Monthly Archives: April 2015

A Community Prayer

Our God and God of all the generations:

We come together at this sacred hour in prayer, hoping for Your guidance, looking for Your spirit, needing Your strength. Our souls are troubled, our minds are restless, our hands feel empty. We have watched our community struggle, descending at times into violence and anger, into rage and recrimination. But we have also seen our community shine, with healing and hope, with humanity and generosity, with brotherhood and courage.

God You are the healer of broken hearts and the binder of wounds. Help us to heal our community. Soothe our souls with Your grace. Ease our minds with Your wisdom. Strengthen our hands so that we can be builders of a better world.

And also God bless us. Bless our community, our city, our leaders, and our fellow citizens. Keep us faithful to our heritage of freedom and justice. Help us to banish suffering and strife. Unite us in understanding and mutual helpfulness. And hasten the day when all can rejoice in a world of peace.

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The Better Angels of Our Nature

This famous phrase comes from Lincoln’s first inaugural address. In large part the speech was intended to be a plea to the South for reconciliation, and initially Lincoln penned a conclusion that offered the southern states a choice between ‘peace or the sword.’ But in the end he was persuaded to change the text so the last sentence read as follows: “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle field and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

There is a shared humanity that unites us all, the common threads of home and hearth, of struggle and strength and courage and faith, the universal need for dignity and freedom, the Divine soul we all carry that can open our minds and hearts. At times it seems hard to locate, obscured by the cross currents of events, almost unrecognizable behind the haze of anger and violence that can arise when people give in to the dark side. Lincoln recognizes this. By choosing the phrase ‘better angels’ he implies that there are darker angels that can lead us to places of destruction and hate. We have certainly seen this in Baltimore over the last days.

And yet Lincoln understands the darkness to be something that will pass, a dynamic that cannot sustain itself in the face of goodness and light. He writes: ‘when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.’ There is no doubt in his mind that ultimately kindness and caring and hope will survive and even thrive, while the dark days will fade into memory and history. It is not a question of will the better angels arrive, it is a question of when. As Jerry Garcia sang in the Grateful Dead song New Speedway Boogie, ‘one way or another this darkness got to give.’

And it will give. There are too many good people. Too many strong leaders of principle. Too much effort and energy and pride invested in Baltimore. This darkness will give. If not today, then tomorrow, or the next day. Hurts will be healed, connections will be strengthened, bridges will be built. And then, after the immediate needs are addressed, after peace and calm have been restored, then the work begins. There are deep seated needs, long standing problems of enormous complexity and challenge, educational problems, societal problems, economic problems, demographic problems that simply cannot be ignored. Problems with how the police conduct themselves, problems that stem from deep racial divides, the list is long and every item is connected to every other. Justice must be pursued. Needs addressed. Dignity restored.

Yes much work to do. But there are great people with great determination and spirit to do that work. If these days become a wakeup call to begin that work anew, we may one day look back and see this as a dark point that became a turning point, a storm that in the end gave way to a clear blue sky. May that be God’s will. And may it be brought about by human hands that work only for peace and hope.


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Praying for Healing When There is No Cure

A few moments ago, after the third aliyah was read from the Torah, we rose together as a congregation and sang with the Cantor the mishbeirach prayer, a prayer that we describe as a ‘healing’ prayer. In that moment we call to mind those we know who are sick and struggling with illness, and I think also their caregivers, those who have the burden and the blessing of sharing with a sick person their journey.
When I first came to Beth El, now 17 years ago, many of you may recall that we did not recite the healing prayer during services. It was something we added intentionally, perhaps a few years after I arrived, and the reason we added it was to give people a personal connection with the service, a moment in the midst of all of the communal prayer that would address an individual need and concern. And we’ve found over the years that is precisely what has happened with the mishebeirach – people often will tell me how important it is to them to be able to offer those personal prayers on behalf of loved ones, at the synagogue, during the service, especially when the Torah is out and resting on the shulchan.
Some of you have probably heard me say this before, but I personally have always struggled with the healing prayer. My first real encounter with it was back in the days when I was a young rabbinical student at the seminary, when it was said during morning services, much the way we do it now at Beth El. At the time a close college friend of mine and Becky’s was dying of cancer, and in the morning at services I would stand while the mishebeirach was being said, thinking of my friend, and then in the evenings I would take the subway to lower Manhattan to visit him in the hospital. He was getting sicker and sicker, a bright and talented young man, 32 years old, a promising and caring doctor. Clearly the prayer was not ‘working’ and when he died in my own mind I think I simply shut the prayer down, decided that it wasn’t worth its own weight in words, and I stopped reciting it entirely.
But after ordination and coming here to Beth El, I soon discovered that in congregational life the mishebeirach is an important prayer, one a rabbi is asked to say quite often. Not just at services, but also at the bedside of someone who is sick, who may even be dying like my friend was dying, and countless times over the years I have asked family members to join me around a loved one’s bedside, to hold hands, and I have recited that prayer that once made me so uncomfortable. And over time I have recovered a sense of the prayer’s meaning, or perhaps a better way of saying it is a sense that the prayer has meaning, and strange as it may seem one of the things that has helped me with that is the double Torah portion that we read this morning, Tazria-Metzorah.
Last night Rabbi Saroken did a good job of describing the challenges of this reading. It deals largely with skin diseases of various and sundry kinds, and when it isn’t worrying about rashes and sores it turns its attention to bodily fluids that most of us wouldn’t think about discussing in public – and this is about as public as it gets! But what these portions really are about is illness – what happens when someone gets sick, seriously sick? Just the fact that the Torah devotes several chapters to that question is in and of itself interesting. It means, first of all, that God cares about those who are ill. The Psalmist said it best – הרופא לשבורי לב ומחבש לעצבותם – God heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds. The Torah teaches us that when someone is sick God is involved, God cares, God can be there as a presence, as a source of hope and courage and strength during dark and difficult times.
But the Torah also suggests that we have to be there as well. As Rabbi Saroken noted last night, the Torah tells us the sick person had to go outside of the camp. It was a kind of quarantine, a way of protecting the community. But the person was never isolated. In fact, the Torah mandates that the most respected person in the community, the holiest person in the community, the Kohen, was the one who ministered to the sick. The Kohen had to go out to see the person, to examine them, the check on them, and when they were better, to bring them back to the community. The Torah seems to be saying if the Kohen, the person with the highest standards of purity, could be in the presence of the sick person, even touch him or her, then surely others could as well. It was the Torah’s way of making sure a person was given back their dignity, that they would be treated with the respect they deserved when they returned to the community, and that the stigma too often associated with illness would be overcome.
And it is in the Torah’s description of the Kohen’s duties and responsibilities that I found the key to unlocking the meaning of the mishebeirach for myself. If you read the Torah text carefully you will see that the Kohen was not expected to cure the sick person, but to heal him. On the surface that might sound like the same thing, and you could fairly ask – what is the difference between curing and healing? But what the Torah really charges the Kohen with is the responsibility of establishing the sick person’s relationship with God and with the community during his illness and afterwards. The person’s ‘cure’ was understood as being in the hands of God. But healing was a different matter – healing was about wholeness and holiness. It was about caring and sharing, about supporting and helping. It had more to do with making sure the sick person knew they were not alone.
And that is how I understand the מישברך. The prayer that we say is not about curing someone of their illness. Reciting it doesn’t change someone’s diagnosis, or heal their broken bone, or make a tumor shrink, or take away a fever. It doesn’t make a difference in a person’s physical condition, so in that way the מישברך doesn’t cure.
But it can bring healing. It can first of all bring to our attention the fact that someone in our community is ill and may need our help and support. When a person is feeling isolated and alone it helps them to know that others are praying for them, that others are thinking about them, that their name was recited during a service in their shul. It helps them when someone in the community comes to visit, or calls. The מישברך opens up that possibility, and in that sense it is truly healing.
It can also help a person unlock an inner sense of strength and courage and hope that they may not have known they had. It can help us to see the blessings of a present moment, it can encourage us to seek reconciliation with loved ones, it can help us renew our relationship with God. Even someone suffering from a terminal illness needs a מישברך- we pray that they will be able to close up the loose ends in their lives, to make peace with death, and to say farewell to loved ones. And that is also healing.
Finally, when we stand together, every person, for the מישברך, it reminds us that every life, at one point or another, will be touched by illness. And when that time comes, we pray that we will truly be able to find a sense of healing in the warmth of community, in the love and caring of family and friends, in the recognition of life’s blessings, and also in the sense of God’s presence, not only in the heavenly realm, but also in our own hearts. May the One who blessed our ancestors bless us and our family and friends as we move forward in our lives –


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Ideas and Ideology – the Women at the Wall

Its what they do. They have no rational argument to make, and they know it. No way to discuss, to intellectually grapple with the issue, to talk pros and cons, to admit that you have a point, even if they don’t agree. They hate what you stand for, and by extension, they hate you. So they try to tear you down, make you into a monster, an embodiment of their worst fears, to show how ugly you really are under the surface, how dangerous your agenda is and how much harm you might do if you aren’t stopped.

So I almost laughed when I saw the accusations against some of the leaders of the Women at the Wall group. The group espouses the fundamental right of Jewish women to worship at the Western Wall freely, to pray at that sacred space in the same way that men do, read from the Torah, sing the songs of our tradition ‘b’kol ram’ with voices raised high, wear tallitot. This makes some in the Orthodox community crazy, and the ongoing tension between the women’s group and the traditionalists on the other side of the mechitza has gotten more and more intense. This past week a group of Orthodox men broke through to the women’s side and tried to grab away a Torah the women’s group was using in their service. Physical confrontation. Trying to impose their religious views by exercising strength, power, force. It was ugly, laying bare for all to see the small mindedness of fundamentalist religious thinking.

And then the accusations started popping up, so predictable. In right of center newspapers like the Jewish Press. Accusing some of the women in the group of being connected to organizations that are ‘anti-Israel.’ This is a tried and true technique. If we can’t debate you on the merits and demerits of your argument, we’ll ignore the argument and simply attack your character. It is very hard in this day and age to come right out and say ‘women don’t have rights.’ But it is easy today – all too easy – to create a false impression of someone, to delegitimatize them. It is cowardly to do so, and often hypocritical as well. But it works.

What prevents it from working is awareness. Understanding. Calling people out when they make outrageous statements, recognizing character assassination for what it is and standing up to it. The truth is it doesn’t matter what groups the women are connected with. Their right to pray at Judaism’s most sacred site freely is an issue that is a stand alone issue. Are we going to get in the business of checking people’s political affiliation before they are allowed to go to touch the Kotel? In the US you voted for Obama, according to the Right Obama is anti-Israel, therefore you are affiliated with an anti-Israel group and you can’t pray at the Kotel.

Does that sound far-fetched? Crazy even? But it isn’t really much different from what is going on with the Woman at the Wall right now. Is this the way we want Judaism to work in Israel? We guarantee religious freedom to other faiths, but not to our fellow Jews. We can do better, and I would argue we must do better for Israel to be the kind of place God intends it to be.

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Remembering What We Forget

We must of course do our best to remember. We might think this doesn’t even need to be said, that it is too obvious to state, but the facts tell us otherwise. Fewer and fewer survivors are here to tell their stories. In just a few years they will all be gone. Communal Yom Hashoah memorial programs are less and less compelling, fewer and fewer people go. We teach the Holocaust in Hebrew school, even in public and private school today, but more and more it is an historical event, something to be read about in the pages of text books, or ‘experienced’ in the halls of a museum. But does the Jewish community still feel it in the same way? Emotionally, existentially, on the ‘kishkas’ level?

Being honest, the answer is no. How can it be otherwise? The depth of pain, horror, anger, confusion, loss, grief, that brutal tearing of the soul, simply cannot be maintained through decades and decades of memory. That is human nature. That is living in the suspended state of disbelief that we all live in, our fundamental assumptions that the sun will come up in the morning, that we will get out of bed, that we will have a normal day, see our loved ones, go to bed at night expecting the same from tomorrow. Of course the Holocaust shattered all of that, pulverized the fundamental assumptions we build our lives and psyches on. But we build those assumptions back up, we take them from the ashes and gradually, over time, discover that when we put our foot forward to walk there will be something to walk on. And hope comes. And light. Optimism. Creativity. Even faith.

Would we really want it any other way? Would we say, ‘forever we will be defined by one moment in history, by that greatest of tragedies in a long list of tragedies that have befallen our people?’ Is that what we want our children and grandchildren to know about being Jewish? Is that the reason we want to give them for living a Jewish life? Not the moral power and grandeur of the Deteronomist? Not the astonishing contributions to the Western world, to art, science, literature, music, academia? Not the gift of Shabbat, or the Torah itself? Are not these more powerful, more compelling, more profound – more joyful – reasons to live as a proud and committed Jew?

And yet one informs the other. Despair is linked to hope. The darker the one, the more beautiful, miraculous, and powerful the other. The simple truth is Jewish history is weaving of both, of darkness and light, of many tragedies, horrible and unforgivable, and countless triumphs. And we must remember the former, even as we celebrate the latter. It is our charge, our task, our responsibility. If we do not, not only will we forget, but the world will as well. The question for us today is what is the best way to fulfill this responsibility? Perhaps the answer to that question is changing. The old way, a speaker, six candles, a musical interlude, the Memorial prayer, the kaddish, perhaps that will fade away, and a new way may emerge.

Silence may be a start. There is no more powerful commemoration of the Holocaust than in Israel, when at 11 in the morning on this day a siren sounds throughout the land, every city, every town, every community. Cars stop, the drivers emerging to stand still on the street. The cafes and restaurants grow quiet. Lines at the cashier, the bank, the cafeteria, all pause. Heads go down, or perhaps up to the brilliant blue sky. Tears come. And silence ensues. As it says in the midrash, ‘no bird chirped, no cow lowed, no angel whispered, no person said a word.’ In that silence is sadness and despair, anger and guilt, horror and fear, and also hope and light, vision and faith, determination and strength. And memory.

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Be Still My Bleeding Heart

It can be a dangerous thing, walking in to a kiddush after services. Even if you didn’t give the sermon that day. The political season is heating up this week with various and sundry announcements that various and sundry people are running for president. Nothing surprising, all expected. But it is raising the antennae on folks who have a political bent, they are gearing up for battle, girding themselves with slogans and clear eyed idealism. Who is right, who is wrong! Why it must be this way or that! Who is ‘destroying the country,’ who can save it! No room for nuance, for contemplative conversation, for thoughtful discussion of actual issues. As if all is at stake, as if a loss would be catastrophic, a win redemptive, as if it really matters.

OK, call me a cynic. My first political memory is of Richard Nixon resigning from the presidency. I don’t actually believe that it makes much difference who is in power, who is out. My guess would be most candidates actually have the best interests of the country at heart, even if I don’t agree with their positions on particular issues. That being said, my congregation sees me as being a ‘liberal,’ which I suppose I am on most matters of social policy, and not uncommonly of foreign policy as well. And so it was that as I walked to the kiddish after services on a recent Shabbat morning one of my congregants was waiting for me, just at the end of the clergy corridor. He actually told me he wanted to get to me before I could enter the room where the kiddish was being held. And he succeeded.

Now don’t get me wrong. I have a lot of respect for the fellow. He has integrity, good family man, works hard, committed Jew, regular service attender. He wanted to talk to me about President Obama, the Iran ‘deal,’ how it is bad for Israel/the Jews (he conflated the two). He told me I was a ‘bleeding heart liberal’ and precisely because of that if I spoke out against the proposed Iran deal, it would make a difference. That I should write an Op Ed piece for the Wall Street Journal. It could change the tide, re-frame the debate, open people’s eyes. To tell you the truth, it was almost – flattering. To think that one rabbi might have that kind of power. And to think that I was that rabbi!

Imagine for a moment if rabbis really had that kind of influence. All of my congregants would keep kosher, observe Shabbat, pray daily, study Torah. We would have a full sanctuary on Shabbat mornings, every adult education class would be over subscribed. But no. More and more the rabbi is seen as just another person. No special powers, even, by and large, of persuasion. Thank goodness. To paraphrase the Elf Queen Galadriel in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, “I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain…me.” It is a good thing I am comfortable in my own skin.

And here a non-sequitur. Or maybe not. Every once in a while I dream about playing hooky. The service ends, I take off my tallit, remove my mic. I relax for a moment in my office, and then straighten my shoulders, begin to walk down the corridor towards the room where the kiddush is being held. Half way down the hallway I pause, hesitate. Something – something – sunlight? A bird singing? Light and shadow? Spring or fall? My own soul? Maybe even time itself? I turn, and with nary a glance back, walk out of the building and into the day.

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Again, Goodbye

a text version of comments from yesterday’s Yizkor introduction –

Each year when I sit down to seder with my family I feel that my bubbie and zayde and there at the table with me. Not physically – at this point they’ve been gone for many years. My zayde died in 1976, and my bubbie just after we came to Baltimore, in 1999. But there is a powerful sense of their presence, the product of so many shared seders over the years, of particular memories from those nights in Baltimore, my father’s extended family all gathered around, aunts, uncles, cousins, parents and grandparents. My bubbie was relatively quiet at those seders of my youth, involved with the cooking and cleaning, making her famous mundle bread, always eaten right after the fruit and chocolate covered nuts and just before the afikoman, and truth be told sometimes even after. She was a strong willed woman, never one to mince words, who in her own very particular and unmistakable way challenged the generations of her family – her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren – with the importance of living a meaningful Jewish life.
My zaydie was a very different person. Soft spoken and gentle of spirit, he was a kind hearted soul from the old country. I remember him always in a white button down shirt, slightly rumpled, with pressed trousers, and often a straw hat perched on his head, thick glasses slightly obscuring his eyes. He was not the fighter my bubbie was, more accepting of modern life, and yet proud of his Judaism and the family he watched grow around him over the years. I have a distinct memory to this day of the very first time I chanted the four questions. My father is the youngest of four brothers, I was the youngest of the children ready to tackle the task. I had practiced in Hebrew school, and when the time came I was called to the head of the table where my bubbie and zayde sat together. My zayde had the haggadah open in front of him, and with one hand he pointed to the text on the page, while with the other he put his arm around my shoulders as I began the Mah Nishtana.
These are the family memories the seder table evokes. Where a grandparent sat, what a cousin always said, how an uncle said the kiddish every year, the chocolate cake recipe of an aunt that no one can make in quite exactly the same way. Of course it isn’t just Passover that brings these memories to our minds. There are Rosh Hashanah dinners, and Yom Kippur break-fasts, recollections of playing with the fringes of someone’s tallit, of sitting in particular seats each year, of how someone sang a part of the service with gusto. The sense in the tradition is that the holidays are moments of sanctified time, but over the years part of their sacred quality comes from the time that has been spent on those days with the people most important to us in our lives, with whom we have most intimately shared the journey of our own years. On the other days of the year they are in our minds, always a part of our day to day lives. But during the holidays we feel as if we are sharing time with them again, as if in some way this world and the world to come touch, and we can reach from one to the other.
I suspect that is why we are asked to say yizkor precisely at the moments when the holidays are coming to an end. Here it is, the very last day of Pesah – thank goodness! – and we gather for yizkor. But it is the same for every yizkor service. On Yom Kippur, the day that concludes the 10 days of repentance. On Shemini Atzeret, that last day of the Sukkoth festival cycle. Not the first day, but the second and last day of Shavuot. Cynics might say this was done because these would be days of light shul attendance, and so the yizkor service was put in on these days to bring Jews to the synagogue. As Rabbi Loeb used to say, the dead bring out the living. But the custom of reciting yizkor prayers is now almost a thousand years old, and back in those days my guess is most folks went to services. So there must be another reason why the end of each holiday period was chosen for yizkor.
And I believe that reason is so that we can say goodbye, once again. When the holidays end we go back to our regular lives, to the secular world with its concerns and worries, its distractions and the sense it contains of time passing so quickly. We lose the sense of timelessness that the holidays give us, of connection to things past, great events that shaped our people, but also the parents and grandparents, the brothers and sisters, the sons and daughters, the aunts, uncles, and friends who have shaped our lives, and helped to form our characters. May they rest in peace. And may we honor their memories by the way we live our own lives.

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