Monthly Archives: April 2014

Lego’s Place in Hebrew School

This past Sunday my congregation ran a fabulous program for our younger Hebrew school students.  Together with their parents and grandparents they gathered in our auditorium and spent the better part of 3 hours building a scale model of Jerusalem from Lego.  Yes, you read that correctly – the little multi-colored plastic building blocks that children love to play with.  Families worked in teams, building individual buildings, or the walls and gates of the Old City.  The project was oriented by a large map of the city as it looked in ancient times, with some modern touches added.  It was magical to watch Jerusalem come together before our very eyes as each building found its place on the map.  When the city was together the project leader gave a ‘tour’ of Jerusalem, with literally hundreds of parents, grandparents, and children surrounding the now three dimensional map.

The energy in the room was palpable.  Compliments were flying left and right.  What a terrific event!  What a fantastic program!  This is what a shul is all about!  And I have no doubt the students emerged from the experience with a deeper knowledge of and connection to Jerusalem.  This is not your father’s Hebrew school!  But it certainly does reflect a growing trend in after school Jewish education.  There is an increased focus on ‘experiential’ learning, and a deceased emphasis on traditional classroom learning.  Doing is in – building, cooking, hiking, rope climbing, canoeing, arts and crafts.  Sitting in a class room?  Not so much.

On the one hand, I get it.  We are in a competitive market place.  Mostly our competition is fun.  Soccer and lacrosse.  Dance.  Music lessons.  So we feel a need to keep up, and to put out a ‘product’ that fits in well with people’s expectations.  On the other hand, I confess I am a bit worried.  I still want the students in my congregation’s Hebrew School to know how to read Hebrew (at least fairly well), to be able to participate in a service, to know the fundamental stories from the Hebrew Bible, and to understand how the Jewish calendar works.  Experiential learning can help students with some of that, and maybe even all of it.  But at a certain point the old classroom model has to come in to play.  How will kids learn the language?  Acquire the davening skills?  Know the history of the Jewish people?

One of the great challenges for the Jewish community today is finding the right balance in the equation.  Make it fun, experiential, doing oriented, but don’t leave out the hard work of learning a language, of the study of sacred texts – as texts!  Or the  – dare I say it? – memorization of certain key prayers!    We need to give our young people more than just good feelings about Judaism and memories of fun activities with their friends.  We need to give them knowledge that they can use to live meaningful, engaged, and connected Jewish lives.  Some of that will come from the experiences we craft for them.  But some of it will come the old fashioned way.  After all, they call us the People of the Book, not the People of the iPad.

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The Door

Not uncommonly I am called to a room where a person lies dying.  Often they are surrounded by family, and friends may be present as well.  Sometimes a quietness pervades the atmosphere, people speaking in whispers, the rasping breath of a person’s last hours the subtext of all that is going on.  Other times there is laughter, conversation, even song and occasionally prayer.  By and large people are not quite sure what to do, or how to do it.  But they know they have to be there, engaged in this strange waiting for something they both want and do not want to happen.

I believe the dying person knows they are surrounded by people they have shared life with.  Whether they are conscious or not, aware or not, lucid or not, I believe they have, somewhere deep inside, a sense of presence.  I do not know or care whether scientific or medical research supports this.  It is what I believe to be true, and it brings meaning to these moments.  Otherwise, why be there at all?  I suppose that question can be answered by saying, ‘it is for us.’  We are there to know that we were there, that we’ve fulfilled our duty,  that we’ve been loyal and good sons, daughters, spouses, siblings, parents.  

But also we are there for them.  They are not alone, even in their last moments.  They are loved, touched, felt for, cared for.  Those moments are hard, enormously so.  They can be painful, bitter, heart-wrenching, but at the same time filled with great relief.  They are also sacred, as sacred as any moments we share with others on this earth.  Somehow God is there in the last, gentle, exhale.

In my own mind I use the following image to understand those moments, to access them.  There is a door.  Closed, imposing, heavy.  And the dying person has a task, a goal – to somehow get through that door to the other side.  We also have a task.  To help them there, to bring them, when their own strength has failed or is failing, to that door.  Perhaps to lean them against it, to bring their hand to the grain of the wood, to whisper in their ear that the door is right before them, and that they can open it, and walk through.  We can’t go with them.  Not yet, anyway, though our time also will come.  But we can bring them all the way there, just to the very edge, to the opening.

Then comes the hardest task of all.  To let them go, and allow them to open the door, walk through that liminal space, and leave us behind.  It is what we do for them, the very last thing we can do for them.  And only we can do it.  Finally, ultimately, they will go through, and they are gone.  The door closes, and we turn away from the mystery back to the sunshine of a new day.

I love the image of a great ship leaving the port, sails full, heading out to the open seas.  She reaches a point far on the horizon, and those watching her from the port cry out – she is gone!  But across the deep and vast water there is another port, another shore.  And just as she disappears from our sight, those on the other side suddenly see her spring into view.  There she is!  Here she comes!  She has crossed to the other side.  May the four winds blow her safely home.  

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What Really Happened at the Red (Reed) Sea – 7th day Passover sermon text

     The Bible is a book that is filled with miracles, descriptions of events that are supernatural – outside of the natural order of the world as we know it.  In Numbers 22 we have the story of Balaam and his talking donkey.  In 1 Kings chapter 17 Elijah brings a boy back to life, and 2 Kings chapter 4 the prophet Elisha does the same thing.  Elijah also stops rain from falling for a period of 3 years.  In the Book of Joshua, the 10th chapter, Joshua stops the sun in the middle of the sky, where it stays for an entire day without moving.  In Numbers chapter 20 Moses makes water flow from a rock.  In 2 Kings chapter 5 the soldier Naaman is cured of leprosy.  In chapter 6 of that same biblical book the prophet Elisha makes the iron head of an axe float on the water.  And of course who could forget the dramatic description in Joshua chapter 6 of the walls of Jericho coming down?

     And then we have the Passover story, where the miracles seem to come one after another after another.  Moses’ staff turns to a snake and back.  The plagues – the waters of the Nile turn to blood, the locusts, the boils, the cattle, the vermin, the darkness, the slaying of the first born.  But the ‘wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles,’ to quote a well known song, has to be the splitting of the Reed Sea that we read about in the Torah this morning.  The 7th day of Passover has long been understood in the tradition as the day on which the Israelites witnessed that greatest of miracles, as at the very moment of their despair the waters of the sea parted before them, allowing them to escape their Egyptian tormenters who would all drown while attempting to follow them.

     Still to this day the depiction of that moment in the 1956 Cecil B. Demill film the Ten Commandments compellingly portrays how dramatic those events were.  Charlton Heston as Moses stands on an outcropping of rock, terrified Israelites all around him.  In what I can only call a Moses like voice he cries out, raises his staff, and the sea begins to split, the rushing waters defying the laws of physics, drawing upwards and away, forming massive walls of water and leaving a wide, dry path through the sea that Israelites can walk on.  It is one of the great scenes in all of film, and even today, in an age of astonishing computer generated video images, there are few scenes that can equal it.

     In the Torah that incredible moment is described in just two biblical verses.  “Moses held out his arm over the sea, and the Lord drove back the sea with a strong east wind all that night, and turned the sea into dry ground.  The waters were split, and the Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.”

     I’ve always felt that in those two verses there are actually two descriptions of the splitting of the sea and how it might have happened.  It is the second description – והמים להם חמה מימינם ומשמואלם – the waters were for them like walls, one on their right, one on their left – that is the miraculous one, reflecting Demill’s vision of the moment in the movie.  This is supernatural, impossible, a true miracle.  Massive amounts of water, held in suspension for hours upon hours, the walls, as depicted in the movie, 30, 40, 50 feet high.  There is only one way this could have happened, and that is because God willed it to happen.  And it was a one time event, its like will never be seen again.

     But the first of the two verses in the Torah, at least in my mind, seems to describe an entirely different set of circumstances.  God drove back the sea ברוח קדים עזה כל הלילה – with a strong east wind, that blew all night long.  As many of you know Becky and I spend some time every summer in Gloucester MA, where Becky grew up.  There is a beach there on the what is called the ‘Back Shore’ where a large island sits out in the ocean, about 50 or 60 yards from shore.  Most days, when the time is right and the tide is low, a sandbar emerges from the water that makes a bridge between the shore and the island and hundreds of people walk out to the island to hunt for sand crabs and shells.  The bridge is there for a couple of hours, and then the waters return – you have to get off the island and back to shore before that happens!  It is not uncommon, walking out to that island, that a stiff wind comes up, pushing the water off the sand, rippling it into the sea on either side.  And I’ve often thought, watching that happen, or walking in that procession myself, that it is probably very similar to what the Israelites experienced at the Reed Sea, at least according to that first verse.

     Along those same lines, just a few years ago, the US National Center for Atmospheric Research performed a study using a computer simulation that there is a point in the Nile River where a coastal lagoon lies just under the waters.  And again, using computer simulation, they showed that a strong wind, blowing for hours onto that spot, could drive the water back, opening a land bridge that would enable people to walk across.  And of course, when you take the wind away, the waters rush back in.  The head author of the study, when interviewed about it, said that the results from the simulations match closely with the description of the event in Exodus that we read from the Torah this morning.  It is in a way a combination of two of our favorite modern sayings:  timing is everything, and?  location, location, location.

     Now as western educated, scientifically oriented people we might be more comfortable with the idea of a natural explanation for the splitting of the sea.  But I want to say this:  just because there is a possible natural explanation does not mean it was not a miracle.   I will tell you that when I walk on that momentary land bridge out to that island in Gloucester, I understand scientifically what is happening.  The tide is low, the sand bar is there waiting to be exposed, the wind adds the rippling effect that makes the waters look like they are being pealed back.  But knowing all that, it is still a breathtaking thing to watch, and when you walk over that sand out to the island that just 30 minutes before was surrounded by the ocean, there is something about it that feels miraculous.  A miracle does not have to be an event that suspends the laws of nature.  But it does have to be an event that in some powerful and profound way makes you feel the presence of God in the world.  

     That is why I like to order of the verses in the Torah.  It is the first verse that gives us the natural explanation – the wind blew all night, and over a period of time the sand was exposed.  The people began to walk across, but as they did they began to experience that moment as a true miracle in their lives, a sign that God was with them, paying attention to their fate, coming to help them in their darkest moment, and as they felt God’s presence the moment felt more and more miraculous, and the second verse expresses that – the great walls of water, suspended on either side, and God’s great hand doing that work.

     That moment left such a deep impression on our ancestors that they not only experienced it as a miracle, but they passed it down to us, through the generations, that we might also feel God’s presence in our lives because of the freedom that was granted to them so long ago.  And that fact that we still do, thousands of years later, is in and of itself a miracle to be celebrated.

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Two Kinds of Time – Shabbat sermon text from 4/19

     Many of you may remember the 1951 Walt Disney film version of Alice in Wonderland, and the character of the white rabbit, with his famous quotation – I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date!  Those lines stay in our minds not only because they rhyme, but also because they reflect the way we understand time in our lives.  We are moving from one point in time to another.  There is a past, a present, and a future – time is, as we would say, linear, moving along a line.  We look at our watches and count the seconds, minutes, hours, and years.  We have appointments and we feel we have to be ‘on time,’ and if we aren’t we are ‘late’ because the right time has passed, and we feel we can’t recover it.  In the Jewish community, we even have ‘Jewish time’ and what we mean by that is something starts consistently late, but the premise of Jewish time is that there is a proper time to start the thing in the first place.

     But it wasn’t always that way.  Many ancient cultures did not understand time as moving in a single direction.  Instead, time was cyclical to them – that is to say, it moved in a circle, through one cycle after another.  The year, for example, is a series of seasons – spring, summer, fall winter – and that cycle repeats over and over again.  The day works the same way – there is dawn, mid-day, dusk, night, and it never changes.  Ancient cultures even understood human life as a cycle – birth, growth, maturity, and death, and then it happens all over again. Time isn’t linear in this model, it is a loop, repeating itself again and again, and not moving forward to a point in the future, to a destination or goal.

     Judaism was certainly familiar with this notion of cyclical time.  Our holidays are based on the cycle of the seasons.  Think of these words from the biblical book of Ecclesiastes – “the generations come and go, but the earth remains forever.  The sun rises and the sun sets, and then goes on to rise again.  All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full, and the waters of the streams return again.  What has been will be again, there is nothing new under the sun.” (1:4-9)  This is a classic statement of cyclical time – ultimately nothing ever changes, it just goes on and on.  The seasons come and go each year.  The sun sets, rises, sets again.  The moon waxes and wanes, again and again.  And many of the rituals in Judaism are designed to mark that kind of time, cyclical time – we daven shaharit, minhah, ma’ariv, again and again.  The holiday cycle repeats, marking each season as it comes and goes.  Rosh Hodesh marks the beginning of the moon cycle.  

     But at a certain point, fairly early on in its history, Judaism also became invested in another kind of time, linear time, the sense of time moving in a single direction that we are familiar with today.  The Hebrew Bible may be the first document in recorded human history to describe time in this kind of way.  There is a journey in the Bible, with a beginning, a middle, and an end.  The beginning is the slavery in Egypt, the middle is the wandering in the wilderness, and the end?  Entry into the Promised Land.  When you begin to see time in this way, you begin also to have a sense of history.  There is a past – you can study it, learn from it, understand it – but – you don’t have to repeat it!  In fact you can actually leave it behind – you can make choices about how you live your life.  You can change and move forward, and you have some control over your own fate and destiny.  

     The three pilgrimage festivals actually reflect both senses of time, the cyclical and the linear.  They do mark and celebrate the seasons of the year.  Pesah is about the spring, the rebirth of the world.  Shavuot is the bringing of the first fruits, and Sukkot is a fall festival marking the harvest.  This natural cycle recurs again and again and again, year in and year out, and the festivals are just markers, acknowledging the power of the unending cycle.  But at the same time the festivals mark historical memories, and together they move through time in a linear way.  Pesah is the Exodus, Shavuot the giving of the Torah, and Sukkot the dessert wandering.  This is linear time, historical time, moving from one point to the next to the next.  Even the Haggadah itself is based on a sense of linear time – we start in the past – we WERE slaves in Egypt.  But by the end of the evening we are looking towards the future – next year in Jerusalem!  

     Toward the end of the second seder we began another annual ritual, the counting of the omer.  Lets review for a moment how this ritual works and what it is about – it is biblically ordained;  you must count 7 x 7 days, making a total of 49, which brings you from Passover to Shavuot.  The counting happens at night, and each night you say a blessing before counting.  And what happens if you forget to count one night?

     About this question there actually was a debate – surprise! – about 1200 years ago, between two well known rabbis.  One said that if you forget one night, you are done.  You can’t continue.  This rabbi viewed the process as one extended unit, one single commandment, and if one part of that unit isn’t right, the entire unit is invalid.  This is very similar to the way Jewish law understands a Torah scroll – if one letter is defective, the entire Torah is considered unusable.  But the other rabbi saw each day of the counting as a separate mitzvah, a separate commandment.  So if you miss one day, if you make a mistake, or forget, or fall asleep before you’ve counted, its just one day.  The next day is distinct, and you can just begin counting again, picking up where you left off.

     The debate was decided by making a compromise between the two positions on the final law as we practice it today.  Which is what?  If you miss, you do continue with the counting the next night.  But you do so without saying the blessing.  It was a way of acknowledging both positions, of saying that the counting of the omer is a unit, 49 days together, but it is also a day by day process, something that happens in distinct units of time.

     In this way the omer counting, like the festivals, also represents both senses of time, cyclical and linear.  If each day is its own mitzvah, then the ritual is cyclical – the days are not connected, not moving in a direction from one to the next, it is just one day after another after another, each day the same.  But if you understand the 49 days together, as one unit, then you are moving through time in a linear way, from Passover to Shavuot, from Egypt to Sinai.  Each day is connected to the one before it, and each day must happen to get you to the next day day, because that way you are one day closer to your destination.  

     The truth is we need a sense of both kinds of time in our lives.  We need to know that we are moving forward, that important destinations are within our grasp, that we can reach our goals and make progress in our lives.  At the same time it is comforting to know that some things are eternal, unchanging.  To know that the sun will come up each morning, or that Passover will come around each year connects us to something that is greater than we are.  Judaism enables us to celebrate both senses of time, reminding us that as we move through our lives, day by day in a constantly changing world, we can be connected to ancient ideals and values, and a sense of the eternal that grounds us and brings meaning into our lives.

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Yizkor (Let them be remembered)

In the Talmud there is an extensive debate about the purpose of a funeral.  One opinion is that the funeral is for the person that has died, to honor their memory and pay them respect.  The other opinion is that the funeral is for the living, for those who are still here, to help them heal, come to terms with their loss, and move forward in their lives (Ok that is modern language but the point is essentially the same in the Talmud).  The flow of the talmudic sugya (section of talmudic text) seems to suggest that the rabbis preferred the latter answer – the funeral is for the living.

We might ask the same question about reciting Yizkor.  Four times a year (the end of Passover, the second day of Shavuot, Yom Kippur, and Shemini Atzeret) the tradition asks us to recall those we’ve loved and lost in a specific liturgical setting.  A communal memorial prayer is chanted, people recite personal Yizkor prayers for their loved ones, and a communal kaddish is recited.  It is always a moving and poignant service.  But it is also, more and more, a fading service, one in which fewer and fewer people participate.

I’ve often wondered why.  The old saying in professional shul circles is that the dead bring out the living.  But it isn’t so any more.  Perhaps it is because fewer and fewer people have a strong feeling of connection to the tradition, and especially to the liturgy.  It is hard to be moved by something that feels so alien.  But also I think it is because we’ve convinced ourselves that our busy lives take precedence.  Even over memory.  

That seems to me a dangerous position to stake out.  What are we without memory?  It is in many ways what defines us, gives us our identities, keeps us connected to community and even to family.  Our shared experiences, our common history, the feeling that we have for those things that mean so much to us exists because of memory.  Without it we would be adrift, floating in a lonely and disconnected sea.

So we might ask the same question about Yizkor that the Talmud asked about funerals.  Is it for the living or the dead, do we recite the Yizkor prayers for us or for them?  Of course the answer is yes.  They deserve the honor, the recognition, the framing by tradition that the Yizkor service creates.  They deserve a couple of hours of our time, 4 times a year when we might not otherwise come to shul.  But we deserve it too.  To allow ourselves to feel those feelings, experience those emotions, to carve out the time in our busy lives for ourselves, creating a sacred space that gives us the time to remember and to be grateful, time we otherwise would not have, despite our best intentions.  So wherever you are, come to Yizkor services this Pesah.  On the final day of the festival.  And may God remember.  Us. And them.  

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A Single Seder, and Around the World

Last night I had the privilege of conducting a ‘learning’ seder at St. Timothy’s School, a 182 year old local prep-boarding school for girls.  We’ve been doing this pre-Passover seder for many years now.  It gives the girls, many of whom are not Jewish, a chance to experience the Passover rituals.  Each table has a seder plate, complete with bitter herbs, haroset, a roasted bone (OK, they use a chicken wing bone!), an egg, and matzah.  We go through the ’30 minute Haggadah’ in about 20 minutes, and then the school serves the girls a fairly traditional Passover dinner, to included brisket and matzah stuffing.  The school does a fabulous job of promoting religious pluralism, and there is a genuine respect for different faith traditions and perspectives.

This was clearly evident just from the table I was sitting at.  I shared my meal with a Christian girl from Nebraska, a Buddhist girl from Vietnam, a Muslim girl from Afghanistan, and a Jewish girl from Pikesville, and the school’s Episcopalian pastor.  Talk about ecumenical!  The girl from Nebraska told me she had known only one Jewish family before coming to Baltimore for school.  It went without saying that the girls from Vietnam and Afghanistan had never met Jews in their lives before their St. Tim’s experience.  And here we all were, sitting at the same table, and sharing a seder meal!  The girls were deeply interested in the Passover story and the various and sundry customs of the holiday.  They asked questions, they offered thoughtful responses.  They were clearly close.  As seniors, they had roomed together, studied together, cheered for each other on the athletic field.  Kudos to St. Timothy’s for fostering such a caring, welcoming, tolerant, and genuinely respectful environment.  It was one of those moments that brings hope to a rabbi’s heart – maybe one day we really will all get along.

Of course the Passover story works perfectly with this ultimate hope and dream.  It is the most particular of our narratives, recalling the moment when God took US from slavery to freedom.  The Haggadah text reminds us that on the night of Passover each person is obligated to see him or herself as if he or she had actually been a slave and personally redeemed by God.  Yet at the same time it is the most universalistic of our stories.  After all, doesn’t every person yearn to be free?  Isn’t freedom the most fundamental human right?  And doesn’t each person – regardless of faith, color, country, gender – deserve to be free, treated with dignity and respect, and seen as a creature created in the image of God?  

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The Pollard Dilemma

Jonathan Pollard, Jewish American, Israeli spy, has once again been in the news of late.  In Secretary of State John Kerry’s desperate attempts to keep the peace process afloat Pollard was dangled as a carrot in front of the Israelis, to motivate them to move forward on certain issues, and to stay in the game.  It isn’t working, and probably wasn’t a good idea in the first place.  But Pollard’s sudden surge of publicity has reminded the Jewish community of his case, his crime, and his commitment to Israel (and lack of commitment to the United States).

Cries to free Pollard have been coming from the Jewish community for many years now.  There is a sense that he has been treated unfairly, that the US government has made his particular case into a cause celebre to warn other friendly nations to stay out of our business.  Of course, we should talk, after the recent revelations about how we hacked into the mobile phone services of other foreign leaders, like Angela Merkel of Germany.  Still, it isn’t like the Jewish community worries about other imprisoned spies.  It is Pollard, and his ‘service’ to Israel that concerns us.

This is an old conundrum for Jews.  Are we Jewish Americans, or American Jews?  I think part of the answer to that question is generational.  The 60 and over crowd might be more likely to understand itself as Jewish American, that is to say, more Jewish than American.  The 60 and under crowd the opposite.  One way to frame the question is to consider whether we would be more comfortable moving to another country and living the rest of our lives there, or converting to another faith tradition.  Either way, when we are honest we have a sense this is not an easy question and it does not have a clear cut answer.  It is not that we aren’t grateful to live in the US.  We are!  Deeply so!  But this is core identity stuff – when the layers are stripped away, who are we really?  

My personal take is that Pollard deserves no special favors.  He should be treated the way any other ‘friendly’ spy would be treated.  If he has been kept in jail longer, he should be let go.  If the punishment fits the crime, so be it.  The fact that he is a Jew who spied on the US for Israel shouldn’t make a difference to us.  There is an old principle in Jewish law – dina d’malchuta dina – the law of the land is the law of the land.  In other words Jews who live under the sovereignty of another nation are expected to obey the laws of that land.  Pollard didn’t, and he has paid a heavy price.   


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