Monthly Archives: January 2020

A Woman President

Following is a text version of my sermon from 1/18/20 – mazaltov to my cousins Andrea and Gidon Margolin on the naming of their beautiful daughter Romi Maya!

     If you happened to be watching the Democratic presidential candidate’s debate this past week you heard one of the best debate lines to come along in many a long year.  The question was about whether a woman could win the presidential election, and Elizabeth Warren was quick to point out that of the six people on the debate stage, the two women – Warren herself, and Amy Klobuchar – had never lost an election, while the four men who were there all had.  Classic debate moment – in one sharp line, you say something positive about yourself, you criticize your opponent, and you know people will be talking about it the next day.  And we all were.  Take that Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders!

     Whether Elizabeth Warren will be the woman to finally put that question to bed remains to be seen.  For the time being she is locked in a tight race with Sanders, her once friend and now nemesis, and it seems at this point like one of them will indeed be the democratic nominee.  But if it doesn’t happen in 2020 it can only be a matter of time before a woman will be president.  When you think about it the US is actually lagging in the area of women’s political leadership.  Germany had Angela Merkel, Britain has had Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May, Israel had our beloved Golda Meir.  Canada had Kim Campbell.  But so far in the US?  Bupkiss, as we say.  Not even a woman vice president to date.

     If it ever were to happen, now seems to feel like it might be the time.  Have you noticed in recent months how many of our major movie and TV programs revolve around women heroes?  On the small screen – or maybe not so small screen anymore – you have the TV series the Crown, about Queen Elizabeth’s life, as well as the Marvelous Ms Maisel, and the more recently popular Fleabag.  Each of these shows features a strong willed, savvy, intelligent woman who is willing to push the limits and speak truth to power, even if that power is represented by men.  

     In the movie world we’ve gone from Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker, the original Star Wars hero, to Daisy Ridley’s Ray, the woman who is the hero in the newest Star Wars trilogy.  And of course you can’t miss Little Women, the newest movie version of the classic novel by Louisa May Alcott.  This film, which tells the novel’s story faithfully but plays around a bit with the chronology, is a wonderful tour de force of acting and directing, and a powerful statement about life from a woman’s perspective, a perspective not often explored in the world of Hollywood cinema.  

     But we don’t need to look to contemporary culture for women who are heroes and role models.  They’ve been around for a long time, and are at least as old as the Torah.  We’ve just finished reading the book of Genesis, and in story after story we met women who were at the center of the great events of their day.  In each generation in Genesis a woman plays a crucial role in moving the narrative along in the direction God intends.  Sarah makes sure that Hagar is out of Abraham’s house so that Isaac will be the sole inheritor of the covenant.  Rebecca takes this to the next level, directing her son Jacob in the deception of Isaac so the birthright and blessing will go to Jacob and not Esau.  And as we saw in last week’s Torah portion, Rachel remains in Jacob’s mind, to the very end of his life, his one true love.   In each generation the matriarchs – just as well as the patriarchs, and in some cases even more so – are central figures in the historical narrative of our people.  

     And that certainly does not end with the book of Genesis!  This morning we began reading the Book of Exodus, and in the midst of the exodus narrative, with Moses and Aaron, with Pharaoh and the Egyptians, with the plagues and ultimately the splitting of the sea, it is easy to lose track of the crucial roles that women play in the story.   But the truth is there is a women’s narrative in Exodus, almost like a second theme or motif in the book, and it is particularly evident in the opening chapters that we read this morning.  On many levels it is actually the women who are propelling the action, and over and over again in the story a woman must make a choice to act, and if she doesn’t, the story would literally end.  It is no wonder that our Sages, in the Talmudic tractate Sotah, make the following statement:  בשכר נשים צדקניות שהיו באותו הדור  – נגאלו ישראל ממצריים – it was because of the merit of the righteous women of that generation that Israel was redeemed from Egypt. (Sotah 11b)

     What did these women do?

     Harold Kushner, in his commentary in our Humash on this morning’s portion notes that there is a subtle pattern in the Moses story – namely, that Moses’ life is constantly threatened by men, and when that happens, he is saved by women.  It happens with his mother – whose name was?  Yocheved!  She makes the decision to hide him in the basket and send him down the Nile when she can no longer conceal his presence.  Then it is Pharaoh’s daughter who draws him out of that basket.  Then it is Moses’ sister – what is her name?  Miriam! – who happens to be there and manages to arrange for Moses’ mother to nurse him and take care of him.  Then later in the portion there is a bizarre scene where Moses is mysteriously attacked when he and his wife – what is her name?  Tzipporah! – are traveling.  And it is Tzipporah’s action in that strange story (Exodus 4) that saves the day. 

     So the Talmudic Sages are picking up on this story, and they seem to be saying that without the actions of each of these women – Yocheved, Pharaoh’s daughter,  Miriam, and Tzipporah – then Moses would not have survived, and if Moses didn’t survive, it is possible we would still be slaves in Egypt, and not sitting in a beautiful chapel here in Baltimore, worshipping freely.  We might amend the Talmudic statement, and say it wasn’t the merit of the righteous women that redeemed Israel – instead, it was their determination and courageous action that ultimately enabled Israel to go free.

     I must also say this morning it strikes me as no coincidence that we have had the blessing of celebrating Romi’s naming.  As Andrea and Gidon explained, she is named after people who have been important in their lives and in their family.  But Romi Maya also is the great, great granddaughter of my Bubbie, Kate Schwartz, whom many of you in the room today knew as a true matriarch in our family, strong, determined, proud, and fiercely loyal to her family and her faith.

     With Gidon and Andrea’s guidance may Romi share in some of those qualities as well.  I suspect by the time she is aware of such things there will already have been a woman president of the United States.  And if not, you know what – maybe she will be the first.  Wouldn’t that be something?  A woman – and a Jew – in the Oval Office!

     As they say – halavei!!

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He Said She Said

Like the first baseman chatting with the player who just hit a single, we’ll never know what that exchange between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren was about at the end of the most recent Democratic primary debate.  From all appearances it didn’t look warm and fuzzy.  There was no handshake, no body language of ‘we’re all in this together.’  If anything, it looked more like an agree to disagree moment.  That may be the best we’ll get at this point.

I am guessing that you know that the entire kerfuffle came about because of a disputed statement, supposedly made by Sanders to Warren, during a closed door meeting.  She said he said that a woman can never be president.  He is saying that what he actually said is a woman won’t be able to beat Trump.  When asked about it at the debate, he denied, while she came up with the line of the night (only the women on this stage are undefeated in elections!).  Whichever one of her staffers came up with that zinger should get a bonus.

I am less interested in the he said, she said than in the substance of the claim itself.  Actually, both claims.  Can a woman be president?  And can a woman beat Trump in a general election?  The answer to both questions has to be yes.  The first one is easy to answer – of course at some point a woman will be president.  Many have pointed to the fact that Hillary Clinton had millions of more votes than Trump, despite losing in the electoral college system.  That alone indicates that women are very close.  It seems (to me, at least) it is just a matter of time.

Which leads to the second question – can a woman beat Trump in a general election?  We can’t answer that by returning to Hillary’s simple majority victory.  Instead, what we are really asking is can two specific women – namely, Elizabeth Warren or Amy Klobuchar – beat the current president in the upcoming election of 2020?  You would have to hope so.  Both women are intelligent, well versed in the issues, savvy, have a nuanced understanding of and respect for the political system, and are experienced as well.  But the real answer is we won’t know until first of all, one of them becomes the nominee, and second of all, the general election results are counted in November of this year.

One thing I can tell you for sure – the time feels ripe for a woman in the White House.  Just take a quick glance around at popular culture, always, I believe, a good measure of the general zeitgeist.  Little Women has returned as a splendid movie that feels entirely contemporary, with its protagonist Jo March playing as a proto-feminist character.  If you watch the Crown on Netflix you are currently seeing a truly spectacular performance by Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth.  The series Fleabag  on Amazon (via the BBC) has become a sleeper hit with its living on the edge lead character making her life in London.  Even the newest Star Wars trilogy focuses on a young woman as its central hero!

You may remember the Star Wars setup line:  A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

If it can happen there, it can happen here.  In fact, maybe it should!  We will all know soon enough.

And by the way, can it only be coincidence that the Queen and Senator Warren share the same first name?

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There and Back Again

It just caught my eye.  The way the sun touched on the upper branches of those distant trees, each branch covered in glittering snow, sparkling and shining in the early morning light.  The quiet of dawn.  The soft and gentle rising of the sun.  The island of light that formed, as if from nothing, the trees, oaks and maples, reaching to that light and carefully holding the beauty of the fresh snow.  My morning prayers offered from that high spot, gazing out towards the east.  A new day arriving in infinite increments of increasing light.

What is the great line from the end of Casablanca, that Rick says to Ilsa?  The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this world?  In a strange way there is comfort in that thought.  The world does not revolve around us, around our concerns and cares.  We are part of a greater tale, playing a small part, but connected in with all that has gone before us and all that will come after.  Every once in a while we are granted a moment of insight into that simple fact.  And so it was for me that morning, with the early light, the white snow, the high branches, the rising sun.

There is a wonderful scene in The Hobbit, Tolkien’s great tale of adventure, subtitled ‘There and Back Again.’  Bilbo and the dwarves are lost in Mirkwood Forest, a dark and dangerous wood.  The dwarves urge Bilbo to climb to the top of a tall tree, thinking perhaps he might be able to see the edge of the forest to help them find a way out.  At the end of an arduous climb he suddenly emerges from the darkness as his head pokes through the forest’s canopy.  Here is Tolkien’s description of that moment:

“Bilbo’s eyes were nearly blinded by the light.  He could hear the dwarves shouting at him from far below, but he could not answer, only hold on and blink.  The sun was shining brilliantly, and it was a long while before he could bear it.  When he could, he saw all around him a sea of dark green, ruffled here and there by the breeze;  and there were everywhere hundreds of butterflies.  He looked at them for a long time, and enjoyed the feel of the wind in his hair and on his face;  but at length the cries of the dwarves, who were now simply stamping with impatience down below, reminded him of his real business.”

The momentary vision must always end, and we are inevitably called back to the real world.

You’ll remember the song “I Can See Clearly Now,” from the album of the same name recorded by Johnny Nash in 1971.  It was a huge hit, reaching #1 on the US Billboard charts in 1972.  Here is a part of the well known lyric:

I can see clearly now the rain is gone
I can see all obstacles in my way
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind
It’s gonna be a bright (bright)
Bright (bright) sunshiny day
It’s gonna be a bright (bright)
Bright (bright) sunshiny day
I think I can make it now the pain is gone
All of the bad feelings have disappeared
Here is that rainbow I’ve been praying for
It’s gonna be a bright (bright)
Bright (bright) sunshiny day
Look all around, there’s nothing but blue skies
Look straight ahead, there’s nothing but blue skies
And here a link to the original recording:  Clearly Now

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