Monthly Archives: June 2014

Moses’ Crisis of Faith

Here a text of yesterday’s (6/28) Shabbat sermon:

  One of the things I love most about the Bible is that the characters we meet when we read the sacred stories of our people are all deeply flawed.  I understand that this might seem like a strange thing to say, and maybe in an ideal world we could open our scriptures and find only examples of the very best people, with strong faith and commitment, filled with admirable qualities that we can aspire to.  But instead the opposite is true in the Hebrew Bible.  From the get go we know we are in a bit of trouble when Adam and Eve betray each other, Eve convincing Adam to eat of the fruit and he later quickly blaming her before God for what has happened.  It gets even worse with Cain and Abel, the first brothers whose relationship ends in murder.  

     One would hope that Noah, who is after all called by the Torah ‘tamim’ – meaning perfect – could correct the dark picture of humanity that the text paints, but he has his own troubles with his sons, which I won’t go into right now but you can read later at your discretion – check Genesis 9 for the sordid details.  Then we might like to think that introducing the first Jewish family would help to straighten things out, but the intimate portrait of Abraham and Sarah, of Hagar and Ishamel and Isaac, is a text book illustration of a dysfunctional family.  At least we can say about Abraham that he had faith in God, something that seems to have stayed with him until the very end of his days.

     But if there is a great hero of the Bible, it must be the towering figure of Moses, prophet and lawgiver, leader of the people, giver of the Torah, the man who spoke face to face – panim el panim, says the Torah – to God.   We might hope that at least Moses, Moshe Rabeinu – Moses our teacher, as he is called – will provide for us the example of what a person should be and how a person should live.  And in fact I would argue that he does, just not in the way we might hope, or at least not in the way we might expect.

     First of all, Moses is also flawed, and deeply so.  On a personal level he seems to have his fair share of trouble, struggling in relationship with his sons, with his brother Aaron and sister Miriam, and with his wife Zipporah.  But he also is flawed in his leadership, at times proving too angry for the task, at others too exasperated, and at others just simply overwhelmed.  Certainly not all of the blame should be placed on his shoulders.  After all, he has been thrust into this role after repeatedly telling God he wanted nothing to do with it – who can forget his plaintive plea in Exodus 3 – Please God, שלח נא ביד תשלח – send someone else, anyone else!  And yet God insists and the responsibility falls on his shoulders, and he clearly struggles with it.  As Shakespeare wrote in Henry the Fourth part 2 – Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.  

     But it is in precisely this way that Moses teaches some of his best lessons.  Perhaps ill suited, and without question uncomfortable in his role, challenged by it, never the less he soldiers on.  Sometimes he fails, and quite spectacularly – I’ll get to that in a moment.  But other times he succeeds, triumphs, achieving in ways he himself never thought possible.  It is Moses who destroys Pharaoh, Moses who walks at the head of the people when they finally are freed from Egypt, and it is Moses who raises his staff over the waters of the sea, drying a pathway for the Israelites to freedom.

     But there are many failures along the way, and I would argue that Moses’ failures are more interesting than his successes, and also tell us more about the man, who he was and what he experienced.  Becky asked me recently why every movie has to have a tragic moment, why every novel, really every narrative, has to bring the protagonist to the very brink of defeat and despair.  And I think the simple answer is if not, the story just isn’t interesting.  There is not a reality show that depicts a totally normal family, the parents off to work in the morning, the children doing well in school and completely adjusted, everyone getting along, no illness, no unhappiness, no tears or trauma.  Why doesn’t that show exist?  Because no one would watch it!!  It is in failure, in crises, in times of trouble and challenge that we really learn about a family – or an individual, for that matter.  And in this way too Moses was a teacher.

     In this morning’s Torah portion, Chukat, we read about one of his failures, arguably his greatest.  It is the strange episode of the striking of the rock.  The people are complaining, as they tend to do throughout the book of Numbers.  In this case, what do they want?  Water!  And in all fairness to Moses, they taunt and torment him with their repeated requests and complaints, telling him they would be better off dead than being with him in the wilderness, and even worse, telling him they had it better in Egypt, under Pharaoh, as slaves, then they do with Moses.  Moses is boiling over with anger, and he calls out “listen you rebels, will we get water for you out of this rock?”  And then he strikes the rock, twice, with his staff, and water pours out so the Israelites can drink.

     This doesn’t seem like a failure at first.  After all, the people wanted water, God told Moses to get the water from the rock, and he did.  Win win win – everyone gets what they want – for God and Moses a few minutes of quiet, for the people, water to quench their thirst.  But something went wrong, and God is not happy.  “You didn’t trust me Moses.  You didn’t uphold My sanctity and you didn’t have faith in Me.  Because of this you will not enter the Promised Land.”

     It is clear that in God’s eyes Moses failed.  What the commentators disagree about is precisely what the nature of that failure was.  I found more than 20 different explanations of what it was Moses did wrong.  He hit the rock when God only said to speak to it.  He hit it twice, when he should only have hit it once.  He lost his temper and lost patience with the people at a crucial moment.  And the list goes on and on.  But this morning I would like to focus on one specific explanation that revolves around one phrase in the Torah in God’s criticism of Moses and Aaron – לא האמנתם בי – in your Humash if you read the English translation of that phrase you would see “you did not trust Me.”  But that is not what it really means – it comes from the Hebrew word אמונה – which means faith or belief.  So what God really says to Moses is ‘you did not believe in Me.’  In other words, during a crucial moment, and in front of the people no less, Moses lost his faith in God.  

     And even in this Moses teaches.  I suppose some people might be disturbed by the idea that Moses lost his faith, but I find it oddly comforting.  After all, if it happened to Moses, it could happen to anybody!  And that is precisely the point.  Real faith is hard fought, not easily come by.  It waxes and wanes, it comes and goes, it can be clear as a bell and then foggier than a London street.  And it is nice to know as it is for me – and I suspect for many of you – so it was for Moses.  

     Eventually his faith returned.  I don’t know exactly how, or when.  Chances are it happened in fits and starts, slowly over time.   But isn’t it a striking thing that the man who could not find his faith in a moment of crisis will later stand before the people and proclaim שמע ישראל! Here o Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord Alone!  It is a good think to know that despite that doubts – and in a strange way maybe even because of them – we can still live committed Jewish lives, part of a sacred community, engaged in an ancient covenant, and under the eyes of the Living God.

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A Beautiful Cemetery

An oxymoron?  I don’t think so.  I spend a fair amount of time in cemeteries, and the simple truth is some are beautiful, some not so much.  It has to do with how they are cared for, whether or not the congregation they belong to is active and vital, whether people visit regularly.  A quiet moment in the cemetery, with the sun shining, and a breeze gently blowing, surrounded by the sense of presence, history, life, loss, memory – that is a sacred moment.

I was privileged to witness one such moment a few days ago.  I arrived at the cemetery with our Cantor, and together we waited for a funeral procession to arrive for the burial service.  A young (middle aged? – what is young anymore?) man was sitting in the grass by a gravestone, barefoot, in shorts, with the sun shining down, his hand lightly resting on the stone by his side.  He sat there for a time, in a space between this world and the next.  He softly spoke, and perhaps also listened.  A reverie of past and present, of absence and presence.

We approached him to let him know the funeral procession would soon arrive.  The burial was near the stone he was visiting.  He shook his head, as if coming out of a dream, stepping back into the concrete reality of our world and this moment.  His mother, now gone ten years.  He smiled in the sunshine remembering life and not loss, laughter and blessing and the grace of connections that can never be severed.

We exchanged a few words before he climbed into his car and drove away.  He carried with him a sense of peace, or perhaps equanimity is the better word.  Before long he will be back.

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Where Sermons Come From

There has been a robust response to my sermon from this past Shabbat about being a Member of the Tribe. I’ve written before about where sermon ideas come from, and there are essentially three places.  First, from something that has happened in the news during the week.  Secondly, from a personal experience, anything from standing in line at the bank to a hospital visit and everything in between.  And thirdly, from the text itself, looking at the Torah or haftara portions that will be read and finding in them something that stirs an idea.

I realized as I posted the ‘MOT’ sermon online that by the time I actually delivered the remarks the original impetus for the sermon had entirely dropped out of the text.  I got interested in the idea because of the recent discovery that the mother of Cardinal Joseph O’Connor was actually a Jew.  O’Connor was the Catholic Church’s chief New York City official for close to 20 years.  It turns out his mother was born of a Jewish mother, and most of her family is buried in a Jewish cemetery in Connecticut.  By the time she was young she was already living as a Catholic, and did so faithfully for the rest of her life.  But technically, with a Jewish mother, the Cardinal’s mother was Jewish, which – technically – means the Cardinal was as well.  The Cardinal’s sister is still alive, and in the article she was quoted as saying “The basic fact is, my mother was Jewish.  That means my two brothers were Jewish, my sister was Jewish and I am Jewish. Of that I am very proud.”

This gets to the heart of the ethnic/tribal sense of Jewish identity.  There is a long established principle in halachah, Jewish law, that Jews who convert out and live their lives in another faith tradition can still be buried in a Jewish cemetery.  In a way, they are still ‘Jewish’ because ethnically they retain a Jewish identity, like a person who is Italian or Irish or French.  It was the article about the Cardinal and his family that spurred the idea for the sermon, even though in the end I never mentioned it when I put the text together.  You can read the article at this link:

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A Member of the Tribe

here a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 6/21

     We live in an age of acronyms, and with the new technologies of communication that we are constantly using – email, twitter, FB, texting –  the abbreviations seem to be growing exponentially day by day.  As my children will tell you I am no expert on these matters, and so I am treading a bit into uncharted waters, but I would like to see where you are with these things, so I am going to give you a little quiz.  If you know what the following acronyms mean, raise your hand – and we will work our way up in degree of difficulty – 

     LOL – how many know it?  What does it mean?  TBH?  TBT (throwback Thursday on FB)?  OMG?  (a good one for rabbis to know).  OTD?  And here is a last one for you – MOT – member of the tribe.

     That last acronym, MOT, member of the tribe, I heard from a long time member who was asking me about whether someone was Jewish or not – “is that person,” he said to me, “an MOT?”  This was a few years ago, and when I told him I had no idea what he was talking about, he patiently explained to me the meaning of the term – is the person a member of the tribe – in other words, is the person Jewish or not.

     On the surface it is a little silly sounding, but underneath the surface it is a very interesting way of asking the question.  You are not asking is the person an MOF – member of the faith.  You are using the world tribe, which automatically carries a connotation of ethnicity – that there is not just a religious Jewish identity, there is also an ethnic, tribal Jewish identity, a sense of being connected by family, not only by faith.    

     This sense of Jewish identity comes to us naturally, and it is ancient.  After all, in the Torah, our oldest document, we read about the Shivtei Yisrael, the 12  – tribes – of Israel.  And tribal identity is a central biblical theme.  It is a major question in the Torah as to which tribe gets which territory in ancient Israel, and in fact the territories are named after the tribes.  In the book of Judges, after the Israelites have entered the land, it is clear that tribal identity is much stronger than national identity – the tribes fight with one another, they vie for power, there is constant tension, alliances are formed.  And it is also clear that in biblical times a person was much more connected to their tribal identity, and much more loyal to their tribe, then they were to the Jewish people as a whole.

     Over time that changed, and the national identity became the primary one.  One of the most important moments in that transition is described in this morning’s haftara, from the book of First Samuel.  The first verse of the text sets the stage – the prophet Samuel invites the people up to Gilgal, and there, he says, ונחדש שם המלוכה – we will establish a monarchy.  A king to rule over not a single tribe, but all the tribes together.  And part of the king’s job is to create a sense of national unity and to deemphasize tribal identity.  King David advances this agenda by creating a national capitol, Jerusalem, and centralizing power there, and then his son Solomon furthers that process by constructing what would become THE national symbol, the Temple, one of the wonders of the ancient world.  The Temple belonged to all of the tribes equally, and it allowed for the celebration of national holy days like Pesah or Shavuot.

     But tribal identity still remained a part of Jewish life.  That is why even today people can strongly identify as Jews without doing anything religiously Jewish.  That is why the connection between Jews in the diaspora and the land of Israel and Israelis is so strong – that isn’t about religion!  Most Israelis are secular, and the truth is most diaspora Jews are secular as well!  It is about a tribal sense of connection, of being part of one ethnic identity, one large family.  That is also why I get so many emails from people that celebrate things like the number of Jews who have won Nobel Prizes.  As far as I know Episcopalians and Catholics don’t send emails to each other about how many members of their respective faith traditions have won Nobel Prizes.  But Jews take such pride in the accomplishments of other Jews, and in the same way feel ashamed when a fellow Jews does something terrible – I am sure we all remember the name Bernie Madoff.  And we’ve all done this – you hear about someone in the news who has done something horrible and the first thing you think is ‘oy I hope that person is not Jewish!’  Even today, 3000 years after the people asked for a king, Jewish tribal identity stays strong.

     In fact, I would argue it is growing even stronger.  If the much talked about Pew Study from last year about Jewish identity showed anything, it showed that Jews are more likely today to identify tribally as Jewish rather than religiously.  In fact religious behaviors were at the very bottom of the list in virtually every statistical category in the study – while tribal factors, like shared culture, remembering the Holocaust – and Jewish humor – were towards the top.

     My colleague Rabbi Sid Schwarz from Washington has argued that more and more Jews are dividing up into two categories – there are tribal Jews and covenantal Jews.  Tribal Jews focus on Israel, they go to the AIPAC convention, they may have strong ties to the Federation, they eat bagels and lox, they know what is happening in the Jewish community, they give to Jewish causes, they watch Seinfeld and old reruns of Woody Allen movies, they feel great pride when a Jew wins a Nobel Prize.  But religion is by and large unimportant to them.  They may come for HHD services in the fall, they probably light a menorah during Hanukah and go to a Passover seder, but for the most part they live entirely secular lives.

     Covenantal Jews are exactly the opposite.  They focus on religious life, their Judaism is centered more around a synagogue than it is the Federation or AIPAC, they are personally observant, regular shul attenders, feel a sense of being commanded religiously, perhaps observe Shabbat and keep kosher.  Their concern is more with the covenant between God and Israel than it is with the connection between them and their fellow Jews.

     Of course the truth is in real life people don’t break down into easily identifiable categories.  Much more commonly people are some mix of the above, a certain percentage of their Jewish energy and identity is played out tribally, another percentage plays out covenantally.  What does seem to be true is that the percentages are changing – the importance of tribal identity is clearly growing rapidly, while the sense of covenantal identity is diminishing.  What we have to be careful of is focusing so much on one that we forget about the other.  In some ways it is precisely the interplay between the two that makes Jewish life unique – we are both a faith tradition and an ethnic identity.  That is a dynamic that no acronym can capture – instead it must be lived every day, in all of its complexity – and any person who lives Jewish life that way will without question be an MOT – a full fledged member of the tribe – 


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One Way Ticket

The great southern rock band the Allman Brothers are finally reaching the end of their long road, recently announcing that the shows they play this fall will most likely be their last.  No question in their varied set lists they will play the classic ‘One Way Out,’ a ramped up blues shuffle that tells the tale of a man trapped in the apartment of a woman whose partner has unexpectedly returned.  Here the first stanza:

Ain’t but one way out baby, Lord I just can’t go out the door.
Ain’t but one way out baby, and Lord I just can’t go out the door.
Cause there’s a man down there, might be your man I don’t know.

Like many of the great blues songs, the lyrics dance around a double entendre.  The truth is there is one way out for all of us.  The road we take to that ‘door’ will vary in length and quality, in challenge and celebration, in light and laughter.  But the end of the road is always the same, and the words of the song ring true – there is one way, and only one way, out.

I was reminded of this yesterday, in one of those unexpected flashes of insight (you DO get shown the light in the strangest of places).  After an early evening run walking up the hill from the track back towards my house.  At the top of the hill I looked up only to see a typical ‘One Way’ sign, its stark black and white image staring back at me knowingly, arrow pointing me in the direction of home (in this case YES direction home).  

We travel life in one direction.  From past to the future, moving forward in time.  Behind us is what happened yesterday, last year, when we were young.  Ahead?  Who knows, but the future lies there with all of its uncertainty and promise, its hope and expectation.  We are ever poised between the two, living in present moments that come and go almost without our knowing.  But we all walk on a one way street. 

In the Mishnah, the classic rabbinic text from the second century CE we find the following: Know from where you have come, to where you are going, and to Whom you will one day make an accounting. (Avot 3:1)  The mishnah teaches that keeping these ideas in our mind will enable us to live a sin free life.  Perhaps also in the ancient statement there can be found a sense of humility – we are all the same, on the same road, heading in the same direction, the most exalted and the most humble, the highest and the lowest, the richest and the poorest.  Led Zeppelin entitled their late 70s concert film ‘the Song Remains the Same.’  I would say it differently – for each of us the song is actually different;  it is the sign that remains the same.


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God Does Not Vote

In the remarks he made immediately after stunningly upsetting Eric Cantor in Virginia’s Republican primary new Tea Party star David Brat said that his win was a ‘miracle’ and he opened his remarks by quoting the Book of Luke in the Christian Bible.  Brat seemed to be implying that God wanted him to win the election, that God chose him over Eric Cantor.

That kind of thinking – that a person knows what God is ‘thinking’ – always makes me nervous.  As far as I know, God is not a registered Republican in the Commonwealth of Virginia, so God did not enter a voting booth to choose one candidate over another.  God doesn’t vote.  And God doesn’t endorse candidates either.  (Neither do clergy, by the way.  From the pulpit at least it is illegal for a member of the clergy to tell parishioners to vote for a particular candidate.)

If you begin to believe that God prefers certain candidates, it follows that God also supports certain policy positions.  That God, for example, prefers the Tea Party’s policies to those of the Democrats’, or Republican’s views to Libertarians.  This is a blurring of religion and politics that is dangerous.  It is not a stretch from there to say that God prefers policies that are ‘Christian’ and not ‘Jewish’ or ‘Muslim’ (or from any other faith tradition, for that matter).

Lets be a bit more humble if we can.  God doesn’t pick or choose candidates.  God does not endorse certain policy positions while disparaging others.  And any person who thinks they know with any degree of certainty what God wants or ‘believes’ (if these are even terms that we can apply to God) is delusional.  So lets leave what God believes to God.  And lets leave the voting to us.  Provided, of course, we are properly registered.


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4 Funerals, 1 Day

A couple of months I ago I posted a piece about a week where I officiated at seven funerals.  Last week, in one day, on Friday, I officiated at four funerals.  The seven funeral week piece was more about emotionally how I navigated those days.  In this piece I want to address the question of logistics – how is it actually possible to officiate at four funerals in a single day?

First, two things must be said.  One, I’ve learned over time that the rabbinate in a large synagogue requires the art of appearing in multiple places at the same time.  I know this is not actually possible, but it is possible in a way – by leaving one place a few minutes early, arriving at another a few minutes late, skipping meals, using every possible second of the day, stacking appointments one after another after another.  It is not something I recommend, and the truth is when you are in multiple places at once you are not fully in anyplace, but sometimes it is what you have to do just because of the sheer volume of what you need to accomplish.  

The second thing is this:  if you are serving in a mega-shul, sometimes you just have to work on Shabbat and Yom Tov.  You just have to, like it or not, admit it or not.  The four funerals I had were on the Friday after Shavuot.  The holiday began on Tuesday evening, at which point only one of the four funerals was scheduled.  The calls about the other funerals came in on Wednesday morning and afternoon, and I think one Thursday morning.  Both Yom Tov days.  For each funeral a meeting with the family is required.  At each meeting notes must be taken.  Eulogies must be written.  It is not possible to wait until the end of the holiday, Thursday night (and late!  close to 9:30), before beginning these meetings.  

So here is how it went down.  I met with one family Wednesday afternoon.  Thursday after services I came home directly and wrote eulogy #1.  Then Thursday afternoon I began meeting with the other three families.  One at 4, one at 5:30, one at 7.  Straight through, one after the other.  I finished those meetings at about 9 at night, Thursday night.  As of Thursday night the four family meetings were completed, and one eulogy was written.  Tired out, one good beer, some reading, and bed.

Friday morning up early.  Eulogy #2 written between 7 and 8:30.  Now with two eulogies finished I went to the first funeral, a graveside at 9:30.  From there right to the funeral home for funeral #2, a chapel service that began at 11.  I was back at the synagogue at 1, with the next funeral scheduled to begin at 3, the last funeral at 5.  From 1 to 2:30 I wrote eulogy #3 and also wrote the short remarks I would make at funeral #4 (the family and friends would be delivering the main eulogies).  In a pinch (and a four funeral day qualifies as a pinch) I can write a eulogy in an hour or so.  

I printed out the last eulogies, arrived at the funeral home at 2:45, officiated at funeral #3, and from the cemetery drove right back to the funeral home for funeral #4.  After the burial service I arrived home at about 6:45.

Oh, and there was that issue of the sermon for Shabbat morning.  But that is a story for another day.



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