Monthly Archives: October 2016

Finding the Way to Sesame Street

In many ways I grew up in two neighborhoods at the same time.  On the one hand there was my real neighborhood, my parents’ home sitting at the corner of Leroy and Matthews Streets in Binghamton NY.  That neighborhood was typical for a small town in upstate NY in the 70s.  The homes were filled with white middle class folks, hard working and honest, patriotic, salt of the earth kind of people.  All of the children went to public school, and of course to get to class we walked the half of a mile or so there and back, even from the time we were in first grade.  As far as I remember my family was the only Jewish family on the block.  A diverse group we certainly were not.

But then there was my other neighborhood, a place I visited pretty much once a day, everyday, beginning in 1969, at least up until 1973 or so.  Many of you have also been to that neighborhood, or traveled there with your children or grandchildren.  It is located in a place that was probably intended to be New York City, on a street named Sesame St, and all kinds of colorful characters lived there.  There was Kermit the Frog, the soft spoken and existentially challenged talking frog, often musing philosophically about life’s difficulties.  There was Big Bird, the 8 foot tall bright yellow canary like creature, enthusiastic about life and gregarious in a naive way.  Of course Ernie and Bert,  the Odd Couple-like roommates, one orange and one sort of mustard colored (that was Bert!).  And then you had my favorite muppet, Oscar the Grouch – after all, what could be cooler than living in a garbage can?!

But in a way what was most amazing about Sesame Street was the diversity of the human characters on the show.  You remember kindly Mr. Hooper, Big Bird’s friend, who ran a sort of corner grocery store.  There was a Hispanic family, Maria and Luis, and their daughter Gaby.  There were black characters, white characters, Asian characters and handicapped characters, old and young, every type of person you could meet on a New York street, and in any one skit from the show you might see any or all of them interacting with one of the colorful muppets.

The Sesame Street neighborhood was very different than my actual neighborhood, but I had a sense from watching the show that there was actually a big world out there with all kinds of people in it – I just felt I had not yet had the opportunity to meet them.  Little did I know at the time that I would end up as an adult living in a neighborhood much more like the one I watched on TV growing up than the one I actually lived in.  Becky and I live in a development out in Owings Mills, with probably 40 or 50 homes.  About half of the homes have African American families living in them.  Maybe one quarter of the homes are Jewish.  There are some interfaith families.  There are Indian families and Asian families.  And even plain old Caucasian families.  It is the kind of neighborhood that feels very familiar if you grew up watching Sesame St.

And I’ve been thinking lately about how lucky I feel to live in such a diverse neighborhood.  When you work full time and professionally in the Jewish community you can sometimes loose track of the fact that not every place is like Pikesville.  You spend so much of your time with Jews, so much time thinking about Judaism and Jewish issues, so much emotional energy worrying about the Jewish community and Israel, that you actually need a reminder every once in a while that it truly is a big world out there, that there really are all kinds of folks in the world.  And by the way that God cares just as much about them as God cares about me and my family, or any neighborhood in Pikesville or down the Park Heights corridor.

There is a well known debate recorded in the midrashic literature between two great rabbis, Ben Azzai and Rabbi Akiva.  Their disagreement centers on one question:  what is the most important verse in the Torah, the one verse that sums it all up? Were I to ask you that question, my guess would be that many of you would cite what we commonly call the golden rule verse, the principle expressed in Leviticus 19, ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’  After all, that seems to pretty much capture it, and if you follow that one verse at the end of the day you’ll probably be following many of the other laws in the Torah.  And that in fact is the verse Rabbi Akiva chooses – love your neighbor as yourself, says Rabbi Akiva, is the Torah’s most important verse.

But the other rabbi, Ben Azzai, disagrees.  He cites a verse from this morning’s Torah portion, a verse far less familiar than the golden rule verse, and on the surface a seemingly strange verse to choose as the Torah’s greatest.  It is the very first verse in the 5th chapter of Genesis, and reads like this:  זה ספר תולדות אדם – this is the record of the line of Adam.  And what follows is a genealogical list that goes on for 31 verses, one of the classic biblical passages that people often make fun of – this one begat this one who begat that one – I think you get the idea.

At first glance Ben Azzai’s choice seems puzzling.  How could a verse that says ‘this is the record of the line of Adam’ trump the great golden rule of the Bible, ‘love your neighbor as yourself?’  But if you think about it for a minute or two, Ben Azzai has a point – יש לו על מה לסמוך – he has a leg to stand on.  Because ‘this is the record of the line of Adam’ is based on a fundamental principle – all people come from the same place, in fact, according to the Torah, all people come from the very same person, or persons.  And if that is indeed the truth, then there is no one person better than any other.

I doubt very much whether the creators of Sesame Street were familiar with that midrashic discussion between Ben Azzai and Rabbi Akiva, but I have a feeling they would have liked it.  Back in 1969 when Sesame Street came on the air for the very first time ideas like diversity, and ethnic and racial tension, and the struggles of the inner city were just as much a part of the conversation as they are today.  No question that is one of the reasons why the show depicted a neighborhood where there are all kinds of people from all kinds of places and backgrounds, but where everyone treated everyone else with respect, and where everyone was understood as being on the same level as everyone else.

You will probably remember the Sesame St theme song.  I am not going to sing it for you, but the lyrics of the first verse are as follows –

“Sunny day, sweeping the clouds away – On my way to where the air is sweet – can you tell me how to get – how to get Sesame Street?”

It is a simple lyric, and a song for children, but we all remember it.  Maybe one of the reasons is because the question at its core is this:  how do we get to a place where all people are respected and treated equally, regardless of race, religion, ethnic background, color, or age?  Sesame Street began to ask that question all the way back in 1969, and we haven’t figured out the answer yet.  But we have to keep looking, and we also have to remember that the search for that place continues every single day –

Leave a comment

Filed under America, Beth El Congregation, Bible, civil rights, community, neighborhoods, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Uncategorized

Voices of the Past

This a text version of my introductory remarks to Yizkor on Shemini Atzeret 5777 –

Just a few weeks ago I was looking through some old files hoping for High Holy Day sermon inspiration when I cam across a text I at first did not recognize.  It was 16 pages long, in a larger font, and when I began to read through it I realized what it was – a text of the last Yizkor sermon Rabbi Mark Loeb ever gave.  Some of you may remember the occasion – it was on YK afternoon, 9 years ago, and it was the first time we had combined our afternoon yizkor services.  We had advertised that Rabbi Loeb would be giving that afternoon’s sermon, hoping to draw a large crowd, and we were not disappointed.  The Berman Rubin Sanctuary was packed, standing room only, with more than 1500 people who had come not only to recite their yizkor prayers on our tradition’s most sacred day, but also to hear their beloved Rabbi give perhaps his last major sermon.

As you may expect, Rabbi Loeb did not disappoint.  I remember the powerful emotion in the room that afternoon, but to be honest I did not remember much of what Rabbi Loeb said, which simply proves my experience that most sermons are not remembered.  I knew he had approached the talk as a ‘last lecture’ – an idea that comes from the world of academia, where a retiring professor will give a final talk in which he hopes to summarize his life’s work.  And he had listed out a number of specific points about Judaism and Jewish life that he felt were the keys to finding meaning in our tradition.  And I also remember he had concluded the sermon with a classic Hasidic tale, the point of which is to be true to yourself.

I have a feeling the text of his sermon fell into my hands that very day, בעצם היום הזה the tradition would say, when he left it on the pulpit he had so powerfully graced for more than 30 years.  He was not one for saving sermons, and when he did take them he casually tossed them into the trash can in his office after services.  But that day I saw the text lying there, took it, and slipped it into my own files, thinking that one day it would be insightful, a historical artifact for the congregation, a testament to Rabbi Loeb’s thinking and teaching.

Since I have rediscovered it, I have read through the text a number of times during this holiday season.  It is almost as if Rabbi Loeb’s booming voice is coming back across the void, his be-robed figure swaying slightly as he leaned into the words of his message, his organized mind and elegant tongue laying out his sense of what it means to be Jew.  What was most striking to me about his remarks as I read and reread them was how often he spoke of love.  His love of Baltimore, his adopted home town, and most importantly his love of Beth El, our community and our congregants.  And of course his deep love of the tradition he had served and wrestled with for all those long years.

When things settle down after the holidays I will have the entire text of Rabbi Loeb’s sermon published on our FB page.  But today, as we come together near the conclusion of our holiday season, as we gather to recite our yizkor prayers, 9 years after Rabbi Loeb spoke those words from this pulpit, and just a few days after we marked his 7th yartzeit, there is one section of his text I would like to share with you.  This is the 7th of the 12 messages of Judaism that he spoke about that day, and I am quoting directly:

“I love Judaism because it has taught the world the idea of a covenantal love relationship between God and humankind, the ideal expression of a love that at times may falter but will never end.  Such a paradigm of love is meant to inform our view of the sanctity of human relationships, reminding us that it is our religious duty to try never to give up on one another, whether it be our children, our brothers, our sisters, our husbands, our wives, our parents or our friends.  We must never treat each other as objects, but, as Martin Buber taught, as sacred others.  Things are replaceable but people, even those we find difficult to abide at a given moment, are not.”

And it seems to me those few words capture the idea of what yizkor is all about.  First that we have not given up, that through the pain of loss, through grief, through guilt and sadness, and whatever other emotions we struggle with today, we have not given up.  And secondly, that the people we stand to say yizkor for today can never be replaced.  Their presence continues to be a part of our lives, their values and morals guideposts to our characters, to how we live and who we are.  It is a brave thing to stand to say yizkor – to once again stare into the face of loss, knowing that our grief will feel fresh and raw, but determined to fulfill our obligations and to do our very best to move forward, carrying our losses while at the very same time living our lives with a renewed sense of gratitude and faith.

Towards the end of Rabbi Loeb’s remarks on that day he said this, and again I quote directly:  “I would never have had the opportunities and experiences that have enriched my life so much if it hadn’t been for you… and as my service to Beth El comes to a close this spring, (I know) that a part of you will always live in me.  I hope the converse is true.”

As we rise together to say our yizkor prayers we acknowledge how very true that statement is, for our friends, our family members, for all those we call to mind today – may their memories always be for a blessing –

Leave a comment

Filed under Baltimore, Beth El Congregation, grief, High Holy Days, holidays, Jewish festivals, loss, memory, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, the rabbinate, Uncategorized, Yizkor

Inside Outside

This a text version of my sermon from first day Sukkot 5777 –

If you’ll permit me for a few minutes this morning I would like to go back with you to Yom Kippur afternoon, and our reading of the Book of Jonah.  Jonah is one of our strangest biblical books.  The simple fact that it contains an extended passage where the prophet prays to God while in the belly of a great fish in and of itself makes the book unusual.  Then you add to that the fact that Jonah is a failed prophet – because after all the message he delivers to the people of Nineveh does not come true.  And then there is the story of the plant that grows and then dies in a single day at the end of the book, a story no one fully understands.  But in my mind the strangest feature of Jonah is the way it deals with gentiles, with non Jews.

That is a feature of the book that is often over looked.  The mission God asks Jonah to undertake is to travel a great distance to preach to people who are not Jewish.  Nineveh is a city of gentiles, people who are outside of the covenant between God and Israel, people who probably are pagan in terms of their religious views.  Jonah is the only prophet in the Bible who is given this kind of mission.  This may be one explanation as to why Jonah tries to flee from his assignment.  Perhaps he feels that God’s word should only be proclaimed to Jews.  But God clearly does not feel this way, in fact God is so invested in Jonah carrying out his mission that God chases him down, creates a storm while he is at sea so the sailors will have to throw him overboard, provides a fish to swallow him up.  God wants the message to get to Nineveh whether Jonah does or not.

And on top of that, the book of Jonah in general portrays gentiles in a very positive light.  In fact I would argue the gentiles in the book come off looking much better than the prophet himself.  Jonah seems selfish, self absorbed, even a bit petulant.  In technical terms he is a major qvetch.  Throughout the book, Jonah seems to want to get away from God as quickly as he possibly can.  But the gentiles in the book are open to God’s word.  As soon as the people of Nineveh hear that they’ve sinned, they immediately repent and begin to pray to God.  Instantaneously.  From the king on his throne to the commoner.  These people may not be Jewish, but the book sees them as God-fearing people.

And then you have the sailors.  Remember at the beginning of the book, when God first asks Jonah to go, and Jonah tries to run away.  He books passage on a ship, and takes to sea, but there is a terrible storm.  You might remember that Jonah sleeps soundly in the hold of the ship, but while he sleeps, the sailors begin to pray.  Then when they finally realize the storm is because of Jonah, and Jonah even tells them they should throw him overboard, they do everything in their power to save him.  When they finally realize they have no choice but to throw Jonah into the sea they again pray to God, asking for forgiveness, and offering sacrifices to God.

The Book of Jonah is not alone in its positive portrayal of gentiles in the Hebrew Bible.  Remember Moses’ father in law, Jethro?  Jethro is a Medianite, in fact the Torah tells us he is a priest of Median, and he is seen as a wise figure, clearly loved by Moses, and also a person who helps to set up the Israelite governance structure.  You also have Pharaoh’s daughter, who saves Moses in the first place and by doing so ensures the survival and freedom of the Jewish people.  And in Genesis 14 you have King Melchizedek who is friendly to Abraham, blesses him, and offers praise to God.

Judaism has always understood that there are two covenants that God makes with humanity.  One is the covenant with Abraham, and later with Moses and the Israelites, a particular covenant with particular responsibilities that exists between God and the Jewish people.  But there is a more universal covenant that God makes with all people, in the rabbinic tradition called the Noahide covenant.  This shows that God cares about all people, not only the Jewish people, and that God is in relationship with all people.  We do have a special relationship with God, but we do not have God all to ourselves.

That is actually a major theme of the Sukkoth festival.  The Talmud teaches that it is during Sukkoth that God judges the world for water, in other words will their be enough rain for the crops to grow properly, enough water in the year to nourish and sustain people.  Not just Jewish people – all people.  And the sacrifices that were offered in ancient times during this festival were intended to extend God’s blessing to the entire world.  In the course of the holiday 70 bulls were sacrificed, the number 70 symbolically representing the nations of the world.  And tradition understands that these 70 bulls will protect the nations of the world from suffering, enable them to seek atonement for their sins, and help them to create a world of peace.  So in a way Sukkoth is as much about the non-Jewish world as it is about the Jewish world.

I think that message challenges us in two ways.  First of all, it reminds those of us who spend a lot of our time with Jews and in the Jewish community that there is a big world out there, and that God is concerned about the larger world and the people in it just as God is concerned about the Jewish world and Jews.  That may be a particularly important message coming out of the High Holy Days when the Jewish community is almost entirely inwardly focused.  It may also be one of the reasons why on this holiday we are asked to leave our synagogues, even to leave our homes, and to dwell in the Sukkah.  It is outside, in the world, visible, and you can’t hide from the world in a Sukkah, and the world can’t hide from you.

But it also challenges us to examine our own belief, and to reaffirm our dedication to the ancient covenant between God and Israel.  After all, are we going to let our covenantal relationship with God fade away while the non Jews of the world cling more tightly to their covenant?   I would argue that a Jewish identity based only on ethnicity – bagels and locks, national pride, even Israel and remembering the Holocaust – that that kind of ethnic identity will not ultimately be sufficient to maintain a sense of Jewish continuity.  Religious faith is a necessary component if we want to keep Jewish life vital and meaningful.

And that is one of the other things that is wonderful about Sukkoth.  We don’t shake the lulav and etrog because it makes sense!  This is not something that can be explained rationally.  It is instead an expression of faith, both in God, and in the ancient covenant between God and Israel.  May both of those faiths grow stronger in the new year, in our own lives, and in the life of the Jewish people.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Jewry, Beth El Congregation, Bible, continiuty, High Holy Days, Jewish festivals, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Uncategorized

Dylan and the Nobel

This a text version of my remarks about Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize award from Shabbat morning 10/15

Robert Zimmerman was a Jewish boy from a small town in Minnesota, gifted with an artistic vision and a powerful spirit of rebellion, who made his way from the hinterlands of America to New York City’s Greenwich Village.  The folk scene there was bursting at the seems, a writhing and living organism of creativity and cross pollination.  The Kingston Trio, clean cut and ready for a high school year book photo, was singing Tom Dooley.  Pete Seeger popularized If I had a Hammer.   Joan Baez reached the top of the charts in 1960, and Peter, Paul, and Mary were playing the coffee houses and cafes.  Robert Zimmerman arrived on the scene like stranger coming to town in a western, trailed by a mysterious past, and ultimately leaving behind his given name to become Bob Dylan.

In a few short years he was the biggest musical star in the world, almost a prophet to the young people in the mid 60s who looked to music for guidance and spiritual sustenance.  The hit records came one after another, too many to name, and the songs he wrote became a generational soundtrack.  He had various periods – a folk period followed by an electric period when he began to use amplified instruments.  There was Christian period when for a time he seemed to embrace Christianity, or at least many of its ideals on his record Slow Train Coming.  There was a return to Judaism, Dylan davening with tallit and tefillin at the Kotel in Jerusalem.  After a motorcycle accident he withdrew from the public eye and regrouped.

But he always came back, he always reappeared.  There were always new songs to sing and play.  He was restless, his mind jumping from idea to idea, his gaze soaking up the American scene, and somehow spitting it back out with song lyrics that sometimes seemed to be divinely inspired, some kind of uber-muse working through Dylan’s inscrutable eyes.  There were songs of social conscience like ‘the Times They Are a Changing,’ or ‘Blowing in the Wind.’  There were protest songs like ‘Highway 61 Revisited,’ and there were powerful personal portraits of love and longing, of loss and the sheer determination to survive against all odds.

To know that he came from Jewish roots is to recognize the prophetic pull of the tradition in his themes and music.  He sang about justice and truth, the power of the human spirit, and freedom.  All Jewish ideals, all concepts that distinguished ancient Israel from its neighbors.  And Dylan was a seeker, somehow discovering the way to drill down to the very core of an idea or issue or emotion, to uncover the truth, and then to lay it bare before our eyes, without flinching or turning away, and daring us to look at what he had uncovered.  In this search for truth he was reflecting the biblical prophets of old, their fiery spirit and unforgettable words, still read and chanted 2000 years or more after they were spoken.

Bob Dylan has been no saint.  He was always mercurial, often obscure, he was iconoclastic, complicated, and sometimes downright ornery and cantankerous.  But his talent was undeniable, and I would argue it was primarily expressed through his words.  The music was mostly made up of simple chords, songs with traditional musical progressions, classic folk and blues riffs and even melodies that had been played and replayed for decades.  But his language was unique and entirely original, and this was his genius.  The often dense and symbolic lyrics that he composed to express in timeless language the very moments, emotions, and ideas that define our lives.

It is because of that unique gift with words, words that changed music, words that defined a generation, that Bob Dylan was presented with the Nobel Prize in literature this week.  There has been some controversy about the choice – after all, he is a musician and not a writer, some have argued.  Others have said that rock and roll should never been considered on the same cultural level as the great novel or beautiful poetry.  But if the prize at its core is about how the words of an artist can both shape and change the world, then it seems to me hard to argue, for few artists in modern times have shaped and changed the world through words the way Bob Dylan has.

Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the Nobel was awarded to Dylan the very week that we are reading two of the greatest biblical songs ever composed.  In the Torah portion we read Moses’ last message to the Israelites, a song of warning and a powerful charge to the people to stay true to the task at hand as they enter the promised land. And in this morning’s haftara text we read King David’s great hymn of victory and thanksgiving, with its soaring language, its metaphors of darkness and light, and its imagery of the great hand of God drawing David from the rushing mighty waters.  In both cases the biblical poetry is a testament to the lasting power of song, and an example of how language, in the hands of the greatest artists, can create work of enduring, and sometimes even eternal value.

I don’t mean to suggest that Bob Dylan’s work should be considered on the same level as that of the Hebrew Bible or Shakespeare or Milton.  Those authors were some of the greatest geniuses of literature in all of human history, artists who changed not only their own time but all the time to come, and who helped us to see ourselves in a new light, with a deeper understanding of what it means to be human.  And maybe 100 years from now people will look back at Dylan’s body of work and see him as a simple traveling minstrel with an electric guitar.

But the Nobel Prize is not of the past or the future.  It is of our time.  And as we Jews qvell when a Jewish scientist or novelist or economist wins the Nobel Prize, so too we should be qvelling this week.  Fifty six years ago a young Jewish boy from Hibbing Minnesota walked onto the world’s biggest stage.  He is still standing there, and he has never looked back.


Filed under American Jewry, Beth El Congregation, Bible, Jewish life, Jewish thought, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, rock and roll, Uncategorized

Your Choice

This a text version of my Kol Nidre sermon from 5777 –

Our cool fall weather is reminding me very much of the HHDs of my youth in upstate New York, and going to services at the small Reform synagogue where my family belonged.  Kol Nidre night was a special night for me.  My mother would stay home with my little sister and brother, and my dad and I would walk to shul, just a few short blocks from where we lived.  When the service was over we would walk home together along the quiet streets, able to see our breath in the crisp air and truly feel the beginning of a new year.

Just this past Shabbat I marked the 39th anniversary of my bar mitzvah, celebrated at that Temple which was the focal point of my family’s Jewish life.  A small synagogue bar mitzvah is very different than it is at Beth El.  I studied one on one with my rabbi to prepare, meeting with him weekly in his office.  My synagogue had an unusual tradition in terms of how the Torah was read.  We did not learn to chant the text, we just read the Hebrew word by word.  But we were required as we read to translate into English.  From the Torah itself!  This meant that I understood every word that I read from the Torah 39 years ago at my bar mitzvah, and still to this day many of those phrases stand out in my mind.

The most memorable of them all comes from the end of the 30th chapter of Deuteronomy.  It is a well known verse, and you may recognize it.  I’ll read it the way I did 39 years ago at my bar mitzvah:  העידותי בכם היום – I call to witness against  you this day –   את השמים ואת הארץ – the Heavens and the Earth – החיים והמות – life and death – …- ובחרת בחיים – and you shall choose life!  I can assure you that 39 years ago when I read those words from the Torah I had no idea I would one day be a rabbi, but those are the words – particularly that last phrase – ובחרת בחיים – choose life!  that I would like to talk about with you this sacred Kol Nidre eve.

Certainly the idea of choosing is something we encounter every single day as we are constantly surrounded and confronted by choices.  Have you been down the aisles at Wegmans? They’re just endless. Paper or plastic for your groceries? But bring your own if you’re an environmentalist. Been to Starbucks lately? There are at least 20 different ways to order a cup of coffee. Walk into a liquor store and it seems you can find a single malt from every town and village in Scotland. If you want to order new sneakers on Nike’s website, there’s an almost infinite  – and I mean that literally – infinite number of combinations from which you can choose.  And if you’ve tried surfing to watch something on TV, you’ve had the experience of navigating hundreds and hundreds of available channels.

But while we may find all those material choices either liberating or frustrating, they are nothing like the Torah’s call to choose life. Why would the Torah need to tell us that in the first place?  It seems obvious – almost everyone is going to choose life!  And what exactly does that mean, to choose life, how do we do that?  I think there’s a vital message or two in the Torah’s words not normally on our minds, but worthy of consideration this KN eve.

Think, for a moment of the ancient Greeks, contemporaries of that Deuteronomy text.  Their idea was that every facet of our lives is predetermined, that the gods or blind fate controlled the destiny of each person, and that regardless of how hard you try, regardless of the choices you make, there’s nothing you can do about it.  Remember the story of Oedipus – he did everything in his power to prevent himself from killing his father, but in the end it happened anyway, because it had been decreed by fate.  This idea of the inevitability of life’s direction can also be seen in  Freud’s belief that our inner drives and urges control us.  In modern times the same argument continues, with geneticists who claim that our destiny is determined exclusively by our genes, that every decision we make and action we take is predetermined by our DNA, by our genetic code.

But Judaism says no.  In fact, precisely the opposite is true.  We have freewill.  We can choose our course of action, and when we do, we can control our own destiny.  That’s precisely the point of the Book of Jonah that we’ll read tomorrow afternoon. And I think that’s why the Sages chose it as the very last scriptural text we encounter, as the sun sets on yet another HHD season we’ve been granted.  The people of Nineveh are examples of the power of human freewill to change an apparently predetermined destiny.  When the book begins the Ninevites are doomed.  God has decreed that the entire city will be destroyed, in fact, Jonah’s mission is to tell them that they are about to die – עוד ארבעים יום ונינוה נהפכת – in forty days time Nineveh will be destroyed! That they as individuals and the society and culture they’ve created are doomed.

But the people of Nineveh choose a different path. They fast. They turn aside from their sins. They cry out to God, weep in the streets, d0 everything in their power to repent.  And the choices they make, change the decree.  Some of you remember the Santana hit song from 1969 – “You’ve got to change your evil ways!”  That’s what the Ninevites did  – and they chose well, because it worked, and they and the animals in their care were spared.

It’s exactly that challenge – and that opportunity – that the tradition puts before us each year on the HHDs.  It reminds us that we can choose, that we do have power, and that the choices we make can have a real impact on our lives, on the lives of those we love, and on the world beyond.  Just as we can undo inappropriate vows on YK eve, we can correct unworthy actions each day of our lives.  And that’s one of the ways I understand the phrase from my bar mitzvah portion – choose life means that we can determine the kind of life we want to live, that we have a measure of control over who we are and what we do, and if we are not yet who we want to be, we can choose to be better.

But when the Torah says “choose life,” there’s an inherent question bound up in those words – what kind of life shall we choose?  If we have that power, if our choices do make a difference, what kind of life should we prefer, what choices should we make?  And what I would like to suggest this evening is that our options are not just about choosing a good life, doing the right thing, being a good person, kind and caring.  It’s more than that.  It’s choosing a particular kind of life.  It’s choosing a Jewish life.

I know that it’s not so simple to choose a Jewish life today.  We live in a  secular world, with all its demands, opportunities, temptations, challenges and yes, its attractive choices.  And often – more and more often, in fact – our secular lives come into conflict with our Jewish lives, presenting us with difficult challenges.  When Hebrew school conflicts with soccer practice, where should a parent choose to bring a child?  It is a choice.  When a yom tov day and a work day conflict, will it be work, or celebrating the holiday with family?  Should we engage in Jewish life, by choosing Jewish books to read, studying Jewish texts, celebrating Jewish holidays, contributing to Jewish charities, living by Jewish values?  Shall we make the  synagogue our spiritual home?

ובחרת בחיים – “and you shall choose life” means that also is our choice, and it is up to us to acknowledge the struggle in which we are engaged and to know when the choice for faith and tradition, for culture and values is the one we should be making. And we should not allow the onslaught of secularism to unravel the spiritual and cultural texture of our Jewish lives.  And maybe the beginning of a new year, maybe on a Yom Kippur, maybe on a cold Kol Nidre night, we can decide that in the year to come we’ll choose Jewishly more often.

Kol Nidre is a night of annulling vows and promises, but I want to make one promise tonight I think I can keep.  In all the choices that are ahead of us in the year to come, each time we choose Jewishly our lives will be enriched, our connection to our history and tradition will be strengthened, and we will grow in spirit and in soul.

May we do that together – as family, as friends, as a sacred community, in a sweet new year –

Leave a comment

Filed under Baltimore, Beth El Congregation, Bible, High Holy Days, Jewish festivals, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Uncategorized

Ice Cream & Football

Yom Kippur 5777

At this time of year, with the changing of seasons and the arrival of our holidays, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the passage of time.  Hard as it is for me to believe, this is the 19th occasion we’ve celebrated the High Holy Days together here at Beth El, and for our Cantor, it’s his 20th year with you!  I’ve had the distinct pleasure over the last year to officiate at a number of weddings for young people whose b’nai mitzvah I participated in when they were 13, right here in the Berman Rubin Sanctuary.  Needless to say, my wife Becky is ageless. But our children, Talia, Josh, and Merav, are now 22, 20, and 17.  And next week we will mark Rabbi Mark Loeb’s 7th yahrzeit. I realized just the other day, that at 52 I am now older than Rabbi Loeb was, when I came here to serve as his assistant.


And I would guess it is at least in part because of the nostalgic mood of the holidays that on Rosh Hashanah we look back to the very first Jews and read the biblical stories of Abraham and Sarah and Isaac.  But we also read about them on RH because with their family struggles, their flaws and foibles, they are the perfect models for us in terms of understanding our own lives, our own needs and hopes and dreams – very much what the High Holy Days are about.  So it is always a bit challenging – at least for me – to turn from the richness of those stories and characters to the dry 16th chapter of Leviticus that we read on Yom Kippur, with its rote description of the ancient sacrifices.  But the truth is YK also has a biblical hero, just a little bit less obvious.  Anyone want to take a guess as to who it is?   To give you a hint, we’ve been reading the most intimate part of his story every Shabbat, during these last weeks of our liturgical year. Yes! Moses.

In the rabbinic mind, Moses and YK were synonymous.  The Talmud teaches that it was on YK day that Moses convinced God to forgive the Israelites for the sin of the golden calf, and God granted the second set of tablets.  If there is a refrain in the liturgy of YK, it is the 13 attributes, the Adonai, Adonai,  El rachum v’chanun phrase from the Torah that we chant again and again, and that is God’s response in Exodus 34 when Moses asks for forgiveness.  Tradition understands that phrase as a promise, still in effect today, that God will deal with us mercifully – with ‘rachmanis!’  -on Yom Kippur.  And that promise is extracted from God by Moses.  Moses and YK go together like gefilte fish and horse radish, if you’ll excuse the reference on a fast day!

But I’ve always suspected there is another reason why Moses is the central figure of Yom Kippur.  Do a bit of math with me – if it is YK today, when is Simhat Torah?  In two weeks.  And that means in our weekly Torah cycle we are reading the very last chapters of Deuteronomy.  Those chapters are all about Moses summing up the meaning of his life and what he hoped for in the future. They are a record of Moses’ last days, of the thoughts that he has as he looks back on his years.  He remembers successes and failures, he realizes that some of his goals will remain unfulfilled, he revisits regrets, and ultimately he emerges from the process with head held high, with his dignity and moral strength intact.

Now in any book, the last chapters can be the most important.  They make sense of the narrative’s previous events, they tie up the loose ends, solve the mysteries;  sometimes they come to terms with the simple fact that not everything in life is resolved to our satisfaction.  But when they are well done, when the writing is fluid and the language clear, the last chapters create a sense of wholeness and completion.  You know that feeling when you’ve reached the end of a great book.  Your eyes linger on the page, you read the last words reluctantly, you close the cover slowly and carefully, you feel sad, but you also feel whole.  And so it is, as we read these last pages of Moses’ five books.

But what about our own last chapters?  What about the last chapters of those we love?  Are we prepared to write them, or help write them, the way we would want to?  We often talk about being the authors of our own stories – it is a common metaphor today – and in the prime of life we may know exactly what it is we want and need.  We set goals and pursue them, focusing on careers, supporting families and maintaining a quality of living.  But when we arrive at old age, when we are challenged by illness or the passing of the years, it is more difficult to put pen to paper.  What are our goals?  What should our priorities be?  If time is limited, what do we want to focus on?  When we need clarity, where can we find it?  Those last chapters are difficult ones to write, but they are perhaps the most important in our entire story.

I had the opportunity over the summer to read a beautiful and poignant book entitled Being Mortal, written by the physician and author Atul Gawande.  Part memoir, part sociological survey, part exploration of medical ethics, the book traces Gawande’s struggle with the following dilemma – in a world where medical technology can often extend life, but in doing so may actually diminish its quality – how do we make wise and sound decisions about health care as we age?  How do we face the frailties and fears that will inevitably arise in our lives?  How do we help our parents and grandparents as they transition to supported living, or struggle with losing their independence?  What does dignity mean, and who defines that?  When choices need to be made, choices about health care or supported living, about terminal illness, who should make those choices, and how should they be made?

The book is beautifully written, and it is powerful.  If you or someone you love is facing a significant health challenge, if you are caring for an elderly parent or grandparent, if you are growing older – and we all are – you should read this book.  It does not necessarily give answers, because these questions don’t have right or wrong answers.  But with depth and feeling it will help you wrestle with whatever challenge you may be facing.  And we will all – every single one of us in this room – face these challenges in the course of our lives.

At its core, Gewande’s book is about one fundamental question:  what makes a good life?  When push comes to shove, when you realize time is limited, when you have to choose two or three things that are absolutely most important, that define your being, what are they?  And his thesis is if you can figure out how to ask that question, of yourself, if you can have that conversation with someone you love, then you will be able to write the last chapters, or to help someone else write them, with some sense of control, and even more importantly, with dignity and with humanity.

The book is filled with anecdotes from Gewande’s work as a surgeon and physician, and there is just one I would like to share with you this morning, and I hope you’ll again excuse me because it does reference food.  This is the story of a professor of psychology, in his mid-seventies, who discovers that he has a mass growing in the spinal chord region in his neck.  His prognosis is grim, but there is a surgical procedure that may help him extend his life with quality.  But it is a risky procedure, coming with a %20 chance of his becoming paraplegic.

While trying to decide what to do, the professor’s daughter asks him two questions:  “What are you willing to go through to have a shot at being alive, and what level of being alive is tolerable to you?”  And in responding, he surprised his daughter, and perhaps even himself:  “If I’m able to eat chocolate ice cream and watch football, I want to give it a shot.”

Now I suppose if we asked everyone in this room the questions the man’s daughter asked him, we would get a different answer from each person.  For some the answer might be time with family and friends.  Others may say they want to visit a special place one last time, or finish a project they’ve spent years working on, or repair a relationship they’ve regretted for many years.  The point is this –   everyone has their ice cream and football.  And the High Holy Days are supposed to help us remember what those things are in our own lives.

These sacred days and the words of our Mahzor come to remind all of us, no matter how old we are, of the passage of time, of our fragility and mortality, and of our significance and worth in God’s sight at every age of life. They remind us of the value of each day of our lives, young or old, each day to be treasured and purpose oriented, and so should be the arc of our years. As we age our priorities may slowly shift, as we begin to sense our time is limited, as we begin to think about mortality, our focus on family, on friends, on the things we love the most, on discovering the meaning of what has been – those things become more and more important to us. And this, our YK fast day, and the prayers and reflections with which we spend the day, are intended to focus our minds on those very same aspects of our experience.

In the last verses of Scripture we are told that at the end of Moses’ life, after 120 years of struggle with God and with his people, לא כהתה עינו ולא נס לחו, “his vision was undimmed, his vigor unabated.”  Isn’t that what every one of us wishes for, every single day of our lives? We want our work to be meaningful, to engage our minds and our hearts. We want our loves to be true, enduring, and mutual. We want to be respected and loved even when we are imperfect and incomplete – even when we are infirm or grow old.  Like Moses, we may never enter a promised land where all of our dreams are fulfilled, but we hope that we are able to see it from a distance, to have that perspective on our lives. So that when we each reach a certain age, we can look to the generations after ourselves, knowing that they live by values we cherish, continuing our ancient path in new ways and in new times. That we and they together may find comfort, hope, promise and peace in God’s sheltering embrace in all the new years yet to come.

Leave a comment

Filed under Beth El Congregation, Bible, books, High Holy Days, liminal moments, mindfulness, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, seasons, sermon, Uncategorized, Yom Kippur

Caine’ Hara!

Here a text version of my sermon from day two of Rosh Hashanah 5777

It has become a kind of tradition here over the years, begun by Rabbi Loeb, to spend a few moments at some point on Rosh HaShanah contemplating a story with a nice moral to it that comes from the baseball world.  But although I am not a superstitious person – in general – as Becky will tell you about sports I am very superstitious, and given the fact that the Orioles are playing tonight, and my Mets are playing tomorrow night I don’t want to jinx anybody, I don’t want to tempt fate, I don’t want to take chances, so I am leaving the baseball out of it this year, and instead I’ll bring you a different kind of story, one that goes back even further than the Cubs world championship drought, for those who keep track of such things (108 years!)  But as the old saying goes ‘before I speak I’d just like to say a few words,’ and so it is today.  Before our story, another quick tale.

This one is about an older Jewish gentleman who has to appear and testify in court.  He wakes up that morning, puts on his coat and tie, arrives, and when the time comes settles into the witness stand.  The Judge says ‘Mr. Greenberg, will you please state you name and age for the court record.’  ‘Your Honor,’ he replies, ‘my name is Ben Greenberg, and I am 83 years old, caine’ hara.’  The Judge is a little nonplussed, and he says ‘Mr. Greenberg, please re-state your age for the court – just your age.’  ‘Your Honor, I’m 83 caine’ hara.’  The lawyer can see that the Judge is a getting upset, and he says ‘Your Honor, may I give it a try?’  ‘Be my guest,’ the Judge said.  The lawyer steps forward, and says, ‘Mr. Greenberg, how old are you caine’ hara?’  Mr. Greenberg immediately responds ’83!’

Now if 83 deserves a caine’ hara – which it certainly does – what does 113 deserve?  I am sure you have heard of Yisrael Kristol, the Israeli man who a few weeks ago became the oldest human being in the world.  Just two days ago in the Jewish calendar, on erev RH – he celebrated his 113th birthday.   One hundred years ago, when he was 13 and should have had his bar mitzvah, the events of the first world war, the first! got in the way, and so along with his family, he’s decided to have a formal bar mitzvah ceremony now, in his 113th year.  Caine’ Hara indeed!

Yisrael Kristol’s story is a remarkable one, a tale of survival and resilience, of strength of spirit in the face of tragedy and loss, and of the ultimate triumph of goodness and hope and faith.  He was born in Poland in 1903 and grew up in the traditional Jewish world of Eastern Europe, studying in heder as a boy, and living an observant Jewish life.  As a young man he married and had children, but as the prime of his life arrived, the Nazis conquered Poland and laid plans for their Final Solution.  When they established the Lodz ghetto, the Kristol family along with thousands of other Jews was moved there and in those harsh conditions their children died. When the ghetto was being liquidated, Yisrael and his wife were transported to Auschwitz, where she died but he somehow survived.

After the war ended he spent time in a DP camp, remarried, and then in 1950, Yisrael and his 2nd wife made aliyah to the then 2 year old State of Israel.  They settled in Haifa, where Yisrael worked as a confectioner and baker and where he and his wife recreated a traditionally observant family. They were blessed with a son and a daughter, and in time, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.  Throughout his many decades and to this very day, Yisrael has maintained his religious observance, davening every day with tallit and tefillin, keeping Shabbat, celebrating the holy days of our sacred tradition, and over the last couple of days, with Jews all around the world, he has welcomed a new year and thanked God for another year of life.


It’s hard not to see in Yisrael Kristol’s story a reflection of many a Jewish story, the narrative of our people with its ups and downs, its tragic moments and its unexpected triumphs, its sadnesses and its celebrations.  If we are anything we are survivors as a people and as individuals, and certainly the beginning of a new year reminds us of that, in the most intimate of ways.

And if Yisrael Kristol were sitting here with us at Beth El Congregation today instead of his shul in Haifa, we might be itching to ask him the question everyone would love to ask a 113 year old man and which he’s been asked over and over and over again. “What is the secret to long life, how is it that you’ve managed to live all these long years?”  His response has been a mixture of humility and faith, “I don’t know the secret,” he has said. “I believe that everything is determined from above and we shall never know the reasons why.  All that is left for us to do is to keep working as hard as we can, and to rebuild what is lost.”

Those words may not keep anyone alive a moment longer than their destiny will grant them but it certainly seems to me to be a fitting message as we welcome a new year in unsettled times. It’s not easy to look at the world in which we live today without pessimism, distrust, and cynicism.  With constant war, wanton destruction of human life, refugees, terrorism, with the cheating, lying, and stealing we see too often in the business world, with the presidential campaign, and the lies and misrepresentations of the candidates and the influence of big money.  It is not a pretty world out there.  But think about this for a second – Yisrael Kristol knew a far uglier world and his message to us is not of despair but of hard work and faith.  So that our lives can make a difference.  So that we neither withdraw nor abandon hope but instead work and rebuild, and find hope anew.


Why, I wonder, would the oldest person in the entire world and his family decide to celebrate such an auspicious event by doing something Jewish?  Yisrael Kristol could have gone on TV, he could have made money with a ghost written memoir or by selling the movie rights to his story. He could have gone out for dinner. (whatever Tio Pepes is in Haifa!)  But instead he decided that standing before the Torah in his small family shul to chant with gratitude “asher bachar banu mikol haamim venatan lanu et torato,” “who has chosen us among all peoples by granting us the Torah,” and “vechayay olam nata betocheynu,” “Who has planted within us eternal life,” was his most precious and meaningful act of celebration of such a rare gift.

So it seems to me as we come together to begin a new year that Yisrael Kristol has a few questions for us.  Are we prepared to continue the work in which we’ve been engaged with our loved ones, with our community, with our country, with the world? Do we have the hope and the resilience – and the courage –  to rebuild that which has fallen down in our lives, to strengthen and rekindle our relationships?  To look at ourselves in the mirror and see both the reality of what is and the potential of what could be?  Can we find the faith to enrich our hopes for a better world? Can we say shehecheyanu “thank you God for granting us life, preserving us, and helping us reach this day and all the tomorrows we will yet be granted” with hearts filled with gratitude and longing for the work ahead of us? Certainly Yisrael Kristol would say “Yes.”  Can we?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks the former chief rabbi of Great Britain used the following image to help us think about these sacred days: “Our life is the single greatest work of art we will ever make. Occasionally we need to step back from our life, like an artist stepping back from his or her canvas, seeing what needs changing for the painting to be complete.” So let us together step back during these next ten days, let us look at our lives, let us work and let us rebuild, let us brighten the colors, touch up the worn spots, fill in the missing pieces, so that the year ahead may be filled with blessings, with hope, and with peace – for us, for our families, for our friends, for all people –

Caine’ hara!

1 Comment

Filed under Beth El Congregation, High Holy Days, Jewish festivals, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Uncategorized