Category Archives: Jewish festivals

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

Esther & Intermarriage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Running Down A Dream

You might recognize the phrase as the title of a track from Tom Petty’s 1989 album Full Moon Fever.  The rock and roll world lost one of its greats when Petty died at the (relatively) young age of 66 just a couple of weeks ago.  I was never a huge Petty fan, never even bought one of his records, and saw him live only once, on July 4th 1986.  But his music was always around, ubiquitous, part of the soundtrack of my high school and college years, his songs constantly on the radio, so many hits, so many catchy licks, so much good music for so long.  Like all great song writers Petty loved a turn of phrase, and ‘running down a dream’ is a wonderful example.  Although the lyrics of the song are mostly bright and cheery, the title evokes the edginess of dreams, and perhaps also the difficulty of attaining them.  You have to chase after a dream, work for it, hunt it down.  Only then, over time, might it become reality.  And the chorus of the song reminds us that often, ultimately, dreams are out of our reach:  “running down a dream, that would never come to me..”

It reminds me a bit of navigating the fall holiday cycle in the Jewish calendar.  The introspection of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are supposed to lead to the festive joy of Sukkot and the celebratory release of Simhat Torah.  That is the dream, and throughout the holiday season those of us who work in the synagogue world chase that dream with everything we have.  But the truth is it always feels slightly out of reach, ephemeral, just at the edge of your peripheral vision.  To paraphrase another great rock and roller, Bruce Springsteen,  ‘you can look but you cannot touch.’  Part of clergy work is simply the expenditure of personal energy – bringing your spirit to the service, to try in some way to heighten the atmosphere, to make things feel festive, warm, worthwhile.  You are chasing that dream, running it down.  But sometimes in the chase, it runs you down instead.

And the truth is you rarely, if ever, get there.  You know the old joke – the mother wakes up her son on Shabbat morning and says ‘you have to get up, it is time to go to shul!’  The son responds ‘I don’t want to go!  I am tired of shul!  I went yesterday! I am not going!’  ‘But,’ responds the mother, ‘you are the rabbi!’  Most rabbis, if being candid, will tell you they are just as tired of shul at the end of the holiday cycle as their congregants.  That energy gets more and more difficult to muster, the dream of joy and celebration more and more elusive.  The protagonist in Petty’s song never finds his dream.  Here is the last stanza:

I rolled on as the sky grew dark
I put the pedal down to make some time
There’s something good waitin’ down this road
I’m pickin’ up whatever’s mine

And there again you see the great song writer at work.  Just a few words, but what it captures!  Hope springs eternal in the human heart.  We can’t see the road ahead, but we always believe that something good waits for us there.  We hurry forward, picking up the cards we are dealt, chasing that dream, hoping against hope that at the end of the road we will find joy, maybe even ecstasy.

Of course what Jews learned long ago is that joy is almost always tempered.  When found it comes about through hard work, through effort and energy, often blood, sweat, and tears.  But on the rare occasions when it is found, the difficulty of the journey makes the taste sweeter and the appreciation deeper.  In the meantime we continue down the road under darkening skies.  Just beyond the next mile marker the clouds may part and the sun might shine.  Put the convertible top down!  Here is the first stanza of Running Down A Dream:

It was a beautiful day, the sun beat down
I had the radio on, I was drivin’
Trees flew by, me and Del were singin’ little Runaway
I was flyin’…

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, celebration, High Holy Days, holidays, Jewish festivals, Jewish life, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, rock and roll, the rabbinate, Uncategorized

Yizkor – Past, Present, Future

a text version of my remarks before the Yizkor service on Shemini Atzeret 5778 –

One thing rabbinical work gives you is a powerful sense of the passage of time.  It is not just the holidays, how quickly they seem to come and go, how quickly one HHD season seems to blend into the next.  It is also the life cycle events that you are involved with – the weddings and funerals, the baby namings and brises and b’nai mitzvah.  I have discovered over the last couple of years how powerful that can be, how lucky I am to have served the congregation for a long enough period of time that I am officiating at weddings of young men and women I’ve known since even before their bar or bat mitzvah.  I am now officiating at b’nai mitzvah of children whose parents I married.  Let alone the fact that when I first came to Beth El, I was around the same age as the couples I was marrying, even younger than some of them.  But today, when I work with couples to prepare for their wedding, I am often – surprised – to realize I am close to two decades older than the young man and woman.  Time certainly does go by.

And we tend to experience that passage of time in a linear fashion.  We think of time as moving in one direction, from past to present to future.  But life cycle events blur that distinction.  At weddings and baby naming and b’nai mitzvah past present and future seem to blend together.  I’ll give you an example – a baby naming or bris is largely about the future – we give the baby a name that she or he will bear in the years ahead – we often say, ‘this is the name that the child will be called to the Torah with at their bat mitzvah,’ or ‘this is the name that will be written on their ketubah one day!’  That is all about the future!

But the truth is, a baby naming or bris is also very much about the past.  We might pass the child through the generations of the family, the grandparents and great-grandparents, if the child is so lucky.  We might use a kiddish cup or tallit that belonged to a grandfather or great-grandfather, evoking the family’s history.  And we name after people in the family who have passed away.  So in reality what happens at a baby naming or a bris or a bar or bat mitzvah, or even a wedding, is that there is a strange kind of blending of time, a moment in our present when the past and the future come together.  Even the emotions that people experience at those moments are a blending the past and the future – the tears that you often see when a parent explains a baby’s Hebrew name are coming from the hope that parent feels for his or her child’s future, but at the same time those tears come from the act of remembering the past, of thinking about a grandparent or other loved one who is no longer in this world, and whose name the child will bear in the years ahead.

You may remember that a year ago or so there was a movie playing in theaters called Arrival.  It told the tale of a young linguist, played by the actress Amy Adams, who is called upon to try to communicate with aliens who have landed on earth.  The idea is that every species must communicate in some way, so there must be some kind of recognizable language pattern that a trained linguist can distinguish.  What she ultimately learns in the course of the film is that the Aliens experience time differently than we do.  They experience time more like a life cycle event – as a blending of past, present, and future.  Sometimes they exist in the future, sometimes in the past, and sometimes in the present.

And in the film, as the Amy Adams character begins to understand how the aliens communicate, she also begins to experience time in the same way they do.  This makes the film confusing and wonderful at the same time.  Confusing because it is hard to tell, at any given point in the movie, if she is in a past, present, or future moment.  But wonderful, because it asks a fundamental question – were we to know what the future holds –  the pain that it will hold, even the losses that we will inevitably one day suffer –  would we still move forward with our lives?  Would we still marry, become parents, be devoted children and siblings, work so hard to deepen our most important relationships, knowing that one day they will be taken aways from us?

Yizkor is an answer to that question.  When we rise to say the yizkor prayers we are in part saying that despite the pain we feel when we so vividly remember our losses, we would do it all over again.  Even knowing what we know now –  how hard it is, even after experiencing the pain of loss, the depth of sorrow, the sadness and the grief, we would begin it all over again if we could.  That is one of the things we affirm when we rise for Yizkor.

And of course Yizkor also is a moment when our past, present, and future come together.  The memories we recall today come to us from the depths of time, from years gone by, from experiences shared, from lives that were intertwined.  That is the past.  But we again experience the pain of our losses in this present moment, on this Shimini Atzeret, in this service with this congregation.  And as we do we make a promise for the future – to keep the memories of those we honor today alive in our hearts and in our families in years ahead.  May those memories now, then, and always be for a blessing –

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, High Holy Days, Jewish festivals, liminal moments, loss, memory, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Uncategorized, Yizkor

The Blacklist – Yom Kippur 5778

My phone started dinging with unusual frequency early in the morning of July 9th.  Each text or email came with a strange question:  ‘Is it you?’  After the 3rd or 4th text message and 5th or 6th email I decided I had better figure out what exactly was going on.  With one quick google search I discovered that Israel’s chief rabbinate had released a blacklist of rabbis – 160 names of rabbis not to be trusted.  And as my eyes scanned down that list, about half way through it, I saw my own name  – Rabbi Steven Schwartz.

Most of the rabbis whose names appeared on the list are from the US.  Many are Conservative rabbis, although there are Orthodox rabbis and Reform rabbis listed as well.  We received no notification, no communication from the Chief Rabbinate, and no explanation.  But best guess, after speaking with some of my colleagues, is that you made that list if you had people who had studied with you for conversion, and then after they became Jewish they made aliyah, they moved to Israel.  And if you wrote supporting documents for their aliyah process, you made the blacklist.

Now please don’t feel bad for me, if you were inclined to do so.  My feelings were not hurt, my ego, such as it is, not bruised.  The timing was ironic, because when the list was released I had just returned from Israel, where for 10 days I had done my best to give a group of Beth El travelers a sense of pride in and love for the Jewish homeland.  But even while we were there there were storms brewing and controversies swirling, all revolving around the question of how Israel, in a religious sense, Israel as a Jewish state, relates to the Jewish community outside of Israel, those of us who live in the Diaspora.

If you follow Jewish news you probably came across these issues during the summer.  There have been two primary points of contention.  The first has to do with access to Judaism’s most sacred site, the Kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem.  If you’ve ever been to the Kotel you know it is run like an Orthodox synagogue – there is a men’s section of the Wall, and a women’s section.  The sections are divided by a mechitza.  It is clear that if you are a Conservative or Reform or Reconstructionist Jew that your brand of Judaism is not looked upon kindly there.  And some of you who have traveled with me and Dr. Bor to Israel may remember how uncomfortable we felt when trying to have a Beth El service, not even at the wall, but in the general vicinity, usually at the back of the plaza.

Almost two years ago a compromise was negotiated with the Netanyahu administration that was supposed to resolve this tension.  The plan was to give Reform and Conservative Jews access to the wall’s southern section, where they would be able to have egalitarian services, with women and men participating fully and praying together.  But the government never implemented the agreement, giving one excuse after another, finally announcing this summer that the agreement would be indefinitely shelved.  And the message to the Diaspora community really was if you are a Conservative or Reform Jew your Judaism is not authentic, and you do not have the same Jewish rights in Israel, the Jewish homeland, as Orthodox Jews.  Controversy #1.

Controversy number 2, which connects to my being black listed, revolves around the status of Jews by Choice, who have converted in the Diaspora.  Since the establishment of the state 70 years ago in 1948, conversion status worked as follows – if someone converted under non-Orthodox auspices, they were considered to be Jewish by the state of Israel and they were allowed to make aliyah as a Jew under the Law of Return.  But just over the last number of months there has been legislation introduced in the Knesset that would make only Orthodox conversions approved by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate to be considered valid.  It is another message sent – from the Israeli government – that non Orthodox Judaism, in their eyes, is not authentic.

This past summer the Conservative and Reform communities finally felt like they had had enough.  You may or may not know but you should that our President Denise Franz and I signed on to a letter a few weeks ago that was sent from the Conservative Movement to PM Netanyahu.  It was signed by 600 Conservative rabbis and the presidents of almost 400 conservative synagogues around the country.  In the strongest possible terms the letter expressed the deep disappointment we feel communally with the Netanyahu administration’s positions on these issues. (the text of the letter is easy to find online if you want to read it)

To this point there has been no movement from the Netanyahu administration, and no response that I know of to the letter or the points it raises.  And that lack of response, particularly at this time of year, when Judaism urges us to reach out to God and to each other, to admit oversights and promise to do better, is both hurtful and telling.  It is a rejection of our Judaism, and our Jewish way of life.

I don’t have to tell you that we are living in a world today that feels both dark and dangerous.  With violence, and terrorism, and mass migration, and a threat of nuclear war that we have not felt since I was in elementary school;  with challenges of modernization, and the feeling that technology is taking over our lives, and the recent natural disasters, and the growing threat of climate change – the list could go on and on and on.  To say the least, these are unsettled and troubled times.

And that is the general world!  Think for a moment about the Jewish world.  We have plenty of our own tzuras!  In Israel the unresolved situation with the Palestinians and the continuing occupation divides the country internally between left and right.  The left recognizes that the occupation cannot continue because A) it is morally compromising and B) it alienates the rest of the world. But the left has a problem because it doesn’t know if a full withdrawal from the West Bank will finally result in peace or if it will locate Hamas rockets 10 miles from Ben Gurion airport.  The right in Israel also has its problems.  It believes that the Israeli claim to Judea and Samaria is God given, even Messianic, and withdrawal is impossible. Yet it understands that something has to be done about the Palestinians, and also that making a single state will not preserve Israel’s Jewish identity in the long term.  That is internally.  And externally, Israel lives in one of the most challenging, unstable, and dangerous neighborhoods in the world, and has to share its backyard with Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Lebanon.  Israel can never seem to catch a break, and never seems to have an easy year.

But we Jews who live in the Diaspora haven’t had it much better this year.  I imagine many of us are still deeply disturbed by the events that took place in Charlottesville this summer, when Nazis and white supremacists marched in the streets of an American city chanting Nazi slogans and waving flags with swastikas.  Our brothers and sisters in Europe have their own concerns, with the left in England revisiting classic anti-Semitic tropes, and the right in Germany electing neo-Nazis to sit in the German parliament.  %13 in last week’s elections!

And in this kind of world, in this kind of year, do Jews have to spend their time telling other Jews they don’t practice Judaism the right way, that they aren’t authentically Jewish, they aren’t observant enough?  Does the Chief Rabbinate have to release blacklists of rabbis?  Does the government of Israel have to renege on its agreements with the liberal Jewish community, does it have to alienate Jews at a time when if anything Jews should becoming together?  I understand that we all have a tendency to pass judgement on others. That is one of the reasons why YK exits!  And in the Jewish community we seem to have a particular talent for judging others.  But don’t we Jews have other things to worry about, aside from judging each other?

The message of Yom Kippur is to look inwards, and to judge oneself, and to leave the judging of others to God.  In ancient times, when the High Priest went into the inner precincts of the Temple, to pray for a good year, he prayed for all Jews.  He didn’t say, ‘I am going to pray for the Jews of Beth El, and not Chizuk Amuno.’   And if we wake up in the morning, and somehow the Temple has miraculously been rebuilt over night, and a High Priest found, his prayer in that Temple would also be for ALL Jews – in Israel, and in the Diaspora, Orthodox and Conservative and Reform and Reconstructionist.

In its introduction to the Avoda service, our mahzor quotes the teaching of a Hasidic master.  “Wherever a person stands to lift up eyes to heaven, that place is a Holy of Holies. Every human being created by God in God’s own image is a High Priest. Each day of a person’s life is the Day of Atonement. Each one of us can face God with the language of the heart. Each one of us can be forgiven. Each one of us can achieve atonement and be made pure in the eyes of God.”

That is a message that I hope and pray the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the Netanyahu administration will take to heart.  But the truth is it is a message all of us need to hear and take to heart, in Israel and in the Diaspora.  It affirms every person and every place as part of God’s creation. That each of us despite our diversity, in age, in location, in language, in observance, in worldly goods can find God’s love and support as we journey through life.

We all pray in the same words on the HHDs, the pious and those less so. בספר חיים…וכל עמך בית ישראל. May we and the entire House of Israel be called to mind and inscribed for life, blessing, sustenance, and peace in the Book of Life.

May that be God’s wish, and the wish of all Jewish people, one for another, in this new year –

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Filed under American Jewry, Beth El Congregation, High Holy Days, Israel, Israeli-American relations, Jewish festivals, Jewish life, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, religious fundamentalism, sermon, Uncategorized, Yom Kippur

Problems of Prayer

This text of my Kol Nidre sermon from 9/29/17 –

One week ago tomorrow, on Shabbat afternoon, I took our dog for a long walk around the neighborhood with our niece Lily.  Lily is the daughter of my brother and sister in law and just starting second grade, and as we walked we talked about various things – school, a strange bug we saw, the dog, cracks in the sidewalk – I guess pretty typical conversation with a seven year old.  That morning she had come to Shabbat services, so I figured I would ask her what she thought about shul.  ‘How did you like services?’ I asked.  ‘It was pretty boring,’ she said. ‘What was boring about it?’ I asked.  ‘Well,’ she said, ‘you just sit around and say all those prayers.’

And I don’t know if Lily’s comments reflect your experience of shul, but I can tell you they brought back memories of my own childhood, and sitting in services next to my father, particularly on the High Holy Days.  I had a general sense of what page the service ended on, and I would keep my finger in that place of the prayer book, counting the number of pages we had left to go.  It was always exciting when the rabbi skipped a bunch of pages – for example, we’d go from page 60 to page 70!  That was great!  We were that much closer to the aleinu!

But if the prayers were challenging for me, what I did enjoy about shul were the various scriptural readings of the holidays.  I liked hearing about Abraham and Sarah, I enjoyed the dramatic narrative of the High Priest and the YK day ritual that we read tomorrow morning.  And I particularly liked the story of the prophet Jonah, that we will read at Minha tomorrow afternoon.

I am sure you all remember the story of Jonah.  He is asked by God to deliver a message to the city of Nineveh and its residents, to tell them they have sinned but that if they repent they will be spared.  As a child I didn’t know much about sin and repentance and all of that business, but I did love the part of the story where Jonah is swallowed up by a ? big fish!  In my mind I tried to imagine how Jonah could have survived for three days and nights in the fish’s belly.  I thought about how big the fish must have been to swallow a man whole.  I wondered at how dark it was, Jonah all by himself, deep under the water, with no light and no source of comfort or hope.

And my favorite part of the story came at that moment – that low and dark moment in Jonah’s life – when the text tells us he prayed to God from the belly of the fish.  קראתי מצרה לי אל ה׳ ויענני – In my trouble I called out to God, and God answered me.  מבטן שאול שועתי שמעת קולי – from the darkest place I called, and You heard my voice.  I don’t know how my niece Lily would feel about that prayer, but for me it has always had a distinctive power, and it has grown even more compelling as I’ve aged, and certainly as I’ve worked in the rabbinate over the last two decades.

There is a simple reason for that – in my eyes, Jonah’s prayer reflects the human experience, that at the difficult and dark moments of our lives, the moments of doubt and pain, the moments of loss, the moments of fear, the moments when we feel hopeless – at those moments we turn to God, we call out for help, and we seek God’s presence.  But over the last few years I’ve become worried that we do that less and less today.  I am concerned that our faith in prayer is waning, and that it has become more and more difficult for us to find in the experience of prayer meaning and value.

Many years ago Alvin Book, a long time member of Beth El, came to see me.  When he walked into my office, in his hands, he held this little abridged Bible.  These were standard issue, given to the Jewish soldiers in the Army during the Second World War.  Alvin told me that he had landed on the Normandy beaches, on June 7, 1944, the day after D Day.  The beaches were still not secure, and the troops were being heavily shelled.  He ran to the closest fox hole he could find, a shallow ditch in the sand.  And he huddled there, and he was terrified, paralyzed with no idea of what to do or how to move forward.  As the shells were exploding he was saying ‘God please help me.’  And he told me he reached to his heart, because it was beating so heavily, and his hand hit the pocket of his uniform, and in that pocket was this Bible.  And for some reason, just really looking for something to help him, he took this Bible out of his pocket, and with shaking hands opened it.  And this is the passage he opened it to –

Out of the depths I call to You, O Lord.  Listen to my cry, let Your ears be attentive to my plea for mercy…

I look to the Lord, I look to God, I await God’s word.  I wait for God like watchmen wait for the dawn…  (Psalm 130)

Alvin told me the moment he read that passage he felt a sense of calm, he felt that God was there with him, he felt he was going to be OK.

Notice that nothing external changed in his situation.  The shells didn’t stop falling.  He was still lying in a fox hole.  He was still in grave mortal danger.  None of that changed.  God did not make a miracle, create a protective shield, or move him out of harm’s way.  His circumstances were exactly the same as before he reached for that Bible.  But there was a transformation that occurred at that moment.  An internal transformation.  Something changed inside of Alvin, something that helped him feel a sense of courage and hope and strength that he didn’t have before.

And you know what?  Rabbis also struggle with prayer.  And Alvin’s story has helped me to understand prayer, how prayer works, and how it can be meaningful in my life, and maybe it can do the same for you.  I think my niece Lily was on to something last Shabbat afternoon – prayer can be enormously difficult for us.  As Lily said, it can be boring at times, after all we sit here for hours on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, reciting prayer after prayer, and if you are one of those who mark the end of the service with your finger in the Mahzor, you know we still have a long ways to go.  (In fact tonight, 40 more pages to be exact!)  And there are additional challenges – Hebrew not the least of them!  How many of us can read Hebrew well, let alone understand what we are reading?  And even if we go to the English side of the page we struggle with the meaning of many of the prayers, some of them close to 2000 years old, and it can be difficult to understand how they can connect to us and our lives.

But I think the biggest challenge to prayer today is that we have lost faith in its power.  We don’t believe that prayer can be a transformational experience, that it can make a difference in how we live, or who we are.  One of the primary reasons for that is that we’ve come to think of prayer as a process of asking God for something.  And once we ask, our request is either granted or not.  In the simplest of terms, we ask God for a new bike.  If we get the bike, we believe our prayer has been answered.  If we don’t, we feel that either God said ‘no,’ or that God never heard our prayer in the first place.  And if that is the way we think of prayer then we very well may sit here for hours on RH and YK and wonder whether it is even worthwhile opening our Mahzorim.

But what if we think about prayer differently?  What if prayer is supposed to be what happened to Alvin Book on that beach 73 years ago?  That the power of prayer is NOT about making external changes in the world.  God does not miraculously produce the bike!  Instead the power of prayer is about making internal changes, in our own hearts and minds.  And then maybe, when we are transformed internally, we will go out into the world and make it a better place because of our presence in it.

Ten years ago tomorrow, on Yom Kippur afternoon, 2007, the Jewish year 5768, Rabbi Mark Loeb of blessed memory gave his last High Holy Day sermon to our congregation.  Many of you will remember that in those days we recited Yizkor in the afternoon, and Rabbi Loeb spoke just before that Yizkor service.  The Berman Rubin sanctuary was packed, fuller than I have ever seen it, before or since – my guess would be close to 2000 people were in the room.  Rabbi Loeb was in a reflective mood that Yom Kippur, sensing the power of that moment in his life magnified by the most powerful day of the Jewish year, and he delivered his remarks with a characteristic brilliance, but with an uncharacteristic depth of emotion.

At the very end of that sermon he told the following story in the name of Rabbi Israel Salantar:  “When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world.  I went out, and worked, and tried, but I found it was very difficult to change the world.  Then I thought I might change my nation, but I found I couldn’t change my nation.  When I realized that, I thought to change my community, but even that was too difficult for me.  Now that I am an older man, I’ve realized the only thing I can change is myself.  And if I can do that, then one day maybe I will be able to change the world.”

Had you asked Rabbi Loeb if he thought that the prayers we recite during these holy days are heard by God, I think he would have said “I don’t really know.”  Were you to ask me the same question, I would say the same thing.  I don’t honestly know if my prayers today will somehow reach God’s presence, in some distant heavenly throne room, or even in any way, shape, or form.  But I do believe with all of my heart and soul that the prayers of my mouth and the meditations of my heart can make a real difference in how I understand my role in this world, in how I live my life, and in how I relate to the people that I love.  And I also know that if those things happen through my prayers during these holy days, then my prayers will have truly been answered.  So may all our prayers on this Yom Kippur arrive at their proper destination, transforming our lives for the good, enabling us all to enter this new year with faith, courage, and hope.IMG_4981

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Celebrations!

A text version of my sermon from Rosh Hashanah day 2 –

I will confess something this morning, being our season of confession, which is that I am feeling a bit nervous.  Not about this morning’s service, which after all is almost over.  Not about this sermon, which will also be over in a few minutes.  But instead, about tomorrow morning, when many of you won’t be here.  Because tomorrow morning, Shabbat Shuvah, I will celebrate the 40th anniversary of my bar mitzvah.  And some weeks ago I agreed, in honor of this occasion, to chant both the haftara and the maftir tomorrow.  But I’ve been so busy, I haven’t practiced!  So I feel a bit like a bar mitzvah bachor, and all afternoon I’ll be practicing my maftir!

What is helping me is that I know I’ll be in good company.  Not only with all of the bar and bat mitzvah boys and girls who will be celebrating with their families in this new year, but also with all of the congregants who will come to the Torah in the coming months to thank God for reaching a milestone day their lives.  You may know the baseball expression ‘hitting for the cycle’ – what does it mean?  Right!  And there are Shabbat mornings where we have the shul equivalent of that here at Beth El – a baby naming and an auffruff, a 50th wedding anniversary and a 90th birthday, all in one morning.  People come to the Torah to celebrate those moments because they want to connect that important day in their lives with something that is sacred, and they also want to thank God for that gift of time.  Over the years I have been privileged to stand with many couples at the Torah as they expressed the gratitude they felt for the time they had shared and they life they had made.

I don’t know how many couples I’ve shared that anniversary moment with, at this point probably a couple of hundred or more.  But there are two such moments particularly that stand out in my mind.  The first was many years ago, when Sam and Vera Singer came to the Torah on the occasion of their 60th wedding anniversary.  Sam was a wonderful guy, a bit of a character, and as I was talking to him and to Vera, and saying ‘what a wonderful thing,’ and ‘mazaltov,’ and ’60 years of marriage!’ with a twinkle in his eye Sam leaned over to me – in front of the entire congregation – with his mouth near the microphone – and said ‘rabbi, it seems like longer.’  I will always remember that!

And the second moment, just a few weeks ago, in the Gorn Chapel, when Lucille and Nathan Goldberg came to the Torah to celebrate their 76th wedding anniversary.  I did not misstate that number – they’ve been married for 76 years. That is a rare thing.  It is a wedding anniversary I will probably never see again in my rabbinate.  There are a series of things that have to happen for a couple to be married 76 years.  Obviously they need to be blessed with good health, and to live well into their 90s.  I think a devoted, caring, and loving family around them makes a huge difference as well.  Some luck along the way is a necessity.  And of course they have to have a love, a respect, and a level of caring that nourishes and sustains their relationship for decade after decade.  But they need one other thing, that happens at the very beginning of their relationship – and that is a leap of faith.  Because every anniversary – whether it is the first or the 76th –  begins with a leap of faith.

Certainly that is true for couples.  Every couple faces an unknown future when they stand under the huppah.  Their hope and expectation is that they will find all of the good things that life has to offer – health, a family, financial success, and many years to be together.  But the truth is they don’t know what their future will hold.  Almost half of the couples that marry today will get divorced, and every couple will face significant challenges in the course of their journey together.  And yet they take the chance, and they make that leap.

That was certainly the case for Gertrude Mokotoff and Alvin Mann.  Like many couples, they were introduced by a mutual friend.  They took a liking to each other, had a first date, and quickly became an item.  It took a few years – and it was Gert Mokotoff who had to pop the question – but they were finally married this summer in upstate New York.  Alvin is 94.  And he married an older woman – Gert is 98.  And that folks is quite a leap of faith.  At their wedding celebration Alvin told the story of their first sleep over.  This is the way he described it:  “We had spent the whole day together, and at night, I set up the bedroom for her, and I was going to be in the next room.  She gets into the bed, and I say good night and start walking out, and she says, ‘Where are you going?’”  God willing, in the summer of 2018 Alvin and Gert will celebrate their first anniversary.  But that never would have happened if not for the leap of faith they took, that they could make a future together as husband and wife.

Of course the same is true for institutions, and even nations.  You may or may not know that Beth El and the State of Israel share the same birth year – 1948.  That means, if my math is correct (which it rarely is) that the modern Jewish homeland will turn 70 this spring.  And this year, 5778, is the 70th time our congregation has gathered together to welcome in a new year.  That does not quite match Nathan and Lucille’s 76th anniversary, but it is striking nonetheless.  And think for a moment of the leaps of faith required for those two 70th anniversaries to come to pass.

This May it will be 70 years since the founders of Israel gathered with David Ben Gurion in Independence Hall in Tel Aviv.  At 4 o’clock in the afternoon of the 14th of that month Ben Gurion banged his gavel on the table, but before order could even be established the 250 assembled guests rose to their feet and spontaneously burst out into an emotional singing of Hatikvah.  When things quieted down Ben Gurion read, live on the Israeli radio station Kol Yisrael, Israel’s Declaration of Independence.  When he finished the last words, Rabbi Yehuda Fishman came to the mic, and recited the שהחיינו blessing.  It was a powerful moment, full of emotion and hope, but who could have known then that in just 70 years Israel would become one of the greatest nations in the entire world?

And who could have known, 70 years ago, when a small group of 8 families came together with the goal of creating a congregation where progressive Jewish values would be embraced, where men and women would sit together, where a vibrant Judaism for the 20th century and beyond would be lived – who could have known then where the congregation’s journey would take it?  Who could have known that in 70 years Beth El would become one of the largest and most respected synagogues in the United States, with 1700 families, open 365 days a year, helping thousands and thousands of Jews to feel closer to their heritage, tradition, and God?

Who could have known?  With the possible exception of God Godself, no one.  And yet 70 years ago Ben Gurion stood and declared Israel to be an independent nation.  And 70 years ago our founders made a pact that they would do their best to bring a new congregational community into being.   76 years ago Lucille and Nathan left a huppah to walk out together into the future.  One month ago Gert Mokotoff and Alvin Mann did the same.

There is even a rabbinic tradition that it was the leap of faith of one individual that enabled the Jewish people to become a nation.  You all know the story – fleeing Egypt, the Israelites are trapped at the edge of the sea with the Egyptian army closing in behind them.  Moses pleads to God, but God says to Moses ‘you have to do something.’  And the waters don’t move, and the army is getting closer and closer.

But the Sages teach that one individual – Nachshon – begins to walk forward into the water.  And all of Israel, even Moses, watches him.  And the water reaches his waste.  And then his chest.  And then his neck.  And he keeps walking forward.  And he stretches his head up, to catch the last gasps of air before the waters close over his head, and just at that moment the sea begins to part.  And then one Israelite, and then another, and another, and another, begin to follow Nachshon, and when they together emerge on the far shore, they have become Am Israel, the Jewish people.

It all began with a leap of faith.  But if you think about it, so does every human undertaking.  We have limited and imperfect knowledge of the road we travel and the journey we are on.  It is not just Nachshon, or Ben Gurion, or the Singers or the Goldbergs, or even Gert Mokotoff and Alvin Mann.  Each one of us begins a day not knowing what it will hold.  Each one of us begins a new year wondering where it will take us.  May God grant us the faith we need to leap forward into this new year with hope and courage and trust, that our days will be full, our journey fulfilling, and our lives a blessing.

May that be God’s will – כן יהי רצון

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