Category Archives: continiuty

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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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 Quest and the Road

“It is a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your front door.  You step on the road, and if you don’t keep your feet there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.”  (J.R.R. Tolkien, chapter 3, the Fellowship of the Ring)

One of my favorite quotes, words of wisdom from the world’s most famous hobbit Bilbo Baggins, to his nephew Frodo.  Certainly journey is a theme that is at the very center of Tolkien’s world view.  Remember that the title of The Hobbit was actually ‘The Hobbit, or There and Back Again.’  Bilbo’s quest is to find something, whether himself, or gold, or perhaps both.  His nephew Frodo’s quest in the Lord of the Rings is to lose something, or rather to destroy it – the dangerous, magical, and powerful ring of Sauron.  But either way the narrative thread of both Bilbo’s and Frodo’s story is the quest.

But what the above quote brings out is that the journey is not linear.  First of all, because when you set out you really don’t have any idea where you might end up.  Certainly this applies to the self, to a person’s identity, for how can anyone know how the experiences of life, the experiences of the journey, will change him or her?  It may very well be that at the end of the road we wind up as very different people than we were when we set out.  A dangerous business indeed.

And on top of that, even the actual journey is not linear.  There are detours along the way, unexpected stops, flat tires, strange encounters, wrong turns, and so often the journey that begins with the most structured plan ends up as being something entirely different than originally expected.  Wasn’t it John Lennon who said ‘life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans?’

Perhaps that is why the Torah is so grounded in the quest narrative.  There are many examples – Jacob’s flight from Esau, Moses leaving Egypt to travel to Midian, even the fundamental narrative arc of the Torah is one of quest, the Israelites traveling through the wilderness to get to the Promised Land.   But it all starts with Abraham, the Torah’s first pilgrim.  God calls to him out of the blue and he responds immediately, packing his things and leaving his native land.  What is striking about his journey is that he had no idea where he was going.  ‘To the land that I will show you,’ says God to Abraham.  Most of the people I know probably would have responded ‘God, if you don’t mind, a bit more information please!’  But Abraham doesn’t say a word, instead turning his face to the west, and stepping onto the road.

My guess is at the time he had no idea where he was heading, or what adventures, trials, tribulations, and triumphs he would find along the way.  Battling with the Army of Kings, Sodom and Gomorrah, the binding of his son Isaac, Sarah’s death, the encounters with Pharaoh, the list could go on and on.  These events, recorded in the three Torah portions that relate Abraham’s story, make up the substance of his journey.  And somehow, in the midst of it all, in the course of traveling from place to place, facing the dangers he faced, being tested time and again, somehow he managed to become the very first human being to enter into relationship with God as a Jew.

In Abraham’s quest we see an echo of our own journeys, somehow still connected to his ancient travels.  Looking back we think of how far we’ve already come.  Looking ahead we realize how much further we have to go.  And so we open the door, and step through, our own feet setting a course on the road, never fully knowing where we might be headed.

Here an old Irish blessing:  May the road rise up to meet you.  May the wind always be at your back.  May the sun shine warm upon your face, and the rains fall soft on your fields.  And until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of God’s hand.

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Inside Outside

This a text version of my sermon from first day Sukkot 5777 –

If you’ll permit me for a few minutes this morning I would like to go back with you to Yom Kippur afternoon, and our reading of the Book of Jonah.  Jonah is one of our strangest biblical books.  The simple fact that it contains an extended passage where the prophet prays to God while in the belly of a great fish in and of itself makes the book unusual.  Then you add to that the fact that Jonah is a failed prophet – because after all the message he delivers to the people of Nineveh does not come true.  And then there is the story of the plant that grows and then dies in a single day at the end of the book, a story no one fully understands.  But in my mind the strangest feature of Jonah is the way it deals with gentiles, with non Jews.

That is a feature of the book that is often over looked.  The mission God asks Jonah to undertake is to travel a great distance to preach to people who are not Jewish.  Nineveh is a city of gentiles, people who are outside of the covenant between God and Israel, people who probably are pagan in terms of their religious views.  Jonah is the only prophet in the Bible who is given this kind of mission.  This may be one explanation as to why Jonah tries to flee from his assignment.  Perhaps he feels that God’s word should only be proclaimed to Jews.  But God clearly does not feel this way, in fact God is so invested in Jonah carrying out his mission that God chases him down, creates a storm while he is at sea so the sailors will have to throw him overboard, provides a fish to swallow him up.  God wants the message to get to Nineveh whether Jonah does or not.

And on top of that, the book of Jonah in general portrays gentiles in a very positive light.  In fact I would argue the gentiles in the book come off looking much better than the prophet himself.  Jonah seems selfish, self absorbed, even a bit petulant.  In technical terms he is a major qvetch.  Throughout the book, Jonah seems to want to get away from God as quickly as he possibly can.  But the gentiles in the book are open to God’s word.  As soon as the people of Nineveh hear that they’ve sinned, they immediately repent and begin to pray to God.  Instantaneously.  From the king on his throne to the commoner.  These people may not be Jewish, but the book sees them as God-fearing people.

And then you have the sailors.  Remember at the beginning of the book, when God first asks Jonah to go, and Jonah tries to run away.  He books passage on a ship, and takes to sea, but there is a terrible storm.  You might remember that Jonah sleeps soundly in the hold of the ship, but while he sleeps, the sailors begin to pray.  Then when they finally realize the storm is because of Jonah, and Jonah even tells them they should throw him overboard, they do everything in their power to save him.  When they finally realize they have no choice but to throw Jonah into the sea they again pray to God, asking for forgiveness, and offering sacrifices to God.

The Book of Jonah is not alone in its positive portrayal of gentiles in the Hebrew Bible.  Remember Moses’ father in law, Jethro?  Jethro is a Medianite, in fact the Torah tells us he is a priest of Median, and he is seen as a wise figure, clearly loved by Moses, and also a person who helps to set up the Israelite governance structure.  You also have Pharaoh’s daughter, who saves Moses in the first place and by doing so ensures the survival and freedom of the Jewish people.  And in Genesis 14 you have King Melchizedek who is friendly to Abraham, blesses him, and offers praise to God.

Judaism has always understood that there are two covenants that God makes with humanity.  One is the covenant with Abraham, and later with Moses and the Israelites, a particular covenant with particular responsibilities that exists between God and the Jewish people.  But there is a more universal covenant that God makes with all people, in the rabbinic tradition called the Noahide covenant.  This shows that God cares about all people, not only the Jewish people, and that God is in relationship with all people.  We do have a special relationship with God, but we do not have God all to ourselves.

That is actually a major theme of the Sukkoth festival.  The Talmud teaches that it is during Sukkoth that God judges the world for water, in other words will their be enough rain for the crops to grow properly, enough water in the year to nourish and sustain people.  Not just Jewish people – all people.  And the sacrifices that were offered in ancient times during this festival were intended to extend God’s blessing to the entire world.  In the course of the holiday 70 bulls were sacrificed, the number 70 symbolically representing the nations of the world.  And tradition understands that these 70 bulls will protect the nations of the world from suffering, enable them to seek atonement for their sins, and help them to create a world of peace.  So in a way Sukkoth is as much about the non-Jewish world as it is about the Jewish world.

I think that message challenges us in two ways.  First of all, it reminds those of us who spend a lot of our time with Jews and in the Jewish community that there is a big world out there, and that God is concerned about the larger world and the people in it just as God is concerned about the Jewish world and Jews.  That may be a particularly important message coming out of the High Holy Days when the Jewish community is almost entirely inwardly focused.  It may also be one of the reasons why on this holiday we are asked to leave our synagogues, even to leave our homes, and to dwell in the Sukkah.  It is outside, in the world, visible, and you can’t hide from the world in a Sukkah, and the world can’t hide from you.

But it also challenges us to examine our own belief, and to reaffirm our dedication to the ancient covenant between God and Israel.  After all, are we going to let our covenantal relationship with God fade away while the non Jews of the world cling more tightly to their covenant?   I would argue that a Jewish identity based only on ethnicity – bagels and locks, national pride, even Israel and remembering the Holocaust – that that kind of ethnic identity will not ultimately be sufficient to maintain a sense of Jewish continuity.  Religious faith is a necessary component if we want to keep Jewish life vital and meaningful.

And that is one of the other things that is wonderful about Sukkoth.  We don’t shake the lulav and etrog because it makes sense!  This is not something that can be explained rationally.  It is instead an expression of faith, both in God, and in the ancient covenant between God and Israel.  May both of those faiths grow stronger in the new year, in our own lives, and in the life of the Jewish people.

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Father and Son

IMG_3497 (1)It just happened to catch my eye. I was there to watch the synagogue’s Hebrew school choir. The children were performing at a nursing home (elderly care facility? supported living environment?). The residents gathered in the common room, eager for a change in their daily routine, happy to see the faces of children and to feel the energy and optimism of youth.

The children sang, so strikingly un-selfconcious. I stood at the back, leaning against the wall. Just in front of me was an old man sitting with his son. The ‘boy’ was probably in his mid 50s, gruff, tense, uncomfortable in his duty. He sat by his father’s side and his eyes darted around the room. I imagined he performs this task often, forces himself to walk through the doors, to find his father, to once again be confronted by the long years and inevitable wearing down of life, and perhaps even by his own future.

As the children sang the man reached over to take his father’s hand. There they sat, hand in hand, father and son. I was surprised by the tender gesture. What a powerful statement and striking promise! You are not alone. I am here with you, I care about you, I love you. I hope I can give you even a little bit of what you’ve given me all these long years.

Then another surprise. The children began to sing Oseh Shalom and I saw the man’s face soften. He held tighter to his father’s hand and his eyes moistened, just that welling up of some deep feeling made of memory and mystery. I turned away, not wanting him to suddenly realize a stranger was intruding on his private moment. The singing ended, the children said their goodbyes, giggling and smiling and shuffling their feet back and forth. As I turned to go I glanced one last time at the man. Still he held his father’s hand, and a sad smile rested on his lips. What the visit meant to his father. What the visit meant to him.

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When in Shul, Do as the Romans

You are more familiar with the traditional version of the quote, ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans.’ That is to say, when you are somewhere with a different culture you should by and large conform to that culture. At the very least be sensitive to the fact that a culture that might seem strange to you can have deep meaning and familiarity to others. Be respectful, don’t look down on it, and sometimes just go with it. It is, minimally, the polite thing to do.

One of the challenging things about shul life today is that many Jews feel like foreigners in their own sanctuaries. They are so unfamiliar with the service, so uncomfortable with the rituals, and so detached from a sense of meaning and connection to the tradition, that the experience of shul is alien to them, foreign, something they watch from afar but do not engage in.

Of course the synagogue has some responsibility for this. This is at least in part our failure. We have not successfully communicated the knowledge and skills that people need to participate in our services. I know this, I feel bad about it, I sympathize, and yes, we have our work cut out for us. We will keep trying!

But we need partners. We need people who want to learn, who feel that their lack of connection is important, is something they would like to change. I’ve noticed recently how fewer and fewer people even bother to pick up a siddur during services. They come and sit, they watch the proceedings, they seem to pay some attention when sermons are delivered. But I just don’t understand why you would sit in a two hour service and not want to pick up the prayer book. We call the pages. We do a fair amount in English. There are responsive readings you can participate in, even if you can’t read Hebrew.

Think for a moment of the message you give to your children if you sit there with them and don’t open the prayer book. You don’t have to say anything to them – they’ll know. Mom thinks this is boring! This must not be important, dad isn’t following what is going on. And then the obvious question – why should I?

And I know many people can’t read the Hebrew. And I also know that many people are not comfortable with prayer (both of those issues, by the way, we can work on!). But out of common courtesy, please pick up the prayer book. Follow the service. You don’t have to believe it! You don’t even have to believe in God! Besides, you might be surprised, and something in those pages might be interesting, moving, meaningful, dare I say it, even spiritual. But just by picking up the book you are showing you are part of the community. You are saying ‘even if I don’t understand this, I respect it.’ And you are showing your children that this is something to participate in, something to be taken seriously, something that might one day have meaning for them, even if it doesn’t for you.

So when in shul, please don’t do as the Romans. Do as the Jews.

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From Generation to Generation

this the text of my Shabbat sermon from 2/27/16 –

I have often been told by people over the years that their favorite moment in the service is the singing of ‘l’dor vador’ during the kedushah.  I think one of the reasons for that – along with the beautiful music – is that people know what the phrase means – from generation to generation – and that idea is important to people, it is something they have lived in their lives and believe in.  They know that they have received the tradition from their parents and grandparents, and one of the hopes they have is that they will see the tradition passed on to their children and one day grandchildren.

This sense of ‘generation to generation’ is not only about faith, we do it with many other things as well.  Music is one example.  I remember when Becky was pregnant with Tali, our first, I used to have her stand next to my stereo speakers with her stomach pointed towards the speaker and I would play Grateful Dead music, hoping that somehow through osmosis the baby would grow to love the music that is so important to me.  We also do it with sports – how many young Baltimoreans are given a Ravens or Orioles jersey when they are babies, the parents and grandparents hoping that that will set the child on the path to being a passionate Baltimore sports fan.  Of course we also hope to transmit certain values to our children, a sense of what is important,  of what should be prioritized in life, perhaps an ethical code we hope they’ll use to navigate the world.

And we also, probably more today than ever, hope to give our children our political values.  The way political discourse has become so polarized, I imagine there are quite a few Republicans in the room who would cringe if their children became Democrats, and vice versa.  The problem with all of this, of course, is that for some reason it just doesn’t seem to work precisely the way that we as parents have planned.  Go back to the music for a second – for all of that time Becky spent standing in front of that stereo that was blasting Grateful Dead music Tali basically has no interest in it.  In terms of sports, even in Baltimore you can find the occasional Duke or Pittsburgh Steelers or Yankees fan, a young man or woman with just enough of an iconoclastic streak to buck the trends.

Maybe more than anything else it is the area of politics where our children will take, at least to us, an unexpected turn.  It has been interesting to follow the debate taking place within feminist circles over the last number of weeks about the way younger women in the primary elections and caucuses have been voting for Bernie Sanders and not Hillary Clinton.  This is making the older feminists crazy.  It came to a head a couple of weeks ago when former Secretary of State Madeline Albright warned women around the country that, and this is a direct quote, “there is a special place in Hell for women who don’t help each other.”  She has since apologized for the comment, but the fact that she made it in the first place shows you how frustrated the older generation of women is – or at least a segment of that generation – by the fact the their younger counterparts are supporting Bernie.  And in large numbers!  There are some statistics that show that more than %80 of women under thirty support Bernie, a 74 year old white man, and not Hillary Clinton, arguably one of the great feminist icons of our time.

This idea of the younger generation having its own mind is not exactly a new one.  Some of you may remember the 60s and the incredible revolution that occurred with the college generation, the effects of which we still feel in today’s world.  But I would push it back even farther than that, all the way to the Bible itself.  In the Torah that younger generation is symbolized by the figure of Joshua, the loyal servant of both God and Moses.  It is Joshua who is the field commander for the Israelites when they battle against Amalek, the quarterback on the field to Moses’ coach on top of the mountain.  In this week’s Torah portion Joshua, who is patiently waiting at  the foot of Mt. Sinai for Moses to return, calls out in alarm when he feels something has gone wrong in the Israelite camp.  Later on, in the book of Numbers, we know that Joshua will lead the ill fated mission of the spies when they are sent to scout out the Promised Land, and although the spies lose their faith, Joshua manages to stay true.  It is also Joshua who is filled with רוח חכמה – with the spirit of wisdom – in the very last verse of the Torah, when Moses dies and Joshua becomes the leader of Israel.  And it is interesting to note that Joshua has his own eponymously named biblical book, something that even the great Moses does not achieve.

But my favorite story about Joshua is found in the 27th chapter of the Book of Numbers.  It is in that chapter that God tells Moses that he will be dying soon, that he needs to begin to prepare the people for the next leader.  And I’ve always loved Moses’ response – very canny – he simply says ‘ok, then let God appoint a new leader, someone who will be able to handle the people, do all the things I’ve been doing, take care of all the problems.’  It is almost like Moses is saying to God – ‘go ahead and try to find someone who can do what I do.’  In other words, you’ll never find anybody, you’ll have to keep me around whether you like it or not.

God doesn’t hesitate.  ‘Joshua is right there Moses,’ God says.  ‘Right next to you.  Reach out your hand, וסמכת את ידך עליו –  put your hand on him!’  And what is always striking to me about that passage is that Joshua was standing right in front of Moses, and had been for years.  But Moses had no idea that Joshua had become his own person, with his own talents, his own leadership qualities, his own interests, his own life.  And it wasn’t until God said ‘there is Joshua’ that Moses realized the next generation really was ready to take over, and to begin to do things their own way.  Maybe Moses would agree with it, maybe he wouldn’t.  Most likely some of it he wouldn’t like at all, and some he would probably feel quite proud of.  But that wasn’t event the point.  The point was Moses had to let go, and let Joshua do it in his own way.

We might say the same for our own children and grandchildren.  We do our best to give them the tools they’ll need to live good lives and to be decent people, teaching them whatever we can in the relatively few years they spend living under our roofs.  But somehow, right in front of our eyes, almost without our knowing it, they become adults, with their own thoughts, tastes in music, values, sports affiliations, ways of being and doing Jewish, and even with their own political ideas and loyalties.  And if they don’t match with ours exactly, or even at all, our job at that point is to say so be it.

After all that is what we do our best to raise them to – to be thoughtful, independent individuals who will forge their own paths in every area of life.  That can be challenging at times, but it seems to me it is something to be celebrated, something that means we’ve done our work well.  May our children and grandchildren in turn do their work well, in their own time, and yes, in their own way.

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