Monthly Archives: September 2016


a text version of my remarks before last night’s Selichot service –

In the spring of 1968 Simon and Garfunkel released their fourth studio album, entitled ‘Bookends.’  It was mostly a nostalgia tinged tour through the America of an earlier time, looking back to the days when things were less complicated, when our values and ideals held true, when we felt we knew who we were and what our purpose was.  The album, with songs like America and At the Zoo, was on the one hand a pining for those times and feelings, but it was on the other hand a reckoning with what had come to be.  Hence the record’s title:  Bookends.  A framing structure, both a beginning and an end, a looking back to the past and a vision of the future that together framed a coming to terms with the present.

Selichot eve is one of the bookends of the High Holy Day season.  The Torahs, dressed in their yom tov white, are solemnly processed into the sanctuary, carefully placed in the ark.  The service itself recalls the penitential liturgy of Yom Kippur, our appeal to the God of mercy to forgive us our sins, to accept with grace our imperfections.  And perhaps more than anything else the melodies of the evening remind us that another year has come and gone, and that our faith once again calls on us to reflect on the nature of our lives.  That process of intense reflection will end with the sounding of the shofar after the Ne’ilah service on Yom Kippur, another bookend.  But it begins tonight as we gather together in this sacred space.

And we are blessed tonight, as community, to dedicate this space again – as we say during these sacred days, as we say in tonight’s service, חדש ימינו כקדם – renew our days as of old.  May we look forward to a year that is filled with meaning, with family and friends, with light and life, with happiness and health.

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Come On Down – Why You Should Come to Shul for the High Holy Days

This a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 9/17 –

The weekly Jewish newspaper The Forward published an op ed piece this week written by a rabbi named Jay Michaelson.  The headline of the article is ‘Why You Shouldn’t – should not –  Go to Synagogue on Rosh HaShanah this Year,” and Rabbi Michaelson spends some 1500 words or so explaining why he thinks it is a bad idea for Jews to come to shul to celebrate the beginning of the New Year.  And I understand that some folks just like to be provocative, because that will get them a lot of hits on the internet, and I also understand that sometimes you have a deadline looming, and your are running out of time, and you end up writing the first thing that comes into your mind without fully thinking it through.  So I am not sure whether the Rabbi is in the former category, the latter category, of whether he really believes everything he wrote.  But he does raise three particular points in the article that give him pause, and he says should give us pause, in terms of attending services on the High Holy Days.  And I would like to spend a few minutes with you this morning thinking about each of those points.

Interestingly (at least to me!) his first complaint is a theological one.  We should probably establish a fundamental sense of what theology is – what is it?  Essentially, the way you understand and think about God.  And Rabbi Michaelson says that you shouldn’t come to shul on Rosh HaShanah because when you get there and open your Mahzor you are going to find theological concepts that will make you uncomfortable and that you may not believe.  And as proof of this he cites, also interesting to me, probably the most beloved prayer in the entire Mahzor, the Unetane Tokef prayer.  That is the one where we imagine God with a book that holds a record of our deeds from the year gone by, and where we say, ‘who will live and who will die, who by fire, who by water.’

Now I know that the theological implications of that prayer are problematic, and I myself don’t literally believe that God sits with a book and is writing names into it ‘who is going to live and who is going to die.’  But I also know that the prayer has a power and meaning that still speaks to people today.  It may be because they’ve been reading it since they were little, and it brings to mind sweet memories of Rosh Hashanas gone by.  It may be because the image itself, whether you believe it or not, can get you to think about your own deeds, which is one of the things people do find meaningful at the start of a new year.   It may also be that there is a core truth to the prayer that Rabbi Michaelson either forgot or never understood, and that is in the course of any given year members of our community will pass away, and we truly don’t know what a year will hold.

But I think in general by couching his first objection to shul on Rosh HaShanah in theological terms Rabbi Michaelson misses the point entirely.  Because theology is an intellectual exercise.  It is a rational, philosophical approach to trying to understand God and our relationship with God.  And I don’t think that is why Jews come to shul on Rosh HaShanah.  I am a rabbi, and I can tell you I don’t wake up Rosh HaShanah morning and say ‘boy I can’t wait to do some theology today!’  For most of us the holidays are not about intellectually unpacking something.  They are instead about emotion, about feeling something, that can’t and probably even shouldn’t be quantified by an intellectual process.  So Rabbi Michelson’s first wrong turn is to assume the biggest problem with shul on Rosh HaShanah is an intellectual one, while the truth is most Jews engage in the experience emotionally.

The Rabbi’s second objection to Rosh HaShanah is that the holiday itself sends a series of mixed messages.  He says it is about ‘celebration and seriousness,’ ‘rejoicing and repentance,’ and he sees those ideas as diametrically opposed, concepts that shouldn’t be combined into a single holiday, or ritual.  But Judaism does that with virtually every holiday.  On Passover the matzah is the bread of affliction, and the bread of freedom.  On Sukkoth we rejoice in life and the bountiful harvest, but we also acknowledge life’s temporal quality with the fragile sukkah and the decaying branches of the lulav.  On Shavuot we celebrate the giving of the Torah but we also recall that the Torah has been both a guide and at times a heavy burden to bear and a draining responsibility.  And there is a reasons that themes come together on the holidays to conflicts and sometimes contrast – and that is because it reflects the ebb and flow of life.  There are few perfect days, and even fewer perfect lives.  The truth is most of life is a mixed bag, a combination of celebrations and sadnesses, of triumphs and tragedies, of the good and the bad.  And the holidays, with their interplay of themes, acknowledge life’s complexity, and create sacred spaces in time that are recognizable to us and reflect our own lives.

And by the way, sometimes it is only from contrast that the power of an idea becomes apparent.  Would the sense of freedom, and the gratitude that we feel for it on Pesah feel as powerful it we didn’t see it through the lens of slavery?  On Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur would the focus on life and the celebration of a new year be as meaningful if we didn’t also find in the Mahzor images of life’s fragility?  It is precisely the contrast that makes it all work, that makes it come alive.  The only way you appreciate a sunrise is to have seen a sun set and to have lived through a night.

The Rabbi’s final objection to shul on the High Holy Days is that the services have become some kind of show, where the audience sits passively and watches as the rabbis and cantors perform some kind of ancient and arcane ritual, intoning words that have no meaning and that no one understands.  And I do believe that he may at least have a point here, because it is a danger of modern Jewish life that sometimes the service can turn into a show.

But I don’t think he has even been to High Holy Days services here at Beth El.  I don’t think he has been here in this sanctuary on Rosh HaShanah eve when a thousand Jews stand together, chasing in full voice the words of the Shema Yisrael.  He certainly has not been here on the second day of Rosh HaShanah when for the 5th aliyah the entire congregation stands together to chant the Torah blessings.  And there is no way he has been here during Ne’ilah, when the ark opens, and hundreds and hundreds of people stream forward to spend a few precious seconds in front of the Torahs on the holiest day of our year, to offer their personal prayers of gratitude and hope.

Now I don’t mean to suggest that shul is for everyone.  I know it is not.  But in a Jewish community of growing complexity, where people identity Jewishly in ways that they never have before, surely there is still plenty of space for the synagogue, for the particular and powerful community that can grow within walls like these, for the unique and sacred experience of continuing a three thousand year old tradition.  The great prophet Isaiah, in the text of this morning’s haftara, reminds us that the Jewish tent may grow large – הרחיבי מקום אהלך – “Enlarge the size of your tent, extend the size of your dwelling, lengthen the ropes, drive the pegs firm!”

The Jewish tent grows larger and larger, but the synagogue is still at its center, an institution that conveys identity and transmits tradition like no other in the Jewish world –

may our shuls be full this Rosh HaShanah – and for many, many new years to come –

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(What) To Say or Not to Say,That is the Question

You’ll recognize the paraphrase of the famous line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  (Act III, scene 1)  Interesting fact about that line, in fact that entire speech, now so sealed into our minds, as ‘canonized’ as anything in Shakespeare:   There was actually a series of earlier versions.  As an example, this version was printed in the First Quarto (1603):

To be, or not to be, I there’s the point,
To Die, to sleep, is that all? Aye all:
No, to sleep, to dream, aye marry there it goes…

So Shakespeare, arguably the greatest writer of them all, despite his preternatural gifts, worked in drafts!  And even after the play had been performed the Bard’s work continued, massaging the lines, rethinking concepts, rewriting.  Evidently when he arrived at the following formula he realized perfection, and he stopped:

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; aye, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.

Pause indeed.  For in the rabbinic world, this is the time of writing and rewriting, of switching phrases, of working ideas, struggling with transitions, worrying over the ebb and flow of a text that ironically and ultimately is meant to be spoken.  Perfection in a sermon will never be achieved, for it simply does not exist.  But we work hard, and we spend more time with these sermons that we do with anything else we’ll preach the rest of the year.

This year there is an extra challenge.  What to say, or not to say, about Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, the Presidential election?  There is a clear legal definition you work with – a preacher may not endorse a candidate from the pulpit.  Such an endorsement would forfeit the preacher’s house of worship’s non-profit status.  But as we all know you can get awfully close to that line without crossing it.  I’ve heard rabbis (and Christian preachers as well) say everything BUT ‘and you should vote for..’   They didn’t even need to say it, because their message was already clear.

Of course in today’s highly polarized political atmosphere some folks feel that even touching on politics during a sermon is akin to landing on the third rail.  I had a congregant once tell me I shouldn’t even use the words Democrat or Republican from the pulpit.  At the same time it feels almost cowardly, or in some way irresponsible, not to address the one issue that is on everyone’s mind.

So what to say?  Or not to say?  This is the challenge rabbis around the country are struggling with this year.  In a way it is like the old joke about rabbis:  the ideal rabbi has 25 years experience in the field, but is only 35 years old.  She spends no money and requires little pay, but must dress well and drive a respectable car.  He should be at meetings morning, noon, and night, but should also find time to spend with his family.  You get the idea.  So it is with the High Holiday sermon – it should be topical, but not touch on politics.   And oh yes, it should make them laugh and cry, be filled with original insight and ancient wisdom, not make anyone angry, and perhaps most importantly of all, make them want to come back for more.  After all, there is always Yom Kippur.

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Colin Kaepernick and Gene Wilder

This a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 9/3/16

A week from tomorrow another NFL season will kick off, with the Ravens opening at home agains the Buffalo Bills.  Fans from around the country, at least for a now, can dream big – as they say, at this point every team is undefeated.

I am always glad when the formal season begins because I have strong distaste for preseason football.  I think there are too many games, I think it wears down the players, and I also think it is more than a bit cynical that they charge those of you who are season ticket holders for the preseason match ups.  Aside from that the games are mostly meaningless.  But this year the NFL preseason was more interesting than usual, mostly because of the quarterback who will probably be starting for the 49s next weekend, a young man by the name of Colin Kaepernick.   If you follow the news at all you probably know that Kaepernick has been intentionally sitting during the pre game playing of the national anthem.  Admittedly it is one of those odd moments when the sports world overlaps with nationalism and patriotism, but it is traditional now, before any major sporting event, to play the Star Spangled Banner.  And it is of course traditional that when the Star Spangled Banner is played, everyone stands.

But not Colin Kaepernick.  He has explained that his sitting during the anthem is a way of quietly but very publicly protesting what he sees as racial inequality and injustice in this country, specifically directed at the African American community.  Kaepernick himself is biracial – he has one black parent, one white parent – was adopted and raised by white parents.  But he clearly identifies with his black heritage, and he has decided, as a public figure, to stage these protests, to speak out, and to take a stand.

Now you may agree or disagree with him on the issues, and you also may not believe it is proper for him to use the  public stage that he has to make his point.  At the same time you might feel that he is being disrespectful to the American flag, and maybe by extension to America itself.  Certainly the flag is a potent symbol, the National Anthem is something that is emotional, that people feel deeply about.  And no question what he is doing is provocative.  But I’d like to think with you for a moment about what he is doing from a different perspective  – the perspective of pride in identity, of caring about who you are and where you come from so much that you will put yourself at risk to stand up for it.

Certainly that is something that Jews should be able to identity with.  Here we are reading the book of Deuteronomy, the entire book a last long speech that Moses gives to the Israelites before they enter the land.  The fact that an entire book of the Torah is devoted to Moses’ words gives an indication of what a towering figure he is in the eyes of the tradition.  Moshe Rabeinu we call him – Moses our teacher.  The greatest teacher, law giver, and prophet we have every known.

You remember Moses’ background.  Where was he raised?  In the house of Pharaoh, in the wealthiest home in all of Egypt.  We so closely identify Moses with the Jewish people that we don’t often think about this, but Moses probably had a choice.  He could have been an Egyptian, perhaps he could have become powerful, living a life of luxury in the greatest country in the ancient world.  But he didn’t.  He chose another life.  He chose to cast his lot with his own people.  And ultimately that choice meant exile, it meant a life of hardship and difficulty, it meant wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, and in the end never actually making it to the Promised Land.

So imagine for a moment with me this morning if Colin Kaepernick were Jewish.  And imagine if his public protest was in support of Israel, or some other Jewish cause.  And I now how hard this is to imagine, because I know how hard it is to imagine that there is a starting quarterback in the NFL who is Jewish. (Jay Fiedler the last!?)  But imagine for a moment, if during the debate about the Iran nuclear deal for example –  a Jewish quarterback had said I am going to sit during the National Anthem as a way of showing support for Israel.  Certainly there would have been people in the Jewish community who would have taken tremendous pride in that, and said, ‘that guy is a hero!’

And the truth is, maybe we would like more of our well known Jewish figures to publicly stand up for Jewish causes and to make statements about Jewish issues and to take pride in their Jewish identity.  Thinking this week particularly about Jerome Silverman – who is that?  Gene Wilder!  That was Gene Wilder’s given name.  I loved Gene Wilder.  He was astonishingly talented, and hysterically funny.  All of the classic roles and films – Young Frankenstein, and Blazing Saddles, and the Frisco Kid and of course the classic film version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where he played Willy Wonka.  But Becky and I weren’t even sure Gene Wilder was Jewish until his various obituaries started coming out.

In some ways Bernie Sanders was the same.  He seemed at times so uncomfortable with his Judaism, like he didn’t even want it brought up, and when it was, he made sure to let everyone know he was a secular Jew.  And this is not to knock Bernie Sanders as an individual, or as a politician for that matter, and it is not to knock Gene Wilder either.  It is simply to say that it would be nice, and in fact maybe it would even be important, if more Jews who were living in the public eye would show – publicly – a forceful pride in their Jewish roots and strong concern for Jewish causes.

Labor Day weekend may mark the beginning of the football season, but it also reminds us that the baseball playoffs cannot be far off.  (what is going to happen to the Orioles God only knows!)  And when Jews think about baseball, and they think about the holidays, who do they always think about?   Sandy Koufax, the hall of fame pitcher for the LA Dodgers, and the choice that he made not to pitch game 1 of the 1965 world series because why?  It fell on Yom Kippur.  A half a century later Jews still talk about that, we remember it, we hold it up as an example of a fellow Jew publicly affirming his Jewish identity and Jewish values.  We are tremendously proud of that moment.

And I think we need other moments like that.  It would be good for us, good for our pride, and I also think it would be good for our children and our grandchildren.  If I stand up to take a stand about a Jewish issue it doesn’t matter.  It is exactly what people would expect.  Our young people will say ‘that is the rabbi, of course!  No big deal!’  But if Bernie Sanders had said ‘I am running for president, and some of my core issues are based on Jewish values,’ or Jewish actor or musician stood up and said ‘I care about Israel and I am speaking out against BDS, or supporting some Jewish cause.  I think our kids would pay attention to that, and learn from it, and feel proud about it.

But you know what?  They will also pay attention to it, learn from it, and feel proud about it when we do it as well.  What a public figure does or does not do we can’t control.  What we do – that is up to us.  There is an old saying – rabbis only give two sermons – be good, and be Jewish.  Maybe this is a 3rd path – be good, be Jewish, and be proud.

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