Category Archives: clergy

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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Almost Cut My Hair

Actually my beard, and I did cut it.  After shaving my face clean I am beardless for the first time in many years.  It is an interesting experience to see my simultaneously recognizable and unrecognizable face staring back from whatever mirror I happen to look in.  I confess the lack of that all grey beard does indeed make me look quite a bit younger.  That being said I am already growing it back, because as I always say, it beats shaving.

It is an odd thing, how we see ourselves, how we understand our own identities.  It isn’t something we pause to think about all that often, but every once in a while it catches you and hits home.  A lot of it at the end of the day is surface level.  The clothes, the hairstyle, the beard (or lack of one!), the home, the car, all of the material items that become part of our image, even in our own minds.  But peel those things away and there is some kind of core, independent of all of the societally imposed images and ideas of who we are and who we should be.  Here is the thing, almost counterintuitive – that core is invisible, in some ways undefinable, untouchable, but it is stronger, more powerful and profound and true that all of the accoutrements.  There is a wonderful verse from I Samuel, chapter 16:  “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, both in ourselves and in others.  What was it that Polonius so famously said to Laertes in Act 1 of Hamlet?  “To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”

And so to ‘Almost Cut My Hair,’ the title of this post.  It comes from one of my all time favorite rock and roll songs, and is the title of the third track on the classic CSNY album Deja Vu, released in 1970.  In one of the great recorded rock vocal performances, David Crosby rants against the ever intensifying pressure to conform to expected norms.  ‘Get a job!  Clean up your act!  Dress like a normal human being!  And last, but certainly not least, get a haircut!’  In the end the song’s protagonist stays true to his own values, and makes the decision to walk his own path, difficult as that may be.  Here are the lyrics from the song’s first stanza:

Almost cut my hair/ It happened just the other day/  It was gettin’ kind of long/  I could have said it was in my way/ but I didn’t, and I wonder why/ I feel like letting my freak flag fly/  and I owe it to someone…

Every once in a while you have to let your freak flag fly.  You owe it to someone, and that someone just might be you.

 

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On Saturday the Rabbi…

Went to shul, of course!  Yes, even when I am away, even when vacationing, if I can I go to shul.  The truth is I’ve always liked it, going all the way back to my Hebrew school days.  The other students in my class would complain when we were brought in to sit in services, but I didn’t mind.  There was something about it, hard to identify, difficult to pinpoint, maybe impossible for me to explain.

The truth is, I would rather sit in the pews.  My guess is if you polled a group of rabbis about this question, a fair number would tell you they want to be on the bima conducting the service.  I’ve even known a few rabbis who have said to me ‘why would I go to shul if I am not running the service?’  But I enjoy just sitting quietly, doing a bit of davening, following the Torah reading and checking some of the commentaries, just the sort of quiet head space of it all.  Isn’t that part of what shul is supposed to be about anyway?

I also enjoy seeing how things work in other congregations.  It is a big Jewish world out there!  In our own spaces we can get so tied down to OUR way of doing it, the tunes we use, the readings we do, when we sit and stand, even where people sit – it can all become sacrosanct.  There is an old joke in the ‘business’ – you could cut the entire Shema out of the service and no one would say a thing, but if you change the tune of Aleinu, beware!  Of course it isn’t exactly true, but it is true enough.

But a little bit of traveling will remind you that there are a million and one customs, a million and one different ways to do it, each community with its own version.  And yet in some profound way it is all connected, and you can feel at home in any shul, big or small, local or far away.  In one way or another the Torah will be read, the Shema recited, the Aleinu sung.  And you realize, when all is said and down, it is your place, these are your traditions, the people here are your community.  And the shul is your shul, too.

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Addendum (the Monday morning QB)

Any experienced public speaker will be familiar with the following:  You stand to speak, and you are working with an outline that is in your head, but without notes.  You say (approximately) what you want to say, and sit down.  Then, at a later time (sometimes right away, sometimes the next day), you realize there was something that would have worked so well in terms of your talk.  If only you had thought to add it!

But of course in the internet age, you can.

So it was that this past Friday night I spoke for a few minutes at our Shabbat evening service about being in our old neighborhood in NYC and running into a man who was begging on the street.  Not, of course, unusual for New York, except that this very person had been begging on the streets 20 years ago when we lived there.  The gist of the sermonette was that there is a problem in a culture/society where a person is still on the street begging after twenty years.

The problem with my words was that I offered no resolution, no glimmer of hope, no uplifting message.  I essentially pointed out this disturbing situation, and left it hanging in the air.  Afterwards a congregant nicely, but slightly sarcastically said to me ‘thanks for the cheerful message, Rabbi, a nice way to start Shabbat.’

Now sometimes the point of preaching is simply to call attention to something that is disturbing, that for whatever reason people don’t want to confront.  As the old saying goes, the preacher should comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.  That being said, point well taken.  And below is a story which might make a nice addendum to my Friday night comments.

You have probably heard the name James Shaw Jr.  He is the man who wrestled a rifle away from a gunman who was shooting people in a Waffle House Restaurant in Nashville a couple of weeks ago.  He has vociferously protested to being called a hero, simply saying he did what he felt he had to do.  As if his actions in the restaurant were not enough, after the tragedy he set up a GoFundMe account for those whose lives had been changed by the shooting.  His initial goal was to raise $15,000 dollars.  But two weeks after he set up the account, it already had $225,000 dollars, and was growing.

When asked to comment about the fund’s success, Mr. Shaw said this:  “I am overwhelmed.  This has been a heartwarming reminder of what is possible when we come together to care for one another.”

What is possible when we come together to care for one another?  The short answer is quite a bit, and Mr. Shaw and the victims of the shooting in Nashville have seen that first hand.  The never-ending challenge is reminding people of how much there is to do, and of how much of a difference one individual can make, and all the more so a community of people who come together, care for one another, and determine to make the world  a better place.  If anything can help to take a beggar off the streets after 20 years, it is that kind of thinking, that sense of community, and that feeling of hope.

 

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Big Shul Life

Been a while.  I was laid up with a nasty bug that has been making its way through the synagogue staff, and then I’ve been trying to catch up.  In that scramble blogging tends to slide down the priority scale as you struggle to do what needs to be done that day (or sometimes that hour) with some modicum of competence.  Sometimes that is all you can hope for, just that the wheels don’t fall off, that the bus somehow shuffles along from point A to point B and arrives with everyone safely seated.  Maybe it wasn’t the most memorable trip, the most dazzling or mind-bending or life-changing, but you did help folks move a little ways down the road.

Which brings me to this past weekend.  A series of days that really only happens in the context of large congregational life.  From Friday to Sunday we had two funerals (one Friday afternoon, one Sunday afternoon), and four b’nai mitzvah (two Saturday morning, one Saturday evening, one Sunday morning). Oh yes, and a Friday night dinner for the scholar in residence.  Of course two eulogies must be written somewhere in there, charges composed for the bar and bat mitzvah students, the services themselves conducted with their various liturgical complications.

It all came together fairly well.  We’ve got a good team, the staff works hard, everyone pitches in, does their job, contributes.  There are little glitches here and there, but for the most part we are the only ones who notice them.  After all, most of the people who came through our doors over the weekend are so far out of their element in the synagogue they hardly know what is correct or incorrect anyway.  That being said, we do take pride in what we do, and we are professionals, perhaps not always the most complimentary word, but there is something to be said for it.  Sometimes simply getting the names right is a victory in and of itself.

Not that we don’t have moments of nahas.  We truly do feel proud of the kids, of how hard they work, how much they put into it.  It might be a blur for us, particularly in a weekend when we are going from family to family to family.  (Please, God, help us get the names right!) But for the families, particularly for the students, we hope they’ve had a positive experience that will stay with them for many years.  Perhaps even a formative Jewish moment that will in some mysterious way help to shape who they are as people and as Jews as they grow into adulthood.

That is a future hope.  Sometimes it can also be a reward in the present.  We have to hope for both.

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Taking Out the Garbage

This is a text version of my sermon from Shabbat services on 3/24/18.

Just a couple of weeks ago I had an experience that was both rare for me these days, and also I realized, refreshing, and perhaps even important in an odd way.  I was out and about in the Baltimore area, and as happens about 99% of the time, I saw from across the room someone I know from the congregation.  I figured I would go over to say hello and check in for a moment or two, knowing of course that the person would know I was there, and might feel slighted if I didn’t say ‘hi.’

I went over to the person and reached out my hand to shake hers, and said ‘how are you, good to see you.’  She looked at me with a blank stare, clearly in her mind thinking ‘who the heck is this?!’  Now I must admit my self esteem took a small hit.  One of my own congregants, and she didn’t even recognize me!?  How was this possible?  After an awkward moment or two I said ‘its Rabbi Schwartz, from Beth El,’ at which point she realized who I was, and began to profusely apologize.  I tried to reassure her – ‘please, no worries,’ I said.  ‘Just wanted to say hello.  Have a good time and I’ll see you in shul.’

Now in my poor congregant’s defense, I wasn’t exactly dressed in shul clothes.  She is used to seeing me in a suit and tie, often with a tallis on, and that evening I was dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, plus I had a baseball cap on my head.  And it was probably in a place she was not expecting to see her rabbi.  So I was totally out of context for her, and for a couple of days in my mind that was how I rationalized what happened.

But then I began to realize that the problem had nothing to do with her, and everything to do with me.  That is to say, why should I have expected to be recognized in the first place?  Am I so important, am I such a recognizable figure, that I think people should know who I am?  What we had here was a problem of humility – namely my own lack of said quality.  I had briefly forgotten one of my chief rules of rabbinical work, which is – never believe your own press clippings.

So it is perhaps propitious that we come to this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, in the week leading up to Passover, which as I expect you all know begins this coming Friday night.  Because in both this morning’s Torah portion, and also in my experience of the Passover holiday, are lessons of humility that I will try my very best to take to heart in the months ahead.  First of all, the Torah portion.

There is a wonderful story told of the Brisker Rav, who was the head of the Brisk Yeshiva in Jerusalem.  It seems that he had a student who was having trouble getting along with his wife.  One day the student arrived early at the Rav’s home.  The Rav invited him in, poured him a cup of coffee, and asked him what was wrong.  The student replied, ‘My wife is giving me a hard time because I refuse to take out the garbage.  Can you imagine that she wants me, a Torah scholar, to actually take out the garbage.’  The Brisker Rav sagely nodded his head, and simply said to the student, ‘let me think about this.’

The very next morning -early – there was a knock on the student’s door.  Much to his astonishment the Brisker Rav was standing at his doorstep asking to come in.  When the student invited his teacher inside the Rav went straight to the kitchen, found the garbage can, and took it out to the street.  When the student asked the Rav what he was doing he simply replied “It may be beneath your dignity to take out the garbage, but I thought I’d show you it isn’t beneath my dignity.”  By the way what the student’s wife said to him was not recorded in the version of the story I saw.  We can only imagine.

But the story does reflect a small and curious detail that our Torah portion relates about the Priests in ancient times, and their service at the Temple in Jerusalem.  The Priests were the most important people in ancient Israel, honored and respected as religious authorities and sources of wisdom.  And this morning’s portion describes their day to day duties in terms of their Temple service.  One can imagine that the Priest arrived at work in the morning to great fanfare.  After all, he was going to be doing God’s work for the people, offering the sacrifices, making judgements about which things were pure and which were impure, helping people to recover from illnesses.

But the very first thing the Priest had to do when he arrived in the morning was to take off his fancy clothes, put on his schlepper clothes – old jeans and torn sweatshirt – and then he had to clean out the altar area from the ashes of the previous day’s sacrifices, and then carry those ashes outside.  So literally, the great Priests of ancient Israel started their days by taking out the garbage.  And that image is a very helpful reminder to me about he importance of humility – even when, and maybe particularly when – you find yourself in a position of Jewish leadership.

Which brings me to the second thing that helps to reset my humility needle, and that is Pesah, precisely because it is the family holiday of our tradition par excellence.  When I stand here and preach, or lead services, or help you with life cycle events, I am the rabbi, and always treated as such, with respect.  And believe me it is very much appreciated.  But when I sit down at the seder table with my family, even though I am leading the seder, I am not the rabbi.  I am Tali, Josh, and Merav’s dad.  I am Becky’s husband.  I am my parents’s son, Becky’s parents’ son in law.  My children remind me that I don’t know the proper tune to a number of the Passover songs. (which may simply be a comment on my singing)  Becky quietly reminds me I am talking too much, and that we need to get the food out on the table, something my congregants would never do while I am conducting services.  Becky’s parents remind me they knew me when.  My parents remind me they REALLY knew me when.  I think you get the picture, and as you may imagine, it is all very humbling, and it is wonderful.  Sometimes it is good to be reminded that you are no more special, no wiser, no more insightful or wonderful, than anyone else.

Of course in today’s world that is a lesson probably everyone could benefit from.  Certainly our politicians, so entrenched in their own views, so convinced of their own wisdom and that they know better than anyone else, could use a good does of humility.  Maybe they should take a cue from the Priests in the Torah, and show up early to work, change out of their suits, put on their work clothes, and spend a half hour taking out the garbage.  Lord knows there is enough of it in Washington DC.  But I am guessing the list could go on and on, and we could all think of someone we know – whether ourselves, or someone else – who could use a good dose of humility.

The question, of course, is where does that dose come from?  For me, the two best sources are my faith and my family.  My faith reminds me of how grateful I should be for every day and every blessing, of how little I should take credit for and how lucky I am.  My family reminds me of something even more important – who I truly am – which is, just a person like everyone else.

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The Pugilists

Ah God.  The ‘tester.’  At least that is one of the sides of You we meet in the Torah.  Testing  Abraham, and testing the people as well.  Why the test, what exactly the test is, what it is supposed to measure, these things are not clear.  But that there is a test, or tests, that is something the text tells us explicitly.  “And it was after these things that God tested Abraham.”  “For God has come only to test you…”  “In order to test you by hardships…” “…that I may thus test them, to see whether they will follow my instruction or not.”  Perhaps we don’t even need the explicit textual references, because we are all tested, at one time or another, in our own experiences, our own lives, our own doubts and fears.

I feel sometimes like we are two old and weary wrestlers, You and I.  Theological pugilists.  Warily circling the ring, eyeing one another suspiciously, waiting for one or the other to blink, to turn away, maybe even to leave the ring entirely.  Bruised and battered. It is a kind of contest of wills and also perhaps a continual test of patience.  Still here, I see.  Ready for another round?  But those words are spoken (or thought?) with a tired resignation.  Yes still here, but not necessarily sure why.

There is a heartbreaking story in the Talmud of four rabbis who entered a testing-ground of faith.  The text uses a forest as the metaphor for the place of trial, but what exactly the test is is not clear.  Some say the rabbis gave up on God after living through the terrors of the Roman persecutions.  Others explain the forest as a symbol of forbidden knowledge, of what can happen when we let the mind wander to a place where it cannot find its way back.  Whatever the forest represents, it is clear it is a place of theological danger and existential psychological struggle.  Three of the rabbis are destroyed during their journey.  But one rabbi – the famous Akiva – emerges whole.

How to be Akiva?  That is, perhaps, the question.  How to find one’s way through the dark groves and overgrown thickets, the thickly woven branches and fading leaves to once again emerge into the light?  No easy task, and one certainly worthy of despair.  And yet what You dangle before us.  The rising sun in the morning, the full moon and clear stars at night.  The promise of a new day.  The love of family and friends.  The sudden hope that springs unbidden and unexpected into our hearts.  The moments of joy that touch our souls.

Is it time for another round?  Give me a moment or two, and I will be there.

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