Category Archives: Bible

The Stranger

IMG_1028 2     It was 42 years ago this fall that I asked my mom to drive me to the Oakdale Mall, in Binghamton NY, where I walked into Tower Records and bought the first rock and roll album of my life.  Knowing me as many of you do, you might be surprised to find out that that record was not a Grateful Dead album – it would be another year or so before I began to get into the Grateful Dead.  Instead, the record was Billy Joel’s ‘the Stranger.’  

     The record had been released in September, and by November of 1977 you couldn’t help but hear one of the songs from the album every single time you were in the car.  The love song Just the Way You Are was the biggest hit, rising to #3 on the billboard charts, but the album had three other songs in the top twenty five, including She’s Always a Woman and Only the Good Die Young.  Rebel that I was, that was my favorite at the time.  

     You may remember the cover of the record, a photograph of Billy Joel, dressed in a suit, reclining on a bed, and staring intently at an object that lay next to him.  Anyone remember what it was?  A mask, resting on a pillow, its vacant eyes looking up towards the singer.  The image reflected both the title of the album – the Stranger – and also the lyric of the song of the same name, found on side one – it was the second track.

     I’ve always understood the image, and the song, to be about the way we separate our public and private selves.  We all have a public persona, generally our ‘best face’ that we use when we are in front of the world.  We want not only to look our best, but to be our best – calm and organized, satisfied with life, funny and fun to be with, patient and kind, competent and wise.  But for many of us there is also a private face – in the photo on the cover of the Billy Joel record it is represented by the mask resting on the pillow.  Here is how the song lyric describes it:  we all have a face that we hide away forever, but we take them out and show ourselves when everyone is gone…

     It might seem like a strange thing to say, but I often think about that song, and that lyric, when I read this week’s Torah portion, called Vayera.  Abraham is the portion’s main character, and I’ve always been deeply puzzled by the contradictory Abrahams that the text portrays.  On the one hand there is a heroic Abraham.  This is the Abraham who argues with God about whether or not the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah should be destroyed.  You’ll remember the passage – one of the Bible’s most famous.  God tells Abraham of the plan to destroy the cities, and Abraham, in a direct dialogue, challenges God.  Is this the just thing to do? Abraham demands.  And then Abraham pushes God – what if there are fifty righteous people?  What about forty five?  Forty?  Thirty?  Working his way down to ten, Abraham demands of God, would you spare the cities to save the ten?  And somewhat astonishingly, God agrees, saying if there are ten righteous people, I will spare the cities.

     This is the Abraham we can all stand and cheer for!  This is the Abraham who is fearless in his pursuit of justice, not even afraid to challenge God, if it means that innocents will be spared.  To me this is the outer Abraham, the person Abraham wants the world to see.

     But then there is another Abraham in this morning’s portion, what I call the inner Abraham.  This is the Abraham we meet at the beginning of the binding of Isaac story.  God comes to Abraham and demands that he offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice.  And after Abraham’s eloquent argument with God about Sodom and Gomorrah – arguing so passionately for the lives of people he didn’t know – we expect him to stand up to God here also.  To say ‘God, he is my son.  I am not going to sacrifice my son.  Even to you.’

     But what does he actually say?  Not a single word.  Not one.  Instead, he quickly and efficiently follows God’s instructions, gets up early in the morning, saddles the donkey, takes the servants and Isaac, splits the wood, and sets out for the mountain, where, at least as far as we know, he intends to sacrifice his son.  Not one word.

     And I’ve always understood the dichotomy in Abraham’s responses to be indicative of his public and his private sides.  On the outside, Abraham is just, a great leader of men, brave, compassionate, wise, and strong.  On the inside he has a stranger – an Abraham you rarely see, conflicted, filled with doubts, worried about disappointing others, and unable to stand up for what he truly believes in.  

     I suspect many of us can identity with both Abrahams.  What is it we see when we look at that mask on the cover of the Billy Joel record?  What is the inner side that we rarely if ever expose to the world.  Maybe there is anger there, or fear, or doubt.  Maybe it is poor self image, or a deep sadness about something that happened to us long ago, or guilt.  Whatever it might be, we keep that part of ourselves out of the public view.  We might know it is there, but we certainly don’t want others to know about it.  So we cover it up, close it off, compartmentalize it in some way, remove it and set it aside.  

     You might guess this can be a difficult challenge for people in the clergy business.  We are public figures, and we often have public faces, personas that we show to everyone, that reflect, at least we hope, our very best selves.  And so we smile and we laugh, we are attentive in our conversations, we are witty and engaging, we are thoughtful and patient and hopefully we are also compassionate and wise.  We are like the Abraham in the Sodom and Gomorrah story.  

     But the real challenge, the real test, what will really define our lives, is this:  how are we when we get home after a long day of being our best?  Is the compassion still there?  The wit and wisdom?  The attentiveness and caring?

     Those of you who were here last week heard Rabbi Saroken tell a classic Hasidic story about Rabbi Zusya.  At the end of the story the Rabbi tells his students he now knows when he dies, he will not be asked ‘why weren’t you Moses?’  Instead, he says, I’ll be asked ‘Why were you not Rabbi Zusya.’

     I’d like to put a finer point on that story this morning.  Because my sense of it is this – when my time finally comes, and I am standing before the great Heavenly Court, I will not be asked ‘Why weren’t you Rabbi Schwartz?’  But I think I will be asked, ‘Why weren’t you Steve?’

     If you’ll permit me, I’ll wrap it up this morning going from one great lyricist to the next, from Billy Joel to another Billy – William Shakespeare.  You may remember the wonderful line from Hamlet, Act 1, scene 3, the advice Polonius gives to his son Laertes, who is about to leave for Paris:

“This above all:  to thine own self be true, 

And it must follow, as the night the day, 

thou canst not then be false to any man.”

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Mirror Images

 

    When our children were growing up we had an imaginary friend who lived in the house with us, whose name was AILAT – spelled A I L A T.  Ailat used to turn up in all kinds of places and situations, but mostly appeared when something had gone wrong.  If, for example, a glass of water spilled during dinner, it was often Ailat’s fault.  One time when someone had taken a pair of scissors and given a teddy bear a haircut, when we went to talk to Talia about it she told us that actually Ailat had done it.  And after a while it seemed that pretty much every time something went wrong, every time the children did something they knew they were not supposed to do, it was actually Ailat’s fault, and not theirs.  Ailat, you see, had essentially become the scapegoat in the Schwartz household.  

     The scapegoat is of course a central symbol of the most sacred day of our year, Yom Kippur.  Tomorrow morning we’ll read about the ritual the High Priest enacted on Yom Kippur day in ancient times at the Temple in Jerusalem.  One of the crucial moments of that ritual was the designation of a scapegoat, and once that goat was identified, the sins of the people were transferred onto it, and it was sent away into the wilderness.  Once the goat was banished, it was as if the sins of the Israelites were instantaneously taken away, never to return.

     That was essentially the function that our imaginary friend Ailat was playing in our home.  The children took whatever sin they had committed, whatever wrong they had done, and they conveniently placed it on Ailat’s shoulders.  And once you did that, like the scapegoat, Ailat was gone.  After all, you couldn’t find her to punish her, because she didn’t really exist in the first place.  

     The truth is, we don’t even need an imaginary friend to blame our faults and failings on.  If you are a parent you are certainly familiar with the following scenario.  You are driving somewhere, a long trip, and your children are in the backseat.  Things begin to get a bit unruly back there, and when you turn around to calm things down, the response is inevitably, ‘he did it first’ or ‘she started it!’  So forget about the imaginary friend – we are just as happy to blame our mistakes and wrongdoings on another person, who does exist!  Even if that person is our sibling!  Maybe especially if that person is our sibling!

     The thing about it is it doesn’t stop with that back seat bickering we are all so familiar with.  The blame game gets more complicated and sophisticated as we get older, but it continues, and we never stop looking for scapegoats.  It might be the student in high school who blames her English teacher because of the bad grade she got on her paper.  Maybe it is the worker who feels he is being held back by his boss, and if only he had a different supervisor, he would be VP by now.  And I’ve had more than one conversation with parents of students in our Hebrew school who have blamed our teachers and our bar/bat mitzvah program for the fact that their child didn’t do as much as they hoped the morning of their special day.  The blame game is played all the time in the business world.  When the VW diesel admissions scandal first broke the higher ups initially blamed it on the engineers who changed the software.  Or what about politics?  Politicians play the blame game as well as anyone, maybe better, blaming the media, or each other, or embracing bizarre conspiracy theories as a way of explaining why something went wrong. 

     What folks often don’t consider is that, as Cassius so wisely said to Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julies Caesar, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves…”  The fault is in ourselves.  You see it might be the high school student didn’t put the time in that she needed to do well on her paper.  Maybe the worker who thinks his boss is holding him back forgets that he shows up 10 minutes late every day, or the bat mitzvah girl’s parents don’t realize they never asked their daughter to practice at home.  Wouldn’t it be refreshing one day to see a politician step up to a podium and say ‘this is on me?’  But it is so much easier to blame someone, or something, else, than it is to look in the mirror and see the fault in ourselves.  

     Of course this is a natural human tendency.  No one likes to get caught doing something they know they are not supposed to be doing, and no one likes to be confronted with their mistakes, their faults, and their frailties.  The Torah makes this clear with the story of the very first humans, Adam and Eve.  You’ll remember for sure that they committed a sin – what was it?  They ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, a tree from which God had specifically told them not to eat.  

     But what you may not remember is the conversation between God, Adam, and Eve after the critical mistake had been made.  It goes something like this:  God asks Adam, “Did you eat of the fruit of the tree?”  Adam responds:  “Eve made me do it!  She gave me the fruit, and I ate it!”  God then turns to Eve, and says “What have you done?”  Eve quickly responds, “It is not my fault, the snake tricked me!”  The Torah seems to be telling us that our tendency to blame others for our problems and mistakes is as old as humanity itself.

     Now of course sometimes there are other factors that cause us to fail, despite our best efforts.  Both nature and nurture do play a role in who we are and what we can achieve.  A rough path early in life can create huge obstacles that a young person might struggle to overcome.  Our genetic makeup can work against us, confronting us with physical and emotional challenges that others don’t face.  And there are people out there who can hold us back, teachers who genuinely don’t like us, or a boss who is jealous of our talent and sets us up to fail. 

     But I worry that we’ve become too comfortable, even too eager, to find someone or something else to blame for our own troubles.  Judaism insists that we have free will, and that we can use that gift wisely or poorly.  When we use it wisely, when we choose well, we’ll tend to do better, to be better, and to be blessed more often and more deeply in our lives.  It is true, we don’t control everything!  But some things we certainly do control.  Most importantly of all, how we react to the difficult circumstances that life tends to put in our way.  In an age when we commonly flee from responsibility, Yom Kippur comes along and reminds us that we should actually embrace it.

     I think that is why the tradition asks us to recite the Al Cheit list so many times in the next 24 hours.  In a traditional service, that list of sins is recited twice tonight, twice tomorrow morning during Shaharit, twice more during musaf, and just to top it all off two more times during the minhah service.  Eight times!!  Why all the repetition?  Have we really sinned that much in the year that has just ended?  

     I think that almost constant repetition of the Al Cheit list is intended to remind us of two things.  The first is that we often have a hard time admitting we were wrong.  And the second thing is, if we do admit we’ve made a mistake, we tend to blame it on someone else.  Just like Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the snake.  And so we say, again and again, Al Cheit she’chatanu – On the sin that we sinned.  That reminds us, you see, that we have done things that are wrong.  It also reminds we might have chosen to do otherwise, so the blame, as Cassius said to Brutus, is in ourselves.   

     Let me just for one moment return to my children’s imaginary friend.  Anyone happen to remember her name?  Ailat.  Spelled?  AILAT.  I am sure you all know the trick of holding letters up to a mirror.  What happens?  The letters appear in the mirror in reverse order.  So if you were to take Ailat, write it on a piece of paper, and hold it up to the mirror, you would have T A L I A – which spells?  Talia.  The name of our oldest child.  She was quite surprised when she one day realized her imaginary friend was a reflection of herself.

     Yom Kippur reminds us of how important it is to look honestly into that mirror.  To see who we truly are, what mistakes we have made, and to let go of our scapegoats.  We don’t do this to feel shame or sadness.  We do it instead to embrace both responsibility and possibility.  Responsibility for what we have done, and the possibility that we can make amends and do better in a new year. 

    That is the message of this sacred day.  May we take it to heart tonight, and enter this new year with confidence and faith.  

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Leaping Souls

There is a lithograph that hangs at the end of our upstairs hall.  It is a depiction of one of the Bible’s best known scenes, showing a sleeping Jacob at the foot of a tall ladder that runs from Earth to Heaven.  On the ladder angels can be seen, seemingly going from one place to the other, although it is a bit unclear from the picture if they are going up or down.

I’ve always read the biblical story (Genesis 28:10-19) as a narrative about the way God’s presence can suddenly appear in unexpected places at unexpected times.  Here was Jacob, alone in the wilderness, in a place that might actually be described as ‘God-forsaken,’ and he has an experience that reminds him that God is still with him.  Even there.  But the lithograph in our home has given me a different perspective on the story.  The two lower angels seem to beckoning to Jacob, waving their arms upwards, as if to say, ‘Rise with us, shake off your slumber, you can follow us to a higher place, a more sacred space, and we can show you the way.’

Freud might say the angels are a representation of Jacob’s unconscious.  Even while he sleeps there is a part of him that is striving to do and be better, to ‘rise’ to become the person he knows he should be.  After all, Jacob has at best a complicated history.  He has just deceived his father, and this seems to be part of a pattern in his life, having previously done something similar to his brother Esau.  He knows Esau is threatening to kill him.  So Jacob flees for his life.  He is physically alone when he dreams of the ladder and the angels, but he is also suffering from an existential loneliness, and perhaps he is engaged in what the Sages would call a Heshbon HaNefesh, an accounting of the soul.  So that night, alone with his thoughts, he dreams not only of a way out, but also of a way up.

The Kotsker Rebbe taught that when we are born God sends our souls from Heaven to Earth on a ladder, and that the fundamental task of our lives is to climb back up that ladder in the course of our earthly journey.  But there is a trick.  For according to the Kotsker, God pulls the ladder up, just out of our reach, the moment we arrive on Earth.  We might sense the ladder is there, but we can’t see it.  Some souls leap, trying to grasp the ladder, and after trying for a time get discouraged.  But other souls continue to leap, year after year, knowing that something sacred is there, and never giving up on finding it.  The Kotsker Rebbe said that for those souls God has mercy, and ultimately reveals the ladder to them.

Our task then, in the words of the Kotsker Rebbe, is to be leaping souls.

That image is a powerful one, particularly during our fall holiday season.  We do spend these weeks thinking about our lives, weighing our own characters, and wondering what we can do to be better.  Just like leaping, the process can be tiring, even discouraging at times.  We know ourselves well, we know the foibles and the flaws, the shortcomings and the sorrows.  But we ask God for the strength to continue to leap, to almost literally jump forward into a new year, with all of its possibility and hope.  A metaphoric leap of faith.

The picture in our hall reminds me, day in and day out, that the ladder is out there, even if I can’t see it everyday.  Like the angels with Jacob, there are so many forces in my life that constantly encourage me to continue to reach for that first rung.  People who love me and trust me.  Family and friends with whom I’ve shared the joys and sadnesses of life.  The beauty of God’s world that brings to me a sense of the sacred.  And always the start of a New Year and the chance to both return and renew.IMG_0932

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Words, Tweets, etc

A text version of my sermon from Shabbat on 8/3/19.

     As Jews we are often referred to as the People of the Book, but we might also just as well be called the People of the Word, or maybe better to say the People of Words.  We are great talkers, conversationalists, and communicators.  We like to talk so much we are known for talking with our hands.  We even have a term in our culture for a person who is a great talker, fondly referring to him or her as a kibitzer.  Kibitz is an interesting word – it comes to us from Yiddish, but it is formed from a Hebrew root – ק ב צ – a word which in the Bible means to gather together.  Have you ever realized that kibbutz (the settlements in Israel) and kibitz (to talk and joke around) are essentially the same words?  Formed from the same root? Why?  Because when you gather together you make small talk, and we Jews have perfected that to an art form.  

     It shouldn’t be surprising.  The truth is Judaism has long been invested in the idea that words have power, that they are significant, going all the way back to biblical times.  The very first story in the Torah, the Creation narrative, is an illustration of the power of words.  The phrase Vayomer Elohim – And God SAID – appears 8 times in the first chapter of Genesis, and each time another aspect of the universe is brought into being.  If you are in the habit of reading the weekly Torah portion, you would know that this week’s double portion, Matot-Ma’aseh, begins with a series of laws about vows and oaths, and the power that those words, once spoken, can carry.  And what is it we call the 10 Commandments in Hebrew?  The עשרת הדברות – what does that mean?  Literally translated that would mean something like the ‘ten utterances.’  And of course next week we’ll begin reading the fifth and final book of the Torah, called in English Deuteronomy, but its name in Hebrew is?  D’varim!  Words!!  The very first verse of that book begins with this phrase:  אלא הדברים אשר דבר משה – these are the words that Moses spoke.

     Of course we don’t necessarily need the Torah to teach us this lesson, because we know from the experiences of our own lives that words have power.  The old saying that we memorized as children is ‘sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me.’  That phrase is used as a kind of protective shield when people are saying cruel things, as if the hurtful words will in some way bounce off, not able to hit their mark.  But of course it doesn’t work, and the truth is it doesn’t even really make sense.  A broken bone actually heals – particularly if you are a child – fairly quickly.  But when someone says something cruel to you, that crushing feeling and the sting of those words is remembered for years, and sometimes forever.

     The opposite is also true.  A word of kindness or encouragement or hope can literally change someone’s life for the better.  I vividly remember to this day two phone calls I received after I interviewed for rabbinical school.  The first call was to tell me that I would not be admitted, that I didn’t have the skills or the knowledge that the committee felt I needed to succeed in the program.  About two hours later my phone rang again.  It was a rabbi who had been on my interview panel, and the first thing he said to me was ‘I know you weren’t admitted today, but I want you to know I think you can be a terrific rabbi.’  And those eight words – I think you can be a terrific rabbi’ – literally changed my life.  I would not be standing here right now had they not be spoken to me.  It is that simple.  That is the power the words can have.

     The thing about it is we have a choice with the words that we use.  Maybe as a rabbi I have an extra sensitivity to this idea, because I am often in the position of speaking publicly.  When you are seen as being a leader, what you say – or what you tweet – can make a real difference.  The right words, carefully chosen and properly spoken, can inspire, soothe, heal, mend fences, and bring hope.  The wrong words can have exactly the opposite effect – they can literally break relationships, create mistrust, hurt people, and bring anger and divisiveness into a family, or a synagogue, or a community, or large scale, even into a country. 

    That is why the recent tweets from the President disparaging Baltimore and its representatives are so disappointing.  I am not sure why it is people choose to use hateful and hurtful words.  I suppose sometimes it comes from a place of ignorance, and other times from a place of fear.  Maybe people are angry, and they speak before they should – the old hit the send button when you should let that email sit in your draft box over night and reconsider it in the morning.  But I do know that when we coarsen or cheapen our language, when we curse and yell and rant and rave, what we ultimately end up doing is diminishing ourselves.  And I also know that the opposite is true – when we use language to encourage and elevate, to sooth and celebrate, when our words are kind and caring and hopeful, we grow closer with one another and we help to make a better world.

     I’ll never forget a number of years ago when I was in line at the bank.  A few people in front of me was a woman whom I know from the community.  The teller had asked her for ID, which she didn’t have.  She lit in to the teller, demeaning him, raising her voice, making sure the teller knew how important and powerful she was, and how unimportant and powerless the teller was.

     To his credit the teller wouldn’t budge, and finally the woman turned around to leave in great anger.  Suddenly she saw me standing there and stopped dead in her tracks.  She was horrified, embarrassed, and after pausing for a moment she said ‘Rabbi I am so sorry.  I never would have used those words if I knew you were standing there.’  Then she walked out.

     I don’t know if that moment changed her behavior, but it changed mine.  Since that day, no matter where I am or what I am doing, I strive to imagine that there is someone in line behind me, someone whom I respect, someone whom I would not want to disappoint.  Imagining that helps me choose my words more carefully, and consider my actions more thoughtfully.  It helps me, to use the words of our siddur from the Friday night service, lay down at night having no regret for what has happened during the day.

     One of my favorite lines in the entire prayer book is the sentence that begins the concluding personal paragraph of the amidah – anyone remember what it is? אלוקי נצור לשוני מרע ושפתי מדבר מרמה – My God, keep my tongue from evil, and my lips from speaking deceit – 

     So it should be for all of us.

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The Work of Our Hands

This is a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 7/27/19 –

     On three separate occasions I have been involved with the rabbinic ordination ceremonies at the Jewish Theological Seminary.  Once was my own ordination, the very moment I became a rabbi in my own eyes.  The other two times I was asked to participate in the ceremony by ordaining rabbinical students.  The ritual is simple but powerful.  The person being ordained is called forward, and words of blessing are spoken.  Then a tallit is taken and placed upon the student’s shoulders, and as the hands of the ordaining rabbi rest on the student’s shoulders, the student is for the very first time publicly called ‘Harav’ – rabbi.

     That ordination ritual comes in part from a scene in this morning’s Torah portion, one of the most poignant moments in the entire Bible.  God tells Moses that his time is almost up, that he is about to die.  God takes Moses to the top of a mountain outside the land, and shows him the place where the Israelites will make their home.  That in and of itself is painful – Moses, who has given everything to God and to the people will never see the fruits of his own labors.  But it is the simple exchange between Moses and God that follows that I find so striking.

     Moses says to God ‘OK, God, if I am not going to be the leader, then go ahead and appoint someone else to lead this people.’  And I’ve always felt this is Moses’ way of saying ‘God, no one else can do what I do!  If you think you can find another person to fill my shoes, go ahead, good luck!’  I’ve always read Moses’ response as a way of indicating to God that he is indispensable, of trying to remind God that God needs Moses, otherwise the whole project will fall apart.  

     But God’s response is devastating, at least that is the way it has always seemed to me.  Immediately, God responds to Moses:  קח לך את יהושע בן נון – just take Joshua! אשר רוח בו – he also has the spirit of God – וסמכת את ידך עליו – and lay your hands upon him.  In other words, God is saying, don’t worry Moses.  It won’t be hard to find someone to fill your shoes!  In fact, Joshua is right here.  So if you don’t mind, ordain him in front of the people, and he’ll be the leader from this point forward.  And that moment of ordination, that transfer of power, is marked in the Torah by Moses laying his hands upon Joshua’s shoulders.  At that very instant the people know that Moses is out, and Joshua is in.  And it is that laying of hands that became the symbol in Judaism of the transfer of authority, from one generation to the next, which is why it is used during rabbinic ordination ceremonies down to this very day.

     I’ve always wondered how Moses felt at that moment.  Wasn’t he crushed by God’s response?  Wouldn’t it have been nice if God had paused, at least for a minute or two, and said ‘You know you are right Moses, it won’t be easy to find someone to replace you!’  Bit it is like Joshua is right on the tip of God’s tongue!  God doesn’t even say ‘nice job Moses, here is a gold watch, I’ll set you up in a nice condo in Boca.’  No words of praise, no words of thank.  It is all matter of fact.  It is done in a second, almost before you even know what happened. It isn’t hard to imagine Moses standing off to the side, while Joshua, now suddenly the center of attention, is surrounded by the people.

     The passage has reminded me, as I encounter it year in and year out, of the all too common indignities of aging that confront us as the years go by.  One of the most difficult challenges that families face is the take the keys away moment.  I suspect you know what I’m talking about.  The family feels a person’s driving is no longer safe.  They fret and worry that the person might hurt him or herself, or someone else in an accident.  But they also know that driving is a major measure of independence, and that to take that away from their loved one will cause hurt and pain, embarrassment, and even anger.  But eventually, whether by hook or by crook, whether by force or subterfuge, those keys are taken.

      This scene plays out in our lives over and over again, in ways large and small.  It might be the moment you switch from a weekly singles game in tennis to a doubles game.  Or maybe it is the first year that the seder no longer takes place at your home, but moves to the home of a child or grandchild.  Some people retire from work willingly, eager to let go and enter a less stressful and demanding time of their lives.  But others have to be dragged out kicking and screaming, and they want to stay in the game for as long as they possibly can.  What was it that Bette Davis said?  Getting old ain’t for sissies.  And I’ve always understood the encounter between God and Moses in this morning’s Torah portion as that kind of moment, a moment where something is taken away from Moses, where his independence is lost, and his self worth is diminished.

     But I also wonder if Moses found some comfort in that moment that he laid his hands upon Joshua.  Because in a sense that means he had done his work well.  That because of his teaching, because of the way he had mentored Joshua, a new leader was ready when the time came.  Moses knew Joshua well, they had worked together, he must have been proud of him, he must have known that Joshua was qualified for the job, and that if anyone would be able to do it, he would be the one.  

     This is not to say that the moment wasn’t hard for Moses.  I am sure it was.  But maybe it wasn’t all bad.  Maybe balancing the sense of loss he felt was a sense of accomplishment.  That moment of semicha – of laying on the hands – is a moment of continuity, of acknowledging that we are part of a stream of tradition, that moves from one generation to the next.  And if we play our part well, then we will know that our values and the traditions that mean so much to us will be carried forward by the next generation, and the one after that.  

     So let us play our part.  To the best of our ability, with whatever strength God grants to us.  Knowing that no person is indispensable – not even a Moses.  But knowing also that if we are blessed in the course of our lives what we create can truly change the world for the better.  Consider these verses that conclude the 90th Psalm –  ויהי נועם ה׳ אלוקינו עלינו ומעשה ידינו כוננה עלינו, ומעשה ידינו כונניהו – The favor of the Lord our God be upon us.  God will establish the work of our hands.  The work of our hands God will surely establish.

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To the (Jewish) Graduates

This is a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 6/15/19.

Wednesday night Becky and I watched with pride as our nephew Ezra graduated, with 27 fellow classmates, from Krieger Schechter Day School.  The ceremony included the singing of Hebrew songs, words of Torah, and as you might expect presentation of diplomas.  It concluded with Rabbi Josh Gruenberg of Chizuk Amuno blessing the 8th grade class using the words of the Birkat Cohenim, words that happen to appear in this week’s Torah portion – May God bless you and keep you – May Gods light shine in your life, may God grant you grace – May God’s countenance turns towards you, may God bless you with peace.

     Many of you know those words because we use them to conclude Shabbat and Yom Too services here at Beth El.  They are also frequently heard at weddings and baby namings and brises.  And it struck me as I heard them Wednesday night that it was a particularly Jewish way – especially since the words were spoken in both Hebrew and English – that it was a particularly Jewish way to conclude a graduation ceremony.

     And it got me thinking about what kind of message I might give if I was asked to address a class of graduates, all of whom were Jewish?  What follows is my address to the Jewish graduating class – wherever they may be – of 2019.

My dear graduates:

     I stand before you today as a representative of the Jewish community.  That idea – of Jewish community – might not mean all that much to you today.  You live in, in fact you have grown up in, a world where  – particularly for younger people – everyone is blending together, and many of the traditional distinctions between people and communities are being broken down.  I am not suggesting that is necessarily bad, but I am suggesting that it is OK to see differences in people, and to be proud of those differences, even to celebrate them.  There is a distinctive Jewish approach to family life, to communal responsibility, to education, to charity, to civil rights, and to many other things as well.  I hope in the years ahead you’ll embrace that distinctive Jewish approach and embrace it with pride.

     I want you to know today that we need you.  With an aging population and a low birth rate, youth is a precious commodity in Jewish life today.  We need your spirit and optimism, we need your energy and enthusiasm, we need your presence in our synagogues and federations and JCCs.  I know all the research!  I’ve read all the articles that describe your generation as a generation that doesn’t join formal institutions, that doesn’t buy in to traditional structures, that doesn’t sit on boards, that prefers to meet in a pub and not in a sanctuary.  But we also know (because studies have told us) that your Jewish identity is important to you, that you are proud to be Jewish.  We know that you are determined, in a new way, to make the world a better place because you are in it.  And we know that your time is precious and you want to live healthy and balanced lives.  

     And so what I also want you to know today is that you need us.  You need us to help you deepen and strengthen your Jewish identity.  You need us because at some point you are going to need a strong Jewish community.  You need us because without synagogues, and without federations, and without JCCs, the Jewish identity that you are proud of will not be able to continue to exist.  You need us.  And I hope you know that we are trying to meet you where you are.  We are creating coffee houses and meditation and yoga centers, we are hosting cooking and card playing work shops, we have book clubs and High Holy Day hiking workshops, we have rock and roll musicians playing in our sanctuaries, we have self help gurus speaking from our lecterns.  We have young leadership networking programs and wine tasting events.  And yes, if you really want to know, we will absolutely meet you in a pub.  Happily so.  We know you want to be better people, more moral and ethical and accepting and caring.  We know you want to engage in Tikkun Olam.  What I ask you to consider is this:  embracing your Judaism is a way of embracing your humanity, of growing in spirit.  It doesn’t have to be done in the way we did it – by sitting in services and going to Hebrew school.  But it has to be done, and we can help you do it, if you will let us and if you will guide us.

     I would be remiss if I didn’t say a word or two about Israel.  There is a growing gap between us regarding the Jewish homeland.  We often see Israel as threatened and the underdog, as a small country living in a dangerous and often hostile neighborhood.  We remember the wars in ’67 and ’73, we lived through those moments.  Some of us remember when there was no Israel, when Jews had no place to go during the Second World War when the Nazis were determined to destroy the Jewish people.  To you WW II is an almost mythic memory.  Your entire lives Israel has not been in a war, and you know that Israel’s army is the most powerful in the Middle East – by far.  You see Israel as strong and dominating, as technologically advanced but morally challenged by its ongoing struggle with the Palestinians.  And you see that in Jewish communal life today your views about Israel are often unwelcome and unwanted.

     We owe you a seat at that communal table.  Your voice needs to be a part of the Israel conversation, and if we have excluded you from that conversation it is our fault, and not yours.  And we need to do better.   So I hope in the years ahead you will join us as we wrestle with and find meaning in Israel, respecting our views and the history we bring to the table, but with a promise from us that we will do the same for you.  I truly believe that you can help us to understand Israel’s challenges moving forward.  But I also believe that we can help you to understand Israel’s history, and that together we can help one another help Israel to be a place of which we are all proud.

     There are so many other things we should talk about, a whole laundry list of ideas and challenges and opportunities that are just around the bend for you.  Your Judaism, I hope, will play a role in all of it.  I hope you’ll remember the history of our people, its challenges and its triumphs. My grandparents were immigrants, which means that your great grandparents, or great great grandparents were, and that is something we shouldn’t forget.  I know this probably seems like its a long way off for you, and its presumptuous, but I hope one day you’ll have children – we need more Jews in the world!  We have to talk about marriage, an institution that is under siege today, but a primary value in Jewish life.  We need to talk about Jewish literacy, which is on the wane.  I am sad to say we need to talk about anti-Semitism, which at one point I thought your generation might not have to deal with, but it looks like I was wrong.  The list goes on and on and on.

     But the rabbi should not.  A graduation speech shouldn’t be too long.  I know you are eager – not only for this ceremony to be over, but also to begin the next stage of your life, to get out there into the world and spread your wings, and hopefully fly.  As you do let me leave you with this – May God bless you and protect you.  May God’s light shine in your life, may God grand you grace.  May God’s countenance turn towards you, granting you light, life, and peace.  

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Creative Process

People often ask about how sermons are constructed, wondering where I find ideas of what to talk about, why I choose certain references, what my creative process is.  Here are a few thoughts about the sermon I gave this past Shabbat, posted yesterday, that might give a bit of insight into how a sermon comes together (at least for me).  You can read the sermon text here.

First off, the hardest thing in my experience is deciding on the topic.  It seems on the surface like there are a million and one things to talk about, and I suppose there are.  But not all of them seem like they make for good sermon material, not all of them sound interesting (to me), and not all of them are appropriate for pulpit preaching.  Sometimes it feels like finding that idea is comparable to searching for the proverbial needle in the haystack.  You know it is in there somewhere, but it can be awfully hard to locate!

My ideas generally come from one of three places.  First, something from the weekly Torah portion.  It might be a verse, it might be a word, it might be something in the commentary.  But I often find my topic while flipping through the pages of the portion.  Secondly, I commonly find a sermon idea in something that happens in the course of the week.  A meeting I’ve attended, a conversation I’ve had, something I’ve seen, an interaction between two people at the bank.  So be careful, the rabbi is always watching! And the last source for me is the news.  An article I read in the paper, or something I hear on the radio.  That might not necessarily be a current event, but could be a reference to the anniversary of an important historical moment, or a strange factoid, or a story about another cultural custom.

Once I have my idea a process of free association begins to unfold.  Sometimes it is sort of organized, and I might jot a few notes down here or there, but mostly it happens in my head, and often when I am walking our dog around the neighborhood.  (interestingly I generally do that without my mobile phone)  How this works I honestly am not exactly sure.  I think it has something to do with just giving my mind the space to float a bit, to think about things not immediately connected to anything in particular.  But I suspect that sermon kernel is running in the my back of my head the entire time, like a kind of undercurrent.  And so my thoughts are constantly being pulled into the orbit of that sermon, a process that I think is more unconscious that conscious.

As best I can, I’ll try to walk you through that process in terms of this past Shabbat’s sermon.  First off, the initial idea.  I was looking through the portion, came to the end, and there in the Hebrew was the Masoretic note about the conclusion of the book of Leviticus, and how many verses are contained in the book.  I stared at that note for a moment, and I thought ‘endings!’  That might be a viable sermon topic, because after all, we seem to be interested in endings.

Then the free association process was off and running.  Game of Thrones had just ended. We were reading in synagogue the end of a book of Torah (Leviticus).  The last word of the book, when looked at with the last words of the other four books of the Torah is interesting.  That led me to thinking about famous last lines of novels, and I thought it might be fun to include a few and see if people in the congregation could identify them.  I went back to Game of Thrones and began to think of other famous endings of television shows.  The most famous of all (at least back in the day!) was the last episode of MASH, a show that was an important part of my growing up (here is a link to the last few minutes of that episode).  Many of the pieces of the puzzle were now on the table.  There were two questions – first, how should they be assembled?  And second, what is the point of all this?

Time to walk the dog!  And so, as our trusty pooch meandered through the neighborhood, the pieces of that ‘sermon puzzle’ began to take shape.  The order, what should come first, what next, what connected to what.  At the end of the half hour walk I had a pretty good idea of where I wanted to put those pieces.  Then it was a matter of doing it, worrying a bit over transitions, weaving strands.

But there was a last piece nagging at me, which was that the Torah itself is a book that doesn’t have an ending.  Deuteronomy ends and the people are still outside of the land.  How might that connect to all of the other material about endings, about wrapping things up and concluding stories?

Then it occurred to me that might be exactly the point.  The experiences of our lives, by and large, do not end in neat and tidy sentences, carefully constructed to perfectly conclude a moment.  Instead, our lives are more like the (lack of an) ending in the Torah. We are perpetually just on the cusp, just on the other side of that (Jordan) river, always looking towards that Promised Land but never quite arriving there.  We are always in a state of having one more river to cross.

Which is the name of the last track on Bob Weir’s solo album Blue Mountain, released in the fall of 2016.  I love that record.  In it Weir wrestles with his own mortality, with the passage of time, with the importance of taking that next step even in the face of daunting odds.  And that song gave me the last paragraph of my sermon text.  One more step, one more river to cross.

One last note – the title I gave the sermon when I posted it on my blog – At the End of All Things.  That line comes from Tolkien’s the Return of the King.  The hobbits Sam and Frodo lie exhausted, having finally completed their quest and destroyed the ring of power. It looks as if they are about to die, and Frodo says to Sam “I am glad you are here with me.  Here at the end of all things, Sam.”

So there you have it.  A bit of Torah.  A dash of Game of Thrones.  A nostalgic fondness for MASH.  A good dog walk on a beautiful afternoon.  Some Bob Weir for good measure. And a little Tolkien sprinkled in.  Mix it all up, type for a while, and you never know what you’ll come up with.

Sorry about the length of this post!  Anyone who read to the end, I owe you a scotch!

 

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