Monthly Archives: June 2015

A Teacher Tribute

I imagine that everyone in this room can think of a teacher they encountered at some point in their lives who has had a deep and lasting influence on them. It might have been a teacher in elementary school who helped you learn how to read, who opened up the magic and mystery that a great story can bring into your mind. Perhaps it was someone you met in high school, who got you interested in a subject that would end up guiding your career choices for the rest of your life. Or maybe there was a college or graduate school professor who happened to say just the right thing to you at just the right time, the one thing you needed to hear to get you going in the right direction.

If you’ve been lucky to have a teacher like that, or maybe even more than one, you know that the lessons you learned from that teacher will stay with you for the rest of your life. They have in a sense helped to form who you are, how you see the world, even how you live in the world. I recently officiated at the funeral of a woman who had spent her life as a teacher. Tragically she died too young, just about 60 years old. Her funeral was packed with students she had taught – some of them were current students, some of them were students she had 5, or 10, or even more years ago. She taught theater and drama, and just as the service was about to start the family chose to play a song from the musical Wicked called ‘for Good.’ There is a simple yet very powerful line in the song – you’ll recognize it if you know the musical – ‘because I knew you I’ve been changed for good.’ When that line came thought the PA system all of the students at the funeral began to weep. That weeping was a beautiful eulogy – in one moment it summed up the impact this woman had had on them, on their lives – she had made a difference, and her students knew they were better people because they had known her, had learned from her.

I often wonder if the ancient Israelites knew that they had that kind of teacher in Moses. From a straight forward reading of the Torah you wouldn’t think so. Moses does his best. He teaches by his words, by his actions, even by his silences. He stands by the people, he believes in them, even when God no longer does. But the people don’t seem to realize that right in their very midst is not only a great teacher, a life changing kind of teacher, but arguably one of the greatest teachers to have ever lived, a teacher so great that still to this day, almost 5000 years after he died, we are still learning from his words, studying his laws, and shaping our lives based on his values.

But the people never thank Moses, never acknowledge the gifts that he gives to them on a daily basis. Instead they complain to him about what he has done to them, bringing them into the wilderness. They rebel against him. They worship an idol the moment he steps away from the camp. They sin against God, again and again putting Moses in the position of defending them against God’s wrath. Even in this morning’s Torah portion, when Moses has taken them all the way, when they are finally just outside the Promised Land, looking in, knowing it is only another few miles, knowing their goal has been achieved and the promise that Moses made to them has been fulfilled – even then, they complain.

But despite all of that, Moses somehow managed to leave the impression that the great teachers leave on their students. The Israelites learned the lessons that he taught, even though they might not have even known they learned them. They entered the new land and created a culture that reflected Moses’ values, that was based on the fundamental ideals of the Torah that he created and left with them – ideals like freedom, human dignity and equality, justice, and the sense that all people are created in the image of God. Moses’ teachings were remembered and lived long after he was gone, even thought at the time the people didn’t seem to be listening, didn’t seem to be buying in to what he was saying. But somehow he touched all of them, and changed them for good.

I take two messages from this. The first is a comforting message for a rabbi. Even when people don’t seem to be listening, even when they look distracted, or bored, or like they wished they were somewhere else, they might very well be listening and learning something from you. If the Israelites – despite all of their troubles – were able to internalize the lessons of Moses, then there is hope for the rabbi! And also, by the way, that is a good thing to remember if you are a parent, or grandparent – your children and grandchildren are listening and learning from you, even when you might think they aren’t so interested. So teach them well.

But the other lesson I learn from this is how important it is to thank the teachers in our lives. That person who made a difference, who gave you a piece of themselves, who got you to think in a new way or point you in a new direction – let them know what they’ve done, how they’ve helped you, how they have changed you for the good. Believe me, as a teacher that kind of message is deeply appreciated. And I wonder if the end of Moses’ life would have been less bitter and disappointing if the Israelites had been able, in some way, to let him know how much he had done for them, how much of a difference he had made in their lives. If they had been able to do that, the deep loss he felt at not being able to enter the Promised Land might have been easier to bear.

I’ve been lucky in my life – blessed, really – to have had a number of teachers over the years who left a deep impact on my life. There was an elementary school teacher who opened my mind to the power of reading, who helped me to fall in love with books, a defining theme of my life. There was a college professor who believed in me, who taught me that I had something worthwhile to say – even though I didn’t know it at the time. And there were a number of teachers in rabbinical school, who helped me understand the tradition, who gave me a sense of authenticity so that I could work as a rabbi in a community, and who most importantly of all helped me discover a passion for Jewish learning that I didn’t know I had.

One of those teachers died this past week, after a long and good life. His name was Rabbi Ben Zion Bergman – called by almost everyone Benzi – and he was my first real Talmud teacher. He was curmudgeony and demanding, critical at times, and if you weren’t prepared for class he didn’t let you slide. But he was fair and wanted the best for his students. He was incredibly bright, had a truly remarkable memory that bordered on the photographic – he once told me that when he was young he could meet 50 or 60 people in a room and remember all of their names. He was wise and thoughtful, had worked in the real world as a rabbi, not just in academia, and told wonderful – and often hilarious – stories about the experiences he had. And most importantly of all, he had that rare ability that only the greatest teachers have to teach not only their subject, not only the material, but also to give you the passion and love they feel for their subject, so that it can truly be yours. And although I will confess this morning that I don’t remember all of the class room lessons, all of those pages of Talmud we pored over, the passion for the study of sacred texts that he helped me discover I will never forget. And I hope that will be enough of a tribute to a great teacher, a wonderful rabbi, and a true mensch. May his memory – and the memories of all the great teachers in our lives – always be for a blessing –

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A Vast Universe, and Ours

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I snapped this picture while walking the dog in the neighborhood. A major thunder storm with torrential rain tore through our area, and this was the calm after the storm. The world seems to take a deep breath, checking for a moment that it can restart. Then it happens. A car rolls slowly down the street. The birds begin to sing and chatter. An older man emerges from his home, turns his face towards the sky as if to say ‘are you done?’

These great billowing clouds, remnants of the storm, caught my attention. They touch the earth, coming all the way down to the roof line of the home in the picture, but then stretching all the way to the heavens. There is something powerful about the smallness of our lives and even our world and the vastness of all creation. We are both of and in that vastness, as incomprehensible as that is sometimes. Knowing that – being sensitive to it – is in part what defines our humanity.

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Shelter from the Storm

Yes, the powerful song from Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks album, one of the greatest rock and roll records ever made, and maybe the greatest. The album was released in 1975, the year the last American forces pulled out of Vietnam, and the song echoes the way the American psyche experienced that war. Here the first stanza: ‘Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood/ when blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud/ I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form/ come in, she said, I’ll give you shelter from the storm.’ Perhaps the woman is America, the lady holding the torch beckoning her sons home, while the creature void of form is a symbol of the veterans who came back, changed forever. Who knows? But there is something haunting about the song, as it builds from stanza to stanza, part the mourning of a lost love, or lost innocence, or both, part the search for the presence of God and goodness in life’s dark places.
The truth is there are many different storms we encounter in the course of our lives. Illness or a broken relationship. Old age. Failure. Lost dreams. Despair. Grief and loss. It can happen in an instant. The blues skies suddenly turn dark. Threatening clouds appear. The leaves on the trees turn upwards to the sky, as if to say ‘wait but a moment, then we’ll let you have your way.’ Sometimes the moment will pass. A thunderous, intense, driving, rain will clear to a cool summer eve and the gentle glimmer of early stars. But other times the winds are too strong, the rain blinding. We can lose our way, groping about for help, wondering how we ever arrived at this place, and how we ever might get out of it.
Shelter can come from many places. But as Dylan’s song implies, more than anything else we need other people to share our burdens with. To be in pain is awful. To be in pain and lonely is unbearable. What I would suggest is that we never know when we might be giving someone the shelter they need. There are obvious examples – the sick person in the hospital supported by the love and care of family and friends. But there are less obvious moments as well, not to be underestimated. A simple phone call to check on an old friend. Quiet acts of kindness extended to strangers. The list could go on and on. Is it trite? Perhaps. But often what is trite is true as well.
There is a fairly famous person whose name I can no longer remember (maybe not so famous after all!). He kept a journal, a day by day recording of the events of his life. In one entry, remarking on a day spent with his son, he wrote ‘went fishing with my son for hours. Wasted day.’ It so happened that the boy also was keeping a journal (learned from his old man, I suppose). On that very same day he also recorded an entry, writing the following: ‘went fishing with my father – one of the best days of my life!’
This also from Dylan’s song: ‘Not a word was spoke between us, there was little risk involved/ everything up to that point had been left unresolved/ try imagining a place where its always safe and warm/ come in she said, I’ll give you shelter from the storm.’ We are all looking for that place. What we sometimes forget is that we can all help others find it. Imagine that.

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Hope and Despair

this a text version of yesterday’s (6/13) Shabbat sermon:

At the heart of this morning’s Torah portion is one of the Bible’s best known stories, the narrative of the spies that Moses sends to scout out the land of Israel. You may remember the story – the Israelites are poised on the borders of the the land, and a scouting party is given the assignment of going in to discover what the land contains. Moses wants to know about the land itself, the topography, he wants to know about the people, are they strong or weak, what their numbers are, he wants to know about the towns, about the quality of the soil, the produce – any information the scouts can glean so that Moses can better prepare the people for actually going in.

Sounds like a good idea, but the story doesn’t end well. What happens? A representative from each tribe is chosen, for a total of 12. The group is given its assignment, and they spend 40 days carefully making their way through Canaan. When they return they give their report, and this is where every thing falls apart – 10 of the 12 men describe a land that is beautiful, but that would be impossible to conquer – כי עז העם היושב בארץ the people are too great, והערים בצורות גדולות מאד the cities are too strong. When the people hear the report, they panic and despair, weeping all night long, and actually saying they would have been better off dying in Egypt than facing this. The end of the story is that the people are punished with the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. The generation that the spies represent will now never see the Promised Land.

There is a great deal of debate in the commentaries about why the punishment is so severe. Some suggest that it was the public nature of what happened that made God so upset, that had the spies given their report privately to Moses, and not in front of the people, the entire outcome would have been different. But I’ve always felt the core of the issue is one of hope versus despair. Hope is a central value in our tradition. It is no accident that the Israeli national anthem is called “HaTikvah’, the Hope. And in the story of the spies a test of hope is failed not once, but twice – first by the spies themselves, who can see the goodness of the land, but find the challenges they discover there so daunting that they fall away from hope and into despair. And secondly, by the people themselves – who hear the report about the fortified cities and their powerful inhabitants, all of the difficulties that will face them when they go in, and immediately give up.

And the point is, that is not the Jewish way. The Jewish way is to keep a sense of hope even during the darkest times. I have a confession to make this morning. How many of you have been to the top of Massada in Israel? And even if you haven’t been there, you probably know the story – the Jewish soldiers and their families were surrounded by the Roman legions, and when it became clear that the Romans would ultimately conquer the Jews, what did the Jews do? They committed suicide. One by one they killed each other off, and the very last person fell on his own sword. And Massada has become such an important place in the consciousness of modern Israel, and the story such an important story, you almost wouldn’t think of going to Israel and not going to Massada.

But that has always bothered me, because to me the Massada story is a very un-Jewish story. It is a story of despair, a story of giving up and giving in, a story of embracing death and not clinging to life. And that is not the Jewish way. The Jewish way is, despite great odds against, to believe that somehow, someway, if you can just hold on long enough, you’ll make it through. The Jewish way is to hope. The story that captures that idea to me comes from the north of Israel, the Golan Heights, and not Massada and the south. In the Yom Kippur War, in 1973, Syrian tank forces attacked Israel from the north, in the Golan, at the place that is today called Emek HaBacha, the Valley of Tears. At one point in that battle there were 40 Israeli tanks holding off 500 hundred Syrian tanks. And many of those Israeli tanks didn’t even have ammunition. And I’ve always wondered to myself, what if the men in those tanks had been like the soldiers of Massada. They would have given up. But somehow, despite the overwhelming odds that faced them, the impossible nature of the task that was in fromt of them, they clung to hope. They fought through the night, Reinforcements came, and ultimately they held the line of defense. That is the spirit that to me symbolizes Israel, that is why Israel exists today. And by the way, it is probably why the Jewish people exist today. We have an incredible ability to keep hope alive, even during the darkest moments, something we’ve been doing now for more than three thousand years.

And that is why I wasn’t that bothered by the Supreme Court’s decision this week to uphold the official position of the President’s office and the State Department and not allow an American born in Jerusalem to have Israel listed as the ‘place of birth’ on his Passport. Maybe you followed the case. For decades it has been the official policy of the US that Jerusalem is disputed territory, and therefore not formally part of Israel, so when Americans are born in Jerusalem, on their passport their place of birth is listed as Jerusalem, not Israel. Just to be clear this is not a President Obama position, it is the same position held by George Bush, and every US president going back to the 67 war when Jerusalem came back into Israeli hands. Whether right or wrong, whether you agree or disagree, that has been the official US position since 1967. But recently an American family whose son was born in Jerusalem wanted the place of birth on his passport to be listed as Israel and they took legal action against the US, a case which landed in the Supreme Court this past week. And the Court upheld the position of the executive branch – the boy’s passport would have to read ‘Jerusalem’, and not Israel, as his place of birth.

Now does that hurt, does it sting? Does it feel like the US is somehow letting Israel down? Yes it does. But it seems to me a small think in a long journey, and it is certainly no cause for despair. Sometimes I worry that the Jewish community reacts to things sort of like the spies in this morning’s Torah reading. When the difficulties and the challenges confront us, when something happens that we don’t like, when someone says something that we don’t agree with, we sound all the alarms, call all hands on deck, and feel like the sky is falling down over our heads. But not every bump in the road is a cause for despair. Not every difficulty requires full panic mode. Not every challenge requires hand wringing and tears. The truth is most of it we’ve seen before. And if we’ve learned anything from our history, we should know that somehow, if we can just keep our hope, we’ll probably be OK. To quote the Grateful Dead – we will get by, we will survive, and then to add to that, we will even thrive.

My hope is that we will continue to do so for many years to come. In Jerusalem, in Israel, and all throughout the world –

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Life and Death

The phrase always stays with me. It occurred twice in my bar mitzvah Torah portion in different forms, most dramatically in Deuteronomy 30:19: “I call Heaven and Earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life! – if you and your offspring would live – by loving the Lord Your God…” In the synagogue where I grew up the bar mitzvah boys actually had to translate the Torah into English as they were reading it, line by line, phrase by phrase. And that phrase – life and death – caught my attention, even as a thirteen year old.

You grow older, you begin to understand how problematic the verse actually is. Really? As if we actually have a choice, as if we can change the decree of fate, as if we are in control. Of course you can work with the verse, massage it, step outside of the literal and look for the metaphoric. And that can help. Here is one way to do it: the verse isn’t about quantity, but quality. Belief doesn’t guarantee a certain number of years, but it can help you find greater meaning in whatever number of years you do have. And that works pretty well, actually, at least for me. It rings true, it just feels right.

But yesterday I had an experience that let me see the verse through a different lens. A funeral, and I was at the cemetery with the family. Two siblings burying a brother who had died suddenly. As we were walking the casket to the grave, a family member approached me with an iPhone. A baby had been born into the family, just as we were arriving at the cemetery. Here was a picture of the newborn, swaddled, tiny hat on, bright black eyes peering out at a new world.

Life and death, death and life. One member of the family leaving this world, and literally at the very same moment a new member of the family arriving. We call it the cycle of life, and at times it can be vey powerful. What we are linked into. How we are connected. For each of us it begins with life and ends with death. But for families, for the generations that come and go, death and life are not really endings or beginnings, they are instead part of a tapestry, a history, a narrative that goes on and on. Even after we are physically gone we are still a part of it all, our image woven into the tapestry for others to see, our part of the narrative written in words that are read long after we are gone. In this weaving, this writing and reading, this telling and remembering, we also choose life.

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You Can’t Always Get…

You know the rest of the words. Mick and Keith (of the suddenly rejuvenated Rolling Stones!) made the phrase iconic when they released Let It Bleed in 1969. I believe the song is the 9th track on the album but you’ll have to check me on that. Brilliant beginning, with the classical choir singing the chorus, fading into Keith strumming an acoustic guitar, then Mick’s plaintive vocals. There are few greater moments in rock and roll. The groove kicks in with the drums and bass at the end of the first chorus – if you try some time, you just might find, you get what you need.

Been thinking about that line quite a bit lately, particularly after a series of conversations with elderly folk connected to the synagogue in one way or another. Visiting with them in the hospital, the nursing home, the senior center, their apartments. They are almost like ghosts, existing in our world, but in large part invisible. Few visitors. Mostly immobile. With the help of an aid they might manage to get into a chair, but then they sit there all day, staring at a TV, taking a call or two (if they can deal with the phone), thinking, wondering. More than anything else, I think they are lonely. But probably a bit depressed as well. It is difficult for them to see meaning in their lives, and they often ask me “What am I doing here? Why am I still around?” Not easy questions to answer, even for a rabbi. Maybe particularly for a rabbi.

My work often reminds me of the difference between what we want and what we need. We tend to want things. Something new and shiny – a car or computer, new furniture, shoes, whatever it might be. If only I had THAT, I would be satisfied. And that. Oh yes, and that as well. But the folks I’ve been talking with aren’t worried about what they want. A new this or that doesn’t trouble their mind, isn’t on their radar screen. They know better than most that the true key is having what you need. Love. Companionship. Health. Visitors. You can make your own list, but at the end of the day most of us know the difference between the things we want and the things we need.

I would say the problem actually is that we spend too much time worrying about what we want, and not enough time focusing on what we truly need. The Mishnah teaches that the one who is truly wealthy is the one who is content with his or her own portion. If you want to know how to say that in ‘rock and roll’ language take out your old Let It Bleed record, dust off your turntable, and put the needle down on track 9.

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