Monthly Archives: November 2016

The Rabbi’s Holiday

Thanksgiving, of course.  A day when you actually might not have to  work, when you can stay at home with your family, make pancakes, read the paper, leisurely sip your morning coffee, watch some football later in the day, drink a beer in the middle of the afternoon.  You know, like normal people, normal families, do on weekends.  Those days are few and far between in the rabbinate.

People often say to me after the fall holidays “I hope you are resting up after the holidays, rabbi!”  But I’ve learned that one of the busiest times of my year is from the END of the holidays to Thanksgiving.  Suddenly the weddings begin (I’ve had one every Saturday night for the last month, another one Wednesday night before Thanksgiving).  Unveilings, people trying to get them in before the real cold arrives.  Meetings, delayed by the yom tov days, begin in earnest.  All of the email you couldn’t keep up with during the holiday season you try to wade through.  This year for me funerals as well (nine since Simhat Torah).  Every year through the holiday season an extended stretch of working many days in a row.  This year for me that stretch reached 42.  But who is counting?

I worry about it, I really do.  I worry first and foremost that my children’s main memory of their father as they grew up will be me walking down the stairs, leaving the house, saying ‘see you later,’ and the kids responding ‘bye, dad.’  And that is it.  No games of catch.  No kicking the soccer ball around.  No watching football together on Sundays, or brunches making omelettes together, or raking leaves, or just getting in the car and going for a ride. Zip. Zero. Zilch.  These experiences make up many of the fond memories I have of time spent with my dad while I was growing up, and I just wasn’t able to provide them for my own children.  Deep regret there, no doubt about it.

I worry also about burnout.  Heavy phrase, that.  Sounds almost violent, destructive.  But it also has a sense of hollowing, like what is done to a giant tree trunk to make a canoe.  What you have left in the end from the outside looks good, strong, and stable.  It even floats!  Performs its mission with competence, as intended.  But the inside is gone, nothing there but emptiness.  A literal shell of its original form.  I am often reminded of these lines from one of my favorite Hunter/Garcia compositions, called ‘Comes a Time’:

From day to day just letting it ride
You get so far away from how it feels inside
You can’t let go ’cause you’re afraid to fall
But the day may come when you can’t feel at all

I understand everything is a trade off.  There are many professions where people work hard, long hours, high pressure jobs, no question about it.  And I’ve been blessed professionally in many ways, serving a fabulous congregation, working with talented and caring people (fun people as well!).  Making a good living (not to be underestimated!).  My children have been able to grow up in one community, something that rabbi’s children rarely do, and I am enormously grateful for that.  But a trade off is exactly what it implies – something gained, something lost.  The question is, what is the price of that loss?

So thank goodness for Thanksgiving!  An actual break in the never ending flow of dedicated time.  A day to spend with people we love.  A day to walk the dog under a fall sky, to watch the last leaves gently fall from the trees, to browse the paper, sip some coffee, watch some football, live life, and just think and be.  Yes, a day like that.  Even for a rabbi.

This the chorus of that Hunter/Garcia song:

Comes a time when the blind man takes your hand
Says, “Don’t you see?
Gotta make it somehow on the dreams you still believe
Don’t give it up, you got an empty cup
That only love can fill, only love can fill, only love can fill”

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The Upside Down

One of the most popular TV shows in the country over the last few months has been the Netflix sci-fi/mystery/retro (early 1980s!!)/buddy series called Stranger Things.  The show follows the adventures of a group of young teens as they try to save a friend who has been captured by a monster and taken to a parallel universe (sounds simple, right?).  Called the Upside Down, this strange place is eerily like our own world, but everything there is dark and twisted.  A clean pool of clear water is murky and filled with weeds in the Upside Down.  The beautiful forest of our world is filled with rotted trees entangled in lichen there.  Horrible monsters lurk behind every corner, and danger crouches at every doorstep.  It is our world, with everything gone wrong.

So perhaps it is no coincidence that so many Americans were watching Stranger Things during the last grinding and depressing months and weeks of election 2016.  The show seems like a fitting prelude to where we’ve arrived.  A real estate mogul turned reality TV celebrity with no previous governing experience and a bad Twitter habit is poised to enter the Oval Office.  He has installed a far right wing conspiracy theorist conjurer as his chief advisor.  The soon to be vice president’s mantra is “I am a Christian first!”  And reports surfaced just today that Rudy Giuliani, the erstwhile mayor of NYC and current channeler of hyperbole is actually being considered for the position of Secretary of State.  Of the United States of America, that is.  Have we somehow, without even knowing it, fallen into our own version of the Upside Down?  As crazy as that sounds, aren’t the other sentences in this paragraph even crazier?  And they are all true.

I can’t help but think of the moment when the Frankenstein monster rises from the table, violently infused with life by the power of lighting, an angry and lashing energy that appears seemingly from nowhere, destroying everything else it touches.  And surely more than anything else it was anger that brought this new administration to power, the disdain and hurt and boiling fury of millions of Americans who had simply had it with Washington and political gamesmanship.  How destructive that unharnessed energy and anger will ultimately be we won’t know for at least a little while.  But we are going to find out, and there is no going back.

In Bob Weir’s first public appearance since the election, sitting in with the Joe Russo led band JRAD, he passionately sang ‘A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall.’  I am guessing Weir chose the song particularly, as a musical response to the events of last week.  Penned by Bob Dylan and one of his early masterpieces, the lyrics of the song paint the picture of a dystopian world where everything has gone wrong.  The dark and disturbing imagery contrasts sharply with the song’s chorus, warning us all in a prophetic proclamation that there are consequences to these historical moments, and that they can be far reaching.  But the last stanza suggests that we cannot turn away, that in fact we have to walk into the darkness, enter the Upside Down, in order to have a chance to emerge whole.  Stranger Things indeed.  Here are the lyrics:

Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?
I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains
I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways
I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans
I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

And what did you hear, my blue-eyed son?
And what did you hear, my darling young one?
I heard the sound of a thunder, it roared out a warnin’
Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world
Heard one hundred drummers whose hands were a-blazin’
Heard ten thousand whisperin’ and nobody listenin’
Heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin’
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter
Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Oh, who did you meet, my blue-eyed son?
Who did you meet, my darling young one?
I met a young child beside a dead pony
I met a white man who walked a black dog
I met a young woman whose body was burning
I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow
I met one man who was wounded in love
I met another man who was wounded with hatred
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Oh, what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what’ll you do now, my darling young one?
I’m a-goin’ back out ’fore the rain starts a-fallin’
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

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Some Election Thoughts – or Maybe Not

This is one of those Shabbats where a rabbi is darned if he does, and darned if he doesn’t, if you know what I mean.  If I decide not to talk about the election some of you will be happy, probably feeling, as my wife Becky warned me, just simply exhausted from the whole business, and not wanting to hear any more about it.  On the other hand, some of you will be upset, wondering why I chose not to deal with what without question is a significant moment in the history of our country.  That being said, if I decide to talk about the election those of you who don’t want to hear about it will be disgruntled, while others might not like what I have to say.  As I said, darned if I do, darned if I don’t.

It is perhaps no coincidence that we are reading Parshat Lech Lecha this week, the Torah portion that tells of God’s initial call to Abraham and the beginning of his journey.  I often think of how Abraham must have felt during those moments.  First going to Sarah, and saying to her ‘we have to pack, we are going to leave the one place we’ve ever known.’  They readied their possessions, took their nephew Lot, their flocks and herds, their servants.  And then a morning came, and as the sun began to rise, Abraham turned his back on the dawn and looked into the darkness of the distant west.  He looked out at that moment on an unknown future, and I imagine he was filled with trepidation, wondering what would happen in the course of his journey.

And there are many Americans this week who feel much like Abraham did so long ago, looking out on an unknown future with trepidation, wondering what that new landscape will mean to their lives, to their families, to their country.  The simple truth at this point is that no one knows what the future will hold – if the election taught us anything, it surely should have taught us that.  And one of the striking things about the Abraham narrative is that as unsure as he was of his future, he stepped out into it boldly, and with faith.  I don’t think that was because he believed it was going to be easy, and in fact we know, because we know his entire story, that he would have more than his fair share of trials and tribulations along the way.  Instead I think that Abraham was able to begin that journey, take that first step, because he knew he was not taking it alone.  He had Sarah with him.  God also was with him.  He was not alone.

Neither are we.  We will travel the next years together, together with our families, together with our friends, and together as a sacred community, as a congregation.  We will share the road with our fellow travelers, some of whom we agree with, some of whom we disagree with, some of whom make us a bit crazy, some of whom we’ve known for years, some of whom we’ve just met.  But all of whom we care about, all of whom we will support and respect.  Our journey will not be physical the way Abraham’s was, but Abraham’s journey was also, and perhaps more so, spiritual, emotional, and intellectual, and it was also a journey of personal growth.  And God willing that is the kind of journey we will all be blessed with in the months and years ahead.

Of course we have a say in that, we have the ability to at least in part determine our own destinies, the quality of the journey we take.  That is one of the chidushim, the new ideas, that Abraham brought into the world as the first Jew, and over time that idea would grow into one of Judaism’s great gifts to the world.  Our actions matter, they make a difference in our own lives, and even in the world we live in.  The classic commentators note that Abraham is the first person in the entire Bible to call God by the name Adonai, a name we still use for God today.  It happens in this morning’s Torah portion, toward the end of the sedra, in the context of a conversation that Abraham has with God.  God assures Abraham that he will one day be in possession of the land of Israel, Abraham responds to God by saying this:  Adonai Elohim, במה עדה כי אירשנה  – literally, how will I know that I will possess it?  But you can hear in Abraham’s address to God the word Adonai – the very first time it is used by a human in the Bible.

What does the term mean, literally translated, the word Adonai?  Literally translated it means ‘my Lord.’  Lord in the sense of a master, like in the Middle Ages, the Lord of the Manor.  And the Talmud teaches that Abraham uses this term for God intentionally because he had an insight that no other person had had, namely that religion, at least Judaism, is less concerned with belief in God, and more concerned with serving God, with doing God’s work.  And so Abraham called God Adonai – my master, my Lord – the One I will serve.

And that is something I’ve come to understand over the last few days.  My service of God is not dependent upon who sits in the Oval Office.  It is something that is independent of politics, or elections, or the way the country may or may not be divided ideologically.  The issues I care about, the concerns that I have, the way that I live Jewishly, the mitzvoth that I engage in, would remain the same regardless of what state I lived in, what country I lived in, or who the leader of that country was.  These come out of my understanding of what kind of world God wants us to build together, and what my role in that building process is, and what responsibilities are incumbent upon me in terms of living a committed Jewish life.

For me that is a fairly long list.  It includes rituals I engage in every day, like tallit and tefillin and daily prayer.  It includes study of our sacred texts and traditions.  The celebration of Shabbat and the festivals.  And it also includes heeding the words of the great prophet Isaiah, to care about the downtrodden, to cloth the poor and feed the hungry, to stand up for the rights of those who don’t have a voice in our world, to ensure that hateful speech and hateful actions are not tolerated, and to cry out when any one group – whether ethnic, racial, religious, or gender oriented –  is singled out because it is different.  And my service of God consists of some complicated stew of all of those things, the values and the practices and the traditions and the texts and the ideals that together make up a full and meaningful Jewish life.

As presidents come and go, as congressional seats change hands, as stentorian senators speak, my sense of what it means to serve God stays the same.  In that I take comfort – this week, in all the weeks gone by, and in all the weeks yet to come.  There is much work to do to make this a Godlike world, as there was, as there always will be.  And I have a responsibility to engage in that work, as I always have.  To paraphrase the great words of our sages, I don’t have to finish the job myself, but I am not permitted to walk away from it either.

So there you have it.  Darned if I did, darned if I didn’t.  In a way I suppose I did both.   Or maybe neither – you’ll tell me.

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The Quest and the Road

“It is a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your front door.  You step on the road, and if you don’t keep your feet there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.”  (J.R.R. Tolkien, chapter 3, the Fellowship of the Ring)

One of my favorite quotes, words of wisdom from the world’s most famous hobbit Bilbo Baggins, to his nephew Frodo.  Certainly journey is a theme that is at the very center of Tolkien’s world view.  Remember that the title of The Hobbit was actually ‘The Hobbit, or There and Back Again.’  Bilbo’s quest is to find something, whether himself, or gold, or perhaps both.  His nephew Frodo’s quest in the Lord of the Rings is to lose something, or rather to destroy it – the dangerous, magical, and powerful ring of Sauron.  But either way the narrative thread of both Bilbo’s and Frodo’s story is the quest.

But what the above quote brings out is that the journey is not linear.  First of all, because when you set out you really don’t have any idea where you might end up.  Certainly this applies to the self, to a person’s identity, for how can anyone know how the experiences of life, the experiences of the journey, will change him or her?  It may very well be that at the end of the road we wind up as very different people than we were when we set out.  A dangerous business indeed.

And on top of that, even the actual journey is not linear.  There are detours along the way, unexpected stops, flat tires, strange encounters, wrong turns, and so often the journey that begins with the most structured plan ends up as being something entirely different than originally expected.  Wasn’t it John Lennon who said ‘life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans?’

Perhaps that is why the Torah is so grounded in the quest narrative.  There are many examples – Jacob’s flight from Esau, Moses leaving Egypt to travel to Midian, even the fundamental narrative arc of the Torah is one of quest, the Israelites traveling through the wilderness to get to the Promised Land.   But it all starts with Abraham, the Torah’s first pilgrim.  God calls to him out of the blue and he responds immediately, packing his things and leaving his native land.  What is striking about his journey is that he had no idea where he was going.  ‘To the land that I will show you,’ says God to Abraham.  Most of the people I know probably would have responded ‘God, if you don’t mind, a bit more information please!’  But Abraham doesn’t say a word, instead turning his face to the west, and stepping onto the road.

My guess is at the time he had no idea where he was heading, or what adventures, trials, tribulations, and triumphs he would find along the way.  Battling with the Army of Kings, Sodom and Gomorrah, the binding of his son Isaac, Sarah’s death, the encounters with Pharaoh, the list could go on and on.  These events, recorded in the three Torah portions that relate Abraham’s story, make up the substance of his journey.  And somehow, in the midst of it all, in the course of traveling from place to place, facing the dangers he faced, being tested time and again, somehow he managed to become the very first human being to enter into relationship with God as a Jew.

In Abraham’s quest we see an echo of our own journeys, somehow still connected to his ancient travels.  Looking back we think of how far we’ve already come.  Looking ahead we realize how much further we have to go.  And so we open the door, and step through, our own feet setting a course on the road, never fully knowing where we might be headed.

Here an old Irish blessing:  May the road rise up to meet you.  May the wind always be at your back.  May the sun shine warm upon your face, and the rains fall soft on your fields.  And until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of God’s hand.

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23,500 Words

Just one way of telling the tale of my last 6 weeks or so.  Here is how I arrived at that number:  5 High Holiday sermons, about 1800 words each (a total of 9,000 words);  3 Shabbat sermons and 1 Sukkoth sermon, about 1200 words each (4,800 total);  7 eulogies, some 1,10o words each (7,700);  plus 8 ‘bar/bat mitzvah charges’ which come in around 250 words each (total of 2,000) – all of which adds up to 23,500.

A lot of words, any way you slice it.  The average number of words on the page of an average book is 250.  So the 23,500 words I’ve written over the last weeks would make the first 94 pages of a book.  What tale would those 94 pages tell?

Perhaps a bit about the times we live in, the anxious state of our nation, weary of a bitter (and long!) election process, fearful of clouds that grow darker on the horizon.  Maybe a thing or two about the state of Jewish life in America in 2016, its challenges and bounteous blessings.  Certainly the narrative of the lives of those whom I eulogized, the habits and hobbies, quirks and passions, connections and professions that made up their lives.  A few things about the b’nai mitzvah, just beginning their journeys, looking out on a future that is bright and filled with possibility.

And also, I suppose, reading carefully, a thing or two about me.  In part what has been on my mind, what were the thoughts that were nudging me in the fall of 2016, my concerns, worries, interests, and opinions.  But also who I am.  I hope that too comes through in all of those words, the thousands upon thousands of keyboard strokes, the verbs and nouns and adjectives, the sentences and paragraphs, the metaphors and textual references.

You know the old saying is a picture is worth a thousand words.  That would make 23 and a half pictures.  Maybe it is time to take up painting!

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