Category Archives: Genesis

Jacob Comes Home

This a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 11/25/17 –

Thanksgiving weekend is one of the times during the year when children, regardless of their age or whereabouts, come back to their hometown.  Our children are now living in New York – Tali and Merav in Manhattan, Josh in Poughkeepsie – but they all managed to find their way back to Baltimore for some home cooking and R&R.  Sarah King, the Cantor and Shazi’s daughter, is also a New York resident, but here she is on Thanksgiving weekend reading Torah at Beth El and spending some quality time with her family.  And the list could go on an on – one of the very reasons why we had four baby naming (as far as I know, a record at Beth El!) is because young people are back in town this weekend.  To one and all, welcome home!

The idea of a young person moving away is still a bit tricky in Baltimore.  Elsewhere it is common, in fact even expected, that young people after college will make their lives in some new place.  But here in Baltimore the expectation still exists that if you do go further than College Park for college, you’ll come back soon after and settle in Baltimore.  But the truth is that is happening less and less.  New York and Washington DC are towns that are filled with young people who grew up in Pikesville.  Boston is another place where Baltimoreans are making their new homes.  And these young people are not coming back to Baltimore – they are settling in their new cities, marrying, having children, crafting their careers.  And their parents – who want to see their children, and eventually their grandchildren – are schlepping to New York once or twice a month, or to Boston regularly, or two the DC area sometimes on a weekly basis.  What we do for our children!

I know this is painful for the family that remains here in Baltimore.  I will always remember the day when a member of the shul made an appointment with me, came to my office, sat down in front of my desk, and immediately began to weep.  AS I tried to console her I asked her what in the world could be the matter, fearing the worst.  When she managed to get control of herself she said ‘my son is moving away, moving out of Baltimore.’  I asked the only natural question – ‘to where?’  And her answer:  ‘Washington DC!’  So I understand, again, particularly here, how difficult this can be for some people.  But I want to argue this morning that it is actually a good thing for our young people to move away, at least for a time.  And I also want to think about a different understand of what it means to come home.

You may be familiar with the Amish tradition of the ‘rumspringa.’  Anyone know what that is?  It comes from a German word which means to ‘jump about’ and is a life cycle passage that Amish young adults go through – usually 16 – 24 year olds.  And the idea is that Amish children grow up in a very tight knit community, that they are only familiar with a small geographic area – the few miles around where they grew up, and that they know very little about the rest of the world.  So the rumspringa is a time in their lives when they are encouraged to be more independent, to see more of the world, to get a bit outside of their comfort zone, and to spend less time with their immediate family.  The hope is, of course, that when the rumspringa ends, they will come back to their community, to their family, and settle down into traditional Amish life.

On the surface it probably sounds like an odd ritual to us, but the truth is it isn’t all that different from what we do with our own children.  One could certainly say that the college experience is a kind of rumspringa.  Our children go away in their late teens, usually around the time they are 18.  For the first time in their lives they live largely independently, with full responsibility for making their own decisions and choices, about everything – from what to eat for dinner to when to study, and even if they’ll study at all.  They are expanding their horizons, meeting new people, and hopefully seeing the world for the first time without that world being filtered through us, their parents.  That is a necessary process for them to become fully independent, to realize all of the places where we steered them wrong – but also to realize, hopefully, all of the things we actually were right about all these years.

I would argue that perhaps the first rumspringa of all time occurs in this morning’s Torah portion.  Jacob is like an Amish youth or  Pikesville teen – he has very little experience with anything outside of his own small world.  At the beginning of this morning’s reading he is for the first time leaving his parents’ home, and he will spend the next 20 years of his life learning about the outside world.  He lives with his Uncle Laban, he marries – twice actually.  He becomes a father and learns a trade. He grows wealthy.  And then, after all is said and done, Jacob decides to return home.  The very last scene in this morning’s portion depicts that moment – as he crosses the border back into the land of Israel, the text tells us that angels of God met him, and at that very moment he reentered the land of his birth.

There is a traditional explanation for the appearance of those angels, which is that each person, when they enter the land of Israel, is matched with a sort of Israeli guardian angel, who will accompany that person during their time in the Holy Land.  In this sense the angels in the text are connected to a physical place, to the land of Israel itself.  My problem with this has always been that angels are not understood, even in the Torah, as being physical creatures.  They are instead spiritual beings, not bound to a place or a person.  But in my mind they are still symbolically connected to the idea of home, and I believe their appearance in the text is a sign that Jacob truly has returned to the place of his birth.

And for that to work, we have to think about home in a different way.  We have to understand the idea of home not as a physical place – home is not the land of Israel, it is not an Amish enclave, home is not even Pikesville in any physical sense.   Instead, home is a place of character, home is a place of values.  Our children return home to us in a spiritual sense when they decide to live their lives in a way that makes us proud.  When Judaism is an important part of who they are, they have come home.  When they make good choices, when they do something in their lives to make the world a better place, they have come home.  When they value family, when they are kind and caring, when their morals are strong, in all of these ways, they return to the place they were raised, they come home.  Not in any kind of physical sense, but in the spiritual sense of knowing where they’ve come from, of knowing who they are, and of knowing where they want to go and who they want to be.  And we have to remember that that can happen here, or in New York, or Washington, or Boston, or anyplace.

That would be my hope and prayer for the babies we’ve named this morning – for Harper and Brynn and Phoebe and Reese .  It may be hard for their parents to believe, but it won’t be so long before their little children are on their on rumspringas, whatever that will be.  But wherever they go, however far away, wherever they live, whatever they do, may they come home again and again, even as they learn and grow, and spread their wings, and fly.

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Filed under Baltimore, Beth El Congregation, Bible, community, Genesis, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Uncategorized

White, Black, Technicolor

My guess would be that virtually everyone in the room this morning – and quite possibly just about everyone in the western hemisphere – is aware that a new Star Wars movie is playing in theaters this weekend.  I vividly remember going to see the first Star Wars film, in 1977.  The week that movie opened Star Wars was on the cover of Time magazine, and I remember the excitement I felt settling in to my seat at the movie theater.  The larger than life characters in the movie, Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, Darth Vadar and Princess Leia, the spectacular special effects, and the swashbuckling narrative combined to leave a deep impression on my then 13 year old brain which in some ways remains to this day.  And yes all five members of the Schwartz clan will be trekking to the theater Sunday night to see the newest version.  And we won’t be the only ones.  Early estimates are that this new Star Wars film may be the highest grossing movie of all time before all is said and done.

It is natural to wonder what is at the root of the enormous popularity of the Star Wars franchise.  It must be more than just good movie making, and in fact some of the later films were not particularly good movies at all.  Part of it I feel is the yearning that we all have in one way or another for a simpler time.  George Lucas has said that his inspiration for the initial Star Wars film, the one I saw in ’77, was in large part the classic western, with a wise and noble sheriff wearing of course what color hat?  White!  And a nasty and immoral villain, in the old westerns always dressed in black, and of course wearing a black hat.  Transfer this to Star Wars and you have Luke Skywalker, in his white tunic, the young hero who has arrived on the scene to restore order to town.  And of course you have Darth Vadar, played in the original movie by the great James Earl Jones, all in black, flowing black cape, and the black hat replaced by a black metallic helmet and mask that would become iconic.

The black and white color themes are symbolic, and we all understand how that symbolism works.  In the movies white is goodness, purity, morality, clarity, the truth and what is right.  Black is the opposite – it is dangerous, violent, evil, immoral, deceitful, whatever is disruptive to the proper order of the world.  At the heart of that color symbolism is the fundamental assumption that there is a right and a wrong that can be plainly distinguished, that it is entirely clear which is which.  Luke Skywalker is unambiguously good.  Darth Vadar clearly and completely evil.  And that also appeals to us.  We would like to believe that those distinctions are possible, that we can look at something – or someone – or some group – and know precisely what it is, good or bad, moral or immoral.  It would be easier, it would be simpler, if things were clear – and what is the phrase we use to express that? – black and white.

If you don’t mind I would like to detour from Star Wars to the Torah for a moment, and to move from Luke Skywalker’s white tunic and Darth Vadar’s black robes and mask to easily the most recognizable and famous piece of clothing in the entire Bible, Joseph’s ‘coat of many colors.’  Joseph is unquestionably the hero in the last third of Genesis, the main character who will ultimately save the Israelites from famine.  We know his story well – when he is young he is favored by his father Jacob, this brothers are jealous, they sell him into slavery, and he rises to power in Egypt to become second in command to only Pharaoh.  Finally in this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, he is able to reconcile with his brothers as the Joseph narrative comes to a conclusion.

The coat of many colors plays a crucial role in Joseph’s story.  It is understood as being one of the main causes of the brother’s jealously.  Later when they capture Joseph and intend to harm him the Torah notes that the first thing the brothers do is to take the coat of many colors away from Joseph, and then it is that coat that they dip in goat’s blood and bring to Jacob – the father-  to prove to him that Joseph has been killed.  The colored coat and Joseph are clearly intertwined, connected, in the minds of the brothers, Jacob, and I would argue even Joseph himself.  And it is interesting that the coat has an ambiguity to it.  To go back to Star Wars, it is not something that could be worn by Luke Skywalker or Darth Vadar.  It is not white, or black – it is a bit of both, with other colors thrown in.  That doesn’t play very well in the movies, especially a movie like Star Wars, where you go to the theater expecting to enter a universe where things are black and white, where there is clarity about what is right and wrong, who is the hero and who is the villain.  But the coat of many colors is very much at home, very comfortable, in the Bible.  The world the Bible describes is a place where things are not clear, where right and wrong are not always easy to distinguish, where characters are complicated – not all good, and not all bad.

Joseph is a perfect example of this.  He is understood as being one of the great figures in the history of the Jewish people.  He is wise, able to interpret dreams, with a clear charisma and a talent for always winding up on top.  But at the same time he is a morally conflicted person.  Early in his life he is arrogant and insensitive.  We do see in this morning’s portion that he ultimately forgives his brothers for what they’ve done to him, and the reconciliation described at the beginning of the sedra seems heartfelt and genuine.  But he plays some nasty tricks on them along the way, and takes advantage of the fact that he has complete and total power over them.  Joseph is a complicated and conflicted person, in many ways ambiguous in his character, and the coat of many colors reflects that ambiguity.

It also of course reflects the world we live in.  It might be nice to enter the Star Wars universe for a couple of hours, but when the movie is over we return to the real world, and the real world cannot be painted in simple colors.  We live in a world where we wrestle with issues like abortion, immigration, refugees, health care, gun rights, poverty, and religious freedom just to name a few.  These issues are complicated, ambiguous, and difficult.  One of the problems with today’s political discourse is that the different sides have become so starkly oppositional, the lines so clearly defined, that people begin to look at these very complicated issues as if they were black and white, easy and clear, and totally unambiguous.  But the opposite is true, and issues like these do not have easy answers.  And if we can’t talk about them – if the minute someone says something that you disagree with, you shut it down – we’ll never be able to get anywhere.

That actually may be an opportunity that is presented to us all as we move into a presidential election year.  The issues will be on the table.  There will be debates – one after another after another.  My hope is that is that our political leaders can grapple with these issues in a real way, with all of their complexity and nuance.  If they can do that – with respect and dignity –  then they might help all of us to find a way to have meaningful dialogue about some of the most difficult, but also without question some of the most important issues of our time.  May we have the grace, the compassion, and the wisdom we need to speak about these issues not with anger, but with hope in our hearts for a better future that we can only make together.

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, Bible, community, Genesis, politics, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Torah, Uncategorized

The Turning – A New Year

There is a lovely phrase in Genesis 24 that describes the moment when Isaac walks out into the fields, just before he sees Rebecca for the very first time.  “Isaac went out to wander in the fields, לפנות ערב, just at the turning of the evening.”  There is an English word which captures this same sense – the gloaming, meaning dusk, or twilight.  That moment when it is neither day nor night, but for an instant or two, somewhere in between.  Or perhaps impossibly both at the same time.

Of course there are many turnings.  From youth to old age, from summer to fall, from night to day, from waking to sleep and back again.  And from one year to the next.  All different, but each with a sense of shifting, or perhaps drifting is a better word.  Between two states, or worlds, or times or seasons.  All with the sense that there is a flow, some great river-narrative that we all are riding, with foaming rapids and quieter eddies, with rocks and branches, its powerful current implacably moving us along.  It is a narrative less of words and more of moments, of winds and mountains, of laughter and tears, of feeling and deep blue skies and cold snow and fish swimming in clear water.  The ‘turning moments’ remind us that we are part of a grand story, ancient and wise and beautiful, that has gone on long before we entered it, and will continue long after we leave.  And there is awe in that thought, and perhaps comfort too.

A last thought, from the music always cluttering my mind.  The Grateful Dead were masters at finding the ‘turning moments’ of the musical journey they wove when they played on that great stage of life.  Order emerging from chaos, from a cacophony of notes a melody, from deep space a recognizable place to tread, to rest one’s weary soul.  When did those songs emerge?  How?  One song bleeding into the next, keys and scales clashing impossibly, but somewhere one note and we all knew.  A gentle swell of recognition, a new song, a new moment, a new place.  We arrived together.

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Filed under Bible, Genesis, Grateful Dead, Torah, transitions