Category Archives: celebration

Teach Your Children

Penned by Graham Nash, the song first appeared on the classic CSNY album Deja Vu, released in 1970.  Arguably one of the best known and most beloved rock songs of all time, the opening lyrics are unforgettable, sung in the high, soaring harmonies that marked the group at its height:

You who are on the road
Must have a code that you can live by
And so become yourself
Because the past is just a good-bye.
Teach your children well,
Their father’s hell did slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The one they picks, the one you’ll know by.
Don’t you ever ask them why, if they told you, you will cry,
So just look at them and sigh
And know they love you.*

The song came into my mind this past Sunday evening, when Becky and I had the chance to see Dark Star Orchestra at the Maine State Pier in Portland.  The band was in rare form, probably the best I’ve seen them, playing with energy and verve through a concert, as they say, ‘originally performed by the Grateful Dead’ in the spring of 1989.  It was a GA venue over looking the water, a gorgeous and sunny Maine afternoon, everything just about exactly perfect.

It just so happened that we found our spot in the sea of Deadheads a few yards in front of the soundboard.  To our right was a multi-generational Deadhead family.  The original Heads, now in their mid-60s, brought their daughters and grandchildren to the show.  The grandmother took great joy in sharing the time and the music with her grandchildren, spending a good part of the evening dancing with them, holding them, laughing and playing with them.

There is something about old Deadheads that tugs at my heartstrings.  They’ve often seen a lot, been through a lot, done a lot (maybe in some cases too much!).  Their bodies don’t quite move like they used to (whose do?!).  But there is a powerful resiliency there.  And also a love of something deep and true.  When the lights go down and the music comes up, the first notes ringing loud and clear through the blue sky of a late summer afternoon, they get to their feet and begin to move.  The heads start to nod, the hips shake, the feet shuffle, the fingers snap.  And yes, the lips smile.  They feel it in their hearts and souls, the sweet melodies that have accompanied them through so many years, so many moments of their lives.  The music brings them to their feet, rejuvenates their spirits, gives them a few precious hours to leave the world behind and to join in the great tribal celebration with family, friends, the extended Deadhead community, and yes, even with grandchildren.  Perhaps, especially with grandchildren.

The second set of the show opened with Shakedown Street, the Dead’s nod to the late 70s disco revolution, somehow turned into one of their great jamming vehicles.  “Don’t tell me this town ain’t got no heart!”  We might say the very same thing about the old Deadheads.  Teaching the next generations, they are still on the road, still driving the bus.

* Deadheads will remember that the opening pedal steel guitar licks of the tune are played by Jerry Garcia

here is a link to the Grateful Dead’s original performance of the Pittsburgh ’89 show

And below a picture of the proud grandmother and her grandchildren at the show – IMG_4940

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Three (unheralded!) Heroes of the Haggadah

This a text version of my sermon from the first day of Passover, 5777 – enjoy the holiday!!

It is an often remarked upon oddity that Moses’ name does not appear anywhere in the traditional text of the Haggadah.   I don’t know whether you realized it as you read the retelling of the exodus story last night.  Pharaoh is mentioned, great talmudic sages like Rabbi Akiva are mentioned, even Aaron and Miriam, Moses’ brother and sister, are referred to in the text.  But Moses, who worked harder than anyone to bring about the redemption of the Israelites, who bravely walked into Pharaoh’s throne room to demand that the Israelites be let go, who raised his staff and split the waters at the sea – Moses gets not one single mention.  It is strange to say the least, and clearly intentional.  The authors, the creators of the Haggadah, did not want Moses’ name to appear. (*see the note at the end of the text for a full explanation)

Over the years many reasons have been proposed as to why this is the case.  The most common explanation is that the sages who wrote the text of the Haggadah wanted to emphasize the Divine role in the redemption from Egypt, not a human’s role – not even Moses’.  It has also been said that Moses’ absence is yet another indication of his extreme sense of humility, and that he himself had a hand in making sure his name did not appear on the night of the seder.

But I would like to suggest another reason today.  I think the Haggadah authors may have left Moses out because his presence in the text would have overshadowed  – not God – but the other people in the Haggadah that we’ve come to know so well over the years.  If Moses appeared on every page – and he would be on virtually every page – we wouldn’t pay much attention to the story of the Sages in B’nei Barak, or Rabban Gamliel’s description’s of the Pesah, Matzah, and Marror.  I would even argue were Moses the focus of the Haggadah, even Elijah the prophet might get lost in the shuffle.  So by eliminating Moses, the Haggadah democratizes the events of the Exodus, showing us that this was something that came about – and in a way continues to come about – through the efforts of many, not just one man.   And as important as Moses was, we also needed all of the other contributors to make our way from slavery to freedom.

Moses’ absence on the seder nights also gives us an opportunity to search for other heroes in the Haggadah that we might not otherwise see.  And this morning I would like to tell you about three heroes of mine who appear in the pages of the Haggadah, on the surface perhaps minor characters in the great drama of the seder, often overlooked of dismissed, but characters who play crucial roles in our understanding the meaning of Passover.

The first is Ben Zoma.  Does that name sound familiar?  Do you remember where he appears?  Just after the story of the 5 Sages staying up all night and telling the Passover story, there is a short and also strange paragraph.  It is about Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, where he says – הרי אני כבן שבעים שנה –  ‘I am like a man of 70 years.’  And he is struggling to understand a verse from the Torah – anyone remember what it is?  It has to do with mentioning the Exodus from Egypt ALL the days of your life.  And Rabbi Elazar – one of the great talmudic sages of all time – says that he never understood that verse until it was explained to him by a lesser sage named Ben Zoma.  Anyone remember Ben Zoma’s answer?  He says ALL the days of your life includes not only the days, when it is actually daylight outside, but also the nights.  This is actually one of the reasons we say the third paragraph of the shema not only in the morning, but also at night, during evening services.

But what I love about Ben Zoma, the reason he is one of my three unheralded Haggadah heroes, is that he reminds us that Judaism is something that has to be practiced every day in order to be truly meaningful.  It can’t just be about the seder night, it can’t just be abut Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur.  Those are the big, dramatic moments.  But the real beauty of Judaism is in the quiet moments, even the mundane moments, the ebb and flow of everyday life.  It is easy to lose track of that, especially on a seder night when we put so much effort into telling the Passover story.  Ben Zoma reminds us that the true power of Judaism is not found in a single night, but instead in כל ימי חייך – in ALL the days of your life.  That is why he is my first Haggadah hero.

The next is a surprise choice, a character you probably would not expect to make my list – the Rasha.  Who is that?  Right, the wicked child (son), in the four sons section the one son who is considered to be excluded from the community.  You remember his question – מה העבודה הזה לכם – what does this ritual mean to YOU.  And we say since he said ‘you’ and not ‘us’ he implied that he wants nothing to do with Jewish life.  The Rasha is the great villain of the Haggadah.  Pharaoh is bad enough, but we’re used to dealing with outsiders who are after us.  But to be rejected by someone in our own community is painful.

But without the Rasha we might experience the seder night as a perfect narrative, almost a fairy tale.  The evil King is defeated in the person of Pharaoh.  The people are released from their slavery.  Those who subjected them – the Egyptians – are punished by the plagues.  Without the Rasha it would all be a nice, neat package.  And that is precisely why we need the Rasha in the Haggadah.  We don’t live in a fairy tale world, we live in the real world, a world that badly needs fixing, a world that sometimes seems it is filled with wicked people.  The Rasha reminds us that although we might step out of reality when we sit down at the seder table, when the seder ends, and Elijah leaves, and the last morsel of afikoman is eaten, we return to a world that badly needs fixing, and we have a role to play in that process.

My last Haggadah hero is the mystery man of the seder.  You remember the passage ‘my father was a wandering Aramean?’  It is never quite clear who exactly that person is.  Some commentators suggest it is Abraham, the first wandering Jew.  Others think it is Jacob, who did in his life wander to Egypt.  Some even say it is Laban, Jacob’s uncle.  The bottom line is the text is ambiguous, and the figure remains unidentified.

I’ve always imagined that figure as my Zaydie, my dad’s father.  He was a quiet, soft spoken, and largely reserved man, very mild mannered.  I think he had to be that way given my Bubbe’s strong personality.  But as mild mannered as he was, he was a wanderer.  He made a choice when he was about 16 or 17 years old to undertake a journey, to leave the small village he lived in in eastern Europe, and to come here to the United States with the hopes of creating a new life.  In that moment he joined in the age old Jewish story of diaspora, of the constant and restless search for freedom and dignity and tolerance.  And I remember many a seder from my childhood when I watched my Zaydie, quietly sitting at a table surrounded by his children and grandchildren, the generations of his family, and I think in those moments he was reflecting – with gratitude –  on how successful his search had been.

So there you have it.  My three unheralded Haggadah heroes.   Perhaps you have some of you own.  If you don’t, you might spend a few moments at your seder tonight considering who they might be.  Because each character in the text has a crucial role to play in the story of our freedom, in the journeys we undertake in our own lives.

 

  • Moses’ name and the Haggadah text – It is true that some contemporary haggadot will use Moses’ name, either in commentary, or in a new version of the main text.  Also, some traditional haggadot include the text of a midrash brought in the name of Rabbi Yosi HaGlili that includes Moses’ name.  Here is a note from my friend Dr. Josh Kulp’s ‘Historical Haggadah’ regarding that midrash:  “The section with the derash of Rabbi Yosi HaGlili is found in the Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael (an early midrasnhic collection on Exodus).  That this text is missing from many medieval Haggadot and from all early Israeli versions of the Haggadah indicates that this was a late edition to the Haggadah, and that the Rabbi Yosi HaGlili text (with its inclusion of Moses’ name) was certainly not originally composed as a liturgical piece to be recited at the seder.”  All of this is to say that the original authors of the Haggadah text intended that Moses’s name not appear.zaydiestone

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A Day in the Life

Of a rabbi, of course.  This was Sunday, a busy one, filled with lifecycle events as Sundays so often are.  My schedule had been complicated by a funeral (something you simply can’t plan for).  I was writing the eulogy by 7:30, doing my best to pull together the threads of the conversation I had had with the family the previous day.  A long and well lived life, one worthy of both celebration and gratitude.  The funeral was scheduled for 1.

But there were other things on the docket.  First up a conversion of a 6 month old baby boy.  I met the family, helped the parents navigate a moment that is both simple and at the very same time enormously complex.  When the baby was out of the mikveh and dry and smiling, I was back in my office.  My remaining schedule for the day:  an unveiling at 12:15, the funeral at 1, and then a wedding downtown scheduled to begin at 3:30.

Of course I had to prepare for the wedding, put together a few comments to make to the bride and groom, make sure I knew exactly what the order of the ceremony would be.  I spent the 40 minutes or so between the conversion and the time I had to leave for the unveiling doing the wedding prep.  At 11:45 I was climbing into my car to head to the cemetery for the unveiling.

Now it would be a sprint – unveiling, funeral, burial, wedding, all in rapid succession.  I met the family for the unveiling in the cemetery at 12:10, a small group gathered a year after their loss to pay tribute to memory and presence.  At 12:25 I left the cemetery and drove to the funeral home.  The funeral service began promptly at 1, with beautiful words of tribute spoken by the son and daughter of the woman who had died.  From the funeral home back to the cemetery for the burial service.  It was now 2:45.  I left the cemetery for the second time that day, pulled onto the highway, and headed downtown.

I found the proper lot, parked, took my tallit and of course the ever present Rabbi’s Manual.  I found the wedding coordinator (s!) and they led me to the bride and groom.  There is always a reaction when the rabbi arrives at a wedding – yes!  This is actually going to happen!  And soon! We signed the ketubah, were led downstairs, got in line for the procession, the music started, and we were off.  Wonderful bride and groom, laughing and so at ease.  In twenty minutes it was all over, the young couple joined together as husband and wife.

I took a breath.  A kindly bartender poured me a bourbon, and I chatted with some of the wedding guests for a time, even got to wish the groom a mazaltov.  But the day was over.  Dusk was falling, and I headed home.

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S.Q.N

It stands for sine qua non, a latin phrase that means ‘an essential condition, a thing that is absolutely necessary.’  What is the bottom line ingredient that is required to make something what it is?  Scotch, for example, might be blended or single malt, it might be aged in casks made of sherry or oak, it might be smokey or peaty.  But it must be made from malted barley.  That is its sine qua non.  If it isn’t made from malted barley, it isn’t scotch whisky.

I’ve often wondered about the sine qua non of the synagogue.  Does it exist, and if so what would it be?  The study and learning?  The Hebrew school?  The adult education programs?  Social action?  All important.  But if I had to choose one fundamental piece, the one component without which a synagogue would no longer be a synagogue, I would choose the prayer service – the minyan.

After all, the study and learning can happen at a local university with a strong adult education program.  You can participate in social action with a local charity.  Even Hebrew school these days can happen in various and sundry locations – just look at the number of families choosing to hire a private tutor to prepare their child for bar or bat mitzvah.  But the one thing a synagogue does that is unique – its sine quo non – is the minyan.  When ten or more Jews come together to pray.  When the Torah is taken out of the ark and publicly proclaimed.  When the ancient liturgy of our tradition is recited.  The minyan is the synagogue’s raison d’être, its true reason for existing.  Without prayer, the synagogue becomes just another place where Jews gather to be with other Jews.

The problem is this:  the minyan is fading away.  We don’t often acknowledge this, we don’t like to look it right in the eye, but traditional prayer services in the liberal Jewish community are slowly but surely disappearing right before our eyes.  In part because people are busy, and Saturday morning is prime errand time, or golf time.  In part because people don’t have the skills they need to participate (the Hebrew is a serious problem).  In part because people don’t find meaning in it, they don’t believe the act of prayer can be transformative in their lives and characters.  What to do?

It is first important to recognize that there is no magic pill here.  It isn’t simply a matter of finding the right charismatic rabbi or cantor.  It isn’t just arriving at the proper recipe for the service itself, just a tweak here or there, or even a radical rearrangement, and all will be well.  It is a much more complicated equation, multi-layered, involving education, programming, community, and leadership.  Minimally – as a beginning – we need to create opportunities for people in our community to deepen their knowledge of and connection to our prayer services, our minyanim.  Some of this is familiarity.  Some of this is study and discussion.  Some of it is practice!  And some of it is having a safe space where all of these things can happen.

It is this space we are hoping to create with a new ‘learnin’ minyan’ that we will be holding at Beth El.  Meeting the first Shabbat morning of the month, from 9:45 to 10:30, this minyan will be a combination of prayer and study, of delving into the themes and motifs that drive our liturgy while at the same time (hopefully) increasing the number of tools that are available to access those themes and to participate in those prayers.  I have believed for a long time that there is deep meaning in prayer, and that the very exercise of praying can be truly transformative in our lives.  Join us on this journey and we’ll see if we can convince you of the same.  We will meet in the Rabbi Jacob Agus Library, immediately following the Torah study class.  Beginning January 7th.

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Blessings of Early Rising

The quiet calm of early rising.  First stirrings.  A creak on the steps, always that same spot.  The dog rustles in his bed, sniffing the air to know what the day will bring, stretching his legs, wondering about food and weather, sensing his master’s mood.  A moment to stop and think, to consciously embrace a new day, its challenges and the gentle grace it brings.  Breath and life, an old song rattles in the back of my mind.  When did I first hear that, those artful notes, that plaintive melody?

He is older now, our pooch.  Almost venerable in his doggish ways.  He patiently sits by the window and waits, looking out, scanning the yards, his domain.  He knows every inch of it, every corner and crack, every twig fallen from a tree.  We slip out of the door from the warmth of home to another world.  A red light slowly, softly, gently, yet inexorably rises in the east.  Street lights begin to sputter and go out, like giant candles whose wicks have run down into melted wax, agents of their own destruction.

Up ahead a raccoon crosses our path, pausing for a moment to stale balefully at us with his bandit eyes.  Everything is heightened.  Each bird’s song can be heard.  The wind, only in the upper branches of the trees, murmurs of summers past and springs to come.  Stars and planets shine brightly.  There is Venus, there Jupiter, there red-tinted Mars.  A sickle moon presides over the heavens, almost austere in its dignity, its endless rounds of waxing and waning.  There is a quiet in these moments that is restful and  pregnant at the same time, soon to be released, but also precious.

Lights flicker in homes along the way, others rising to a new day.  Soon the phones will be ringing, the highway in the distance humming, the emails dinging, all of the noise of modern life in its constant cacophony.  But not quite yet.  Dawn still stubbornly clings, refusing for yet another moment (or two) to relinquish this early morning sacred time to the sun.  With gratitude we’ll wait patiently, and walk on.

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The Ouroboros of the Synagogue

The Ouroboros is a mythic snake, vast in proportion, sustaining its life force by eating its own tail.  Commonly the great snake is understood as a symbol of continual renewal, of regeneration and the endless cycle of life.  But I’ve always felt the symbolism of the Ouroboros has a darker side, for in feeding itself it consumes itself, thereby diminishing what it is and the amount of time and energy it has left.

Lately I have been wondering if an Ouroboros has quietly grown larger and larger in the synagogue community over the last fifty years.  For decades now the bar and bat mitzvah has in many ways been the bread and butter of synagogue life, the driving force behind so much of what we do.  New (and often young) members join synagogues because they want to have a bar or bat mitzvah for their child.  Parents enroll their children in Hebrew school so they can properly be prepared for the ‘big day.’  And the bar and bat mitzvah structure is an important foundation of synagogue income (membership dues, Hebrew school and tutoring fees, post event meals, etc).  As the structure evolved over time, it became a kind of ouroboros – self feeding and self sustaining.

It wasn’t long before a significant slice of the synagogue’s time, effort, and energy was directed towards the bar and bat mitzvah experience.  The ritual itself grew in importance, becoming something that is larger than life.   Commonly today families understand bar/bat mitzvah as a final destination, instead of a stopping point along the way in a Jewish education.  The shul, in turn, focused on it more and more as way of connecting with families and engaging them in synagogue life.  As the ritual grew in importance in the eyes of families, the synagogue put more and more effort into training the students, focused the service on the bar/bat mitzvah ritual, and relied more and more on the celebration attendees to bolster service attendance.   Before our very eyes the Ouroboros grew and grew.

But what happens when it simply can’t sustain itself anymore?  In today’s Jewish world Hebrew school takes a back seat to sports leagues.  Jews are less interested in general in religious life and ritual behavior, both of which serve as traditional pillars of the synagogue.  And more and more, families feel free to create a custom bar/bat mitzvah experience for their child outside of the shul walls, just for family and friends, without clergy, and entirely outside of the synagogue community.

In the near future it seems as if these trends will continue.  The bar/bat mitzvah experience will not nourish and sustain the synagogue as it has in the past.  The challenge for the synagogue community will be to adjust.  Can Hebrew school be reimagined?  Can the bar/bat mitzvah ritual, fundamentally a way to mark a young person’s coming of age, be redesigned so that it remains Jewish, but may not be what it has been for as long as most of us remember – a public reading of scripture by a child?   These are the pressing questions that synagogues are facing.

In a sense the challenge is this:  how do you turn a large ocean liner?  The answer is not easily.  But if talented, committed, caring, imaginative people work together, you have a chance.  One thing we are learning – the time to start trying has arrived.

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Festival of Rain?

A classic case of same time, different place. In Israel Sukkoth almost always falls during one of the most beautiful times of year. The heat of the summer has begun to cool, but the rain and cold of winter won’t arrive for another six weeks. What better time to go out of doors, to sit in golden Jerusalem, or somewhere looking out on the hills of the Galilee, in that ancient booth, that memory-box we call a Sukkah? In Jerusalem people walk to and fro holding lulavim and etrogim in ornate cases, in tune with an ancient rhythm of life, appreciative of God’s blessings, feeling close and connected to the natural world and its bounty. Sukkoth in Israel in October – perfect!

But here in the States we are in the midst of one of the rainiest Sukkoth holidays in recent memory, and by the end of the festival it might actually be the rainiest (who keeps track of these things?!)! Tortured temporary booths have collapsed all over, literally bowing to the elements, in a way reflecting what happens to the lulav itself as it gradually decays during the seven days of the festival. I can see my congregation’s grand sukkah from my office window, even as I can see and hear the rain coming down steadily. An incongruity of sound and sight! This is weather to hunker down, the damp and chill, the cold and rain, a fine whisky’s warmth keeping the weather at bay.

The ancient sages were prepared. Even though they created our rituals in a different place and climate, they knew from the capricious nature of weather. It might rain, even on Sukkoth! Even in Israel! And so, being the pragmatic scholars that they were, they allowed the Jews to leave their temporary dwellings and return to a place that would be dry and safe and warm. But they were logicians! They demanded, perhaps needed a determinant factor, a clear test that could be passed or failed. And what was it? The soup! Could there be a more Jewish answer? This from the Mishnah (Tractate Sukkah, 2:9): “If rain falls, when may they clear out of the sukkah? From the time when the soup would be spoiled!”

We might add, the same for the scotch!

And that, too, is perfect!

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