Category Archives: history

Days of Future Past

Preposterous.  A second Civil War, once again between the North and the South.  Rebel forces and suicide bombers (all American).  A shadowy faintly Islamic caliphate that is manipulating events on American shores.  Biological weapons of mass destruction.  Political assassinations.  This is the dystopian near future that Omar El Akkad describes in his debut novel American War.

Akkad’s United States is a shattered and humbled country.  North and South have split over a fundamental disagreement about the use of fossil fuels, with the South refusing to accept the North’s ban on gasoline and oil.  As is often the case with arguments, there are deeper issues at work, and old grievances and unhealed wounds festering.  The North wins the war, and a reconciliation process is put into place.  But there are those in the South who will never surrender, and rebel groups and individual terrorists continue the fight.  Refugee camps are set up, civil rights taken away in the name of safety, human dignity stripped, individuals tortured, and in the process, the moral compass of an entire nation swings out of balance.

It does indeed sound preposterous, at least on the surface.  As bad as things might be at any given moment, there is no way we can get from here to there, from where we are now to the tragedy and terror that the book paints, from the United States to a divided North and South.  Is there?

But think for a moment.  How far is it really from here to there?  All of the elements that Akkad draws on to create his compelling narrative are already in place today.  We live in a country with deep, angry divisions between Red and Blue states, that only seem to be getting deeper and angrier.  The government is dysfunctional, unable to pass legislation to address today’s pressing needs.  Our leadership is polarizing.  Terrorist networks are operating all over the globe, many of them with the express intent of destroying the American way of life.  Weapons of mass destruction exist, whether biological or nuclear, and we have for years worried about what would happen if those weapons were to fall into the wrong hands.

The truth is Akkad doesn’t make anything up from whole cloth for his story.  It is all out there right now, today.  All the author does is put the elements into one pot at the same time, heat them up a bit, stir them in exactly the right way, and follow the explosion to its terrifying, and also logical, conclusion.  He is not really writing about some far distant time and place.  He is writing about the here and now.  His work is not so much an act of imagination as it is an act of re-organization.   It is not a picture of the future.  Instead, it is a warning about the present.

Will we figure out a way to heed that warning?   That is, at the end of the day, the question Akkad sets in front of us.  And we are the only ones who can provide an answer.  American War is a novel about the future that could not be more contemporary.  It is a sharp critique of today’s cultural, societal, and political trends.  It is a mirror in which our images look back at us with uncomfortable and uncompromising honesty.  And it just so happens to be a heck of a read.

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Filed under America, books, civil rights, history, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Uncategorized

Of Flying Machines and the Currents of the Mind

I’ve just finished reading Walter Isaacson’s wonderful biography of Leonardo Da Vinci. Written in the author’s smooth and seamless prose the book chronicles the Master’s life by delving into the notebooks that Leonardo kept constantly by his side. As you might expect from one of the greatest artists in human history the notebooks are filled with sketches of everything from landscapes to human faces and hands. What is surprising, however, is the material that is not art related – the geometry problems, records of cadaver dissections, proposed architectural projects, to-do lists, and studies of the flow of liquids, among many other things.  Isaacson magically unlocks Da Vinci’s mind, using the pages of his notebooks as a window into the thought processes of one of the most remarkable people to have ever lived.

What you see through that window is a person of astonishing observational power, tremendous talent, deep complexity, and perhaps more than anything else unmatched curiosity. Leonardo was filled with contradictions. He could be obsessively focused on a current project, yet he often lost interest in what he was working on, leaving many commissions unfinished. He was unquestionably one of the great artists of all time, producing multiple masterpieces, yet through long stretches of his life he refused to pick up a paint brush.  He was fascinated by science and physics, but he commonly made mistakes in his mathematical calculations. He was interested in large scale big picture challenges like changing the course of rivers or building the ideal city, yet he described in detail the way the wings of a dragonfly moved. In seeing what we all see Leonardo sensed in the world a profound mystery and beauty, and he spent his life observing and unlocking it.

And he intuitively sensed the interconnectedness of all things.  That the blood flow in the heart has something to do with the way water swirls and eddies, that the way the eye perceives light is part and parcel of how a painting should be shaded, that physical motion unlocks inner emotion, and the list goes on and on.  It is no mistake that during his ‘dissection’ period, on a page of his notebooks where he recorded detailed drawings of the dozens of muscles and nerves under the skin around the human mouth, there is a soft sketch of faintly smiling lips that would later appear on the Mona Lisa.  Leonardo perceived the world as a vast and beautiful tapestry where each individual thread is needed to make up the whole.  Most of us in life focus on one or the other, the threads or the tapestry, but Leonardo was able to see both simultaneously.

Last but not least, Isaacson’s Leonardo biography is filled with a deep sense of the very best of what makes us human.  That is something that can be easy to forget, especially during dark and trying times when the baser side of human nature is too visible too often.  This book was a joy to read, and best of all it pulses with hope, faith, curiosity, wonder, insight, intellect, and humanity.  In other words, what we all need, and what our world needs, more and more.

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Filed under books, history, mindfulness, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Uncategorized, winter reading

This Land is Your Land…

Some thoughts about Israel after our recent congregational trip, expressed in my Shabbat sermon from 7/1/17 –

Just back from Israel – the Beth El trip – and to travel to Israel today is to both step back into the past, and also to look forward into the future.   The past – both ancient and recent –  is everywhere in Israel.  In the north we stood in an excavated synagogue from the year 350 the CE, knowing that 1700 years ago Jews came together in that space to recite the words of the Shema, to listen to the reading of the Torah, to celebrate the festivals and Shabbat.  On the road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem we saw the remains of burnt out tanks and transport vehicles.  They have been rusting in the hot sun since the War of Independence in 1948, still pock marked with the bullet holes of Arab guns trying to prevent the Jews from bringing supplies to their brothers and sisters in Israel’s most sacred city.

In the Israel Museum in Jerusalem we traveled back 4000 years as we looked at artifacts from the early Canaanite settlements in the land, and saw an Israelite altar that was in use 2000 years ago.  But we also saw the Ayalon bullet factory from the mid 40s, where young Jews from the early days of the Yishuv ingeniously hid an entire bullet factory underneath a laundry mat, less than a half a mile from a major British post.  These Jews – 19, 20, 21 years old – risked their lives every day to manufacture the ammunition that would enable the first Jewish soldiers in the modern era to defend their homeland.  The entrance to the underground factory is located underneath a movable laundry machine, and to climb down into it is to have an immediate sense of the unique blend of genius, courage, and hutzpah that defines Israel to this very day.

But Israel does not feel in any way like an ancient or outdated place.  In fact, just the opposite.  The vibrant energy of Tel Aviv, with its sky scrapers and beach front bars and cafes is palpable and feels entirely fresh and modern.  If you have any doubts they are put to rest as you drive north along the Mediterranean coast, and see the huge buildings with names like Intel and Microsoft on them.  This is Israel’s version of Silicon Valley, and inside those buildings Israeli scientists and engineers are creating and perfecting technology that will make the entire world a better place for all.  As we drove we saw the foundation of the new mag lev train track that is supposed to open in 2019.  It will enable people to travel from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv in 15 minutes time.  Imagine that!  You will literally be able to live in Tel Aviv and work in Jerusalem, or vice versa.

Imagine that!  From the shore of the Mediterranean to the hills of Jerusalem in 15 minutes.  For our ancestors in ancient times that would have been a trek of many days, possibly even weeks.  They would have made that journey multiple times a year, particularly for the 3 pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot.  After a long, hot, and difficult journey they would have arrived in Jerusalem with a deep sense of gratitude, hope, and faith.

Today the way we reach Jerusalem has entirely changed.  Whether on a maglev train, or a bus, or arriving from some foreign land on a great plane filled with people, we  can get from point A to point B in ways our ancestors never could have imagined.  But for all of our technology, for all of the wonders of the modern world, the human heart is still the same.  And I suspect the emotions we feel as modern travelers when we come around a bend and see the city of Jerusalem – the city of gold –  laid out before us – how that touches our soul, how that feels in our heart – is very much the same way it felt to our ancestors thousands of years ago.  The gratitude.  The sense of God’s presence.  The connection to the history of our people.  Those things have not changed for the pilgrim – they are as strong as they have ever been.

This morning’s Torah portion ends with the Israelites camped across the Jordon River, within sight of the ancient city of Jericho.  For the rest of the Torah, through the last chapters of Numbers and all of Deuteronomy, they will remain in that place, looking across the river – westward – toward the land they have been promised by God.  Jericho lies before them as both a challenge and an incentive – a challenge in that they know it must be conquered before the land is theirs, and an incentive because they see that great cities can be built in this new land they are about to enter.

It was just a little more than a week ago that we drove by Jericho, winding our way down through the hills that lead from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea.  We were on our way to Masada, the legendary ancient fortress of Jewish heroism, in the south.  As we passed Jericho and turned to the right, the Jordon River was in front of us, and across it the very place where the Torah tells us Moses bade the Israelites make camp.

It is a strange thing to think about, but Moses never left that camp.  He stayed there, with the Israelites, until the very end of his life when God told him to ascend Mt Nebo, where he had one last view of a Promised Land he knew he would never enter.  He had spent his entire life working towards a goal that only others would realize.  The people would cross over, a Jewish homeland would be established, a Jewish monarchy would come into being, Jewish sovereignty would be lived and breathed for generations, but Moses saw none of it.

Or did he?  There is a well known midrashic legend that God gave Moses a parting gift, just before his death.  When God took him to the top of the mountain where he breathed his last God showed him not only the Promised Land, not only the physical space, the hills and mountains and vineyards and orchards and valleys, but also the future of that land.  The great triumphs, the building of the Temple, the establishment of an Israelite nation, as well as the tragedies, the destruction of the Temple, the exile of the people.

Thinking about that legend, I wonder if Moses knew that one day I would be blessed to enter that land, that I would one hot day be riding in a bus, with a group of tired and yet excited and fulfilled Baltimoreans, many of them experiencing Israel for the very first time.  Did he know then that some 3500 years after he stood at the far side of the Jordon, looking towards this land, that the land of Israel would still be the heart and soul of the Jewish people?  Whether he knew or not, whether the legend is true or not, I don’t know.  But I do know this – if Moses, in his vision, saw today’s Israel, he would have been deeply grateful and proud.

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Not All Who Wander Are Lost

The title is a quote from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.  Below is a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 2/4/17.

Not really a sermon this morning, but three brief vignettes that might help us, as Jews, think about about some of what is going on in Washington these days, particularly the immigration ban.  Sometimes it can be helpful to look back, because it is easy when you get comfortable – as we are today – to very quickly forget where you’ve actually come from.

And we’ll begin by looking way, way back, all the way back to this morning’s Torah portion, the events of which most scholars would date about 3500 years ago.  I want to introduce you to a young Israelite slave who was living in Egypt at that time.  His name was Nahshon, the son of Aminadav, from the tribe of Judah.  He was about 18 or 19 years old, and had lived his entire life in slavery, working in the hot Egyptian son, doing the backbreaking work of building the pyramids.  But there was something special about Nahshon.  Unlike his parents’ generation, whose spirits had been crushed by the cruel bondage of Egypt, Nahshon had a fire burning inside of him.  He had always believed that one day there might be a way to escape the slavery, to leave Egypt behind, and to live life as a free man.  But he never really knew how that night happen.

And then one day a man named Moses appeared.  He would come to the Israelite villages, and he talked about ideas that seemed strange, even crazy.  He said that the old God of the ancestors, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah had returned.  That that God had heard the cry of the Israelites in their slavery, and had set in motion a series of events that would somehow enable them to be free.  Many of the people didn’t believe Moses, but Nahshon did.  He began to quietly talk about a moment that would soon come, a door that would suddenly open, a window in time, when the Israelites would leave Egypt and set out on a journey to freedom.  Nahshon watched, and waited, and bided his time.

Then one night it actually happened.  It was the middle of the night, and a terrible cry could be heard throughout the land of Egypt.  A deathly power was making its way through the Egyptian homes, slaying all of the first born.  Moses and his messengers went through the Israelite settlements, urging people to pack a few belongings in haste, to take with them only what they absolutely needed the most.  And so the people quickly assembled – men, women, children.  Nahshon fell in with his tribe, with a small sack over his shoulder.  In his heart he felt a sense of hope he had never before felt in his life.  He turned his face to the east where the sun was rising, and he began to walk forward.  As the first rays of the sun fell on his face, his eyes burned brightly.

Lets now take our minds out of the Egyptian desert, and move forward in time about 1000 years.  In the year 586 BCE a Jew named Azariah lived on the outskirts of Jerusalem.  He was a simple man, living a simple life.  He made his living by harvesting grapes and olives in the groves and vineyards around his small home, and making wine and olive oil that he sold to travelers who were on their way to see the great city.  But Azariah lived in troubled times.  Jerusalem has been besieged by the Babylonian army, the greatest power in the ancient world, and the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar.  The Babylonians have built great war towers around the city’s walls, and they waited patiently as hunger and thirst began to set in.

In the course of a few weeks during that terrible summer Azariah watched the Babylonians bring Jerusalem to its knees.  The siege lasted for three months, but the end was quick.  The Babylonians finally breached the outer walls, and then steadily made their way towards the Temple mount, burning and destroying everything in their path.  When they reached the Temple they set it on fire, and later tore it down, stone by stone, to its foundation.  A few days later Babylonian soldiers appeared and informed the local population they would be exiled and sent to a far away land.  They had one day to prepare.  Azariah didn’t know it, or think about it this way, but very much like his distant ancestor Nahshon he packed a small sack with his few belongings.  The next morning he joined a long line of his fellow Jews, 4,600 of them, and guarded by Babylonian soldiers, they began a journey that would take many months, and would end with them living in exile on the banks of the K’var River in Babylonia.  For the first time in Jewish history there was a diaspora community, but they never forgot Jerusalem their sacred city, or Israel their holy land.

Of course there have been countless other Jewish journeys in the course of time, some forced, others taken freely. As the Muslim civilization grew to power in the 7th century Jews followed trade routes and established small communities on the Iberian peninsula.   In the the late 800s Jews gradually made their way into Europe, settling in small villages along the Rhine River, and in Italy and France.  There were forced expulsions – from England in 1290, and of course from Spain in 1492.  Each time, like Nahshon and Azariah before them, the Jews packed their few belongings and began another journey, searching for a home, searching for freedom.

I would like to share one last story with you this morning.

This story begins fairly recently in the long scope of Jewish history, on the 13th day of May, in the year 1939.  On that day a young woman named Regina Adler boarded a boat called the SS St Louis in Hamburg Germany.  There were 937 passengers on that boat, almost all of them Jewish.  They were afraid, fleeing a country they had believed to be a safe haven, a place where until recently they thought they could live freely as both Jews and Germans.  Regina was born in Austria Hungary, in 1897, but had come to Germany with her parents as a teenager.

When the ship set sail the destination was Havanah, and despite difficult conditions on board the trip went smoothly.  Every passenger on the ship left Germany with proper documentation and permits that should have allowed them to enter Cuba, but when the boat arrived at the Havanah port they were told all permits had been revoked and they were forced to remain on board.  In desperation the boat headed for US shores, but it was met by US Coastguard ships and told in no uncertain terms that it would not be permitted to land.  On June 6 the decision was made to turn the St Louis around and head back to Europe.

About half the passengers on the boat would survive the war.  England, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France all agreed to take in some of the Jewish refugees.  Most of those who ended up in Nazi controlled areas died in the camps.  But Regina Adler was permitted to enter England, and she lived there for many years after the war ended.

These are our stories, Jewish stories.  Of exile and forced travel, of wandering and searching for home and freedom.  They are ingrained into our souls and psyches – informing who we are and how we see the world.  Robert Louis Stevenson wrote “we are all travelers in the wilderness of this world.”  When we think about today’s events, about a world filled with refugees, about immigrants searching for a new home, about borders and who should be permitted to cross them, we should remember our own history.  After all, it wasn’t so long ago that we were packing our own small bags, leaving our homes behind, and setting out with hope for the Promised Land.

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