Category Archives: Bible

A Woman President

Following is a text version of my sermon from 1/18/20 – mazaltov to my cousins Andrea and Gidon Margolin on the naming of their beautiful daughter Romi Maya!

     If you happened to be watching the Democratic presidential candidate’s debate this past week you heard one of the best debate lines to come along in many a long year.  The question was about whether a woman could win the presidential election, and Elizabeth Warren was quick to point out that of the six people on the debate stage, the two women – Warren herself, and Amy Klobuchar – had never lost an election, while the four men who were there all had.  Classic debate moment – in one sharp line, you say something positive about yourself, you criticize your opponent, and you know people will be talking about it the next day.  And we all were.  Take that Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders!

     Whether Elizabeth Warren will be the woman to finally put that question to bed remains to be seen.  For the time being she is locked in a tight race with Sanders, her once friend and now nemesis, and it seems at this point like one of them will indeed be the democratic nominee.  But if it doesn’t happen in 2020 it can only be a matter of time before a woman will be president.  When you think about it the US is actually lagging in the area of women’s political leadership.  Germany had Angela Merkel, Britain has had Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May, Israel had our beloved Golda Meir.  Canada had Kim Campbell.  But so far in the US?  Bupkiss, as we say.  Not even a woman vice president to date.

     If it ever were to happen, now seems to feel like it might be the time.  Have you noticed in recent months how many of our major movie and TV programs revolve around women heroes?  On the small screen – or maybe not so small screen anymore – you have the TV series the Crown, about Queen Elizabeth’s life, as well as the Marvelous Ms Maisel, and the more recently popular Fleabag.  Each of these shows features a strong willed, savvy, intelligent woman who is willing to push the limits and speak truth to power, even if that power is represented by men.  

     In the movie world we’ve gone from Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker, the original Star Wars hero, to Daisy Ridley’s Ray, the woman who is the hero in the newest Star Wars trilogy.  And of course you can’t miss Little Women, the newest movie version of the classic novel by Louisa May Alcott.  This film, which tells the novel’s story faithfully but plays around a bit with the chronology, is a wonderful tour de force of acting and directing, and a powerful statement about life from a woman’s perspective, a perspective not often explored in the world of Hollywood cinema.  

     But we don’t need to look to contemporary culture for women who are heroes and role models.  They’ve been around for a long time, and are at least as old as the Torah.  We’ve just finished reading the book of Genesis, and in story after story we met women who were at the center of the great events of their day.  In each generation in Genesis a woman plays a crucial role in moving the narrative along in the direction God intends.  Sarah makes sure that Hagar is out of Abraham’s house so that Isaac will be the sole inheritor of the covenant.  Rebecca takes this to the next level, directing her son Jacob in the deception of Isaac so the birthright and blessing will go to Jacob and not Esau.  And as we saw in last week’s Torah portion, Rachel remains in Jacob’s mind, to the very end of his life, his one true love.   In each generation the matriarchs – just as well as the patriarchs, and in some cases even more so – are central figures in the historical narrative of our people.  

     And that certainly does not end with the book of Genesis!  This morning we began reading the Book of Exodus, and in the midst of the exodus narrative, with Moses and Aaron, with Pharaoh and the Egyptians, with the plagues and ultimately the splitting of the sea, it is easy to lose track of the crucial roles that women play in the story.   But the truth is there is a women’s narrative in Exodus, almost like a second theme or motif in the book, and it is particularly evident in the opening chapters that we read this morning.  On many levels it is actually the women who are propelling the action, and over and over again in the story a woman must make a choice to act, and if she doesn’t, the story would literally end.  It is no wonder that our Sages, in the Talmudic tractate Sotah, make the following statement:  בשכר נשים צדקניות שהיו באותו הדור  – נגאלו ישראל ממצריים – it was because of the merit of the righteous women of that generation that Israel was redeemed from Egypt. (Sotah 11b)

     What did these women do?

     Harold Kushner, in his commentary in our Humash on this morning’s portion notes that there is a subtle pattern in the Moses story – namely, that Moses’ life is constantly threatened by men, and when that happens, he is saved by women.  It happens with his mother – whose name was?  Yocheved!  She makes the decision to hide him in the basket and send him down the Nile when she can no longer conceal his presence.  Then it is Pharaoh’s daughter who draws him out of that basket.  Then it is Moses’ sister – what is her name?  Miriam! – who happens to be there and manages to arrange for Moses’ mother to nurse him and take care of him.  Then later in the portion there is a bizarre scene where Moses is mysteriously attacked when he and his wife – what is her name?  Tzipporah! – are traveling.  And it is Tzipporah’s action in that strange story (Exodus 4) that saves the day. 

     So the Talmudic Sages are picking up on this story, and they seem to be saying that without the actions of each of these women – Yocheved, Pharaoh’s daughter,  Miriam, and Tzipporah – then Moses would not have survived, and if Moses didn’t survive, it is possible we would still be slaves in Egypt, and not sitting in a beautiful chapel here in Baltimore, worshipping freely.  We might amend the Talmudic statement, and say it wasn’t the merit of the righteous women that redeemed Israel – instead, it was their determination and courageous action that ultimately enabled Israel to go free.

     I must also say this morning it strikes me as no coincidence that we have had the blessing of celebrating Romi’s naming.  As Andrea and Gidon explained, she is named after people who have been important in their lives and in their family.  But Romi Maya also is the great, great granddaughter of my Bubbie, Kate Schwartz, whom many of you in the room today knew as a true matriarch in our family, strong, determined, proud, and fiercely loyal to her family and her faith.

     With Gidon and Andrea’s guidance may Romi share in some of those qualities as well.  I suspect by the time she is aware of such things there will already have been a woman president of the United States.  And if not, you know what – maybe she will be the first.  Wouldn’t that be something?  A woman – and a Jew – in the Oval Office!

     As they say – halavei!!

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Angel or Man?

A text version of my Shabbat sermon from 12/21.  Best to all for a Happy Hanukkah –

     The following scenario may be familiar to you – less so for your children and grandchildren, who have grown up with cell phones and GPS.  There are two people, driving in a car.  Let’s say, for argument’s sake, the two people are husband and wife.  And let’s also say – again, for argument’s sake – that the husband is driving.  They are going to a place that is not familiar to them, and they seem to have reached a point where they are not one hundred percent sure where they are.  In other words, they are lost.  The wife is encouraging the husband to pull over to ask for directions, but he is resistant.

     Finally they are at a stop sign, and a young stranger walks by.  The woman rolls her window down – some of you will remember roll down windows, as well – and she calls out.  The stranger comes over to their car, and once they tell him where they are trying to go, he gives them directions.  A few minutes later, they reach their destination.  Later that evening the woman says to her husband, we were lucky we ran across that young man.  The husband, of course, says “I would have found it!”

     The predicament I just described is essentially the situation that our ancestor Joseph finds himself in in this morning’s Torah portion, called Vayeishev.  You’ll remember the story of Joseph – the 11th son of his father Jacob, born to his mother Rachel, Joseph has a troubled relationship with his other brothers from the time he is young.  In part this is caused by his father’s favoritism, the symbol of which is the coat of many colors that Jacob has given Joseph as a special gift.  But in part Joseph’s sibling issues seem to stem from his own personality.

     After the Torah establishes these facts the brothers are sent by Jacob on a shepherding mission that takes them a number of days away from home.  Jacob then – maybe against his better judgement – sends Joseph, all alone, knowing of the animosity between him and his brothers – to go out and find them.  And of course we know the rest of the story.  Once he does find them they strip him of his fancy coat, throw him into a pit, and ultimately sell him into slavery.  

     But in the course of this narrative Joseph finds himself in exactly the same situation as our husband and wife in the car.   He is lost, in an unfamiliar area, and he does not seem to want to ask for directions.  Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, a mysterious man appears.  Referred to in the Torah only as an איש – meaning simply ‘a man’ – the stranger approaches Joseph and asks him מה תבקש – what are you looking for?  It is the Torah’s way of saying ‘can I help you?’  Joseph explains that he is looking for his brothers.  The man just happens to know exactly where they are, and sends Joseph to meet them.  And the rest, as they say, is history.  

     And I mean that literally.  He finds his brothers.  They sell him into slavery.  He is brought to Egypt.  Ultimately he becomes the second most powerful man in the entire country.  When there is a famine in the land of Israel Jacob and his other sons come to join Joseph.  The Israelites will be enslaved.  Moses will be born, will meet God in the form of a burning bush, and will lead the Israelites out of Egypt.  And to this very day, each spring, we celebrate Passover and tell the story of יציאת מצרים – of Exodus from Egypt.  All because of this mysterious man who sees Joseph lost, and asks if he can help.

     If you have any sense of rabbinic commentary, you probably already know that the traditional commentators are very interested in the identity of Joseph’s mysterious stranger.  They suggest a number of possibilities as to who the stranger might have been.  The great biblical commentator Rashi, who lived in France in the 11th century, explains that the stranger was really the angel Gabriel, sent by God to guide Joseph on the way.  Ibn Ezra, who lived in the 12th century in Spain, believed that the man was just a simple passer by, a regular old Joe who just happened to be in the right place at the right time.  But it is the comment of the Ramban, Nachmanides, who lived in the 13th century, that I find the most interesting.  He writes about the mysterious stranger – כי זימן לו הקב׳׳ה מורה דרך שלא מדעתו – which means, God sent him a guide – שלא מדעתו – without his knowledge.

     The question is, without whose knowledge?  It is unclear from what the Ramban writes whether he means without Joseph’s knowledge, or without the knowledge of the mysterious stranger.  The Hebrew is ambiguous.  It might mean that the stranger was sent, and Joseph didn’t know he would find a guide along the way.  But it could just as well mean that the stranger himself didn’t know he would end up being Joseph’s guide.  

     The first interpretation, I suppose, makes the most sense.  Certainly Joseph had no reason to expect to suddenly find someone, in the middle of nowhere, who would be able to point the way to his brothers.  But the second interpretation – that the stranger didn’t know he would end up helping Joseph – is, at least to me, more interesting.  Let me explain.

     We often don’t realize the effect our actions have on others.  We might say something, or do something, and in our minds what we’ve said or done is for all intents and purposes insignificant – we might not even remember it – as the Ramban said, שלא מדעתו – we do it almost without knowing it.  But what we’ve said, or done, can make a big difference in someone else’s life.  The right word of encouragement at exactly the right time.  A small act of kindness that passes in a moment, but brings warmth to someone’s heart on a difficult day.  All the stranger did was point Joseph in the right direction.  But because of that small act, everything was different.

     I’ll conclude this morning with a quick Hanukkah story.  We got a call a few weeks ago from a family that wanted to do something nice for a family in need, but whatever they did they wanted it to be strictly anonymous.  So we said ‘sure, we know of a family that could use a little extra help around the holidays.’  Thursday the family that wanted to do the mitzvah brought in a bunch of beautifully wrapped packages.  We then called the family in need, that the gifts were intended for.  It has been a terribly difficult year for them.  Illness.  Loss of a job.  Just one thought thing after another.  

     You should have seen the look on the face of the parent who came to pick up those gifts.  For a few moments the burdens were lifted.  For a few moments the parent was reminded of goodness and hope and kindness and possibility.  Knowing that they would have gifts to give to their children on Hanukkah.  Suddenly knowing that a holiday they were probably dreading, would be – filled with light.

     They will never know the identity of the family that did that kindness for them.  And the family that did the kindness will never know the impact their generosity had.  The difference they made.  In both cases, שלא מדעתו – they’ll just never know.  But I would say, somewhere, somehow, in someway, God knows.  May both those families be blessed with kindness, goodness, happiness, and health.  

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Strangers in a Strange Land

Following is a text version of my sermon from 12/14, touching on the Executive Order signed this week to combat anti-Semitism.

     It has been a tumultuous week in the news, to say the least, from the election results in England to the need for a third election in Israel, to the impeachment hearings taking place in Washington DC, to the tragic shooting in Jersey City.  But there was a particular story that, at least for a couple of days in the middle of the week, captured the attention of the Jewish community.  That was the signing of an Executive Order by the President entitled Executive Order on Combatting Anti-Semitism.  As with so many other issues these days, reaction was swift and at times fierce, some people in the Jewish community claiming this was a good thing for the Jews, others claiming it was not so good.  

     If you didn’t follow the story, the order essentially connects Jewish identity to Title VI of the Civil Rights act that was passed in 1964.  That act outlaws discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities receiving Federal financial assistance.  So, for example, if a university receives financial assistance from the Federal Government – and most do – and it refused to hire someone because of their race – that university would lose the federal assistance it receives.  And for many universities this is serious money – at Maryland, for example, %16 of the budget comes from federal money.  And the new Executive Order ensures that this same law will be applied to Jews.

     Whether in the end this will be good or bad for the Jews only time will tell.  If I had to guess at this point it will be mostly neither good nor bad.  If you’ve read the order it has a parve feel to it, and sometimes within the document, which is short – the whole thing is about a page long – there are sections that work at cross purposes, and it really doesn’t say anything new as far as I can tell.  I would honestly be surprised if at some point in the near future we read a story in the paper about the Order actually being applied in a court of law.  

     What did catch people’s attention about the order, particularly in the Jewish community, was the inclusion of Jewish identity in the general rubric of the Title VI law, which again, is about race, color, and national identity.  And of course the question about this is does Judaism fall into any of those categories?  By and large we understand Judaism as a faith tradition, as a religion, like Islam, or Catholicism.  You cannot convert into another race or nationality.  If I wanted to be Italian, for example, I can’t!  There is no mechanism, no structure, that I can use to become Italian – it is a nationality, an ethnic identity.  But it is possible to convert to Judaism.  That in and of itself seems to indicate that Judaism is defined not as an ethnic identity, but as a faith, a religion.

     That being said, there is a strong ethnic flavor to Jewish life.  You can’t find, for example, lox, or herring, or gefilte fish for that matter, listed as requirements for a Jewish diet in any of the codes of Jewish law.  But those foods are associated with Jews and with Jewish life, with Jewish breakfasts and lunches.  There is a tribal sense to being Jewish, and that comes from ethnic identification.  In the most recent Pew study of the Jewish community younger Jews report that they are very proud to be Jewish, but they don’t want to do anything religious.  And what that means by definition is that they see themselves as Jews, even though they are not at all engaged in religious life.  How can they do that if not through their ethnicity, through ethnic or national identity?

     So the truth seems to be that Judaism is an odd bird in terms of the world’s great faith traditions.  It is a weird hybrid of ethnic and national identity, on the one hand, and religion on the other.  It is possible to live your life as a proud Jew, connected to Jewish history, to the Jewish people, proud of Israel, and to be entirely areligious.  You can’t say that, for example, about Catholicism.  It just wouldn’t work.  

     In part Judaism developed this way over time because we have so often in our history lived in lands that were not ours.  When Moses’ wife Zipporah has their first child she names the boy Gershom, and she gives the name an etymology, an explanation for its origin.  The name Gershom comes from two words – גר – which means stranger – and שם – which means there.  “I was a stranger there,” or as Zipporah herself says it in the Torah, גר הייתי בארץ נכריה – literally, I was a stranger in foreign land.  And that sums up the majority of Jewish history.  

     And that also is the story of our ancestor Jacob, about whom we read in this morning’s Torah portion.  At the beginning of the reading we find Jacob returning to the land of his birth, but he has been away for twenty years, living in a land not his own.  If you think about it the arc of Jacob’s life parallels the history of the American Jewish community.  He leaves home as a young man, with nothing – he himself says כי במקלי עברתי את הירדן הזה – I left with a staff in my hand, nothing else.  Exactly like our grandparents and great grandparents left Eastern Europe, with a few bags, with little to no money, with virtually nothing in terms of material possessions.  

     And then Jacob arrives in Haran.  A foreigner, a stranger there.  But he makes a good life.  He marries, he has children, he works hard, he is clever, and also smart.  He builds a business, becomes very wealthy, his life is a success in every measurable way.  And again the parallel to the American Jewish community and our ancestors – coming to these shores, working hard, emphasizing the importance of education and the intellect, creating successful businesses, and over time the Jewish community here, and many of our families, becoming successful and thriving.

     But Jacob never feels fully settled in Haran.  And he is never fully accepted.  He always feels that he is other, he remains the stranger who arrived with nothing so many years ago.  And I think that is also our experience here.  Despite the fact that we’ve put down roots, despite the successes we’ve had, despite the level of assimilation, the way we’ve integrated into American life – despite all of that, there are moments when we are reminded we are still ‘other,’ still looked at as strangers.  

     The shooting in Jersey City this week was certainly one of those moments, now one in a series of anti-semitic incidents that our community has had to grapple with over the last year plus.  But the Executive Order signed into law this week is also one of those moments.  It is theoretically designed to protect Jewish life, but it is also a reminder that we are still seen as a distinct minority, we are still seen as other, by the culture and society in which we live.  

     That is why we need each other.  And by the way we need each other in both senses of Jewish identity, both ethnically and religiously.  We need that tribal feeling of connection and caring, that sense of responsibility, of looking out for one another and caring for each other.  But we also need a connection to religious life, to our distinct rituals and customs and holy days.  We need to have Hanukkah when there is so much Christmas around us!  

     We should always be grateful for where we are.  We have been truly blessed as Jews to make a life, both as families and as a community, here in America.  But when we are grateful for where we are, we should never forget who we are.  Ethnically, religiously, in every facet of our being, in every aspect of our lives.

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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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