Monthly Archives: September 2014

A Stiff Necked People

here a text version of my sermon from the second day of Rosh Hashanah:

This Rosh Hashanah, as we come together to mark the beginning of a new year, there are Jews gathering all over Baltimore in celebration.  Our purpose is the same, whether we are praying here at Beth El today, or at Chizuk Amuno, or at Beth Tfiloh or Oheb or Baltimore Hebrew – to thank God for the year that has gone by, to ask God that in the year to come we should all be inscribed in the Book of Life, and that the world will somehow find a way to peace.  But if our purpose is the same, our traditions – the traditions of our various congregations – can vary greatly.  Baltimore Hebrew folk started their new year picnicking at Oregon Ridge Wednesday night.  People at Beth Tfiloh are bringing in the New Year in their own way, and at Chizuk the same, with their own traditions and customs.

One tradition that may be unique to Beth El that has developed over the years is that commonly there is at least one sermon given on RH, that in one way or another deals with baseball.  This was a tradition that Rabbi Loeb started many years ago, when he spoke about Cal Ripkin and his consecutive game record.  Since that time sermons have been given about the famous base running mistake of Fred Merkel, or the good deeds of the knuckerballer Tim Wakefield, or the pitcher that threw a perfect game only to have it ruined by an umpire’s bad call a few years ago.

The tradition of speaking a bit about baseball at Beth El has become so established that Rabbi Saroken even asked me, just a few weeks ago, what baseball story I would be talking about this year.  And then she had a request – “Do you think,” she said, “you could tell a baseball story about women?  Whenever you talk about baseball, it is about men.”  Now ladies and gentleman, I don’t think I have to tell you that I believe in egalitarian Judaism.  But egalitarian baseball?  That was something I did not quite have my head around, and so I filed Rabbi Saroken’s question in the back of my mind, and it slowly simmered there while I thought of other sermons, and also of potential baseball stories that I might relate to you this holiday.

And then, out of the blue, the answer to Rabbi Saroken’s question appeared in the form of a slender 13 year old girl by the name of Mo’ne Davis.   Mo’ne is the star pitcher of the Taney Dragons, a little league team from Philadelphia that this year went all the way to the Little League World Series semi finals.  She can throw a 70 mile per hour fastball, which I probably couldn’t even see, let alone hit, and in the course of the summer she became the darling of the baseball world.  She was the first girl ever in the 67 year history of the Little League World Series to throw a shut out, not allowing the other team even a single run.  She was only the 6th girl in the history of the event to get a hit.  And she was the first Little Leaguer in history – boy or girl! – the first one – to land on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

By all reports Ms. Davis is a humble young woman with a good head on her shoulders.  She has handled all of the attention with great aplomb, continues to work hard in school, and at this point has pretty much put the baseball business behind her, because after all basketball season will be starting soon and evidently she is as accomplished on the hardwood as she is on the baseball diamond.  Nevertheless, it might be worthwhile just for a moment or two to consider what exactly it is that enables a young woman to succeed, on such a high level, in a sport that is without question dominated by boys and men.

And the first thing I would say about that is we must take into account the words of the great baseball sage Yoggi Berra who once famously said “baseball is %90 mental, and the other half is physical.”  And although Yoggi’s math is evidently even worse than mine, the point is well taken.  On the surface we might think about Mo’ne’s accomplishments as physical, but the truth is what enabled her to do what she did was only in part her physical ability.  I would argue much more important was her character, her mind, and her spirit – more what was in her heart and her kishkes than what was in her arm.

And I would suspect that among all of her other qualities, she also has one quality that is very often associated with the Jewish people.  Anyone who knows anything about baseball will tell you that a pitcher just can’t be successful unless he – or she! – has a very strong will. Baseball is a team sport, but at its core, perhaps more so than in any other sport – it is a contest between two players, one on one – the pitcher and the batter.  And that, my friends, is a contest of wills.  And in a contest of wills, it is the person who will not give in who ends up on top.

In the Mahzor, the High Holy Day prayer book, there is a phrase that appears multiple times, especially on Yom Kippur as a prelude to the recitation of the lists of sins.  Right before the ashamnu we say this:  שאין אנחנו עזי פנים וקשי עורף לומר לפניך – that we are not so stubborn, to say before You, God, that we have not sinned.  We are not THAT stubborn, perhaps, but stubborn we are certainly are.  In the Torah, God Godself calls the Jewish people an am k’shei oref – a stiff necked, stubborn people.  And for those of us who work as professionals in the Jewish community, it would probably be hard to disagree.  It is of course where all of the old jokes come from about 2 Jews and 3 opinions, or the Jew on the desert island who builds two shuls, the one he goes to every Shabbat and the one he wouldn’t set foot in.

Generally stubbornness is looked at as a negative quality, but what I want to suggest today is that there is something positive about being a stiff necked people, maybe even something necessary.  That if we hadn’t been a stiff necked people all these years, then we wouldn’t be where we are today, and possibly we wouldn’t even be at all.  You can trace this all the way back to our father Abraham, about whom we read on Rosh Hashanah, who was stubborn enough, courageous enough, strong willed enough – in other words, “stiff necked” enough – to speak out and say things that others didn’t want said, or to do things that others didn’t want done.  To smash his father’s idols, for example, as the Midrash teaches us, when he was a child.  Or to argue even with God about the fate of the citizens of Sodom and Gomorroh.  You’ve got to have a strong will and a stiff neck to argue with God.  There is a long standing debate about why Abraham was chosen by God to be the father of the Jewish people, and I think you can very plausibly make the argument that one reason was that he was stiff necked and stubborn.

But it is not just Abraham.  Think of David, not yet a king, walking out alone into the field of battle to face Goliath.  Or Esther walking into King Ahashverous’ throne room, hoping he will raise his scepter.  Or Mordecai refusing to bow down to Haman. Or in modern times Theodore Herzl traipsing around the world to insist that there should be a Jewish state, and that it should be located in the land of Israel.   We might easily say that if we were NOT a stiff necked people, Jewish history would have been very different, and we might even wonder if there would be a Jewish community – here at Beth El, in Baltimore, and around the world – to welcome in this New Year, 5775.

So at the beginning of this new year, among all the things we are thankful for, let us also be thankful for that strength of will.  God knows we needed it in the year just ending.  Lets make sure we continue to use it in the year that is ahead.  Lets be stubborn and stiff necked.  Lets be stubborn and stiff necked when we stand up for the State of Israel.  Lets be stubborn about insisting that our children and grandchildren come to Hebrew school so they can be Jewishly educated, even when classes conflict with soccer and lacrosse games.  Lets be stubborn about continuing to engage in Jewish life and rituals even when our children have left home.  Lets be stubborn about giving to Jewish causes, even when there are a million other good causes out there.  Lets be stubborn and stiff necked to stand up for the things we believe in, for the values that we hold, for the people that we love, and for the world we want to see – after all, we are a stubborn and stiff necked people – so we might as well put it to good use in the new year –

may it be a year of health and peace –

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Might and Right – Israel’s Challenges

here a text version of my sermon from the first day of Rosh Hashanah – לשנה טובה

The prayers we offer on RH day are both personal and communal.  We ask God to consider particular hopes, dreams, and concerns that are ours alone, found only in the depths of our own hearts.  But our needs are larger. So we pray also for all people in all places, for peace in the world, for Jews everywhere, and certainly for the state of Israel and her well being.  I know that many of us today come to shul concerned not only about ourselves and our families. We are worried  about the world around us during a dark and difficult time.  About rising anti-Semitism in Europe.  And certainly we come to the beginning of this new year with deep concern in our hearts and souls for the State of Israel.

To say that this has been a difficult year for the Jewish people and for the State of Israel would be understatement.  Sometimes it doesn’t seem to matter what we do, how much we give back to the world, it doesn’t matter that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, that some of the world’s most important technologies come from Israel, that regardless of where we live, Jews make contributions to our surrounding culture and country, to sciences and the arts, to intellectual life, that far exceed our numbers. Especially over the last months, as Israeli soldiers were fighting Hamas in Gaza, and Israeli civilians were running for bomb shelters, we worried and we wondered, and we hoped and prayed for peace, and yet virtually the entire world seemed to blame the Jews.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about all of this is how familiar it is.  Over the summer I read Simon Schama’s new book, a history of the Jewish people, and one thing that quickly became clear – especially in the second half of the book – is how tragically familiar we should be with persecution, prejudice, and a sense of isolation.  In virtually every period of our history it is something we’ve wrestled with and struggled against, and any read through the scope of Jewish history is an immediate reminder of how miraculous it is that we are still here today.

Towards the end of his book, Schama describes the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.  Ferdinand and Isabella, the king and queen, signed the decree giving the Jews 3 months to leave or convert. Don Isaac Abravanel, one the of the great Jewish leaders and scholars of that time, hoped to intervene with the king and queen. He asked whether they had considered ‘that stretching back to antiquity some of the greatest powers on earth imagined that by decreeing exile and dispersion they would end Jewish history and break the covenant of the people with their God.’  ‘Those powers,’ he said to the king and queen, ‘are now all gone, while the Jewish people have survived, and continued, with faith, to pray for the coming of the Messiah.’

It was a courageous statement, because of the truth it conveyed, that those great powers that had oppressed the Jews disappeared entirely – while tiny little Israel had managed to survive. The  Egyptian pyramids became relics, Babylonian and Assyrian culture faded away, the Roman empire fell, but the Jews, despite destruction, despite exile, despite small numbers and centuries of homeless wandering, kept their faith with an ancient covenant and survived.

How did they do this? Schama asks.

It was, he claims, the power of the word that gave Israel the strength to outlive and outlast its antagonists.  By this he means the expressions of the mind, the ideas and values, the morals and ethics, that came to define Judaism, Jewish life, and the Jewish people.  Even when the great physical symbols of Jewish life in antiquity were destroyed, when Jerusalem’s walls came down, when the Temple itself was taken apart stone by stone, when the Jewish people were exiled, and without a homeland, what they always had were their words which gave expression to their practices and values. The Temple could be gone, but Torah could be carried anywhere.  Medgar Evers, the black civil rights activist from the early 60s said it well – “you can kill a man, but you can not kill an idea.”

500 years ago Ferdinand and Isabella were not moved by Abravanel, and the Spanish Expulsion became yet another tragedy in the long history of our people.  But Abravanel knew that there is a victory to be achieved through the word, through ideas and values, through the divine spirit, that can not be achieved through political power or military might. In fact, in our holiday filled calendar, there’s only one that deals with a military victory – Hanukah.  And even in that story we often emphasize the miracle of the oil over the might of the Maccabee army.  The popular song for Hanukah, from the words of the prophet Zachariah sums it up – 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, for so much of our history bereft of a nation, military power, and independence, we learned to define our victories by the spirit, not by the sword.

But the truth is that we paid a terrible price, time and again, when we lacked a sword. For 2000 years we prayed for the ability to control our own destiny, for the power of a state that could protect us against those who would do us harm.  Only in the last 66 years have our prayers been answered and we’ve seen the restoration of Jewish national sovereignty and military strength in the State of Israel.  What we can be grateful for today is that Israel’s sword is strong.  The threat of Hamas is plainly serious, and there is no question in my mind that Israel had to go into Gaza this summer.  No nation should tolerate a continual barrage of rockets fired at its civilian population.  So Israel did what it had to do, what any other nation would do and took up the sword.

I also believe that the responsibility for this war lies at the feet of Hamas, with their tunnels and rockets, and all they had to do to stop it was to stop firing their missiles.  In this sense Israel is not only on the side of might, she’s also on the side of right. Nevertheless, I believe it’s a tragedy, that Palestinian civilians were killed in the course of Israel’s response and to suggest otherwise would be to abandon Zacharia’s understanding of Jewish values.

We know how the IDF goes out of its way to avoid civilian casualties. The IDF warns an area that an attack is coming so civilians can leave, and that is Jewish values.  But how can these values be retained in the face of constant provocation and the lack of peace with the Palestinian people?  The Iron Dome protects Israel from physical harm, but what shields her soul, what protects her Jewish spirit?  How will the tension between חיל and רוחי, between strength of arms and the strength of the divine spirit be resolved in the course of time?

We all felt shame when three Israeli Jews carried out a revenge killing of a Palestinian teen, and collectively we experienced that moment as a failure of the Jewish spirit.  And yes, it was just a few individuals, but there is a context that makes something like that conceivable – an atmosphere, an environment that exists – in Israel, and in the diaspora too- that makes an act like that possible.  And that atmosphere is a threat to Israel – a moral, spiritual threat, in the same way that Hamas or Iran are physical threats.  In the ongoing challenge to maintain a sense of Jewish values and Jewish life, to keep Israel as a proud Jewish nation, that incident was a battle that was lost.

The great Torah reading during the Days of Awe is the Binding of Isaac narrative.  The first verse of that text is ‘and it came to pass after these things that God TESTED Abraham.’  We are old hands at being tested.  In a sense our faith began then, and we’ve been tested ever since.  With exile and destruction, with anti-Semitism and isolation, generation after generation.  And in our day, Israel is being tested once again.  As she was in ’48, and ’67, and ’73.

And what I submit to you is this:  passing the test of ‘might’ – the test of arms, of military strength and power – is the test today. Not only if Israel can reduce the missile arsenal of Hamas, but also if her actions are to be moral and ethical when she does it?  Not only must she root out terror and destroy tunnels, but also keep her values focused on human rights and dignity and life.  And the bar must be set high.  Not because the rest of the world expects more of the Jews, not because the rest of the world holds us and Israel to a higher standard, but because we do!  Because Israel holds itself to a higher standard.  That is what makes Israel Israel.  And it is what makes Israel Jewish.  And we must not lose sight of that.  And most importantly of all, Israel must not lose sight of it.

The good news is this: I don’t believe she ever will.  Israel truly is an amazing country, and Israelis amazing people.  When the Palestinian teenager was killed Israelis all over the country, from every stripe of life, secular, religious, white collar, blue collar, men, women, came together to express their shock, their sadness, their sorrow and shame. Because there was a sense – in the nation – that a line had been crossed, that a test of the spirit had been failed.  And then there was a determination, a national sense of urgency, that that line should not be crossed again, and that the next test should be passed.

For more than 2000 years Jews have gathered on Rosh Hashanah, and collectively, as a nation small in number yet great in spirit, we have prayed for חיים life, for שלום peace, and for תיקון עולם for a better and more Godlike world.  These ideals are in our DNA, they are at the heart of Jewish life, and they have now defined Israel as a nation for 66 years.  And despite dark days, and difficult times Israel will continue to live by those values in the years ahead, until, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, שלום שלום לרחוק ולקרוב there will be peace, there will peace, to those who are near, and to those far away  –

My colleague Michael Graetz who has lived in Israel for many years described Beer Sheva’s annual wine festival that took place just a few days ago.  Beer Sheva, is in the south, not far from Gaza, where many of the Hamas missiles were directed over the summer. And here is what he writes:

“It is an exuberant and fully enjoyable experience for all who come. Artisanal food and wines are on display, and samples are freely given. Thousands of people come out to enjoy the wine tasting, cheeses, olives, jams, breads and many other goodies. In addition there is live entertainment, with jazz groups and some of Israel’s top singers performing for the crowd. There are lots of tables and chairs, many young couples with babies in strollers, in short, a festival of joy and spirit for all. No pressures, just camaraderie, good food, and the most heard phrase over and over again was shana tovah.

“In short, my spirit soared, as I looked out on the few thousands in the space lit up with colored lights, after sampling some really great wine and cheese. You could feel the joy and social cohesion almost as tangible as the lights and music in the night.

“Then, I had a somber moment, when I realized that just a few weeks ago, all of those people, and the babies, and me too were at home at night waiting to hear not jazz but the next siren. We would then dutifully get up and move to a shelter. Some in Beer Sheva were not that fortunate, and houses were destroyed, people injured and even died. But last night, and tonight as well, we are living for life, we are choosing life. We are celebrating our skills at making things, and our religious traditions of a new year that celebrates the beginning of all life. Israelis are living for the now and the future, in our own very special Jewish way. We are determined to do it, and we will. An amazing drummer of a young jazz group started a riff, and went wild.  The crowd almost got still, and exploded into a big ovation at the end. Yes, Yes, Yes that is the spirit of Israel. Teach it and spread it around.”

Let us do that together – this year, next year, for many years to come, as we build towards a world that one day will have peace –

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Where Worlds Touch

a text version of remarks I made at the annual congregational memorial service this past Sunday –

I’ve been asked many times over the years by people, generally with a sense of embarrassment, if I think it is strange that they continue to talk with someone who is dead.  They often describe what they mean to me – it might be a regular trip to the cemetery, or perhaps when they come to shul and touch a person’s memorial plaque, or sometimes each evening before they go to bed.  Some people tell me they spend at least part of every day talking with someone who no longer walks in this world.  What they talk about is generally simple – sometimes they might tell the person they’ve lost that they miss them.  Other times, commonly, they give the person updates on the family, on friends, on important events, this grandchild has graduated, whatever it might be.  They share hopes, and dreams, they express their worries and their fears.

I always ask the person who reports this experience to me if it is comforting to them, and almost without exception they tell me that it is.  It is an assurance to them that the person they’ve lost is still a part of their lives, still present in a way, still connected to them and to their family.  Those conversations with the dead can help people get through a day, or a difficult moment of their lives.  They can help them get ready for a big moment, a wedding or a graduation or a bar or bat mitzvah, when they particularly wish the person they’ve lost could be there with them.

I mentioned a moment ago that when people tell me about these conversations they often seem embarrassed, as if there might be something wrong with what they are about to share with me, as if it is a secret that they don’t want others to know about, I suppose because they are worried people will think it strange.  But I tell them that my sense is that nearly everyone has these conversations, in one form or another.  Some people literally speak out loud when they stand by a grave, and laugh and cry, as if the person is right there, in the very same physical space.  Others have the conversations in their minds, quietly, and for others the conversation does not happen through words, but rather through a feeling, a sudden sentiment or thought that floods into their being.  But for almost everyone who has lost a person that they have shared life with, walked with, lived with, loved, for almost everyone, the conversation continues.

And often, the conversation continues here, in the cemetery.  In the course of a given year I will walk into a cemetery well over a hundred times.  For the burial service of a funeral I am conducting, or to officiate at an unveiling.  And virtually every time I enter a cemetery there is someone else there.  They sit by a grave, they bring flowers, they gently place stones on the markers of people they love.  Some spend only a few minutes, while others brings chairs and will spend an hour or even part of a day.  The cemetery is a place where worlds touch, where our world of flesh and blood and trees and grass and wind and sky can somehow touch the world to come, a place of memory and spirit and rest and peace.  And when the worlds touch our hopes and dreams, our worries and fears, our thoughts – and yes, even our words – can somehow find a way to the other side.

And if the cemetery is a place where the worlds touch, the Yom Tov season is a time when they touch.  When memory is shaper, more distinct.  When the sense of loss is stronger, knowing that another year has gone by.  When the determination to live our lives in such a way that we honor the memories of those we remember today is most in our minds – let the words of our tradition guide us as we remember, and let us begin again the conversations that never end –


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Public Lives, Private Selves

here a text version of yesterday morning’s Shabbat sermon (9/20):

This is a time of year, with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur just around the corner, when I spend a fair amount of my time thinking about the difference between the public persona that we show the rest of the world, and the private person that we are on the inside.  As you may imagine, for a rabbi this is not an insignificant issue.  Rabbis are often in the public eye, speaking, leading services, at meetings, in the kiddish – to be honest with you, even in the foodstore or a restaurant – we are seen as the rabbi.  And with that there are certain expectations, ideas that people automatically have about a rabbi’s tastes, habits, likes and dislikes.  I am always amused at the perplexed look that appears on someone’s face when they find out that I am a serious Grateful Dead fan, and that look comes from their understanding, their belief that being a rabbi and being a Deadhead are incompatible.

There are rabbis I know who have a very compartmentalized public persona, so much so that they speak differently when they are ‘rabbiing’ than they do in conversation with close friends, and I don’t mean when giving a sermon, I mean even in any conversation or meeting.  Personally I work hard to keep a connection, a sense of consistency, between rabbi and Steve, between my public life and my private self, in part because I’ve always felt I don’t want to work in a profession where I feel I have to be someone I’m not.  That being said there is a distinction, which is probably healthy, between my private life, my private self, and my public role and professional demeanor.

Of course the truth is it is the same for everyone.  Regardless of what kind of work you do, the chances are high that there is a certain way that you act at work, of speaking, even of standing, talking, whatever it might be – that is different from the way you do it at home.  There is an outer picture that we present to the world, often a picture of competence and confidence, a sense we project that everything is OK, that we are satisfied with our lives, that we wake up with no doubts and we go to bed with a clear conscience.  But inside, privately, everyone has doubts and misgivings, regrets and insecurities.  Have we made the right choices in our lives?  Have we been there for people in the right way?  Those thoughts tend to stay on the inside, and we rarely articulate them, rarely allow them to bubble to the surface.

This dynamic, this tension between what we show on the outside and who we are on the inside, our public and private selves, is a core element of this week’s Torah portion.  We have a double portion, Ntzavim and Vayeilach, and the second of the two portions is mostly a description of God in effect forcing Moses to step down from his role as leader of the people.  God tells Moses that he needs to prepare himself, because he is going to die soon, and that he needs to prepare the people for his impending absence.  God tells him that he has to go to Joshua, who will succeed him, that he has to let the people know that Joshua will be their leader, and he has to tell them that in public, with Joshua by his side.  Then God tells him to write down the Torah text, to leave a record for the Israelites and Joshua, so that they will know what to do even after Moses is gone.  And then, for all intents and purposes, God tells him to go and die.

And I am always amazed, every time I read this narrative, at how compliant Moses is.  God tells him he is going to die, Moses doesn’t say a word!  God tells him to get Joshua, to stand with him in front of the people, to let the people know that Joshua will be the leader now, Moses just does it.  On the surface – the public persona that he shows to the people – he is unemotional, he is the obedient servant, not questioning, not kvetching, not refusing.  Follow marching orders.  But would you wouldn’t blame him for saying “God listen I will do what you want, but don’t ask me to be the one to stand in front of the people with Joshua and announce that now he is in charge and I’m not.  Have someone else do it!”  But he doesn’t.  You might think he would say “God can I have a few more weeks, maybe just a year to enjoy my retirement,” but he doesn’t say that either.  He just goes about his business, command by command, statement by statement, and he never once questions or complains.  Calm, cool, collected – even detached – that is the public image of Moses we see in this morning’s reading.

But the Midrash, the rabbinic commentary on the text, paints a very different picture.  The rabbis who wrote it give us a glimpse of the private Moses, of what is going on on the inside.  In these imaginative commentaries Moses tries every trick in the book to get just a little more time.  He complains to God, saying ‘this is not fair!  I did everything you asked me to do.  I confronted Pharaoh, I brought the plagues, I led the people out of Egypt, I took them to Sinai, I led them through the wilderness for 40 years, I brought them right to the edge of the Promised Land, and now you tell me I can’t even go in, and on top of that that I am about to die.  Its not fair.”  And Moses pleads with God, he begs God, then he goes to the Heavens and the sun and the moon and the ocean and he convinces them to plead with God on his behalf.  In the end nothing works, because his decree has been sealed, it cannot be undone.  But we see page after page of a very human Moses, emotional, wearing his heart on his sleeve, and fighting to the very end of his life for just a little more time, and a bit more dignity.

And I’ve always been grateful that the tradition gives us this different picture of how Moses experienced the last days of his life.  His public persona is hard to relate to – that Moses in this morning’s Torah reading, just blindly following God’s orders, not raising a word of protest, the loyal soldier.  When I look at that Moses there is very little I can relate to.  But the Moses in the midrash, the private Moses, the emotional, fiesty, arguing Moses, is probably familiar to all of us.  He is afraid and worried.  He is jealous of Joshua, and he is angry with God.  He is so vividly human, with faults and frailties, with doubts and anxieties, with a fierce will to live and to hold on to the things that are important to him in his life.

I like that Moses – it is a Moses I can relate to – as a model, he gives me some extra strength going into the High Holy Day season, when we do spend hours before God, praying and thinking about our lives.  That private Moses reminds me that I can kvetch a little bit if there is something I don’t like about my life.  That I can bring my fears and worries and concerns with me to services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and in fact if I don’t, I am not representing who I truly am.  That if I feel upset or angry with God, I can let God know about it.  And that ultimately the fall holidays are supposed to be about who we truly are on the inside, and recovering, or rediscovering, that sense of self as we prepare to move forward into a new year.

may it be a year of health and blessing –

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Sermons Here, Sermons There, Sermons, Sermons Everywhere

Just a quick note tonight, Thursday, which after all is dedicated to guitar!  The Rosh Hashanah sermons are coming into shape.  This year with our new combined second day service I am giving three of them (up one from last year).  Here is the current plan:

Erev Rosh Hashanah is generally more of a ‘nosh’ than a full fledged sermon.  This year I will speak a bit about the ALS ice bucket challenge.  What exactly happened there, why did it grab the attention of so many people and what can it teach us about synagogue life? It seems to me there are many potential parallels, and I’ll hope to lay them out in my remarks that evening.

Day 1 of Rosh Hashanah – the topic on everyone’s mind – Israel.  I think it is hard not to say something about Israel this year during the High Holy Days.  No question it will be on everyone’s mind as they settle into their seats.  The question, of course, is what to say?  Just standing up there and saying ‘go Israel’ doesn’t seem to me to be sufficient.  My comments will explore the two sided challenge, or test, that Israel faces – on the one hand, the test of might – is she physically (militarily) capable of defending herself?  But on the other hand, the test of ‘right.’  While defending herself, can she maintain her moral and ethical values?  Might does always make right.

Day 2 of RH – baseball!  I commonly talk about baseball at some point during the Days of Awe, often the evening of Rosh Hashanah.  This year it will be day 2.  A good topic for Baltimoreans this year, as the Orioles will be in the playoffs through the holidays.  The baseball theme is a chance to think about the description of the Jewish people as stiff necked, found throughout the Mahzor and the Torah.

So there you have it, on one leg.  Stay tuned for information about Yom Kippur topics.  Same Bat channel, same Bat time…


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Things That Sneak Up On You

“Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.”  These the words of the legendary Satchel Paige, one of the greatest ball players (a pitcher)  from the Negro Leagues who also made a mark in Major League Baseball.  Despite his sage words, this is the time of year when Jews spend quite a bit of time looking back.  On the year that has gone by, or even the years that have passed.  As astonishing as it sometimes feels, another year has come and gone.  When we look back, what do we see?

One thing is for sure.  There are certain things that just seem to sneak up on us.  We are walking along the path of life, going about our day to day business, doing the things we need to do, when suddenly we realize that something unexpected is right behind us.  How did it get there?  Where did it come from?  Nothing to be done except shake the head, take a glance for a moment or two, perhaps even reflect, and then move forward.

I hear this all the time from people.  How did I get to be 90?  Even more incredible, how is it possible that I have a child who is 50?  Or 60? Or a grandchild who is married, or graduated from college?  Where does the time go and how does it pass so swiftly, all the while barely making a noise?

But there are other things that sneak up on us.  Fall for one.  One day the weather is just a bit cooler, a few leaves in the trees have started to shed color, you break out that old trusty fleece, and suddenly you realize – ‘why, it must be fall!’  Old age does it as well.  Not just the numbers, the candles on the cake, but the way your body feels, works (or doesn’t work!).  A new kvetch here, reading glasses there, certain things you wouldn’t have thought twice about doing a year or two ago that now you wouldn’t even think of attempting.  Or what about our children’s independence?  One day they need you for everything – a ride here, help with homework there, making dinner, doing laundry, even walking down into the basement by themselves, for crying out loud!  And then suddenly they are living independent lives, on their own, making their own decisions, living their own lives.

And of course the holidays themselves.  We always say they are early or late, but either way they seem to come upon us unexpectedly.  As if we just don’t quite believe that Rosh Hashanah could be next week, that the briskets need to be prepared, the tables set, the sermons written, the synagogue made ready.  Isn’t it always that way – just when you least expect it, there it is.  And right on time.

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Being There

One of my favorite films, starring the great Peter Sellers.  He plays a simple man named Chance who has lived his entire life in the home of a wealthy man, tending the man’s garden.  All he knows of the world he has learned from watching TV.  When the man dies, Chance is forced to leave his lifetime home and make his way in the outside world.  He speaks only in plain platitudes and garden cliches – ‘spring, summer, fall, winter…and then spring again,’ being one example.  Yet through a series of serendipitous events he rises through the upper echelons of Washington society, until toward the end of the movie he is seriously being considered as a presidential candidate.  His simplistic statements are mistaken for profundities.  His detached manner is perceived as being wise and elegant, and people believe he must have been bred and educated in society’s very best institutions.  Chance is an uneducated gardener who knows almost nothing about the world, but people perceive of him as one of the wisest and most powerful men in Washington.  And, as the old saying goes, perception is reality.

The last scene of the film is puzzling and dazzling all at the same time.  It is winter, and Chance is attending the funeral of a wealthy benefactor.  He seems distracted and begins to wander away, through a forest on the estate towards a lake.  As he approaches the edge of the lake he stoops to tend a bent pine sapling. And then he looks out to the distance, stands, and walks out onto the water.  Onto it.  As the film closes he can be seen walking across the lake without sinking – literally walking on the water.

At some point in rabbinical school I was assigned an article written by Rabbi Jack Bloom called ‘The Rabbi as Symbolic Exemplar.’  Bloom argues that when people look at the rabbi, they see the person, but their perception of the person is always colored by the innate status of the title they hold.  And how people think about what the rabbi does, what the rabbi says, how the rabbi acts, and all the way down the line, is irrevocably colored by the fact that the rabbi is the rabbi.  The role of rabbi is a coating, a status, that can not be shed.

When I first read the article, I frankly thought it a bit of a stretch.  But now, beginning my 17th year in the rabbinate, I am not so sure.  Over time I have come to realize that my status as rabbi is inseparable, for many people, from who I am as a person.  In this way it is more than a profession, it is an identity, one that comes with certain expectations, with ideas about what rabbis are interested in, with notions of how rabbis dress, of what books rabbis read or what movies rabbis like.

In Being There, perhaps Chance just wants to get away from it all.  To leave the strange situation he has found himself in, and get back to the garden, where he is comfortable, where he knows who he is and what he has to do.  But then why the walking on water?  I am still working on that one.  In the meantime, anytime I am going to go into the water I will bring my swim suit.  I can float for a bit, but after a while I guarantee you I will sink.

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