Monthly Archives: May 2016

The End

Some of you may remember the song by the Doors.  Released in January 1967 on their eponymously titled debut album, it was a 12 minute long guided tour through the brilliant yet burning mind of Jim Morrison, the group’s singer and lyricist.  When asked about the song he explained it was written originally about breaking up with his girlfriend.  Maybe so.  But with its explicit references to death, its images of twisting snakes and preternatural lakes, it has always been viewed as an exploration of the end of life, of saying goodbye not for a day, not for a time, but forever.

When I was in college I spent a semester hosting a late Sunday night/early Monday morning (midnight to 5 AM) radio show on the campus station.  Mostly I played Grateful Dead bootlegs and album side long jams from the Dead’s Europe ’72 record or the Allman Brothers At Fillmore East (check out the 23 minute Whipping Post on side 4 if you haven’t heard it in a while).  But every show, precisely at 2:15 in the morning, the station’s phone would ring and a young man would request The End.  Seeing as that he was probably my only listener how could I not comply?  It was a bit eerie, hearing Morrison’s oily voice coming out of the station speakers, no one else around, the campus dark and quiet during those predawn hours.

Of course when you are young death is a distant concept, an idea you are aware of but that for the most part is entirely disconnected from your reality.  Not something that actually happens to you or those you love.  Maybe even a bit romantic, Romeo and Juliet-esque.  But rabbis know differently.  Death is a day to day reality, it is a destination, a shared fate, a deep chasm we all cross.  Death don’t have no mercy in this land, sang the Reverend Gary Davis.  Amen to that, brother.

Of course most of the time we all live in that ‘suspended state of disbelief.’  That we’ll wake up and have a normal day.  That we will walk God’s green earth, feel the breeze, watch spring blossom in its fullness, talk with our neighbors, enjoy time with our family and friends, work, eat, drink, read the paper.  Just a normal day.  What did Garcia sing in Black Peter?  “See here how everything lead up to this day, and its just like any other day that’s ever been.”  And the truth is we have to live like that. You can’t go about your life as if you are Max van Sydow wandering through some Ingmar Bergman film, Death trailing and tracking you every step of the way.  So seize the day you have, live fully, be grateful, enjoy the little moments and the great ones as well.  Walk out from under the shadow and soak up the light.  In today’s vernacular, that is how we (rock and) roll.  All of us, one way or another.

One last thought.  After referencing the Doors, the Allmans, the Dead, it is only appropriate to go all the way back to the words of the Psalmist:  “This is the day that God has made.  Let us exult and rejoice in it.” (Psalm 118:24)  Amen to that as well.


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Negativity Won’t Pull You Through

this a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 5/21/16

With the Preakness this weekend and Memorial Day just around the corner in a presidential election year we know that it is only a matter of time before we are confronted with ad after ad, phone call after phone call, and email after email for the candidates in the race.  We also know from experience that a significant percentage of the publicity will be negative, what we commonly call today attack ads against the candidates.  This is an unfortunate and unpleasant part of the political process, but it is also seemingly unavoidable today, just part and parcel of the way running for office works in this country.

But the truth is the negative ads are only a small part of what the candidate has to deal with.  There is an intensive vetting that happens with every presidential candidate, a detailed examination of every recorded statement, tweet (in Donald Trump’s case), email (in Hillary Clinton’s case), business deal, taxes, public position taken, the list goes on and on.  In essence if you are running for president you are subjecting every aspect of your life – in many ways both public and private – to detailed scrutiny.  And the process really just has one intended purpose, which is to expose any flaw – any defect – in Hebrew any מום – that a candidate might have.

You may not be surprised to find out that this is not a new idea, in fact I would submit to you this morning that it is at least as old as the Torah, which pushes it back some 3,000 years or so.  In this morning’s portion there is a passage that in my mind is one of the most difficult and troubling series of verses anywhere in the entire Bible.  It crops up in the 21st chapter of Leviticus, in a discussion about the types of flaws – מומים in Hebrew – that would automatically disqualify a person from priestly service.  Most of the items on the list are physical in nature – for example if the person is blind, or lame, or even if the person has broken their arm or leg at some point, they are automatically disqualified, and not permitted to serve in the Temple rituals.

You can see why the passage troubles me.  It is in direct conflict with our modern value of inclusivity and our modern understanding that someone who struggles with a handicap can be just as productive a worker as someone who does not, and often more so.  The objection the Torah seems to have to people with these flaws is that either they might distract the worshippers, or the physical limitation they struggle with might limit their ability to properly perform their duties, and the truth is sometimes the priestly responsibilities were of a physical nature.   One way or another it certainly does remind us that the idea of scrutinizing a potential leader, a public servant, of looking for that person’s mumim – their blemishes – is something that has been going on for a long, long time.

What might be a little bit different today, however, is the number of blemishes we find in our candidates, and the striking level of unpopularity with which they are perceived.  You may have seen this week a major poll which was released comparing ratings of popularity and unpopularity between the major candidates.  More than half of registered voters have unfavorable views of both candidates – both!  Clinton is viewed unfavorably by 52% of registered voters.  And Trump is even worse, unfavorably viewed by 55% of voters.  What that means is that the majority of voters looking at the election are seeing two candidates that they don’t like, and that many people don’t feel entirely comfortable voting for.

But the truth is even before the poll came out I could have told you this.  My evidence is only anecdotal, it would not hold up to statistical analysis.  That being said I have had person after person say to me that they don’t like either candidate, and they don’t know what to do – they don’t feel comfortable voting for either Clinton or Trump.  And my sense is people are actually considering not voting at all – it is like they can’t stomach casting a ballot either way, so they might just sit this one out.

I have two things to say about that – first of all, please don’t sit it out!  Get out and vote, it is not only a privilege of being a citizen of this great country, it is also I think a responsibility, a civic duty, one we should take seriously and fulfill.  Just participating in the process is an affirmation of the core values that drive America, and we should come together on election day to share in those values.  Which is why I believe election day should be a national holiday, like it is in Israel, but that is a sermon for another day.

The second thing I would say is this.  Challenge yourself to make your decision not on negatives, but on positives.  What I mean by that is don’t decide to vote for Trump because you don’t like Hillary.  And don’t decide to vote for Hillary because you don’t like Donald.  Even if you don’t like either candidate, they have positives.  They are accomplished people, in fact two of the most successful people in the world in their chosen fields.  Look for those positives, make a list of them, and compare them.  List out what policies, what issues are most important to you – is it abortion, is it taxes, is it Israel, is it immigration, or health care – list them out, figure out the candidate’s views, and decide which one’s views you like the most, not the least.  And then get out to the voting booth in November, and cast your vote for the next president.  Don’t base that vote on what disqualifies a candidate, on what flaws and blemishes they have – base it on what qualifies them for the job, on what positions they hold or don’t hold, on what characteristics you see in them that would make them a qualified leader.  Not a perfect leader – I think we all know that doesn’t exist.  But the best possible leader we have at this time.

So in the months ahead, as the ads keep coming, as the blemishes  – the mumim – are exposed in the candidates – lets do our best to rise above the negativity.  Some of you may remember the song by Jonny Mercer and the Pied Pipers, memorably recorded by Bing Crosby in 1944 –

You’ve got to – accentuate the positive –

Eliminate the negative –

Latch on to the affirmative

and don’t mess with Mr In Between

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Summer Reading List 2016

My annual list – these books will keep you company on rainy days and sunny beaches (provided the sun ever comes out!).  As always, a ‘caveat emptor’ – some of these books might already be in the bag (I’ve read them), some might not get read at all, while I might read a book or two not on the list (if so, I’ll post additions on Twitter).  Enjoy the books!

Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehesi Coates  This powerful book, part memoir and part political treatise, is a stunning depiction of the emotional impact of growing up black in America.  In a time when racial and ethnic differences are front and center in the national conversation this is a must read.  152 pages

SPQR – A History of Ancient Rome – Mary Beard  The classicist from Cambridge University has written a compelling account of ancient Rome’s rise and fall.  Like the best written history, this book teaches us about the past while giving us a chance to reflect on the present.  575 pages

Doomed to Succeed – Dennis Ross  The historian, diplomat, and Middle East expert has written an insightful review of the history of American-Israeli relations, focusing on the presidents and their administrations and how they have either supported (mostly) or not supported (rarely) the Middle East’s only democracy.  474 pages

Everybody’s Fool – Richard Russo  The author paints a vivid picture of small town life in upstate New York, incorporating a bit of ‘who done it’ along the way.  They say you can’t go home again, but every once in a while you can visit.  500 pages

Purity – Jonathan Franzen  Arguably America’s greatest contemporary novelist, Franzen turns the structure of Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’ into a twisted tale that reminds us of how deeply inter-connected we all are, while at the same time confronting us with the knowledge of how challenging it can be to maintain our closest relationships and to fully open up to another person. 500 pages

This summer’s Shakespeare play is Macbeth.  Can there be any better play of the Bard’s to read during this deeply unsettling election season?  What does power mean and how much is it worth?  And remember, be careful what you wish for!  Who can forget the striking couplet from the end of the Witches speech in Act IV, scene 1 – “Double, double, toil and trouble – fire burn, and cauldron bubble.”

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Rolling Clouds

The great clouds rolled back reluctantly, west to east, slowly giving way to blue skies and a gently setting sun.  It was the first glimmer of sunshine we had seen in some time.  Days for sure.  Maybe even weeks?  Some vast storm front had blanketed the northeast, stretching from Maryland to Maine.  Rain every day.  Grey skies.  Starless nights and an ever dimming daylight.  At first it was daunting, tiring, people kvetched and fretted, it dampened our spirits, wearied out souls.  But then it went on for so long it almost became  the new normal.

I watched the clouds as they moved.  It seemed to me they cast dark glances back towards the light that defiantly rose, illuminating almost as if for the first time newly grown flowers, blossoming trees, thick grass, all the promise of spring.  The clouds would be back no doubt, but for those few hours they were banished.  My dog craned his head slightly higher, pointing his snout into the wind, sensing the change, picking up the scents that told him of growth, warm days, fertile soil, the summer to come.  We paused together and a soft wind rustled the tree tops, leaves magically springing to life, sharp and verdant greens highlighted against the sky’s deep blue.

There is a favorite scene of mine from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.  The Lady Eowyn has been grievously injured in battle.  In due time she recovers from her physical injuries, but she also suffers from a broken heart.  And this, as we all know, is more difficult to mend.  The gentle and courageous Faramir, a warrior who is also filled with deep wisdom, visits her daily.  Together they stand on the ramparts of the great city of Gondor, looking to the east.  Then there is a moment where Eowyn understands that she feels love again, that she can again become whole:  “Then the heart of Eowyn changed, or else at last she understood it.  And suddenly her winter passed, and the sun shone on her.”

Perhaps it is not change so much as understanding that enables our hearts to open up again, to be healed.

A last vignette.  Morning minyan.  I am sitting in my regular spot, at the back.  Two widows who have just recently lost their beloved husbands sit together, searching for hope and healing in the context of ancient words and rituals.  They silently share their burden.  Then I see one of the women lean closer to the other, whisper a few words.  They smile, one to the other, in that private moment.  There is just a bit more light in the sanctuary.  And, I hope, in their wounded hearts.


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A Hockey Game Broke Out

this the text of my Shabbat sermon from 5/7/16 – and as a post script, the Caps won last night to extend their series to a 6th game –

Of all the major sports the one I don’t pay any attention to is hockey.  Living in this area I know there are some serious Washington Capitols fans around, and I know enough to know the Capitols are on the verge of being eliminated from the playoffs, after being the best team during the regular season, so I feel for their fans.  But I always felt that hockey was too focused on violence – on the occasions when I did watch a few minutes of a game while growing up it always seemed to be just at the moment when two players would throw off their gloves, begin circling each other on the ice, suddenly close and violently rain blows down upon one another’s heads.  The old joke to me always seemed exactly right – I went to a fight the other night, and the strangest thing happened – a hockey game broke out!

We might say something along the same lines this week about the Turkish Parliament.  If you follow international news you probably know that on Monday, while debating a new piece of legislation, a major brawl broke out, with members of the Turkish Parliament jumping over tables, hurling coffee and water bottles at each other, and yes, with their fists beating one another until a number of them were left bleeding and dazed.  In a bizarrely fascinating kind of way it is quite something to see, and of course there are a variety of videos available on the internet.

Perhaps in other places in the world people are not shocked by such events.  After all, just over the last few years there have been violent fights in the parliaments of Taiwan and Georgia – not the state, the country – and at least three in the Ukraine alone.  But to watch this kind of thing go on as an American is an entirely different experience.  We know that lawmakers might get verbally aggressive, we know that verbal debates might be filled with tension and acrimony, but we also know – or at least we think we know – that verbal tension and aggression will not spill over into physical confrontation.  We can’t imagine, for example, Paul Ryan jumping over his desk trying to throttle Nancy Pelosi.  If anything there is a powerful sense of decorum in the political chambers of our country, a fundamental understanding subscribed to by all the politicians that as much as they might dislike each other, as strong as their disagreements might be, they will settle their differences through the political process – debate, lobbying, and voting.

And it is something that maybe we take for granted in the US, but we should not.  I would argue it is one of the greatest gifts that our founding fathers left for us.  I remember Rabbi Loeb once saying that Americans go to bed on the night of the presidential election with not a worry in their heads that they will wake up in the morning and see soldiers in the streets of Washington.  Instead, we all know that the losing party will call the victor and congratulate him – or her.  The team of the outgoing administration will meet with the incoming team to give them everything they need in terms of knowledge, access, and power.  And at an appointed day and time the old team will quietly pack up their desks and walk peacefully out of their offices, and the new administration will just as peacefully walk in.  It happens every time, and we take it for granted – but it is truly remarkable, and one of the many things that should make us deeply grateful to live in this country.

But I will confess to you this morning that more than I ever have before I am worried that a hockey game might break out in our political process.  To me it has less to do with the candidates themselves than it does with the rising level of difficulty that we have – the common people – in terms of talking to one another about the important issues of our time.   We all know the old saying – never publicly discuss politics or religion.  But I know from conversations I’ve had with people recently that they can’t even discuss politics with friends they’ve known for decades, or even with their own family members.  The emotional reactions that such conversations produce, the anger and mistrust, even the severing of relationships, make political conversation today different than it was 15 years ago.  Two quick stories.

The first, something that happened to me.  I was driving home just recently, and I noticed a young man running along the side of the road, looking guilty, like he had stolen something.  Then I realized he had stolen something.  It was a Donald Trump sign that he had clearly taken from someone’s lawn.  Now I understand if that young gentleman does not agree with Mr. Trump’s views – it is his right, and he can, and I suppose will, express that in the voting booth in November.  But he has no right to steal a neighbor’s property, and I would argue even more than that the message of his action was exactly wrong – he was essentially saying to his neighbor ‘you don’t even the right to publicly show your support for your candidate.  And when you try to do so I will take matters into my own hand, whether legally or not.’

The second story was a bit more disturbing, told to me by a congregant.  This family supports Hillary Clinton, and by way of showing their support they had dutifully placed a Hillary sign on their front lawn.  They next day they woke up and didn’t see the sign.  When they went out to investigate they found the sign ripped to shreds all over their lawn.  To me that is worse than stealing.  Ripping something to shreds is a violent activity, and I would say – and I can tell you my congregants felt this way – there is an implied threat when someone goes through the trouble of destroying something you have put into place with your own hands.

And what I worry about is that those kinds of actions – actions! – will more and more define our political discourse.  Not the debate of ideas, not the exchange of words – even heated words – but the angry and impulsive deed which leaves no room for honest, well meant dialogue, even if that dialogue is difficult.  I don’t think any of us want to live in that kind of political climate.  I think all of us would be horrified to see a brawl break out in the halls of congress.    But I also think we have to take ownership of this issues, we have to understand that we are all responsible in a way, and therefore we all need to guard against it in our own actions and speech, and to speak out against it when we see it taking place.

In this morning’s Torah portion we read the well known 16th chapter of Leviticus, which is also the Torah reading for Yom Kippur morning, describing the ritual the High Priest enacted in ancient times on that sacred day.  There is no question in the text that part of what the High Priest is doing is atoning for the sins of all Israel, everyone in the nation.  My sense of that has always been one of connection – that is to say, when I sin, it doesn’t only impact my life – in some way it also affects you.  And when you sin, I am actually implicated – it is in part my fault.  We are all connected, and each regretful act brings us all down, even if just a bit, while each redemptive act helps us, together, to rise to a higher and better place.

That is the place I would like to get to – a place of collective responsibility, of mutual respect, of meaningful dialogue.  A place where maybe one day we’ll look back and say – you know what?  I went to a presidential election, and a respectful debate about ideas actually broke out –

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Moving Forward While Looking Back

this the text version of a sermon from the 7th day of Passover –

We are in a period of our calendar that we call the ‘sefirat ha’omer’ – the counting of the omer.  The counting comes from the an ancient agricultural ritual described in the Torah, in Leviticus 23, where the very first sheaf of grain that was harvested was brought to the priest on the day after Passover, marking the beginning of the harvest season.  The Torah commands that we count seven times seven days to link this first sheaf to the fuller barley crop that would grow throughout the spring.

Over time the 49 days of the counting came to be understood as a period of sadness and mourning.  This is the reason why the tradition asks us to not hold weddings during the sefira – it is not considered appropriate during a time of sadness for the Jewish people to hold festive celebrations.  I’ve learned over the years that people are aware of this tradition, so that each year I get phone calls from families trying to plan weddings and worrying that their chosen date will fall during the omer period.  The truth is there is a wide variety in terms of how that tradition is observed.  At one time there was a split in the Sephardic and Ashkanazic communities, so that Ashkenazic Jews would have weddings at the beginning of the period, from Passover to Rosh Hodesh Iyar, but then stop for the rest of the time, while Sephardic Jews would do the opposite – have no weddings from Pesah until the 33rd day of the counting, known as ‘lag b’omer’, but then permit weddings during the rest of the counting.

The strange thing about this association of the omer counting and sadness its that we are not really sure where it comes from.  Maimonides, in his great code of Jewish law the Mishnah Torah, does not even mention it.  The only hint of it we have from early sources is a strange passage in the Talmud, which tells us that thousands of Torah students were killed by a plague between Passover and Shavuot during the time of Rabbi Akiva.  Even so the Talmud does not suggest that the period be observed as one of mourning moving forward, and it does not attempt to create any type of day that commemorates the student’s deaths.  And it wasn’t until hundreds of years later – probably 800 or so the common era – that Jewish sources begin to shape the omer counting into a time of communal sadness.  Why did the tradition make that decision, and make it so difficult for us to plan our spring weddings?

One answer to that question may be found in an examination of Jewish history.  We know we don’t have to look too hard to find tragedy in our past, but the period of the omer counting seems to be particularly full of it.  It was during this time in the year 135 that the Jewish revolt led by the messianic figure Bar Kochba was brutally put down by the Romans.  Ultimately killed thousands upon thousands of Jews, destroyed Jewish cities, and by the way changed the name of the land from Judea to Syria-Palestine.  The famous story of the 10 martyrs, recited during the Eila Ezkara on Yom Kippur comes from this time, so we have a sense that the physical destruction of the Jewish people was only part of the Roman agenda – they also wanted to destroy the sprit of the Jewish people.  Torah study was banned upon pain of death, Jews were not allowed to assemble publicly, to gather in synagogues, to hold worship services or classes.  It was without question one of the darkest and most dangerous times in Jewish history.  When you think about it that way it begins to make sense that the tradition wants us to mark the period as one of tragedy and sadness, in the same way that we mark the Holocaust with a specific day of commemoration in modern times.

But the strange thing about it to me is this:  during the entire period of the counting there is not a single word said about any of these historical memories of sadness.  It is on Yom Kippur the we read the story of the 10 martyrs.  It is on Tisha B’Av in the summer when we recall the destruction of Jerusalem.  It is not like the tradition is shy in terms of including these memories in our liturgy, or choosing scriptural readings that in some way reflect the historical memory.  So why didn’t the tradition do anything to reflect the historical memory of sadness that we say this period is about?

To try to answer that question for a moment I’ll turn to one of my favorite novels, Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations.  You may remember the story – it is a coming of age tale about a young man named – Pip – who learns in the course of the novel about his origins, and also about what is truly most important about life.  Perhaps the most memorable character in the novel is an old dowager named – Ms Havisham.  She was left on the altar as a young woman, and since that day she has dedicated herself to  mourning that moment in her life.  Years later she still wears the wedding dress she had on that day.  She keeps the clocks throughout her home set to the exact time when the wedding was supposed to begin and didn’t.  Even the wedding cake that was prepared for the celebration sits on her dining room table, decaying slowly into dust.  Ms. Havisham is the paradigmatic example of a person who cannot leave her grief behind, whose entire life is defined by one great loss.  She lives only in the past, and is unable to move forward into the future.

Judaism has always rejected this idea.  In Jewish life grief is taken seriously, it is confronted head on, it is experienced deeply.  But it is also limited by the tradition.  There is a powerful moment at the end of shiva when the mourners are asked to leave the shiva house, to physically walk out of the door and to close it behind them.  This is a symbolic moment – I will not spend the rest of my life in a shiva house, I will not let mourning define my life – I will not only live in the past, I will not only look backwards.  In fact, the tradition demands of me that I look forward, into the future.  Not that I leave the past behind – I will always carry it.  But the Jewish way is to look forward, to affirm life, to survive, and to search for hope.  Even in the darkest times.

And I wonder if that is why the sages decided not to included any specific prayers or readings that remind us of why the omer counting is supposed to be a period of sadness.  In a sense we carry the past with us – we remember it, acknowledge it, it even affects our behavior – we don’t have the weddings.  But at the same time by leaving the past in the past we are better able to walk forward into the future with hope and faith, better prepared, perhaps, to receive the Torah at the end of the road that the counting also represents.

May we all find the strength and courage we need to bear our burdens from the past, but at the same time to walk forward into a new spring with hopeful hearts for what a new day – and a new season – can bring –

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