Monthly Archives: December 2018

A Week in the Life

Some of what I’ve seen this week:

A four month old baby nestling in the lap of his 90 year old great-grandmother.  His head fit perfectly into the crook of her right arm.  It was a celebration of his naming and conversion (he had been to the mikveh earlier in the day), and also of her special birthday.  The entire family was gathered around.  The children, now in their late sixties, the grandchildren creeping close to their forties, the great-grandchildren, ranging from 10 or so all the way down to this newest addition.  His eyes were bright and wide as he took in his surroundings, his cousins, the generations of his family.  She radiated joy, even tough life was not easy, even though she was mostly wheelchair bound, even though …

But what is a day like that, a moment like that, a family like that, worth?  Maybe the answer is this:  everything.

 

A seventy year old man got up to eulogize his mother.  She died at 94, after a long, good, and full life.  She had seen the birth of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, had been blessed with good health well into her 90s, had lived with a sense of joy and gratitude.  Truly a good life, a life to celebrate.

He spoke simply and clearly, related a story or two, talked about characteristics and qualities, laughed a bit.  And then cried.  Even when you are 70 and your mother is 94, even when the life was good and long, even when there is so much to be grateful for, a loss is a loss, and your mother is your mother, and the one who brought you into the world is no longer there for you, as she always was.  The grief is real, and the pain is deep, and the heart is torn and needs time to mend and heal and feel grateful again.

 

A man in his 80s has been fighting an insidious disease for a long time.  I visit him every few months, to check in, to catch up, maybe to lighten his spirit just a bit.

His independence is slowly but surely eroding.  From living alone to living in a supported living environment, from being able to walk with a walker to riding in a motorized wheelchair, to now needing to be pushed everywhere.  His mind is sharp, he watches it happen, bit by bit, day by day.

He fights with great strength of spirit and even greater dignity.  He smiles and jokes, he goes about his day in the best way he can, he gets up each morning, gets dressed, mindless tasks for us, monumental tasks for him.

We chat about the stock market (oy!), the Ravens (he is a fan and anticipating this weekend’s game), and most of all about his family.  He plans for the future, thinks about how he can improve his life, and finds within himself the grit and determination to do so.

The morning blessings we recite each day remind us to be grateful for the ability to stand, to move, to stretch, to dress, to rise from bed, to welcome the morning’s first light.

Life, too, can remind us of how grateful we should be for each and every day.

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, Jewish life, liminal moments, mindfulness, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, the rabbinate, Uncategorized

Earthrise

A text version of my sermon from Shabbat (12/22/18):

     Some of you will remember that it was fifty years ago this weekend when the Apollo 8 space mission was making its way towards the moon.  The flight launched on December 21st 1968 – fifty years ago yesterday – and lasted for 6 days.  It was manned by three astronauts – Jim Lovell, Bill Anders, and Frank Borman – and was the second manned Apollo flight and the first to actually reach the moon’s orbit.  After circling the moon 10 times on December 24th and 25th, the astronauts set a course for Earth, and returned home on December 27, splashing down in the northern Pacific Ocean.

     The spirit of the mission, what it meant to Americans, and to people everywhere, was captured in a spectacular photograph taken by Bill Anders that would come to be known as Earthrise.  The photo shows a fragile and delicate – and also indescribably beautiful – blue and white sphere, half shrouded in darkness, and set in the deep blackness of infinite space, hovering in the distance over the stark white surface of the moon.  No one knew it at the time, but that photograph would become one of the most iconic images in the history of human kind.  

     The great irony in that moment is that in one of the greatest accomplishments of human history, manned space flight, with all of its technology, human ingenuity, its illustration of our ability to master the world around us – in the midst of all of that human greatness and achievement, we rediscovered our sense of how ultimately small we really are.  To see the Earth from that distance and perspective is to immediately understand that we live on just one tiny planet orbiting an ordinary star in a medium sized galaxy in an incredibly vast universe.  

     Fifty years ago that Earthrise photograph created what I call a ‘Grand Canyon’ moment for millions and millions of people.  That is the moment when you stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon, looking out over its vastness, and you suddenly realize – or maybe it is better to say you feel – that you are an infinitesimal part of a world, and a universe, that is vast beyond imagining.  It is what people feel when they enter some of the great European medieval churches, with their towering ceilings, or walk through a redwood forest, the enormous and ancient trees rising and rising into the distance of the sky.  This is the feeling captured by the Psalmist in Psalm 8:  “When I see your Heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars that You set in place, what am I that You, God, are mindful of me; a mere human being, yet you take note of my life.” (my own translation with a bit of paraphrasing)  It is precisely the greatness and beauty of God’s world and the infinite vastness of God’s universe that reminds us of our mortality and our limits and also, I would argue, of our humanity.

     The Book of Genesis that we finished reading this morning, for the most part, does not work on that grand scale that the Psalmist was writing about.  Instead, Genesis tells stories of intimacy and immediacy, of husbands and wives and parents and children, often during critical moments of their lives.  It describes Abraham and Sarah in the bedroom, talking about the fate of Hagar.  Or the private conversation between Jacob and his mother Rebecca about how to deceive Isaac.  We read in Genesis about Abraham and Isaac, alone, just father and son, walking to the top of Mount Moriah, and the few words that they share in that journey.  This morning’s portion, the last in Genesis, is also filled with intimate moments.  Jacob in his old age blesses his grandsons Efraim and Menasheh, drawing them close, kissing them, hugging them, placing his hands on their heads and tousling their hair, whispering over them a blessing.  And later in the portion we are flies on the wall of the bedroom where Jacob is dying, surrounded by his sons, as he gives each of them a last message that he hopes they will carry with them after he is gone.  

     These are human moments that we all can recognize from our own lives, moments of touching and talking, of whispered hopes and private expressions of fear and doubt.  Next week when we begin reading the Book of Exodus the Torah will leave those intimate moments behind, but in Genesis they are the primary focus as we learn about the lives of the patriarchs and matriarchs.  

     There is of course one glaring exception to that sense of intimacy that Genesis focuses on, and that is?  The creation story, told in the first two chapters.  There God works on a cosmic scale, bringing the universe into being out of chaos, dividing up the waters and the lands, establishing the Heavens, putting into the sky the sun, the moon, and the stars.  I’ve always believed that the Torah begins that way because it wants us to understand that the God we are in relationship with, the God Who called to Abraham and Sarah, the God we prayed to this morning, the God we thanked for two long and loving marriages, the God we asked to heal our loved ones – that God is the Creator of all things.  And one of the great mysteries that Judaism explores is the idea that that cosmic, universal Creator can somehow be in relationship with us as small as we are, and can take note of and care about our lives.

      Fifty years ago on that Apollo 8 mission NASA arranged for the three astronauts to make a live broadcast to earth on that December 24th evening, a night observed in the Christian community as Christmas Eve.  When the crew asked what they should do for that broadcast they were told ‘just anything you feel is appropriate.’  One of the Astronauts brought a Bible, and in the course of the broadcast, as they crew circled the moon, with that spectacular view of earth captured in the photograph that would be called ‘Earthrise’, the crew took turns reading the first 10 verses of the Book of Genesis. 

     The last verse they read – they 10th – is as follows:  ויקרא אלוקים ליבשה ארץ ולמקוה המים קרא ימים וירא אלוקים כי טוב – And God called the dry land – Earth – and the gathering of waters, God called seas.  And God saw that this was good.

So it was.  So it is.  So may it always be.earthrise

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Winter Reading

As the nights get longer and the days colder one might be tempted to spend time on the couch or in a favorite chair, sipping tea (or perhaps brandy, or whisky!*), and reading.  Here are a few suggestions for winter reading as we usher out 2018 and welcome in a new year:

The Western Wind, by Samantha Harvey – This short novel (294 pages) describes in colorful detail life in the medieval village of Oakham during four days in February of 1491.  The village priest, John Reve, is the story’s main protagonist.  Part theologian, part pastor, part Sherlock Holmes, he struggles to understand how the body of a villager ended up in the river, drowned.  Fate or misfortune?  A Divine Decree fulfilled or a human plot gone awry?  The author’s beautiful prose will lead you backwards in time towards the answer to this delightful mystery.

These Truths, A History of the United States, by Jill Lepore – Critics have called this one volume (932 pages) history of the United States a ‘masterpiece.’  Lepore, a professor of American History at Harvard, analyzes key moments in the history of our nation, and ultimately creates a lens we can use to contextualize our current troubled and divisive times.    George Harrison, in his song Any Road (paraphrasing Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland) includes the lyric ‘if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.’  Lepore’s point is exactly the opposite – it is by knowing where we’ve come from that we understand where we are, and gain insight into where we should be going.

And last, but buy no means least:

The Death of Truth, by Michiko Kakutani – This series of short essays explores the way truth has historically been both understood and manipulated.  Read together, the chapters provide a devastating critique of the Trump administration’s attempt to reshape   how Americans understand what is real and what is not, and where actual truth resides.

*May I suggest a dram of Lagavulin 16 as the perfect match for a cold night, a warm blanket, and a good book.

And enjoy the reading!!

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, books, civil rights, history, politics, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Uncategorized, winter reading

A Dog’s Festival of Lights

He came every evening during the eight days of Hanukkah to the foyer for the lighting of our menorah.  It didn’t matter what he was doing, how snug and comfortable he might have been, or even if he was sleeping soundly.  He clearly understood it as his responsibility, his job as it were, just like we go off to our offices in the morning sipping our coffee cups, driving in the chilly early mornings and sleepily adjusting the radio, waiting for the heat to come on.  And, as he always has, he took that responsibility seriously.  We didn’t call him or rouse him from his bed.  As dogs do, he somehow just knew  that the time had arrived – and just as we finished placing the last candle and prepared to light the shamash he would appear, stretching his front paws, yawning, sniffing, finding a comfortable spot from which to watch the proceedings.

And he participated!  He often joined in as we chanted the blessings, his barking or yowling blending in with our own voices.  He didn’t pay all that much attention to the candles themselves, maybe a sniff or two in their direction, the acrid smell of the just extinguished match warning him to keep his distance.  But he was fully engaged, and after each lighting expected some belly or ear scratching, positioning himself in that way that dogs do to let you know it is time for a good scratch or two.

Maybe there was some classical conditioning involved, maybe some association had formed in his canine brain between that Hanukkah ritual and his dinner being served, or a treat that once or twice was offered post lighting.  Maybe it was that latke he oh-so-stealthily managed to steal.  That must have been right around the time we were lighting the candles?  But I think it was more than that.  There is a certain sense of loyalty to it, a clear commitment to the family, to his humans, to be there and to watch the goings on, to show up, and to do it every single time.  When the door opens and you come in from the garage, there he is, steadfastly wagging his nub.  When we sit down to dinner he settles in the same place to join us, even if he’s eaten, even when he was soundly and comfortably sleeping in another room entirely.  He lies at my feet when I work at the computer at the dining room table, often arranging his head between the legs of my chair.  He sagely scans the front yard and the street, and the  yards beyond, for threats real or imagined that he will warn us about with a stout and sometimes urgent barking.  When the basement TV goes on he is there within seconds, anxious to settle into his customary place on the couch, snuggled in between us.

I think it was Woody Allen who said 80% of life is showing up.  We humans often struggle with that 80%.  We come late, we forget, we are lazy and don’t want to go out, there are a million and one reasons why we don’t show up for this obligation or that event, why we constantly cancel and reschedule and reschedule again.  Perhaps there is something to be learned from a dog’s unfailing loyalty and devotion, the sheer determination to do what he must, to be there and to offer his support or presence, to let us know with his softly questioning eyes that he wouldn’t have it any other way.IMG_0145

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Hanukkah’s Hypocrisy?

This is a text version of my sermon from the Shabbat of Hanukkah, 12/8/18 –

     There has been a bit of a hullabaloo in the Jewish community over the last few days about an op-ed article that appeared in the NY Times last Sunday, just on the eve of Hanukkah.  The title of the article was ‘the Hypocrisy of Hanukkah,’ in and of itself provocative, like any good title, and enough to get you to read further.  The author, Michael David Lucas, claimed that in contemporary times the celebration of Hanukkah has become hypocritical.  Why? Because most of the Jews who gather to light their menorahs during the 8 days are secular, but the real story of Hanukkah – he says – is a story of religious zealots – the Maccabees – fighting to impose their religious worldview against Jews who were secular and assimilating into Greek culture.  So the author argues that the Maccabees would not have accepted the secular lifestyle of most of us who celebrate the Hanukkah today.   

     Obviously this is not the understanding of Hanukkah that you learn about in Hebrew school.  The story of Hanukkah that we tell our children and grandchildren has nothing to do with an internal Jewish struggle.  Instead, it is a story of right versus might, of a small and relatively weak people rising up against one of the most powerful armies in the ancient world, and somehow defeating it.  It is a story of freedom and the triumph of the human spirit, of what people can accomplish when they come together and fight for a cause they believe in.  The story of the Maccabees has also been a point of pride for Jews for more than 2,000 years, an example of the strength of the Jewish will to survive, and the loyalty and dedication of Jews to their tradition and heritage.

     Which I think is precisely why this article has been so controversial.  The story of Hanukkah that I just summarized is the one we all grew up on, the one we’ve believed in our entire lives, and when someone challenges that story, or even tries to take it away from us, we get upset and angry, and we push back.  A number of you have asked me about the article, emailed me, called me, or actually in Shirley’s case brought the article in to show me, and I can tell that you are feeling a bit perplexed.  So let me try to clear it all up a bit if I can in the few minutes I have this morning.  I am not sure whether I’ll leave you feeling better, worse, or the same, but I suppose you’ll let me know.

     The first thing I would say is that the author is a little bit right, and a little bit wrong.  And he is a little bit right and a little bit wrong about a couple of different things.  He is right in that we do know there was an internal Jewish battle that was going on in the year 165 BCE, the time that the events of Hanukkah took place.  Ancient Israel was controlled by the Assyrians who had adopted Greek culture, and many Jews had become Hellenized – that is to say, they were more and more thinking and acting like Greeks.  In other words, many Jews at the time were what we would call today ‘secular’ Jews.  And there was tension between those secular Jews, who were comfortable assimilating and living more modern lives, and the Maccabees, who did argue for a strict and traditional adherence to Jewish law.  That is all true.

     But the Times article is wrong in assuming that the primary struggle was a Jew against Jew struggle.  There is no question that the real enemy the Maccabees were battling was the Assyrian army, and there must have been some kind of consensus in the broader Jewish community at the time that that was a struggle worth waging.  Why? Because it is impossible to imagine that the Maccabees by themselves, without the support of their fellow Jews, could have accomplished what they did.  So it is odd, to say the least, that the article in the Times barely mentions the Maccabees’ defeat of the Assyrian army.  As Lincoln famously once said, there are things you can prove by telling part of the truth that you can’t prove by telling all of the truth.  And that is one area where the article misses the mark.

     I would argue that the other is in the article’s misunderstanding of what it means to be a secular Jew.  And the author of the article – in a way pokes fun at himself and his own Judaism – his own discomfort with being Jewish – and by doing that he diminishes the role of the so called secular Jew, both today and historically, in terms of Jewish community and Jewish continuity. 

     Because of the way he described himself, I would say it is highly unlikely that that author of the article is sitting in shul this morning.  Which is a shame, because it would be a good thing for him to spend some time thinking about the Joseph narrative that we reading from the Torah right now.  He might be surprised to realize that Joseph is without question two things:  one, the person who enables and ensures Jewish continuity for his time.  It is the foothold that he has established in Egypt that gives him the power to ultimately bring the rest of his family there, to feed them and give them shelter, so that they will survive through the terrible famine afflicting the ancient near East at that time.  You can very plausibly make the argument were it not for Joseph, Jacob’s family would not have survived, and Judaism might have ended right there.

     But the other thing about Joseph that would surprise the Times author is that Joseph is the most secular Jew in the entire Torah.  It isn’t even close!  Joseph is so secular – he has become so Egyptian – that his own brothers can’t even recognize him, because he is wearing Egyptian clothes, he has completely adopted Egyptian culture, and he is speaking Egyptian like a native.  It is not a stretch to say that Joseph – one of the great figures of the Bible – one of the great heroes of Judaism – is just as secular as anyone sitting in this room this morning, and probably more secular than many of us!

     But being secular doesn’t mean that your Judaism isn’t important to you.  Being secular doesn’t mean that you haven’t been lighting Hanukkah candles each night, or that you don’t go to a Passover seder or come to synagogue on the HHDs, or care about Israel, or donate to Jewish causes, or enroll your children in Hebrew school so they can become Jewishly literate and educated.  So called ‘secular’ Jews do all of those things, and because they do them Jewish continuity and Jewish life are assured for a next generation, and a next, and a next.

     This is not to say that we don’t need our Judah Maccabees, our religious zealots.  We do, and it goes without saying they have an important role to play in Jewish life.  That is part of what Hanukkah reminds us of, and celebrates.  But I don’t think it is a coincidence that every year when we are celebrating Hanukkah and remembering the Maccabees, we are reading about Joseph from the Torah, Joseph the great secular Jew.  

     Few of us can be Maccabees – I know I certainly can’t.  But all of us have a chance to be a Joseph.  And when we are proud of our Judaism, when we care about Jewish community, when we play a part in ensuring Jewish continuity, we are walking in his footsteps.  And I don’t know about you, but for my feet those shoes feel pretty comfortable.  חג שמח ושבת שלום!

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Filed under American Jewry, assimilation, Beth El Congregation, Bible, continuity, Jewish life, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, religious fundamentalism, sermon, Uncategorized

A Shifting Ground

Almost right under your feet, and you may not even realize it.  A recent NY Times Book Review issue dedicated its core article to the changing conditions and dynamics of America’s Jewish community.  ‘God is in the Crowd,’ ‘the Jewish American Paradox,’ ‘ ‘The New American Judaism’ – these are a few of the books reviewed in the article, itself tellingly entitled ‘Lamentations.’ (see the NY Times Book Review from November 18th)

Lamentations is of course the name of the biblical book traditionally chanted on Tisha B’Av, the annual commemoration of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples in ancient times.  It is a book about, in a narrow sense, the destruction of a Jewish city, Jerusalem.  But in a larger sense the Book of Lamentations is about the destruction of an entire Jewish community, even a Jewish way of life.  Once the Temple was gone the foundation of Jewish living and religious observance no longer existed.  The Jews at that time (the second Temple destruction occurred in 70 CE) were forced to entirely reinvent themselves, their culture, and their religious life.  Temple rituals were shifted and reflected symbolically in synagogue and home observance.  Study and prayer replaced animal sacrifice.  The rabbi became the central focus of Jewish life, and the role of the Priest began to diminish.  Over time Rabbinic Judaism emerged from the ashes of the Israelite sacrificial cult and Temple-centric worship.  As the process unfolded it was at times torturous, certainly filled with lamentation.  But when it was all said and done, we had become ‘rabbinic’ Jews, following the system of law the talmudic rabbis established some two thousand years ago.  And to this day, that system has defined Jewish life.

What the ‘Lamentations’ article seems to suggest is that the era of Rabbinic Judaism may finally be coming to an end.  We are living, some have suggested, in a ‘post-halachic’ (post Jewish legal system) age.  Understandings of religious life are changing rapidly, particularly for young Jews.  Ideas of traditional Jewish structures like synagogue affiliation, bar and bat mitzvah, worship, and holiday and Shabbat observance are shifting, and in some cases even being discarded.  Recent surveys suggest that today’s Jews identify ethnically, more as lox and bagel and Jerry Seinfeld Jews, as opposed to Jews who define themselves through a religious lens.  Pick your catchy phrase.  This is not your father’s synagogue/Judaism comes quickly to mind.  Perhaps even better, however:  we aren’t in Kansas anymore!

Traditional Jewish institutions are rushing to catch up.  The bar and bat mitzvah ritual is being reimagined, in some cases not even involving reading from the Torah.  So called ‘spiritual centers’ are springing up in synagogues from coast to coast, dressing up modern self improvement programs like yoga or meditation with a Jewish flavor.  Synagogues are becoming cultural centers, hosting music programs, adult education classes, cooking and bridge playing classes and movie nights.  Some of this is Jewishly oriented, some of it is entirely secular, some of it is somewhere in between.  All of it is an attempt, in one way or another, to cope with the shifting Jewish landscape of modern America.

The million dollar question, of course, is will it work?  The answer is, we don’t know.  We may, for a time, convince Jews to keep coming into the synagogue, if not to sit in services and listen to the rabbi’s sermon, at least to learn to play bridge.  But long term will this new kind of Jewish connection enable the Jewish community to retain a sense of distinct identity and to live meaningfully through Judaism?  After all, not everyone even likes lox, if you understand my meaning.

Of course the challenge is to have our cake and eat it too.  In an ideal world we would entice people into the building to meditate or learn to play bridge, and then figure out a way to connect them to Jewish life so they’ll end up more knowledgeable and practicing Jews.  Certainly Jews can meditate and also study Talmud, or play bridge on Thursdays and come to services Shabbat mornings.  Whether they will or not is something we are about to find out.

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Not by Might

There will be close to one thousand Jews gathering tonight at my congregation to light a menorah, nosh on some typical Hanukkah fair, and watch fireworks (what could be more appropriate for the Festival of Lights?!).  We share this evening with another congregation just a stone’s throw away, and over the last few years it has developed into a much anticipated communal celebration of the holiday.

It is true, it can be a bit of a ‘ballagan,’ a crazy scene.  Imagine 1,000 Jews trying to make their way to a few tables piled high with latkes and you’ll have the picture.  To paraphrase Woody Allen, it is sort of like kiddish after Shabbat  services, only more so.  Bu despite the logistical challenges, despite the crowds, despite the difficulties in terms of parking, people come, and they truly seem to enjoy the evening.

I wonder why?

Certainly it is a striking Jewish identity moment for everyone.  Simply stated, there is a power to numbers.  Lighting a menorah at home with your family can feel like a sacred moment.  But lighting a menorah with a thousand people, everyone chanting the blessings, all those voices raised together enacting a ritual that is two thousand years old, that experience has its own particular power.  You know you are part of something significant, something serious, something that others – many others – feel is worthwhile.  The experience also connects in well with the theme of the holiday, namely that Jews can be powerful and can control their own destiny.  That is something Jews in America rarely celebrate in such a public way.  The experience is connective in an ethnic kind of way, even a bit tribal in feel.

There is also the light of the menorah.  Maybe it doesn’t mean what it once did.  After all, in our day and age we can turn lights off and on with ease, flicking a switch, or even just speaking a word to our ‘smart’ bulbs.  But there is something about real flame, something ancient and almost arcane, magical and mystical.  We gather around as the candles are lit and the flames flicker, insistently pushing back against the darkness during some of the darkest and longest nights of the entire year.  The light of Hanukkah is a light of the spirit, the flame  bringing us back to an earlier time when our ancestors gathered around their camp fires to listen to stories of hope and fate and God.

On the Shabbat of Hanukkah we read the words of the prophet Zechariah in the text of the haftara:  “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, said he Lord of Hosts.”  It is the light of that spirit that Hanukkah still brings into our lives – and our world – today.

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