Monthly Archives: July 2014

If I Forget You O Jerusalem…

I’ve never been a big fan of metrics, but sometimes the numbers are so significant that you must pay attention to them. My congregation has an active FB page, with over 700 ‘likes,’ and a common post will garner 2-350 hits. On Sunday morning I posted a text version of the sermon I delivered on Shabbat. It was about the current situation in Israel and the idea that the real threat to Israel is not physical, but rather spiritual and moral. So far, the post has been clicked on more than 2000 times. Something is going on here. The question is, what?
The obvious answer is that Jews are deeply concerned about Israel right now. The missiles continue to fall, Israelis are constantly scrambling for the nearest bomb shelter, and Israeli soldiers are losing their lives in Gaza. The Jewish community is worried, frustrated, scared, and angry, and any information about Israel, any column, any article, any – sermon – is being devoured with an unusual level of interest. Israel is on the radar screen. It is front and center in the mind of the average Jew. Add to that the fact that when the ‘matzav’ (situation) is as it is, people want to know what their rabbi thinks about it, and voila – 2,000 plus clicks!
But I think there is also an additional layer that is part of the dynamic, maybe for the first time, or at least the first time on a large scale. And that is that people feel conflicted. Publicly they staunchly support Israel, they go to pro-Israel rallies, they call their elected officials to make sure that Israel is being supported. But privately, in small conversations, in their own minds and hearts, in the office of their rabbi, they tell a different story: they are worried about Israel, but they are also disturbed by the loss of civilian life in Gaza.
I can hear already the cries of “blasphemer!” This is something that shouldn’t be said, let alone written! But it seems to me a person can be concerned about the civilians of Gaza and still support Israel’s right to defend itself. Is that easy? Perhaps not. But is it possible? Yes. And I would even argue it is necessary.
Why? Because that concern, at the end of the day, comes from the same place that our love for Israel comes from – a deeply Jewish place. A place of morality, of understanding intuitively that ALL human beings are created in the image of God, a place of concern for justice and a true, deep, and powerful yearning for peace.
Jerusalem we will never forget. Not now. Not ever. In knowing that perhaps we can realize that there is space to consider, and to remember, even more.

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the Real Threat to Israel

here a text version of my Shabbat sermon from yesterday (7/26)

     I am about a third of the way through Simon Schama’s new history of the Jewish people, called ‘the Story of the Jews.’   The book is a 550 page opus written in lively prose that combines analysis of primary source material – letters and artifacts from antiquity – with copious research to produce a fresh and compelling account of our people’s history.  Being a third of the way through puts me right towards the end of the Roman period, roughly around the year 150 or so of the common era.  The Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in the year 70.  Rabbi Akiva and Bar Kochba have just had their revolt brutally put down.  Ancient Israel has been in Roman control for more than 100 years at this point, a control maintained by the military might of the Roman legions, something the Israelites could never hope to match, let alone exceed.   

     It is a position ancient Israel was very familiar with.  There were a few brief periods of actual Israelite autonomy, but by and large Israel and Judah, the northern and southern kingdoms, were squaring off against a mighty power that almost always ended up controlling them.  Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Rome – that list alone covers close to 650 of the first 1000 years of Israel’s existence.  These were the greatest powers of the ancient world, unrivaled in their time in terms of military might, great conquerers, at their height controlling not only Israel, but for Babylonia, Assyria, and Rome the vast majority of the civilized world.  And yet what is most striking in reading a history of the Jews, century after century, is this:  how those great powers failed, and ultimately disappeared entirely – but at the same time how tiny little Israel somehow managed to survive, sometimes even to thrive, but always to figure out a way to move forward into the future.

     Simon Schama would probably argue that it was the power of the word that gave Israel the strength it needed to outlive and outlast its antagonists.  By this he would mean in a small sense the Torah itself, a document of such power that it could sustain and nourish the spirit of a people even in darkest times.  But he also means by this the world of the mind, the ideas and values that came to define Judaism, Jewish life, and the Jewish people as time went by.  Monotheism.  The principle that all human beings are created in the image of God.  The sense that the only way to live a holy life is to live a moral life.  The power of community and covenant.  These ideas were so powerful that they could not be defeated, certainly not by strength of arms – Medgar Evers, the black civil rights activist from the early 60s said it best – “you can kill a man, but you can not kill an idea.”

     But even more than not being defeated, there is actually a kind of victory that can be achieved through the word, through ideas and values, that can never be achieved through military might.  We’ve known this as Jews for a long time.  It is part of our history, part of how we have been able to survive and over time to create a culture that is at the foundation of the modern Western world.  Many of you learned this idea from a young age when you studied the Hanukkah story in Hebrew school.  We have never emphasized the military victory of Hanukkah, probably in part because it was a short lived victory at best.  Instead we focus on the miracle of the oil, something that has nothing to do with military might, and the song we teach our children to sing for Hanukkah is taken from the words of the prophet Zachariah – לא בחיל ולא בכח כי אם ברוחי אמר ה צבאות  – Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit alone, says the Lord, God of Hosts.  As Jews we have always defined our victories by the spirit, not by the sword.

     That is not to say that we haven’t needed the sword over the years, especially in modern times as we have fought to create and then to defend the State of Israel.  What we can be grateful for today is that Israel’s sword is strong.  Maybe right now we are fearful, we worry, we doubt, but the truth is Israel’s army is by far the strongest in the Middle East, and there is not a chance – not even the slightest, smallest, chance, that Israel will be defeated militarily in this war, or frankly any other for a long, long time.  So although I am concerned, although I understand that it is untenable to live in a situation where rockets are constantly falling on your towns, your cities, you homes, I am not afraid – Israel is by far the stronger nation, and this is not even a contest of military power – there is no contest.

     But I do worry sometimes about whether Israel will fail the true Jewish test of strength, that captured by Zachariah – the test of the spirit.  Will she be able to maintain a sense of moral clarity, will she stay true to the values that have defined and guided the Jewish people now for 3000 years?  Will she be not only on the side of might, but also on the side of right?  

     Please do not mistake my point.  I believe Israel has to be in Gaza right now.  A nation cannot tolerate a continual barrage of rocket fire at its civilian population.  Israel has no choice but to do what it is doing.  I also believe that the IDF goes out of its way to avoid civilian casualties.  When the IDF warns an area that an attack is coming so the civilians can try to get away, those are Jewish values.  And I believe that the responsibility for this war lies at the feet of Hamas, and all they have to do to stop it is to stop firing their missiles.  In this sense Israel is not only on the side of might, she is also on the side of right.

     But I do see at the same time that even as the Iron Dome system protects Israel from physical harm, the shield of her spirit is showing cracks and dents.  The most obvious, the most tragic, was the revenge killing of the Palestinian teenager by three Jews.  That was a failure of the Jewish spirit.  In the ongoing war to maintain a sense of Jewish values and Jewish life, to keep Israel as a proud Jewish nation, that incident was a battle that we lost.  But we also have to understand that there is a context that makes something like that possible – an atmosphere, an environment that exists – in Israel – that makes an act like that even conceivable.  And it is that atmosphere that is threatening Israel much more than Hamas is or ever will.

     I will give you another example.  A week ago or so, when there was a brief humanitarian cease fire, a rabbi I know, and for whom I have respect, who lives in Israel, posted on his FB page the following:  the subhumans are asking for a humanitarian cease fire.  A comment like that is a failure of the Jewish spirit in the deepest sense.  It comes from a place of anger and fear, and probably despair, and hatred, but it does not come from a Jewish place.  And it is precisely at times like this when the words that we use, the thoughts that we express, should be guided NOT by our basest emotions, but instead by our highest ideals and values, by the very best of what makes us proud to be Jews and committed to living Jewish lives.  

     May we remember that during this difficult time for our people, and may those ideals and values guide our lives, and our communities, for many years to come – 

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The Rabbi Incognito

Just back from a fabulous almost 2 week vacation.  Yes, it is important to get out of the office, although email blurs exactly what ‘getting away’ means these days.  But for a rabbi (or I imagine pretty much any clergy person) it is also important, every once in a while, to simply not be recognized.  To be able to walk down a street, go to a restaurant, or a bar, or a store, and be fairly certain that you are not going to run into anyone you know. (This is also, by the way, good for the rabbi’s spouse!)

This is one of the dilemmas of being a public figure.  And it is a good problem!  People want to say hi, to check in, to touch base, to reach out.  And their intentions are genuine, and they are genuinely nice people, and the truth is I am a friendly person and enjoy running into people and the quick 2 minute how are you? good to see you.  I really do.

But there is something to be said for being under the radar every once in a while.  And when I travel I tend to travel, rabbi-wise, incognito (from the Latin – ‘in’ (not) and ‘cognitus’ (known).  An example.  On airplanes, when sitting next to a person I do not know who asks me what I do for a living, I will often parry the question by saying “I work in human services.”  Why?  Because I know from experience that once I say I am a rabbi all sorts of bizarre conversations can ensue, and I don’t want to spend my entire two hours on the airplane talking theology with someone I don’t know.  That simple.  

So for almost two weeks now I haven’t been ‘the rabbi.’  And here is the paradox:  in not being the rabbi, I can simply be Steve; in simply being Steve, I am ultimately a better rabbi.  

That being said, one quick anecdote.  Some years ago I traveled to Scotland with 5 of my closest friends from college.  We had a wonderful time, toured distilleries, played cards, fished for salmon, played golf.  One round of golf played on a very rustic links course outside of Dufftown (in the Highlands for you whisky enthusiasts) ended with two of my friends and I sitting at the clubhouse bar having a pint.  The gentleman who ran the course (and the bar) was a gregarious fellow, engaging us in conversation.  Of course it didn’t take long for him to ask us what we did back in the States.  My one friend sells insurance.  The other was in the real estate business.  And I told the truth – “I am a rabbi,” I said somewhat hesitantly.  

I will always remember his response.  He looked at us thoughtfully for a moment.  Then he said this, looking at us each in turn:  “I’d buy insurance from you, a property from you, and I would come to hear you preach!”

We are still waiting!



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A Rabbi in the Pews

This past Shabbat I had the opportunity to attend the bar mitzvah of the son of one of my oldest and closest friends.  The young man did a fabulous job, leading a good part of the service both Friday night and Shabbat morning, reading flawlessly from the Torah, and chanting the haftara text with aplomb.  All in all, a great Shabbat and a great weekend to share with dear friends.

What made it even nicer for me was that I got to simply sit in the pews and participate in the service like any other congregant.  No official duties.  No speaking, page calling, sermon giving, no directing of bima traffic or concern about the ebb and flow of the service (a greatly under appreciated aspect of rabbinical responsibility, by the way).  I will confess:  I loved it.  And I will confess a bit more:  given my druthers, I would rather sit in the pews than up on the bima.  Any day.

This may be unusual for rabbis, who often seem to have trouble watching a service unfold that they have no control over.  Some years ago I was speaking with a colleague for whom I have great respect.  He was going away on vacation, and I asked him whether he would be attending services in the town where he would be staying (I happened to know there was a Conservative shul there).  He told me he had no intention of going to services, and in fact said that he never ever attended services when he was not at his own shul running the show.  “Why should I go if I don’t have to be there?” he asked, somewhat rhetorically.  “Maybe just because you like to go to services,” I thought.  “After all, you are a rabbi.”  Of course being the polite person that my mother trained me to be, that thought stayed in my mind.  It is still there to this day.

It is a strange game, the rabbinate.  There are many traps and pitfalls.  Ego is one.  An over inflated sense of self-importance is another.  The tendency to evaluate yourself (both personally and professionally) based upon what others say about you.  But one under appreciated challenge of the rabbinate is that it can rob you of many of the things that drew you to it in the first place.  A love of study and prayer, the chance to sit in community in quiet reflection, the desire to go to services, as opposed to staying home.

There is an old joke, often told.  A mother tries to wake her son.  “You have to get up!  Its time to go to shul!”  “I don’t want to go to shul,” he responds forcefully.  “You have to go!  its Shabbes!”  “I don’t want to go, I just want to stay in bed and sleep.”  “You have to go,” said the mother, “there is a bar mitzvah!”  “I don’t want to go, I’m tired, I don’t like going to shul.”  Finally, the mother said “You have to go, you are the rabbi!”

Going to shul in another community can give you a deeper appreciation for what you have in your own congregation.  It can also give you a deeper appreciation for what you have in your own heart.

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The One Who Brings on the Evening

“Come with me” said the grandmother to her grandson.  “I want to show you something.”  Intrigued, the boy walked with his grandmother out the door to the porch at the front of the house.  She sat down in an old rocking chair that had been there for many years, and he sat in a low chair by her side.  It was a late summer day.  The sun hugged the western horizon.

“What do you want to show me?” asked the boy.  “Just watch and wait,” said his grandmother.  “Just watch and wait.”

It was quiet and calm.  The boy heard a sprinkler from up the street.  He smelled fresh cut grass.  He saw long shadows cast by the trees as the sun continued its descent.  A man walked by with his dog, waved at the boy and his grandmother.  The blue sky became indigo, streaks of red still in the west.  Birds were chirping and singing in the trees, and two squirrels were chasing each other, back and forth.  Across the street, in the darkness that slowly formed between houses, the magical glimmer of lightning bugs, twinkling in the air.  The boy looked up to the heavens, and he saw the first stars appearing in the sky, the spiral light of Venus rising first and shining best.

He looked at his grandmother.  Deep lines in her face, and a bright light in her eyes.  Night slowly came down around them.  Leaves rustled in the breeze, and the streetlights came on, one by one, with a strange and soft groaning sound, almost reluctant in their casting of light into the night.

How long they sat there the boy was not sure.  He heard crickets and the croaking of frogs, in the distance cars traveling on the highway, the soft breathing of his grandmother, his own heart beating. Night had come.  They sat there for a time, as if to make sure.  Now there were many stars, hundreds, thousands of them illuminating the darkened sky.  He heard the creak of his grandmother’s rocking chair.  She got up and took his hand.  Together they walked back into the warm light of the house.

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An Infield Drill

This is now the 17th summer that I’ve spent running laps at the local high school track.  Down a hill on the track’s eastern side are the school’s athletic fields – 3 baseball diamonds, 2 soccer ‘pitches’ and a lacrosse field.  As I run around the southeast corner of the track I have a full view of one of the baseball diamonds that lasts for about 30 seconds or so, until my jogging puts the field behind me, out of my line of sight.

Yesterday there were two coaches walking a team of 14 or 15 year old boys through a series of infield drills.  It seemed to me a try out for the team.  The coaches wanted to see what the boys could do, what their skills were, which of them could field a hard grounder or catch a fly ball.  The boys were stacked in 2s and 3s at each base.  The coach would  hit a grounder towards first, second, third, or short, and the boy at the front of that line would be charged with fielding the ball, and then making the proper play, generally throwing to first base.

There was one particular boy who caught my eye.  Dirty white t-shirt.  Non-descript grey sweats.  Old logo-less baseball cap.  He had longish hair (the look I remember from the 70s when I was growing up, that seems to come back every 10 years or so!).  He did not move with the smooth grace of some of his friends.  Stationed at first, I watched the coach hit the ball in his direction.  He backed up slightly and stabbed his glove downward as the ball slipped through his legs.  ‘Take another one!’ the coach yelled out.  This ball to the boy’s left.  It caught the bottom of his glove and dribbled up the first base line.  He hung his head and walked to the back of the line.

I know what that feels like.  We all do, in one way or another.  Something we desperately want, someone we desperately want to be.  And then that (terrible) moment when we realize it just isn’t going to work out the way we had hoped or even dreamed.  In my mind I imagined the coach posting a list of names somewhere, those who had been chosen, selected to participate in a long summer of golden evenings, balls and strikes, wins and losses.  And this young man walking down to see the list, knowing in his heart his name was not there, but needing to look, to confirm it.  He goes when he knows no one else will be there.  Alone, facing his fate.  His eye runs over the list once or twice and not seeing his name, he turns his back and slowly walks home.

A bit later they had switched to fielding fly balls.  The boy caught my eye again as a high ball sailed to his right.  He tracked the flight of the baseball, ran, raised his glove, and there was a satisfying pop as the ball settled into the glove’s webbing.  He casually transferred the ball to his throwing arm and threw it back to the infield.  I thought, in the distance, I could see the hint of a smile on his face.

The Talmud teaches that a person cannot stand by words of Torah unless he has failed at them (Gittin 43a).  That is to say through failure we grow, and ultimately in that growth we can find success and meaning.  We might say the same thing about baseball.  And even life itself.

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Book Thoughts

The summer reading list is moving along. I just finished the Dara Horn book A Guide for the Perplexed – more on that in a moment. I’ve moved on to the Simon Schama history book Story of the Jews. So far a lively read with a focus on primary source evidence and what it teaches us about specific times, places, and lives. As a proper history book this one is both longish (some 500 pages or so) and slower reading. Might be pretty much all I read in July. Saving Dickens and Shakespeare for August. Now that is what I am talking about!

Back to Dara Horn.  I enjoyed the novel, and recommend it, but didn’t love it.  It is largely a musing on three things: sibling relationships, memory, and identity.  The book is structured around the relationships between a series of siblings – the sisters Josie and Judith, Maimonides and his brother David, and Solomon Schechter and his brother.  Additional sibling pairs reinforce the book’s exploration of sibling rivalry, jealousy, loyalty, and love.  To a certain extent the basic story reflects the Joseph cycle in Genesis.  Josie in Hebrew is Josefa.  She is put into a pit by her sister, named Judith (read Genesis 37) and later Judith suggests that Josie go to Egypt.  Horn, always working through a Jewish lens, also weaves in quotations from Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed (hence the book’s title) which don’t work quite as well as the Joseph material. 

Memory is also a central theme in the book, and the image of the genizah, both THE Geniza in Egypt and a software program that files memories away called genizah serve to probe ideas of how memory defines us and how sometimes what we actually need to be able to do to move forward in life is forget.  Horn’s description of the way the Genizah software works is eerily reminiscent of much of the technology we deal with day to day.  To a certain extent it is true today – everything we do, say, almost even think, is recorded (at least online).  I would like to have seen more exploration of this idea.

Lastly, identity.  What makes us who we are?  How much control do we have over that?  Can we choose to be someone else, can we stand in someone else’s shoes?  Is one of our goals in life to come to terms with who we really are, even it that person isn’t exactly who we want to be?

Looking back at what I’ve just written it is starting to sound a little bit like a brain storming session for High Holy Day sermons.  I hope you’ll forgive me.  After all, with the 4th of July behind us summer is officially here, which also means it will soon be gone.  Where that time goes I’ll never know.  The best I can do is hope to remember – some of it.

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