Category Archives: clergy

An Old Dog

You know the saying, one of the most popular proverbs around:  you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.  What we mean by this is that people are set in their ways, that they reach a stage in life when they are who they are, and they will not be changing anytime soon.  In fact, they will not be changing at all.  The way they act, their interests, even how they think, are all, to use another saying, ‘set in stone.’

The implication of the proverb is the older we get, the harder it is to change.  There seems to be some truth to this idea.  When we are young we are more open to new ideas and experiences.  Our views about life and the world around us are not yet fully formed. We are more likely, in our youth, to meet new people and have experiences we’ve never had before.  But as we age our world in a sense becomes smaller.  Our friendship circles are for the most part closed.  We rarely if ever do something for the first time.  Even our general sense of the world becomes jaded – ‘it is what it is,’ we say, meaning ‘it isn’t perfect, but it isn’t going to change either.’  Perhaps this is why the tradition understands that King Solomon penned the Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes when he was an old man, a book that contains one of the Bible’s best known verses – “What has happened will happen again, what has been done will be redone – for there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

My wife and I are the owners of an actual old dog, our loyal and trusted pooch who this year will celebrate his 10th birthday.  The eager young puppy who was filled with energy, who would bound out of the house in the morning and tug you down the street, has slowed down considerably.  These days he solemnly surveys the street before going out, and once outside spends time sniffing the air before deciding in which direction to walk.  His pleasures are simple – to roll in grass on a hot summer day, or watch keenly from the top of the steps the street outside, or to lie quietly and comfortably on the couch as his ‘humans’ watch a bit of television.  Even as I type this he has just entered the room and settled himself comfortably behind my chair, somehow keeping one eye on me while napping at the same time.  If only I could learn to do that!

And yet even in his old age he has not become jaded.  The world is still wondrous to him. When a new season arrives he is thrilled at the change in weather, at the new scents that waft up from the ground in the spring, at the cold winds that ruffle his fur coat in the winter.  He is master of the neighborhood now, the oldest dog on the block, literally, but he loves to meet a young puppy, all bubbly energy, huge paws, overgrown ears.  He’ll play with his younger compatriot, as if to say ‘here is how you do it, now go out and have fun while I lie back here and take a snooze!’  He continues to change, to grow, to study the world around him, to live in the moment.  And this old dog will even, when properly motivated, learn a new trick.

One of the fundamental ideas of Judaism is that people have the capacity to change.  As set in our ways as we might be, as comfortable in our shoes, to fully live life we must be open to what is new.  New people, new experiences, new ideas, new relationships, new knowledge – all of these should be part of the way we grow and change, and growth and change should be a life long processes.  The old proverb and King Solomon were both wrong.  An old dog, when open to the world, can learn new tricks.  And there are many new things under the sun, waiting out in God’s world to be discovered.  As it says in the Talmud:  זיל וגמור – go out and learn!pooch

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The Gift

It was a beautiful silver kiddish cup, contemporary in design.  They gave it to me as a gift, hoping to thank me for some help I had given them.  Their son had maintained a long running feud with them, not even speaking with them for a number of years.  They had come to see me about it before, desperate for any suggestion that might help things improve.  In reality I didn’t do anything new.  Just a simple, logical suggestion that I think I had made to them before.  This time, for whatever reason, it worked.  The lines of communication opened, the relationship began to heal, the skies brightened.  They were so grateful, and the kiddish cup was just a token of that gratitude.  Would I please accept it?

I loved that kiddish cup.  I often used it on holidays, and it brought an added sense of sanctity to our table.  Hiddur mitzvah is a term the rabbis often use – the beautification of a mitzvah.  You can fulfill the mitzvah of kiddish using a paper cup to hold your wine, or a beer stein for that matter.  But a nice kiddish cup adds to the sense of doing the mitzvah right.  And a beautiful kiddush cup?  A gorgeous kiddish cup?  Sterling silver, carved design, polished and shined – now that is the proper way to say kiddish on a Yom Tov eve!

But things went awry.  The son became angry with his parents again, the relationship soured in the course of a year’s time.  He dropped out of their lives entirely, moved away, and they weren’t even sure where he was living.  To make matters worse, the parents were upset with me.  They felt I had sided with their son, that I had perhaps even encouraged him to sever the relationship.  It wasn’t true, but the idea was formed in their minds.  It was bad enough the rabbi had failed them, but he had also, in their eyes, betrayed them.

The kiddush cup sat on a shelf.  The sense of sanctity it had once contained seemed diminished.  Instead of reminding me of my great wisdom, of my rabbinic gravitas, it instead brought to my mind my foibles and failures, my inadequacies, both personal and professional.  The object itself hadn’t changed – it was just as beautiful as ever.  But it was tainted, no longer holy, no longer fit for use.

And yet I keep it.  I glance at it now and again.  Sometimes I even pick it up, remembering how the cold silver felt when the cup was filled with sweet wine.  I wonder if it will ever become sacred again.  Is there some way to repurpose it, to metaphorically smelt it into liquid silver and create it from scratch so that it no longer contains its bitterness and complexity?

Only time will tell.  Perhaps in some future year the ragged harshness of it all will somehow fade away, and the cup will be restored (in my mind) to its former beauty.  But for now it sits quietly.  What did Cassius say to Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar?  “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” (Act I scene ii)  I might say the same thing about my cup, which of course has done nothing wrong except to be freely given as a gift.

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Biblical Math

A text version of my sermon from Shabbat services on 5/27/17

Those of you who know me even moderately well probably know that I am what would today be called ‘math challenged.’  I remember always being this way, from the time math became a bit more complicated, say when I was in 3rd or 4th grade and we started in with long division.  That was pretty much the end of my successful math career.  From that point forward it was a serious struggle.  Fractions made me crazy.  Algebra intimidated me and made very little sense.  Trigonometry left me wondering if I was going to graduate from high school.  In the end – and I am convinced to this day with some help from God Almighty – or at least my trig teacher who had rachmanas on me – I did graduate, and have happily not studied math since I was in 10th grade.  Thank God for calculators!

But what is a ‘mathless’ rabbi to do with this week’s Torah portion, Bamidbar?  It is first of all the beginning of the book of the Torah that we call in English – Numbers!  The text begins with a census, which is at the end of the day doing math, counting and adding.  And the portion itself is filled with numbers in every chapter.  Here are just a few examples, chosen randomly:  59,300 (the number of males aged 20 or over from the tribe of Shimon);  603,550 (the total number of males eligible for military service among the Israelites);  22,273 (the number of first born males).  There is even a math problem in the portion.  At one point the text says you have to multiply 273 by the number 5 and you will arrive at an answer of 1365.

Of course the numbers here serve a purpose.  The Israelites needed to know what their number was, how many of them were eligible for military service, how many of them would be responsible for conducting worship at the Tabernacle, or for carrying the objects of the Tabernacle when they moved to a new camp.  But over time Judaism became wary of counting people, eventually preferring not use numbers to count people at all.  That is why in Exodus one of the counting techniques is for each person to submit a half shekel, and then you count the shekels.  Of if you’ve ever been in a traditional shul, and they are wondering if there are enough people for a minyan, they’ll use the motzi instead of using numbers to find out of there are 10.  Try it!  10 words!

There are a variety of explanations as to why Jews don’t count Jews.  One idea is that counting makes people distinct, it in a sense separates one person from another, and we don’t want Jews to be separate, we want Jews to be communal, to be together and united.  But I’ve always suspected that the tradition was simply uncomfortable assigning a number to a person.  Once a person becomes a number they aren’t an individual any more.  They are not a name or a face, they are not part of a family, they don’t have a story.  Instead, they are a statistic, to be analyzed, to be mathematically manipulated, to be thought about in abstract terms.  And there is something about that that is dehumanizing, that takes away our individuality and our sense of self worth.       Some of you may remember the 1981 Police album Ghost in the Machine.  There is a song on that record Invisible Sun, and one of the lines is ‘I don’t ever want to play the part of a statistic on a government chart.’

To me that is a problem of our internet – computer driven age.  We have more ways to turn people into numbers today than we ever have before.  I imagine you know that as you use your iPhone, or your computer, every click is tracked, and there are algorithms at work that make you into a statistic based on those clicks.  This is done to communities as well, or even to entire areas of the country, with what they call ‘big data,’ which is mostly a collection of information about Google searches in your area.

Now there is some accuracy in these numbers , and I am sure there is something important that can be learned from them.  But we certainly know that numbers never tell the full story.  Probably the best recent example of this is the presidential election.  All of the numbers, all of the statistics, predicted that Hillary would win that election and Donald Trump would lose.  But Donald Trump is president of the United States.  And you may remember that right after the election all of the reporters, and all of the sociologists, and all of the pundits, were wringing their hands and saying ‘how could we have gotten it so wrong?’  And I think part of the answer is that they were paying attention to the poll numbers as they came in, but they weren’t paying attention to the people, to the communities, to the personal stories and emotions of the people who ultimately voted.

Unfortunately in our culture today we do the same thing.  We commonly evaluate others – and sometimes even ourselves – by numbers.  What is a person’s salary?  What zip code do they live in?  Even how many years did they live, or how many children and grandchildren did they have?  And we tend to believe that when the numbers are high the story is good.  But I’ve known plenty of people – and I am sure you have too – who have lived long lives, had many children, been paid high salaries, and at the end of the day were pretty miserable.

And the reason for that is all of the things that define the quality of human life that cannot be quantified.  You can’t put a number on the quality of a person’s relationships.  You can’t put a number on a person’s emotional intelligence, on their ability to cope with trauma and tragedy, on the joy or humor or love that they bring into the world.  And I would argue that all of the things – much more so than the numbers – give us a true sense of the quality of our lives.

So truth be told I am not a big fan of this week’s Torah portion and its penchant for counting people and adding them up as if they were something to be packaged or sold.  Instead I much prefer the approach of the prophet Hosea, captured in the very first verse of this morning’s haftara.  והיה מספר בני ישראל כחול הים אשר לא ימד ולא יספר – Behold the number of the people Israel shall be like that of the sands of the sea, which cannot be measured or counted – instead, they shall simple be called ‘Children of the Living God.’

And that, at least it seems to me – tells more about the Jewish people than any number ever could.  Now that is my kind of math.

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Joseph’s Bones and The Humility of Moses

This a text version of my sermon from the 7th day of Passover –

Tradition has long understood the 7th day of Passover as the day the Israelites crossed through the Reed Sea, finally escaping the Egyptians, and that is why the Sages chose the narrative of the Song at the Sea for this morning’s Torah reading.  It is a dramatic moment, long anticipated, and our custom is to reflect the drama of the text by standing together as a congregation when it is read aloud.  We even participate in the song itself, joining in with the Torah reader when he chants some of the phrases, like מי כמוכה or ה׳ ימלוך לעולם ועד.

But this morning I would like to turn our attention away from that moment of high drama to focus on what is the traditional beginning of this morning’s reading.  As with any great moment of life, there was an extensive amount of mundane preparation that preceded the parting of the sea.  And the Torah gives us a fair amount of detail about those preparations.  The Israelites had to pack their things, and prepare for the long journey that lay ahead of them.  They also had to enact the entire Passover ritual, sacrificing lambs and painting some of the lamb’s blood on the doorposts of their homes.  And they went to the Egyptians, who gave them provisions and even gold to take on the journey.  This was all of the behind the scenes hustle and bustle that went on before they left Egypt, before the drama enacted at the Sea that marks the high point of this morning’s reading.

One can imagine that Moses was quite busy during these last hours in Egypt.  He was the project manager, if you will.  The Torah tells us Moses met with Pharaoh four separate times just before the Israelis left.  He also had to give the people instructions, telling them what they needed to do and how they were to prepare.  He must have been running from place to place, from person to person, making sure everyone knew what their role was, making sure that all the preparations had been properly attended to.

And then there is one additional responsibility that Moses carries out, just at the very moment when the Israelites are leaving Egypt, what must have been the busiest time of all for Moses.  The Torah tells us ויקח משה את עצמות יוסף – Moses took the bones of Joseph.  You may remember that at the very end of Genesis, in fact the second to the last verse of the book, Joseph tells his brothers, just as he is about to die – “you must bring my bones up out of here.  Make sure that one day my bones will be taken to the land of Israel.”  And here is Moses – some four hundred years later – fulfilling Joseph’s wish.

What commentators notice about this is that Moses does it himself.  In everything that was going on, meetings with Pharaoh, preparing more than a million people to leave their homes, the religious rites of the first Passover sacrifices, in all of that, one might have expected Moses to delegate the job of retrieving some 400 year old bones.  Even if they were the bones of Joseph.  If he wanted, he could have sent someone important – he could have sent Aaron, or Miriam.  But he doesn’t – he goes himself, and he schleps.

I am reminded of what I consider to be one of the most valuable lessons I’ve ever learned about being in the working world.  As is so often the case, this lesson came to me not in a classroom or a meeting, but in a casual conversation I had with a secretary, these days an administrative assistant, a conversation that took place now about 30 years ago.  I was working on my Master’s degree at Maryland, and found a part time job working in Rockville for a place called the Care Center.  We had a small office space in the large government complex in Rockville at the center of town, and the secretary of the head of the department sat just across the hall from my desk, and over the months as I worked there I got to know her a bit.

One day we were talking about something – I don’t even remember what – and she said to me that her boss – that department head – was the best boss she had ever worked for.  So I asked the natural question – which is?  Why?  What makes him the best boss you’ve ever worked for?  And she said this:  he would never ask me to do something he wouldn’t do himself.

Now on the surface that is a pretty simple and straight forward statement.   But under the surface there is a lot going on there.  What she was really saying was this:  “My boss and I might have very different jobs, but – he respects me, he values my time as much as his own, he is not afraid to get his hands dirty, and we are in this together, we are working together as a team to do what we need to do.”  And she was saying one other thing – “He is humble.  He doesn’t care what his title is, he is not impressed by his own resume, he doesn’t think he is any more important than anyone else here, including me.  And that is the kind of person for whom I like to work.”

Let me return now to Moses, and the Torah’s understanding of his character.  As large as Moses looms in the Torah, we have very little information from the text about his character.  We are never told, anywhere in the Torah, that Moses is brave, or courageous, or wise, or understanding, or moral or ethical.  In fact, we are only told one thing – directly – about Moses’ character.  We are told that he is humble.  (Numbers 12:3)  And it seems to me that only a person of true humility, on one of the busiest days of his life, would take the time to dig up some old dusty bones because of a promise made 400 years ago.  I guess like the boss of the secretary, Moses also would not ask anyone to do something he wouldn’t do himself.

And I don’t know about you, but that is a very important lesson for a rabbi to remember.  Sometimes in the rabbinate it can feel like every day is the busiest day of your life.  And you are often told all kinds of wonderful things about yourself.  All of it very much appreciated, don’t get me wrong!  But if you are not careful, you can begin to believe your own press clippings, if you know what I mean.  And at the end of the day you have to strive to keep everything in perspective, to remember that you are no better or no more important that anyone else, no more deserving of respect or attention, no less deserving of doing a little schlepping every once in a while.

Because keeping that lesson in mind not only helps you to be a better rabbi, or whatever else it is you might do – it also helps you to be a better Jew, and a better person.  And at the end of the day, isn’t that what we are really all after anyway?

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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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Integrity

 

In his column in this morning’s NY Times David Brooks seems to suggest that we should evaluate the Trump presidency by dividing the president elect into two.  On the one hand, we’ll have the Trump who will send out late night tweets, ranting and raving against those whom he sees as enemies, making strange policy pronouncements, commenting on product lines or movie stars (Trump #1).  On the other, we’ll have the Trump who sits in the Oval Office and works with his staff, crafting the nation’s agenda and working to implement economic, domestic, and foreign policy (Trump #2).  Brooks argues that we shouldn’t evaluate Trump #2 by what Trump #1 might say or tweet. Almost as if they are two different people, unconnected in all but appearance.

Certainly there is precedent for this idea.  We have long understood that the private behavior of the president does not necessarily reflect on his ability to do the job, to lead the nation, to be the voice for all Americans.  Bill Clinton’s indiscretions come to mind.  So do JFK’s, the famous Camelot of early 60s Washington now tarnished by the probing scope of history.  But there does seem to be a limit.  Nixon’s image was irreparably damaged by Watergate, crossing the line from indiscretion to illegality the way he did.  Nevertheless, at the end of the day evidence indicates that we want someone in the office who can do the job, whether or not they are a paradigm of moral rectitude and probity.  Whether or not they are a person of integrity.

Of course integrity has another meaning, commonly the second definition you’ll find when you look it up in the dictionary.  From its verb form, ‘to integrate,’ the word also means the state of being whole and undivided.  That is to say that the outside of a person matches the inside, the public persona and private persona are one and the same.  This is a challenge for members of the clergy.  Publicly we espouse certain values, we sermonize  about faith and our fellow man, we challenge our congregants to become better people (and for rabbis better Jews!).  But privately we may struggle with our own faith.  We may all too often give in to our baser instincts, over time souring and sinking in a sea of cynicism.  We may begin to look at others and wonder what they want from us, instead of what we can give to them.  This may be all too human, but it is not holy.

There is an old midrashic comment about the ark that contained the tablets that Moses brought down from Sinai.  According to Torah text that ark was gilded with gold, both on the outside, and the inside.  Of course the outside makes sense – that is what is visible to the world, so when the people looked at the ark they saw the beautiful gold gleaming in the sun.  But why bother with gold on the inside, a part of the ark that no one saw?  The answer, of course, is that the inside is just as important as the outside.  At the end of the day the people we are most impressed with are those whose inner qualities shine through, creating a brighter light than any polished gold ever could.

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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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