Monthly Archives: October 2019

A Tribute to Rabbi Seymour Essrog

This a text version of my comments from Friday night, 10/25, at Adat Chaim, the Rabbi Seymour Essrog Memorial Lecture –

     Let me first thank Toby for the invitation to be here tonight, and the opportunity to share some thoughts with you and pay tribute to my friend of blessed memory, Rabbi Seymour Essrog.  Thank you also to Rabbi Seidler for his gracious hosting of this evening, and also a personal point of privilege, for all of the work he does at Sinai for the patients there, not only for the patients there, but for the rabbis in the community, always helping us to serve our congregants.

     I don’t think any of you are aware of this, but this is not the first time I’ve spoken here at Adat Chaim.  The first time was in the building on Cockeysmill Rd, and the date was October 18th 2002, 17 years ago almost exactly, the day that Seymour passed from this world to Olam Ha’Bah, to the world to come.  That was a Friday, and at Beth El we received a phone call from Adat Chaim in the late morning, telling us that Seymour was gone, but also asking us if we could help run the services that Friday night.  At the time I was the assistant rabbi to Mark Loeb, also of blessed memory, and Mark, who could be gruff at times on the outside, had a heart of gold and also always did the right thing.  He called me into his office, and asked me – actually he told me – that I would be speaking at services at Adat Chaim that evening.

     And so it was.

     I don’t honestly remember what I said that night, I am sure some words about Seymour, and something to do with the Torah portion of the week, which was Lech Lecha, and I suppose I spoke about the journey the congregation needed to make after losing its beloved rabbi.  I certainly do remember the emotion in the room – the sadness, the disbelief, the prayers for strength and courage in the face of a terrible time.  Seymour, as well as anyone I ever met, knew how to walk the line between mensch and leader, and his loss was deeply felt, by your congregation, by the community, but the Conservative Movement, and also by the rabbis of Baltimore, and this last piece is key to understanding Seymour, so let me pause there for a moment to wax nostalgic about the glory days of the Baltimore rabbinate.

     These days the Baltimore Board of Rabbis is a convivial group.  When we meet we chat, have some lunch, talk a bit of business, catch up, and head back to work.  But in 1998 when I came to town, the Board of Rabbis was serious business.  Imagine for a moment walking into a room where Mark Loeb, Joel Zaiman, MItchell Wohlberg, Floyd Herman, Gus Buchdahl, and Donald Berlin were all sitting around the table, eyeing each other respectfully, but a bit warily as well.  In those meetings the business of the community really got done, the agenda of the Associated was often set, turf issues were navigated, and these great rabbis solved the community’s problems and laid down the community’s foundation.  And Seymour Essrog was at the center of those conversations.  He was known and respected by all.  He was a voice of reason and wisdom.  When he spoke, people listened – when the conversation came to an impasse, it was Seymour who often figured out a way through.  

     All of this is to say that Seymour was a rabbi’s rabbi.  When you needed advice, you know you could call him and get a good perspective on things.  When you needed a sermon idea, you could check in with Seymour.  He wanted you to succeed, to do well, and he wanted that for two reasons – first, because he thought it was good for the Jewish people.  He believed that you couldn’t have a strong Jewish community without strong synagogues, and he believed that you couldn’t have strong synagogues without quality rabbis.  But the other reason he wanted you to succeed is because he cared about you.  He genuinely did.  When may wife and I came to town one of the first welcoming phone calls I received was from Seymour.  He and Toby invited us to their house for Shabbes dinners.  That was just the way Seymour was, that was the kind of life he and Toby lived, that was the kind of home they made.  As I said before, both a leader and a mensch.

     I suppose I would be remiss if I did not spend a least a few moments thinking about this week’s Torah portion.  After all it is hard to resist when you have Bereishit right in front of you.  It is sort of the rabbi’s equivalent of a 90 MPH fastball coming right down the middle to a major league hitter.  All kinds of narrative.  The creation story.  Adam and Eve.  Cain and Able.  The snake, the forbidden fruit.  Quite a bit to choose from.

     But tonight I would like to point your attention not to the text itself, but to a comment made by Rashi, the medieval sage and commentator, in fact the very first comment that he makes in his Torah commentary.  And he says לא היה צריך להתחיל את התורה אלא מהחודש הזה לכם – which means, ‘you could have started the Torah from the verse “This month will be for you the beginning of months.”’  And if you were to take out your concordance and find that verse you would see that it occurs at the beginning of the 12th chapter of Exodus.  So Rashi is suggesting that we could eliminate all of Genesis – the Creation story, the stories about Abraham and Sarah, about Isaac and Rebecca, about Jacob and Rachel and Leah and Joseph and his brothers – all of those beloved stories! – Rashi seems to be saying – could be skipped over.  They are not needed.  They could be discarded.

     And if that isn’t enough, Rashi also suggests that we throw out the beginning of Exodus, all the way up to chapter 12.  Those first 11 chapters of Exodus contain the Moses birth story, the burning bush text in Exodus 3, the beginning of the Pharaoh / Moses clashes, the first series of plagues.  And why does Rashi suggest we start at Exodus 12?  Because, he says, that is where the mitzvoth really begin.  It is at that point that the Torah starts giving commandments to the Jewish people.  

     Rashi’s point is that Judaism is a faith tradition that is based on laws.  Without the laws, you don’t have Jewish life!  So go right to the laws!  After all, that is what you really need.  

     But then Rashi goes on to say this:  wait a minute!  Maybe we need those stories after all.  Those narratives give us our history.  They teach us about who we are and where we’ve come from.  The stories about the Patriarchs and Matriarchs remind us that we are descended from the first people to ever think about God in a monotheistic way.  The Exodus story reminds us of universal Jewish values, like freedom and human dignity and the importance of justice.  We need those stories, Rashi seems to suggest, because without them, without the context they provide, the law wouldn’t have any meaning to us.

     You see, you need an infrastructure – the law.  But you also need a compelling narrative, stories that will motivate people, capture their attention, and connect them to one another.

     The same might be said of Jewish community.  We need our infrastructure – the Associated, the synagogues, Jewish Community Services, Israel bonds, you can go down the list.  One of the things that makes Baltimore so strong as a Jewish community is the quality of its infrastructure.  

     But infrastructure alone isn’t enough.  It needs to be matched with a story that speaks to people, with a narrative that motivates people.  Another way to say it is that the ‘how’ of the infrastructure – in other words, this is how you do this – has to matched by they ‘why’ we do it.  

     Seymour was a master of both.  He helped to build the infrastructure of Baltimore’s Jewish community, and he is one of the reasons that infrastructure is still so strong today.  At the same time, like the Magid of old, Seymour knew how to tell the story so that it spoke to people’s hearts.  

     We are still telling that story today, as we carry his memory forward, here at Adat Chaim, and throughout the Jewish community.  May we continue to tell it for many years to come.  

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Jonah’s Sukkah

A text version of my sermon from first day Sukkot, 5780 –

     One of the more interesting, and at the same time less familiar traditions, of Sukkot is called Ushpizin.  Ushpizin is an Aramaic word that means guests, and the idea is that each night when you sit in your sukkah you invite a special guest to join you for dinner, traditionally a biblical figure.  As the tradition has evolved over time there is a specific guest you are supposed to invite each night – the first night is Abraham, for example.  As you might expect, Isaac and Jacob, the other patriarchs are also invited, as are Moses and Aaron, and Joseph and David.  Essentially a who is who’s list of the great biblical figures.  And then the spiritual presence of that guest is supposed to enhance your observance of the holiday that evening. 

     The tradition is not Jewish law, it is a custom.  So people have felt free to play around with it over the years and to invite other guests.  Women, for example, like Sarah or Rebecca from the Torah, or famous historical figures.  And ever since Yom Kippur I’ve been thinking there is one particular person that I would like to invite to the sukkah this year, a person whom I really feel could benefit from a visit to a sukkah – namely the prophet Jonah.  

     I’m sure you all remember Jonah, after all we just read his story a few days ago on Yom Kippur afternoon, what we call Maftir Yonah.  Jonah is a cantankerous character at best.  If you’ll allow me to digress fo a moment, I am guessing many of you are familiar with the Odd Couple TV show from the 70s?  The premise of the show was that two divorced friends decide to move in together, and they are very different people.  Jack Klugman plays Oscar, a sports writer who is a complete slob, and Tony Randall plays Felix Unger, a neat freak and a perfectionist who must have everything exactly the way he wants it to be.  The Felix character?  That is sort of like Jonah the prophet.

     Jonah is argumentative, head strong, critical, very particular, and also in his own way, a perfectionist.  If something is going to be done, he wants it done his way, and if it isn’t done his way he doesn’t have much interest in it.  At the beginning of the book he doesn’t think the mission that God assigns to him is worth his time, so tries to flee from God by climbing on a ship and sailing away.  When God finally forces him to go to Nineveh and pronounce a prophecy, he does so reluctantly and petulantly.  Most prophets once they start talking, they talk!  But Jonah begrudgingly walks into Nineveh, and says exactly 5 words.  

     And then there is that curious story at the end of the book of Jonah.  He is clearly disappointed that God decides to spare the city, almost like he feels God wasted his time.  And he sulks off, and sits down pouting, מקדם לעיר – on the east side of the city.  And what does he do there, Jonah?  ויעש לו שם סוכה – he makes for himself a sukkah.  Remember that one of the rules for building a sukkah is it must have a roof made from material that comes from a living plant, and Jonah’s sukkah even has some sechach.  It is that weird plant that God makes grow over Jonah’s head while he sits in his sukkah.

     But if you build a sukkah yourself during the holiday, you know that there are inevitably problems with it.  Wind might come up and blow the roof off.  Rain might cause it to collapse.  Inevitably in the course of the holiday the sukkah requires repair, sometimes even complete rebuilding.  And that is what happens with Jonah’s sukkah.  That weird plant that God made for the sukkah’s roof, it dies.  OK!  It happens on Sukkot, it is part of the holiday.  But Jonah becomes despondent!  So much so that he actually says, “I don’t want to live anymore!”  טוב מותי מחיי

     And I’ve always thought that is Jonah’s way of saying “if things are not going to be the way I want them to be, then I don’t want to have anything to do with it!  Leave me out!”  Jonah’s failure is that he doesn’t learn the lesson that sitting in a sukkah is supposed to teach us, or at least one of the lessons.  A sukkah by definition is imperfect.  It has to be flimsy in order to be considered kosher.  Its roof has to have holes in it.  It is going to be dirty, a little bit uncomfortable, and crowded.  At night it might be cold, in the day too hot.  There are spiders and other creepy crawly things in it.  But the tradition says to us, in this place of imperfection, that is where you will find שמחה – that is where you will find joy.  

     I think that is an often over looked message of Sukkot, but an important one.  Because the sukkah – with all of its imperfections, its challenges, its difficulties –  is in a sense a microcosm of the world.  And when the tradition tells us we can find joy in the imperfection of a sukkah, what it is really doing is reminding us that we can find joy in our lives and in the world around us – despite the fact that neither – not our lives, not the world – is perfect.  And that, I think, is precisely the lesson that Jonah fails to grasp.

     Which is why I would like to invite him back to the sukkah this year, as one of the Ushpizin.  To give him another chance to sit in a sukkah, and maybe this time to be able to set aside his need for control and perfection, and to learn to live  – and live with joy – in a world that might not always meet his expectations.  

     May we all learn to do the same in our sukkot on this holiday, and beyond – 

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What We Stand For – Yom Kippur 5780

A text version of my sermon from Yom Kippur day, 5780 –

There is a story told of a rabbi who was having trouble with a sleepy congregant.  It seems every time the rabbi began to preach, the congregant, within the first couple of minutes of the rabbi speaking, would fall into a sound sleep.  It didn’t bother the rabbi all that much on a regular Shabbat, because that particular congregant – we’ll call him Greenberg – sat towards the back of the shul.  But on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur there were tickets and people had assigned seats, and Greenberg’s seat was front and center, right in front of the rabbi.

     On the first day of Rosh Hashanah the rabbi begins his sermon, he has worked weeks and weeks on it, and within a minute Mr. Greenberg is out, snoring audibly.  Second day Rosh Hashanah the same thing – two minutes into the sermon and Greenberg is sound asleep.  On Yom Kippur morning the rabbi steps into the pulpit, and there is Greenberg, and again, almost as soon as the rabbi begins to speak Greenberg is out like a light.  But the rabbi is determined, and he starts pounding on the pulpit.  Greenberg doesn’t stir.  And finally the poor rabbi can’t take it anymore, and he yells out ‘Everyone in the congregation stand up!’ – and everyone stands up, except Greenberg, still sleeping peacefully.  And then the rabbi yells, ‘Everyone sit down!’  And everyone in the congregation sits down at once, and it startles Greenberg out of his sleep, and he jumps up to his feet.  

     He looks around, and he is standing right in front of the rabbi, the rabbi standing right in front of him, and everyone else in the congregation sitting down.  “Do you know what this sermon is about Mr. Greenberg,” yells the rabbi.  Greenberg answers back “I can’t rightly say that I do rabbi, but I can see that you and I are the only ones who agree about it.”

     And that is what I would like to think with you about for a few minutes this morning.  What is it that we stand for?  What are the Jewish values that should animate our lives?  What are the ideals that should guide us each and every day?  The moral compass we should follow?  What is it that the tradition would like us to emerge from these holy days with a deeper understanding of and commitment to?

     There are of course many answers to these questions, and many values that guide us, and that I hope we reconnect with during these sacred days.  There are personal, traditional values, like honesty and integrity, work ethic and self sacrifice, kindness and compassion.  In Jewish life family is a primary value.  Education as well.  We might include community in that same list, and charity.  Some would say worry is a Jewish value!  Certainly honoring our parents.  These are the values that we grew up learning about in Hebrew school, from our parents and our grandparents, and each of them is a thread in the fabric that makes up Jewish life. 

     But this morning I would like to suggest three particular values – big picture ideals – that we as Jews should return to during this season of returning.  I find them in the Unetane Tokef prayer.  You all know that prayer.  It begins with the idea that we are like sheep and God is our shepherd.  But it is the refrain of the prayer and its conclusion that resonate most powerfully in people’s minds – The refrain you all know:  בראש השנה יכתבון וביום צום כיפור יחתמון – On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed – you know the rest – who shall live, and who shall die.  That is the first half of the prayer – it is about the fragility of life.

     But then the tone shifts, and the prayer’s powerful conclusion presents us with three words that encapsulate core Jewish values –  ותשובה, ותפילה וצדקה מעבירין את רוע הגזירה – but repentance, prayer, and charity can, in the translation in our Mahzor, ‘transform the harshness of our destiny.’  It is up to us, that is what we are saying, it is up to us!  There are things we can do, courses of action we can take, that can transform us, the communities in which we live, our families, and even the world that God created for us.

     That is the whole idea of Teshuvah.  How do we normally translate that?  Repentance!  But repentance by definition implies that change is possible, and that it comes about through human action. You may have followed in recent weeks the story of Greta Thunberg.  She is a the young woman from Sweden who has become one of the best known climate activists in the entire world.  She was in the States last month to attend a series of rallies and to speak about climate change at the United Nations General Assembly.  She is articulate, bright, and thoughtful, but what she is more than anything else is passionate about her cause.  She believes two things – first, that human activity, especially the production of greenhouse gases, is destroying our climate.  And the second thing she believes is that through her own actions she can make a difference.  That she has the power to literally change the world, and make it a better place because she is in it.

     That is a core Jewish value!  Human action changes the world.  Many of you will remember, in the 1960s, that Jews, particularly young Jews, were deeply involved in the civil rights movement, many of them leaders.  They came to that cause from their Jewish roots,  because they knew the Torah teaches ideals of universal human dignity, freedom, and equality.  And in the 1960s, in part because of their action and commitment, our country changed for the better!  In the 70s the world wide Jewish community united around our Russian brothers and sisters, demanding their freedom and rights, because we all felt responsible for one another.  And with the help of Jews around the world, Soviet Jews emigrated, and the Jewish world changed.  And after WW II and the Holocaust Israel was a common thread through the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and even the 90s, a cause that animated the Jewish community, and brought Jews together, and we have watched Israel flourish and because of that the world itself has changed! 

     Those things happened not because God created miracles, but because human beings decided to take a stand.  All you have to do today is open the morning paper to know that our world is profoundly troubled and desperately in need of change.  Anti-Semitism is rising.  Gun violence is out of control.  Racial inequality does still exist.  The gap continues to grow between those with means and those without.  The list could go on and on.  Change is desperately needed in our world – and our tradition reminds us that we are the ones who must bring it about. 

     The second redemptive value in the Unetaneh Tokef is Tefilah – what does that mean?  Prayer!  Our tradition teaches us there must be a spiritual dimension to human life.  The yearning of our souls cannot be satisfied with materialism, despite what we are constantly told by the culture around us.  We need our Judaism to live full and meaningful lives.  You may have seen an article by Bari Weiss, published a month or so ago, on the problem of rising anti-Semitism and how to combat it.  She argues that one thing Jews can do to fight against anti-Semitism is to live more fully and authentic Jewish lives.  To be more Jewish, to do more Jewish things, to grow Jewishly by studying our traditions, our history, and the wisdom of our people.  To make Shabbat at home with our children and grandchildren. To come to services more often!  I just said to someone the other day that I love having 4000 people in the building on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but honestly I would rather have 300 people here every Shabbat morning.  

     And you don’t have to stop with shul!  You can engage in Jewish life through the Associated and its agencies, making a difference everyday in people’s lives in our community.  Or get involved in Israel bonds, or AIPAC, or J Street, or the growing mindfulness movement in Jewish life.  But whatever it is, be proud Jews!  For three thousand years we have been different and distinct, for three thousand years we have lived by Jewish values which at times seem out of date or unpopular or out of step.  But we’ve done it for 3000 years.  We are stubborn, we Jews.  Am k’shei oref, the Mahzor calls us.  A stiff necked people.  We should not stop living that way now.  That is the second value:  live more deeply and fully as a Jew in the new year.

     The last guiding value from the Unetane Tokef is Tzedekah.  Normally when we hear that word we think of charity, and that is in fact the way it is translated in our Mahzor.  It is the check writing and the Blue JNF boxes and the donations to the Associated and its agencies.  It is our annual appeal.  We’ve all been raised on that ideal, those blue boxes and what they represent – giving – that is ingrained in our hearts and our minds.  It is part of what defines us as Jews.  It is Jewish DNA.

     But tzedekah also means doing what is just in God’s eyes.  The root for the word is the same root that makes the word tzedek – justice.  Justice for all people.  It may be that the greatest accomplishment of Judaism is that it has enriched the world with the idea that all human beings are equal in the eyes of God.  And so they should be in our eyes.  That includes all races, all sexual orientations, all gender identities, all faiths.  It includes the stranger, the poor, both the immigrant and the native born.  It includes those who are marginalized and cannot speak for themselves.  If Jews don’t speak for those people, who will?  If Jews don’t stand up for their rights, who will?  Who knows better than we do what happens when justice, and dignity, and freedom are taken away?  That ideal, that all people are created in God’s image, that every person deserves justice, should be at the core of our communal work, and a guiding light in our lives every day.

     It is no mistake that the Sages assigned the words of the Prophet Isaiah for our haftara reading this morning.  It is a text that powerfully demonstrates the responsibility we have to care for one another and for our world.  Isaiah asks, what does God want from us?  And the answer the prophet provides is as clear as the call of the shofar:

 “To let the oppressed go free, to break off every yoke, to share our bread with the hungry, to take the wretched poor into our home, to cloth the naked…to take away the menacing hand, and evil speech, to offer our compassion to those in need.”

     In other words, to care for our fellow human beings, and not to judge them.  To stand up to evil, to speak out for truth.  To care for God’s world.  To live our lives according to God’s law.

     If we can live our lives in this way in the year that is beginning, and in all the years to come, then, Isaiah tells us, when we call out to God, God will answer us הניני – Here I am.  Giving us strength, courage, and hope, to make our world – and God’s – the way we know it should be.  May we begin that work soon, may we do it well, and, God willing, for many years –

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Filed under American Jewry, Beth El Congregation, High Holy Days, Jewish festivals, Jewish life, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Uncategorized, Yom Kippur

Eternal Songs

What follows is a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 10/12/19, a reflection about Robert Hunter, who wrote lyrics for the Grateful Dead.

     Those of you who are obituary readers may remember that just about 3 weeks ago a man named Robert Hunter died.  It is likely you had never heard his name before, but articles about his life appeared in all of the major news papers in the country, and his death was even mentioned on TV and the radio.  You probably would not have recognized the name, because Robert Hunter, as famous as he was in some circles, was an entirely behind the scenes kind of guy, and a bit of a recluse at that.  

     His fame, such as it was, came from his writing – not the kind of writing you normally expect – he didn’t write books, or articles for magazines.  Instead, Robert Hunter wrote poetry, but more than that, lyrics for songs.  And he became famous because the words that he wrote – his lyrics – were set to music and sung by people like Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, and Bruce Hornsby.  All stars in the world of rock and roll.  But by far the most important song writing partnership for Robert Hunter was with a man named Jerry Garcia, whom I imagine you’ve heard of, particularly since I am your rabbi.  Jerry Garcia, of course, was the lead guitarist in the Grateful Dead, and Robert Hunter was the man who wrote the words to every original song Jerry Garcia ever sang.

     Hunter lived a long and eventful life.  He was 78 when he died, surrounded by his wife and his family.  He came of age in the late 50s and early 60s, and living in the San Francisco Bay area, he met the Beatniks, and when he was around twenty or so, he became friendly with Garcia.  He was largely self educated, but he loved the spoken and written word, and he fell in love with classic American folk music.  He wrote lyrics in great blasts of creative energy, some days writing two or three songs in a single sitting, words that once given to Garcia became classic songs, staples of the American musical lexicon.  In his writing he referenced psychedelic experiences, old ghost stories, English sailing songs, the blues, mythology and the Bible, and the old west as well, often painting landscapes of a dark America filled with desperate losers.  And yet for all the darkness, the possibility of redemption was always there, just on the horizon, just at the next town or train stop.  In his own words, from the song New Speedway Boogie, ‘this darkness has got to give.’

     I’ve been thinking abut Robert Hunter a lot since he died.  I’ve been listening to Grateful Dead music from the time I became bar mitzvah, and as you know if you were here last Shabbat, that is now 42 years ago, most of life.  His lyrics are always in my mind, a snippet here, a phrase there, sometimes an entire line, but always just under the surface of whatever I am doing, saying, or thinking.  He had a way – like I guess all of the great poets, the great lyricists, the great wordsmiths, of capturing a feeling that you knew from your own heart, and phrasing it in just exactly the right way.  And when Hunter’s words so seamlessly and perfectly blended into Garcia’s melodies and chord changes, and you would hear them sung in Garcia’s ragged tenor, you would simply say, that is me and that is my life.

     And here we are this morning, having read from the Torah Parshat Ha’azinu.  If you were following along in the Humash you know the portion consists of an extended poem that Moses recites in front of the people before he ascends Mt Nebo, where he will die.  Moses’ poem is often called in Hebrew שירת משה, or in English ‘the Song of Moses.’  It got that name because of a verse near the end of the portion, which describes the moment when Moses publicly said these words.  Here is that verse:  ויבא משה וידבר את כל דברי השירה הזאת באזני העם – and Moses came, and recited all the words of this – shirah – this song – in the hearing of the people.

     I’ve often wondered if Moses actually did sing the words, standing there in front of the people so long ago.  I wonder what his voice sounded like, or what melody he would have used?  The words themselves naturally create a rhythm, as all great lyrics do, the syllables of one line often matching the next. Even not knowing or understanding the Hebrew, one can hear the poetry just from those words, their sound and rhythm, and of course when chanted in the Torah, their melody.

     The Torah includes an interesting note about the end of Moses’ recitation of the song, a last comment that Moses makes to the people, in fact the very last thing he ever says to them:  “and when Moses finished reciting all these words to Israel, he said to them:  Take to heart all the words with which I have testified to you today.  Enjoin them upon your children, that they may observe faithfully all the terms of this Torah.  for it is not a trifling thing for you; כי הוא חייכם –  it is your very life…”

     Tradition teaches us that Moses said those words to the Israelites some 3,000 years ago.  And here we are today, having read them.  As we will next week, and the week after that.  Teaching them to our children and our grandchildren, living them in our lives, finding meaning in them, and a sense of hope and faith and light.  This darkness has got to give.

     Here is another Robert Hunter line, this from the elegy he wrote when Jerry Garcia died in 1995 –

“If some part of that music is heard in deepest dream,

Or on some breeze of summer a snatch of golden theme,

We’ll know you live inside us, with love that never parts;

Our good old Jack O Diamonds, become the King of Hearts”

     The great lyrics truly do live on, long after their singers are gone.  Their words can be heard in our dreams, or in the summer breeze that gently blows through the trees, or seen in the turning of the leaves in the fall, or the softly falling snow of winter.  Those words reside in our hearts and souls, informing our lives, bringing meaning to our days, easing our difficult moments, giving us comfort during dark times, helping us always to see the light in God’s world.

     One last line from Robert Hunter, this the celebratory last lyric from the classic song Ripple:  “Let there be songs to fill the air.”

     so may it always be – 

 

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Mirror Images

 

    When our children were growing up we had an imaginary friend who lived in the house with us, whose name was AILAT – spelled A I L A T.  Ailat used to turn up in all kinds of places and situations, but mostly appeared when something had gone wrong.  If, for example, a glass of water spilled during dinner, it was often Ailat’s fault.  One time when someone had taken a pair of scissors and given a teddy bear a haircut, when we went to talk to Talia about it she told us that actually Ailat had done it.  And after a while it seemed that pretty much every time something went wrong, every time the children did something they knew they were not supposed to do, it was actually Ailat’s fault, and not theirs.  Ailat, you see, had essentially become the scapegoat in the Schwartz household.  

     The scapegoat is of course a central symbol of the most sacred day of our year, Yom Kippur.  Tomorrow morning we’ll read about the ritual the High Priest enacted on Yom Kippur day in ancient times at the Temple in Jerusalem.  One of the crucial moments of that ritual was the designation of a scapegoat, and once that goat was identified, the sins of the people were transferred onto it, and it was sent away into the wilderness.  Once the goat was banished, it was as if the sins of the Israelites were instantaneously taken away, never to return.

     That was essentially the function that our imaginary friend Ailat was playing in our home.  The children took whatever sin they had committed, whatever wrong they had done, and they conveniently placed it on Ailat’s shoulders.  And once you did that, like the scapegoat, Ailat was gone.  After all, you couldn’t find her to punish her, because she didn’t really exist in the first place.  

     The truth is, we don’t even need an imaginary friend to blame our faults and failings on.  If you are a parent you are certainly familiar with the following scenario.  You are driving somewhere, a long trip, and your children are in the backseat.  Things begin to get a bit unruly back there, and when you turn around to calm things down, the response is inevitably, ‘he did it first’ or ‘she started it!’  So forget about the imaginary friend – we are just as happy to blame our mistakes and wrongdoings on another person, who does exist!  Even if that person is our sibling!  Maybe especially if that person is our sibling!

     The thing about it is it doesn’t stop with that back seat bickering we are all so familiar with.  The blame game gets more complicated and sophisticated as we get older, but it continues, and we never stop looking for scapegoats.  It might be the student in high school who blames her English teacher because of the bad grade she got on her paper.  Maybe it is the worker who feels he is being held back by his boss, and if only he had a different supervisor, he would be VP by now.  And I’ve had more than one conversation with parents of students in our Hebrew school who have blamed our teachers and our bar/bat mitzvah program for the fact that their child didn’t do as much as they hoped the morning of their special day.  The blame game is played all the time in the business world.  When the VW diesel admissions scandal first broke the higher ups initially blamed it on the engineers who changed the software.  Or what about politics?  Politicians play the blame game as well as anyone, maybe better, blaming the media, or each other, or embracing bizarre conspiracy theories as a way of explaining why something went wrong. 

     What folks often don’t consider is that, as Cassius so wisely said to Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julies Caesar, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves…”  The fault is in ourselves.  You see it might be the high school student didn’t put the time in that she needed to do well on her paper.  Maybe the worker who thinks his boss is holding him back forgets that he shows up 10 minutes late every day, or the bat mitzvah girl’s parents don’t realize they never asked their daughter to practice at home.  Wouldn’t it be refreshing one day to see a politician step up to a podium and say ‘this is on me?’  But it is so much easier to blame someone, or something, else, than it is to look in the mirror and see the fault in ourselves.  

     Of course this is a natural human tendency.  No one likes to get caught doing something they know they are not supposed to be doing, and no one likes to be confronted with their mistakes, their faults, and their frailties.  The Torah makes this clear with the story of the very first humans, Adam and Eve.  You’ll remember for sure that they committed a sin – what was it?  They ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, a tree from which God had specifically told them not to eat.  

     But what you may not remember is the conversation between God, Adam, and Eve after the critical mistake had been made.  It goes something like this:  God asks Adam, “Did you eat of the fruit of the tree?”  Adam responds:  “Eve made me do it!  She gave me the fruit, and I ate it!”  God then turns to Eve, and says “What have you done?”  Eve quickly responds, “It is not my fault, the snake tricked me!”  The Torah seems to be telling us that our tendency to blame others for our problems and mistakes is as old as humanity itself.

     Now of course sometimes there are other factors that cause us to fail, despite our best efforts.  Both nature and nurture do play a role in who we are and what we can achieve.  A rough path early in life can create huge obstacles that a young person might struggle to overcome.  Our genetic makeup can work against us, confronting us with physical and emotional challenges that others don’t face.  And there are people out there who can hold us back, teachers who genuinely don’t like us, or a boss who is jealous of our talent and sets us up to fail. 

     But I worry that we’ve become too comfortable, even too eager, to find someone or something else to blame for our own troubles.  Judaism insists that we have free will, and that we can use that gift wisely or poorly.  When we use it wisely, when we choose well, we’ll tend to do better, to be better, and to be blessed more often and more deeply in our lives.  It is true, we don’t control everything!  But some things we certainly do control.  Most importantly of all, how we react to the difficult circumstances that life tends to put in our way.  In an age when we commonly flee from responsibility, Yom Kippur comes along and reminds us that we should actually embrace it.

     I think that is why the tradition asks us to recite the Al Cheit list so many times in the next 24 hours.  In a traditional service, that list of sins is recited twice tonight, twice tomorrow morning during Shaharit, twice more during musaf, and just to top it all off two more times during the minhah service.  Eight times!!  Why all the repetition?  Have we really sinned that much in the year that has just ended?  

     I think that almost constant repetition of the Al Cheit list is intended to remind us of two things.  The first is that we often have a hard time admitting we were wrong.  And the second thing is, if we do admit we’ve made a mistake, we tend to blame it on someone else.  Just like Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the snake.  And so we say, again and again, Al Cheit she’chatanu – On the sin that we sinned.  That reminds us, you see, that we have done things that are wrong.  It also reminds we might have chosen to do otherwise, so the blame, as Cassius said to Brutus, is in ourselves.   

     Let me just for one moment return to my children’s imaginary friend.  Anyone happen to remember her name?  Ailat.  Spelled?  AILAT.  I am sure you all know the trick of holding letters up to a mirror.  What happens?  The letters appear in the mirror in reverse order.  So if you were to take Ailat, write it on a piece of paper, and hold it up to the mirror, you would have T A L I A – which spells?  Talia.  The name of our oldest child.  She was quite surprised when she one day realized her imaginary friend was a reflection of herself.

     Yom Kippur reminds us of how important it is to look honestly into that mirror.  To see who we truly are, what mistakes we have made, and to let go of our scapegoats.  We don’t do this to feel shame or sadness.  We do it instead to embrace both responsibility and possibility.  Responsibility for what we have done, and the possibility that we can make amends and do better in a new year. 

    That is the message of this sacred day.  May we take it to heart tonight, and enter this new year with confidence and faith.  

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, Bible, High Holy Days, Jewish festivals, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Uncategorized, Yom Kippur

When the Holy Days End

My friend and mentor Rabbi Mark Loeb, of blessed memory, used to read this prayer each year at the conclusion of Yom Kippur services:

Go forth in confidence from this house of God, and may the blessings of our God go with you.

Take with you the words of prayer you have uttered, and may God give you strength to fulfill your resolves.

May God’s spirit be with you and with those you love, and may you be granted health and contentment.

May God give strength, hope, and vision to our people, and may all soon be blessed in a world of peace.

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Darkness and Light

Here is a text version of my sermon from day one of Rosh Hashanah, 5780:

     It was on Rosh Hashanah, 75 years ago today, 1944, that a small group of Jews, prisoners at Auschwitz, were sent on a work detail to a remote area in the woods on the edge of the camp.  The details of that day are lost in the mists of time, but somehow they had arranged, whether by trickery or bribery, to conduct a short Rosh Hashanah service.  By memory they chanted the Shema and other passages from the Mahzor.  At one point a prisoner produced a small object wrapped in dirty rags.  It was a shofar that had somehow made its way into the camp, and had been successfully hidden from the guards.  A member of the group called out the ancient calls – tekia, shevarim, teruah –  and there, 75 years ago, on the edges of Auschwitz, the shofar was sounded.

     The story of that shofar has resurfaced in recent days.  Within a year of that Rosh Hashanah the war had ended and the camps had been liberated.  One of the prisoners, Chaskel Tydor, secretly kept the shofar and took it with him when he was freed.  It was preserved by his family, even used over the years on the holidays.  A week ago that shofar was installed at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan, as part of an exhibit entitled “Auschwitz, Not Long Ago, Not Far Away.”  Today that shofar is being taken to a number of different synagogues in New York City where it will be sounded again, as Jews gather, 75 years after the events of the Holocaust, to welcome in a new year, in the Jewish calendar 5780.

     In terms of time’s passage it is astonishing to me that this is the 26th time I am conducting High Holy Day services, 22 years here at Beth El, and four years when I was a rabbinical student.  Many of those holidays were wonderful, but the most memorable of them all was the first, and I’ve been thinking about it even more lately because of the story of the shofar.  Becky and I were living in LA at the time, and I was hired by an old world European Cantor to fill the rabbi role at the Yom Tov services he ran.  My job was to give the sermons, call the pages, to make a few remarks about the Torah readings, and to read Torah.

     I did not know it when he hired me, but most of the people who came to that service were either survivors of the Holocaust, or family members of survivors.  As I got to know the old Cantor better I learned that he himself had been a prisoner at Auschwitz-Birkenau.  I don’t think he was part of that group that sounded the shofar at Auschwitz 75 years ago, at least he never told me about it.  But he did tell me that on Yom Kippur eve that year –  again, 1944 – he had, from memory, chanted the Kol Nidre prayer in the concentration camp barracks.  A watchman was set at the door, and the Jews gathered around the young Cantor at one end of the long wooden room. 

     When the Cantor told me that story it moved me deeply, but I confess I didn’t understand it.  I wondered how could those Jews, in that place, with its horrors, surrounded by evil and the Malech HaMavet, the Angel of Death, how could those Jews have had the spiritual strength and courage to acknowledge Yom Kippur, let alone to come together in prayer.  That Kol Nidre was 75 years ago.  The Cantor told me that story 26 years ago.  And now, 26 years later, I think I am beginning to understand.

     Many of you know that a large Beth El group of close to 60 people traveled to Eastern Europe this past summer.  In the span of 10 days we visited Warsaw, Krakow, Prague, and finally Berlin.   The trip was powerful, moving, and emotional.  Each day we wrestled with difficult and often painful moments from the history of our people.  We were faced with questions that were often unanswerable.  And day after day we traveled to places that had once been thriving centers of Jewish life, and were now entirely bereft of Jews.  

     Just one example.  Before the war Warsaw had the second largest Jewish community in the world, second only to New York City – 350,000 Jews lived in Warsaw, close to 30% of the city’s population.  Today there are fewer than 2,000 Jews there.  And that is a story told in one way or another in every major eastern European city.   Town by town, community by community, city by city, the Jews of Eastern Europe were swallowed up by Nazi Germany.  And our group struggled with that pervasive sense of loss.  We said kaddish near a barbed wire fence in Birkenau.  We walked through a crematorium in Auschwitz, our heads low and our eyes cast to the ground.  We stood at the platform of track 17 just outside of Berlin, where the Germans had deported Jews, sending them from their homes to the camps, never to return.  And we walked through the sumptuous halls and gardens of the villa where the Wannsee conference was held and the details of the so called Final Solution were meticulously discussed and recorded.  These are experiences that can not be summed up in a sermon, experiences that I think we will all be pondering for a long time.

     But it was not all darkness, and there were moments of light and life.  In Krakow we had dinner at the vibrant JCC, the center of Jewish life in that area.  Johnathan Ornstein, the charismatic director, spoke with us about his mission of revitalizing Jewish life in Poland.  He told us the story of a young woman who went to see her dying grandmother.  She entered the grandmother’s bedroom, and her grandmother told her to close the door and come to the bedside.  She then took out a small box from a bedside table and handed it to the young woman, not saying a word.  The young woman opened the box and inside it was a Star of David on a silver necklace.  For the first time in her life she realized her grandmother was Jewish, her mother was Jewish, and so was she.  The next day she showed up at that JCC to begin to explore what it will mean to her to live a Jewish life.  When we left the building that evening the courtyard was filled with young people dancing and singing, drinking and eating, many of them also having discovered that they have Jewish roots and Jewish family members, and we couldn’t help but feel the energy and the sense of hope that Jewish life could continue to grow there.   

     But it was at Birkenau, standing by that barbed wire fence and praying with our group, that I began to understand the story the Cantor told me 26 years ago about chanting KN in those barracks.  After we said the kaddish we chanted the Shema, as if to say despite what we’ve seen we still have faith, despite what happened here Judaism survives and thrives, despite the sadness we might feel we still hope.  That is what Jews have learned to do over the long years, even in the darkest times.  Even standing by a barbed wire fence at Birkenau there is hope, even 75 years ago in a dark barracks in Auschwitz there was hope, even in a forest at the edge of the camps, the shofar can be sounded and hope can grow in the human heart. Hope beats so powerfully in the Jewish heart, and עם ישראל חי – and the Jewish people continue to live! 

     One last vignette.  Our farewell dinner took place at an elegant restaurant in Berlin.  Towards the end Dr. Bor played a few songs on his clarinet, with the Cantor singing along.  Suddenly he played the opening notes of Hatikvah, and we all stood up, singing together Israel’s national anthem, a song entitled the Hope that is a symbol of Jewish freedom and the Jewish future.  The lyrics of the song were written by an Eastern European Jew named Naftali Herz Imber in the late 1880s.  It was a striking moment, and a striking way to conclude our trip – a group of Jews from Baltimore, singing the lyrics composed by a Jew who lived his life in the lands through which we had just traveled, lyrics that became the national anthem of the homeland of the Jewish people, and singing those words together, publicly, in the heart of Berlin.  

     This is a translation of the words you know so well in the Hebrew – As long as within our hearts the Jewish soul sings, as long as towards the east, towards Zion, looks the eye – our hope is not yet lost.  It is 2000 years old – to be a free people, in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.

     That hope existed 75 years ago at Aushwitz, on that Rosh Hashanah day when the shofar was sounded and on that Kol Nidre eve when a group of Jews huddled together to hear the ancient words of our tradition.  That hope exists today in the JCC in Krakow.  It exists in Israel, where Jewish life is thriving.  It exists here in the United States, wherever Jews gather, it exists here at Beth El, as we welcome in this new year in community and fellowship, with gratitude for the blessings in our lives, hearing once again the clarion call of the shofar.  

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