Category Archives: continiuty

Our Stories

Following is a text version of my sermon from Shabbat and the first day of Passover, 4/20/19 –

     I am sure you’ve all known someone who is famous for telling stories.  Almost every family has that person.  Maybe an uncle or grandfather or grandmother, maybe a friend.  You can see them getting amped up, getting into story telling mode, their hands start to wave around, their voices rise in excitement.  Often their stories are repeated – you’ve heard them more than a few times over the years.  In fact, we can often repeat the stories ourselves, even finish the sentences, because we’ve heard them so often, and we know all of the punch lines.

     But we love those stories.  As much as we laugh about them, as much as we might roll our eyes, or glance across the table at one another when they are being told, those stories are part of our lives, they are about our families, they reflect our history, our origins, our understanding of who we are and where we’ve come from.  We Jews are story tellers, it is part of our DNA.  Every holiday has its story.  On Purim we tell the tale of Esther and Mordecai and Haman.  On Rosh Hashanah the story of Abraham taking Isaac to the top of the mountain.  On Hanukkah we tell our children and grandchildren about the brave Maccabees and the miracle of a small vial of oil that burned for 8 days.    

     But the story telling holiday par excellence in Judaism in Passover.  Passover is the only holiday where the telling of a story is actually considered to be a mitzvah, a commandment.  The text of the Haggadah itself makes that clear – “even if we are all wise and understanding, all elders, all expert in Torah, מצוה עלינו לספר ביציאת מצראים – we are still commanded to tell the story of the Exodus.  That is the Magid section of the Haggadah, Magid a word that actually means ‘telling.’  It is the core of the Haggadah, beginning with the הא לחמא עניא, including the four questions, the story of the five rabbis in B’nei Barak, and the extended midrash on the passage ‘My father was a wandering Aramean.’  And even if we’ve heard it a hundred times, even if we know the passages by heart, we are still commanded to tell that story at the seder.

      And we have a particular way of telling the story.  A Jewish way.  If you think for a moment about the old fairy tales, the old stories we heard growing up, they all began and ended in the same way.  The beginning was always what?  ‘Once upon a time, in a land far, far away.’  And what is always the last line of those classic stories?  ‘And they lived happily ever after.’  In between that beginning and ending you will always find, in one form or an other, a prince and a princess, an evil witch or a dangerous dragon, and in the course of the story the dragon is slain, or the witch is defeated, the prince and the princess find one another, fall in love, get married, move to a beautiful castle, and then that last sentence  – ‘and they lived happily ever after.’ 

    But the Jewish story is told differently.  We don’t begin our stories by saying ‘once upon a time in a land far away.’  Instead we begin our stories by talking about a specific time, a specific place, and specific people.  Last night we said ‘we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.’  An actual time, a real place – Egypt; the villain is a real person, Pharaoh; and the story is about real people – in fact, our ancestors.  That is how a Jewish story begins!

     But we also end our stories differently.  If the fairy tale ends with ‘they lived happily ever after,’ how did we end the seder last night?  Next year in Jerusalem!  What do we mean when we say that?  We talked about this at our seder last night.  What happens if you are celebrating Passover in Jerusalem?  You’ve completed the seder, and you are ready to go to bed, everyone is full and tired, let alone that they’ve had four cups of wine, but you need that last sentence, you need to conclude your story.  It wouldn’t make sense to say ‘next year in Jerusalem’ when you are actually sitting in Jerusalem having your seder.  So what do you say?  Next year in a rebuilt  Jerusalem!  The last line of the seder ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ isn’t about an actual place, it is about a spiritual place and a future time, when one day the Messiah will come, and the world will be healed, and Jerusalem will a symbol of hope and healing and faith.  We don’t end our stories by tying everything up into that neat box.  Instead, we end our stories by looking to the future, with caution, but also with hope.  Next year in Jerusalem isn’t really an ending.  It is a pause, but more than anything else it is an acknowledgement that the story continues.  Today, tomorrow, next month, next year, and beyond.  

     And I think there are two reasons we end the seder that way.  The first is that it reminds us of our responsibility in terms of making the world the way it should be.  When you say ‘they lived happily ever after’ it means they went to their castle, and the story was over.  They were done with their work.  They were no longer interested in changing the world.  But when you say ‘next year in Jerusalem’ it means there is much work to be done, it means that the world needs to be changed, and it reminds you that you have a role in making that happen.  

     But the other thing next year in Jerusalem does is remind you of your role in the telling of the story.  In a story that doesn’t end, someone needs to pick it up, someone needs to carry the thread of the narrative, and bring it to the next generation and the next and the next.  That is what happens at the seder table.  

     There is a scene in the Return of the King, the last volume of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, one of my favorites.  The hobbits Sam and Frodo have completed their quest, and against all odds managed to destroy the magic ring of the enemy.  They have played their role in the great drama of their time, as we all do in our own way.  And Sam pauses, thinking about all that they’ve seen, all that they’ve been through, and he says this:  “What a tale we have been in, Mr. Frodo, haven’t we?  I wish I could hear it told!  And I wonder how it will go on after our part.”

     At the seder table we both tell the tale, and acknowledge our role in it.  We look to the past, our past, and recount great deeds and momentous events that miraculously still to this very day continue to shape our lives.  But we also understand on Passover that we have each played a part in this great story, and God willing we should continue to do so for many years, and many seders, to come.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Beth El Congregation, Bible, continiuty, holidays, Jewish festivals, Jewish thought, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Uncategorized

A Shabbat of Solidarity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May that truly be God’s will!

Leave a comment

Filed under American Jewry, Beth El Congregation, Bible, continiuty, grief, Jewish life, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Uncategorized

Flat Tires and Other Tests

     You may be familiar with the old story of a group of four college friends who decide to take a holiday weekend before a big exam they have on Monday morning.  Despite their best intentions, they realize Sunday night that they haven’t studied one lick all weekend, and so they devise a plan.  Early Monday morning they will call the professor, and tell him they’ve had a flat tire while traveling back to school, and won’t be able to make it back for the test.  This way they’ll have extra time to study.  The professor says OK, not to worry, you’ll take the exam Wednesday morning, and she gives them a time and a room to come to for the test.

     Wednesday morning precisely at 9 AM they arrive and find the room set in an unusual way.  There are only 4 desks in the room, one in each corner.  On each desk is a single piece of paper, turned upside down hiding the writing on its front side.  The students sit down at their desks, take out their pens, and the professor says ‘you may begin!’  The students turn the papers over and are surprised to find just a single question each sheet – which tire was flat?

     This is a time of our year when we begin to think quite a bit about exams and being tested, not because soon students will be going back to school, but instead because the HHDs are coming, and one of the metaphors we use to understand the importance of those days is the idea of being examined, of being tested.  Certainly the most powerful prayer of the holidays is the Unetane Tokef, where God is imagined as a sort of austere professor, grading our exam books, in which are written the deeds we’ve performed during the past year, both good and bad.  The sense of the metaphor is very much that we are being tested, and even graded, even if it is a pass/fail course, passing meaning our names are written in the Book of Life.

     The truth is the idea of God testing us is much older than the HHD liturgy.  It is a concept that appears often in the Torah itself, our oldest text, most prominently known from the story of the Binding of Isaac which begins ‘And it was after these things that God TESTED Abraham…’   That is obviously an individual test, but there is another kind of testing in the Torah that grows more prominent in the Book of Deuteronomy, namely the idea of God testing the entire Jewish people, en masse.  And there is a reference to that kind of testing in this morning’s Torah portion, Parshat Eikev, where we find the following passage from Deuteronomy 8:  “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past 40 years, – למען ענתך לנסותך that God might test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts.

     And then the text gives a series of things which it seems to understand as part of that test.  But two of the things in the list – one, the manna, the food they were given to eat every day, and the other, that fact that their clothes would not wear out, are puzzling.  Why?  Because they are positive things.  How can something that is positive be a test?  Think of it like this – if you want to test someone’s physical endurance, you do that by making them run, or walk uphill.  You don’t do it by telling them to go take a nap!  

     So the commentators on the text are puzzled, and they try to understand how something positive – food to eat every day, and clothes that don’t wear out – how those things could be a test.  And the answer that they seem to settle on, that they find most acceptable, is this:  the Israelites didn’t know for sure whether or not the manna would appear every day, and they didn’t really know that their clothes wouldn’t wear out, so they worried about it!  Every morning when they woke up they didn’t know if they would have food to eat that day, and so the test was to see if they would have enough faith to go out and look for the manna, to see if their belief was strong enough in the idea that God would provide for them, and they would survive.  In other words, the test was a hardship – when things were tough, when things were difficult, when they were afraid they might not have food – would they still have faith?

     But there is another possible explanation of the test – sort of the reverse side of that coin – that I’ve always found compelling, which is this:  would they remain faithful to God even when they knew that every day that manna would be there, and there was no question in their minds that they would have food to eat and clothes to wear in the wilderness, it didn’t matter how long they wandered.  That test is almost exactly the opposite!  It is a test that comes from things being good, things being easy, and the question is, when everything is great, when you have absolutely no problems, when life looks like easy street – will you still look to God then?

     If you think about it, we have the answer to situation number 1, the hardship test.  The answer comes from Jewish history.  I am about chest deep now in Simon Shama’s Story of the Jews volume 2, and any broad read through of Jewish history immediately reminds you of how difficult it has been historically to be Jewish.  It didn’t matter where the Jews lived, it didn’t matter when, it didn’t even really matter if it was a more tolerant culture or a less tolerant one – it was enormously difficult to be Jewish.  And yet generation after generation after generation, those Jewish communities and the Jews that lived in them kept their faith.  That is the test of hardship, and the Jews always passed.

     We have a lot less information about the other kind of test, the test of a good and easy life.  That experience has been so rare for Jews, particularly in the modern period.  It has really just been the last 40 or 50 years when the doors have fully opened for Jews here in the States.  And that goodness, that openness, that opportunity, is testing us, no question in my mind.  And whether we will pass this test or not I think is a very open question at this point.  We can minimally say that this test of the good life is not an easy one.  Because when every opportunity is open, we take fewer Jewish ones.  When we can study any subject and work in any profession, we spend less time studying our tradition and thinking about our Judaism.  When we can belong to  – almost – any country club, we spend more time of the golf course and the tennis court and less time in shul.  When our bubbies and zaydies are no longer around to remind us of the old country and the importance of traditional observance, we forget where we’ve come from, and do fewer Jewish things in our homes.  

     The final results are not in yet, but in terms of the test of a good life, the mid term results have not been very positive for the Jewish community so far.  The good news is I think there is still time to study.  The professor will give us a couple of extra days, or we might say a couple of extra generations, to prepare.  The real question is will we be able to identify which tire is flat?!  Shabbat Shalom – 

2 Comments

Filed under American Jewry, assimilation, Beth El Congregation, Bible, continiuty, High Holy Days, Jewish life, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Uncategorized

Esther & Intermarriage

This a text version of my sermon from 2/24/18 –

Many of you know that before I went to rabbinical school I was a psychiatric social worker, and in my training for that work I completed a Masters Degree in Psychology, which I proudly hold from the University of Maryland.  The most difficult course – at least for me – in that program was the statistics class.  It was required for the degree, the thinking being you’ll have to read studies and you’ll have to be able to understand how the numbers behind the studies – the statistics – came together.  Despite my challenges with math, I somehow did well enough with that class to complete the program and earn that degree, and I figured that was the last I would see of statistics for a long time, if not ever.

Little did I know how important statistics would be in rabbinical work.  I didn’t really learn this until I was out in the field, and when every couple of years or so a new demographic study of the Jewish community comes out, as the rabbi I am expected to be an expert, to know the numbers, what they mean, and how they were calculated.  I have learned over time that professional Jews are obsessed with demographic studies.  We try to understand from them what the current trends in the community are, how old or young the Jewish population is, how many school age children it contains, how observant Jews are, the list goes on and on.  And of course the one number that professional Jews are concerned with more than any other in these studies is – the intermarriage rate!  We want to know how many Jews are marrying non-Jews.

Generally when we find out the newest numbers we wring our hands, we worry, we fear for the Jewish future – the Yiddish word geschrei comes to mind.  And there are valid reasons for this.  One is that the intermarriage rate is going up – the most recent numbers tell us that in the non-Orthodox community the intermarriage rate is around 60%.  A number this high is a potential threat to Jewish continuity, because statistics also tell us that the children and grand-children of intermarried parents are also highly likely to intermarry, and if the intermarriage rate continues to rise rapidly and exponentially there will be fewer and fewer Jewish families.

There is no question that this is a serious issue and also a serious concern, but there is also no question – at least in my mind – that it is an issue that is not going away.  That is to say, it is not ‘solvable.’  The Jewish community has top notch leadership, bright minds, and deep pockets, but despite worrying about intermarriage and working on the issue for decades at this point, we have only watched the rate grow higher and higher.  There are some things that increase the chances of a child marrying Jewishly – home observance is one, and Jewish camping is another – but by and large this is not something that we are going to have a lot of control over and in all likelihood in the years ahead the intermarriage rate will continue to rise.

If so, I would argue that we should worry less about the number, the percentage of Jews intermarrying, and we should worry more about how we connect with these Jews and their families so that they feel welcome in the Jewish community in general and in synagogue life in particular.  Because if the intermarriage rate is at 60% and we don’t figure out a way to welcome those families then we are saying to 6 out of every 10 Jews we can’t help you.  And it is hard for me to understand how that is good for us, or how that is good for them.  After all, if we are saying we want the children and grandchildren of intermarried families to be Jewish, doesn’t it make sense to open the door as wide as possible so that those families might be able to find a Jewish home.  Without a Jewish home, we will certainly lose them.

And the truth is, those families have a tremendous amount to contribute to our community.  I imagine you know that Wednesday night is Purim.  I hope you’ll all be here, we have an evening planned that should be a lot of fun for everyone, from the young to the not so young.  Just for a moment I would like to think with you this morning about the story of Esther that we will read Wednesday night.  It is one of the best known stories of the entire Bible, and I don’t feel I have to recount the narrative, because you know all about Esther and Mordecai, Vashti and King Ahashverosh, and of course the wicked Haman.  As the old joke goes, Purim tells the classic Jewish story – they tried to kill us, we won, lets eat!

But the Book of Esther is much more than that, and in fact I would argue it is the most modern of all the biblical books, at least in the way it understands and describes Jewish life.  The Jewish community of Persia in the story is highly assimilated.  Mordecai and Esther are secular Jews who still feel connected to their Jewish identity, even if they aren’t ‘religious’ in any traditional sense – which is exactly the way many Jewish describe themselves today.  And although we don’t have the intermarriage statistics for 6th century BCE Persia, we do have the story of an intermarried family from that time – the family of Esther and Ahashverosh.  The story of Purim is at least in part the story of an interfaith family – because when Esther wins that beauty contest and marries the King, she is a Jewish woman marrying a man who is not Jewish.

This is not the way we normally read the story, it is not the part of the narrative we usually focus on, but it is the truth.  Queen Esther is one of the great Jewish heroes in the Bible.  With courage and pluck (and her Uncle Mordecai’s encouragement) she fights back against Haman, and risks her life so that her people might be spared.  But that same Esther’s husband is not Jewish.  In fact, we might say lucky for the Jews that Esther is in the marriage she is in.  If not for her access to the King, it is likely the Jewish people of that time and place would have perished.  Esther alone doesn’t save the Jews in the story of Purim – her family does.  And her family is an interfaith family.

On the surface it might seem strange to think about the Purim story this way.  But we shouldn’t really be so surprised.  In today’s world, our interfaith families are some of the most devoted families we have at Beth El.  They bring their children to Hebrew school, celebrate at their sons’ and daughters’ ‘b’nai mitzvah, participate in congregational life, give generously to Jewish organizations, speak out positively about Israel, and create Jewish homes.  Our congregation is in part the kind of community we are all proud of because of the commitment and connection of our many interfaith families.

Which is why we should keep the doors open as wide as we can.  That is why we have an interfaith havurah at Beth El, a group that meets multiple times a year to talk about interfaith issues and to explore together the interfaith journey.   That is why Beth El has always been at the forefront of interfaith dialogue, from the days of Rabbi Jacob Agus to the present.  That is why we welcome non-Jewish partners and spouses to the bima for the baby namings and b’nai mitzvah of their children.  It is why we have readings for Friday night and Shabbat morning services that non Jewish family members can participate in.  Those families are a part of our larger family, and their journeys are intertwined with ours.  They may not save the Jewish people in one fell swoop the way Queen Esther and King Ahashverosh did, but their presence in our midst will help us all build a stronger Jewish community for many generations to come.

1 Comment

Filed under American Jewry, assimilation, Beth El Congregation, Bible, continiuty, holidays, Jewish festivals, Jewish life, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, synagogue, Uncategorized

The Kaddish

The young man stood with his grandmother as she recited the words of the Mourner’s Kaddish.  It was her husband’s yartzeit, the anniversary of the date of his death.  Tradition had called her back to the synagogue, had asked her to sit through a service in which God’s name was praised, to bend and bow, to speak the old and often arcane words of prayer.  And now, after her husband’s name was read, tradition called on her to rise and say the ancient words which marked this day and her loss.

He had been gone many years.  The grandson, now in his twenties, barely remembered his grandfather.  He knew his name, of course.  Had heard stories, oft told by family members.  “Do you remember the time when…?  Ah, that was Joe, that was Joe.”  He knew what kind of work his grandfather had done, how much he meant to his family, even what the substance of his personality was.  But he could not remember his voice, or the feel of his rough hands, or the wrinkles in the corners of his eyes when he smiled and laughed.  Still the grandson stood, feeling a sense of familial responsibility in his heart, and also a deep respect and love for his grandmother.  Not to be underestimated, the latter.  So the young man also said the words – Yitgadal, v’yitkadash..

And what odd words they are!  The prayer for grief and loss and heart rending sadness is simply a litany of praise for God.  Death is never mentioned.  Grief is never acknowledged.  Sadness and loss and anger are so strangely ignored in these ‘kaddish-words.’  But of course the prayer is now more than the words.  The words and letters have flown off the pages of ancient prayer books, and then somehow returned to their very place, letters in the same order, words on their proper lines, and yet the meaning, the feeling of them, has changed.  They are not what they are, but rather what they have come to be through long years of grief.

There is something intensely sacred about that moment.  Not in any God related way, not in anything otherworldly or supernatural.  But intensely humanly sacred.  A quiet chapel and a late hour.  A small group of Jews gathering from some sense of responsibility, creating by their presence the minyan.  Darkness softly falling outside.  A flickering candle.  Twinkling stars glimpsed through a window in the distant sky.  And a young man standing with his grandmother, intoning ancient words, linked by history, tradition, family, and faith.  And love.

Leave a comment

Filed under Beth El Congregation, community, continiuty, grief, Jewish life, loss, memory, prayer, Uncategorized

Long Distance Relationships

This a text version of my sermon from Rosh Hashanah day 1:

It all happened in the span of eight days.  Our oldest, Tali, moved to New York, where she is living on the Upper West Side and working – her first real job!  That was a Sunday.  Then on Thursday our son Josh climbed in the car and drove off to Poughkeepsie NY for his senior year of college.  And then on Sunday – exactly one week after Tali left – we dropped our youngest, Merav, off at college – also in Manhattan – for her freshman year.  And at the end of that tumultuous one week span, filled with packing, the purchasing of last minute supplies, two drives to New York and back, and saying goodbye to three children – Becky and I were officially empty nesters.

Now everyone has been saying to us ‘don’t worry, they’ll be back before you know it!,’ and common wisdom today is that your children will return after college, living for some extended period of time in their old bedrooms, thinking about their next steps and of course eating all of the food in your refrigerator.  But the truth is you never know.  Young people today in their 20s and early 30s change jobs and move to different cities at an unprecedented rate.  And our challenge, more and more, as their parents and grandparents, will be how can we stay in touch with them, how can we continue to be a part of their lives, to stay close, even when there might be many miles between us?

One obvious answer to that question of course is modern technology.  It is astonishing that we live in a time when you can pick up your phone, call a friend or child or grandchild, and have a face to face conversation with them.  So we can – and often do – have contact with those we care about on a daily basis.  But a relationship is not only about quantity.  It is not measured in the number of texts sent or phone calls placed, or emails exchanged.  Instead, a relationship is about quality – is there true caring and support?  Honesty? Loyalty?  Love?   That doesn’t come from frequency of interaction.

The truth is there are many kinds of distance that develop in relationships.  There is of course physical distance – your child is in New York or California.  But there is also what I would call ‘soul’ distance, spiritual distance, emotional distance.  And as we all know, you can be in the same town as someone, seeing them all the time – you can even be in the same home as someone – and the distance between you and that person can be vast.  In some ways much greater than any distance that can be measured in miles.

That may be why the tradition asks us to read the stories of Abraham and Sarah and their household on Rosh Hashanah.  We have become so accustomed to living in large homes, but imagine for a moment Abraham and Sarah’s camp.  Even though the Torah tells us they were wealthy by the standards of their day, they all lived together in a small space, a couple of tents – one for the women, one for the men – separated by a few yards, and probably no larger than a couple of hundred square feet.  It would be hard to put people in closer physical proximity.

And yet the emotional distance – the soul distance – between the people who lived in that small space was profound.  Hagar and Sarah’s relationship was filled with distrust and jealousy, and Sarah treated Hagar with cruelty.  Abraham was no help, in fact he struggled terribly in his relationships with the people closest to him.  He was insensitive and a poor communicator, and had almost no understanding of how others felt.  Close readers of the text have long noticed that after tomorrow’s Torah reading, the famous binding of Isaac story, there is a total breakdown in family communication.  Abraham and Sarah never speak again.  Abraham and Hagar also never speak again.  Even Abraham and his son Isaac never speak again.  And, perhaps most telling, Abraham and God never again speak.

I suspect more than a few of us who have come to pray this morning can relate to that story and those characters.  Perhaps there is a Hagar sitting here today, who feels abandoned by the person most important to her in her life.  Perhaps there is an Abraham, who has struggled throughout the year to do right by the people he loves, but knows in his heart of hearts he has failed.  Perhaps there is an Isaac or Ishmael, brothers, but rivals nevertheless, confused and hurt by something they’ve done to one another, or a parent has done to them.  And before you even know it there is a distancing that grows and grows.  A month goes by, or a year, or a decade.  And you begin to wonder if you can ever be close again.  Or if you ever really were.

The pain in Abraham’s family lingered for a long time.  As we read this morning Hagar was expelled from the family home.  Not long afterwards Sarah died without any of these issues being resolved.  Both of Abraham’s sons, Isaac and Ishmael, moved away from their father to make their lives in other places.  Soul distance.  I imagine Abraham at that time deeply bitter, angry with God, and bereft of the people most important to him in his life.

He works at it, old Abraham.  He lives for 35 more years, and never gives up.  He remarries, has more children, even seems to repair his relationships with Isaac and Ishmael, who do come together to bury their father Abraham when he dies.  The question is do those late successes in Abraham’s life make up for the earlier hurts, disappointments, and failures?  In some ways it reminds me of a baseball team that’s had a lousy season, and in September wins a bunch of ball games.  Think of all the years Abraham wasted, all the time he lost with his sons when they were growing up, the bitter feelings he created with Hagar, the distant relationship he had with his own wife Sarah year after year.  Sometimes he was around, but just as often he was not, and what he lost when he was not could never be regained.  You cannot get back the time.

I can tell you it all comes out in the end.  I know within five minutes of sitting down with a family to prepare for a funeral how they felt about the person they’ve lost.  And when they are talking about someone they loved, respected, and cherished they will almost always say, and it is meant as the highest form of praise – “He was always there for me.  You could always count on her  – every time.” In many ways our relationships are about consistency.  About showing up every time, not every once in a while.  About loyalty and self sacrifice, about the people you love knowing they can count on you, every single time.   

Maybe that is the lesson to be learned from Abraham and Sarah’s story, and maybe that is the reason our Sages chose it for Rosh Hashanah day.  After all, in an hour and a half we’ll all be sitting down with our families having lunch together.  And after you talk about the rabbi’s sermon, you look around that table, and you say, ‘these are the people I share my life with.’  And Abraham and Sarah’s story reminds us of how important it is do to right by those people.  Not every once in a while, but everyday.  Because if we are able to do it, to be there again and again, day in and day out, year after year, then one day when our family sits down with a rabbi to prepare for our funeral they’ll know – and so will the rabbi! –  that together we were able to build something true and pure and sacred in our lives.  That is what Abraham and Sarah were not able to do.  That is what I hope and pray we can do better.  And Rosh Hashanah gives us the opportunity to try.

In 1965 my father, a captain in the Army, was sent overseas to Vietnam for a year’s tour of duty.  He left behind my mother and me, my mom I guess all of 23 years old, and I had just turned two.  My parents were terrified, and they prepared in the best way they could for a year apart from one another.  My dad had one additional fear – he was worried that after a year away, his son would not recognize him when he came home.  He was going to be 9000 miles away from us, and all he wanted to do was to keep us close.

So he made a conscious decision to do the best he could with a bad situation.  He wrote a letter to my mom virtually every day – over 300 of them in the course of that year.  He also sent us tapes – made on an old reel to reel tape deck – so that in the days before FaceTime or videos I could hear his voice.  On those tapes he would talk to me directly, calling me by name, telling me he loved me and he missed me, and he was going to come home to see me as soon as he could.  Some of my earliest memories are of sitting on my mom’s lap as she read me those letters, or as we listened to those tapes of my father’s voice, at the small kitchen table in our apartment on Rogene Drive.

Those were relatively small actions, but I can tell you, still to this day, a half century later, they made all the difference in the world.  And when my dad finally came home, and we opened the door, I knew two things about the man standing there – I knew he was my dad, and I knew he loved me.  That was pretty much all I needed, although it didn’t hurt that he was holding in his hand an Orioles uniform he bought for me, with number 5 on the back – Brooks Robinson.  Another act of love.  With every letter he wrote, every word he spoke into that tape deck, every little package he sent home, he had managed to keep us close.

If you’ve guessed by this time that my mom and dad have been greater influences on my life than the biblical Abraham and Sarah, you would be %100 correct.  So much of who I am comes from their guidance, their wisdom, their values, and the relationship they’ve shared for more than 50 years.  That is the way it always is.  We are profoundly important to the people with whom we share the journey of our years, just as they are to us.  Whether they are a half a world away, or in New York, or right here in Baltimore,  whether our children, our spouses, our parents or siblings or grandparents, keeping them close is the most important work that we can do, something that nourishes and sustains who we are, and helps us all to understand who we want to be.

May God help us to do that work well in this new year, diminishing the distances in our lives, and drawing us close to one another, to our tradition, and to God –

Leave a comment

Filed under Baltimore, Beth El Congregation, Bible, continiuty, High Holy Days, Jewish festivals, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Uncategorized

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

Leave a comment

Filed under celebration, community, continiuty, Grateful Dead, liminal moments, music, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Uncategorized