Category Archives: Baltimore

Problems of Prayer

This text of my Kol Nidre sermon from 9/29/17 –

One week ago tomorrow, on Shabbat afternoon, I took our dog for a long walk around the neighborhood with our niece Lily.  Lily is the daughter of my brother and sister in law and just starting second grade, and as we walked we talked about various things – school, a strange bug we saw, the dog, cracks in the sidewalk – I guess pretty typical conversation with a seven year old.  That morning she had come to Shabbat services, so I figured I would ask her what she thought about shul.  ‘How did you like services?’ I asked.  ‘It was pretty boring,’ she said. ‘What was boring about it?’ I asked.  ‘Well,’ she said, ‘you just sit around and say all those prayers.’

And I don’t know if Lily’s comments reflect your experience of shul, but I can tell you they brought back memories of my own childhood, and sitting in services next to my father, particularly on the High Holy Days.  I had a general sense of what page the service ended on, and I would keep my finger in that place of the prayer book, counting the number of pages we had left to go.  It was always exciting when the rabbi skipped a bunch of pages – for example, we’d go from page 60 to page 70!  That was great!  We were that much closer to the aleinu!

But if the prayers were challenging for me, what I did enjoy about shul were the various scriptural readings of the holidays.  I liked hearing about Abraham and Sarah, I enjoyed the dramatic narrative of the High Priest and the YK day ritual that we read tomorrow morning.  And I particularly liked the story of the prophet Jonah, that we will read at Minha tomorrow afternoon.

I am sure you all remember the story of Jonah.  He is asked by God to deliver a message to the city of Nineveh and its residents, to tell them they have sinned but that if they repent they will be spared.  As a child I didn’t know much about sin and repentance and all of that business, but I did love the part of the story where Jonah is swallowed up by a ? big fish!  In my mind I tried to imagine how Jonah could have survived for three days and nights in the fish’s belly.  I thought about how big the fish must have been to swallow a man whole.  I wondered at how dark it was, Jonah all by himself, deep under the water, with no light and no source of comfort or hope.

And my favorite part of the story came at that moment – that low and dark moment in Jonah’s life – when the text tells us he prayed to God from the belly of the fish.  קראתי מצרה לי אל ה׳ ויענני – In my trouble I called out to God, and God answered me.  מבטן שאול שועתי שמעת קולי – from the darkest place I called, and You heard my voice.  I don’t know how my niece Lily would feel about that prayer, but for me it has always had a distinctive power, and it has grown even more compelling as I’ve aged, and certainly as I’ve worked in the rabbinate over the last two decades.

There is a simple reason for that – in my eyes, Jonah’s prayer reflects the human experience, that at the difficult and dark moments of our lives, the moments of doubt and pain, the moments of loss, the moments of fear, the moments when we feel hopeless – at those moments we turn to God, we call out for help, and we seek God’s presence.  But over the last few years I’ve become worried that we do that less and less today.  I am concerned that our faith in prayer is waning, and that it has become more and more difficult for us to find in the experience of prayer meaning and value.

Many years ago Alvin Book, a long time member of Beth El, came to see me.  When he walked into my office, in his hands, he held this little abridged Bible.  These were standard issue, given to the Jewish soldiers in the Army during the Second World War.  Alvin told me that he had landed on the Normandy beaches, on June 7, 1944, the day after D Day.  The beaches were still not secure, and the troops were being heavily shelled.  He ran to the closest fox hole he could find, a shallow ditch in the sand.  And he huddled there, and he was terrified, paralyzed with no idea of what to do or how to move forward.  As the shells were exploding he was saying ‘God please help me.’  And he told me he reached to his heart, because it was beating so heavily, and his hand hit the pocket of his uniform, and in that pocket was this Bible.  And for some reason, just really looking for something to help him, he took this Bible out of his pocket, and with shaking hands opened it.  And this is the passage he opened it to –

Out of the depths I call to You, O Lord.  Listen to my cry, let Your ears be attentive to my plea for mercy…

I look to the Lord, I look to God, I await God’s word.  I wait for God like watchmen wait for the dawn…  (Psalm 130)

Alvin told me the moment he read that passage he felt a sense of calm, he felt that God was there with him, he felt he was going to be OK.

Notice that nothing external changed in his situation.  The shells didn’t stop falling.  He was still lying in a fox hole.  He was still in grave mortal danger.  None of that changed.  God did not make a miracle, create a protective shield, or move him out of harm’s way.  His circumstances were exactly the same as before he reached for that Bible.  But there was a transformation that occurred at that moment.  An internal transformation.  Something changed inside of Alvin, something that helped him feel a sense of courage and hope and strength that he didn’t have before.

And you know what?  Rabbis also struggle with prayer.  And Alvin’s story has helped me to understand prayer, how prayer works, and how it can be meaningful in my life, and maybe it can do the same for you.  I think my niece Lily was on to something last Shabbat afternoon – prayer can be enormously difficult for us.  As Lily said, it can be boring at times, after all we sit here for hours on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, reciting prayer after prayer, and if you are one of those who mark the end of the service with your finger in the Mahzor, you know we still have a long ways to go.  (In fact tonight, 40 more pages to be exact!)  And there are additional challenges – Hebrew not the least of them!  How many of us can read Hebrew well, let alone understand what we are reading?  And even if we go to the English side of the page we struggle with the meaning of many of the prayers, some of them close to 2000 years old, and it can be difficult to understand how they can connect to us and our lives.

But I think the biggest challenge to prayer today is that we have lost faith in its power.  We don’t believe that prayer can be a transformational experience, that it can make a difference in how we live, or who we are.  One of the primary reasons for that is that we’ve come to think of prayer as a process of asking God for something.  And once we ask, our request is either granted or not.  In the simplest of terms, we ask God for a new bike.  If we get the bike, we believe our prayer has been answered.  If we don’t, we feel that either God said ‘no,’ or that God never heard our prayer in the first place.  And if that is the way we think of prayer then we very well may sit here for hours on RH and YK and wonder whether it is even worthwhile opening our Mahzorim.

But what if we think about prayer differently?  What if prayer is supposed to be what happened to Alvin Book on that beach 73 years ago?  That the power of prayer is NOT about making external changes in the world.  God does not miraculously produce the bike!  Instead the power of prayer is about making internal changes, in our own hearts and minds.  And then maybe, when we are transformed internally, we will go out into the world and make it a better place because of our presence in it.

Ten years ago tomorrow, on Yom Kippur afternoon, 2007, the Jewish year 5768, Rabbi Mark Loeb of blessed memory gave his last High Holy Day sermon to our congregation.  Many of you will remember that in those days we recited Yizkor in the afternoon, and Rabbi Loeb spoke just before that Yizkor service.  The Berman Rubin sanctuary was packed, fuller than I have ever seen it, before or since – my guess would be close to 2000 people were in the room.  Rabbi Loeb was in a reflective mood that Yom Kippur, sensing the power of that moment in his life magnified by the most powerful day of the Jewish year, and he delivered his remarks with a characteristic brilliance, but with an uncharacteristic depth of emotion.

At the very end of that sermon he told the following story in the name of Rabbi Israel Salantar:  “When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world.  I went out, and worked, and tried, but I found it was very difficult to change the world.  Then I thought I might change my nation, but I found I couldn’t change my nation.  When I realized that, I thought to change my community, but even that was too difficult for me.  Now that I am an older man, I’ve realized the only thing I can change is myself.  And if I can do that, then one day maybe I will be able to change the world.”

Had you asked Rabbi Loeb if he thought that the prayers we recite during these holy days are heard by God, I think he would have said “I don’t really know.”  Were you to ask me the same question, I would say the same thing.  I don’t honestly know if my prayers today will somehow reach God’s presence, in some distant heavenly throne room, or even in any way, shape, or form.  But I do believe with all of my heart and soul that the prayers of my mouth and the meditations of my heart can make a real difference in how I understand my role in this world, in how I live my life, and in how I relate to the people that I love.  And I also know that if those things happen through my prayers during these holy days, then my prayers will have truly been answered.  So may all our prayers on this Yom Kippur arrive at their proper destination, transforming our lives for the good, enabling us all to enter this new year with faith, courage, and hope.IMG_4981

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Celebrations!

A text version of my sermon from Rosh Hashanah day 2 –

I will confess something this morning, being our season of confession, which is that I am feeling a bit nervous.  Not about this morning’s service, which after all is almost over.  Not about this sermon, which will also be over in a few minutes.  But instead, about tomorrow morning, when many of you won’t be here.  Because tomorrow morning, Shabbat Shuvah, I will celebrate the 40th anniversary of my bar mitzvah.  And some weeks ago I agreed, in honor of this occasion, to chant both the haftara and the maftir tomorrow.  But I’ve been so busy, I haven’t practiced!  So I feel a bit like a bar mitzvah bachor, and all afternoon I’ll be practicing my maftir!

What is helping me is that I know I’ll be in good company.  Not only with all of the bar and bat mitzvah boys and girls who will be celebrating with their families in this new year, but also with all of the congregants who will come to the Torah in the coming months to thank God for reaching a milestone day their lives.  You may know the baseball expression ‘hitting for the cycle’ – what does it mean?  Right!  And there are Shabbat mornings where we have the shul equivalent of that here at Beth El – a baby naming and an auffruff, a 50th wedding anniversary and a 90th birthday, all in one morning.  People come to the Torah to celebrate those moments because they want to connect that important day in their lives with something that is sacred, and they also want to thank God for that gift of time.  Over the years I have been privileged to stand with many couples at the Torah as they expressed the gratitude they felt for the time they had shared and they life they had made.

I don’t know how many couples I’ve shared that anniversary moment with, at this point probably a couple of hundred or more.  But there are two such moments particularly that stand out in my mind.  The first was many years ago, when Sam and Vera Singer came to the Torah on the occasion of their 60th wedding anniversary.  Sam was a wonderful guy, a bit of a character, and as I was talking to him and to Vera, and saying ‘what a wonderful thing,’ and ‘mazaltov,’ and ’60 years of marriage!’ with a twinkle in his eye Sam leaned over to me – in front of the entire congregation – with his mouth near the microphone – and said ‘rabbi, it seems like longer.’  I will always remember that!

And the second moment, just a few weeks ago, in the Gorn Chapel, when Lucille and Nathan Goldberg came to the Torah to celebrate their 76th wedding anniversary.  I did not misstate that number – they’ve been married for 76 years. That is a rare thing.  It is a wedding anniversary I will probably never see again in my rabbinate.  There are a series of things that have to happen for a couple to be married 76 years.  Obviously they need to be blessed with good health, and to live well into their 90s.  I think a devoted, caring, and loving family around them makes a huge difference as well.  Some luck along the way is a necessity.  And of course they have to have a love, a respect, and a level of caring that nourishes and sustains their relationship for decade after decade.  But they need one other thing, that happens at the very beginning of their relationship – and that is a leap of faith.  Because every anniversary – whether it is the first or the 76th –  begins with a leap of faith.

Certainly that is true for couples.  Every couple faces an unknown future when they stand under the huppah.  Their hope and expectation is that they will find all of the good things that life has to offer – health, a family, financial success, and many years to be together.  But the truth is they don’t know what their future will hold.  Almost half of the couples that marry today will get divorced, and every couple will face significant challenges in the course of their journey together.  And yet they take the chance, and they make that leap.

That was certainly the case for Gertrude Mokotoff and Alvin Mann.  Like many couples, they were introduced by a mutual friend.  They took a liking to each other, had a first date, and quickly became an item.  It took a few years – and it was Gert Mokotoff who had to pop the question – but they were finally married this summer in upstate New York.  Alvin is 94.  And he married an older woman – Gert is 98.  And that folks is quite a leap of faith.  At their wedding celebration Alvin told the story of their first sleep over.  This is the way he described it:  “We had spent the whole day together, and at night, I set up the bedroom for her, and I was going to be in the next room.  She gets into the bed, and I say good night and start walking out, and she says, ‘Where are you going?’”  God willing, in the summer of 2018 Alvin and Gert will celebrate their first anniversary.  But that never would have happened if not for the leap of faith they took, that they could make a future together as husband and wife.

Of course the same is true for institutions, and even nations.  You may or may not know that Beth El and the State of Israel share the same birth year – 1948.  That means, if my math is correct (which it rarely is) that the modern Jewish homeland will turn 70 this spring.  And this year, 5778, is the 70th time our congregation has gathered together to welcome in a new year.  That does not quite match Nathan and Lucille’s 76th anniversary, but it is striking nonetheless.  And think for a moment of the leaps of faith required for those two 70th anniversaries to come to pass.

This May it will be 70 years since the founders of Israel gathered with David Ben Gurion in Independence Hall in Tel Aviv.  At 4 o’clock in the afternoon of the 14th of that month Ben Gurion banged his gavel on the table, but before order could even be established the 250 assembled guests rose to their feet and spontaneously burst out into an emotional singing of Hatikvah.  When things quieted down Ben Gurion read, live on the Israeli radio station Kol Yisrael, Israel’s Declaration of Independence.  When he finished the last words, Rabbi Yehuda Fishman came to the mic, and recited the שהחיינו blessing.  It was a powerful moment, full of emotion and hope, but who could have known then that in just 70 years Israel would become one of the greatest nations in the entire world?

And who could have known, 70 years ago, when a small group of 8 families came together with the goal of creating a congregation where progressive Jewish values would be embraced, where men and women would sit together, where a vibrant Judaism for the 20th century and beyond would be lived – who could have known then where the congregation’s journey would take it?  Who could have known that in 70 years Beth El would become one of the largest and most respected synagogues in the United States, with 1700 families, open 365 days a year, helping thousands and thousands of Jews to feel closer to their heritage, tradition, and God?

Who could have known?  With the possible exception of God Godself, no one.  And yet 70 years ago Ben Gurion stood and declared Israel to be an independent nation.  And 70 years ago our founders made a pact that they would do their best to bring a new congregational community into being.   76 years ago Lucille and Nathan left a huppah to walk out together into the future.  One month ago Gert Mokotoff and Alvin Mann did the same.

There is even a rabbinic tradition that it was the leap of faith of one individual that enabled the Jewish people to become a nation.  You all know the story – fleeing Egypt, the Israelites are trapped at the edge of the sea with the Egyptian army closing in behind them.  Moses pleads to God, but God says to Moses ‘you have to do something.’  And the waters don’t move, and the army is getting closer and closer.

But the Sages teach that one individual – Nachshon – begins to walk forward into the water.  And all of Israel, even Moses, watches him.  And the water reaches his waste.  And then his chest.  And then his neck.  And he keeps walking forward.  And he stretches his head up, to catch the last gasps of air before the waters close over his head, and just at that moment the sea begins to part.  And then one Israelite, and then another, and another, and another, begin to follow Nachshon, and when they together emerge on the far shore, they have become Am Israel, the Jewish people.

It all began with a leap of faith.  But if you think about it, so does every human undertaking.  We have limited and imperfect knowledge of the road we travel and the journey we are on.  It is not just Nachshon, or Ben Gurion, or the Singers or the Goldbergs, or even Gert Mokotoff and Alvin Mann.  Each one of us begins a day not knowing what it will hold.  Each one of us begins a new year wondering where it will take us.  May God grant us the faith we need to leap forward into this new year with hope and courage and trust, that our days will be full, our journey fulfilling, and our lives a blessing.

May that be God’s will – כן יהי רצון

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Long Distance Relationships

This a text version of my sermon from Rosh Hashanah day 1:

It all happened in the span of eight days.  Our oldest, Tali, moved to New York, where she is living on the Upper West Side and working – her first real job!  That was a Sunday.  Then on Thursday our son Josh climbed in the car and drove off to Poughkeepsie NY for his senior year of college.  And then on Sunday – exactly one week after Tali left – we dropped our youngest, Merav, off at college – also in Manhattan – for her freshman year.  And at the end of that tumultuous one week span, filled with packing, the purchasing of last minute supplies, two drives to New York and back, and saying goodbye to three children – Becky and I were officially empty nesters.

Now everyone has been saying to us ‘don’t worry, they’ll be back before you know it!,’ and common wisdom today is that your children will return after college, living for some extended period of time in their old bedrooms, thinking about their next steps and of course eating all of the food in your refrigerator.  But the truth is you never know.  Young people today in their 20s and early 30s change jobs and move to different cities at an unprecedented rate.  And our challenge, more and more, as their parents and grandparents, will be how can we stay in touch with them, how can we continue to be a part of their lives, to stay close, even when there might be many miles between us?

One obvious answer to that question of course is modern technology.  It is astonishing that we live in a time when you can pick up your phone, call a friend or child or grandchild, and have a face to face conversation with them.  So we can – and often do – have contact with those we care about on a daily basis.  But a relationship is not only about quantity.  It is not measured in the number of texts sent or phone calls placed, or emails exchanged.  Instead, a relationship is about quality – is there true caring and support?  Honesty? Loyalty?  Love?   That doesn’t come from frequency of interaction.

The truth is there are many kinds of distance that develop in relationships.  There is of course physical distance – your child is in New York or California.  But there is also what I would call ‘soul’ distance, spiritual distance, emotional distance.  And as we all know, you can be in the same town as someone, seeing them all the time – you can even be in the same home as someone – and the distance between you and that person can be vast.  In some ways much greater than any distance that can be measured in miles.

That may be why the tradition asks us to read the stories of Abraham and Sarah and their household on Rosh Hashanah.  We have become so accustomed to living in large homes, but imagine for a moment Abraham and Sarah’s camp.  Even though the Torah tells us they were wealthy by the standards of their day, they all lived together in a small space, a couple of tents – one for the women, one for the men – separated by a few yards, and probably no larger than a couple of hundred square feet.  It would be hard to put people in closer physical proximity.

And yet the emotional distance – the soul distance – between the people who lived in that small space was profound.  Hagar and Sarah’s relationship was filled with distrust and jealousy, and Sarah treated Hagar with cruelty.  Abraham was no help, in fact he struggled terribly in his relationships with the people closest to him.  He was insensitive and a poor communicator, and had almost no understanding of how others felt.  Close readers of the text have long noticed that after tomorrow’s Torah reading, the famous binding of Isaac story, there is a total breakdown in family communication.  Abraham and Sarah never speak again.  Abraham and Hagar also never speak again.  Even Abraham and his son Isaac never speak again.  And, perhaps most telling, Abraham and God never again speak.

I suspect more than a few of us who have come to pray this morning can relate to that story and those characters.  Perhaps there is a Hagar sitting here today, who feels abandoned by the person most important to her in her life.  Perhaps there is an Abraham, who has struggled throughout the year to do right by the people he loves, but knows in his heart of hearts he has failed.  Perhaps there is an Isaac or Ishmael, brothers, but rivals nevertheless, confused and hurt by something they’ve done to one another, or a parent has done to them.  And before you even know it there is a distancing that grows and grows.  A month goes by, or a year, or a decade.  And you begin to wonder if you can ever be close again.  Or if you ever really were.

The pain in Abraham’s family lingered for a long time.  As we read this morning Hagar was expelled from the family home.  Not long afterwards Sarah died without any of these issues being resolved.  Both of Abraham’s sons, Isaac and Ishmael, moved away from their father to make their lives in other places.  Soul distance.  I imagine Abraham at that time deeply bitter, angry with God, and bereft of the people most important to him in his life.

He works at it, old Abraham.  He lives for 35 more years, and never gives up.  He remarries, has more children, even seems to repair his relationships with Isaac and Ishmael, who do come together to bury their father Abraham when he dies.  The question is do those late successes in Abraham’s life make up for the earlier hurts, disappointments, and failures?  In some ways it reminds me of a baseball team that’s had a lousy season, and in September wins a bunch of ball games.  Think of all the years Abraham wasted, all the time he lost with his sons when they were growing up, the bitter feelings he created with Hagar, the distant relationship he had with his own wife Sarah year after year.  Sometimes he was around, but just as often he was not, and what he lost when he was not could never be regained.  You cannot get back the time.

I can tell you it all comes out in the end.  I know within five minutes of sitting down with a family to prepare for a funeral how they felt about the person they’ve lost.  And when they are talking about someone they loved, respected, and cherished they will almost always say, and it is meant as the highest form of praise – “He was always there for me.  You could always count on her  – every time.” In many ways our relationships are about consistency.  About showing up every time, not every once in a while.  About loyalty and self sacrifice, about the people you love knowing they can count on you, every single time.   

Maybe that is the lesson to be learned from Abraham and Sarah’s story, and maybe that is the reason our Sages chose it for Rosh Hashanah day.  After all, in an hour and a half we’ll all be sitting down with our families having lunch together.  And after you talk about the rabbi’s sermon, you look around that table, and you say, ‘these are the people I share my life with.’  And Abraham and Sarah’s story reminds us of how important it is do to right by those people.  Not every once in a while, but everyday.  Because if we are able to do it, to be there again and again, day in and day out, year after year, then one day when our family sits down with a rabbi to prepare for our funeral they’ll know – and so will the rabbi! –  that together we were able to build something true and pure and sacred in our lives.  That is what Abraham and Sarah were not able to do.  That is what I hope and pray we can do better.  And Rosh Hashanah gives us the opportunity to try.

In 1965 my father, a captain in the Army, was sent overseas to Vietnam for a year’s tour of duty.  He left behind my mother and me, my mom I guess all of 23 years old, and I had just turned two.  My parents were terrified, and they prepared in the best way they could for a year apart from one another.  My dad had one additional fear – he was worried that after a year away, his son would not recognize him when he came home.  He was going to be 9000 miles away from us, and all he wanted to do was to keep us close.

So he made a conscious decision to do the best he could with a bad situation.  He wrote a letter to my mom virtually every day – over 300 of them in the course of that year.  He also sent us tapes – made on an old reel to reel tape deck – so that in the days before FaceTime or videos I could hear his voice.  On those tapes he would talk to me directly, calling me by name, telling me he loved me and he missed me, and he was going to come home to see me as soon as he could.  Some of my earliest memories are of sitting on my mom’s lap as she read me those letters, or as we listened to those tapes of my father’s voice, at the small kitchen table in our apartment on Rogene Drive.

Those were relatively small actions, but I can tell you, still to this day, a half century later, they made all the difference in the world.  And when my dad finally came home, and we opened the door, I knew two things about the man standing there – I knew he was my dad, and I knew he loved me.  That was pretty much all I needed, although it didn’t hurt that he was holding in his hand an Orioles uniform he bought for me, with number 5 on the back – Brooks Robinson.  Another act of love.  With every letter he wrote, every word he spoke into that tape deck, every little package he sent home, he had managed to keep us close.

If you’ve guessed by this time that my mom and dad have been greater influences on my life than the biblical Abraham and Sarah, you would be %100 correct.  So much of who I am comes from their guidance, their wisdom, their values, and the relationship they’ve shared for more than 50 years.  That is the way it always is.  We are profoundly important to the people with whom we share the journey of our years, just as they are to us.  Whether they are a half a world away, or in New York, or right here in Baltimore,  whether our children, our spouses, our parents or siblings or grandparents, keeping them close is the most important work that we can do, something that nourishes and sustains who we are, and helps us all to understand who we want to be.

May God help us to do that work well in this new year, diminishing the distances in our lives, and drawing us close to one another, to our tradition, and to God –

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The Gift

It was a beautiful silver kiddish cup, contemporary in design.  They gave it to me as a gift, hoping to thank me for some help I had given them.  Their son had maintained a long running feud with them, not even speaking with them for a number of years.  They had come to see me about it before, desperate for any suggestion that might help things improve.  In reality I didn’t do anything new.  Just a simple, logical suggestion that I think I had made to them before.  This time, for whatever reason, it worked.  The lines of communication opened, the relationship began to heal, the skies brightened.  They were so grateful, and the kiddish cup was just a token of that gratitude.  Would I please accept it?

I loved that kiddish cup.  I often used it on holidays, and it brought an added sense of sanctity to our table.  Hiddur mitzvah is a term the rabbis often use – the beautification of a mitzvah.  You can fulfill the mitzvah of kiddish using a paper cup to hold your wine, or a beer stein for that matter.  But a nice kiddish cup adds to the sense of doing the mitzvah right.  And a beautiful kiddush cup?  A gorgeous kiddish cup?  Sterling silver, carved design, polished and shined – now that is the proper way to say kiddish on a Yom Tov eve!

But things went awry.  The son became angry with his parents again, the relationship soured in the course of a year’s time.  He dropped out of their lives entirely, moved away, and they weren’t even sure where he was living.  To make matters worse, the parents were upset with me.  They felt I had sided with their son, that I had perhaps even encouraged him to sever the relationship.  It wasn’t true, but the idea was formed in their minds.  It was bad enough the rabbi had failed them, but he had also, in their eyes, betrayed them.

The kiddush cup sat on a shelf.  The sense of sanctity it had once contained seemed diminished.  Instead of reminding me of my great wisdom, of my rabbinic gravitas, it instead brought to my mind my foibles and failures, my inadequacies, both personal and professional.  The object itself hadn’t changed – it was just as beautiful as ever.  But it was tainted, no longer holy, no longer fit for use.

And yet I keep it.  I glance at it now and again.  Sometimes I even pick it up, remembering how the cold silver felt when the cup was filled with sweet wine.  I wonder if it will ever become sacred again.  Is there some way to repurpose it, to metaphorically smelt it into liquid silver and create it from scratch so that it no longer contains its bitterness and complexity?

Only time will tell.  Perhaps in some future year the ragged harshness of it all will somehow fade away, and the cup will be restored (in my mind) to its former beauty.  But for now it sits quietly.  What did Cassius say to Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar?  “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” (Act I scene ii)  I might say the same thing about my cup, which of course has done nothing wrong except to be freely given as a gift.

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Summer Reading List 2017

Enjoy the books!

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?  Roz Chast – Chast, a cartoonist at the New Yorker for years, published this graphic novel in 2014.  It is a poignant and brutally honest confrontation with what it means to age, and what it means to care for aging parents.  And it is definitely presented through a Jewish lens.  228 pages, and the first time a graphic novel has made the list.

The Handmaid’s Tale  Margaret Atwood – This chilling novel from 1986 describes a world where women have been subjected to a secondary role in society, where fundamentalist religion rules, and where the elected United States government has been forcibly removed via a military coup.  To read it today is to understand how great fiction both unpacks the past and warns about the future. 300 pages (give or take!)

American War Omar El Akkad – The second dystopian novel on this year’s list.  El Akkad’s debut work of fiction explores a near future where a second American civil war between blue and red states takes place.  If our partisan political divisions grow even greater, if terrorism becomes a regular occurrence on American soil, if climate change continues to escalate, what will our world look like?  El Akkad has created a stunning vision of one possible answer to that question.  333 pages

Hillbilly Elegy J.D. Vance – Part memoir, part sociological analysis, Vance writes movingly about the world he grew up in, the culture that defined it, and the experience of watching that world slowly but surely fade away.  This book explores the dynamics of the poor, white, working class world in rural America at a time when its culture is in crisis.  260 pages

All Creatures Great and Small James Herriot – This beloved book from 1972 takes you back to a simpler time.  The author chronicles his ‘adventures’ as a veterinarian in the remote Yorkshire Dales, tending to the various animals (and sometimes humans) who need his help.  It is a powerful page by page reminder of the great beauty that exists in God’s world that we all too often fail to see. 425 pages

Lincoln in the Bardo George Saunders – In this debut novel a grief stricken Abraham Lincoln visits the grave of his recently deceased 11 year old son Willie.  While in the cemetery he encounters the ghosts of others who are buried there, and listens to their life stories told from beyond the grave.  The novel is a meditation on national loss and an acknowledgment of the pain and heartbreak that are inevitable components of living a human life.  343 pages

Measure for Measure William Shakespeare – This late comedy explores themes of justice, mortality, and mercy, as well as the fine line that sometimes exists between corruption and purity.  The line “some rise by sin, some by virtue fall” (Act ii scene 1) reads as fresh and contemporary commentary given today’s political climate.

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Some Election Thoughts – or Maybe Not

This is one of those Shabbats where a rabbi is darned if he does, and darned if he doesn’t, if you know what I mean.  If I decide not to talk about the election some of you will be happy, probably feeling, as my wife Becky warned me, just simply exhausted from the whole business, and not wanting to hear any more about it.  On the other hand, some of you will be upset, wondering why I chose not to deal with what without question is a significant moment in the history of our country.  That being said, if I decide to talk about the election those of you who don’t want to hear about it will be disgruntled, while others might not like what I have to say.  As I said, darned if I do, darned if I don’t.

It is perhaps no coincidence that we are reading Parshat Lech Lecha this week, the Torah portion that tells of God’s initial call to Abraham and the beginning of his journey.  I often think of how Abraham must have felt during those moments.  First going to Sarah, and saying to her ‘we have to pack, we are going to leave the one place we’ve ever known.’  They readied their possessions, took their nephew Lot, their flocks and herds, their servants.  And then a morning came, and as the sun began to rise, Abraham turned his back on the dawn and looked into the darkness of the distant west.  He looked out at that moment on an unknown future, and I imagine he was filled with trepidation, wondering what would happen in the course of his journey.

And there are many Americans this week who feel much like Abraham did so long ago, looking out on an unknown future with trepidation, wondering what that new landscape will mean to their lives, to their families, to their country.  The simple truth at this point is that no one knows what the future will hold – if the election taught us anything, it surely should have taught us that.  And one of the striking things about the Abraham narrative is that as unsure as he was of his future, he stepped out into it boldly, and with faith.  I don’t think that was because he believed it was going to be easy, and in fact we know, because we know his entire story, that he would have more than his fair share of trials and tribulations along the way.  Instead I think that Abraham was able to begin that journey, take that first step, because he knew he was not taking it alone.  He had Sarah with him.  God also was with him.  He was not alone.

Neither are we.  We will travel the next years together, together with our families, together with our friends, and together as a sacred community, as a congregation.  We will share the road with our fellow travelers, some of whom we agree with, some of whom we disagree with, some of whom make us a bit crazy, some of whom we’ve known for years, some of whom we’ve just met.  But all of whom we care about, all of whom we will support and respect.  Our journey will not be physical the way Abraham’s was, but Abraham’s journey was also, and perhaps more so, spiritual, emotional, and intellectual, and it was also a journey of personal growth.  And God willing that is the kind of journey we will all be blessed with in the months and years ahead.

Of course we have a say in that, we have the ability to at least in part determine our own destinies, the quality of the journey we take.  That is one of the chidushim, the new ideas, that Abraham brought into the world as the first Jew, and over time that idea would grow into one of Judaism’s great gifts to the world.  Our actions matter, they make a difference in our own lives, and even in the world we live in.  The classic commentators note that Abraham is the first person in the entire Bible to call God by the name Adonai, a name we still use for God today.  It happens in this morning’s Torah portion, toward the end of the sedra, in the context of a conversation that Abraham has with God.  God assures Abraham that he will one day be in possession of the land of Israel, Abraham responds to God by saying this:  Adonai Elohim, במה עדה כי אירשנה  – literally, how will I know that I will possess it?  But you can hear in Abraham’s address to God the word Adonai – the very first time it is used by a human in the Bible.

What does the term mean, literally translated, the word Adonai?  Literally translated it means ‘my Lord.’  Lord in the sense of a master, like in the Middle Ages, the Lord of the Manor.  And the Talmud teaches that Abraham uses this term for God intentionally because he had an insight that no other person had had, namely that religion, at least Judaism, is less concerned with belief in God, and more concerned with serving God, with doing God’s work.  And so Abraham called God Adonai – my master, my Lord – the One I will serve.

And that is something I’ve come to understand over the last few days.  My service of God is not dependent upon who sits in the Oval Office.  It is something that is independent of politics, or elections, or the way the country may or may not be divided ideologically.  The issues I care about, the concerns that I have, the way that I live Jewishly, the mitzvoth that I engage in, would remain the same regardless of what state I lived in, what country I lived in, or who the leader of that country was.  These come out of my understanding of what kind of world God wants us to build together, and what my role in that building process is, and what responsibilities are incumbent upon me in terms of living a committed Jewish life.

For me that is a fairly long list.  It includes rituals I engage in every day, like tallit and tefillin and daily prayer.  It includes study of our sacred texts and traditions.  The celebration of Shabbat and the festivals.  And it also includes heeding the words of the great prophet Isaiah, to care about the downtrodden, to cloth the poor and feed the hungry, to stand up for the rights of those who don’t have a voice in our world, to ensure that hateful speech and hateful actions are not tolerated, and to cry out when any one group – whether ethnic, racial, religious, or gender oriented –  is singled out because it is different.  And my service of God consists of some complicated stew of all of those things, the values and the practices and the traditions and the texts and the ideals that together make up a full and meaningful Jewish life.

As presidents come and go, as congressional seats change hands, as stentorian senators speak, my sense of what it means to serve God stays the same.  In that I take comfort – this week, in all the weeks gone by, and in all the weeks yet to come.  There is much work to do to make this a Godlike world, as there was, as there always will be.  And I have a responsibility to engage in that work, as I always have.  To paraphrase the great words of our sages, I don’t have to finish the job myself, but I am not permitted to walk away from it either.

So there you have it.  Darned if I did, darned if I didn’t.  In a way I suppose I did both.   Or maybe neither – you’ll tell me.

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23,500 Words

Just one way of telling the tale of my last 6 weeks or so.  Here is how I arrived at that number:  5 High Holiday sermons, about 1800 words each (a total of 9,000 words);  3 Shabbat sermons and 1 Sukkoth sermon, about 1200 words each (4,800 total);  7 eulogies, some 1,10o words each (7,700);  plus 8 ‘bar/bat mitzvah charges’ which come in around 250 words each (total of 2,000) – all of which adds up to 23,500.

A lot of words, any way you slice it.  The average number of words on the page of an average book is 250.  So the 23,500 words I’ve written over the last weeks would make the first 94 pages of a book.  What tale would those 94 pages tell?

Perhaps a bit about the times we live in, the anxious state of our nation, weary of a bitter (and long!) election process, fearful of clouds that grow darker on the horizon.  Maybe a thing or two about the state of Jewish life in America in 2016, its challenges and bounteous blessings.  Certainly the narrative of the lives of those whom I eulogized, the habits and hobbies, quirks and passions, connections and professions that made up their lives.  A few things about the b’nai mitzvah, just beginning their journeys, looking out on a future that is bright and filled with possibility.

And also, I suppose, reading carefully, a thing or two about me.  In part what has been on my mind, what were the thoughts that were nudging me in the fall of 2016, my concerns, worries, interests, and opinions.  But also who I am.  I hope that too comes through in all of those words, the thousands upon thousands of keyboard strokes, the verbs and nouns and adjectives, the sentences and paragraphs, the metaphors and textual references.

You know the old saying is a picture is worth a thousand words.  That would make 23 and a half pictures.  Maybe it is time to take up painting!

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