Category Archives: Bible

Hanukkah’s Hypocrisy?

This is a text version of my sermon from the Shabbat of Hanukkah, 12/8/18 –

     There has been a bit of a hullabaloo in the Jewish community over the last few days about an op-ed article that appeared in the NY Times last Sunday, just on the eve of Hanukkah.  The title of the article was ‘the Hypocrisy of Hanukkah,’ in and of itself provocative, like any good title, and enough to get you to read further.  The author, Michael David Lucas, claimed that in contemporary times the celebration of Hanukkah has become hypocritical.  Why? Because most of the Jews who gather to light their menorahs during the 8 days are secular, but the real story of Hanukkah – he says – is a story of religious zealots – the Maccabees – fighting to impose their religious worldview against Jews who were secular and assimilating into Greek culture.  So the author argues that the Maccabees would not have accepted the secular lifestyle of most of us who celebrate the Hanukkah today.   

     Obviously this is not the understanding of Hanukkah that you learn about in Hebrew school.  The story of Hanukkah that we tell our children and grandchildren has nothing to do with an internal Jewish struggle.  Instead, it is a story of right versus might, of a small and relatively weak people rising up against one of the most powerful armies in the ancient world, and somehow defeating it.  It is a story of freedom and the triumph of the human spirit, of what people can accomplish when they come together and fight for a cause they believe in.  The story of the Maccabees has also been a point of pride for Jews for more than 2,000 years, an example of the strength of the Jewish will to survive, and the loyalty and dedication of Jews to their tradition and heritage.

     Which I think is precisely why this article has been so controversial.  The story of Hanukkah that I just summarized is the one we all grew up on, the one we’ve believed in our entire lives, and when someone challenges that story, or even tries to take it away from us, we get upset and angry, and we push back.  A number of you have asked me about the article, emailed me, called me, or actually in Shirley’s case brought the article in to show me, and I can tell that you are feeling a bit perplexed.  So let me try to clear it all up a bit if I can in the few minutes I have this morning.  I am not sure whether I’ll leave you feeling better, worse, or the same, but I suppose you’ll let me know.

     The first thing I would say is that the author is a little bit right, and a little bit wrong.  And he is a little bit right and a little bit wrong about a couple of different things.  He is right in that we do know there was an internal Jewish battle that was going on in the year 165 BCE, the time that the events of Hanukkah took place.  Ancient Israel was controlled by the Assyrians who had adopted Greek culture, and many Jews had become Hellenized – that is to say, they were more and more thinking and acting like Greeks.  In other words, many Jews at the time were what we would call today ‘secular’ Jews.  And there was tension between those secular Jews, who were comfortable assimilating and living more modern lives, and the Maccabees, who did argue for a strict and traditional adherence to Jewish law.  That is all true.

     But the Times article is wrong in assuming that the primary struggle was a Jew against Jew struggle.  There is no question that the real enemy the Maccabees were battling was the Assyrian army, and there must have been some kind of consensus in the broader Jewish community at the time that that was a struggle worth waging.  Why? Because it is impossible to imagine that the Maccabees by themselves, without the support of their fellow Jews, could have accomplished what they did.  So it is odd, to say the least, that the article in the Times barely mentions the Maccabees’ defeat of the Assyrian army.  As Lincoln famously once said, there are things you can prove by telling part of the truth that you can’t prove by telling all of the truth.  And that is one area where the article misses the mark.

     I would argue that the other is in the article’s misunderstanding of what it means to be a secular Jew.  And the author of the article – in a way pokes fun at himself and his own Judaism – his own discomfort with being Jewish – and by doing that he diminishes the role of the so called secular Jew, both today and historically, in terms of Jewish community and Jewish continuity. 

     Because of the way he described himself, I would say it is highly unlikely that that author of the article is sitting in shul this morning.  Which is a shame, because it would be a good thing for him to spend some time thinking about the Joseph narrative that we reading from the Torah right now.  He might be surprised to realize that Joseph is without question two things:  one, the person who enables and ensures Jewish continuity for his time.  It is the foothold that he has established in Egypt that gives him the power to ultimately bring the rest of his family there, to feed them and give them shelter, so that they will survive through the terrible famine afflicting the ancient near East at that time.  You can very plausibly make the argument were it not for Joseph, Jacob’s family would not have survived, and Judaism might have ended right there.

     But the other thing about Joseph that would surprise the Times author is that Joseph is the most secular Jew in the entire Torah.  It isn’t even close!  Joseph is so secular – he has become so Egyptian – that his own brothers can’t even recognize him, because he is wearing Egyptian clothes, he has completely adopted Egyptian culture, and he is speaking Egyptian like a native.  It is not a stretch to say that Joseph – one of the great figures of the Bible – one of the great heroes of Judaism – is just as secular as anyone sitting in this room this morning, and probably more secular than many of us!

     But being secular doesn’t mean that your Judaism isn’t important to you.  Being secular doesn’t mean that you haven’t been lighting Hanukkah candles each night, or that you don’t go to a Passover seder or come to synagogue on the HHDs, or care about Israel, or donate to Jewish causes, or enroll your children in Hebrew school so they can become Jewishly literate and educated.  So called ‘secular’ Jews do all of those things, and because they do them Jewish continuity and Jewish life are assured for a next generation, and a next, and a next.

     This is not to say that we don’t need our Judah Maccabees, our religious zealots.  We do, and it goes without saying they have an important role to play in Jewish life.  That is part of what Hanukkah reminds us of, and celebrates.  But I don’t think it is a coincidence that every year when we are celebrating Hanukkah and remembering the Maccabees, we are reading about Joseph from the Torah, Joseph the great secular Jew.  

     Few of us can be Maccabees – I know I certainly can’t.  But all of us have a chance to be a Joseph.  And when we are proud of our Judaism, when we care about Jewish community, when we play a part in ensuring Jewish continuity, we are walking in his footsteps.  And I don’t know about you, but for my feet those shoes feel pretty comfortable.  חג שמח ושבת שלום!

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A Shabbat of Solidarity

Following is a text version of remarks I made yesterday at our Shabbat of Solidarity service.  I am deeply grateful that over 800 people of many different faiths came together to honor the memories of those whose lives were taken away in Pittsburgh.  It was a powerful morning of memory, prayer, and hope.

     We Jews are well practiced in the exercise of memory, both individually and communally.  As individuals we observe the yartzeits of those we have loved and lost, we recite the Yizkor service four times a year, we visit the cemetery, placing our hands on the stones.  As a community we commemorate tragic events from our past, Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, Tisha B’Av, the day the Temple was destroyed in ancient times in Jerusalem.  Even our holidays are often tinged with bitter memories – the slavery of Egypt that we remember on Passover, or the persecution and anti-Semitism of Purim and Hanukkah.  

     And we gather today in part to remember, to look back to exactly one week ago, to reflect on the tragic events that took place in Pittsburgh, to recall the victims, to read their names aloud, and to honor them.  And so we have done.  What happened in Pittsburgh was unprecedented in the history of the American Jewish community, and we know from our long experience that part of our task now as Jews will be to bear the weight of that memory as we carry it forward.

     As we do that in the months and years ahead it is important to say that remembering in Judaism has a purpose.  It is not only about the past, about looking back – it is also, and in some ways more so, about the future and looking forward.  This morning’s Torah portion records the death of both Sarah and Abraham, but the primary focus of the portion is on the future, on finding a wife for Isaac so that there will be a new generation to carry the covenant forward.  We are told three times in Genesis ‘vayizkor Elohim’ – that God remembered – God remembered Noah, and brought him to dry land.  God remembered Abraham, and then rescued his nephew Lot from the destruction of Sodom.  And God remembered Rachel, and gave her a child.  In each case God’s act of remembering was for the sake of the future, and of life.

     Which is why I am grateful today that we are also celebrating two events that are about the future.  I pulled Holden aside after services ended last night, and I told him that although he might not have even realized it, the very fact that he stood before the congregation, a young man, and proudly chanted the kiddish, and again this morning proudly was called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah – in and of itself that helps us to heal, it gives us hope for a bright Jewish future, it reminds us that there is a next generation, that they will carry our communal memories forward, while finding meaning in their Judaism everyday.  

     And Lauren and Jason, our auffruff couple.  One week from tonight they will stand together under the huppah, a moment that is about faith and the future they will build together in their years ahead as husband and wife.  You cannot help but feel a sense of hope for the future when you see a groom and a bride walk down the aisle.  A new Jewish family has formed, a new generation committing to live a Jewish life and to create a Jewish home, as it was for Isaac and Rebecca so long ago, the love that they shared, the life they made, and the family they brought into the world. 

     And then the baby naming the Cantor and I officiated at last Sunday morning.  A beautiful baby girl, fussing and cooing and squirming in her parents arms, as she received her Hebrew name and was formally entered into the ancient covenant between God and Israel.  Her middle name in Hebrew is Aliza, which means joy.  And we were naming this child one day after Pittsburgh.  Almost exactly 24 hours.  But there was joy – in that child, for her family, in that moment, and in our hearts.  And there is nothing that is more abut the future than the naming of a baby.  Because that is the name by which she’ll be called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah.  That is the name that one day will be written in her ketubah, that is the name that will mark some of the most significant and sacred moments of her life, and some of the most significant and sacred moments of the future of our community. 

     We will make that future together.  Bearing our sadness, remembering our losses, honoring memory, but at the very same time walking forward with hope and strength, with resilience and dignity, with determination to make a better and safer and more tolerant world for all.  We will mourn our losses, as we have this past week, as we always do, but we will celebrate life, we will welcome babies, we will dance with brides and grooms, we will rejoice with young men and women who are called to the Torah for the very first time, we will celebrate our holidays, light the candles of our menorahs in a few weeks, and sit at our seders in the spring, and recite the words of our ancient prayers on this Shabbat of Solidarity and every Shabbat.  

     And so may this truly be a Shabbat Shalom, a Shabbat of peace for us, for Jews everywhere, for the world.  May we dedicate today to the memory of those who lost their lives last week, but also to the future that we will build together – in the months and years that are ahead – God willing a future of hope and peace and dignity for all people in all places – 

May that truly be God’s will!

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Imperfections (Superman vs. Spiderman)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Looking for God In All the Right Places

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May that be God’s will!

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Sukkah of Peace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Moving Forward, Looking Back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Judging and Misjudging in the Uber Age

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, Bible, High Holy Days, Jewish festivals, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Rosh Hashanah, sermon, Uncategorized