Monthly Archives: July 2018

What Did You Say?

Some thoughts about talking and listening from my Shabbat sermon on 7/28.

 Among my favorite phrases in the prayer book is a tiny, two word phrase that can be found – at least in a traditional siddur – at the beginning of every amidah.  The words are not part of an actual prayer –  instead, they are an instruction, like in some prayer books where it will say ‘take three steps back,’ or ‘bend and bow.’  The phrase, in Hebrew, is תפילה בלחש – literally translated, a ‘whisper prayer.’  

     Over the years the way we understand that instruction has changed, in some ways dramatically.  In our community we commonly say ‘we’ll continue silently’, or ‘we will continue with silent prayer,’ but a whisper is clearly not silent – it is quiet, but it is heard, it is audible.  And the original intention of the instruction was not that we should be silent, but instead that even when we are praying privately we should be talking – whispering, yes – but still, talking out loud.

     And the reason I love that phrase in the prayer book is because it so accurately reflects who we are as Jews.  We are inveterate talkers.  There is a young woman who recently began studying with me for conversion, and she comes from a Catholic background.  As part of the conversion process I have asked her to attend synagogue with some regularity, and a few weeks ago she went for the very first time, never having been in a shul before.  We met a few days later, and I asked her what she thought of the experience.  She hesitated for a few moments before she said ‘it was amazing to me that everyone talked through the service!’  She was used to a Catholic mass, where the parishioners sit quietly, reflecting in silence until they are called upon to participate in the liturgy.  But she walked into a shul!  There were a couple of guys kibitzing in the back about the Orioles.  There were people right in the middle of the congregation having a conversation about the weather.  And the talking continued throughout, waxing and waning, some areas got a bit quieter while others got louder, but it never stopped.  Even up on the bimah people were talking while the service was going on! 

     You would never see that in most Christian services, but that is what we Jews do.  It sometimes seems like we never stop talking.  There are many times when I’ve been at Levinsons and the doors open to the chapel for the family to walk out, and there is a loud hubbub of conversation, which takes a moment or two to die down – after all, people have to finish their sentences.  Mind you this is after the funeral director has been out and asked people to be quiet.  We talk during meetings – how many times have you been at a meeting for a Jewish organization and you realize there are multiple conversations going on all at the same time about a variety of topics?  We talk while we eat.  When we read the newspaper we spend half the time reading articles out loud to our spouses.  We are story tellers and kibitzers, in fact we even are known for talking with our hands, in reality an organ that cannot speak.  

     There is something hamaisch about all of that talking.  It is connective, there is a vibrancy to it, and a sense of community and closeness.  But I do worry sometimes that with all of the talking that goes on, what can sometimes suffer is listening.  After all, it is hard to listen when you are talking.  And if Jews are very good at talking, I am not sure we are all that good at listening.  So it is interesting to me that the Shema Yiisrael has become the best known prayer in our tradition.  After all, think for a moment what it means – ‘Hear O Israel’ is our normal translation.  But you could just as easily and accurately translate those words as ‘Listen Israel!’

     Now who is the speaker of those words?  It is Moses.  The Book of Deuteronomy is essentially one long speech that Moses gives to the Israelites.  The Hebrew word ‘shema’ is not actually all that common in the Torah.  In the Book of Leviticus, for example, it appears only 6 times.  But here in Deuteronomy, in the course of Moses’ long speech, he uses the word שמע 92 times.  And in our Torah portion, in the verses that lead up to the Shema Israel verse itself, Moses uses the word שמע 9 times.  We might say the more things change, the more they stay the same.  You almost get the feeling that Moses is speaking, and while he is trying to get his message across the Israelites are kibitzing, and this one is talking to that one over there, and that one is talking to this one over here  – just like shul!  And finally, Moses has to pause in his remarks, and say ‘Hey, listen up!  I am speaking over here!  This is important!  Shema Yisrael!’

     The truth is the root for the Hebrew word shema – the ש מ ע – has multiple meanings in the Bible.  Sometimes it is used in the plainest sense of the word – it just means to listen, to literally hear something that is being said.  Other times it is clearly intended to imply not just listening but also comprehension and understanding.  ‘I have heard’ means ‘I understand.’  And sometimes the Bible uses the word shema to mean obey, in the sense of I have heard you means I will do what you say.  It is a nuanced word, and when we say Shema Israel in the course of our services the intention of the liturgy is for us to have a sense of all of those meanings.  Again, our regular translation of the phrase ‘Shema Yisrael’ is Hear O Israel!  But a better translation might be something like this:  “Listen and concentrate.  Give the word of God your focused attention and strive to understand what this is all about.  Discern God’s will, and be prepared to abide by it.”

     But of course for any of that to be successful the talking has to stop, at least for a few moments here and there.  So we can hear each other, not just what we are saying, but what we mean.  And so we can give ourselves the opportunity to hear, to sense, to understand, to comprehend, what God’s will might be, and from that to decide how we will respond.  I don’t know of any other faith tradition that has a prayer like the Shema.  Normally when we think of prayer we think of saying something to God, of reaching out and trying to communicate with the Divine.  But the Shema is not directed at God in any way.  It is instead directed at us, Am Yisrael, the Jewish people.  It reminds us to study God’s word, to abide by God’s commandments, and to teach God’s traditions to our children.  And it reminds us that in order to do all of that, and to do it well, we must sometimes stop the talking, and simply listen.

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A Retired Tallit

It was purchased just before my bar mitzvah, now 41 years ago.  I wore it proudly that day, one of the few bar mitzvah boys in the temple I grew up in to wear a prayer shawl the morning of my service.  In those days traditional practices like that were frowned upon in the Reform Movement.  But those very same practices fascinated me.  It seemed to me it smacked of something – tradition?  Authenticity?  Some ancient mysticism?  Whatever it was, I remember to this day the feeling as my rabbi helped to drape the tallit over my shoulders.

Who could have known at the time how often that prayer shawl would be worn?  At first it was just the occasional holiday service, when I would take it off the shelf where I kept it, carefully folded in its blue velvet bag.  But in my twenties it became a daily companion.  I had another tallit, a large, multicolored, gorgeous wool shawl that covered my entire six foot frame.  But that I used mostly on Shabbat and holidays.  In terms of my daily davening I used my bar mitzvah tallit.  It was relatively small, easy to store and fold, took up very little room in a suitcase when I traveled.  Each morning I would reach for it, unzip its bag and remove it, unfolding it.  After reciting the requisite blessing I kissed the edges of its atarah, and then briefly held the shawl over my head before letting it fall into place.

This ritual – for so it must be called! – was repeated over and over again, day after day, week after week, year after year.  I guess it would now be close to thirty years that the old tallit has served me so faithfully.  I often wondered if it somehow knew the inner workings of my heart?  I put it on on bad days and good ones.  Sometimes when it rested on me I was filled with sadness, other times with profound gratitude.  There were weary mornings after nights with little sleep, and bleary eyed I would still take the tallit from its bag, still say the blessing, still wear it for the brief moments of my morning prayers.  I wore it when doubts nagged at me, even when it seemed there was no reason to wear it, or perhaps even a reason not to.

As time went by the blue bag faded, the zipper no longer worked, the bag’s yellow lining was torn and threadbare.  The tallit itself suffered from the constant folding and unfolding, its creases wearing until finally holes began to appear.   Still I used it, perhaps folding it more gingerly, but not reducing its daily workload.  The tallit had been with me for thirty years, in LA and Boston, in New York and Jerusalem, in dozens of other cities we’ve visited and places we’ve stayed.  And remember, that formative and transformational moment, that bar mitzvah morning.

It was just a few weeks ago when I finally realized the holes were getting too large, and before long the tallit would just begin to fall apart.  I used it one last time, one last time taking it from its bag, one last time saying the ancient words with its barely noticeable weight on my shoulders, one last time carefully folding it and putting it away. Maybe it understood, somehow sensing that it could finally rest.  It had done its job well, always there for me, guiding me from the wide eyed bar mitzvah boy of over forty years ago to the rabbi and middle aged man of today.  One day I may bury it with honor in the cemetery, in the geniza grave with the other talleisim and prayer books and old humashim.  But for now it will sit on my shelf, in its old place, as it ever was.  There is now a new tallit there as well, and I’d like the two to get to know one another for a time.

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Hevruta

Here is a text version of my sermon from 7/14/18 –

     I would like to tell you a tale this morning of two rabbinical students, who entered the rabbinical program at the Jewish Theological Seminary in the same year.  They had never met before, and came from very different backgrounds, but they quickly became friends, sharing a number of common interests, among them the Grateful Dead and good beer.  Before long they were not only friends, but also they were a hevruta, they were study partners.

     In the traditional world of Jewish text study your hevruta becomes your closest companion.  You spend an inordinate amount of time with your study partner tackling difficult texts, and the dynamic of the relationship is supposed to be one of prodding and pushing the other, of challenging the other’s interpretation of a given text, of using your partner to test ideas and to explore concepts.  To do this you must trust the other person, because you must also make yourself vulnerable.  That is to say you must at times be willing to acknowledge the limits of your own intellectual ability, you must also be willing to admit sometimes before someone else that you don’t know the answer, something that generally rabbis don’t like to admit.

     Over time, the relationship – the hevruta – either works or it doesn’t.  If it doesn’t work, it breaks apart.  But if it does work, the study partners become very close, through the shared time, the intellectual exploration, and coming to know one another in a deep way.  And so it was for me – I imagine you’ve already guessed I am one of the students in this story – and my hevruta, my rabbinical school study partner.  In fact depending on whether you ask me, Becky, or my study partner, our son Josh is named for my rabbinical school hevruta.  

     But as it has to happen in all the great tales, there was a parting of the ways.  This did not happen because we fell out of favor.  It did not happen because we grew distant from one another – in fact we are close to this very day.  It happened because at some point during our third year of rabbinical school my study partner Josh decided to make aliyah, to move to Israel and become an Israeli citizen, and Becky and I decided to return home, to the States.  Josh ultimately left rabbinical school and pursued an academic career, while I continued on the rabbinic track, and am now twenty one years into my pulpit career.

     Now that I’ve taught you the term hevruta – which means?  study partner! – I want to teach you another term – bar plugta.  Your bar plugta is the person with whom you often disagree, and it is not uncommon that your hevruta is at times your bar plugta – that your study partner is often the intellectual thorn in your argument, or in the way you understand something about the world.  And so it was with me and with Josh about Israel.  He made aliyah from a deep belief that there is only one place on the earth that a Jew can fully live as a Jew, and that there is only one place on the earth where the Jewish people can fully realize their destiny – and that place is?  the land of Israel, Eretz Yisrael.

     But I returned from Israel to the States with a deep belief that my Jewish life would be most meaningfully lived here in the Diaspora, and what is more, that a healthy and vibrant diasporic Jewish community is important for the Jewish people, and for the land of Israel itself.  And what is curious is that now 23 years after Josh decided to stay in Israel and Becky and I came back to the States, I think we are both right.  In other words, there is something to be said for Josh’s position – more and more the destiny of the Jewish people as a nation is being played out in the land of Israel, and those of us who live in the Diaspora are in many ways observers of that great saga.  Not that we don’t love Israel, not that we don’t follow events there closely, not that we don’ travel there and send our children and grandchildren there – we do all of that.  But what we do not do is live there.

     On the other hand, as the years have gone by, I have been more and more convinced of the need for a healthy Jewish community outside the land of Israel.  You may have noticed an odd narrative that appears in this morning’s double Torah portion Matot -Ma’aseh.  It is curious because for forty years now the Israelites have wandered in the wilderness with one goal in mind – which is?  To make it to the promised land.  And now here they are, just on the other edge of the Jordan River, just about to cross over into that land.  And suddenly – as if out of nowhere – the leaders of two tribes – Gad and Reuben – come forward to ask Moses a question.  “Would it be OK,” they ask Moses, “if we don’t go into the land.  Would it be OK if we just stay here, on the east side of the river, outside the land that God has promised, and make our lives?  It is a good land,” they say, “So would you mind terribly if we don’t go into the land?”  Moses at first is not pleased with the request, but in the end, after some negotiation, he permits it.   And in that moment Moses establishes what for all intents and purposes is the very first diaspora Jewish community.  

     Why did Moses agree to do that?  He had worked his entire life to get the Israelites into the land, and just when that goal was about to be realized he backed off, at least for two of the tribes.  Why?

     To answer that question I would like to point your attention to a fanciful midrashic text that imagines that before Moses died God showed him the entire future of the Jewish people.  And if we set aside reason for a moment and take that textual idea to its logical conclusion, then Moses knew what a crucial role the Diaspora would play in Jewish life and Jewish history.  

     Moses knew, for example, that for 2000 years Jews would not have a homeland, and would need to figure out how to maintain their faith and their identity when those things were not tied to a specific place.  He knew that Jews would need the intellectual give and take of the larger world around them.  He knew, for example, that what would make Maimonides great one day would not be his knowledge of Jewish texts, that what would set Maimonides apart would be his knowledge of Greek philosophy and secular sciences.  Moses knew that one day there would be an Einstein, and that what would make Einstein Einstein would be his Jewish propensity to ask questions set against a secular scientific method that came from the non-Jewish world.  He knew what Judaism would give to the world, and he also knew what Judaism would need from the world.

     Perhaps Moses also knew that Israel would need both a hevruta and a bar plugta.  A study partner to support her, to be close to her, but also to push and prod her, to sometimes challenge her, even to respectfully disagree with her.  To live a Jewish life outside of the land, and so to see things through a Jewish lens but from a totally different perspective.  He knew that at times the Diaspora community would carry the Jewish torch, while at other times it would burn most brightly and beautifully in the land of Israel itself.   That one community would strengthen and support the other, and that the ethical and moral vision of Judaism could be lived in the land, but taken to many other lands.  So may it continue to be for many generations to come.

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Dog Years

Common wisdom has always taught that a year in a dog’s life is worth about seven years in the life of a human being.  A five year old dog is well into adulthood, 35 or so in ‘human’ years, a dog of 10 twice that age and 70.  A bit of research shows (one day we  won’t use the term ‘research’ anymore, we’ll just say ‘google’) that this calculation is not exactly accurate, although it holds fairly true.  Instead, dogs age more rapidly when they are young, and the process slows as they get older.  The first year or two of a dog’s life approximates the first 15 years a human is alive, while a dog who is 10 is considered to be in his or her mid-60s, just easing into retirement, so to speak.

That is just about where our venerable pooch is, turning 11 this September, in fact celebrating that milestone on the first day of Rosh Hashanah this year.  I was in my early forties when we got him, and at first his boundless energy practically overwhelmed us.  We were just emerging from a ‘child chasing’ phase, and here was this creature that did not stop moving, that tugged us through the neighborhood to the point where we could barely keep up.  His exuberance was exhausting!

But of course in a decade he has aged past us, as dogs must.  Lately I have felt like he is showing me the way, and I only hope I can remember the lessons.  With greying whiskers he sleeps a little later, and more often.  It used to be that he was waking us up in the morning, and now he often stays comfortably in bed when I come down to make the coffee, eying me warily while he contemplates his first walk of the day.  He gets up more slowly now, and it requires more effort.  He likes to look out the window before he goes out the door, as if to make sure there are no surprises waiting out there, something he never would have considered even five years ago.  He has taken to groaning as he settles into a resting position, almost saying under his breath ‘a kvetch here, a kvetch there, you know how it goes.’

Walks are often slow affairs now.  There are many pauses, breaks are taken, there is much lying down and rolling in the cool grass, one of his favorite pastimes on warm summer days.  There are occasional bursts of energy.  Garbage collection days (Tuesdays in our neighborhood) are exciting, because you just never know what you might find lying around on the curb!  He enjoys his friends, and his nub will wag vigorously when a playmate approaches.  He might dart and yelp excitedly, even briefly wrestle with a younger dog.  But the sprints are shorter, the wrestling bouts less intense, and he is often just as content to lie down and watch the goings on, just happy to be in the company of an old companion.  I often wonder if they somehow telepathically share old memories, hashing over the good times in the past – “How are you getting along old chap?  Do you remember that day we wrestled in the mud?!  What fun that was, what a beautiful spring that year!”

There is a wonderful word, one of my favorites, and rarely used these days – gloaming.  It means twilight, that indistinguishable moment when dusk settles in, and suddenly you are sure that day is about to end and night will surely follow.  It comes from the Old English and is of Germanic origin, originally with a connotation of ‘glow.’  There is after all that certain glow that lights the sky just before darkness, that lingers for just a moment or two on the rooftops and the tree leaves – it has a golden sheen, almost magical, soft and hazy and virtually imperceptible, yet unquestionably there, perhaps more sensed than seen – the gloaming.

That is where our dog now resides.  Not a bad place by any means, with long and languorous walks, frequent opportunities to explore the world around him, many chances to nestle next to one of his humans while a TV plays in the background or a guitar is gently strummed.  His stresses are few, his pleasures many, his accumulated wisdom always on display.  And the golden sheen softly but surely glows.

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Immigration Reflections

Following is a text version of my sermon from Shabbat services on 6/30/18 – some reflections about the current immigration debate –

     It has been a rough season for the Orioles, with poor play on the field and loss after loss piling up in the standings.  But this week, for a brief time, there was a ray of light on the field at Camden Yards.  Those of you who are still watching the games probably know that on Thursday afternoon the Os fell to the Seattle Mariners 4-2.  What you may not know, unless you tuned in to the game very early, is that the best moment of the afternoon happened before the game even started, with the singing of the National Anthem.

     A young man named Nicholas Nauman – 18 years old – was wheeled out onto the field by his mother in his wheel chair.  He has a host of serious challenges that he wrestles with every day, among them cerebral palsy and cortical vision impairment, which essentially means Nicholas is blind.  He was adopted from eastern Europe and raised by his parents in Maryland, and grew up rooting for the Orioles.  With his mother holding a microphone at his mouth, he leaned his head back in the wheel chair and sang the National Anthem.  When he finished singing the crowd burst into thunderous applause, the umpires came over and shook his hand, and a number of the players and staff from the teams came by to say hi and thank him.  

     It was a heart warming moment, and in many ways struck me as being quintessentially American.  It wasn’t just the setting – Camden Yards, still to this day one of the most beautiful ballparks in the Major Leagues.  It was the spirit of what happened on the field Tuesday afternoon.  The sense that we are all equal, all human, regardless of the severity of the challenges we face in life.  That we all deserve to be treated equally, and that we all deserve – again, regardless of the challenges we face – to have every opportunity to live our lives fully and with meaning, with the support not only of family and friends, but of the very society we call our home.

     Those are classic American values – freedom, opportunity, equality, and of course baseball.  As the young man sang the Stars and Stripes was waving gently in the breeze of a summer afternoon.  The crowd stood, many putting their hands over their hearts, doffing their caps, feeling a joined sense of identity and common purpose.  They all came together in one beautiful moment Thursday afternoon at the ballpark.  

     And it seems so odd to me – such an incongruity – that that moment happened in our present time.   That moment that was so much about our shared humanity, and the capacity we have to recognize in the struggle of our others our own story, and the sense we so often have that there but for the grace of God go I.  I guess maybe that is precisely why Nicholas’ singing of the National Anthem stood out so starkly in this dark and disturbing time.  

     I guess what seems so jarring to me is this:  how can we, on the one hand, as a nation, create that kind of moment – so beautiful, and pure, and uplifting – how can we create that on the one hand, while on the other hand we have been forcibly separating parents from children, or figuring out ways to close our doors to those who would wish to join with us in common purpose?  Which of these things reflects what America truly is?  Which of them reflects what and who we are, as Jews, as members of a community, as human beings?

     Perhaps the answer is that always we are some balance between those two poles.  That within our society – and within our selves – there is always the capacity to create that Camden Yards kind of moment – a sacred, uplifting, that celebrates our humanity.  But also, within our society and within ourselves, there is the capacity to create moments when we give in to fear of the other, when our baser instincts get the best of us, when we focus on what makes us different, not what makes us the same, and when we fail to live up to the promise of our tradition, our national values, or for that matter ourselves.  And sometimes, as Lincoln said it, the better angels of our nature prevail, and we find ourselves celebrating a young man who is somehow, almost miraculously able to sing our national anthem.  And other times we lose the battle, and we give in to our fear and paranoia, and we suddenly find that we have separated thousands of children from their parents.  

     I say ‘we’ because in a sense we are all responsible.  Rabbi Loeb would often say that there are sins of commission and sins of omission.  With sins of commission we participate in the wrong that is done.  With sins of omission we don’t lend a hand, we just look the other way.  But our tradition is crystal clear on this – whether we actually participate in what is wrong, whether we look the other way and pretend it is all fine, or whether we decide to speak out for what we know in our hearts to be true and right and just – what ever our decision, it is OUR decision and we alone are responsible.

     We read from the Torah this morning the sad tale of Bilaam the prophet, called upon by the Moabite King to curse the Israelites.  Three times Bilaam steps forward to utter those curses demanded by the King, and three times, instead of cursing the Israelites, he blesses them.  Tradition has long understood that Bilaam’s sudden reversals are caused by God.  That is to say, his true intention is to curse our people, but God forces him to bless them.

     But what if Bilaam’s blessings came about not because of an external force – God – but because of his own internal struggle.  That is to say, it wasn’t God that forced Bilaam to do the right thing.  Instead, in his own heart and soul he came to an understanding of what was right and what was wrong, he managed to conquer the fear and the suspicion of the Israelites that was driving him, and then he made a choice – HE made the choice.  Instead of cursing these foreigners, (he said to himself) instead of wishing them harm, I am going to bless them, because I see myself in who they are, I see in their struggle a struggle that I may have had, I see in their humanity my humanity, and also simply because it is the right thing to do.

     Please note, by the way, this is not an argument about who should or should not be allowed into the country.  It actually has nothing to do with that.  Bilaam does not invite the Israelites into Moab.  It is obvious that our immigration system needs a serious overhaul, and it goes without saying that there must be a system in place, and that it has to have restrictions and guidelines.  And the politicians will have to figure that out.

     But this argument is about something different – it is about how we treat people, whether we say yes or no to them.  Because how we treat them says a lot more about us than it does about them.  And in every case, in every interaction, we can choose to treat them with respect and dignity.  And when we don’t, it is our own respect and dignity and values that are diminished. 

     A moment like that young man’s singing of the national anthem reminds us all of what we aspire to be, as a nation, as a community, as individuals.  Let us choose that path, let us fulfill those aspirations, let us reaffirm those values, remembering that we are all children of God, whether wheel chair bound or walking free, whether black or white, whether stranger in a strange land, or long time resident.

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