Monthly Archives: March 2015

Our Spring Israel Trip

this a text version of yesterday’s Shabbat sermon (3/28) reflecting on our recent trip to Israel –

The image of an altar is at the center of this morning’s Torah portion.  The text is mostly a description of an ordination ritual for Aaron and his sons, preparing them for service to the Israelite community as priests.  The ritual is conducted around an altar, with three sacrifices offered, and the sprinkling of blood, both onto the altar itself and onto Aaron and his sons.  It is not surprising that the altar would be a central image – as an object, it was a crucial component of the ancient sacrificial system, that was practiced by our ancestors until the Temple in Jerusalem was finally destroyed, some 2000 years ago.

The altar that our ancestors used for their worship is described in great detail in the Torah.  It was to be made of stone, un-hewed, to be of a certain size, and perhaps most interestingly to have four horns, one at each of its corners, emerging from the flat surface of the top.  Just a little over a week ago I was in Jerusalem with the 47 people who traveled on the Beth El trip that returned this week, and we had the opportunity to spend an hour and a half or so in the Israel Museum, one of the great museums in the world, and certainly containing one of the finest antiquities collections anywhere.  As I wandered around the museum I rounded a corner, and standing right in front of me was an altar, found at the excavations in the south of Israel, in Beer Sheva, constructed exactly as the Torah describes it – the stone construction, the dimensions, and most noticeably the four stone horns sticking up from the corners.

That altar in the museum is about 3,000 years old, and coming face to face with it, the very week when we began reading the book of Leviticus, with its focus on the sacrificial system, reminded me of the concrete reality of the Bible, the historical memory of the text, in a way that simply cannot happen here in the States.  Of course if you’ve been to Israel you know these experiences happen on an almost daily basis.  The apartment where Joseph Caro wrote the Shulhan Aruch is in Safed.  The stones of the Roman streets where Rabbi Akiva walked are still in Jerusalem.  The ancient synagogues, the villages from the talmudic period, the list could go on and on.  One does not read about Jewish history, or study Jewish history, in Israel – one lives it, walks on it, touches and feels it, lives and breathes it.  There is nothing else like it.

And if ancient Israel doesn’t overwhelm you, modern Israel certainly will.  I’ve been to Israel seven times in the last 10 years, and each time I arrive the skyline of Tel Aviv has changed, new sky scrapers emerging one after another after another.  The sleek light rail now runs noiselessly in Jerusalem.  A high speed train is being built so commuters can get from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in about 25 minutes.  We visited an Israel tank unit that was stationed on the Lebanese border, and the young soldiers proudly told us their tanks were the most advanced in the world.   Google and Intel have strong presences in Israel, and all over the world people use apps – like Waze, for example, the popular traffic and direction app – that have been created by Israelis in Israel.

But in my mind the moments that stay with you, the moments that touch you in the deepest way, are the human moments, the interactions with people that remind you of the special spark and spirit in the people of Israel that have made all of what I described above possible.  Let me briefly share with you three such moments that we experienced.

The first was election day.  We were in Tel Aviv, and we took a walking tour through the city that day.  Election day is a holiday in Israel – most businesses and museums are closed.  There was a festive atmosphere in the air as we walked through the streets.  Polling stations were buzzing with activity, and as we walked by campaign workers handed us flyers praising one party or another.  Everyone was excited, invested in the election, talking about the parties and candidates, and in true Israeli style holding no punches.  Some wanted this candidate, some wanted that candidate.  Some were Bibi fans, others not so much.  What was striking about it to me was how different it felt than an American election day.  There was a sense of joy to it all, and in a way it felt like a celebration of the country itself, and an affirmation of its democratic character and values.  And maybe that is why close to %80 of Israelis voted that day.  This was Israel at its best, expressed through its people – vibrant, filled with energy and joy, with a palpable spirit of optimism and hope in the air.

Vignette number 2.  We visited the city of Ashkelon, Baltimore’s sister city, and spent a morning at Netzach Yisrael, a Masorti, or Conservative synagogue there.  We were welcomed warmly, and sat watching the congregation’s rabbi and its teachers conduct a morning learning service with the pre-schoolers.  They prayed, they sang, they laughed.  The teachers put on a wonderful mini-play about Moses that completely captivated the children.  Few things bring joy to the heart like the singing voices of young children, and in this case, with their enthusiasm, and of course with everything in Hebrew, everyone in the group was touched.  Afterwards, we spent time with members of the congregation who generously shared their stories with us.  There was a woman in her 90s who made aliyah from New York now almost 40 years ago.  There was a young man from Cuba who made aliyah just a few weeks ago.  And we were treated to a wonderful surprise – Hannah Deoul, a young woman in her early 20s who grew up at Beth El and had her bat mitzvah here, came to meet us.  She made aliyah 6 months ago, lives in Ashkelon, and who was recently named coach of the under 19 Israeli women’s national lacrosse team.  She was beaming from ear to ear as she told us about how much she loved being in Israel, and as a rabbi who was at her bat mitzvah not so many years ago, I can tell you our entire congregation should be proud.

Last but not least I return to the Israeli tank unit we met in the north.  These young soldiers, 18 and 19 years old, flocked around us as we asked them questions about their jobs, their backgrounds, and their families.  They were gregarious, happy to talk, and probably glad to have a brief break in their daily routine.  They were in turn playful and serious, with the souls of boys, silly, jumping in front of one another when we took pictures.  But they have the responsibility of men, guarding their country at its northern border, a responsibility I can assure you they take seriously and perform with great distinction.

They invited us to climb on top of their tanks, which a number of us did, although  we were told to please not take pictures.  Dr. Bor took out his clarinet and played some Israeli music, and then the Cantor, who was standing on one of the tanks, spontaneously began to sing Hatikvah in his powerful voice.  Suddenly everyone joined in, our congregants, Jews from Baltimore in their 40s, 50s, 60s, or 70s, and the young Israeli soldiers, singing together.  We knew in that instant that although we live in different places, and have had in many ways very different lives, we are truly connected as part of one people – Am Israel –  sharing a hope and dream for a future of peace for all people.  As you may imagine, there was not a dry eye.

So there you have it.  A brief snapshot of our trip, and perhaps of Israel as well.  May the hopes that we all have for her truly be fulfilled.  And one day soon, may she know a world where the hearts of all people are turned towards one another in peace.

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A Case of Laryngitis

Would be absolutely the worst thing for a rabbi. After all, when you come down to it, what we do is talk. That is our bread and butter, the one role that probably defines us more than any other. This weekend I am speaking before the congregation three times – morning minyan (check!), Friday night at services (theme – keeping extra kosher for Passover), and Saturday morning at services (reviewing our Israel trip). I also have a wedding Saturday night where I will say a few words to the bride and groom, let alone recite the service. Then I am teaching three classes – our Torah study class Saturday morning, a class to teens Sunday morning, and a class for interfaith families Sunday evening. I’ll pretty much be talking non-stop all weekend long.

This continuous verbal expression is a relatively new thing in the rabbinate. There was a time, not so long ago, when rabbis only gave two sermons a year. Two! One in the fall, on the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and one on the Shabbat right before Passover. In those days you didn’t even have to come up with a topic! During the High Holy Days the rabbi gave his sermon on repentance, and on the Shabbat before Passover he spoke about keeping kosher for the holiday. Imagine that! Two sermons a year, with predetermined subjects. Not bad work if you can get it.

But those days are a distant memory. Today the rabbi is expected to say something. A short d’var Torah. A few words at a bris or baby naming. A charge to a bar or bat mitzvah student. Wisdom for a wedding couple. Honoring the deceased at a funeral. Invocations, benedictions, convocations, community services, memorials, the list could go on and on. And often does. After a while, what is a poor rabbi to do?

One thing I take comfort in, in a strange sort of way. Much of, if not most of what the rabbi says is forgotten. Oh, I know people remember a few words here and there. A snippet of a sermon, or a story you’ve told. Something said at a funeral. Something mentioned in a class. But by and large, a few weeks later, certainly a few moths later, and almost definitely a year or two later, your carefully chosen words have become entirely ephemeral, just snatches of memory, even feelings, that when turned towards disappear entirely. When I say this people often argue with me (especially rabbis!). But it is nothing to take personally, it is simply the way human memory works. Think for a moment – how many college lectures do you remember? I can count only one, a fabulous talk on Shakespeare’s King Lear by my professor John Smith, may he rest in peace. And two others from which I remember one or two sentences spoken by the professor. And that out of the 30 plus lectures I heard in the course of my college years.

So for the rabbis out there, say what you will. Say it well, be thoughtful, be wise, insightful, even provocative at times. And for God’s sake, be brief if you can! But don’t worry about it too much. Tomorrow is another day. And another speech.

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Israel As She Is

We’ve seen all of it, the best and the worst, the highs and the lows.  Don’t mistake me – I am deeply grateful to have spent the last 10 days in Israel with a terrific group from my congregation, deeply grateful to have shared with them their experience of the Jewish state, its history, its people, its challenges, its successes and triumphs, of which there are so many.  One cannot help but be awed by the accomplishments of this fledging nation over the last 67 years.  One cannot help but be touched and inspired by the optimism and spirit of the young soldiers we met in the north, guarding the border between Israel and Lebanon.  Or struck by the vibrancy of this country, by the deep feeling of its people, by the pervasive ‘can do’ attitude, by the strength and resilience and inventiveness Israelis have shown since the founding of the state in 1948.  Israel is truly an amazing place, and nearly every Jew who visits here comes away with a renewed sense of their Judaism, a stronger Jewish identity, and a more profound connection to the Jewish homeland.

At the same time, we were also exposed to some of the challenges that face Israel today during our trip.  We were in Tel Aviv on election day.  It was wonderful – people in the streets, families enjoying what was a day off for most, but more than that – a celebration of democracy, something we all too often take for granted in the States.  And yet there was a taint to it all because of the comments made by Bibi Netanyahu in the last days leading up to the election.  A statement that he had no intention to facilitate the creation of a Palestinian state was troubling, although not unexpected, and in fact some would simply say he finally said out loud what he has been thinking for a long time.  And he is entitled to his opinion.  But the race-baiting and fear mongering behind his remark ‘the Arabs are coming out in large numbers’ was shameful.  Imagine if in the US a white politician tried to get whites to come out to vote by making statements on TV that ‘the blacks are turning out in large numbers.’  Bibi got away with it, and it worked, but the world watched the Prime Minister of Israel win a re-election bid by saying things that many of us find unacceptable and even racist.  Is this the image of Israel we want projected to the world?

Of course this points to the underlying problem, the foundational problem, that confronts Israel today, its growing Palestinian population.  Say what you want about Tom Friedman, but he rightly pointed out in his article this week that to a certain extent this is a simple numbers game, and the numbers are slowly but surely pushing Israel into a place where she will either be a Jewish state that is not democratic, or a non-Jewish state that is a democracy.  At some point in the near future an Israeli Prime Minister will have to confront that choice.

We also experienced first hand another significant challenge today in Israel, namely religious pluralism.  We had hoped to hold Friday night services in the small synagogue housed in the hotel where we are staying.  We carefully reserved a time when we knew the Orthodox community would be done with their services so as not to offend anyone.  But when we arrived we were told that the women in our group had to sit in the women’s section.  We could have perhaps argued, although I don’t think we would have gotten anywhere.  And it was Shabbat, a time when we hope to set aside our earthly cares and struggles, at least for a day.  So the hotel management found us a room nearby, carpeted and finished, but obviously used mostly for storage.  They graciously set up chairs for us, and we had a spirited service.  But why should Jews feel uncomfortable expressing their own form of Judaism in the Jewish homeland?  Why should a group of believing, faithful, caring, Israel-loving Jews be forced to hold their service in a side room when a perfectly lovely little chapel is empty just a few feet away?  If you stop to think about it, the fact that Conservative and Reform Jews have to go to the courts to assure their right to religious freedom in the Jewish state is problematic, to say the least.  And that is yet another challenge that Israel must continue to confront in the years ahead.  In my mind a Jewish state where all expressions of Judaism are recognized and respected is a stronger Jewish state.  I would also argue, but the way, that it would be more the kind of state that God intends it to be.

Of course this post could go on and on.  So many wonderful and meaningful moments.  Seeing the pre-schoolers at our sister synagogue Netzah Israel singing with incredible energy and spirit.  The power and potency of Yad VaShem, Israel’s Holocaust museum.  Friday night services on the shore of the Galilee.  The fabulous Rabin Center, one of Israel’s newest museums, that tells the story of the state itself as it weaves through the narrative of Rabin’s astonishing life.  Hiking to the top of Massadah (first time in my 50s!).  The schwarma at Moshikos.  The list could go on and on.  When you love Israel and you visit, you leave loving her more.  Is there more work to be done?  You bet!  But Israel and her people will never stop trying.  And that, in and of itself, may be the greatest sign of hope for the years ahead.

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When Am I?

Not a typo.  Reading it, your mind may have made an automatic correction, more used to reading the more common phrases ‘what am I’ or ‘where am I?’  But the question ‘when am I?’ is one you commonly ask yourself in Israel.  I type this post on the way to Tel Aviv after a long day of touring, traveling from the upper-Galilee.  Thinking back on the day I’ve been in the 16th century (Safed and the mystics who created kabbalah), the 3rd century (Beit Sh’arim where Rabbi Judah the Prince is buried), and of course in the 21st century (lunch in an oh so familiar Israeli mall and its food court). And when I arrive in Tel Aviv, I’ll be a little bit in the future.  Meanwhile, on our bus, the three native Israelis, all of whom will be voting in tomorrow’s elections, have been arguing politics non-stop.  When am I indeed?

Of course one of the reasons to come to Israel is to answer precisely that question.  Modern life tends to tell you  the ‘when’ you are in is right now, the immediate present.  What you are doing at any given moment is the most important thing.  But Judaism considers time in a different way.  There is a deep past, a history and narrative that goes back thousands of years.  There is a future time, a goal, an idea that we are all engaged in some mysterious long term plan.  And there is the present.  But the present is a bridge between the past and the future as much as it exists for its own sake.  And the past is lived every day.  Last but not least, every action we take has an impact on the future.

So there you have it.  When am I?  The answer is yes.  In the past, in the present, in the future.  In Jewish life, the intersection of these space/times is the land of Israel.  In the future, the results of this election.  Tomorrow, the election.  Yesterday?  A path that leads precisely to now.  And today?  All of that and more.  No disrespect meant to H.G. Wells, but no time machine needed.

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The Road Goes Ever On and On

The title of a walking song/poem composed by J.R.R. Tolkien.  As Bilbo the hobbit leaves his home for the last time he softly hums it to himself, walking quietly into the gloaming.  Its words speak to any traveller – “the road goes ever on and on, down from the door where it began;  now far ahead the road has gone, and I must follow if I can, pursuing it with eager feet, until it joins some larger way, where many paths and errands meet;  and whither then?  I cannot say – ”  You never do know exactly what adventure is waiting for you when you walk out of your front door.

Early Thursday morning I leave for Israel, with 47 congregants and staff.  One of the many Israel trips I’ve had the privilege of participating in over the years.  The itinerary is often similar, but each trip has its own unique character and flavor.  The group.  The weather.  The guide and the bus driver.  The ‘matzav’ (the current situation in Israel).  In the course of this journey I’ll be blogging when I can and also sending out tweets with updates about where we are and what we are doing day by day.  You can find me on Twitter @sceezo.

Of course crucial to any journey is the packing.  Which items will I need, which can be left behind (the answer is always fewer of the former and more of the latter)?  What will be forgotten, and when will I realize it (inevitable!)?  Will I finish my first book and get to a second (admirable thought, but unlikely)?  If I forget x, y, or z, will I be able to find it there (yes)?  And how much will it cost (alot!)?  Because of a particularly busy Wednesday, I have started my packing one day early (a very unusual phenomena for me!).  Here is a shot of how it is all coming together.luggage

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A Speech About ‘the Speech’

Here the text of yesterday’s Shabbat sermon (3/7/15)

There are certain things that all you have to do is say ‘the’ – whatever it might be – and everyone immediately knows what you are talking about.  In the NFL they have ‘the catch,’ the famous pass that Joe Montana threw to Dwight Clark with 2 minutes left in the NFC championship game in 1982.  In the entertainment world, they have ‘the Garden,’ the only thing you need to say to let people know you are talking about Madison Square Garden in NYC, otherwise humbly known as the world’s greatest arena.  In Judaism we have ‘the sin,’ or to call it by its full name, the ‘sin of the golden calf,’ called the חט העגל in Hebrew, that we read about in this morning’s Torah portion.  And now, in modern Jewish life, we have ‘the speech,’ the address given Tuesday morning by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to a joint session of congress.

It seems to me almost impossible to not know about the speech with all of the media attention it received, both before it was actually given, the day it was given, and in the couple of days since.  But just in case you were on a desert island with no access to TV, radio, newspapers, the internet, and your neighbors and friends and family members, here is a brief summary.  Netanyahu was invited to speak to congress by the speaker of the house John Boehner, and this was somewhat unusual because normally invitations of this nature come from the President.  To make matters more difficult, the substance of the speech was going to be a critique of the Obama administration’s Iran policy.  To put it in terms Baltimoreans can easily understand, it would be like the assistant rabbi at Beth T’filoh inviting me to speak from the pulpit at Beth T’filoh with the purpose of criticizing Rabbi Wohlberg’s Israel views.

The next thing that happened was a public contest of will and ego, with the Obama administration relatively quietly but forcefully protesting the speech on the one hand, with Netanyahu stating again and again why the speech had to be given on the other hand, and with various members of congress – generally along party lines – explaining why the speech was either important and should be given or why it was a violation of protocol and should not take place.  In the end more than 50 members of the House and Senate did not attend, to include VP Joe Biden, who was conveniently ‘out of the country.’  While all this was going on there was also a very public debate that played out in the Jewish community, with some prominent Jews, inducing Abe Foxman of the ADL and Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of Park Avenue Synagogue in NY, asking Prime Minister Netanyahu not to go through with it, while other prominent Jews explained why he should.  There were full page ads taken out in the NY Times by Jews, some for the speech, others against the speech, others against those who were against the speech.  In the end the speech happened, everyone survived, PM Netanyahu said exactly what everyone knew he was going to say, and the world didn’t collapse – and much more importantly, neither did Israeli-American relations, which throughout the entire process both leaders made sure to state were strong and unbreakable.

What I would like to do with you this morning is to spend the next few minutes using the sin  – the sin of the golden calf – to think about the speech.  What I do not want to do is to rehash the arguments, to say Netanyahu is right and Obama is wrong, or Obama is right and Netanyahu is wrong.  There are merits and demerits to both arguments about Iran, a chance that both could succeed, a chance that both could fail, and you should read the papers, study the issue, and decide for yourself which makes the most sense to you.  So this is not a critique of the speech, the substance of the speech, the delivery of the speech, the cogency of the arguments made in the speech – it is instead a critique of the dynamic of the speech, of everything that surrounded it, all of the tumult, the public arguing and name calling.  But again, I would like to use ‘the sin’ to think about ‘the speech.’  So first to the sin.

Certainly the golden calf narrative is one of the best known in the entire Torah.  Moses is on top of the mountain communing with God, receiving the details of the law, and he is there for how long?  40 days and 40 nights!  (what happens next?) The people don’t know where he is exactly or what is taking so long, and they begin to get nervous – Moses couldn’t use a cell phone to text them and say ‘all OK, enjoying the top of Sinai, I’ll be back soon!’  The people panic in the end, believing Moses may never come back, and they go to Aaron, Moses’ brother, asking him to do something.  He facilitates the making of an idol, a golden calf, and the people begin to worship it, violating one of Judaism’s primary commandments, that idols should not be worshipped.  God suddenly realizes what is going on, and God sends Moses back down the mountain to intervene.  When Moses sees what has happened he grew so angry that he shatters the tablets with the 10 commandments on them, and ultimately severely punishes the people.  And there you have it, the sin of the golden calf in 6 sentences!

And one of the questions I ask myself about this story is who is to blame here?  How did it all get to a point where it was so out of control, where the original goal, whatever it was, was lost in the shuffle of all of these other forces?  Was it Moses, who took too long, got too comfortable, didn’t fully grasp what impact his actions would have on the people, how scared they would be?  Was it Aaron, who not only goes right along with their request, but actually facilitates, gathers the gold, casts it into the fire, makes the idol?  Shouldn’t he have known better?  Should the people be blamed, should they have been stronger, not giving into to their emotions and fear?  Or what about God?  Can even God be blamed here, should God have known, didn’t God pay attention to what was going on, couldn’t God have stopped it sooner, sent Moses down earlier and prevented a great tragedy?  Just out of curiosity, lets have a vote  – you can vote for one party – who is to blame?  How many think Moses?  Aaron?  The people?  And last, God?

I would argue that at the end of the day no one comes out of the episode untarnished.  Each of the four participants make mistakes.  Each bears some of the responsibility.  Each makes a poor decision at a crucial moment.  And when you put all of the mistakes and poor decisions together, what you come out with is a real mess, where no one looks good and everyone has a bit of mud on their face.

And that is the way I felt about the speech.  President Obama didn’t look good, standing so seriously on traditional diplomatic protocol, scheduling a fairly important meeting during the speech, making sure that VP Biden was away.  PM Netanyahu didn’t look too good either, trying to take a clearly partisan issue and pretend that it was non-partisan, and timing the speech right before his own election in Israel on March 17, which seemed politically calculated.  The elected representatives in the House and Senate didn’t look too hot either, whether it was Nancy Pelosi and her petulant post-speech reaction, or John Boehner saying with a straight face that this was not about partisan politics.  And the Jewish community didn’t look good at all – publicly fighting, taking out ads pro and con, arguing on the TV and the radio, and displaying for all to see how deep divisions in the Jewish community can run.

So regardless of what you thought about the speech, regardless of whose position you prefer, probably the very best thing we can say about it is this – it is over.  Time to leave all of the mishigas behind.  Because goodness knows there are plenty of serious issues to worry about.  And time is running short – so lets all get back to work.

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Neither nor Snow nor Heat nor Gloom of Night…

It may not be true for the Post Office any more, but it is for the rabbinate.  Yesterday Mother Nature, in a last fit of pique before Spring, decided to dump 10 or so inches of snow on Baltimore.  And on Purim day, no less!  Imagine the hutzpah!  But we managed to have Purim services in the morning, and we made a minyan.  And again this morning, the day after the storm, a small group of devoted congregants showed up, making another minyan when we might have expected otherwise.

But yesterday, in the height of the storm, I had a funeral.  It was relatively sparsely attended – mostly family and close friends.  But together we engaged in the mitzvah of קבורת המת, the dignified burial of the dead.  If at all possible we bury as quickly as we can.  This is in part for the person who has died.  It is not considered proper to leave a dead body unattended to, to let it wait somewhere for too long a period of time before burying it.  The body was a vessel that contained the soul, God’s breath of life, in the course of its earthly journey, and so the body should be treated with sanctity even after the soul is gone.

That being said, timely burial is also helpful to the family that has sustained the loss.  Judaism’s approach essentially is this:  we know we have something terribly difficult to do, an enormously painful task ahead of us.  But we will stare it in the eye, we will confront it, we will not wait, and the wisdom of the tradition will enable us to do what we must do.  The truth is when you have to bury a member of your family, you don’t think about snowstorms, or weather reports.  You hope and pray that you can do the one thing you need to do that day.  And then the next day comes, and you go forward.

So the funeral went on.  We did not linger in the cemetery, in the midst of the wind and driving snow.  But we did what we were obligated to do, to bring a person to their final resting place on this earth, and to do so with dignity, with the words of our tradition, with memory, with family and friendship.  Here is a photo of the cemetery in the storm.

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