Category Archives: Bible

Jacob Comes Home

This a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 11/25/17 –

Thanksgiving weekend is one of the times during the year when children, regardless of their age or whereabouts, come back to their hometown.  Our children are now living in New York – Tali and Merav in Manhattan, Josh in Poughkeepsie – but they all managed to find their way back to Baltimore for some home cooking and R&R.  Sarah King, the Cantor and Shazi’s daughter, is also a New York resident, but here she is on Thanksgiving weekend reading Torah at Beth El and spending some quality time with her family.  And the list could go on an on – one of the very reasons why we had four baby naming (as far as I know, a record at Beth El!) is because young people are back in town this weekend.  To one and all, welcome home!

The idea of a young person moving away is still a bit tricky in Baltimore.  Elsewhere it is common, in fact even expected, that young people after college will make their lives in some new place.  But here in Baltimore the expectation still exists that if you do go further than College Park for college, you’ll come back soon after and settle in Baltimore.  But the truth is that is happening less and less.  New York and Washington DC are towns that are filled with young people who grew up in Pikesville.  Boston is another place where Baltimoreans are making their new homes.  And these young people are not coming back to Baltimore – they are settling in their new cities, marrying, having children, crafting their careers.  And their parents – who want to see their children, and eventually their grandchildren – are schlepping to New York once or twice a month, or to Boston regularly, or two the DC area sometimes on a weekly basis.  What we do for our children!

I know this is painful for the family that remains here in Baltimore.  I will always remember the day when a member of the shul made an appointment with me, came to my office, sat down in front of my desk, and immediately began to weep.  AS I tried to console her I asked her what in the world could be the matter, fearing the worst.  When she managed to get control of herself she said ‘my son is moving away, moving out of Baltimore.’  I asked the only natural question – ‘to where?’  And her answer:  ‘Washington DC!’  So I understand, again, particularly here, how difficult this can be for some people.  But I want to argue this morning that it is actually a good thing for our young people to move away, at least for a time.  And I also want to think about a different understand of what it means to come home.

You may be familiar with the Amish tradition of the ‘rumspringa.’  Anyone know what that is?  It comes from a German word which means to ‘jump about’ and is a life cycle passage that Amish young adults go through – usually 16 – 24 year olds.  And the idea is that Amish children grow up in a very tight knit community, that they are only familiar with a small geographic area – the few miles around where they grew up, and that they know very little about the rest of the world.  So the rumspringa is a time in their lives when they are encouraged to be more independent, to see more of the world, to get a bit outside of their comfort zone, and to spend less time with their immediate family.  The hope is, of course, that when the rumspringa ends, they will come back to their community, to their family, and settle down into traditional Amish life.

On the surface it probably sounds like an odd ritual to us, but the truth is it isn’t all that different from what we do with our own children.  One could certainly say that the college experience is a kind of rumspringa.  Our children go away in their late teens, usually around the time they are 18.  For the first time in their lives they live largely independently, with full responsibility for making their own decisions and choices, about everything – from what to eat for dinner to when to study, and even if they’ll study at all.  They are expanding their horizons, meeting new people, and hopefully seeing the world for the first time without that world being filtered through us, their parents.  That is a necessary process for them to become fully independent, to realize all of the places where we steered them wrong – but also to realize, hopefully, all of the things we actually were right about all these years.

I would argue that perhaps the first rumspringa of all time occurs in this morning’s Torah portion.  Jacob is like an Amish youth or  Pikesville teen – he has very little experience with anything outside of his own small world.  At the beginning of this morning’s reading he is for the first time leaving his parents’ home, and he will spend the next 20 years of his life learning about the outside world.  He lives with his Uncle Laban, he marries – twice actually.  He becomes a father and learns a trade. He grows wealthy.  And then, after all is said and done, Jacob decides to return home.  The very last scene in this morning’s portion depicts that moment – as he crosses the border back into the land of Israel, the text tells us that angels of God met him, and at that very moment he reentered the land of his birth.

There is a traditional explanation for the appearance of those angels, which is that each person, when they enter the land of Israel, is matched with a sort of Israeli guardian angel, who will accompany that person during their time in the Holy Land.  In this sense the angels in the text are connected to a physical place, to the land of Israel itself.  My problem with this has always been that angels are not understood, even in the Torah, as being physical creatures.  They are instead spiritual beings, not bound to a place or a person.  But in my mind they are still symbolically connected to the idea of home, and I believe their appearance in the text is a sign that Jacob truly has returned to the place of his birth.

And for that to work, we have to think about home in a different way.  We have to understand the idea of home not as a physical place – home is not the land of Israel, it is not an Amish enclave, home is not even Pikesville in any physical sense.   Instead, home is a place of character, home is a place of values.  Our children return home to us in a spiritual sense when they decide to live their lives in a way that makes us proud.  When Judaism is an important part of who they are, they have come home.  When they make good choices, when they do something in their lives to make the world a better place, they have come home.  When they value family, when they are kind and caring, when their morals are strong, in all of these ways, they return to the place they were raised, they come home.  Not in any kind of physical sense, but in the spiritual sense of knowing where they’ve come from, of knowing who they are, and of knowing where they want to go and who they want to be.  And we have to remember that that can happen here, or in New York, or Washington, or Boston, or anyplace.

That would be my hope and prayer for the babies we’ve named this morning – for Harper and Brynn and Phoebe and Reese .  It may be hard for their parents to believe, but it won’t be so long before their little children are on their on rumspringas, whatever that will be.  But wherever they go, however far away, wherever they live, whatever they do, may they come home again and again, even as they learn and grow, and spread their wings, and fly.

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You Can Run…

You know the second half of the phrase.  You truly can’t hide, especially from yourself.  Here is the unedited version of the Torah portion column that was published in today’s Baltimore Jewish Times.  Their editors decided to cut out the section about Dave Mason and Traffic. The song ‘Feelin’ Alright’ appeared on Traffic’s eponymously titled 1968 album.  Joe Cocker made the song famous with his hard driving version, recorded for his 1969 record ‘With a Little Help From My Friends.’  The original version by Traffic is more laid back, but it still has that distinctive shuffle.  Give it a listen at this link:  Traffic/Feelin Alright.

Deception is everywhere surrounding Jacob, a virtual dance of deception from which he cannot escape.  He has been raised in a dysfunctional family, where his parents Isaac and Rebecca favor different children.  He cannot trust his brother Esau, who is his rival for affection, power, and the ever illusive birthright and blessing.  In the end, Jacob is trapped by the deception that surrounds him.  Not in the sense that he is fooled.  He is not, and in fact understands exactly what is going on around him.  But rather in the sense the he begins to engage in it, and in the process he learns something about himself:  he, too, is a master at deception.

Perhaps that is why Jacob flees from his parents’ home.  It is true – Esau is angry with him, and he has lied to his father.  But he could have worked through it with Rebecca’s help and his own cunning mind.  There is, however, one thing Jacob cannot escape in the home of his birth – himself.  He has taken a long, hard look in the mirror, and he does not like what he sees.  There is an ugliness in his soul, a growing ease with the telling of lies and a growing power to manipulate others.  He has been trapped by the continual deception of Isaac and Rebecca’s home because it has become his way of life, his method of interacting with the world.

So Jacob runs, hoping to escape the ugliness he sees in himself, wondering if he can recreate himself in a new place.  Perhaps with a new start he can become a new person, more honest, truer to himself and to God.  Some of you may remember the lyrics to the great Dave Mason song “Feelin’ Alright”: “Seems I got to have a change of scene; ‘Cause every night I have the strangest dreams; Imprisoned by the way it could have been; Left here on my own or so it seems;  I got to leave before I start to scream…”

That is Jacob at the beginning of Parshat Ya’yeitzei.  Alone, wrestling with his conscious, fleeing from what he experienced as the prison of Isaac and Rebecca’s home, dreaming of things untold, looking for a better place, and a better self.  What he will learn in the course of his journey is that deception is everywhere.  Laban’s home, where he will live for the next two decades, is also a place of deceit and cunning and lies.  To survive there Jacob once again becomes the master deceiver.

So it always is.  You cannot escape from yourself.  A change of scene does not produce a change in values, personality, morals, or ethics.  That only happens with serious self-reflection, with deep and committed work of the mind and soul, with an internal battle to conquer your worst predilections.  So Jacob will ultimately wrestle the mysterious angel, at that moment finally coming to terms with who he is and who he wants to be.  Only then can he return home a new man, leaving deception behind,  finally prepared for an honest confrontation with the legacy he left behind.

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To the End of the Land

‘To the End of the Land’ is the English language title of David Grossman’s 2008 best selling novel about Israel, family, love, war, hate, fear, loss, and the sacred quality of land.  This book is no beach read.  Weighing in at close to 700 pages, it asks the reader to wrestle with dark and difficult themes and challenging questions, and it does not offer easy answers or happy endings.  Having just finished the book last night, I find its narrative and even more so its characters haunting me this morning.  There is nothing else I have read that so truly captures the modern Israeli experience, namely the challenge of living with hope and love under the constant shadow of the knowledge that life altering tragedy is a moment away.  In Grossman’s Israel, it is not a question of will tragedy strike, it is a question of when.

There is a deep sadness at the heart of the book’s narrative.  It stems from the bitter, unendurable, and yet necessary and seemingly eternal entanglement of the Israelis and Palestinians.  Like Jacob and his angelic antagonist in Genesis 32, the two sides both wrestle and embrace at the same time, pulling one another closer and closer, unable to disengage even when both are damaged in the process.  The difference between a strong hug and a smothering is only a matter of degree.  A fine line indeed.

And in that kind of world, with that kind of pressure, with that much at stake, both personally and nationally, how is it possible to maintain one’s moral equilibrium?  Is it possible for anything to stay pure and true, can anything – a people, a land, a sacred promise – escape corruption?  Even a child?  Perhaps particularly a child?  Or does life, by its very definition, require moral compromise.  And if so, where are the lines?  When does the compromise take you too far, so far that you can’t ever find your way back?

And so, ‘to the end of the land.’  To a place of no return, to a place where the land itself, or perhaps the meaning of the land, is no longer what it once was.  ‘Tiyyul’ in Israel is a powerful idea, to this very day.  It captures the idea that the land should be walked, experienced, slept on, lived in, worked.  And Grossman’s writing beautifully captures that Israeli sensibility with its vivid descriptions of the dusty dirt roads, of the spare and beautiful flowers that bloom in the arid wilderness, of the ancient mountains and biblical landscapes.  The ancient Israelites walked the land, and the modern Israelis are still at it, still absorbing its essence in the most physical way possible.  The land IS sacred, soaked in Jewish history, the place where Israelite kings ruled and Jewish scholars recreated their faith and Jewish soldiers fought for freedom and a Jewish nation was born anew after two thousand years.

At the same time, what the land demands is so high.  The loyalty and sacrifice, the difficulty and determination, the toughness and moral compromise.  The Hebrew title to Grossman’s novel is strikingly different from its English counterpart – אשה בורחת מבשורה – A Woman Flees from News.  The book’s protagonist, Ora, walks into the wilderness of Israel as a way of escaping from what might happen in the real world.  But in the end she must of course return.  The ideal, mythic land of Israel exists only in imagination and religious text.  It can be visited for a time, but the real Israel is where one’s day to day life must be lived.  And the real Israel is like any other place in this world.  It is both breathtakingly beautiful and filled with dust and debris, glorious and delicate, but at the same time dreary and difficult.  It can rip one’s heart away, and make one’s heart sing.  Grossman’s wonderful, poignant, powerful novel is exactly the same way.

 

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Idols Old and New

this a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 11/4/17

Three months from now, on Saturday February 3rd, I hope you’ll all be back for services.  That morning we’ll read from the Torah Parshat Yitro, which contains probably the best known text in the entire Bible, the Ten Commandments.  You may know that the 10 commandments are symbolically represented here in the Berman Rubin Sanctuary – where?  Right!  On top of the ark just behind me, with the carving of the two tablets, and you’ll notice, even if you can’t read Hebrew, that there are 5 lines on each tablet, and each line has two words – those are the first two words of each of the 10 commandments.  Lets go through them quickly – they are –

There is a wonderful George Carlin bit about the 10 commandments, one of my favorite comedy bits, and in 3 or 4 minutes he deconstructs the 10 commandments to show that at the end of the day they are really only one commandment, or maybe one and a half at best.  I would like to play that game just a bit this morning, and to argue that of the 10, the two most important are the first two commandments. Number one, which is understood as ‘believe in God!’  And the second – which is understood fundamentally as ‘don’t worship idols.’  Those two commandments are at the core of Jewish life, they are overarching principles, while the rest of the 10 attend to details.  And I would also argue that the first two commandments – believing in God and not worshipping idols – define Abraham’s life as the first Jew.

The believing in God part is easy to see, both in last week’s Torah portion and this week’s.  When God suddenly appears to Abraham last week, asking him to leave his native land, to give up everything that is familiar to him, Abraham does not say a single word.  Instead, with a straight forward sense of faith, with an iron cast belief that the God speaking to him is authentic, he simply packs his bags and he leaves.  And in the portion we read this morning Abraham shows a similar strength of faith and belief when God comes to him and tells him to sacrifice his son Isaac.  Again, Abraham says not a single word.  God’s message comes to Abraham, and the text simply says וישכם אברהם בבוקר – Abraham rose up early in the morning and went about the business of fulfilling God’s command.  Now I don’t know about you, but my faith is not strong enough to listen to a command like that, even if it did come from God.  But Abraham’s faith is so strong that he never for a moment doubts that God will do what is right in the end.

But if Abraham’s belief in God is one of the defining qualities of his life, his rejection of idols seems to be almost, if not as, important.  Perhaps the most famous midrashic text of all time is about Abraham and the rejection of idols.  It is so well known many people believe it to be in the Torah itself.  It tells the story of a young Abraham, working in his father’s idol shop back in Ur.  And one day while his father is away, Abraham smashes all the idols with a hammer.  When his father returns, he yells at his son – what did you do?  Abraham’s answer to his father is tongue in cheek – “I didn’t do anything, the idols were fighting and they smashed each other!”  “That is not possible,” his father replied, “they are made of clay, they can’t move, they don’t think!”  And Abraham had his opening – “Well then, father,” he said, “why do you worship them?”

And that rejection of idols, that rejection of anything or any culture that is not monotheistic, becomes a second defining quality of Abraham’s life.  Abraham is called in the Torah העברי, which we commonly translate as ‘the Hebrew.’  But the root means ‘over there,’ or ‘the other side,’ so Abraham is the one who stands apart.  That is one of the ways I read the Binding of Isaac story.  When everyone else was sacrificing their children to their gods, Abraham stood apart, ultimately refusing to sacrifice his son to God.  When everyone else buried their family members in a common burial area, Abraham stood apart, purchasing a distinct plot of land for his family.  And as a boy, when he was growing up in a culture where everyone else worshiped idols, he stood apart, rejecting the idea of idol worship, and embracing the idea of a universal creator of all.

Over time the prohibition of idol worship became one of Judaism’s most important commandments and values.  There is an entire Talmudic tractate, Avodah Zarah, devoted to the dangers of idol worship.  Over and over again the great biblical prophets of our tradition warn against the worship of idols.  And of the 613 commandments, there are only three that a Jew must never violate, even to pain of death – and idol worship is one of them.  That intense, almost visceral, rejection of idolatry all began with Abraham, and it has continued to this very day in the lives of individual Jews and in Jewish communities through the ages.

Of course many things can be idols.  I would guess just about everyone in this room knows that Apple released a new state of the art iPhone yesterday.  And isn’t there something just a little bit idol worshippy about how people line up from 6 in the morning to get their hands on that object, about how they walk out of the stores with reverent expressions on their faces?  Here is David Brooks writing about modern idols in a column that appeared in this week’s NY Times:  “idolatry is seductive because in the first phase it seems to work. The first sip of that martini tastes great. At first a new smartphone seems to give you power and control. The status you get from a new burst of success seems really sensational. But then idols fail. What seemed to offer you more control begins to control you.”

Being honest, we all probably have our personal idols, objects or ideas that we worship to one degree or another in unhealthy ways.  It could be almost anything.  Food or alcohol or drugs.  Wealth and status and money.  Dare I suggest, the Ravens?  But there are times when communities also begin to worship idols.  In the Jewish tradition we have our very own example of that, in Exodus 32 and the story of the Golden Calf.

What are today’s communal idols?  One would be a culture that tells us success is defined by material possessions.  Another today would be political orthodoxy – worshipping at the feet of the political ideology of your chosen party, whether the right or the left.  Self interest might be a third – the growing trend to prioritize the needs of the individual over the needs of the community.  All of these things on the surface seem to offer you more control, but in the end, as Brooks pointed out, they end up controlling you.

So you see Abraham was a hero not only for his own time, he also is a hero for our time.  As we read about him in the Torah we are reminded of how important it is to identify the idols in our lives, whether communal or individual.  But we are also reminded that identifying these idols is not sufficient – they must also be confronted, and eventually destroyed.  It is when Abraham destroys the idols that surrounded him that he is finally free to begin his journey and live the rest of his life.  So it is for all of us as well – may we do that work in community, fellowship, and faith, with God’s help –

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Imagination

a text version of my sermon from Shabbat Hol HaMoed Sukkot –

As the Nobel prizes have been awarded in the last week the winners have been making their media rounds, patiently engaging in interviews and answering questions about their work and what got them to where they are.  On the radio a few days ago I heard Rainer Weiss, one of the physics prize winners, talking about his work.  In the course of his interview he referred over and over again to Albert Einstein, saying that his life’s work had in large part been based on principles that Einstein had theorized about more than 100 years ago.  The problem for Einstein was that the technical ability to verify many of his own theories didn’t exist back then.  But today, that technology is in place, and Rainer Weiss’s Nobel prize in physics was awarded because he had finally been able to scientifically prove some of Einstein’s ideas.

It is an astonishing thing to think about.  Even with no way to test many of his theories, without any ability to do trial and error experimentation in a lab, the work that Einstein did more than a century ago has been proven right time and time again, and what is more, to this day remains the fundamental bedrock of modern physics.  Einstein himself often spoke about thought experiments.  He would, for example – in his mind! –  put an imaginary person on an imaginary train, and then imagine that the train was moving at the speed of light.  And then he asked himself questions.  If it was possible to actually make this happen, how would the person on the train experience time and space?  How would someone watching the person on the train experience the same things?  And as Einstein answered these questions, his theories came together.

These thought experiments were so important to Einstein that some believe it was his ability to imagine these things, and not his ability to do complicated math, that made him the greatest physicist of all time.  His original paper on the theory of relativity, written in 1905, is mostly prose with a few relatively simple algebraic equations sprinkled in.  It wasn’t a math brain that set Einstein apart and that made him a genius – it was his ability to imagine things, to look at something that anyone could see, but to understand it and think about it in a totally different way.

It is a little bit like the way another genius, Michelangelo, approached his work.  Art historians have long struggled to understand how Michelangelo created his great sculptures.  To this day the particular techniques he used remain largely unknown.  But the best possible explanation for his greatness may come from the way he was able to use his imagination.  Speaking about one of his statues, he once said “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”  You and I might look at the same block of marble and see it simply as a solid piece of stone.  But Michelangelo’s imagination was such that in his mind there was a figure locked inside that block – and all he had to do was take the stone away to reveal that figure.  In the same way Einstein could look out at the universe, and in his imagination he saw the physics in it that holds it all together and makes it work.

Einstein grew up in a secular Jewish household, with very little exposure to traditional Jewish life, and in fact he went to a Catholic school for his elementary education.  But I’ve always wondered if his Jewish roots helped to free his mind and imagination, giving him the ability to see things differently than other people.  Judaism would not exist without the ability of Jews and the Jewish people to look at the world at to imagine it in a different way – to use Michelangelo’s phrase, to ‘see the angel and to set it free.’

This is what Abraham was able to do, and Moses as well.  Abraham looked out on a world of idol worshippers, where the people around him offered their children as sacrifices to the gods.  But in his mind he imagined a different world, a world with a loving and forgiving God, a world where human sacrifice was forbidden, and a world where God was unique – where there was only one God.  And because Abraham could imagine this world, could see it in his mind’s eye, he worked his entire life to make that world a reality.

It was the same for Moses.  Moses was raised in the Egyptian palace, where Pharaoh was ‘god,’ in a culture where royalty was everything and slavery was part and parcel of every day life.  But Moses could imagine a different world, a world where values like freedom and human dignity were lived and embraced, a world where slaves deserved to be free.  And because Moses could see that world in his imagination when no one else was able to see it, he walked into Pharaoh’s throne room and demanded freedom for his people.

And that same sense of imagination is at the heart of the modern state of Israel.  Herzl’s famous phrase was אם תרצו אין זו אגדה – if you imagine it, it will come into being.  And he saw in his mind a Jewish state in the ancient land of Israel, when almost no one else at the time could imagine that possibility.  The first settlers who came to the land looked out at a desert wilderness, a barren land, where nothing grew.  But what they imagined was ארץ זבת חלב ודבש – a land filled with milk and honey.  And in their mind’s eye they saw green fields, and orange groves, and vineyards.  And if you go to Israel today, you’ll see with your own eyes how that vision becomes Israel’s reality.

Even our celebration of the festivals is grounded in our ability to imagine a different world.  On Passover we sit at the seder table and imagine that we are slaves.  On Shavuot we stay up all night studying Torah, and in that exercise we imagine that we are at the foot of Mt Sinai, waiting for God’s revelation.  And on Sukkot, we build booths in our yards, eat and sometimes even sleep in them, and we imagine that we are wandering in the wilderness and searching for the Promised Land.

In each case the tradition asks us to look out at the world and to see what is – to acknowledge that fully and honestly –  but at the very same time to imagine what could and should be.  And then to imagine what role we will play in making that vision become a new reality for all.  As Einstein himself said:  “Logic will get you from A to Z, but imagination will get your everywhere.”

Shabbat Shalom, Hag Sameach

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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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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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