Monthly Archives: February 2016

From Generation to Generation

this the text of my Shabbat sermon from 2/27/16 –

I have often been told by people over the years that their favorite moment in the service is the singing of ‘l’dor vador’ during the kedushah.  I think one of the reasons for that – along with the beautiful music – is that people know what the phrase means – from generation to generation – and that idea is important to people, it is something they have lived in their lives and believe in.  They know that they have received the tradition from their parents and grandparents, and one of the hopes they have is that they will see the tradition passed on to their children and one day grandchildren.

This sense of ‘generation to generation’ is not only about faith, we do it with many other things as well.  Music is one example.  I remember when Becky was pregnant with Tali, our first, I used to have her stand next to my stereo speakers with her stomach pointed towards the speaker and I would play Grateful Dead music, hoping that somehow through osmosis the baby would grow to love the music that is so important to me.  We also do it with sports – how many young Baltimoreans are given a Ravens or Orioles jersey when they are babies, the parents and grandparents hoping that that will set the child on the path to being a passionate Baltimore sports fan.  Of course we also hope to transmit certain values to our children, a sense of what is important,  of what should be prioritized in life, perhaps an ethical code we hope they’ll use to navigate the world.

And we also, probably more today than ever, hope to give our children our political values.  The way political discourse has become so polarized, I imagine there are quite a few Republicans in the room who would cringe if their children became Democrats, and vice versa.  The problem with all of this, of course, is that for some reason it just doesn’t seem to work precisely the way that we as parents have planned.  Go back to the music for a second – for all of that time Becky spent standing in front of that stereo that was blasting Grateful Dead music Tali basically has no interest in it.  In terms of sports, even in Baltimore you can find the occasional Duke or Pittsburgh Steelers or Yankees fan, a young man or woman with just enough of an iconoclastic streak to buck the trends.

Maybe more than anything else it is the area of politics where our children will take, at least to us, an unexpected turn.  It has been interesting to follow the debate taking place within feminist circles over the last number of weeks about the way younger women in the primary elections and caucuses have been voting for Bernie Sanders and not Hillary Clinton.  This is making the older feminists crazy.  It came to a head a couple of weeks ago when former Secretary of State Madeline Albright warned women around the country that, and this is a direct quote, “there is a special place in Hell for women who don’t help each other.”  She has since apologized for the comment, but the fact that she made it in the first place shows you how frustrated the older generation of women is – or at least a segment of that generation – by the fact the their younger counterparts are supporting Bernie.  And in large numbers!  There are some statistics that show that more than %80 of women under thirty support Bernie, a 74 year old white man, and not Hillary Clinton, arguably one of the great feminist icons of our time.

This idea of the younger generation having its own mind is not exactly a new one.  Some of you may remember the 60s and the incredible revolution that occurred with the college generation, the effects of which we still feel in today’s world.  But I would push it back even farther than that, all the way to the Bible itself.  In the Torah that younger generation is symbolized by the figure of Joshua, the loyal servant of both God and Moses.  It is Joshua who is the field commander for the Israelites when they battle against Amalek, the quarterback on the field to Moses’ coach on top of the mountain.  In this week’s Torah portion Joshua, who is patiently waiting at  the foot of Mt. Sinai for Moses to return, calls out in alarm when he feels something has gone wrong in the Israelite camp.  Later on, in the book of Numbers, we know that Joshua will lead the ill fated mission of the spies when they are sent to scout out the Promised Land, and although the spies lose their faith, Joshua manages to stay true.  It is also Joshua who is filled with רוח חכמה – with the spirit of wisdom – in the very last verse of the Torah, when Moses dies and Joshua becomes the leader of Israel.  And it is interesting to note that Joshua has his own eponymously named biblical book, something that even the great Moses does not achieve.

But my favorite story about Joshua is found in the 27th chapter of the Book of Numbers.  It is in that chapter that God tells Moses that he will be dying soon, that he needs to begin to prepare the people for the next leader.  And I’ve always loved Moses’ response – very canny – he simply says ‘ok, then let God appoint a new leader, someone who will be able to handle the people, do all the things I’ve been doing, take care of all the problems.’  It is almost like Moses is saying to God – ‘go ahead and try to find someone who can do what I do.’  In other words, you’ll never find anybody, you’ll have to keep me around whether you like it or not.

God doesn’t hesitate.  ‘Joshua is right there Moses,’ God says.  ‘Right next to you.  Reach out your hand, וסמכת את ידך עליו –  put your hand on him!’  And what is always striking to me about that passage is that Joshua was standing right in front of Moses, and had been for years.  But Moses had no idea that Joshua had become his own person, with his own talents, his own leadership qualities, his own interests, his own life.  And it wasn’t until God said ‘there is Joshua’ that Moses realized the next generation really was ready to take over, and to begin to do things their own way.  Maybe Moses would agree with it, maybe he wouldn’t.  Most likely some of it he wouldn’t like at all, and some he would probably feel quite proud of.  But that wasn’t event the point.  The point was Moses had to let go, and let Joshua do it in his own way.

We might say the same for our own children and grandchildren.  We do our best to give them the tools they’ll need to live good lives and to be decent people, teaching them whatever we can in the relatively few years they spend living under our roofs.  But somehow, right in front of our eyes, almost without our knowing it, they become adults, with their own thoughts, tastes in music, values, sports affiliations, ways of being and doing Jewish, and even with their own political ideas and loyalties.  And if they don’t match with ours exactly, or even at all, our job at that point is to say so be it.

After all that is what we do our best to raise them to – to be thoughtful, independent individuals who will forge their own paths in every area of life.  That can be challenging at times, but it seems to me it is something to be celebrated, something that means we’ve done our work well.  May our children and grandchildren in turn do their work well, in their own time, and yes, in their own way.

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Blessings of Early Rising

The quiet calm of early rising.  First stirrings.  A creak on the steps, always that same spot.  The dog rustles in his bed, sniffing the air to know what the day will bring, stretching his legs, wondering about food and weather, sensing his master’s mood.  A moment to stop and think, to consciously embrace a new day, its challenges and the gentle grace it brings.  Breath and life, an old song rattles in the back of my mind.  When did I first hear that, those artful notes, that plaintive melody?

He is older now, our pooch.  Almost venerable in his doggish ways.  He patiently sits by the window and waits, looking out, scanning the yards, his domain.  He knows every inch of it, every corner and crack, every twig fallen from a tree.  We slip out of the door from the warmth of home to another world.  A red light slowly, softly, gently, yet inexorably rises in the east.  Street lights begin to sputter and go out, like giant candles whose wicks have run down into melted wax, agents of their own destruction.

Up ahead a raccoon crosses our path, pausing for a moment to stale balefully at us with his bandit eyes.  Everything is heightened.  Each bird’s song can be heard.  The wind, only in the upper branches of the trees, murmurs of summers past and springs to come.  Stars and planets shine brightly.  There is Venus, there Jupiter, there red-tinted Mars.  A sickle moon presides over the heavens, almost austere in its dignity, its endless rounds of waxing and waning.  There is a quiet in these moments that is restful and  pregnant at the same time, soon to be released, but also precious.

Lights flicker in homes along the way, others rising to a new day.  Soon the phones will be ringing, the highway in the distance humming, the emails dinging, all of the noise of modern life in its constant cacophony.  But not quite yet.  Dawn still stubbornly clings, refusing for yet another moment (or two) to relinquish this early morning sacred time to the sun.  With gratitude we’ll wait patiently, and walk on.

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Bernie Trump and Donald Sanders

Of course they come at it from very different perspectives, and they are reaching very different groups.  Trump is all anger and bluster, aggression and pique, the classic 7th grade bully who has learned over time that if you yell loudly enough and confront people with enough strength you’ll often get what you want.  Bernie is in a sense the opposite – the lovable zaydie who cuddles and cajoles (maybe even nudges!), and whose age and experience give people a sense that he might actually know what he is talking about.  Trump plays on xenophobia, he picks fights, he hurls insults, he talks about how bad things are in America.  He says you have to take care of yourself.  Bernie preaches inclusion and hope, common dignity and human rights, dare I say it socialist ideals!, and he speaks of how great America will be.  He reminds us of the responsibility to care for others.

But despite their different personas and perspectives, in some strange way they have tapped into the same vein, albeit a vein in two entirely different bodies.  They are obviously saying things that certain people want to hear.  People who feel disenfranchised, fearful, suspicious, who feel that the current political system is dysfunctional, that the game is rigged, who want someone to speak on their behalf and to say things that other politicians don’t say, and perhaps by extension to (potentially) do things other politicians won’t do.

The old guard, the system,  the ‘corridors of power,’ the suits, the man, call it what you will – they have all been taken by surprise.  Can you imagine what Hillary is thinking?  “Again?!!”  The great line from Dylan’s ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ keeps coming to my mind:  Something is happening, and you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?

Do you?  Does anyone?

The dynamics are exactly the same.  Donald Sanders.  Bernie Trump.  Donie.  Bernald.  But the messages are so vastly different!  What a fascinating presidential race it would be to have such starkly different messages face off!  Imagine presenting America with a plate of Trump and a plate of Sanders, and then asking them to choose between them.   Forget about the liberal-conservative divide!  That is small potatoes compared to a Trump Sanders contest.  Which message would the country buy into, which view would ultimately win the day?

Of course we’ll never know.  Won’t happen.  Can’t imagine we’ll actually get there.  In the end it will be Hillary facing of with Kasich or Cruz or Rubio.  Same old same old.  It will be safer, business as usual, and even worse, politics as usual.  Probably better for everyone in the end.  But my oh my, how boring!  Kind of like driving a long ways round just to get back to the place where you started.  Well, at least the view was interesting.

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Star Crossed Lovers

this a text version of my sermon from Shabbat morning services on 2/13/16

It is a story that has been around probably almost as long as people have been telling stories. At its heart, it is a boy meets girl story, but it is boy meets girl complicated by the fact that the boy and girl come from different worlds. They might come from warring houses, great families that disdain one another and wish each other harm – think Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. They might come from different ethnic backgrounds or gangs, or classes, like Tony and Maria of West Side Story, or Catherine and the dark skinned Heathcliff from Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, or Lancelot and Guinevere from the King Arthur legends. These are the couples we have come to call ‘star crossed lovers’, from the phrase in the prologue of Romeo and Juliet – “a pair of star crossed lovers.”

The classic pattern of the story seems to suggest that love does triumph, but only for a time. Remember that Romeo and Juliet are both dead at the end of Shakespeare’s play. Heathcliff and Catherine in Wuthering Heights are not together until the end of the novel when Heathcliff dies and is buried next to the woman he has loved throughout his life. And in exploring the tensions that ultimately keep these couples from ‘living happily ever after,’ these stories challenge the conceptions we have not only about romantic relationships, but also about the way different groups in our society can and do relate to one another. When are people permitted to marry, when are they not? What boundaries are too great to cross in terms of a relationship? Is a religious boundary too great? An ethnic boundary? A gender boundary? A socio-economic boundary? Underneath the love story there is an exploration of class differences and ethnic tensions, of the stereotyping that commonly goes on when one group thinks about another group, of the fear and distrust that often exist between people of different backgrounds and different communities.

I would argue that it is necessary to confront these questions and to wrestle with them, to put them out on the table and to talk about them. It is part of the process of understanding who we are, both internally, our own group, what defines us particularly – but also on a larger scale – in an open society, where are the boundaries, what are people comfortable with, and what makes people uncomfortable, and why? Is that right or wrong, is it something that needs to be talked about, something that the society needs to come to terms with? And what art does – whether Shakespeare’s play, or Bronte’s novel- is enable us to wrestle with these issues in a safe way – to process them, think about them, and understand them more deeply. Think of it like this – if you can’t wrestle with a difficult issue in a novel, how are you ever going to be able to wrestle with it in real life?

And so it was disturbing to me to hear that just a few weeks ago Israel’s Ministry of Education asked schools across the country to remove a novel called Borderlife from high school reading lists. The novel, written by Israeli author Dorit Rabinyan, is essentially a modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet. It is the story of a young Israeli woman and a young Palestinian man who meet in New York City, fall in love, and then struggle to maintain their relationship once they return to the Middle East. It has all of the classic elements of the star crossed lover narrative – the boy and girl come from different worlds, their communities don’t understand each other, their families will not accept the relationship between them, and what is more, their culture, their society, will not accept that relationship either. You would think that the Ministry of Education should protect values like academic inquiry, and freedom of speech. But instead they have decided to close a conversation for their students before it even got started.

One of the arguments we make all the time in the Jewish community about the Palestinians is that the curriculum they teach in their schools contains an inherent anti-Israel bias. And I wonder in my own mind if in Israel you start telling your teachers and students that some books are permitted while others are not, and if the books that are not permitted are those that present Palestinians in a positive light – are we not falling into the same trap that has swallowed up the Palestinians? Isaac Herzog, who is the leader of the opposition in the Keneset, worth this on his FB page: “Tell me, are the People of the Book afraid of books?”

Are we afraid of books? Are we afraid of thinking that a Palestinian and an Israeli might fall in love? Are we afraid of a story that portrays a Palestinian as a full human being, with thoughts and feelings, with bad qualities and good qualities? If we are afraid of those things I would argue we’ve come to a place that first of all isn’t a Jewish place, and second of all isn’t a human place. And I don’t mean to suggest that Israelis and Palestinians should suddenly start marrying one another. But I do mean to suggest that denying the common humanity on both sides of a painful and difficult situation doesn’t do anyone any good.

If you were in services last night you know that the Torah portion we read this week, Trumah, describes the ancient tabernacle that the Israelites wandered with in the wilderness. Virtually all of the items from that tabernacle are symbolized in our modern sanctuaries. The table is the altar that the sacrifices were offered on. The ark is a symbol of the ancient ark that carried the tablets with the 10 commandments, the eternal light reflects the light they kept lit in ancient times, and the list goes on and on. One thing we looked at last night was the ark, and you’ll remember that the ark in the Gorn is supposed to look very much like the ancient ark. Anyone remember how? Poles to carry, and also the sweeping top, one arc (arc with a ‘c’) going in one direction, one arc going in the other direction, is supposed to symbolize what is described in the Torah on the top of the ancient ark, which was a sculpted image of two angel like figures with their wings outstretched over their heads.

And the Torah is very detailed in its description of these angels, to include the following: ופניהם איש אל אחיו – literally what that means is that the face of one must be against the other. I like the translation in our Humash, which says the figures must confront each other. Confront. There is a tension contained in that word, almost as if one figure is facing off against the other, standing its ground.

And I would say it is the same thing with the problems and difficulties and challenges in our lives and in our world. They have to be confronted. If you hide your head in the sand, and pretend they don’t exist, and wait for a while, they will still be there when you look out again. Removing a book from a reading list is not going to make a problem go away. If anything, it will sell more books. But by taking it away, you also take away the opportunity to confront the problem, to wrestle with it and think about it and struggle with it. And hopefully come to a deeper sense of wisdom about it.

It seems to me that is also what the Ministry of Education in Israel needs – a little bit of wisdom, and also faith – faith in its students and teachers. Is the subject difficult, is the book hard, will it take its readers out of a comfort zone? Absolutely. But perhaps what that means is that it is all the more worthwhile to read it and teach it, to talk about it, and wrestle with the challenges it presents to all of us.

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Walls and Mosques

On the surface this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, is a disparate collection of laws, covering everything from what to do when a man steals another man’s ox to the proper lending of money to the spreading of gossip in a community. Scholars have long debated about what the central organizing principle of the portion might be, and various theories have been suggested over the years. I’ve always believed at the heart of the portion is a fundamental concern about an idea that we probably think of as modern, but an idea that the Torah was very interested in almost 3000 years ago, namely the meaning and application of a system of civil rights.

In the United States ‘civil rights’ is a loaded term, with a historical context and a modern application. Hearing the phrase many of us probably think back to the civil rights struggle of the African-American community in the 60s, a struggle that many would say is still going on today. In a contemporary and legal sense, civil rights is a broad category that includes freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the right to vote among other things. Today we might say it like this: a person’s civil rights should guarantee that that person will not be discriminated against because of their race, gender, religion, age, physical limitation, national origin, and sexual orientation.

But three thousand years ago the Torah also had a sense of civil rights, probably for the first time in human history understanding the idea of individual rights in a way that would lead us to where we are today, to how we think about it today. First of all the Torah proposes that all human beings are created in the image of God. Jews and non-Jews, men and women, people of all nations. And what follows logically from that premise is that all human beings are deserving of being treated with equal dignity, that all human beings deserve to have the same rights. And in this week’s portion the Torah tries to apply that idea. It talks about orphans and widows, the stranger, the poor, criminals, and slaves. And in each case the Torah makes sure to tell us that although we might think this person wouldn’t enjoy the protection of the law, that in fact, they do – they have rights. Even a criminal. Even a non-Israelite. Even an orphan. Even a slave.

And it is sad, on one level, but also important to say, that we still need reminding of that message in modern times. We know that there are still slaves in the world, that the poor still struggle to protect themselves and to find dignity, we know that race and religion and sexual orientation and gender are all too often sources of discrimination and hostility and misunderstanding, even still today. We know it! These issues were a problem three thousand years ago for the Israelites, and they are still a problem for us today. And sometimes we begin to wonder – how long does it take to begin to get it right?

This week we saw two examples of getting it right on civil rights. One happened in the Jewish homeland, the state of Israel, and the other right here in our own backyard. Last night Rabbi Saroken spoke about the long ongoing struggle of the group called ‘the Women at the Wall.’ For years they have been working to create a space at the Western Wall in Jerusalem where woman can be treated as equals in terms of prayer and ritual. And if you heard Rabbi Saroken last night you certainly know that there have been ugly incidents over the years, to include verbal and even physical assaults on the women. But with strength and courage they have persistently and publicly insisted, time and again, that as women they deserve equal access to Judaism’s most sacred place, and equal access to Judaism’s most sacred rituals. And this week it was announced that the government of Israel has finally listened to their pleas. A section of the wall at the southern excavations will be expanded and opened up where women will be able to pray and read Torah, to put on tefillin and tallit if this is their custom, to sing in full voice in praise of God, and also where Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Jews will be able to hold services where men and women sit together, where the rituals of that group can be enacted without fear of recrimination. So that is example number one of getting it right.

I said example number two was in our own back yard, and I meant that literally. I am referring to President Obama’s visit to the mosque in Catonsville this past Wednesday. Let me for a moment set some context for you regarding the President’s visit. You may recall that in 1790, President George Washington sent a letter to the Jewish congregation of Newport RI, thanking them for their kind wishes after his visit to their city. That letter contains one of the best known phrases in the history of this country, and perhaps the most famous expression of religious freedom and the role government has to play in maintaining it in of all time. Here is what Washington wrote:

“The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.”

To bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance. That phrase still rings true today, some 226 years after Washington wrote it. As Americans, and I think also as Jews, we immediately identity with what it means, and we understand intuitively that it is one of the primary values that has made this country great. But I will let you all in on a little secret today. George Washington did not create that phrase. It was a quote – he was quoting from a letter he had received just a few weeks earlier. And that letter was written by a Jew, Moses Seixas – the spiritual leader of that Rhode Island congregation.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that that phrase came originally from the mind of a Jew. On the one hand a Jew knows as well as anyone how precious the gift of religious freedom is, having lived for so many years without it. And on the other hand – a Jew’s spiritual and philosophical roots can be traced back to the Torah itself, and the Torah is the greatest expression of human freedom, dignity, and liberty found in the ancient world.

I think visiting a mosque was President Obama’s way of sending a letter like the one George Washington sent so long ago. The visit was an affirmation of the ideal expressed in that famous phrase – to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance – and it was a reminder to all of us that that value must remain one of America’s most important as we move forward into the future.

may we live that value in our lives, encourage it in our communities, and be thankful for this great nation where it resides

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Sharing Truth

There will be anger and outrage from certain segments of the community about the Israeli government’s decision to create a pluralistic area of the Kotel (the Western Wall) in Jerusalem, but it is absolutely the right thing to do. Israel’s government should not stand for only one stream of Judaism, and it should not enforce a single religious ideology. Israel is the “Jewish state,” and if so, all of Judaism’s expressions should feel welcome and respected. I look forward to being in that pluralistic area some day soon and experiencing the kind of Judaism I live every day, where women participate fully, where all types of Jews are welcome and all viewpoints respected. Can you imagine minyanim at the Kotel with men and women participating together and equally? With women reading from the Torah and leading the prayers without being heckled or attacked? With Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist groups visiting from the States and being able to enjoy their style of service without constantly looking over their shoulders? Can you imagine that? Soon you won’t have to, it will simply be reality.

In the meantime, when bitter arguments arise, let us remember that at the end of the day no one holds the sure truth in their hands. No one knows with absolute surety what God wants, how God wants us to act, who God prefers. It is all just a best guess, and often even less. And in guessing we should be humble, we should remember we might be wrong. Are there great issues at stake? Perhaps. But we should remember that even if that is the case the tradition is clear that God wants us to resolve these issues together. Didn’t Rabbi Joshua walk to Rabban Gamaliel’s home on the day he, Joshua, thought was Yom Kippur? (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah, 2:8-9)

Yes it is easier to claim the truth and stand by that claim. To believe that what you do is what God wants, to think that with every action properly taken you are in some way fulfilling God’s will. But I choose to live in a more difficult space, where doubt often trumps surety. Where someone else might be right when I am wrong. Or perhaps better expressed, where someone else might be right while I am also right. The challenge is simply this: to look across the way and say: your truth is real, and valid, even if it is not mine. And then to maintain hope that one day another will look back and say the same to me.

You might ask, what kind of place is it where there are multiple truths, where two ideas that are different can be equally true and valid and meaningful expressions of God’s will? And I would say in response – that is God’s place.

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