Category Archives: Bible

Imperfections (Superman vs. Spiderman)

     There is a traditional debate about the very first verse of this morning’s Torah portion, and at the heart of the debate is the question of the quality of Noah’s character.  The verse tells us נח איש תמים היה בדורותיו – Noah was righteous man, in his generation.  That can be interpreted in two ways – he was righteous – even in a generation where no one else was!  Or you could understand that to mean ‘in his generation he was righteous!’ – but in another generation, maybe not so much!

     The truth is there is evidence for both sides of the argument.  He was clearly righteous.  God chose Noah from among all the other people on earth to warn him about the flood.  He listens to God’s commands, he builds the ark, he guides his family and the animals into a post-diluvian world, a world after the destruction of the flood.  All righteous behaviors, all proof of the quality of Noah’s character.  

     But Noah also had some problematic moments.  He is the patriarch of a family that seems to have some serious issues.  He drinks to the extent that it has a serious and negative impact on his life.  And perhaps most troubling of all, Noah never warns other people about what is about to happen.  Nor does he challenge God in terms of God’s plans to destroy the earth.  We are waiting for Noah’s Abraham moment – the moment when he says to God “I don’t agree with this, it is wrong!”  Or “Are you telling me no one else on the earth is worth saving?  Save someone else, too!”  But that moment never arrives.  

     Knowing what you know now about Noah, both the good and the bad, the pluses and the minuses, lets take a quick vote.  You will have two choices, please only vote once.  Your choices will be that Noah was purely righteous, regardless of his generation, or that he was a flawed person, and was only considered righteous because everyone else in his generation was worse.  OK – how many of you would say Noah was purely righteous?  And how many of you would say Noah was fairly flawed, and only righteous when compared with others who were worse?

     Now let me ask another question – of those two Noahs, which do you prefer?

     I have to say the I actually prefer the flawed Noah, and in fact I think it is the flawed Noah who is more in line with the general way that biblical characters are presented.  If you think about any other biblical character – from Moses to Abraham to Sarah to King David and on and on, any other major character, you don’t have to look too far to find significant flaws.  Moses struggles with anger issues, let alone the fact that he kills another man in his youth.  Abraham is unaware of the dynamics in his own home that are tearing his family apart.  Sarah is jealous and hostile towards Hagar.  David is manipulative, steals another man’s wife, and ultimately arranges for that man to be killed.  These characters are not only flawed, not only imperfect, but deeply so.  And Noah is right in line with all of them.

     But let me tell why I actually prefer that.  And to do that I would like to shift genres for a moment, and talk about comic books.  (Just another from of literature!)  I grew up reading and collecting comic books, and I always preferred Marvel comics to DC comics.  DC was the line with? –  Superman and Batman and the Flash and Wonder Woman.  And Marvel had? –  the X-Men and Spiderman and the Fantastic 4 and the Avengers.  The symbol of DC comics was Superman.  Superman was perfect – תמים היה בדורותיו – perfect in his generation and every generation.  He was impervious to harm, he had strength beyond measure, he could fly through the air, he had x-ray vision.  

     But the symbol of Marvel comics was Spiderman.  Spiderman was stronger than the average person, and faster, but he was by no means impervious.  He didn’t have X-ray vision, he couldn’t fly – he had to use those web cartridges taped to his wrists, which would occasionally run out.  Superman was noble, moral, ethical, never had a doubt as to why he was doing what he was doing, never had a doubt about anything. 
Spiderman was filled with doubts.  Doubts about whether he should even use his powers.  He worried, he failed, he dropped out of school, and then struggled to hold on to a job, and he couldn’t keep a girlfriend.

     And as a kid I looked at Superman, and I couldn’t relate one bit.  Perfect, I think, is boring.  But also perfect is not me.  But Spiderman, with his doubts and his struggles, with his failures and foibles, that was the kind of hero to whom I could relate.  I knew I would never climb walls, or swing from webs on skyscrapers.  But I also knew I would fail, there would be moments when it wouldn’t work out, I knew my character needed work.  Spiderman was my guy!  

     And that is why I liked the flawed Noah.  That is why it has always made sense to me that the Bible’s heroes are mistake prone and emotional, that they struggle with jealousy and anger, that they sometimes  – maybe even often – don’t treat one another well, that they repeatedly fail to understand what God wants of them and to follow God’s commands.  If I opened up the Torah and every character was perfect, completely moral and ethical, righteous and just, kind and wise – go through you list – I would say who are these people?  They are not my people, and they are not like me.  But when I see them struggle and fail, when I read about Moses’ self-doubt, or Abraham’s insensitivty, or Noah’s selfishness – I say boy, that looks awfully familiar.  And when I see myself in the text and in those characters I  can not only relate to them, I can also learn from them.

     So in Moses’ spiritual growth I can see hope for myself and a path to follow.  In Abraham’s deep faith I can find inspiration.  And through Noah’s story I can understand in a deeper way what it means to face the difficult challenges of life with determination and courage.  

     That is why we’ve been reading these stories for some three thousand years.  May we come to them again and again, in this new year and every year, seeing in their heroes our own lives and struggles and flaws, and also the potential we all have to grow in soul, and to live with courage and faith.

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, Bible, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Torah, Uncategorized

Looking for God In All the Right Places

This is the time of year when I begin to receive phone calls from congregants who ask me to put in a good word for the Ravens, and with a big game coming up this Sunday agains the Steelers I received a number of those calls over the last few days.  Generally the calls go something like this:  ‘Rabbi, are you going to daven today?’  And I respond ‘yes, I daven every day.’  ‘Well, if you don’t mind, put in a few good words for the Ravens.’  

     These calls always make me uncomfortable, and the truth is there are a number of problematic assumptions that the caller is making.  The first of those is that the caller is presuming I am a Ravens fan, but I am not, I am a Dolphins fan, so if my prayers about the NFL moved God in any way whatsoever the Dolphins would have won at least a Super Bowl or two since 1974, and we’ve seen how that has worked out.  But the other problematic assumption is that those callers are implying that I have access to God in a way that other people don’t, that my prayer would carry weight in the Divine throne room in a way that someone else’s prayer would not.  And maybe even that I have some kind of special knowledge of God, that I understand God in a way that other people are not able to.

     Those phone calls often remind me of the passage we read from the Torah this morning.  It is a bit of an odd choice by the Sages, used both for the Shabbats of Hol Hamoed Sukkot and Pesah, probably chosen for this role because it contains a few brief verses about the Pilgrimage Festivals.  But when those calls about the Ravens reach me it is the earlier part of the Torah reading that comes to my mind.  It is a narrative about what happens between Moses and God, just after the incident of the Sin of the Golden Calf.  

     The narrative of the Sin itself is well known.  To tell it in short form, as it is a busy day this morning in shul:  Moses is up on the mountain? 40 days and 40 nights, the people get nervous, Aaron gets even more nervous, together they make an idol in the form of a golden calf, God gets angry, Moses gets angry, the tablets get shattered, God punishes the people.  For those of you keeping track that is the entire 35 verses of Exodus chapter 32 presented in 46 words.  A little more than one word per verse!

     But what is far less familiar is what we read this morning, what at least I find to be a painful conversation between Moses and God, as they try to process everything that has just happened, the sin, the broken tablets, God’s anger, Moses’ anger, everything that has gone wrong.  And in the course of that conversation, Moses reaches a low point, a point of despair when he is just about ready to give up the entire project.  And at that precise moment, Moses says one thing to God:  הראיני נא את כבודך – ‘God,’ Moses says, ‘please show me what you really are, show me Your essence.’

     Now remember, Moses is God’s guy.  Moses is the one human being God trusts.  Moses is the one God tasked with getting the Israelites out of Egypt.  Moses is the one God called to the top of Mt. Sinai for forty days and forty nights.  Moses is the one to whom God gave the Torah.  And Moses, in a desperate moment, is saying ‘God, give me something!  A little extra strength, courage, hope, something!’

     And what does God say back to Moses?  God says, ‘no!’  לא תוכל לראות את פני כי לא יראני האדם וחי – you may not see My face, my essence, because no person can see my face and live.’  

     This is a time of year when I suspect a lot of God searching is going on.  We’ve just spent hours upon hours sitting in shul on RH and YK, praying, fasting, thinking about our lives, and in the course of all that, probably wondering if God will be there for us in the new year, if God will show us just a little bit, give us a sign, let us know that God is there for us.  And I guess what I want to say to you today is that I am searching in the same way that you are.  And I have just as much trouble with that search as you.  In fact sometimes I might have more trouble.  I will let you in on a little secret, just between you and me, please keep it in this room.  A rabbi is no different than anyone else.  You actually don’t need a rabbi in Judaism to officiate at a funeral or a wedding or an unveiling, or to give a sermon for that matter.  You just need a knowledgeable person.  A rabbi might know more about certain topics, because a rabbi has probably studied more than you have.  But a rabbi is not any more special, or more holy, or for that matter, any  closer to God than anyone else.  

     So when you want to call someone about praying to God for the Ravens to beat the Steelers, you might want to call someone who knows a lot more about football and a lot less about Talmud.  Minimally you’ll have the same chances of success.  And you never know, what if God asks about player X,Y,or Z?  I don’t even know the players names!

     I said a moment ago that when Moses asks God for a sign, for a deeper knowledge of God’s ways, God says no.  Full confession, that is not entirely true.  What God really says is ‘You can’t know me Moses, because no human being can know me.  But you can catch a glimpse.  Just the merest hint of My Presence.’  The text never tells us what that experience is like for Moses.  What he felt, or how much he saw, or what exactly happened.  The only thing we know is that whatever Moses got, as little as it might have been, it was enough.  And he continued his search, went back up the mountain, and began to carve the second set of tablets.

     In many ways I feel like our task is the same.  To continue our own searches, and perhaps to see a glimpse – just the faintest hint – of what we are hoping to find.  To look for God in the sukkah, or in the daily minyan, or in our interactions with those with whom we share our lives.  Or in the golden and red leaves of fall.  To walk back up to the top of the mountain, to carve our own tablets, and to every once in a while feel that what we are carving is true.  As a rabbi I can’t honestly tell you how to get there, or what you might find at the top.  No rabbi can.  But I do believe if we make the journey together we will find meaning along the way.

May that be God’s will!

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Sukkah of Peace

     In our minds the sukkah is a seasonal structure, one that we rush to build in the few brief days between Yom Kippur and the beginning of the festival of Sukkot.  And the season we associate with both the holiday and the actual booth that we build is fall.  Agriculturally the theme of this Yom Tov is harvest, always a fall activity.  The way we decorate our sukkot is often fall themed as well – the pumpkins and gourds, the bales of hay, the chrysanthemums with their burnt autumn colors.  The weather is fall weather as well!  Cooler evenings, and sadly for us here in Baltimore, often rainy days and nights.  And it is during this fall season that our tradition demands of us – בסוכות תשבו שבעת ימים – in booths you will dwell for seven days.

     But there is another sukkah that tradition asks us to dwell in, a sukkah that is with us throughout the year, on a weekly basis.  It is not a physical structure – thank goodness!  I would not want to have to build and take down a sukkah every single week.  I have enough trouble doing it once a year!  Instead, this other sukkah is kind of spiritual structure, and part of our observance of Shabbat. Those of you who are familiar with the Friday night liturgy may remember the following lines that come from the Hashkiveinu prayer, which is said just before the amidah.  In that prayer we ask God ופרוש עלינו סוכת שלומך – may You, God, spread over us the Sukkah of Peace.  And the prayer concludes Blessed are You, Lord our God, הפורש סוכת שלום עלינו, the One Who spreads over us a Sukkah of Peace, and over all God’s people Israel, and over Jerusalem.

     This is a lovely image, and I’ve always associated it with the peace of Shabbat.  That on at least one day of the week we can withdraw from the day to day struggles of living in the world, and we can surround ourselves with a sense of peace.  So in that sense Shabbat itself becomes a Sukkah of Peace into which we enter, and that Sukkah shields us from the outside world.

     But in building my sukkah this year, and thinking about this image of a Sukkah of Peace,  I realized there is something odd about this metaphor.  Some of you may know that the sukkah that Becky and I put up is extremely flimsy, to say the least.  A few years ago, on another rainy Sukkot holiday, during a storm, a strong wind took the entire sukkah, flipped it up into the air, right over the four foot high chain link fence at the back of our yard, and into the neighborhood catchment area.  On another occasion the wind, blowing in a different direction, slammed the sukkah into our house, denting our siding and bending a number of the sukkah poles – which are made out of metal.  Even this morning, without any serious wind, our poor sukkah looked as if it were about to topple over, the metal structure leaning, the canvas walls flapping and of course dripping wet.

     Of course that is actually the way a sukkah is supposed to be.  According to the halacha, the law, of constructing a sukkah, it must be a ‘dira arai’ – a temporary structure.  If the walls are too high, if they are too strong, if the roof is not porous, if the structure is too permanent – then the sukkah is not considered to be kosher.  To say it in another way, for a sukkah to be a sukkah, it has to be flimsy and fragile – it has to be the kind of structure that a strong wind can blow over.  If it isn’t, it isn’t a sukkah.

     Which leads me back to the image of a sukkah of peace.  If you were writing that prayer, and you wanted to use a metaphor for a structure of peace, peace, which is considered to be one of the, if not the primary value in Judaism, would you choose a sukkah?  Would you choose a structure that can be blown over by a strong wind?  Wouldn’t it make more sense to say ‘castle of peace,’ or ‘fortress of peace’?  Something made of stone, something that will last, a structure that is strong, that is permanent and not impermanent.  Why choose a sukkah?  And why make our weekly structure of peace so fragile and so easily damaged?

     But the truth is, in reality, peace is a lot more like a sukkah than it is like a castle.  The structures of peace in our lives and in our world are all too often fragile and brittle.  Think of our relationships for a moment.  We talk all the time about ‘shalom bayit,’ peace in the home.  We’ll often say about someone in the family, ‘they are the peace-maker.’  They are always trying to make sure everyone gets along.  The implication of that is people don’t always get along, and you need to have a peace maker in the family.  We know how fragile family peace actually is.  One wrong word said at the wrong time to the wrong person and it can easily be damaged, sometimes even permanently destroyed. 

     Emotional peace is just as fragile.  Think of how easily the peace of a day can be shattered.  One phone call, one unpleasant interaction, one person cutting you off in traffic, whatever it might be, and your pulse starts to race, your heart starts to beat, and you feel the anger and frustration welling up, and whatever peace you had toppling over.  

     Peace is an extremely delicate balance, a structure that has to be constantly tended, regularly repaired, and often reconstructed entirely.  I think that is why the liturgist choose the image of a sukkah for the structure of peace in the Hashkiveinu prayer.  If the prayer talked about a castle of peace we would think our work was all done, the building was completed and that we didn’t need to worry about it.  But the image of a sukkah of peace reminds us of how much work it takes to create peace in our world and our lives, and how difficult it is to maintain that peace, precisely because it is so delicate and so easily damaged.

     Building an actual sukkah each year reminds us of the same thing.  The metaphor of the prayer on Friday nights is powerful, but it can’t quite compare to seeing your sukkah flip up into the air, or hearing the sound as it is slammed into your home.  The year our sukkah went into the drainage ditch Becky and my father and I climbed over the fence into that catchment area in the midst of a driving rain storm.  We dragged the canvas walls and the metal poles out of the water and back into our yard.  The next afternoon we built the sukkah again.  It was wet and stained, but it managed to stay intact through the reminder of the holiday.  As fragile as our poor sukkah is, I am sure it is not the last time it will need to be rebuilt.  

     May this holiday of Sukkot help us all to find the strength, determination, patience, and grace we need to continually rebuild the structures of peace in our lives and our world, with one another, with family and with friends, with our communities, knowing that the work will never be done, but that when we do it together we can find meaning, strength, courage, and hope – and God willing, peace.

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, Bible, holidays, Jewish festivals, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, seasons, sermon, Uncategorized

Moving Forward, Looking Back

This is text version of remarks I made at Beth El Memorial Park at our annual Memorial Service –

     The Torah reading for Yom Kippur day comes from the 16th chapter of the Book of Leviticus, and offers a description of the ancient ritual of the scapegoat that was enacted by the High Priest on Yom Kippur at the Temple in Jerusalem.  The text is filled with detailed information about the ritual – what clothes the High Priest wore, precisely how the scapegoat was chosen, how the sacrifices were to be performed, how the blood from the animals was to be sprinkled on the altar.  It is more textbook than text, more instruction manual than narrative.

     But there is one detail in the reading that is deeply personal.  It comes in the very first verse of the chapter, which reads as follows:  וידבר ה׳ אל משה אחרי מות שני בני אהרון – and it was after the death of Aaron’s two sons when God spoke to Moses.  There is no connection between Aaron’s terrible loss and his unspoken grief and the Yom Kippur ritual.  Aaron’s loss is private, his struggle with grief is an internal struggle.  But the ritual of the scapegoat is public, performed before the assembled people, and on their behalf.  So I’ve often wondered why the Torah text includes that detail about the death of Aaron’s sons.

     I do know that there is a temptation to carry our losses with us wherever we go.  The tradition tries to discourage us from doing that.  Each stage of grief is finite, marked by the counting of a set number of days.  The shiva ends and the mourner is pushed out of the shiva house, asked to walk through the doorway and back out into the world.  The sheloshim – the thirty day period – is counted and concluded.  There is a limit placed on the recitation of the kaddish prayer, which should be recited no longer than 11 months.  But the journey from loss back to life, from a broken heart to one that has become whole again, is a difficult journey.  People tell me that the last day of their kaddish is highly emotional, knowing it is the last time they will stand.  It is hard to let go of grief, it is hard to reenter the world after a loss.  It is tempting to stay in the place and to hold on to the sadness, because in doing so, in a way, we also hold on to the people we’ve lost.

     And it is in part the everyday, the simple living of life, that draws us back into the world after loss.  Going back to work, meeting a friend for lunch, coming to shul, going shopping, picking up the clothes at the dry cleaners, sweeping the floor and doing the laundry, spending time with the people that we love, watching a football game, reading a book.  The fabric of life.  Its substance, its day to day.  The sun sets and rises, the world still turns, I have a role to play, and slowly but surely I reenter that world.  I carry the losses with me always, I feel the grief everyday, but in the vast world around me, in my simple busyness, in my work and my friends, in all the tasks I must take care of, it is a smaller thing, my grief, more bearable, less intensely painful.  

     That may be the example that Aaron the High Priest sets for us on Yom Kippur day.  Still suffering from the loss of his sons, he was needed, there was work to be done, others were looking to him for help and guidance and wisdom.  He might have preferred to sit alone, to ponder what had happened, to spend long hours thinking about his sons.  But he was pulled away from his loss, back into the world around him with all of its tumult and responsibility.  And so it often is for us as the days and weeks and months go by.  As Shiva and Shelosim end, as our kaddish period comes to a close, as we immerse in the day to day and return to the world.

     But there are moments when the tradition calls us back to our losses and to the profound sadness that is always just underneath the surface.  When the tradition, after pushing us out of the shiva house, after ending our kaddish, reminds us of how deep the wounds are, how fresh the feelings, how profound the loss, whether we are here today honoring someone who is gone for weeks or months or years.  Yizkor is one of those moments.  This Memorial service is as well.  When we set aside the everyday tasks, when we leave the world that is all around us with its hustle and bustle, and we visit the cemetery, and say the ancient words, and remember, once again opening our hearts fully both to the losses we’ve had, and also to the lives that we cherished and remember today.  

     May those memories comfort us in this season of memory, and throughout the new year that is beginning.

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, Bible, High Holy Days, loss, memory, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Uncategorized, Yizkor, Yom Kippur

Judging and Misjudging in the Uber Age

This is a text version of my sermon from the second day of Rosh Hashanah, 5779 –

     A couple of Friday nights ago Rabbi Saroken spoke about an article she had read about the Uber rating system.  As you probably know, Uber is essentially a remake of the taxi idea for the internet age, and if you want to use the service you install an app on your phone, and when you want a ride you activate the app, and it will match you and your location to the closest drivers.  

     I don’t use Uber often, but in late August Becky and I and Talia and Josh and Merav spent 5 days in San Francisco, and what we couldn’t walk to, we ‘ubered’ to.  The service is convenient, it works well, and the prices are reasonable.  But the odd thing about it, at least in my eyes, is its rating system.  As soon as you step out of your Uber your phone dings, and it wants you to rate the driver based on a 5 star system: were they on time, were they polite, were they helpful, did they drive safely.  

     At the very same time that you are rating the  driver, the driver is also rating you.  Your rating – the passenger rating – is based on things like were you nice to the driver, did he have to wait for you for a long time, did you sit in the front seat or the back seat, and I imagine also did you tip well.  The bottom line is that every Uber interaction concludes with a judgement – the passenger judging the driver, the driver judging the passenger, all based on a 5 star scale.

     In my mind there is something very High Holy Day – esque in that Uber judgement moment.  One of the primary metaphors that we use to help us think about our lives and about our relationship with God during RH and YK is an image of judgement and being judged.  That imagery fills the Mahzor, but is best known from the Unetane Tokef prayer.  In that prayer it is יום הדין, the Day of Judgement.  God is the Judge – אמת כי אתה הוא דיין says the text – in truth, You are the Judge!  And we are the flock of sheep, passing beneath God’s staff one by one, as God reads the record of our deeds from the year, JUDGES us, and תכתוב את גזר דינם – and writes down our verdict.

     And I can’t help but wonder, after my Uber experience, if God has some kind of app on a Heavenly smart phone, where the rating system that God uses to judge our lives, like all of the internet rating systems, is based on 5 stars.  And that God reads our profiles – which is the new form of the ancient book where we once wrote our deeds – and then God judges us by clicking on one of the stars on the screen – 4, or maybe 5 if we’ve had a really good year.  God forbid anyone in this room would get a lower rating than that!

     If that idea makes you uncomfortable, I expect you are part of the majority in the room today.  Why?  Because we don’t want God to judge us the way we all too often judge each other, and even ourselves,  based on a FB profile using a 5 star system like an Uber passenger after a 15 minute car ride.  We want to believe that God’s judgement has depth, that God knows us in a more profound way, maybe in a way that we don’t even know ourselves.  

     I would submit to you that that is indeed the case, that God does judge us differently than we judge ourselves, or others.  I had a strange experience this past summer.  Almost on a lark I decided to shave off my beard.  I’ve worn a beard now for 25 years, and although I’ve shaved once or twice during that stretch, it had been many years since I was clean shaven.  When I stepped out of the bathroom that morning Becky looked at me, paused for a moment, sort of shook her head, and said one thing:  grow it back!

     But the strange experience was when I looked in the mirror and a clean shaven Steve Schwartz was staring back at me.  I almost didn’t recognize myself.  And I realized how difficult it is, this task that God sets before us during the High Holy Days – which is to peel away all of the externals and to look for the inner core of who we truly are.  Because that is what we should be judging, in ourselves and others!  To at least for 10 days of the year forget about, the clothes, the hairstyle, the beard (or lack of one!), the home, the car, all of the material things that we all too often use to define our lives.  I never presume to know what God thinks or wants, but I am pretty sure that God doesn’t care if I have a beard or not.  Or what suit I wore today, or what car I will drive home in.

     But I do believe that God cares about the meditations of my heart – about what I think and feel and love.  About my morals and values.  Those are the things that form the core of who we are, and those are the things that Yom Tov is about.  There is a wonderful verse from I Samuel:  “God does not see the way people see, for people see the outward appearance, but God sees the heart.”  It is that heart that we should strive to see at this time of year, both in ourselves and in those around us.

     Yesterday morning we read for the haftara the story of Hannah.  On many levels it is a narrative about misjudgment, about looking at someone and not seeing who they truly are.  Hannah is misjudged first by her husband who can’t understand where her deep sadness comes from, and then later by the priest Eli who at least initially too quickly passes judgement on her, thinking that she is drunk when in fact she is devoutly praying.  It is only later, when she confronts him, and they have a face to face conversation, that he is able to see underneath the surface, and to gain some understanding in terms of who she really is and what troubles her soul.

     Of course we all do it that.  We judge too quickly, or we misjudge, or both.  It is much easier to look at the surface, rather than spend the time or expend the energy needed to understand the heart. 

     There is a bank teller at the bank Becky and I use, and when I stand in line I always hope she will not be the person to help me.  She is unpleasant, even a bit surly.  She rarely if ever smiles.  When I say hello to her, or try to make a bit of chit chat she does not respond.  And she never looks me in the eye.  And I figured – I am a pretty good judge of people.  Here is an angry woman, unhappy in her job, with an attitude frankly that I could do without.

     A few Thursdays ago I had to go to the bank and sure enough, my luck, I got that teller.  She was as unfriendly as ever, and I finished my business as quickly as possible, glad to be away from her presence.  

     That evening I had to run to Home Depot to pick something up.  After grabbing what I needed I went to the register and handed the light bulbs or whatever it was to the cashier, and looked up at her for a moment.  And I was stunned to see, staring back at me, the very same woman who had helped me in the bank that afternoon.

     And suddenly I saw that woman in a new way.  I now knew that she ran from her job at the bank at the end of a long day, and went to work a second job at Home Depot.  That she was weary beyond what I could understand, and probably worried about supporting a family in a way I never would have imagined.  I had misjudged her in the worst possible way, seeing her for what she was on the surface, when there was a whole different reality to her life.

     And I wondered, as I walked back to my car, how many other people I’ve misjudged in the course of this year.  That I thought they were fine when in fact they needed my help.  Or my impression of them was that they were nasty, when the reality was they were in pain and terribly sad.  Or that I grew impatient with someone, when all they were trying to do was to give me a helping hand.  We all do it.  We misjudge people we barely know at all, and we also do it to people we know well and love, the people with whom we share our lives.

    That is precisely why we need the image of God as Judge from the Mahzor.  Where we all too often rush to judgement, God is timeless and eternal.  Where our tendency is to see what is on the surface and to stop there, God looks straight at the human heart and to the depths of our souls.  We judge others based on what we see in them at a given moment in time, but God’s judgement is based on who we might be, on our potential to grow and change for the better.

    Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur present us with that model of God’s judgement, inviting us to growth and insight, and to a greater appreciation for the ideal person residing within ourselves and others.  So that we can hopefully see the challenges and the humanity within our own lives and the loves of those we love.  We imagine that God’s judgement of each of us is honest and perceptive and generous.  I pray that we find the heart, the love and the courage to do the same, for ourselves, and for every person we encounter as this new year unfolds.

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Hiding Yourself

A text version of my Shabbat sermon from 8/25/18 –

     This morning’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, contains more laws than any other portion in the Torah.  The laws cover a vast variety of topics, from proper ethics in business to adulterous relationships, to the importance of treating the poor and marginalized with respect and dignity.  All told there are 27 positive commandments in the portion, and 47 negative commandments, for a grand total of 74.  

     And in that long list of commandments there are a couple of my favorites, maybe not exactly what you would expect, but I would like to share them with you this morning, and then try to explain why I find them so compelling.  These come from the beginning of Deuteronomy chapter 22, where the text reads as follows:  “If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it, you must take it back to your fellow. You shall do the same with his donkey, you shall do the same with his garment, and so too with anything that your fellow loses and you find – you must not remain indifferent.” 

     There is a difficulty in the passage that comes from one of the key Hebrew words.  Its repeated twice, and is clearly understood as being important by the text, but not fully clear in terms of what it means.  The word is והתעלמת.  In modern Hebrew it means to disregard or ignore something, and that is the way the translator in our Humash is working with the word – and so our translation says, when you see this ox, or sheep, or object, and you know it isn’t yours – והתעלמת – don’t ignore it, don’t remain indifferent, you have to do something about it.  And our translator is really working with the commentary of the great sage Rashi, who says the word והתעלמת means ‘don’t close your eyes, pretending the thing isn’t there.’  

     And what I love about this is the psychology of these verses.  The Torah knows me better than I know myself!  The Torah knows when a difficult or challenging or unpleasant circumstance confronts me, I might have a tendency to look the other way, or pretend the thing just isn’t there and walk right on by.  And so the Torah reinforces its commands about returning these lost objects by telling me והתעלמת!!  Don’t ignore it!  Instead, walk towards it, take care of it, confront it if you need to.

     Many of you know that the rabbinate is a second career for me.  Before I began rabbinical school I worked for four years as a sort of psychiatric social worker at a place called the Genesis Club, a psychiatric rehab program in the Boston area.  Our mission was to help people who were struggling with major psychiatric illness – like manic-depression or schizophrenia – to transition from the state hospital back out into the community.  

     I carried a case load that was fo all intents and purposes randomly assigned.  There was a young man named Jim, who was as sweet as they come, and before he became sick could throw a 90 mile an hour fastball, a true major league prospect.  There was an older gentleman named Robert who had a brilliant mind, was a trained physicist, but because of his illness had become homeless and was struggling to put his life back together.  And the list could go on and on, each person I worked with had their own compelling story, their own challenges and struggles, and their own hopes and expectations and goals.  I was very fond of those people and I loved that job, and felt truly blessed to have had the opportunity to be a source of support for them as they worked so hard to have the kind of lives any of us hope to have.

     But there was one young man that I worked with with whom I struggled terribly.  I was at the time 24, and he was younger than I, big and strong, very aggressive, and prone to intense outbursts where he would scream and yell, throw things, and although I never saw him strike another person, it always seemed like he was just on the edge of doing that.  I was scared of him, A, and B, virtually every interaction with him was unpleasant.  So I came up with a coping strategy – I would avoid this young man at all costs.

     And so it went.  If I came up to the top of the steps, and saw him down the hallway, I would quickly retreat and head back downstairs.  If I entered the lunch room, and he was there, I would eat in some other area or go out to lunch.  I was supposed to meet with him on a weekly basis, but I managed to work it out so that we only met every other week, or maybe even every third week.  On the one hand I felt guilty about it, but on the other hand it was much easier, as it so often is, to take the easy way out. 

     At a certain point my boss called me into his office.  He asked me specifically about the young man, how was my work going with him, how was he doing, was he making any progress?  After hemming and hawing for a moment or two I fessed up, and told my boss that I was so uncomfortable, and frankly so scared of the guy, that I really didn’t want to deal with him, and so I had in essence been shirking my duties.  And my boss said something that has stayed with me all these years – that was almost 30 years ago – and that I work very hard to keep in mind in my day to day interactions with others.  He said ‘oftentimes the people who are the hardest to deal with are the people who actually need you the most.’  I walked out of his office, found the young man, and walked right up to him – ‘lets talk,’ I said, and we did.  It wasn’t easy, but at least I knew it was right.

     I said moment ago that that word from the Torah text – what is it?  והתעלמת – is tricky to translate, and in our Humash the translator understands it as ‘to not ignore’ something.  Applying the verse to my story of the young man, it would be to not ignore him, to not close my eyes to him – we might say, to truly see him.  And that was what I tried to do, after the conversation with my boss.

     But there is another way to understand the word from the verse, and I’d like to share it with you before I wrap up.  There is another Humash in my office where that word – והתעלמת – is translated as ‘do not hide yourself.’  So the end of the verse would read ‘you will return any lost object of your brother that you find – do not hide from yourself!’  What exactly does that mean?!

     And the way I’ve come to understand it is this:   when you hide from others, when you ignore the responsibilities that you have to help others, to be there for them, to give them support and care – when you pretend they aren’t there, when you allow them to disappear – there is a part of you that disappears as well.  We might say it like this:  when you hide from others you are hiding from yourself as well – from who you are supposed to be, from who you have the potential to be, from who God wants you to be.  

     It isn’t always easy, and sometimes it can be quite hard.  My interactions with the young man were always challenging, and that never changed.  But in walking towards him instead of walking away I was at least there for him, and I think on some level he knew that, because so many other people had walked away from him in his life.  And in walking towards him, in truly seeing him, in those challenging conversations and difficult moments, I also was growing and learning, and instead of hiding from myself, I came to a deeper understanding both who I truly was and of who I should strive to be.  

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Almost Cut My Hair

Actually my beard, and I did cut it.  After shaving my face clean I am beardless for the first time in many years.  It is an interesting experience to see my simultaneously recognizable and unrecognizable face staring back from whatever mirror I happen to look in.  I confess the lack of that all grey beard does indeed make me look quite a bit younger.  That being said I am already growing it back, because as I always say, it beats shaving.

It is an odd thing, how we see ourselves, how we understand our own identities.  It isn’t something we pause to think about all that often, but every once in a while it catches you and hits home.  A lot of it at the end of the day is surface level.  The clothes, the hairstyle, the beard (or lack of one!), the home, the car, all of the material items that become part of our image, even in our own minds.  But peel those things away and there is some kind of core, independent of all of the societally imposed images and ideas of who we are and who we should be.  Here is the thing, almost counterintuitive – that core is invisible, in some ways undefinable, untouchable, but it is stronger, more powerful and profound and true that all of the accoutrements.  There is a wonderful verse from I Samuel, chapter 16:  “God does not see the way people see, for people see the outward appearance, but God sees the heart.”

It is that heart that we should strive to see, both in ourselves and in others.  What was it that Polonius so famously said to Laertes in Act 1 of Hamlet?  “To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”

And so to ‘Almost Cut My Hair,’ the title of this post.  It comes from one of my all time favorite rock and roll songs, and is the title of the third track on the classic CSNY album Deja Vu, released in 1970.  In one of the great recorded rock vocal performances, David Crosby rants against the ever intensifying pressure to conform to expected norms.  ‘Get a job!  Clean up your act!  Dress like a normal human being!  And last, but certainly not least, get a haircut!’  In the end the song’s protagonist stays true to his own values, and makes the decision to walk his own path, difficult as that may be.  Here are the lyrics from the song’s first stanza:

Almost cut my hair/ It happened just the other day/  It was gettin’ kind of long/  I could have said it was in my way/ but I didn’t, and I wonder why/ I feel like letting my freak flag fly/  and I owe it to someone…

Every once in a while you have to let your freak flag fly.  You owe it to someone, and that someone just might be you.

 

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