation for Moses’ action.  I think at that moment he was faced with a choice.  The mission he had been on, which was to bring the people to God, had obviously failed.  And he knew it!  That moment, when he came down, and saw the people dancing around the golden calf, he knew it wasn’t working out the way it was supposed to work out.  So his choice was this:  either try to stick with the plan, which was symbolized by the tablets, or get rid of the tablets, go back to square one, go down and take care of the people, get things in order, and then maybe try it again.  In a way you might look at it like this – Moses had to choose between God, and the people.  God – God’s perfection, God’s wisdom, God’s Torah, God’s tablets – or the people, sinful, stubborn, imperfect and unwise.  When he threw down the tablets, Moses chose the people.  God would have to wait.  

     And I would argue in that choice Moses showed that he had the courage to quit.  It was time to give up on the plan as it had been conceived.  It wasn’t working – Moses knew it, and I think God knew it too.  But it was Moses who understood that he had to act on that knowledge.  You remember the old Kenny Rogers song about the Gambler – ‘you’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.’  Moses knew it was time to walk away, and then he actually did it.

     We should be able to find the same wisdom in our own lives.  With the help and support of family and friends, with our own courage and strength, to recognize when the moments arrive in our own lives, and the time comes to let one door close, so that we can open another one.  I’ll conclude with these lines, from a poem by Edgar Albert Guest called ‘On Quitting:’

 

How much grit do you think you’ve got?

Can you turn from joys that you like a lot?

Have you ever tested yourself to know

How far with yourself your will can go?

If you want to know if you have grit,

Just pick out a joy that you like, and quit.

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Shnowbat

They say that people are always comfortable talking about weather because it is the one thing we all have in common.  But Baltimoreans LOVE to talk about weather, especially snow.  Having grown up in upstate New York, this has always been a bit mystifying to me – after all, what is the big deal about snow?  But folks in Baltimore obsess over it – speculating about accumulations for days before a storm, stocking up on the staples like milk and toilet paper, watching the weather channel 24/7, and just generally hunkering down as if the world may very well end at any moment.  And that is for 3 inches.  Today we have 13 on the ground where I live, and now some freezing rain just to top it off and make sure it is heavy!

But although on the surface Baltimoreans worry, complain, kvetch, and purportedly dread any snow related event, I suspect that in a candid moment most people would say they actually like a good snow storm now and again.  And one reason for that is what I call ‘shnowbat.’  Shnowbat is the forced cessation of most things work related that happens during a Baltimore snowstorm.  Shnowbat is being at home with your family, with little to do, no where to go, and time to nap, eat together, read, talk, and just generally step off the constantly revolving wheel of the business of our lives.  After a major snowstorm people inevitably tell me how much they enjoyed the time off, how much they loved being with their family, and how peaceful and soul-nurturing the day felt to them.

Of course in the back of my mind I am thinking about how that experience is available to them every week!  From sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, the sense of peace, the ‘headspace,’ the family time, the time just to think, read, and relax, is built into the experience of Shabbat.  שבת וינפש the Torah exclaims!  ‘Do’ Shabbat and restore your soul!  And you know what?  It works just as well without the snow.  Stay safe, warm, and dry.  Today I wish you shnowbat shalom – and for tomorrow night, Gut Shabbes!

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Whither Moses?

There is an exquisite detail, oft overlooked, in this past week’s Torah portion:  Moses is missing.  The portion itself doesn’t really need Moses.  It is for the most part a detailed description of the priestly garments that were to be worn when the priests officiated at the sacrificial services in ancient times.  We know already that Moses will not serve the people in this way.  Instead, Aaron and his sons will minister over the formal rituals and rites of the Temple cult.  So why even bother to note that Moses does not appear in the portion, his name not even mentioned a single time?

The old adage is ‘silence speaks volumes,’ and so it is here.  For this is the only Torah portion, from the point Moses is first mentioned at the beginning of Exodus, where his name does not appear.  The only one.  That is to say in every Torah portion in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy you will find Moses’ name.  But not here, in Parshat T’tzaveh.

Perhaps those who view the world through a secular lens will write this off as mere coincidence, just simple chance in terms of how the portions were divided so long ago.  But the classical biblical commentators refuse to see the text that way.  If every verse, even every letter can have meaning, certainly there must be significance to this starkly visible disappearance.  Whither Moses?  And perhaps more importantly, why did he go?

One traditional explanation is that Moses is trying to make things easier for Aaron, his brother.  The portion focuses on those priestly garments, and were Moses a presence it would be distracting, taking the people’s attention (or perhaps the reader’s) from the High Priest and his high station.  Moses’ prophecy is a delicate thing, a genie in a bottle, difficult to control and predict and understand.  The priests, meanwhile, are entirely predictable.  Their ancient rites never vary, from day to day, month to month, year to year.  Moses knows that ultimately the people will need the security of repetitive ritual and not the sturm and drang of prophecy.  So he politely steps aside, out of the spotlight, thereby enabling a less dramatic but far more reliable and accessible religious system for the people.

I wonder.  There is the hint of a bitter-sweet wind in the air.  For all of his sacrifices, for all of his work, and despite his total loyalty to God and God’s mission, Moses will be cast aside.  Perhaps in the patterns of the priestly garments, in their weavings and colors and carvings, he sees that soon his time too will come.  And so to protect himself he begins to step away.  

The lyrics to one of my favorite Jackson Browne songs, My Opening Farewell, come to mind:

Suddenly it’s so hard to find
The sound of the words to speak her troubled mind
So I’m offering these to her as if to be kind:
There’s a train everyday leaving either way
There’s a world, you know
There’s a way to go
And you’ll soon be gone — that’s just as well
This is my opening farewell

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Woody Allen and the New York Times

I  thought it a bit odd, to say the least,  that the New York Times chose to publish an op ed piece yesterday written by Woody Allen in which he defends himself against new accusations of child abuse that have surfaced over the last weeks.  The article is part self-defense, and part attack against Mia Farrow, his one time partner.  As I read through the piece I felt like I was privy to Mr. Allen’s private conversations with his lawyers about the various legal issues confronting him, and also perhaps to the conversations he has with his therapist (I imagine Woody Allen has a therapist – how could he not?!) regarding his disdain for Ms. Farrow.  

If he wanted to defend himself so publicly, I suppose he could afford to actually purchase a full page advertisement in the Times, and then use the space for the article.  But why would the Times chose to include it on their op ed pages?  It is not an opinion about any public issue.  It is instead one person’s view of a series of events, one person’s explanation as to why he is not guilty of something he has been accused of, and also his understanding of why he was accused in the first place (that Ms. Farrow has it out for him).  

What Mr. Allen wrote may be entirely true, or may be completely false, or the truth may lie somewhere in the middle.  But why should the Times, one of the world’s great papers and news organizations, get involved with this personal legal dispute?  Are they going to ask Mia Farrow for a rebuttal piece that they’ll publish next Sunday?  For that matter, if I get a traffic ticket next week, can I publish an op ed in the Times explaining that I was in a rush, that it was an emergency, that I actually wasn’t there, or whatever else my version of the story might be?

I imagine that the Times will take some heat on this one.  My guess is they will receive more than a few letters over the next couple of days, and they’ll publish one or two.  I will also be curious to see if they ever go on record with an explanation of the decision to publish the piece in the first place.  Judaism in general frowns upon this type of thing, and this would probably fall into the broad category of ‘lashon hara,’ normally translated as ‘gossip’ but actually encompassing a series of sins that have to do with making private information public.  That is a long standing focus in the publishing industry, but I expect it in People Magazine or the National Enquirer, not the New York Times.  

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