Monthly Archives: January 2017

Looking for Kansas

You will remember the famous line from the Wizard of Oz, spoken by Dorothy to her dog Toto just after they arrive in a strange and magical land:  ‘We’re not in Kansas anymore.’ Over the years that phrase has entered the vernacular, generally used to indicate the moment when you realize you’ve entered unknown territory, that you’ve come to a place, whether physical or metaphysical, where you’ve never before been.

So where are we today?  With constant protests and regular ‘executive orders.’  With immigration bans and simmering anger.  With simple and straight forward facts being doubted and questioned and sometimes blatantly denied.  I actually had to step between two men in their 80s at our kiddish after services this past Shabbat.  I was afraid they were going to come to blows, one speaking out in support of the administration, one against.  Both of them, by the way, are immigrants.

Wherever we are, we are not in Kansas.  Of that I am sure.  I guess the question might be how do we get back?

Being honest, at this point I don’t know.  Perhaps the Wizard of Oz is instructive.  Dorothy had a long way to go before she found her way back home.  Challenges and even some dangers to overcome.  The Yellow Brick Road.  The Lion and Scarecrow and Tin Man.  Those weird looking flying monkey things.  The Emerald City, even the Wizard of Oz himself.  And of course the Wicked Witch!  Along the way she had moments of heartbreak, despair, and doubt.  And even at the end of that long road it was touch and go.  But she made it.  And when she arrived, boy did Kansas look good.

And all the way through she maintained the courage of her convictions.  Not  that she didn’t learn along the way, and change and grow.  She did!  But her innate sense of decency and fairness and the kindly inclination of her heart remained steady.

Maybe that is what is happening in America today.  People are realizing what really matters to them, and the country itself is rediscovering fundamental values like tolerance and kindness, caring for the marginalized, and welcoming the stranger, fairness and human dignity.  Sounds a lot like Kansas.  And people have been pulling their ruby red slippers out of their closets all over this land.

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Integrity

 

In his column in this morning’s NY Times David Brooks seems to suggest that we should evaluate the Trump presidency by dividing the president elect into two.  On the one hand, we’ll have the Trump who will send out late night tweets, ranting and raving against those whom he sees as enemies, making strange policy pronouncements, commenting on product lines or movie stars (Trump #1).  On the other, we’ll have the Trump who sits in the Oval Office and works with his staff, crafting the nation’s agenda and working to implement economic, domestic, and foreign policy (Trump #2).  Brooks argues that we shouldn’t evaluate Trump #2 by what Trump #1 might say or tweet. Almost as if they are two different people, unconnected in all but appearance.

Certainly there is precedent for this idea.  We have long understood that the private behavior of the president does not necessarily reflect on his ability to do the job, to lead the nation, to be the voice for all Americans.  Bill Clinton’s indiscretions come to mind.  So do JFK’s, the famous Camelot of early 60s Washington now tarnished by the probing scope of history.  But there does seem to be a limit.  Nixon’s image was irreparably damaged by Watergate, crossing the line from indiscretion to illegality the way he did.  Nevertheless, at the end of the day evidence indicates that we want someone in the office who can do the job, whether or not they are a paradigm of moral rectitude and probity.  Whether or not they are a person of integrity.

Of course integrity has another meaning, commonly the second definition you’ll find when you look it up in the dictionary.  From its verb form, ‘to integrate,’ the word also means the state of being whole and undivided.  That is to say that the outside of a person matches the inside, the public persona and private persona are one and the same.  This is a challenge for members of the clergy.  Publicly we espouse certain values, we sermonize  about faith and our fellow man, we challenge our congregants to become better people (and for rabbis better Jews!).  But privately we may struggle with our own faith.  We may all too often give in to our baser instincts, over time souring and sinking in a sea of cynicism.  We may begin to look at others and wonder what they want from us, instead of what we can give to them.  This may be all too human, but it is not holy.

There is an old midrashic comment about the ark that contained the tablets that Moses brought down from Sinai.  According to Torah text that ark was gilded with gold, both on the outside, and the inside.  Of course the outside makes sense – that is what is visible to the world, so when the people looked at the ark they saw the beautiful gold gleaming in the sun.  But why bother with gold on the inside, a part of the ark that no one saw?  The answer, of course, is that the inside is just as important as the outside.  At the end of the day the people we are most impressed with are those whose inner qualities shine through, creating a brighter light than any polished gold ever could.

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One More River to Cross

A dreamscape.  It is nighttime.  A wide expanse of water, and a far distant shore.  We are swimming, and I look back.  Maybe there are a dozen of us?   Maybe fewer?  But people I know, people I love.  Why we are swimming I don’t know or I don’t remember.  As I slowly move forward in the water, looking at the distant lights, I realize we will never make it across.  I turn back again to look at those behind me, and I can see they are tiring.  We have so far to go.

But when I look forward suddenly everything has shifted.  This happens in dreams.  The second floor of a house morphs into the first floor.  A person you are speaking with somehow becomes someone else in the middle of the conversation.  And here, the river that was uncrossable, the opposite bank that seemed inconceivably far away, is suddenly close by.  In the dream the thought flits through my mind – maybe I was looking at it the wrong way, staring in the wrong direction.  If I had just looked to my left earlier I would have realized it isn’t so far after all.  It can’t be more than another 30 or 40 yards.  Oddly, there is an old and dented stop sign at the river’s edge, the exit place where I now know we will climb back on to dry land.

Of course the River is a symbol, a living in dream embodiment of the liminal moment, of transitional space.  Think of the Congo River in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  Or in the Bible, the Israelites must cross the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land.  Jacob wrestles his angel at a river crossing (also at night!).  Moses is taken from the River Nile as a baby.  There is something powerful, something compelling, about the dark water and the deep currents.  The river pulls us along physically, but it can trap our minds as well.

And yet.  To survive the journey, to escape the river, is to emerge whole and renewed.  Possibly cleansed?  Different, with a new understanding, more wisdom, better insight.  The truth is there are many river crossings in the course of life, some more difficult than others, some with deeper and darker water, others not much more than a simple wading across a sandbank.  It is knowing the other shore is there that keeps us going.  Somehow, someway, we sense comfort in that distant dry land.  A place where we’ll be able again to plant our feet and move forward with purpose and direction.

One last thing.  One More River to Cross is the title of a track on Bob Weir’s lovely new solo record, entitled Blue Mountain.  On the album Weir gruffly confronts a variety of topics, his now weathered voice and spare acoustic guitar calling to mind dusty ghost towns, lost loves, and yes, distant shores that we have yet to reach.  Here are the lyrics of the song’s last stanza:

My one true companion is carrying me
One more river to cross
And when I cross over, he’ll go running free
One more river to cross
And I’ll burn a dance, and the horse will run wild
Through endless green meadows, till one day it finds
And then it will cross over back to my side
One more river to cross
A river and crossing it back to my side
One more river to cross
One more river to cross

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Joseph and the Virtues of Assimilation

Common wisdom has long held that assimilation grows stronger with each passing generation.  As an example, in my own family on my dad’s side, my Bubbe and Zaide were born in eastern Europe.  They grew up speaking Yiddish, lived in neighborhoods here in Baltimore where only Jews lived, had friendships only with Jews, kept kosher, as much as possible kept Shabbat, and were much more eastern-European-Jewish in terms of their culture and identity than they were American.  My dad – next generation – went to City College High.  He ran track there, became a passionate Orioles and Colts fan, went to college – the first in his family to do so.  He knew Hebrew – still does – because he went to a Zionist camp growing up and went to Hebrew high school 3 days a week.  But his identity was more American, his cultural comfort level was Sinatra and Broadway, not Yiddish theater.  He and my mother had no hesitation in terms of moving to a community in upstate New York where there were very few Jews, let alone Jewish neighborhoods to live in – something my Bubbe and Zaide found inconceivable.

Then you have my sister and my brother and me.  Certainly we knew we were Jewish growing up, we went to Hebrew school, my brother and I had b’nai mitzvah, all three of us continued our Jewish education into high school with confirmation.  On RH and YK we went to shul, occasionally had Shabbat dinner at home.  But we were secular Jews, and culturally we were entirely American.  Most of our friends were not Jewish.  My brother and I played varsity soccer, the only Jews on the team, my sister danced in the local dance company, again, as far as I remember the only Jew.   Judaism was a part of our identity, but growing up by no means was it the biggest or most important part.  And that is by and large the way we see it work in today’s Jewish community as well.  Each generation a little bit less intensely Jewish, a little bit more American.

Now you might expect that a rabbi finds a trend like that to be disturbing, and there is no question that increasing assimilation generation by generation creates very difficult challenges for those of us who work in the synagogue world and who care about Jewish life and community.  That being said, this morning I want to argue that assimilation is not only acceptable, but that it is actually necessary for the survival of Jewish community and possibly for the survival of Judaism itself.

Consider with me for a moment the three main characters in the book of Genesis – they are?  Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph.  I am skipping over Isaac because the truth is he is a relatively minor character in the Genesis narratives.  And as important as the matriarchs are, the primary focus is on those three.  Lets start with Abraham.  He is the idealist, fiercely devoted to serving God, so much so that he is willing to sacrifice his son in God’s service.  His relationship with God is the most important thing in his life, the one thing that defines him more than anything else.  He is generation number one.

Jacob, his grandson, is in a very different place with his religious life and identity.  He is the ‘God wrestler’, a person who struggles with faith and its importance in his life, not always sure of God’s attention or protection.  Jacob doesn’t entirely assimilate – his ethnic and religious identity is too strongly ingrained.  But he has serious doubts, and he does not wait around for God to take care of him.  Instead he uses his own intellect and cunning, his own strength and determination to navigate the challenges of his life.  Jacob believes if he doesn’t do it no one will do it for him – not even God.

Then we arrive at the next generation – Jacob’s son Joseph, Abraham’s great grandson.  And what do we find with Joseph?  He is by far the most assimilated character in the entire Torah.  Joseph has fully and completely integrated into Egyptian life and culture.  He has taken an Egyptian name, he has married an Egyptian woman, he works in the Egyptian government.  He has become so completely and thoroughly Egyptian that in this morning’s Torah portion, after multiple interactions with his own brothers, he finally has to actually say to them – “Hey!  Wake up!  This person you’ve been talking to now off and on for months – face to face, close up – its me!  Its Joseph!”  As it says in this morning’s portion – אני יוסף אחיכם – I am Joseph your brother!!

But as assimilated as Joseph is – as Egyptian as he has become – it is he who assures the future of the Jewish people.  Joseph is the one who brings his brothers and father to Egypt, enabling them to survive the famine.  It is Joseph who honors his father by making sure he is buried in the land of Israel.  And interestingly enough, it is Joseph who makes sure to bring his children, who must be even more Egyptian than he is, to Jacob for a blessing and a last encounter with the great patriarch of early Jewish life.

Now I don’t know if anyone reads the Forward any more.  I still take a glance through it when it comes out if I have the time.  This week there was an article that described current demographic trends in the Jewish community, and showed that the overall percentage of Jews who are Orthodox is rapidly growing.  If you take the Jewish community and divide it into three age ranges – 56 and older, 28-45, and 17 and younger, this is what you see:  Jews 56 and older %5 are Orthodox – that is it!  In the 28-45 age range that percentage grows significantly – %15 of Jews between the ages of 28-45 are Orthodox.  But then you get to 17 and younger and the number grows even more dramatically – %27 in that age range are Orthodox!

You might look at those numbers and think ‘this is good for the Jews,’ because the community will more and more be made up of Orthodox Jews, who are observant, knowledgable and devoted to their faith.  Those Jews should be able to transmit a sense of the importance of Judaism and the tradition to their children and grandchildren, and ensure a process of continuity for the Jewish people for generations to come.  Good for the Jews, right?

But I think there is also a potential problem in that growing percentage of Orthodox Jews, namely this:  in the Orthodox community you don’t have any Josephs.  You don’t have people who are fully assimilated and integrated into American life and culture.  And I would argue that for the Jewish community to be safe and sound and successful, we  need to have some Josephs out there.  We need people who know they are Jewish, but who are comfortable and fully integrated in the secular world.  We need people who have non-Jewish friends and business contacts.  We need people who feel just as comfortable in the non-Jewish world as they do in the Jewish world.  We need Jews involved in government, the sciences, the arts, the media, the entertainment world.  And by and large those Jews are not going to come from the Orthodox community, which if anything is becoming more insular, and more distant and cut off from the secular world.

So do we need to worry about assimilation?  We do – it IS growing, and it does present us with greater and greater challenges in terms of maintaining our identity and traditions and the continuity of our faith.  And the increase in the Orthodox population will help to address those challenges.  But we should also remember that assimilation should be celebrated, that it is symbol of the Jewish community’s success, and that without it we would simply not be where we are today.  May we continue from strength to strength for generations to come –

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A New Year’s Eve Psalm

The dog never noticed, so intensely interested in the ground as he was, the damp grass and the smells and secrets it held.  As he sniffed from spot to spot, decoding a brief history of our backyard, what animals (and possibly people) had passed through it this New Year’s Eve, he would occasionally pause and look out into the distant darkness.  Perhaps he sensed a late night reveler, some wandering fox or deer wending its way home in the first hours of the new year.

For my part I was impatient, my mind already rushing, wanting bed and a few hours of sleep before the day dawned and tomorrow arrived.  Responsibility lay in that tomorrow, crouching, waiting for me, as sure as the daylight that would inevitably seep over the bare trees and soggy fields.  Time was already pressing, calling and whispering and rustling, even in that quiet darkness.

The dog had no such qualms.  No doubt he would have stayed out for hours, wandering, welcoming the new year in his own way, checking the various spots that he regularly inventories, keeping track in his mind of the comings and goings of other dogs in our neighborhood, the location of old scraps of food and interesting sticks that might be chewed.  He did not know that some arbitrary number had been reached, some intercalated measure of human time.  His way of sensing time’s passage is subtler and deeper.  He knows what lies ahead.  The cold days and colder nights, the chilly winds, perhaps falling snow and the quiet it brings.

Just then it was that I looked up.  The entire sky was draped in cloud, but magically a gap appeared and I could see the blackness of space.  There was the Big Dipper, just above us. Implacable, unknowable, untouchable, the infinite distance, the cold whiteness of its seven stars.  Too high for the dog, nothing to smell there, nothing even remotely as interesting as dirt and leaves and the roots of trees.  But I did pause for a moment, considering in my tired mind the majesty and mystery of this vast universe we call our home.  As deep as the earth, as high as the heavens.

Here a paraphrase of the 148th Psalm –

In praise of God, the sun and moon, the shining stars, the highest heavens;  the great ocean depths, teeming with life, the fire and hail and snow and storms;  the hills and mountains, trees, singing leaves, growing fruit;  beasts, wild and tame;  winged birds and creatures of the ground, men and women, young and old.

And this, from the 19th –

Day after day the word goes forth, night after night the story is told.  Soundless the speech, voiceless the talk, yet the story is echoed throughout the world.

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Let’s Get Small…

I’ve always wondered why, when we tell the story of Hanukkah, we emphasize the narrative about the small cruise of oil.   You all know the story – the Maccabees were able to defeat the Assyrians in around 165 BCE.  They captured Jerusalem, and then retook control of the Temple mount and rededicated the Temple.  As part of this process of rededication they wanted to relight the Ner Tamid, the ancient Temple’s version of our eternal light.  But they had a problem – it required a special oil, a very particular formula that was certified only by the High Priest.  And when they went through the Temple stores, they found only a small container of it, just enough to enable the Ner Tamid to burn for a single day.  But of course, as the story goes, the small cruse of oil, that should have lasted only a single day, burned for 8 days – it was, as we say, a miracle – and we commemorate that miracle by lighting our menorot for 8 days.

And what I’ve always wondered is why that is the miracle we focus so much of our Hanukkah time and energy on.  After all, there is a much larger miracle, I would argue a much more significant miracle, of Hanukkah.  Which is?  That a small and almost powerless people, the Jews, were able to defeat the greatest power in the world at that time, the Assyrians.  That a ragtag band of rebels was able to muster the strength, determination, courage, and skill to  defeat the world’s deadliest and strongest army.  That a rebellion that should have had no chance of success not only succeeded, but arguably changed the entire course of human history.

Now the story of the oil burning for 8 days is nice, and I suppose, if it is actually true, it is a sort of minor miracle.  But it didn’t really make a difference – not in any real way – in the lives of the Maccabees, or in what happened in the year 165 BCE.  The burning oil had no impact on the military struggle of the time and who won and who lost.  And it just doesn’t seem to me that when you compare that story and its small miracle with the known events of that time, with one of the great true miracles of human history, the military victory of the Maccabees – when you look at one next to the other – it doesn’t seem to me they are even in the same ball park.  So why spend so much time on one tiny, small, minor miracle?  Why is that the story most associated with Hanukkah?  Why, when someone asks us what Hanukkah is all about, is that the story we tell them?

To help us possibly answer that question, or at least to think about it in a different way, I’d like to spend a few moments with you thinking about one of the great comedy stars of the 70s, Steve Martin.  I am sure you all remember Steve Martin – the bunny ears or the fake arrow through the head.  The banjo playing.  One of the so called ‘wild and crazy guys’ from the hey day of Saturday Night Live.  If you grew up in the 70s, like I did, Steve Martin was the King of Comedy, one of the biggest stars in the country at the time.  His solo stand up shows would sell out in minutes.  Phrases from his routines became part of the vernacular.  His image was almost iconic – the white hair, the goofy smile.

And if you followed Steve Martin, you’ll remember he had a routine that he did in his stand up act, called ‘Lets get small.’  It was a little bit – just maybe two or three minutes long.  It was subversive, like all great comedy, playing off the idea of getting high.  The idea was you’d expect a comedian in the 70s to talk about getting high, about using drugs, but Martin switched the phrase, and talked about – getting small.  And the whole routine ran off of that  – if kids did it they got ‘really small.’  One time when he was ‘really, really small’ he crawled into a vacuum cleaner.  And he would riff on it for a few minutes, and then move on to the next bit.

The other great thing about that routine – another feature of great comedy – is that it made you switch perspectives, both literally and figuratively.  You expected him to talk about one thing, but instead he talked about something else.  You know what it is like to be big, but he asked you to imagine yourself inside a vacuum cleaner – he asked you to, in his own words, ‘get small.’

And when you get small, you think about things differently.  You see the world from literally a different perspective.  Maybe you’re a bit humbler.  Maybe you’re a bit more grateful.  Maybe a bit more gracious.  Its always been interesting to me, the words of Jacob from a couple of weeks ago, Parshat Vayishlach, when he is speaking with God before meeting his brother Esau – what does he say?  The translation in our Humash is “I am unworthy of all the kindness that you have shown me.”  But the Hebrew is – קטונתי מכל החסדים – literally, I am too small for what you have done for me.  Jacob’s perspective has changed – he once thought he was great, and now he sees himself as small.

And I would argue that there is something about the small moments – about ‘smallness’ – that enables you to experience God in a way that largeness and the large moments don’t.  I’ve learned that in the rabbinate over the years.  At a large shul like this I’ve been privileged to teach classes with a hundred students, or preach sermons in front of a thousand people.  But what I have discovered – and it has surprised me – is that the most sacred moments often are the small ones.  A one on one conversation where you say something that might help someone.  A funeral with just a few people, where you bring a Jew to his or her final resting place with dignity.  A class with just a handful of people where you can spend time and talk things out.  In those small moments, I’ve found, God’s presence is clearer and stronger than in many of the big moments.

And isn’t that the lighting of the menorah?  If you think of the rituals of our year, the complex music and liturgy of the HHDs, the intricate waving of the lulav and etrog on Sukkot, even the multifaceted rituals of the Passover seder, the lighting of the menorah is one of the simplest and easiest rituals we perform.  Put the candles in, say two short blessings, and go eat!  It is a small moment – usually just family, at home, a few minutes and back to the routine.

But it also is a sacred moment.  To stand with children and grandchildren.  To watch as the glow of the candles slowly but surely warms heart and home, bringing light and hope into our lives, pushing the darkness away.  And I would venture to guess that many of us, in that small moment of candle lighting, surrounded by the generations of our family, feel a sense of God’s presence.

So maybe that is why, over the years, the story of the oil on Haunkkah has become so beloved.  In the grand scheme of things it was a small moment, of no great import.  But in some strange and mysterious way it was also a miracle, a moment where God’s presence came into the world, and where God’s eternal connection with the Jewish people was rediscovered.  May it be so again and again, in this new year of 2017 and beyond.

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