Monthly Archives: March 2018

Taking Out the Garbage

This is a text version of my sermon from Shabbat services on 3/24/18.

Just a couple of weeks ago I had an experience that was both rare for me these days, and also I realized, refreshing, and perhaps even important in an odd way.  I was out and about in the Baltimore area, and as happens about 99% of the time, I saw from across the room someone I know from the congregation.  I figured I would go over to say hello and check in for a moment or two, knowing of course that the person would know I was there, and might feel slighted if I didn’t say ‘hi.’

I went over to the person and reached out my hand to shake hers, and said ‘how are you, good to see you.’  She looked at me with a blank stare, clearly in her mind thinking ‘who the heck is this?!’  Now I must admit my self esteem took a small hit.  One of my own congregants, and she didn’t even recognize me!?  How was this possible?  After an awkward moment or two I said ‘its Rabbi Schwartz, from Beth El,’ at which point she realized who I was, and began to profusely apologize.  I tried to reassure her – ‘please, no worries,’ I said.  ‘Just wanted to say hello.  Have a good time and I’ll see you in shul.’

Now in my poor congregant’s defense, I wasn’t exactly dressed in shul clothes.  She is used to seeing me in a suit and tie, often with a tallis on, and that evening I was dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, plus I had a baseball cap on my head.  And it was probably in a place she was not expecting to see her rabbi.  So I was totally out of context for her, and for a couple of days in my mind that was how I rationalized what happened.

But then I began to realize that the problem had nothing to do with her, and everything to do with me.  That is to say, why should I have expected to be recognized in the first place?  Am I so important, am I such a recognizable figure, that I think people should know who I am?  What we had here was a problem of humility – namely my own lack of said quality.  I had briefly forgotten one of my chief rules of rabbinical work, which is – never believe your own press clippings.

So it is perhaps propitious that we come to this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, in the week leading up to Passover, which as I expect you all know begins this coming Friday night.  Because in both this morning’s Torah portion, and also in my experience of the Passover holiday, are lessons of humility that I will try my very best to take to heart in the months ahead.  First of all, the Torah portion.

There is a wonderful story told of the Brisker Rav, who was the head of the Brisk Yeshiva in Jerusalem.  It seems that he had a student who was having trouble getting along with his wife.  One day the student arrived early at the Rav’s home.  The Rav invited him in, poured him a cup of coffee, and asked him what was wrong.  The student replied, ‘My wife is giving me a hard time because I refuse to take out the garbage.  Can you imagine that she wants me, a Torah scholar, to actually take out the garbage.’  The Brisker Rav sagely nodded his head, and simply said to the student, ‘let me think about this.’

The very next morning -early – there was a knock on the student’s door.  Much to his astonishment the Brisker Rav was standing at his doorstep asking to come in.  When the student invited his teacher inside the Rav went straight to the kitchen, found the garbage can, and took it out to the street.  When the student asked the Rav what he was doing he simply replied “It may be beneath your dignity to take out the garbage, but I thought I’d show you it isn’t beneath my dignity.”  By the way what the student’s wife said to him was not recorded in the version of the story I saw.  We can only imagine.

But the story does reflect a small and curious detail that our Torah portion relates about the Priests in ancient times, and their service at the Temple in Jerusalem.  The Priests were the most important people in ancient Israel, honored and respected as religious authorities and sources of wisdom.  And this morning’s portion describes their day to day duties in terms of their Temple service.  One can imagine that the Priest arrived at work in the morning to great fanfare.  After all, he was going to be doing God’s work for the people, offering the sacrifices, making judgements about which things were pure and which were impure, helping people to recover from illnesses.

But the very first thing the Priest had to do when he arrived in the morning was to take off his fancy clothes, put on his schlepper clothes – old jeans and torn sweatshirt – and then he had to clean out the altar area from the ashes of the previous day’s sacrifices, and then carry those ashes outside.  So literally, the great Priests of ancient Israel started their days by taking out the garbage.  And that image is a very helpful reminder to me about he importance of humility – even when, and maybe particularly when – you find yourself in a position of Jewish leadership.

Which brings me to the second thing that helps to reset my humility needle, and that is Pesah, precisely because it is the family holiday of our tradition par excellence.  When I stand here and preach, or lead services, or help you with life cycle events, I am the rabbi, and always treated as such, with respect.  And believe me it is very much appreciated.  But when I sit down at the seder table with my family, even though I am leading the seder, I am not the rabbi.  I am Tali, Josh, and Merav’s dad.  I am Becky’s husband.  I am my parents’s son, Becky’s parents’ son in law.  My children remind me that I don’t know the proper tune to a number of the Passover songs. (which may simply be a comment on my singing)  Becky quietly reminds me I am talking too much, and that we need to get the food out on the table, something my congregants would never do while I am conducting services.  Becky’s parents remind me they knew me when.  My parents remind me they REALLY knew me when.  I think you get the picture, and as you may imagine, it is all very humbling, and it is wonderful.  Sometimes it is good to be reminded that you are no more special, no wiser, no more insightful or wonderful, than anyone else.

Of course in today’s world that is a lesson probably everyone could benefit from.  Certainly our politicians, so entrenched in their own views, so convinced of their own wisdom and that they know better than anyone else, could use a good does of humility.  Maybe they should take a cue from the Priests in the Torah, and show up early to work, change out of their suits, put on their work clothes, and spend a half hour taking out the garbage.  Lord knows there is enough of it in Washington DC.  But I am guessing the list could go on and on, and we could all think of someone we know – whether ourselves, or someone else – who could use a good dose of humility.

The question, of course, is where does that dose come from?  For me, the two best sources are my faith and my family.  My faith reminds me of how grateful I should be for every day and every blessing, of how little I should take credit for and how lucky I am.  My family reminds me of something even more important – who I truly am – which is, just a person like everyone else.

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Setting Aside Shabbat

There has been a bit of a brouhaha in Conservative Movement circles about the United Synagogue’s decision to allow their teens, in the context of a United Synagogue Youth program, to ride public transportation on Shabbat in order to participate in the march for sensible gun control on March 24th, in Washington DC.  This is a departure for USY, an organization that has done wonderful work with young people in the Movement, but has been for the most part rigidly and strictly devoted to a narrow interpretation of how Shabbat should be observed.

A couple of thoughts –

First, (and maybe foremost) doesn’t a loosening of Shabbat restrictions make sense given the observance level of the vast majority of people affiliated with the Conservative Movement?  Do we imagine that most of the young people who participate in our USY programs are Shabbat observant?  Do we think they don’t drive on Shabbat, use their computers and mobile phones, even go to the mall for that matter?  This is not to say we should throw the baby out with the bath water, but rather to suggest that we realistically look at who our teens are, and for that matter, who our adult congregants are as well.  It may be time to acknowledge that a narrow and strict definition of and adherence to Shabbat observance has become a thing of the past for the vast majority of Conservative Jews.

And secondly, if we want to stay in the realm of halacha (Jewish law) for a moment, lets think about the question of when it is appropriate, and even required, to set aside Shabbat observance for some other value.  In ancient times this was done so that on the Sabbath day the Temple’s sacrifices could still be offered.  In modern times this idea exists in a number of different areas, most prominently vis a vis the principle of preserving life, where virtually all halachic authorities agree that a physician may set aside Shabbat observance in order to attend to patients.  Brit milah (ritual circumcision) is another example.  If the 8th day fall on Shabbat, the bris is supposed to take place regardless.

Along these lines, doesn’t it then make sense to teach our teenagers a lesson.  Shabbat is important, one of the defining institutions of Judaism.  But there are times when other ideals, other values, other commitments, should take precedence.  Our teens this weekend will experience a meaningful sense of Shabbat, with Friday night dinners and services, Saturday morning study sessions, and sleeping in local synagogues.  But then on Saturday they’ll take their prepaid Metro cards, climb onto the DC subway, and join thousands of other teens in an effort to make a better, safer, holier world.

Some might in fact argue that there is no better way to spend our most sacred day.

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Praying With Feet

A famous phrase, attributed to Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the most influential rabbinic teachers and mentors at the Jewish Theological Seminary in the 60s.  He reportedly used the phrase when asked what it felt like to march with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the now famous Selma protest walk which took place on March 21, 1965.  Asked about the experience by a student in class, Heschel simply said ‘it felt like I was praying with my feet.’

I am not sure the thousands of students who participated in today’s school walk out, organized to raise awareness about the problem of gun violence, would have used exactly the same phrase.  But I suspect that many of those students felt like they were, in some way, engaged in holy work.  From Maryland to Connecticut to Indiana to Florida, from the west coast to the east, all across our great land, students rose from their seats at 10 o’clock this morning, walked out of their schools, and observed 17 minutes of silence, one for each of the recent Parkland shooting victims.  It was a powerful national moment, the like of which I do not remember in my adult life.

These young students remind me of the great prophets of old, the Jeremiahs and Isaiahs who set up their pulpits on the street corners of ancient Israel, and with eyes blazing and a profound sense of righteous indignation spoke truth to power.  With the NRA trying to muzzle them, with their local politicians treating them with a condescending sweetness, these students have been fearless, and full of faith – faith that they can make a difference, that the world can change for the better, and that ultimately wisdom and reason can prevail over anger and the old back room pay and wink system that creates fertile ground for the NRA’s lies.

The adults around them are weighed down with the cynicism and hopelessness that comes with age, the sense expressed in Ecclesiastes that there ‘is nothing new under the sun,’ that nothing will ever change.  We’ve witnessed the Columbines and Sandy Hooks, we’ve been angry and we’ve raised our voices, briefly.  But I wonder if all along we felt nothing was going to happen, that there was no real chance for real change.  You can’t win when you step out on the field expecting to lose.

Which is why we need these young people to step forward, to speak out, and to be the leaders we evidently cannot be on this issue.  Will they succeed, do they have the fortitude for the long haul, the marathon, that this surely will be?  We have no idea, and won’t know the answer for some time.  But they took a first bold step today, and they think they can win.  And that may be all the difference.  May they teach their parents well.

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The Pugilists

Ah God.  The ‘tester.’  At least that is one of the sides of You we meet in the Torah.  Testing  Abraham, and testing the people as well.  Why the test, what exactly the test is, what it is supposed to measure, these things are not clear.  But that there is a test, or tests, that is something the text tells us explicitly.  “And it was after these things that God tested Abraham.”  “For God has come only to test you…”  “In order to test you by hardships…” “…that I may thus test them, to see whether they will follow my instruction or not.”  Perhaps we don’t even need the explicit textual references, because we are all tested, at one time or another, in our own experiences, our own lives, our own doubts and fears.

I feel sometimes like we are two old and weary wrestlers, You and I.  Theological pugilists.  Warily circling the ring, eyeing one another suspiciously, waiting for one or the other to blink, to turn away, maybe even to leave the ring entirely.  Bruised and battered. It is a kind of contest of wills and also perhaps a continual test of patience.  Still here, I see.  Ready for another round?  But those words are spoken (or thought?) with a tired resignation.  Yes still here, but not necessarily sure why.

There is a heartbreaking story in the Talmud of four rabbis who entered a testing-ground of faith.  The text uses a forest as the metaphor for the place of trial, but what exactly the test is is not clear.  Some say the rabbis gave up on God after living through the terrors of the Roman persecutions.  Others explain the forest as a symbol of forbidden knowledge, of what can happen when we let the mind wander to a place where it cannot find its way back.  Whatever the forest represents, it is clear it is a place of theological danger and existential psychological struggle.  Three of the rabbis are destroyed during their journey.  But one rabbi – the famous Akiva – emerges whole.

How to be Akiva?  That is, perhaps, the question.  How to find one’s way through the dark groves and overgrown thickets, the thickly woven branches and fading leaves to once again emerge into the light?  No easy task, and one certainly worthy of despair.  And yet what You dangle before us.  The rising sun in the morning, the full moon and clear stars at night.  The promise of a new day.  The love of family and friends.  The sudden hope that springs unbidden and unexpected into our hearts.  The moments of joy that touch our souls.

Is it time for another round?  Give me a moment or two, and I will be there.

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