Monthly Archives: February 2015

A Davening Spot

I am an inveterate davener.  Each weekday morning, regardless of my schedule, of how busy I am, of how much time I have, I make sure to don tallit and tefillin and to recite the morning service. OK, sometimes the recitation is on the fast side, but still.  I can’t exactly tell you why I am so committed to this.  Habit?  The search for a few meditative moments to start the day? Connection to the tradition?  To history?  Maybe even to the Divine?  Probably some combination of those factors, but I can also tell you I am no pietist, and I do not believe God is concerned with my phylacteries, my prayer shawl, my words, even ‘the meditations of my heart.’  And yet.

This photo was taken from one of my primary prayer spots.  In our bedroom, looking out through the bay window towards the back yard, the tops of the trees, across the court and beyond.  The road goes ever on and on.    The sun was still rising, peeking from behind the leave-less branches.  The shadows, black and white, dark and light, on the shutters, the snow in the yard, undulating patterns.  All things considered not a bad spot to offer up a prayer, to acknowledge the beauty of the world, to be grateful for the blessings of life.  window

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The Paper Trail

I ordered some photos the other day.  Actual photos, on paper, 4 x 6.  Perhaps 45 of them.  We’ve been trying to clean our basement out, get rid of some of the detritus that just naturally accumulates over the years, and I came across a box of old pictures.  Nothing brings you back like an old photo.  Of your children when they were toddlers, of you and your spouse from years ago, of family members and friends.  Places you’ve been, life cycle moments, vacations taken, school players attended, snow storms survived, simple summer days when life was good.  In many ways those photos contain the essence of a family’s history.  You see instantly how the time has gone by, how things have changed, and yet in some strange way stayed the same.

As I looked through the box I began to realize that a digital photo just isn’t the same thing.  It doesn’t work the same way.  Ten years from now, or fifteen, or twenty five years from now, someone in my family won’t stumble upon a hard drive with digital photos.  That hard drive might exist, lying somewhere in the basement or tucked into the top of a closet, but it won’t be accessible.  You would need a computer, or some other device to ‘read’ the digital files.  That device would have to be running an operating system that is compatible with the data files.  The data files themselves would have to be encoded in such a way that a future system would recognize them.  The problem is, it doesn’t happen that way!  When you write something in Word, it is not uncommon that just two or three years later you can’t access that file any more.  I have a CD with old sermon files, old papers and articles, and I can’t even open those files.  Let alone the fact that my laptop doesn’t even have a CD rom drive!  We store those pictures on our hard drives or our phones (thousands upon thousands of them) but once tucked away in their digital domain they are almost invisible, lost to view, and very likely lost to future viewers.

I know, I know.  A paper trail seems so archaic.  Files that aren’t digital?  Why in the world would anyone do that?  Just imagine the space they would take up.  Photos on paper?  Stored in boxes, by year if you are organized, or just jumbled together if you are not.  Books, actual hard cover books that weigh more than a Kindle or an iPad?  But the books you can underline, write notes in, pass along to someone else if you choose to.  And the photos you can discover in a box in the basement, and while away the time looking through them, remembering the past, and smiling.

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Imagining a Better World

this a text version of yesterday’s Shabbat sermon –

This morning’s Torah portion provides us with a detailed description of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary that the Israelites used as a site of worship as they wandered in the wilderness.  The Torah text gives us every measurement, it details every ritual item, from the sacrificial altar to the ark of the covenant, and it even tells us where the items were to be placed in relation to one another.  It is very difficult from the text to form a picture in your mind, to imagine visually what the words are describing, but there is a drawing in the back of our humashim that is worth looking at – it is on page 1520.

note first of all the space – there are two perfect squares, and at the center of each square is a sacred object, in one case the sacrificial altar (מזבח), and in the other case the Kodesh Hakodeshim, the Holy of Holies where the ark was located.

– There are three areas of sacred space in the enclosure, of ascending levels of holiness.  The least holy, the outer courtyard area.  The next, what is called the ‘Holy Place’ , inside the tent where the table and menorah were located.  Then the most holy area is where the ark is located, behind the curtain.  This symbolically corresponds to Mt. Sinai, where there were also 3 areas of holiness – the least holy area the foot of the mountain where the people were.  Then half way up the mountain, where Aaron and the leaders could go.  Then there was the top of the mountain, where only Moses could go.  In this way the Tabernacle is supposed to be a movable Sinai, a way of keeping the Sinai experience with the Israelites as they wandered.

now lets look at the objects, the furnishings for the tabernacle

In the Torah reading the most detailed descriptions, the most intricate instructions, are provided about the ritual objects – you can see the artist’s depictions of them on the opposite page, 1521.  It only makes sense that these objects get the most attention because they are the most sacred objects in the entire history of the Jewish people with the exception of the two tablets that Moses brought down from the mountain.  And the most sacred of these sacred objects are the lamp stand (the menorah), the table for bread, and the ark itself.  You can see from the textual citations that all three of these objects are described in one chapter, the 25th chapter of Exodus, the very first chapter of this morning’s reading.

These items were not only the most sacred items – they were also the most beautiful, and the most expensive by far.  The Torah specifies that any solid metal parts of these objects had to be made entirely of gold, and that any wooden part of the object had to be guided with gold, in the case of the ark, not only on the outside, but even the inside had to be guided with gold.  So these objects were not only sacred, they were breathtaking, visually arresting, made by the greatest artisans of ancient Israel.  But given all of that, there is something very strange about these objects, and that is that they were never seen, by anyone.  The only exception to that was on YK day when the High Priest would go in to the Holy of Holies, and once daily when a specially appointed priest would go in to maintain the menorah’s light.

But aside from that, these objects were never seen.  Despite their beauty, despite the gold that was used to make them, despite their artistic qualities, they were never seen by anyone.  Even when the Tabernacle was moved there was one Levite who first went into the tent, took special cloths, covered over the ark, the menorah, and the table, and only then did the tent come down and did people come forward to porter the objects.  They were never seen.  Ever.

And yet people knew they were there.  People knew that inside that tent there was a beautiful Menorah made of solid gold, and the intricate showbread table gilded in gold, and the ark with its golden image of angelic figures.  And knowing that they were there, but not being able to see them, created a particular dynamic, which was that in the minds of the Israelites – in their imagination – the objects must have been even greater, even more beautiful, even more sacred than they actually were.  That is what imagination does.  That is the power of imagination.  Knowing too much – seeing too much – can take that power away.

That it seems to me is a particular challenge that especially our young people wrestle with today.  I am going to call it ‘screen syndrome.’   Our young people today spend an inordinate amount of their time staring at a screen, whether their phone, a TV, or a computer.  Current statistics estimate that the average teen will spend about 50 hours a week interacting with a screen device.  More than a full time job!  And there are many potential problems that are involved with that dynamic, but one of them, I think, is that the more time you spend staring at a screen, the less time you spend using your imagination.  Because the screen gives you access to everything, instantly – you don’t have to imagine anything!  If you want to know what something looks like, or how something works, or how you need to do something, you just look it up on your computer.  What you gain in accuracy, you lose in mystery.  What you gain in efficiency, you lose in the discovery of new things while trying to solve a problem.  When you don’t have to imagine anything, I think you don’t dream the same way, you don’t look at the world the same way.  It makes it easier to see the world for what it is, but it makes harder to see the world for what it could be.  And that – imagining the world as it could be – more than anything else, is the job of a Jew.

I believe the Oscars are this weekend?  And I love a good movie, always have.  But I love a good book even more, in fact much more.  Whenever people make movies from books, there is always a debate about which version is better, the screen version or the paper one?  For me there has never been a question.  In a movie you can show me beautiful mountains, gorgeous rivers, ancient ruins, but the images on the screen could never match the way I picture them in my mind when I read.  With today’s special effects you can make magic come to life, you can realistically depict a huge dragon flying thorough the sky, but it could never be as magical and mysterious, as terrifying and fearsome and spectacular as it was when I read those pages and conjured up those images in my own imagination.  It was not seeing them that made them even greater.

We are often called the people of the book.  This is not only because of our love of learning, but also because of our ability to imagine the world in a different way – for Abraham to grow up in a world of idol worshippers, and yet to introduce to the world the idea of monotheism;  for the ancient Israelites to live in a place of slavery and death but to somehow imagine a world of freedom and life;  for the early settlers of the land of Israel to look out over a desert wilderness, but to imagine that dry land filled with lush green fields and fruit trees;  to dwell in a broken world, but to constantly talk about tikkun olam (#tikkunolam) – the fixing of that world – a central principle of our faith.

There are two words that mean ‘to see’ in Hebrew.  One is לראות – to see what is in front of you, the physical world.  But the other is לחזות – which means to see in a different way, to envision – to imagine a future possibility.  We must see in both ways – the world as it is, but also the world as it should be.

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To Speak or Not to Speak – Is It a Question?

In 1806 the Jewish community of France received a series of instructions and questions, penned by Count Louis Mole on behalf of Napoleon.  Included in the text were questions about national and religious identity (In the eyes of Jews are Frenchmen considered brethren or strangers?), loyalty (do the Jews born in France consider France as their country?), and legal status (do the Jews in France feel bound to obey the laws and to follow the civic code of France?).  At the heart of the document is a single question:  do you consider yourselves Frenchmen first, or Jews first?  In modern parlance, when push comes to shove, is your Jewish identity more important to you than your French identity?  If you were forced to choose between loyalties, how would you choose?

To an American Jew living in the 21st century the text has an anachronistic feel and flavor.  In our minds we have long ago resolved these questions, and we live comfortably in two skins, one Jewish and one American.  We don’t see those identities as contradictory, as working against one another, but rather as parts of a whole, as seamlessly integrated aspects of who we are and how we live.  It is not uncommon in Jewish organizations today to see the flag of Israel and the flag of the United States displayed, proudly hanging in the same room and visually capturing this symbiotic sense that Judaism and American life easily go hand in hand.

But tensions between the current administrations in Israel and the US have tested these assumptions over the last few years.  The relationship between Israel and the US is strong, no question about it.  At the same time, there is also no question that Benjamin Netanyahu and Barak Obama do not exactly have a warm and fuzzy relationship.  In the Jewish community some have taken sides, believing if you are for Obama you are against Israel, to be truly for Israel you must be against the Obama administration.  In other words, you have to choose, you have to either support Israel, or support the US, and you can’t fully do both.

This tension has become much more pronounced and public because of the speech that PM Netanyahu is scheduled to give to Congress on March 3rd.  I expect you know the background, but on one foot – in a highly unusual (some say unprecedented) process, Bibi was invited to speak not by the President (the standard diplomatic protocol), but rather by John Boehner, to a joint session of Congress.  To top it off, the administration was never notified (by either side) that any kind of invitation had been extended.  And, to make matters worse, the speech is intended to be about Iran policy, and critical of the current US administration’s approach.  Both sides drew lines in the sand, refusing to budge.  It was announced Joe Biden would (conveniently) be out of town.  Some Democrats have said they would not attend.  As my Bubbie used to say, ‘oy vey!’

Lets leave behind the perceived Obama vs. Israel tension.  In many ways it is a red herring, a false dichotomy, a political trick of the trade used to make people worried and unsettled.  In a sense, a modern day version of the Napoleonic letter.  The truth is you don’t have to choose!  You can like Obama and be a strong Israel supporter.  You can dislike Obama and love the US and Israel too.  Rather than worrying about which side you should be on, imagine for a moment if this wasn’t about a contest of wills and libidos, but rather about one question and one question alone:  if Bibi speaks, is it good or is it bad for Israel?  That seems to me to be the question we should be focusing on.  Not whether it is insulting to this person or that person, not whether the administration’s feelings have been hurt, not whether Bibi needs to save face.  Instead, is this a good or bad thing for Israel?

And I don’t know about you, but I am having a hard time understanding how this is good for Israel.  Do we really believe that one speech will change US policy about Iran?  After all of the closed door conversations, all of the diplomatic discussions over the last year, one speech is going to move Congress to do what Bibi feels is in Israel’s best interests?  Let alone the President, who is responsible for setting foreign policy?  No way.  So if that goal cannot be accomplished, what good for Israel can come out of this planned speech?   The answer seems to be none.  Why, then, should the Prime Minister of Israel put his country in such a difficult situation?  Why should he put American Jews in this position?  I would say retrench and regroup.  Focus on the Israeli elections (March 17!) and on the upcoming AIPAC conference.  Both of those arenas seem appropriate for getting out a message.  Let Israel off the hook, let things settle down, and then we can all get to the real business at hand.  Lord knows, there is ‘what’ to do!

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The Torah’s Facebook Page

Some of you will remember one of the original TV crime dramas, Dragnet, where the actor Jack Webb played Sgt. Joe Friday, and Harry Morgan played his partner Officer Bill Ganon.  In each episode Friday and Ganon would methodically investigate a case, interviewing one suspect after another.  It is hard to imagine today, but in Dragnet there was barely a car chase, and rarely a gun ever drawn.  The show was quite popular in its time, and it passes the test of any all time great TV series because it introduced into our lexicon a phrase that we probably all are familiar with.  You will remember whenever they were ready to begin an interview one of the detectives would always say – Just the facts, ma’am.

Just the facts.  It is an interesting idea, the sense of it being that a series of events unfolded, and what the detectives wanted to do was just reconstruct the events, develop a timeline, and get to the bottom of the matter, which in Dragnet they always did.  The problem of course is that Dragnet was a TV show, and in a TV world your job is to make up facts that make for an interesting story.  But all too often in real life it actually seems to work the other way around.  You start out with a story – great story, interesting story – but when the real life facts begin to come out, the story doesn’t look so good anymore.  All too often in real life, the facts get in the way of a good story.

We’ve seen two good examples of that rule over the last couple of weeks.  Probably the one in the forefront of everyone’s mind is what has happened with Brian Williams, the NBC news anchor who suspended from his job this week.  Brian Williams had a great story – dramatic story, a story that he told over the years multiple times and did not hesitate to embellish.  War time.  Helicopters.  Shot down.  The whole nine yards.  Great story.  But in the end the facts got in the way.

Second example, in some ways to me even more disturbing, was the story of the Chicago baseball team that won the Little League World series.  They had a great story.  Great group of kids, they worked hard, they won games in dramatic fashion, and the end of the story was the best, the ending that we Americans love, they were champions, they won the title.  But in the end the facts got in the way.  Note here it wasn’t the kids!  It was the adults, who evidently colluded to break Little League rules in terms of which players are allowed to play on which teams.  The story was a narrative of hard work, athletic skill, and an improbable championship.  But the facts were very different – they included the hard work and the championship, but they also included dishonesty, gaming the system, and plain old cheating.

In some ways it comes down to plain and simple human psychology.  All too often we aren’t satisfied with the facts, and we have a tendency, when we don’t like the facts, to ‘massage’ them, for lack of a better term.  This is something that seems to be happening more and more often today.  Every few months it comes to light that a prominent public figure has fudged his or her resume.  Added a graduate degree from an institution they never attended.  Maybe listed job experience at a place they never worked, or changed the description of what  they did when they were there.  The facts can be so mundane, so plain and every day, sometimes so problematic, but when you dress it up just a little bit it can look like a totally different animal.

I wonder if the internet plays into that phenomenon.  The internet gives you an opportunity to present to the world your story as you would like it to be, not necessarily as it actually is.  Think about Facebook for a moment.  The posts that people put up on Facebook – by and large –  tell a one sided story – a story of vacations in exotic places, of delicious looking dinners and tropical drinks, of snuggly pets, of gorgeous sunsets and the highlight moments of life.  You don’t see a lot of pictures on FB of people standing in line at the dry cleaners, or sitting in traffic, or walking the pet in the rain early in the morning, or paying bills, or any of that other less glamorous stuff that we spend at least half of our time doing.  Abraham Lincoln once said there are things you can prove by telling part of the truth that you can’t prove by telling all of the truth.  And the truth is life is messy, challenging, and hard at times.  Between all of the beautiful sunsets and fancy dinners there is a lot that goes on in people’s lives that they don’t put up on their FB pages.  Because despite what we might want things to be like, at the end of the day life is about the facts.  And the facts are always complicated.

Imagine for a moment if the Torah told its story like a FB page.  You would have all of the highlights, the great and glorious moments, but you wouldn’t see the difficulties and the challenges.  You would read about the Creation of the world, but you wouldn’t know that Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and were banished from the garden of Eden, you wouldn’t know that Cain killed Abel.  You would see a photo of Jacob and Esau embracing, brothers reuniting after many years, but you would never have read about the way Jacob stole Esau’s birthright and blessing.  You would have Judah’s passionate speech about family in Parshat Vayigash, but you wouldn’t know the background to the story, that Judah and his brothers threw Joseph into a pit and sold him into slavery.   You would have the dramatic moment of Exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah at Sinai, but the dry list of laws that we read in this week’s Torah portion wouldn’t appear.    The golden calf story wouldn’t make it onto a FB page.  Nor would all of the complaining the people do, or Korach’s rebellion against Moses.

But the Torah doesn’t do that, it doesn’t present a one sided version, it doesn’t edit out the problematic moments and characters.  Abraham is a visionary monotheist, but he also has serious issues in his family life.  Moses is a great prophet, but he has an anger management problem, and is probably a lousy father.  Jacob is a survivor, an angel wrestler, the father of Israel, but also a talented manipulator of other people, and a thief.  The Torah gives us the whole picture – the highs and the lows, the good moments and the bad, the photo ops and the incidents that we would rather forget about.  At the end of the day, the Torah gives us the facts.

I would argue that is one of the things this week’s Torah portion is about, Parshat Mishpatim.  On the surface it is a relatively dry collection of laws, covering a wide variety of topics, from the way slaves should be treated, to lending money, to theft, to the separation of milk and meat.  The list goes on and on, commandment after commandment.  But what is underneath the list, what is the thread that ties all of these commandments together, is that the facts of human life, the way we actually act, in the real world, will all too often be problematic.  People will steal.  They will lie.  They’ll cheat in business.  Or even in Little League.  People will wish harm against other people they don’t like.  People will try to take advantage of the underprivileged.  The Torah knows this, it acknowledges it, and it sets these facts in front of us, in full view.  Because it is only when you see the full picture – the real picture – that you can begin to take the actions you need to take to move your own life forward, or for that matter to move a community forward, or a society.

So lets look at the big picture.  The Emes, as we would say.  Eyes wide open.  Just the facts, ma’am.  And then lets get to work.

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The Needs of the Many…

You Trekkies out there might recognize that quote from the 1982 Star Trek film The Wrath of Kahn.  Spock is speaking to Captain Kirk (was it Admiral Kirk in that one?) explaining why one life (in this case Spock’s) should be sacrificed so that many other lives can be saved.  The full quote is ‘logic dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few – or the one.’  It is an idea that makes us uncomfortable in the modern age, when we have a tendency to place the needs of the individual at the top of the priority list, sometimes even to the detriment of the ‘many.’   But that idea – that community trumps the individual – is very Jewish.

There are many examples of this in the tradition.  Perhaps the classic illustration is that a holiday effectively cancels out shiva, thereby robbing an individual or a family of the chance to mourn the loss of a loved one.  The halachah (Jewish law) explains that in this case the communal need to celebrate the holiday takes precedence over the individual’s need to sit shiva.  The holiday must be a joyful time for the community, and shiva would diminish that joy.  The community ‘wins’ while the family ‘loses.’

There are other examples in the tradition.  One commonly cited is the requirement of building a parapet (a guardrail) around one’s roof (Deuteronomy 22:8).  This is an expense and inconvenience for the owner of the home, but Torah requires it for the protection of others.  Community takes precedence over the individual.

Which leads me to a phone call I received this afternoon.  A woman, asking whether I would be willing to write a note explaining that her grandchild should be exempted from state mandated vaccination requirements for religious reasons.  She was surprised when I told her I couldn’t write the note because Judaism did not support the idea in the first place.  In fact, Judaism would suggest the opposite – the individual’s perceived need (to not be vaccinated) must give way in the face of the community’s need for the protection that a vaccinated population provides for all.

This logic can be extended to other pressing issues of the day.  The NRA, for example, makes its living by arguing that the right of the individual to own a gun should trump the right of the community to be safe from those who abuse guns.   Judaism would say exactly the opposite.  The community’s right to be safe must take precedence, even if it impinges on an individual’s gun ownership.

Talk about counter cultural!  Ah well, as the old saying goes the role of clergy is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.  It ain’t easy, but somebody has to do it.

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Find Your iPod

With the news coming out over the last couple of weeks that two major arms of the Conservative Movement are selling significant land parcels in New York the sense of a Conservative Judaism on the wane is again in the air.  A number of the movement’s most difficult challenges continue unabated, with little or no end in sight, including funding for the United Synagogue and JTS and the dwindling number of Jews who formally affiliate with Conservative Judaism.  Although the movement initially seemed to have a ‘come to Moses’ moment when the Pew study results were released, not much has been done since to directly address these problems.  One recommendation that I would make is the Conservative Movement has to find its own version of the iPod.  Let me explain.

When we moved to Baltimore, now some 17 years ago (!), Apple Computer stock was selling for about 14 dollars a share.  I remember looking at the stock quotes in the newspaper one day (in the days when newspapers had stock pages) and saying something to my wife about it.  “If we only had a few extra bucks, we should buy some Apple stock!”  Of course we had almost no money to speak of, and the thought of actually using some of the money we did have to buy shares of stock in a sinking computer company was ludicrous.  Yes, I loved my Mac, but I had pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I would within  a year or so be doing my computing on a dreaded PC.  I was about to be forced over to the ‘dark side,’ and there was nothing I could do about it.  That was 1998.

Apple hung on for another two years.  Steve Jobs came back to the company, and they released the first iMac, and then a gorgeous laptop, the Powerbook G3.  But things were tenuous at best.  Pundits were still predicting that Apple Computer would go the way of the dodo bird.  It wasn’t, they said, a question of if, it was a question of when.

Then in the fall of 2001 something remarkable happened.  Apple released a pocket sized digital music player.  They called it the iPod.  It looked cool, worked easily, and enabled you to store 1,000 songs in your pocket for anytime listening.  The rest of the story we know.  The iPod exploded in popularity.  The iPhone followed a few years later.  Then the iPad.  Apple Computer became Apple Inc., now the most valuable company on the planet, long ago surpassing Microsoft, something that 17 years ago would have seemed as impossible as traveling in time.  In the last quarter, Apple sold 38,000 iPhone 6 models an hour.  Seven days a week.  For three straight months.  38,000 an hour.  Talk about hard to imagine.

The point is this.  Apple wasn’t an iPod company.  It was a computer company.  The iPod was a music player.  But Apple found a product that it felt it could do something with, even if it wasn’t the company’s bread and butter.  And it was that product that enabled Apple to survive and thrive.  And it was that product – the iPod – that gave Apple the chance to keep doing what it originally set out to do, namely to make and sell computers.  The iPod saved the Mac.  It was Apple Inc. that ensured the survival of Apple Computer.

The synagogue world in general and the Conservative Movement in particular needs to find its iPod.  Something that we can do, and do well, that might not have much to do with what we’ve done for the last 75 years, but that will speak to people, get them interested, entice them to come through our doors.  Maybe it is adult education.  Or yoga.  Or ice cream, or coffee, or infant-toddler care.  Maybe scotch tastings, kayaking or hiking, social action.  Healing centers.  Maybe some combination of those things.  If we can find our iPod, its success will enable us to continue to be a synagogue in the traditional sense of the word.  Somewhere out there is a synagogue version of the iPod.  We are looking like crazy for it here.  How about you?

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