Category Archives: grief

Eastern Europe

A text version of my remarks from this past Shabbat (7/6/19) –

     As I think most of you know our Beth El group has just returned from its Eastern European trip.  In a ten day span we visited four cities – Warsaw, Krakow, Prague, and Berlin.  A trip to Eastern Europe that focuses on Jewish history is not ‘fun’ – it is not a vacation that you return from feeling refreshed or recharged.  Each day you wrestle with difficult and often painful moments from the history of our people.  You are faced with questions that often are unanswerable.  A trip to Israel is celebratory, you are rejoicing in what has been found.  But a trip to Eastern Europe is elegiac, you are mourning what was lost.

     At least for me that sense of loss was pervasive, as day after day we were reminded of Jewish communities that had once been centers of Jewish life that no longer existed.  It is often striking to me how the Torah portion we read on any given week will in some way reflect the lives we live and the issues with which we wrestle.  This week our portion is Korach, which tells the tale of the ill fated rebellion that Korach and his followers launch against Moses and Aaron.  You’ll remember the narrative – Korach publicly challenges Moses, accusing him of setting himself above and apart from the people.  Moses responds, telling Korach there will be a public ritual, almost like a spiritual shoot out, between Moses and Korach and his followers.  

     The very next day the ritual is enacted.  Korach and his followers on one side, Moses on the other.  At the moment of confrontation, what is it that happens?  The earth opens, and Korach and his followers are swallowed up, never to be seen again.  Here is the verse from the Torah that describes that moment:  וירדו הם וכל אשר להם חיים שאולה – they went down alive into Sheol, with all that belonged to them – ותכס עליהם הארץ – and the earth closed over them – ויאבדו מתוך הקהל – and they vanished from the midst of the community.  I’ll give you just the English so you can hear it straight – “They went down alive into Sheol, with all that belonged to them, the earth closed over them, and they vanished from the midst of the community.”

     That is what happened to Jews of Europe.  Before the war in Warsaw had the second largest Jewish community in the world, second only to New York City – 350,000 Jews lived there, close to %30 of the city’s population.  Today there are fewer that 2,000 Jews.  And that is a story told in one way or another in every major eastern European city.  To sum it all up, before the way 3.5 million Jews lived in Poland alone, and today there are fewer than 10,000.  Literally town by town, community by community, city by city, the Jews of Eastern Europe were swallowed up by Nazi Germany, like a great, vast chasm had opened up in the earth, and almost over night they were gone.  Some 75 years later the Jewish population of the world has still not recovered.  Before the war there were more than 16 million Jews in the world.  Today there are maybe 15 million, almost all of them living in Israel and here in the US.  

     So our group struggled with that pervasive sense of loss.  We said kaddish near a barbed wire fence in Birkenau.  We walked through a crematorium in Auschwitz, our heads low and our eyes cast to the ground.  We stood at the platform of track 17 just outside of Berlin, where the Germans had deported Jews, sending them from their homes to the camps, never to return.  And we walked through the sumptuous halls and gardens of the villa where the Wannsee conference was held and the details of the so called Final Solution were meticulously discussed and recorded.  These are experiences that can not be summed up in a sermon, experiences that I think we will all be pondering for a long time.

     But as difficult as the trip was at times there were moments of light and life.  In Krakow we had dinner at the vibrant JCC, the center of Jewish life in that area.  Johnathan Ornstein, the charismatic director, spoke with us about his mission of revitalizing Jewish life in Krakow.  He told us stories about young Poles discovering that they had a Jewish grandparent, or even a Jewish parent, and that they were coming, one by one by one, to the Krakow JCC to explore what that means, and to think about Judaism and Jewish life.  When we left the building that evening the JCC’s courtyard was filled with young people dancing and singing, drinking and eating, and we couldn’t help but feel the energy and the sense of hope that Jewish life could continue to grow there.

     On Shabbat, on Friday night, we davened in the Maisel shul, a synagogue from the 1500s that is now a museum of Jewish life in Krakow.  A small Jewish community led by a young rabbi meets each week, holds services, sings and prays, and maintains a sense of Jewish community and ongoing Jewish life.  As our Cantor and members of our congregation helped to lead the service we truly felt part of a world wide Jewish community, supporting one another, caring for each other, and sharing in our common history and brotherhood.  

     The tour guides we had in both Prague and Berlin were Jewish, having grown up in Israel and moved at some point to Europe where they now make their lives.  They were proud of their Jewish identities, proud to be guiding a group of Jews, and I believe they felt that part of their mission was to not only convey to us the history, but to remind the cities we visited that there is a vital and vibrant world wide Jewish community, that Jews will come to visit Eastern Europe and by doing so we bear witness to what happened, but we also symbolize the ultimate failure and defeat of the Nazis.  At Birkenau and also track 17, after we said the kaddish we chanted the Shema, as if to say despite what we’ve seen we still have faith, despite what happened here Judaism survives and thrives, despite the sadness we might feel we still hope.  Hope beats so powerfully in the Jewish heart, and עם ישראל חי – and the Jewish people continue to live!

     One last vignette.  Our farewell dinner took place at an elegant restaurant in Berlin.  Towards the end Dr. Bor played a few songs on his clarinet, with the Cantor singing along.  Suddenly he played the opening notes of Hatikvah, and we all stood up, singing together Israel’s national anthem, a song entitled the Hope that is a symbol of Jewish freedom and the Jewish future.  The lyrics of the song were written by an Eastern European Jew named Naftali Herz Imber in the late 1880s.  It was a striking moment, and a striking way to conclude our trip – a group of Jews from Baltimore, singing the lyrics composed by a Jew who lived his life in the lands through which we had just traveled, lyrics that became the national anthem of the homeland of the Jewish people, and singing those words together, publicly, in the heart of Berlin.  

     This is a translation of the words you know so well in the Hebrew – As long as within our hearts the Jewish soul sings, as long as towards the east, towards Zion, looks the eye – our hope is not yet lost.  It is 2000 years old – to be a free people, in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.

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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!

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Sacred Language

One good deed leads to another good deed, while one sin leads to another sin. (Mishnah Avot, 4:2)

The above rabbinic maxim has often been on my mind of late.  It captures the idea that one good thing commonly leads to another good thing, while the opposite is also true – a destructive action frequently sets off a series of disturbing events.  This is true about our actions.  For example, the telling of a single lie often begins an extended process of telling multiple lies.  Conversely, a person who gets involved with charitable work will discover how good that work feels, and become more and more involved.  ‘A mitzvah leads to another mitzvah, a sin leads to another sin.’

The same is true of the language we use.  Destructive, hateful, and hurtful language leads to more and more destructive language, and potentially to destructive and harmful action.  It is no coincidence that as the midterm elections loom, and the political rhetoric grows more and more heated, a series of pipe bombs have been discovered in the mail boxes of well known figures on the left.  As I write this it is not yet clear whether the bombs were functional or not, but the point remains the same – hateful and hostile talk will lead to destructive action.  Sin causes sin.  With the President’s constant use of divisive and hateful language, both in the tweets that he sends so frequently and the stump speech he is currently using on the campaign trail, is it any wonder that someone decided to translate his words into actions?  How can we be surprised?  Once you cross the line with words you don’t have to go much further to get to that place of violent action.  After all, you’ve already crossed the line.

Jonathan Merritt, an occasional writer for the Atlantic, recently published an op ed in the NY Times about the gradual diminishment of what he called ‘God talk’ in our culture today.  If you track the column down and read it you’ll find that he is mostly writing about his God, the Christian God, but his point is well taken.  Our language has become coarse, our discourse uncivil, and our ability to voice disagreement respectfully almost non-existent.  Words like grace, kindness, sacrifice, patience, modesty, sacred, and holy are all words that often come up in faith oriented conversations.  We need those words today as much as, if not more, than ever.

Judaism has long believed that what you say can make an impact on what you think and feel.  The recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish is a prime example.  This prayer, a litany of praises of God, is recited by those who have suffered the loss of a loved one.  An odd choice, when you actually stop to think about it.  Or is it?  Perhaps the idea is that the constant praising of God through the recitation of the prayer will over time enable a person to return to a place of faith, and to reclaim a sense of God’s greatness and presence.

I would argue it is the same for the language we use every day.  Lets talk more about modesty and kindness, about grace and justice, about sacrifice and patience, about how we experience the sacred in our lives.  The old saying is a rising tide lifts all boats.  One good deed leads to another.  We can say the same about sacred words.

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Structured Memories

I’ve often wondered why the tradition is so invested in our remembering the losses of our lives.  Think of it for a moment.  Yartzeits are marked, and people come to services on those days to recite the kaddish.  The unveiling ritual, often scheduled a full year after someone has died, brings a family back to the cemetery right about the time their grief may have been diminishing.  And four times a year, on Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, Passover (the 8th day), and Shavuot (the 2nd day), the liturgical calendar asks us to come to services to recite Yizkor prayers.

But why the frequency and emphasis?  Would we not, organically, on our own, day to day (let alone on such scheduled occasions), think of those we’ve lost?  Don’t they come into our minds even without any special prayers or scheduled moments?  Aren’t our losses with us every day?  And if so, why all of these kaddishes?  These yartzeits and Yizkors?

Perhaps one answer is that we need to be reminded that time is passing by.  I have countless times over the years had the following conversation with a congregant who has come to shul to observe a yartzeit:  ‘How long is your loved one gone?’  ‘Rabbi, I can’t believe it, but it is 5 years!’  Or 10, or 20, or 40.  Yes, how the time goes by, and there is something important about marking its passage, about reflecting on the fact that we have bravely journeyed onward after our losses, that the sun has continued to rise and set, the moon to wax and wane, the years to pass.

There is also something to be said for connecting grief and loss and remembering to a sacred community.  In that community we understand our experience is shared.  We rise for Yizkor each remembering our own losses, but we rise together, surrounded by friends, supported by our fellow worshippers, comforted by a common liturgy and history.  And in that moment we also honor the memories of those we’ve lost through the lens of the Tradition, so commonly an important part of their lives and the legacy they’ve left behind for us.

And also we need to carve out intentional moments in the course of our lives dedicated to remembering, reflecting, understanding, thinking, and wondering.  Moments when we can feel grief, or gratitude, or often both.  Moments when we can reaffirm, in a formal way, how important memory is in our lives, how deeply we feel life’s losses, and how connected we remain to the people with whom we’ve shared the journey of our lives.  Even when the journey of their life has ended.

May their memories always be for a blessing!

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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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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.

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Voices of the Past

This a text version of my introductory remarks to Yizkor on Shemini Atzeret 5777 –

Just a few weeks ago I was looking through some old files hoping for High Holy Day sermon inspiration when I cam across a text I at first did not recognize.  It was 16 pages long, in a larger font, and when I began to read through it I realized what it was – a text of the last Yizkor sermon Rabbi Mark Loeb ever gave.  Some of you may remember the occasion – it was on YK afternoon, 9 years ago, and it was the first time we had combined our afternoon yizkor services.  We had advertised that Rabbi Loeb would be giving that afternoon’s sermon, hoping to draw a large crowd, and we were not disappointed.  The Berman Rubin Sanctuary was packed, standing room only, with more than 1500 people who had come not only to recite their yizkor prayers on our tradition’s most sacred day, but also to hear their beloved Rabbi give perhaps his last major sermon.

As you may expect, Rabbi Loeb did not disappoint.  I remember the powerful emotion in the room that afternoon, but to be honest I did not remember much of what Rabbi Loeb said, which simply proves my experience that most sermons are not remembered.  I knew he had approached the talk as a ‘last lecture’ – an idea that comes from the world of academia, where a retiring professor will give a final talk in which he hopes to summarize his life’s work.  And he had listed out a number of specific points about Judaism and Jewish life that he felt were the keys to finding meaning in our tradition.  And I also remember he had concluded the sermon with a classic Hasidic tale, the point of which is to be true to yourself.

I have a feeling the text of his sermon fell into my hands that very day, בעצם היום הזה the tradition would say, when he left it on the pulpit he had so powerfully graced for more than 30 years.  He was not one for saving sermons, and when he did take them he casually tossed them into the trash can in his office after services.  But that day I saw the text lying there, took it, and slipped it into my own files, thinking that one day it would be insightful, a historical artifact for the congregation, a testament to Rabbi Loeb’s thinking and teaching.

Since I have rediscovered it, I have read through the text a number of times during this holiday season.  It is almost as if Rabbi Loeb’s booming voice is coming back across the void, his be-robed figure swaying slightly as he leaned into the words of his message, his organized mind and elegant tongue laying out his sense of what it means to be Jew.  What was most striking to me about his remarks as I read and reread them was how often he spoke of love.  His love of Baltimore, his adopted home town, and most importantly his love of Beth El, our community and our congregants.  And of course his deep love of the tradition he had served and wrestled with for all those long years.

When things settle down after the holidays I will have the entire text of Rabbi Loeb’s sermon published on our FB page.  But today, as we come together near the conclusion of our holiday season, as we gather to recite our yizkor prayers, 9 years after Rabbi Loeb spoke those words from this pulpit, and just a few days after we marked his 7th yartzeit, there is one section of his text I would like to share with you.  This is the 7th of the 12 messages of Judaism that he spoke about that day, and I am quoting directly:

“I love Judaism because it has taught the world the idea of a covenantal love relationship between God and humankind, the ideal expression of a love that at times may falter but will never end.  Such a paradigm of love is meant to inform our view of the sanctity of human relationships, reminding us that it is our religious duty to try never to give up on one another, whether it be our children, our brothers, our sisters, our husbands, our wives, our parents or our friends.  We must never treat each other as objects, but, as Martin Buber taught, as sacred others.  Things are replaceable but people, even those we find difficult to abide at a given moment, are not.”

And it seems to me those few words capture the idea of what yizkor is all about.  First that we have not given up, that through the pain of loss, through grief, through guilt and sadness, and whatever other emotions we struggle with today, we have not given up.  And secondly, that the people we stand to say yizkor for today can never be replaced.  Their presence continues to be a part of our lives, their values and morals guideposts to our characters, to how we live and who we are.  It is a brave thing to stand to say yizkor – to once again stare into the face of loss, knowing that our grief will feel fresh and raw, but determined to fulfill our obligations and to do our very best to move forward, carrying our losses while at the very same time living our lives with a renewed sense of gratitude and faith.

Towards the end of Rabbi Loeb’s remarks on that day he said this, and again I quote directly:  “I would never have had the opportunities and experiences that have enriched my life so much if it hadn’t been for you… and as my service to Beth El comes to a close this spring, (I know) that a part of you will always live in me.  I hope the converse is true.”

As we rise together to say our yizkor prayers we acknowledge how very true that statement is, for our friends, our family members, for all those we call to mind today – may their memories always be for a blessing –

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