Category Archives: Jewish festivals

A Dog’s Festival of Lights

He came every evening during the eight days of Hanukkah to the foyer for the lighting of our menorah.  It didn’t matter what he was doing, how snug and comfortable he might have been, or even if he was sleeping soundly.  He clearly understood it as his responsibility, his job as it were, just like we go off to our offices in the morning sipping our coffee cups, driving in the chilly early mornings and sleepily adjusting the radio, waiting for the heat to come on.  And, as he always has, he took that responsibility seriously.  We didn’t call him or rouse him from his bed.  As dogs do, he somehow just knew  that the time had arrived – and just as we finished placing the last candle and prepared to light the shamash he would appear, stretching his front paws, yawning, sniffing, finding a comfortable spot from which to watch the proceedings.

And he participated!  He often joined in as we chanted the blessings, his barking or yowling blending in with our own voices.  He didn’t pay all that much attention to the candles themselves, maybe a sniff or two in their direction, the acrid smell of the just extinguished match warning him to keep his distance.  But he was fully engaged, and after each lighting expected some belly or ear scratching, positioning himself in that way that dogs do to let you know it is time for a good scratch or two.

Maybe there was some classical conditioning involved, maybe some association had formed in his canine brain between that Hanukkah ritual and his dinner being served, or a treat that once or twice was offered post lighting.  Maybe it was that latke he oh-so-stealthily managed to steal.  That must have been right around the time we were lighting the candles?  But I think it was more than that.  There is a certain sense of loyalty to it, a clear commitment to the family, to his humans, to be there and to watch the goings on, to show up, and to do it every single time.  When the door opens and you come in from the garage, there he is, steadfastly wagging his nub.  When we sit down to dinner he settles in the same place to join us, even if he’s eaten, even when he was soundly and comfortably sleeping in another room entirely.  He lies at my feet when I work at the computer at the dining room table, often arranging his head between the legs of my chair.  He sagely scans the front yard and the street, and the  yards beyond, for threats real or imagined that he will warn us about with a stout and sometimes urgent barking.  When the basement TV goes on he is there within seconds, anxious to settle into his customary place on the couch, snuggled in between us.

I think it was Woody Allen who said 80% of life is showing up.  We humans often struggle with that 80%.  We come late, we forget, we are lazy and don’t want to go out, there are a million and one reasons why we don’t show up for this obligation or that event, why we constantly cancel and reschedule and reschedule again.  Perhaps there is something to be learned from a dog’s unfailing loyalty and devotion, the sheer determination to do what he must, to be there and to offer his support or presence, to let us know with his softly questioning eyes that he wouldn’t have it any other way.IMG_0145

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, celebration, dogs, holidays, Jewish festivals, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Uncategorized

Not by Might

There will be close to one thousand Jews gathering tonight at my congregation to light a menorah, nosh on some typical Hanukkah fair, and watch fireworks (what could be more appropriate for the Festival of Lights?!).  We share this evening with another congregation just a stone’s throw away, and over the last few years it has developed into a much anticipated communal celebration of the holiday.

It is true, it can be a bit of a ‘ballagan,’ a crazy scene.  Imagine 1,000 Jews trying to make their way to a few tables piled high with latkes and you’ll have the picture.  To paraphrase Woody Allen, it is sort of like kiddish after Shabbat  services, only more so.  Bu despite the logistical challenges, despite the crowds, despite the difficulties in terms of parking, people come, and they truly seem to enjoy the evening.

I wonder why?

Certainly it is a striking Jewish identity moment for everyone.  Simply stated, there is a power to numbers.  Lighting a menorah at home with your family can feel like a sacred moment.  But lighting a menorah with a thousand people, everyone chanting the blessings, all those voices raised together enacting a ritual that is two thousand years old, that experience has its own particular power.  You know you are part of something significant, something serious, something that others – many others – feel is worthwhile.  The experience also connects in well with the theme of the holiday, namely that Jews can be powerful and can control their own destiny.  That is something Jews in America rarely celebrate in such a public way.  The experience is connective in an ethnic kind of way, even a bit tribal in feel.

There is also the light of the menorah.  Maybe it doesn’t mean what it once did.  After all, in our day and age we can turn lights off and on with ease, flicking a switch, or even just speaking a word to our ‘smart’ bulbs.  But there is something about real flame, something ancient and almost arcane, magical and mystical.  We gather around as the candles are lit and the flames flicker, insistently pushing back against the darkness during some of the darkest and longest nights of the entire year.  The light of Hanukkah is a light of the spirit, the flame  bringing us back to an earlier time when our ancestors gathered around their camp fires to listen to stories of hope and fate and God.

On the Shabbat of Hanukkah we read the words of the prophet Zechariah in the text of the haftara:  “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, said he Lord of Hosts.”  It is the light of that spirit that Hanukkah still brings into our lives – and our world – today.

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Sukkah of Peace

     In our minds the sukkah is a seasonal structure, one that we rush to build in the few brief days between Yom Kippur and the beginning of the festival of Sukkot.  And the season we associate with both the holiday and the actual booth that we build is fall.  Agriculturally the theme of this Yom Tov is harvest, always a fall activity.  The way we decorate our sukkot is often fall themed as well – the pumpkins and gourds, the bales of hay, the chrysanthemums with their burnt autumn colors.  The weather is fall weather as well!  Cooler evenings, and sadly for us here in Baltimore, often rainy days and nights.  And it is during this fall season that our tradition demands of us – בסוכות תשבו שבעת ימים – in booths you will dwell for seven days.

     But there is another sukkah that tradition asks us to dwell in, a sukkah that is with us throughout the year, on a weekly basis.  It is not a physical structure – thank goodness!  I would not want to have to build and take down a sukkah every single week.  I have enough trouble doing it once a year!  Instead, this other sukkah is kind of spiritual structure, and part of our observance of Shabbat. Those of you who are familiar with the Friday night liturgy may remember the following lines that come from the Hashkiveinu prayer, which is said just before the amidah.  In that prayer we ask God ופרוש עלינו סוכת שלומך – may You, God, spread over us the Sukkah of Peace.  And the prayer concludes Blessed are You, Lord our God, הפורש סוכת שלום עלינו, the One Who spreads over us a Sukkah of Peace, and over all God’s people Israel, and over Jerusalem.

     This is a lovely image, and I’ve always associated it with the peace of Shabbat.  That on at least one day of the week we can withdraw from the day to day struggles of living in the world, and we can surround ourselves with a sense of peace.  So in that sense Shabbat itself becomes a Sukkah of Peace into which we enter, and that Sukkah shields us from the outside world.

     But in building my sukkah this year, and thinking about this image of a Sukkah of Peace,  I realized there is something odd about this metaphor.  Some of you may know that the sukkah that Becky and I put up is extremely flimsy, to say the least.  A few years ago, on another rainy Sukkot holiday, during a storm, a strong wind took the entire sukkah, flipped it up into the air, right over the four foot high chain link fence at the back of our yard, and into the neighborhood catchment area.  On another occasion the wind, blowing in a different direction, slammed the sukkah into our house, denting our siding and bending a number of the sukkah poles – which are made out of metal.  Even this morning, without any serious wind, our poor sukkah looked as if it were about to topple over, the metal structure leaning, the canvas walls flapping and of course dripping wet.

     Of course that is actually the way a sukkah is supposed to be.  According to the halacha, the law, of constructing a sukkah, it must be a ‘dira arai’ – a temporary structure.  If the walls are too high, if they are too strong, if the roof is not porous, if the structure is too permanent – then the sukkah is not considered to be kosher.  To say it in another way, for a sukkah to be a sukkah, it has to be flimsy and fragile – it has to be the kind of structure that a strong wind can blow over.  If it isn’t, it isn’t a sukkah.

     Which leads me back to the image of a sukkah of peace.  If you were writing that prayer, and you wanted to use a metaphor for a structure of peace, peace, which is considered to be one of the, if not the primary value in Judaism, would you choose a sukkah?  Would you choose a structure that can be blown over by a strong wind?  Wouldn’t it make more sense to say ‘castle of peace,’ or ‘fortress of peace’?  Something made of stone, something that will last, a structure that is strong, that is permanent and not impermanent.  Why choose a sukkah?  And why make our weekly structure of peace so fragile and so easily damaged?

     But the truth is, in reality, peace is a lot more like a sukkah than it is like a castle.  The structures of peace in our lives and in our world are all too often fragile and brittle.  Think of our relationships for a moment.  We talk all the time about ‘shalom bayit,’ peace in the home.  We’ll often say about someone in the family, ‘they are the peace-maker.’  They are always trying to make sure everyone gets along.  The implication of that is people don’t always get along, and you need to have a peace maker in the family.  We know how fragile family peace actually is.  One wrong word said at the wrong time to the wrong person and it can easily be damaged, sometimes even permanently destroyed. 

     Emotional peace is just as fragile.  Think of how easily the peace of a day can be shattered.  One phone call, one unpleasant interaction, one person cutting you off in traffic, whatever it might be, and your pulse starts to race, your heart starts to beat, and you feel the anger and frustration welling up, and whatever peace you had toppling over.  

     Peace is an extremely delicate balance, a structure that has to be constantly tended, regularly repaired, and often reconstructed entirely.  I think that is why the liturgist choose the image of a sukkah for the structure of peace in the Hashkiveinu prayer.  If the prayer talked about a castle of peace we would think our work was all done, the building was completed and that we didn’t need to worry about it.  But the image of a sukkah of peace reminds us of how much work it takes to create peace in our world and our lives, and how difficult it is to maintain that peace, precisely because it is so delicate and so easily damaged.

     Building an actual sukkah each year reminds us of the same thing.  The metaphor of the prayer on Friday nights is powerful, but it can’t quite compare to seeing your sukkah flip up into the air, or hearing the sound as it is slammed into your home.  The year our sukkah went into the drainage ditch Becky and my father and I climbed over the fence into that catchment area in the midst of a driving rain storm.  We dragged the canvas walls and the metal poles out of the water and back into our yard.  The next afternoon we built the sukkah again.  It was wet and stained, but it managed to stay intact through the reminder of the holiday.  As fragile as our poor sukkah is, I am sure it is not the last time it will need to be rebuilt.  

     May this holiday of Sukkot help us all to find the strength, determination, patience, and grace we need to continually rebuild the structures of peace in our lives and our world, with one another, with family and with friends, with our communities, knowing that the work will never be done, but that when we do it together we can find meaning, strength, courage, and hope – and God willing, peace.

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Of Baseball Gloves and Tallitot

A text version of my sermon from Kol Nidre eve –

     Those of you who have been coming to High Holy Day services at Beth El for many years know that a wide variety of topics have been addressed from the pulpit during the holiday season.  From climate change to 9/11, from Israel to the American Jewish community, our rabbis have used the holidays to do their best to let you know what they think about the issues of the day.  

     But if there is one topic that has been talked about more than any other over the years, it just might be baseball.  I hesitate to bring baseball up tonight, after the season the Orioles have had.  But, as baseball fans will tell you, the game of baseball is a metaphor for life, with its ups and downs, its twists and turns, and its winning and losing.  It is filled with sermonic lessons – sacrifice, contributing to a team, being part of something greater than you are, how one deals with defeat and disappointment.  Many of you may still remember the wonderful sermon Rabbi Loeb gave the fall that Cal Ripken retired from the Orioles about Baltimore’s Iron Man.  You’ve heard from the pulpit sermons about Mo’ne Davis, the first young woman to ever win a game in the Little League World Series, and also about the famous base running mistake of Fred Merkel.  

     And tonight I would also like to talk with you for a few minutes about baseball, not a particular player or event in baseball history, but rather about a baseball glove.  You all know what a baseball glove is?  The large and padded leather glove worn by players when they are fielding.  Protects the hand against that hard ball.  Just out of curiosity, how many of you have owned a baseball glove at one point or another?  And how many of you know now where that glove is?  Well I would like to tell you tonight the story of a baseball glove that was lost for many years, and was only recently – and entirely unexpectedly – found.

     The story begins almost exactly 40 years ago in Willoughby OH, on a fall evening in September of 1978, when the Little League baseball season all star game was being played.  The very best players from the Little League teams in the area had been selected, and it was a close game that evening.  The difference maker was a young man named Christopher Lisi, who hit two home runs.  When the game ended and his team had won, Christopher was mobbed by his teammates and then carried off the field.

     The next morning, still in a celebratory mood, Christopher woke up early, and he realized his baseball glove was not in its normal spot in his room.  He looked for it and couldn’t find it anywhere, and just as the sun was coming up he got on his bike and raced back to the field where the game had been played.  There was no baseball glove in sight.  Despite his euphoria about the big win he felt the sting of disappointment for losing an object which had been an important part of his life for many years.

     Now you have to shift into the present day.  Forty years have gone by since that night.  Christopher is now a math teacher and a coach, a husband and a father, and still lives in Ohio.  His parents – Julie Anne and Mike – retired many years ago, and now make their home in Jupiter Florida.  The Florida-Lisis have a ritual they enact every Wednesday.  They go to a local good will store, schmei around for a while, and then go to an evening service at their church.  Been doing it for years.

     Ten days ago they were in that goodwill store, looking through the various and sundry items on the shelves when Julie Anne’s eyes rested on an old baseball glove, dull brown and scuffed, a classic Wilson mitt.  For whatever reason she picked up the glove, and then she saw it – written on the side in permanent marker, her son’s name – Christopher Lisi.  Her jaw nearly dropped to the floor, and she took a picture of the glove and immediately texted it to her son.  Christopher called back on the spot and said ‘buy it!’  She and her husband took it up to the counter and paid $1.49 for the old glove.  They both had tears in their eyes.  How it traveled the 1000 miles from Willoughby to Jupiter, and what happened to it during that forty years, they’ll never know.  But the baseball glove is back with their son, and Christopher, now in his mid 50s, once again considers it to be one of his most prized possessions.  Even for Orioles fans, that is a feel good baseball story.

     I would also like to tell you tonight about another prized object, also first owned by a teenager 40 years ago – actually 41 years if we are being accurate.  It is the tallit that I wore to my bar mitzvah.  I never lost my bar mitzvah tallis and later found it in a good will store, but it did travel many miles with me.  From Binghamton to Boston, to LA, to Jerusalem, to New York, to Baltimore, wherever I’ve lived I’ve taken that old tallit.  It is worn and frayed now, with holes developing along some of the creases that have been folded over and over again.  That tallis was used more than anybody could have expected at my bar mitzvah, because when I became a daily davener – in my mid 20s, now thirty years ago, that was the tallit that I put on each morning. 

     A few weeks ago I published a blog post in which I wrote that as well as my bar mitzvah tallis has served me, I have finally decided to ‘retire’ it.  I have other beautiful tallitot, and with the fraying getting worse and the holes getting bigger, it was just time.  I used it one last time and carefully set it on a shelf in our closet, and it has been resting quietly there ever since.  I don’t know exactly why, but something about that blog post and the story of my old tallit struck a chord.  Many of you emailed me about it, or called or said something to me at kiddish.  And I’ve been thinking about why people responded to a story about my old bar mitzvah tallis.  And since I heard about Christopher Lisi’s baseball glove, I’ve been wondering why I responded to that – and maybe you did too.

     And I think the answer has something to do with sacred objects, and the role they play in our lives.  I know many of you have sacred objects at home.  It might be a tallit, that was owned and worn by a grandfather or great-grandfather.  It might be a kiddish cup that has been passed down through the generations of your family, or a bris suit that babies have worn, or a special kippah, or a wedding ring that belonged to someone you love, that maybe you now wear on a chain around your neck.  Or it might be a baseball glove.  Whatever it is, that sacred object is precious to you in a way few other things are.

     Those sacred objects in our lives bear witness to two things.  On the one hand, they remind us of what once was.  Family seders when our grandparents were still there.  A bedroom we slept in as a child.  A neighborhood where we lived, filled with friends and colorful characters.  What we felt like when we stood under our huppah, or when we were 13 years old reading from the Torah at our bar mitzvah, or in the case of Christopher Lisi and his ball glove, how he felt the night he hit two home runs and his team won that all-star game.  Those objects remind us of hopes and dreams we once had, of relationships we cherished, of the memorable moments of our lives, and probably in many cases of a simpler time when everything seemed right in the world.

     But the other thing a sacred object bears witness to is how much time has gone by, how much has changed in our lives.  I decided to wear my old bar mitzvah tallit one last time, and what better time than Kol Nidre eve, the only evening of the entire year when we are asked to put on a tallis.  Wearing it tonight reminds me of how much has happened in the 41 years since I first put it on.  High school and college.  Had my first real job.  Becky and I were married.  I became a father – three times!  I lost two of my closest friends.  Went through rabbinical school and was ordained as a rabbi.  Our kids have grown and gone off to college and beyond.  And this old tallit has seen all of it.

     The holidays are like that too.  Not sacred objects, but there is no question they form sacred time.  Kol Nidre eve, like that baseball mitt, or my old tallit, is also a witness.  A witness to the hopes and dreams we recall tonight, to time gone by, and to the inevitable ways in which each of us has been transformed by the years.  But unlike a tallit or baseball mitt, this sacred moment transcends us as individuals in the here and now.  It accompanied our parents, and our grandparents too, in their darkest and most difficult moments, in all of their achievements and joys, during their journeys on earth.  And also all Jews, in every age, in every land, where we built our homes, our communities and synagogues, the thriving culture of which we are so proud.

     So this evening, in the brief time we spend together, let the words we speak and the melodies we hear link our lives to all the generations before us, and to the eternal rhythms of our people’s experience.  May the beauty and wisdom of our heritage accompany each of us on our journey in this new year, always a source of strength, comfort, hope and faith for us and those we love.

May it be a year of peace, meaning, and hope – 

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, continuity, High Holy Days, Jewish festivals, memory, neighborhoods, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, seasons, sermon, Uncategorized, Yom Kippur

Unbridgeable Gaps

Here is a text version of my sermon from first day Rosh Hashanah, 5779 –

     It is with a deep sense of gratitude and that I welcome you all and wish you this morning a shana tova, a happy and healthy new year.  My gratitude comes from the understanding I have – that grows stronger year by year – of how lucky I am to be serving this congregation, with the wonderful staff that we have, the incredible lay leadership, and most importantly of all, the warm congregational community.  Most of all today I am grateful to be celebrating this Rosh Hashanah with all three of our children in town – the first time in many years – and with both my parents and Becky’s parents with us as well.  I can’t imagine a sweeter way to begin a new year.  

     This is now the 21st year that I have led services at Beth El during the High Holy Days, for many years in the Offit, and the last decade here in the Berman-Rubin Sanctuary.  And for four years before that I officiated at Yom Tov services as a rabbinical student, so all told this is my 25th year in the pulpit during the fall holidays.  In all that time I cannot remember a year in which the country has felt more divided than it does right now.  And it is that sense of division that I would like to spend some time thinking about with you this morning.

     I understand that this is an uncomfortable topic.  But I also believe that one of the only ways to deal with things that are difficult and challenging is to put them out in the open, name them, and talk about them.  There is an old saying that the job of a preacher is to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted.  I might do a bit of both this morning, thinking with you first about what divides us in this year of division, in a country that feels more and more divided.  Then I hope also to remind us all of what unites us, of what brings us together.  But we must begin with afflicting the comfortable, as it were, and thinking about the divisions that are pulling us apart.

     That is a long list that seems to just get longer and longer.  We have Democrats and Republicans, Fox News or CNN, the NY Times or the Wall Street Journal, liberals and conservatives.  We have AIPAC and JStreet, blue states and red states, pro life and pro choice, and of course this being baseball season, we must acknowledge one of the deepest divisions of all, Red Sox and Yankees fans.  I know there are some of both sitting in the room this morning.  There are economic divisions, racial divisions, and educational divisions.  Those on one side or the other side of just about any issue today are more entrenched in their views, and far less likely to listen to someone who thinks differently.  Many of us feel it has become virtually impossible to talk about the issues of the day in public, particularly with people with whom we might not agree. 

     It is important to say, first of all, that we have all participated in fostering these divisions, whether consciously or unconsciously, we are all at fault.  More and more we live in our own intellectual and political silos, only exposing ourselves to news and views that support what we think, and shutting off any idea or program or opinion that does not jibe with what we believe to be true.  We have allowed ourselves to become trapped in a cycle that hardens our views and deepens the divisions between us.  What I am wondering today is if it is possible to get out of that trap, to break that cycle?  Or, if we have to live in it, what is the best way to do so?

     Many of you ask me at this time of year about how my sermons are coming along.  ‘Have you started writing them yet, rabbi?’ (July)  ‘Did you finish your sermons rabbi?’ (August) ‘What are you talking about rabbi?’  ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’  The truth is it differs year to year, but there are some elements in terms of my process that are always the same.  

     One of those is that each year Becky and I visit Gloucester, MA, the small fishing town where Becky grew up and her parents still live.  Those visits are usually mid to late summer, so the HHDs are very much on my mind, and I often talk over sermon ideas with my father in law, whom many of you know is a rabbi as well.  And this past summer – just a little more than a month ago – my father in law and I sat in Gloucester at the kitchen table one evening, sipping a bit of scotch, and we talked about this sermon.  And we had, what in Jewish tradition, is called a mahloket, a disagreement.  There was, between us, about this sermon, a division.  

     You see I am by nature A an optimist, and B, probably a bit naive.  So I said I wanted to talk in the sermon about divisions, but what I wanted to do with it ultimately was remind everyone that there is more that unites us than there is that divides us.  That we have common values as Americans and as Jews that bind us together, that we have a shared history, that there are shared beliefs that are still there, that we just need to recover those in order to create a common ground we can stand on together.  I wanted to use a line from the Mahzor, one of my favorites, ויעשו כלם אגודה אחד – we will all be bound together, in common purpose, and בלבב שלמ – with a unified and full heart.  Little did I know it at the time, but in Senator John McCain’s last statement to the American people he would write this:  “We are three-hundred-and-twenty-five million opinionated, vociferous individuals. We argue and compete and sometimes even vilify each other in our raucous public debates. But we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement. If only we remember that and give each other the benefit of the presumption that we all love our country we will get through these challenging times. We will come through them stronger than before. We always do.”  That about sums up where I wanted to try to take this sermon.

     But my father in law, older and wiser than I, (and also less naive) had a different perspective.  And he argued, quite persuasively, that it actually may not be true anymore that there is more that unites us than divides us.  That in fact the divisions that we feel every day cannot be banished by sitting around the camp fire and singing kumbaya together, and remembering shared values and easier times.  That the real question is not how we bridge the gaps and diminish the divisions, but rather how each of us will choose to live in this new world where the divisions are so deep.  

     That idea of choice – of choosing how to live, of being in control of our own actions and our own words and our own lives and even our own destiny – is a powerful idea in our tradition.  The Mahzor reminds us of that time and time again.  We choose between right and wrong.  We choose how we relate to our spouses and our children and our parents and siblings, and to friends.  We choose, when we are angry with someone, to simply walk away from them or to let them know.  And then we can choose how we will let them know.  And when someone believes something we don’t believe we choose how we react to that.  We can listen or argue, we can be silent or walk away.  We can  treat that person with dignity and respect, or treat them with disdain and disregard.  Those are choices that we are compelled to make.  And so in my father in law’s view the question is how will we choose to live in this divided world?

     Among the books I read this summer was a slender volume written by the Israeli writer Yossi Klein HaLevi, entitled ‘Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor.’  In a series of short essays, he writes to the Palestinian family that lives just over the green line and beyond the security fence, literally a stone’s throw from his backyard, a family he has never met.

    He is not naive, HaLevi, fully understanding how deep the divisions between Israelis and Palestinians truly are, and how starkly different their narratives.  He is not an optimist, either, and he offers no quick fix prescriptions.  Instead he arrives at a place of accepting that the divisions between the two peoples will remain in place for many years, if not forever.  And if that is the case, he wonders – if the gap is unbridgeable – what possibly can be done?  He writes this:  “There may well be no way to  bridge our opposing narratives…  Even as we seek a two state solution, we will likely remain with a two narrative problem….  Accommodating both our narratives, learning to live with two contradictory stories, is the only way to deny the past a veto over the future.”

     I still hold out hope in my heart that the words that Senator McCain penned before he died will prove to be prophetic, and that the deep divisions we feel today in our country will be healed by a sense of common purpose and citizenship.  I am old enough to remember a time when we began each day in the public school I went to by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.   We stood and saluted while facing the flag, and I suspect many of you still know the words by heart, as I do myself – I pledge allegiance to the flag, of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands – ONE nation…INDIVISIBLE…

     But until that time comes, if it ever does, we must learn to live in a world with contradictory values and accept that there are many more narratives than the one to which we subscribe.  And how we deal with that reality will be the true test of this country and of each of us.  

     If you think about it for a moment the very experience of the High Holy Days is predicated on an unbridgeable gap.  On the one side is God, eternal, righteous and just, and ultimately unknowable.  And on the other side we stand – imperfect and flawed, frail and limited, struggling and unsure at the start of a new year.  But as impossible as it is to bridge that chasm, nevertheless, here we are.  And we softly pray, reciting ancient words and also words unspoken in our hearts and souls.  And we send our thoughts and prayers across that great gap of time and space.  

     And God’s response comes, as it says in the Unetane Tokef, in a kol d’mama daka – in a still, small, inner voice, a Presence that judges us as we are, and yet invites us to turn and to return, through acts of righteousness and charity to ideals that uplift and ennoble us.  To chose kindness over anger, generosity over self indulgence, respect over scorn, and love over hostility.  May we choose well and wisely, so that we, our families, the Jewish world, and this country, can  be blessed in this new year with gracious deeds and peaceful hearts.

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, community, High Holy Days, Israel, Jewish festivals, prayer, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Rosh Hashanah, sermon, Uncategorized, Yom Kippur

Judging and Misjudging in the Uber Age

This is a text version of my sermon from the second day of Rosh Hashanah, 5779 –

     A couple of Friday nights ago Rabbi Saroken spoke about an article she had read about the Uber rating system.  As you probably know, Uber is essentially a remake of the taxi idea for the internet age, and if you want to use the service you install an app on your phone, and when you want a ride you activate the app, and it will match you and your location to the closest drivers.  

     I don’t use Uber often, but in late August Becky and I and Talia and Josh and Merav spent 5 days in San Francisco, and what we couldn’t walk to, we ‘ubered’ to.  The service is convenient, it works well, and the prices are reasonable.  But the odd thing about it, at least in my eyes, is its rating system.  As soon as you step out of your Uber your phone dings, and it wants you to rate the driver based on a 5 star system: were they on time, were they polite, were they helpful, did they drive safely.  

     At the very same time that you are rating the  driver, the driver is also rating you.  Your rating – the passenger rating – is based on things like were you nice to the driver, did he have to wait for you for a long time, did you sit in the front seat or the back seat, and I imagine also did you tip well.  The bottom line is that every Uber interaction concludes with a judgement – the passenger judging the driver, the driver judging the passenger, all based on a 5 star scale.

     In my mind there is something very High Holy Day – esque in that Uber judgement moment.  One of the primary metaphors that we use to help us think about our lives and about our relationship with God during RH and YK is an image of judgement and being judged.  That imagery fills the Mahzor, but is best known from the Unetane Tokef prayer.  In that prayer it is יום הדין, the Day of Judgement.  God is the Judge – אמת כי אתה הוא דיין says the text – in truth, You are the Judge!  And we are the flock of sheep, passing beneath God’s staff one by one, as God reads the record of our deeds from the year, JUDGES us, and תכתוב את גזר דינם – and writes down our verdict.

     And I can’t help but wonder, after my Uber experience, if God has some kind of app on a Heavenly smart phone, where the rating system that God uses to judge our lives, like all of the internet rating systems, is based on 5 stars.  And that God reads our profiles – which is the new form of the ancient book where we once wrote our deeds – and then God judges us by clicking on one of the stars on the screen – 4, or maybe 5 if we’ve had a really good year.  God forbid anyone in this room would get a lower rating than that!

     If that idea makes you uncomfortable, I expect you are part of the majority in the room today.  Why?  Because we don’t want God to judge us the way we all too often judge each other, and even ourselves,  based on a FB profile using a 5 star system like an Uber passenger after a 15 minute car ride.  We want to believe that God’s judgement has depth, that God knows us in a more profound way, maybe in a way that we don’t even know ourselves.  

     I would submit to you that that is indeed the case, that God does judge us differently than we judge ourselves, or others.  I had a strange experience this past summer.  Almost on a lark I decided to shave off my beard.  I’ve worn a beard now for 25 years, and although I’ve shaved once or twice during that stretch, it had been many years since I was clean shaven.  When I stepped out of the bathroom that morning Becky looked at me, paused for a moment, sort of shook her head, and said one thing:  grow it back!

     But the strange experience was when I looked in the mirror and a clean shaven Steve Schwartz was staring back at me.  I almost didn’t recognize myself.  And I realized how difficult it is, this task that God sets before us during the High Holy Days – which is to peel away all of the externals and to look for the inner core of who we truly are.  Because that is what we should be judging, in ourselves and others!  To at least for 10 days of the year forget about, the clothes, the hairstyle, the beard (or lack of one!), the home, the car, all of the material things that we all too often use to define our lives.  I never presume to know what God thinks or wants, but I am pretty sure that God doesn’t care if I have a beard or not.  Or what suit I wore today, or what car I will drive home in.

     But I do believe that God cares about the meditations of my heart – about what I think and feel and love.  About my morals and values.  Those are the things that form the core of who we are, and those are the things that Yom Tov is about.  There is a wonderful verse from I Samuel:  “God does not see the way people see, for people see the outward appearance, but God sees the heart.”  It is that heart that we should strive to see at this time of year, both in ourselves and in those around us.

     Yesterday morning we read for the haftara the story of Hannah.  On many levels it is a narrative about misjudgment, about looking at someone and not seeing who they truly are.  Hannah is misjudged first by her husband who can’t understand where her deep sadness comes from, and then later by the priest Eli who at least initially too quickly passes judgement on her, thinking that she is drunk when in fact she is devoutly praying.  It is only later, when she confronts him, and they have a face to face conversation, that he is able to see underneath the surface, and to gain some understanding in terms of who she really is and what troubles her soul.

     Of course we all do it that.  We judge too quickly, or we misjudge, or both.  It is much easier to look at the surface, rather than spend the time or expend the energy needed to understand the heart. 

     There is a bank teller at the bank Becky and I use, and when I stand in line I always hope she will not be the person to help me.  She is unpleasant, even a bit surly.  She rarely if ever smiles.  When I say hello to her, or try to make a bit of chit chat she does not respond.  And she never looks me in the eye.  And I figured – I am a pretty good judge of people.  Here is an angry woman, unhappy in her job, with an attitude frankly that I could do without.

     A few Thursdays ago I had to go to the bank and sure enough, my luck, I got that teller.  She was as unfriendly as ever, and I finished my business as quickly as possible, glad to be away from her presence.  

     That evening I had to run to Home Depot to pick something up.  After grabbing what I needed I went to the register and handed the light bulbs or whatever it was to the cashier, and looked up at her for a moment.  And I was stunned to see, staring back at me, the very same woman who had helped me in the bank that afternoon.

     And suddenly I saw that woman in a new way.  I now knew that she ran from her job at the bank at the end of a long day, and went to work a second job at Home Depot.  That she was weary beyond what I could understand, and probably worried about supporting a family in a way I never would have imagined.  I had misjudged her in the worst possible way, seeing her for what she was on the surface, when there was a whole different reality to her life.

     And I wondered, as I walked back to my car, how many other people I’ve misjudged in the course of this year.  That I thought they were fine when in fact they needed my help.  Or my impression of them was that they were nasty, when the reality was they were in pain and terribly sad.  Or that I grew impatient with someone, when all they were trying to do was to give me a helping hand.  We all do it.  We misjudge people we barely know at all, and we also do it to people we know well and love, the people with whom we share our lives.

    That is precisely why we need the image of God as Judge from the Mahzor.  Where we all too often rush to judgement, God is timeless and eternal.  Where our tendency is to see what is on the surface and to stop there, God looks straight at the human heart and to the depths of our souls.  We judge others based on what we see in them at a given moment in time, but God’s judgement is based on who we might be, on our potential to grow and change for the better.

    Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur present us with that model of God’s judgement, inviting us to growth and insight, and to a greater appreciation for the ideal person residing within ourselves and others.  So that we can hopefully see the challenges and the humanity within our own lives and the loves of those we love.  We imagine that God’s judgement of each of us is honest and perceptive and generous.  I pray that we find the heart, the love and the courage to do the same, for ourselves, and for every person we encounter as this new year unfolds.

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, Bible, High Holy Days, Jewish festivals, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Rosh Hashanah, sermon, Uncategorized

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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Filed under Beth El Congregation, celebration, grief, Jewish festivals, Jewish life, loss, memory, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Uncategorized, Yizkor