Category Archives: Baltimore

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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Loyalties of American Jews and Jewish Americans

Following is a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 8/24/19 –

Just a few years ago I was vacationing at Bethany Beach with my family when I received a FB message from a young man, also vacationing at the beach.  He was with his extended family, and at conversation over dinner one night the topic turned to the difference between being a Jewish American, or an American Jew.  In other words, when push comes to shove, do you consider yourself first and foremost to be an American, and your Jewish identity is secondary, or is your Jewish identity the primary one?

    Of course the question was not a new one. For the better part of 1500 years it was clear that Jews were aliens in the country in which they lived. But when the Enlightenment began in the late 1600s, the thinking of that time began to embrace ideas about the humanity and equality of all people, regardless of race or religion.  And European nation states began to develop a sense of national identity so that everyone living within their distinct borders might be considered a citizen. In time, Frenchmen began to feel French, and Germans began to identify ethnically as Germans, or English people as English.  But Jews were different! At that point, if you were Jewish and living in one of those countries, you weren’t yet German or French or English, you were Jewish – you were of a different nationality. And for much of the next centuries the question was asked of Jews, “Are you able to join us in our national identity, to be a Frenchman or an Englishman or a German or a member of any nation state, or will you always be an alien, who cannot be integrated into modern society?”

      The problem was that the Jews, while they became more and more integrated into the societies and cultures they were living in, still maintained a distinct identity.  Most of the time they still lived in neighborhoods that were exclusively Jewish.  They kept their own religious practices – they wouldn’t eat gentile food, or drink gentile wine, or marry into the non-Jewish community.  They kept a different day as their Sabbath.  And so the Frenchmen or the Germans, the majority population in whatever country the Jews were living in, began to wonder whether the Jews could ever embrace national citizenship, or whether they were taking advantage or their new rights without taking on the obligations and loyalties accompanying those rights.  And suspecting that Jews were secretly, in their hearts and minds, first and foremost Jews.  

     That is why you have Napoleon, in 1807, summoning a group of Jewish leaders and and asked them to essentially fill out a questionnaire, the purpose of which was to determine whether the Jews of France were Jewish Frenchmen – in other words, they were first and foremost Jews, who happened to live in France.  Or whether they were French Jews – that is to say people who prioritized France as their nation, French culture as their culture, French as their spoken language, and they just happened to be Jewish.  (when they went to church, it happened to be a shul on Saturday)

     The 6th of the 12 questions that Napoleon posed to the Jews of his time begins in the following way:

Do Jews born in France, and treated by the laws as France citizens, consider France their country?

What Napoleon is really doing is asking the Jews a question of loyalty.  To which nation are you loyal?  To which culture?  To which ethnic identity?  Do your consider yourselves, at the end of the day, to be Jews, or to be Frenchmen?  And if you consider yourselves to be Jews first, then you are disloyal, and cannot be loyal Frenchmen.

     I’ve always felt there was a fundamental logical flaw in Napoleon’s question, and also in the question posed by the young congregant at Bethany Beach of whether one is a Jewish American or an American Jew.  Because the presumption of the question is that you can’t be both.  You can’t be both a loyal Frenchmen and a loyal Jew, or a loyal American and a loyal Jew.  You have to choose one or the other.  And the one you choose, you are loyal to, the one you don’t choose you are disloyal to.  

     But human beings, at least it seems to me, are structured in such a way that we can maintain multiple loyalties in our hearts and minds at the same time.  In a very mundane example, we might be die hard Orioles fans during baseball season, and Ravens fans during football season.  We can love and be loyal to multiple friends at the same time.  Or multiple children at the same time, for that matter.  When you are supporting, loving, caring for, helping one child, it doesn’t mean you are disloyal to your other children. 

     If anyone should know this, it is the Jews.  We are the masters of holding multiple ideas in our minds, we are invested in the idea of arguing an issue from one side, and then arguing it from the opposite side.  The Talmud, at least in part, is a record of that particularly Jewish kind of conversation.   

      Which is why when the young man asked me a few years ago are we Jewish Americans, or American Jews, I said – yes.  Because I believe that we can be loyal Jews and loyal Americans.  I believe we can be lovers of and supporters of the State of Israel, and at the very same time we can be deeply patriotic Americans, who love our own country.  To suggest otherwise is to create a false dichotomy.  

     The President made a similar mistake this week when he said you can only be a loyal Jew if you vote for a particular political party.  In fact, he made two mistakes.  The first is the same mistake Napoleon made, because the President’s statement presumes that being a Jew is a zero sum game, that one can only be loyal or disloyal.  He didn’t take into account the idea that one could be loyal to multiple entities, multiple traditions, and multiple nations at the same time.  And his second mistake was to assume that there is only one way to be loyal, and that is to be uncritical, and agreeable with his point of view.  But when you think about it, the greatest form of loyalty might be the very opposite – to be critical and demanding, and to have high expectations of someone, or something you love.  That is the way we love the people we truly care about, and our loyalty to America, to Israel, to our own Judaism, should be no less.

     The truth is loving people cast their love in many directions, they live their loyalty in many ways, to their family, to their community, to their ethnicity, to their nation. Whether that nation be Israel, or the United States.  

     It is my hope and prayer that our love and loyalty for the United States and for Israel remain strong and true in the years ahead, and all the other loves and loyalties that enrich and define our lives be continuous, fulfilling and rewarded.

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Eastern Europe

A text version of my remarks from this past Shabbat (7/6/19) –

     As I think most of you know our Beth El group has just returned from its Eastern European trip.  In a ten day span we visited four cities – Warsaw, Krakow, Prague, and Berlin.  A trip to Eastern Europe that focuses on Jewish history is not ‘fun’ – it is not a vacation that you return from feeling refreshed or recharged.  Each day you wrestle with difficult and often painful moments from the history of our people.  You are faced with questions that often are unanswerable.  A trip to Israel is celebratory, you are rejoicing in what has been found.  But a trip to Eastern Europe is elegiac, you are mourning what was lost.

     At least for me that sense of loss was pervasive, as day after day we were reminded of Jewish communities that had once been centers of Jewish life that no longer existed.  It is often striking to me how the Torah portion we read on any given week will in some way reflect the lives we live and the issues with which we wrestle.  This week our portion is Korach, which tells the tale of the ill fated rebellion that Korach and his followers launch against Moses and Aaron.  You’ll remember the narrative – Korach publicly challenges Moses, accusing him of setting himself above and apart from the people.  Moses responds, telling Korach there will be a public ritual, almost like a spiritual shoot out, between Moses and Korach and his followers.  

     The very next day the ritual is enacted.  Korach and his followers on one side, Moses on the other.  At the moment of confrontation, what is it that happens?  The earth opens, and Korach and his followers are swallowed up, never to be seen again.  Here is the verse from the Torah that describes that moment:  וירדו הם וכל אשר להם חיים שאולה – they went down alive into Sheol, with all that belonged to them – ותכס עליהם הארץ – and the earth closed over them – ויאבדו מתוך הקהל – and they vanished from the midst of the community.  I’ll give you just the English so you can hear it straight – “They went down alive into Sheol, with all that belonged to them, the earth closed over them, and they vanished from the midst of the community.”

     That is what happened to Jews of Europe.  Before the war in Warsaw had the second largest Jewish community in the world, second only to New York City – 350,000 Jews lived there, close to %30 of the city’s population.  Today there are fewer that 2,000 Jews.  And that is a story told in one way or another in every major eastern European city.  To sum it all up, before the way 3.5 million Jews lived in Poland alone, and today there are fewer than 10,000.  Literally town by town, community by community, city by city, the Jews of Eastern Europe were swallowed up by Nazi Germany, like a great, vast chasm had opened up in the earth, and almost over night they were gone.  Some 75 years later the Jewish population of the world has still not recovered.  Before the war there were more than 16 million Jews in the world.  Today there are maybe 15 million, almost all of them living in Israel and here in the US.  

     So 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 as difficult as the trip was at times 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 Krakow.  He told us stories about young Poles discovering that they had a Jewish grandparent, or even a Jewish parent, and that they were coming, one by one by one, to the Krakow JCC to explore what that means, and to think about Judaism and Jewish life.  When we left the building that evening the JCC’s courtyard was filled with young people dancing and singing, drinking and eating, and we couldn’t help but feel the energy and the sense of hope that Jewish life could continue to grow there.

     On Shabbat, on Friday night, we davened in the Maisel shul, a synagogue from the 1500s that is now a museum of Jewish life in Krakow.  A small Jewish community led by a young rabbi meets each week, holds services, sings and prays, and maintains a sense of Jewish community and ongoing Jewish life.  As our Cantor and members of our congregation helped to lead the service we truly felt part of a world wide Jewish community, supporting one another, caring for each other, and sharing in our common history and brotherhood.  

     The tour guides we had in both Prague and Berlin were Jewish, having grown up in Israel and moved at some point to Europe where they now make their lives.  They were proud of their Jewish identities, proud to be guiding a group of Jews, and I believe they felt that part of their mission was to not only convey to us the history, but to remind the cities we visited that there is a vital and vibrant world wide Jewish community, that Jews will come to visit Eastern Europe and by doing so we bear witness to what happened, but we also symbolize the ultimate failure and defeat of the Nazis.  At Birkenau and also track 17, 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.  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.

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Summer Stillness

A gentle breeze was blowing when I found Rabbi Loeb sitting on the wooden bench outside of our chapel.  It was late on a Shabbat afternoon, at the end of a gorgeous summer day, not too hot, not too cool, just exactly right.  In a short while the evening service would begin, the Torah would be read, havdallah chanted.  But in some magical way time seemed to stop.  Rabbi Loeb, always running, always with a next thing, always with a deadline, was relaxed and peaceful.  He looked at the flowers, the green grass, the leaves in the trees, at the edifice of the building that housed the congregation he had served for decades.  He looked up at the blue sky, just beginning to darken to a deeper shade in the east.

I sat down on the bench next to him.  We didn’t say a word.  Just took pleasure in the sharing of that moment, each with our own thoughts.  Spring was behind us, and the fall with its demands seemed a long ways off.  It was summer, the slower pace, the reverie, the subtle astonishment at the beauty of this world when it is in full bloom.  Somewhere a baseball game was being played, a lawn mowed, neighbors were sitting on a porch and discussing the events of the day, drinking iced tea or lemonade, listening to music playing on an old radio.  Somewhere.  But in our moment it was all stillness.

There is a beautiful midrash about the giving of the Ten Commandments, one of my favorites.  It imagines the precise moment before God spoke the words of Torah at Sinai as a moment of profound silence and stillness.  A moment when the world became soundless.  When even the endless waves of the sea stopped their incessant murmuring.  When the entire world paused to listen.

Sometimes there are no words.  That is a hard thing for a rabbi to admit.  In some ways we are paid talkers.  Our job is to speak, to teach and counsel and preach and bring meaning and context and comfort using words.  What is the old joke?  ‘Before I speak, I would just like to say a few words.’  That is a joke made for rabbis.

But sometimes silence is better.  Sometimes stillness gives us the opportunity to think and feel, to understand more deeply, to sense more profoundly, to experience more fully. In our increasingly busy and noisy world, those moments are few and far between.  But we should look for them, search them out.  Often they are right there, waiting to be discovered, waiting for us to be still, waiting for us to listen.  Like on a summer afternoon, on a wooden bench, under a clear blue sky.

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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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Immigration Reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Houses of Study, Houses of Prayer

This the text of a sermon delivered on the first day of Shavuot, 5778 –

     Traditionally in Hebrew a synagogue has two names.  On the one hand, we call the synagogue the Beit Keneset, the place of gathering, and on the other, we call it the Beit Midrash, the House of Study.  If you come to Beth El with any frequency you know that we do quite a bit of both here.  Obviously we pray here regularly.  Today we are here in prayer celebrating the Shavuot festival, but of course we gather for prayer every Friday night and Saturday morning for Shabbat, and a dedicated group of congregants even comes together on a daily basis to pray in our weekday minyanim.  And of course in the fall thousands of people come to pray during the High Holy Days.

     But Beth El is also a place of study, a Beit Midrash.  It is hard to imagine it right now, but when I first came to Beth El there was no adult education programming.  None.  Not a single class, not a single musical program, not a single movie.  And slowly, over time, first under the leadership of Allan Lipsitz of blessed memory, and more recently under the guidance and vision of Dr. Eyal Bor, the adult education programming has blossomed, becoming one of Beth El’s most important initiatives. Every year thousands of people come through our doors to learn and study, and through that process, to grow Jewishly.

     And it is that sense of the importance of study that makes Shavuot different from any of our other festivals.  I would say that for all of our other holidays, when we come to synagogue, the emphasis is on the Beit Keneset, the synagogue as the place where we gather to pray.  But on Shavuot it is different.  On Shavuot, particularly the eve of Shavuot, we come to the synagogue thinking of it as a Beit Midrash, as a place where we gather together to study Torah.

     There is actually an old tension in the tradition between the values of prayer and study.  Both are understood as being important, both crucial to living a full and meaningful Jewish life.  But by and large, when prayer and study conflict, the tradition prefers that we leave prayer aside and focus on study.  No question in my mind the Talmudic sages understood study as a higher spiritual exercise than prayer, and they believed that through study one could come closer to God than one could through prayer.  There is a Talmudic story of the sage Rava, who lived around the year 300 in the city of Pumbedita in Babylonia.  He once found a student late for class because the student was saying his prayers slowly.  We might expect a Rabbi to be pleased that one of his students was taking prayer so seriously, but Rava reprimanded the student, saying to him ‘מניחין חיי עילם ועוסקים בחיי שעה’ – you are forsaking eternal life to busy yourself with the here and now!  In the rabbinic mind prayer is the ‘here and now,’ almost  mundane.  But study?  That is the gateway to eternal life.  The Sages believed that it was through study, not prayer, that a Jew could find true salvation and meaning.

     But the importance of study is also understood as working on a national level, and that is what Shavuot is about.  The moment that symbolizes that is this morning’s Torah reading and the 5th aliyah, when we stand together to listen to the words of the 10 commandments.  In one sense we are re-enacting the moment when God spoke the words and the Israelites, standing at the foot of Mt. Sinai, heard God’s voice.  But in an other sense we are symbolizing in that moment our continued dedication – as a people – to the Torah, to our sacred book.  We are in effect saying ‘we will continue to study the book that You, God, have given us.’  And it is because of that dedication to Torah, to the values of study and education and intellect, that we are called the People of the Book.  

     And I would argue that it is that dedication to study that has enabled the Jewish people to survive for thousands of years.  The Talmud (Shabbat 30b) tells of a conversation between King David and God.  It seems that David was worrying about the end of his life, and he wanted God to tell him when he would die.  God tells David that information like that is something a human is not allowed to know.  And David pushes God, saying ‘at least tell me on which day of the week I will die.’  And God says, ‘you will die on a Shabbat.’

     Now David was a smart guy, and he knows, according to tradition, that if you are engaged in the act of study, the Angel of Death is unable to take your soul away.  So David begins to spend every Shabbat studying for 24 hours.  When the appointed day of David’s death arrives, the Angel of Death has a problem.  But he has an idea, the Angel of Death.  He’ll distract David.  And that is exactly what he does.  According to the Talmud, the Angel of Death climbs a tree near David’s window, and shakes the tree.  David is startled, and for just a moment he looks up from his book, and stops his study.  And at that instant the Angel of Death is able to take his soul away, and David dies.

     On the surface, that story might sound like an old wives tale.  But read between the lines with me for a moment.  In the course of the narrative David is transformed from a warrior king to a rabbi, spending his days engaged in the study of the tradition.  The great palace that he lived in has been transformed into a Beit Midrash – a House of Study.  And in that transformation, David has become a metaphor for a new way of Jewish life, and for a new means of Jewish survival.  Jews would not live in palaces, they would not have armies, they would not have kings, the Temple would be destroyed, and there would be no more sacrifices.  

     But what Jews would always have was the Torah, given to Moses, transmitted to the people, and studied ever since.  The Torah can go anywhere.  It can go to Babylonia and the Academy of Rava, it can go to Europe, it can be carried here to the United States.  Anywhere there is a Torah there is a Beit Midrash, a House of Study.  And anywhere there is a House of Study, there is Jewish life.  In the Talmudic story as long as David continued to study he continued to live.  We might say the same about the Jewish people.  From one generation to the next we have dedicated ourselves to the study of Torah, and by doing so we have ensured the survival of Jewish tradition, and the Jewish people.  Shavuot is the holiday when we rededicate ourselves to that process of study and the role it plays in the continuity of our people.  May we continue to do so again and again, for many years, through many generations.

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