Monthly Archives: August 2016

When Mercy Seasons Justice

And earthly power doth then show likest God’s when mercy seasons justice. (Merchant of Venice act 4, scene 1)

This a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 8/27/16 –

I would like you to think with me for a few minutes this morning about two starkly contrasting stories that came out of the health care industry this week.  On the one hand if you follow the news you heard a lot about the epipen.  This is the mechanism that will quickly inject medication into someone’s thigh if they are having a serious allergic reaction.  The best example probably is allergy to bees – if you are highly allergic to bees and you are stung it can be very dangerous, even life threatening.  So you carry an epipen with you.  If you are stung, you inject yourself with the device and the allergic reaction is stopped.  Just out of curiosity – how many people in the room have an epipen?

This week, Mylan, the pharmaceutical company that makes the epipen, announced a fairly significant price hike in the device, which will now cost you around $600 for two pens.  The public outrage was immediate and vociferous.  Internet campaigns were launched, social media was brought to bear, and just Thursday the company announced that they would give some consumers access to coupons which would make the devices more affordable.  But they didn’t change the price – that stayed at the $600 level.  And the fear is that some families will not be able to afford the devices which I believe are supposed to be replaced every year – and that potentially someone will need it and not have.  That is story number one.

The second story is the opposite side of that coin.  In Orlando the major health care network and the hospital where many of the shooting victims from the Pulse nightclub were treated announced they would not charge the victims for any of the services they provided.  Health insurance they’ll take – whatever it pays will go to the hospital.  But the patients will not be asked to cover any additional costs.

Now on the surface, just in and of itself, it is an odd thing to see those two stories sitting side by side in your morning newspaper.  And I don’t mean to suggest that the pharmaceutical company should give up all of its profits and do its work purely for charitable purposes.  To me it is a question of a number of things.  Balance is one of them – what is the proper balance?  If you are in an industry where you are creating life saving medications, how much should you be making?  Should you be making profit to the point where some people will not be able to afford you medication?  How much is enough?  How much is maybe too much?

The idea of ‘doing well and doing good’ has been floating around in the business world now for a number of years.  I remember that as far back as 2009 Bill Gates, the multibillionaire founder of Microsoft, began to publicly talk about the idea of large corporations figuring out how to make money and maximize prophets, while at the same time maintaining a conscience and a sense of social justice.  His argument was that doing good – in other words, giving something back, and making the world a better place – in the end will enable the business to do well, also – to make money and be profitable.

That idea always struck me as a very Jewish idea.  Judaism never – at least in any serious way – was attracted to asceticism, to giving up all of your worldly possessions.  In fact Judaism says there is nothing wrong with doing well – it is something you should strive for, that material goods and wealth are not inherently bad or immoral – they can in fact enhance the quality of your life.  At the same time Judaism does remind us of the importance of giving back, mostly through its idea about tzedakah, the giving of charity, considered in the tradition to be a commandment that every person must fulfill.  So in Judaism it is about balance – you should certainly strive to do well, to succeed and be financially comfortable.  But as you do well, you should also do good – have a social conscience, make the world a better place, and give something back along the way.

In this morning’s Torah portion there is one of those verses that just captures my attention in a particular way.  I do in my life – and I know may of you do as well – try to figure out what God wants of me.  What are the actions I can take in the course of a day, or in the course of a year, or in the course of a life, that would cause God to look down and say ‘that was pretty well done.’  B+  And in this morning’s portion there is one of those verses that raises that question, and answers it.  מה ה׳ א׳ שואל מעמך – what is it that the Lord your God requires of you?  Asks of you?  And the answer the Torah gives is this:  to love God, to serve God with all of your heart and soul, and to keep God’s commandments.

Now, as they say in the vernacular today, TBH – what does that mean?  To be honest, although I like the question quite a bit, I am not a big fan of the answer.  Not that I reject it – I understand the idea that you need to have a spiritual life, that tradition and faith and God should play a role in determining who you are.  What I don’t like about the answer is that it doesn’t give me any practical information that I can take with me when I go out into the world.  It just all sounds a bit vague to me – ‘serve God with my heart and soul, keep God’s commandments’ – I want some specifics.

Luckily for me there is another verse – a very famous verse – which echoes the verse from this morning’s Torah portion that gives me the specifics I am looking for.  It comes from the prophet Micah, we read it as part of the haftara just a few weeks ago, it is the concluding verse of that haftara.  And in that verse Micah the prophet asks the same question the Torah is asking this morning – מה ה׳ דורש ממך – what is it that Lord requires of you?  And then the famous answer – Only to do justice, to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.

As you may imagine there is a wealth of commentary on that one verse – pages and pages and pages.  I’ve always understood the three parts working together, in two ways.  First, if you apply the ideas of justice and goodness to everything that you do, at the end of the day you will be able to walk humbly with God.  This is classic Jewish thought!  Do what you are supposed to do, do things the right way, and the rest will follow.

But also you need to have both justice and goodness to bring God’s presence into the world.  Justice and goodness are very different animals.  Justice is cold, calculating – think of the image of the scales of justice, always held by a woman, and the woman is always blindfolded – justice is impartial, at least in theory.  So it shouldn’t matter if someone is rich or poor, black or white, it simply is what it is.

But  that kind of blind justice needs to be tempered by, combined with, mixed up in goodness.  It is when justice and goodness are working together that a sense of the sacred can be felt in our world.  It is not just about doing it by the books.  It is also about doing it the right way, with goodness and kindness and mercy.  It is not just about doing well – it is also very much about doing good.  May we all remember that – as individuals, as a synagogue community, and even in the corporate world, a place where maybe that idea is needed most.

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The Room

It can be seen, or maybe even more so sensed, in the barely noticeable details.  The books resting on shelves, spines worn and tired from restless hands pressing their pages.  Some have bookmarks where the reading stopped, others highlighted sentences that were read again and again preparing for some test.  There are ticket stubs carefully tucked into the seams of a mirror, each one representing a new adventure, exciting moments shared with friends that gradually settle into a vast collection of past experiences.  Pictures of those friends and of family lie everywhere, on dresser tops and the bedside table, on the desk and a chair. Each one tells the tale of time’s passage.  Here she was an eager and smiling 3rd grader, suddenly there beginning high school, and just next to it a photo of her graduation.  A family wedding, a first boyfriend, a best friend, siblings and cousins and travels, even parents!  A picture board story, randomly organized, but conveying love and life, tears and laughter, things both bitter and sweet and everything in between.

Of course there are beloved stuffed animals, gently resting in place as they have now for years, patiently waiting for a living presence to return to their cozy dwelling.  Somehow these loyal companions are now twenty years old, some older!  They have weathered over the years, collecting dust and memories, representing time gone by.  Some have names, others toil in obscurity, some faithfully comforting and snuggling, others tasked with simply watching events unfold, that age old job of witness.

Do not forget the bulletin board.  Classic cork, heavy with hand written notes, with stickers and birthday cards and beads and even a feather is there, light and delicate, gently moving when the window opens to the world outside.  Proud accomplishments are quietly displayed, reminders of past successes.  Who knows what strict criteria must be met in order for an item to find its way to that board?  It stands as a visual narrative of past events, of highlights and sweet memories that will forever be infused with the hope and heartache of youth.

These days the room is occupied less and less.  High school graduation was followed by travel, then college in a distant northern town.  Summer jobs away at camp, visiting with friends in the big city, the incredible hustle and bustle of a busy young life. Before long she’ll have another home, another room where new pictures will accumulate, where a strangely empty bulletin board will hang, ’til it also begins to fill with memories.  But the old room will always exist, permanently engraved on heart and mind, its tapestry of the past informing the future, the starry nights and sunrises yet to be seen, the winter storms and warm springs that lie ahead.

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Baseless Hatred

The Hebrew term is שנאת חנם.  Hatred out of spite, groundless, with no reason, generated by the darkness that all too often lies hidden in the human heart.  It is understood in the rabbinic tradition as particularly applying to Jew on Jew hostility.  There is a well known passage in the Talmud (Gittin 55b) which blames the destruction of the Temple on this kind of baseless hatred.  When it appears it is ugly and irrational, and a desecration to God’s name.

And so I was saddened to hear from a congregant the following anecdote:  The family held the unveiling for their beloved father and grandfather this past Sunday.  It happened to be Tisha B’Av, the day that commemorates the destruction of the Temples and which also is a fast day in traditional Jewish circles.  It is not a day that is high on the radar screen for most Jews in the liberal Jewish community, and very few Conservative, Reform, or Reconstructionist Jews observe the fast.  A few days before the unveiling the family called a local kosher bagel shop to reserve a dozen and a half bagels for a post unveiling brunch.  That morning a family member went to pick up the order, and found the shop closed.

Returning home with bagels from another shop, a call was placed about the original order. Someone happened to answer the phone in the kosher shop.  ‘What happened, we placed an order and no one was there when we came to pick it up?’  The response from the worker:  ‘Are you Jewish?’  ‘Yes I am,’ my congregant responded.  ‘Shame on you,’ said the worker, and hung up the phone.

Really?  Forget about the fact that no person has the right to impose his or her religious views on another person.  We have the right to make our own choices, and to ‘do Jewish’ in the best and most meaningful way we can for ourselves and our families.  It is not the worker’s business, or anyone else’s for that matter, whether a fellow Jew chooses to fast or not to fast on Tisha B’Av.

But what about the idea of keiruv, of finding ways to bring Jews into the community, to help Jews deeepen their connection to the tradition and God, of opening doors and making the community a welcoming place for all Jews, regardless of level of observance?  Imagine the difference had the worker said ‘Ma’am I am so sorry, the person who took your order must have forgotten that today is traditionally a fast day and we are closed.  We’ll make it up to you by filling the order for free another time.  Meanwhile try down the street, they’ll be open today.’  Instead of raising a wall, opening a door.  Instead of spite and hostility, helping a fellow Jew on a difficult day.

I don’t presume to know what God ‘thinks’ but I wonder this.  Would God be more concerned about someone observing a ritual fast, or about one Jew treating another with respect, decency, and dignity?  The High Holy Days are seven weeks away.  Remember these stinging words from the prophet Isaiah, read on Yom Kippur morning:  “No, this is the fast I desire:  to unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the chords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free;  to break off every yoke.  It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched into your home;  when you see the naked, to cloth him, and not to ignore your own kin.”

I am guessing the worker at that shop was in shul last Yom Kippur.  Perhaps he fell asleep during the chanting of that great haftara.  Or perhaps he was awake and heard the words, but for some reason chooses to ignore them.  That, it seems to me, is where the true shame lies.

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Tevya and Tisha B’Av

this a text version of my sermon from Shabbat services on 8/13

I would like to ask you to think with me for a moment about one of the most beloved scenes in the history of musicals, in the most beloved Jewish musical of all time.  The musical itself?  It must be Fiddler on the Roof.  And the scene?  So many great ones, but arguably the greatest of the great is the conversation that Tevya the milk man has with God just before he begins to sing ‘If I Were a Rich Man.”  In that dialogue an exhausted and almost defeated Tevya walks his horse back to the family home at the end of what we would call in today’s parlance a ‘bad day.’  The horse has gone lame, and Tevya begins to talk to God.  He complains a bit – kvetching would be the technical term.  “Dear God – was that necessary?  It is enough you pick on me.  What have you got against my horse?   Sometimes I think when things are too quiet up there, you say to yourself lets see, what kind of mischief can I play on my friend Tevya?  I am not really complaining – with your help, God, I am starving to death.  So what would have been so terrible if I had a small fortune.  If I were a rich man”…and you know the rest.

Of course Tevya in this scene, and perhaps throughout the entire musical, is at least on one level a metaphor for the Jewish people.  Downtrodden, exhausted, in dire straights, facing a series of seemingly unending challenges, persecuted by the Cossacks – that is Tevya’s story – and that is also the story of the Jews.  And Tevya has other qualities that also represent the Jewish people –  he has a Jewish sense of humor, a strength of will and determination, a dedication to family, and despite Tevya’s ongoing misgivings about God, he has a kind of unbreakable faith in God’s goodness and God’s presence.  In a sense God is Tevya’s constant companion in Fiddler.  Despite his hardships, his troubles and tzuris – Tevya remains a believer.

You may remember that last summer there was a a new book by Harper Lee published.  It was hard to miss it – it was covered by every major news agency, talked about on TV and radio, blogged about on the internet.  Anyone remember the name of the book?  Go Set a Watchman.  There was so much fanfare about it because Lee had published only one other book in her life – which is?  To Kill a Mockingbird.  In the end it turned out that Go Set a Watchman wasn’t actually a new book.  Instead it was a first draft of what would later become the masterpiece that we are all know so well.  What really caught people’s attention about the new book was that it told an alternate story.  Scout – the young protagonist in Mockingbird – is an adult in Go Set a Watchman.  She lives in New York, not in a small southern town.  But most significantly, the beloved character Atticus Finch, so memorably played in the movie version by Gregory Peck, who in To Kill a Mockingbird is a courageous champion of civil rights, is portrayed in the new book as a bitter racist.

This made people crazy.  You were taking a beloved story, beloved characters, and changing them – and not for the better.  And probably even more difficult for people, you were taking a symbol – Atticus Finch, a character who stood for wisdom, goodness, fairness, and equality – and you were destroying it.  The character was beloved.  People felt they knew that character, felt a certain ownership of him.  And the new book had in a way taken Atticus away from them.

I don’t want to take away your Tevya.  And there is no new version of Fiddler that will begin playing on Broadway soon.  But I would like to take a moment or two this morning to imagine an alternate version of the story.  On the surface this Anatevka looks the same as the original.  Poor Jews living in the shetyl, struggling to get by and to maintain their dignity and their way of life.  But under the surface things are different.  Because in our version of Fiddler the beloved character of Tevya has slowly, over the years, lost his faith in God.  The hardships of life have worn him down.  He realizes as hard has he has worked he has very little to show for it.  He is disappointed in his children, and he can’t understand why God hasn’t rewarded him for living his life as a faithful Jew.  So he decides to leave that life behind.  He violates the Sabbath without a second thought.  He doesn’t go to shul, doesn’t even worry about keeping kosher, doesn’t wear his tzitzit.  Perhaps he shaves his beard, and does his best to blend in with the gentiles in the village.

He would have every right to do it, to leave behind his faith.  After all, as we see in that famous dialogue with God I referred to a few minutes ago, God hasn’t done Tevya any favors.  And Tevya knows it.  He acknowledges it, he talks to God about it, reminds God of it.  But God never responds.  The truth is, it isn’t a dialogue with God that Tevya has.  It is a monologue.  He speaks, and whether God hears or doesn’t hear we don’t know.  But we do know that God doesn’t answer.

But in the end the real Tevya – the one we know and love – doesn’t seem to care.  His faith remains unwavering, despite the difficulties of his life, and it is precisely that sense of resilience and enduring faith that marks Tevya, that makes him who he is.  That is why we love him, that is why the character has been one of the most enduring characters in all of theater.  If you took that away from Tevya, if you changed his character, we wouldn’t go to see the show, we wouldn’t have his songs humming around in the backs of our minds, we wouldn’t all know his name.

In a sense it is the same way of the Jewish people.  Tonight begins Tisha B’Av, the saddest and most difficult day of the Jewish year.  It is a commemoration of the great tragedies of  Jewish history, most prominently remembering the destruction of the two great Temples in ancient Jerusalem.  On this day 1,946 years ago the second Temple was burned to the ground.  The Jews that were still alive were exiled, sent to Babylonia, their lives torn apart, families destroyed, homes and livelihoods lost.  They felt abandoned by God, they wondered whether the ancient covenant that existed between God and Israel, established so long ago by Moses, was still valid.  If there was any point in Jewish history when the Jews might have turned their backs on God, might have walked away, might have permanently lost their faith, that was the moment.  They would have had every right to leave their faith behind.

But they did not.  Instead, they turned their eyes to the heavens and they called out to God.  In a way that wonderful scene in Fiddler when Tevya turns his eyes to the sky and says ‘dear God, was that necessary?’ is a continuation of that moment.  It is a rhetorical question, of course.  It was not necessary.  But it is also a statement – God, I don’t understand, but still I look for You, still I call out to You, still I wait for You.  Despite what has happened I will not turn my back on You.  Instead, as it says in the psalms, אשא עיני אל ההרים מאין יבוא עזרי – I will lift my eyes to the mountains, from where will my help come?  And the next line of the psalm – עזרי מעם ה׳ עשה שמים וארץ – my help comes from God, who has made the heavens and the earth.

Tisha B’Av is about that moment.  Yes, it is a commemoration of the destruction of the Temples.  But even more so it is a celebration – a celebration of Jewish faith and resilience, of the strength of the Jewish spirit and the unending Jewish search for God.  I hope you’ll all join us tonight for Tisha B’Av services as we continue that search together.

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Satchmo

If you are a lover of jazz you no doubt will recognize the nickname of Louis Armstrong, the great trumpeter, composer, and singer who left his mark on the music world during a groundbreaking 50 year career.  Satchmo would have celebrated his 115th birthday yesterday, on August 4th.  He grew up in New Orleans, the grandson of slaves, and the son of a delinquent father and a mother who turned to prostitution.  He quit school when he was 11 years old, worked odd jobs, and spent much of his time in the bars, hostels, and brothels of New Orleans.  Somehow he survived the turbulence of his youth.  Perhaps saved by his love for music, his genius, talent, and stage presence enabled him to become one of the most beloved performers of his time.  Today he is simply remembered as one of the all time great jazz artists.

A strange and little known fact about Louis Armstrong:  he wore a Magen David – a Star of David – wherever he was and whatever he was doing.  What an odd symbol to be chosen by a young black man from New Orleans!  But behind that Star of David is a story.  When Armstrong was as lost as a boy could, when his own parents had deserted him and he literally didn’t have two pennies to rub together, he found work in a junk hauling business.  That business was owned by the Karnofskys, a Jewish family from Lithuania only recently arrived on US shores.  The family saw how lost Armstrong was, and how lonely he was as well.  They took him in, fed him dinner, sat him at their table, talked with him, treated him with dignity and respect.  As he got to know them he realized the Karnofsky family was subject to prejudice and hatred in much the same way that he was as a black man.  And yet they didn’t give in.  They worked hard.  They lived with purpose and determination.  They had almost nothing, but what they did have they were willing to share.

In later years Armstrong wrote a short book about the influence the Karnofsky family had on his life.  At just the right moment his path crossed theirs.  For a time they walked together, sensing a shared fate and intuitively understanding the deep need we all have to be accepted and to belong, to have people in our lives who care about us and believe in us.  The Star of David reminded Armstrong of where he had come from, and how far he had come.  But it also reminded him of the lost young boy he had been, and the kind family he met along the way that helped him become a man.

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Summer Tour My o’ My!

Even Donna Jean showed up.  Oft maligned back in the day, she was heartily cheered at every show she participated in, every single time she stepped up to the mic.  In a sense that captured the Dead and Company summer tour, 2016.  Summer tour my o’ my!  Like the biggest, zaniest, craziest, wildest, family reunion you’ve ever attended.  Those wacky yet lovable old cousins you’ve known forever, but also new friends and relations.  At SPAC I sat on the lawn next to two young Deadheads, never having seen the band with Jerry, but in love with the music and the vibe and the scene.  Maybe they were 25.  Maybe.  At Fenway Park in Boston, right behind us, another young couple fresh to the magical, mystical, technicolor circus that made the classic bumper sticker oh so true:  there is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert.  There were babies with their moms and dads, teens out for their first taste of adventure, grizzled old Heads who first saw the band in the 70s.  Sorry – early 70s!  Everybody rocking and rolling, everybody a shaking and a moving.  Shake those bones!  From Connecticut to New Jersey, Wisconsin to California, New York (with its ways and means) to Massachusetts, Colorado to North Carolina, the Deadheads were on the road again.  Out in force.  I would argue the world was a little bit of a better and brighter place because of it.  And a little bit better and a little bit brighter was something we all needed this summer.

But don’t discount the music.  It wasn’t just a massive party running on the gas of nostalgia, a ‘reunion’ tour where old musicians mail it in and play the hits.  That just would never work with the Dead, with their determination to walk to the very edge of the abyss each night, and then just drop down into the vast yawning chasm of improvisational music.  What do they always say?  You can’t make this stuff up.  Fact is stranger than fiction?!  John Mayer playing with the Dead?  With Bobby?  And Billy and Mickey?  How absurd!  How could it ever work?  But work it did, beyond anyone’s imagination and expectation.  The music was fine, tasty, raunchy, beautiful, and often it was smoking hot. Old Deadheads stood slack jawed in the over flowing crowds as this band ripped into some of the classics with a completely fresh take.  How about the second night at Citi Field opening the show St. Stephen > Music Never Stopped > Bertha.  The Help > Slip> Shakedown that opened Irvine.  Or the elegiac, moving, gorgeous, haunting Days Between at SPAC, Bobby somehow pulling from the nether sphere Jerry’s very spirit to stand by him on the stage.  Or John Mayer channeling the classic 1960 Maurice Williams song Stay during the Wheel?  Night after night there were surprises and delights, new takes on old tunes, creative and unexpected setlists.  A band beyond description indeed.

I know, I know, some will say it can’t be.  The muse died when Garcia left this world and went to the great arena in the sky.  The naysayers will never climb back on the bus.  But the thing about it is this – the music lives on.  It is out of the bottle, out in the universe.  It has a life of its own, speaking now to new generations, to younger musicians who will carry the legacy forward, to younger fans who will come to the shows and enact this ancient tribal ritual, who will wonder what it was like back in the day, but who will create what it is in the present, and lay the groundwork for the future.  The last line in the Book of Lamentations is this:  renew our days as of old!  So it was for the Dead and the Deadheads in the summer of 2016.  From sea to shining sea the flag was held high, the spiral light burned bright, and the music never stopped.FullSizeRender

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