Category Archives: Jewish festivals

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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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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Long Distance Relationships

This a text version of my sermon from Rosh Hashanah day 1:

It all happened in the span of eight days.  Our oldest, Tali, moved to New York, where she is living on the Upper West Side and working – her first real job!  That was a Sunday.  Then on Thursday our son Josh climbed in the car and drove off to Poughkeepsie NY for his senior year of college.  And then on Sunday – exactly one week after Tali left – we dropped our youngest, Merav, off at college – also in Manhattan – for her freshman year.  And at the end of that tumultuous one week span, filled with packing, the purchasing of last minute supplies, two drives to New York and back, and saying goodbye to three children – Becky and I were officially empty nesters.

Now everyone has been saying to us ‘don’t worry, they’ll be back before you know it!,’ and common wisdom today is that your children will return after college, living for some extended period of time in their old bedrooms, thinking about their next steps and of course eating all of the food in your refrigerator.  But the truth is you never know.  Young people today in their 20s and early 30s change jobs and move to different cities at an unprecedented rate.  And our challenge, more and more, as their parents and grandparents, will be how can we stay in touch with them, how can we continue to be a part of their lives, to stay close, even when there might be many miles between us?

One obvious answer to that question of course is modern technology.  It is astonishing that we live in a time when you can pick up your phone, call a friend or child or grandchild, and have a face to face conversation with them.  So we can – and often do – have contact with those we care about on a daily basis.  But a relationship is not only about quantity.  It is not measured in the number of texts sent or phone calls placed, or emails exchanged.  Instead, a relationship is about quality – is there true caring and support?  Honesty? Loyalty?  Love?   That doesn’t come from frequency of interaction.

The truth is there are many kinds of distance that develop in relationships.  There is of course physical distance – your child is in New York or California.  But there is also what I would call ‘soul’ distance, spiritual distance, emotional distance.  And as we all know, you can be in the same town as someone, seeing them all the time – you can even be in the same home as someone – and the distance between you and that person can be vast.  In some ways much greater than any distance that can be measured in miles.

That may be why the tradition asks us to read the stories of Abraham and Sarah and their household on Rosh Hashanah.  We have become so accustomed to living in large homes, but imagine for a moment Abraham and Sarah’s camp.  Even though the Torah tells us they were wealthy by the standards of their day, they all lived together in a small space, a couple of tents – one for the women, one for the men – separated by a few yards, and probably no larger than a couple of hundred square feet.  It would be hard to put people in closer physical proximity.

And yet the emotional distance – the soul distance – between the people who lived in that small space was profound.  Hagar and Sarah’s relationship was filled with distrust and jealousy, and Sarah treated Hagar with cruelty.  Abraham was no help, in fact he struggled terribly in his relationships with the people closest to him.  He was insensitive and a poor communicator, and had almost no understanding of how others felt.  Close readers of the text have long noticed that after tomorrow’s Torah reading, the famous binding of Isaac story, there is a total breakdown in family communication.  Abraham and Sarah never speak again.  Abraham and Hagar also never speak again.  Even Abraham and his son Isaac never speak again.  And, perhaps most telling, Abraham and God never again speak.

I suspect more than a few of us who have come to pray this morning can relate to that story and those characters.  Perhaps there is a Hagar sitting here today, who feels abandoned by the person most important to her in her life.  Perhaps there is an Abraham, who has struggled throughout the year to do right by the people he loves, but knows in his heart of hearts he has failed.  Perhaps there is an Isaac or Ishmael, brothers, but rivals nevertheless, confused and hurt by something they’ve done to one another, or a parent has done to them.  And before you even know it there is a distancing that grows and grows.  A month goes by, or a year, or a decade.  And you begin to wonder if you can ever be close again.  Or if you ever really were.

The pain in Abraham’s family lingered for a long time.  As we read this morning Hagar was expelled from the family home.  Not long afterwards Sarah died without any of these issues being resolved.  Both of Abraham’s sons, Isaac and Ishmael, moved away from their father to make their lives in other places.  Soul distance.  I imagine Abraham at that time deeply bitter, angry with God, and bereft of the people most important to him in his life.

He works at it, old Abraham.  He lives for 35 more years, and never gives up.  He remarries, has more children, even seems to repair his relationships with Isaac and Ishmael, who do come together to bury their father Abraham when he dies.  The question is do those late successes in Abraham’s life make up for the earlier hurts, disappointments, and failures?  In some ways it reminds me of a baseball team that’s had a lousy season, and in September wins a bunch of ball games.  Think of all the years Abraham wasted, all the time he lost with his sons when they were growing up, the bitter feelings he created with Hagar, the distant relationship he had with his own wife Sarah year after year.  Sometimes he was around, but just as often he was not, and what he lost when he was not could never be regained.  You cannot get back the time.

I can tell you it all comes out in the end.  I know within five minutes of sitting down with a family to prepare for a funeral how they felt about the person they’ve lost.  And when they are talking about someone they loved, respected, and cherished they will almost always say, and it is meant as the highest form of praise – “He was always there for me.  You could always count on her  – every time.” In many ways our relationships are about consistency.  About showing up every time, not every once in a while.  About loyalty and self sacrifice, about the people you love knowing they can count on you, every single time.   

Maybe that is the lesson to be learned from Abraham and Sarah’s story, and maybe that is the reason our Sages chose it for Rosh Hashanah day.  After all, in an hour and a half we’ll all be sitting down with our families having lunch together.  And after you talk about the rabbi’s sermon, you look around that table, and you say, ‘these are the people I share my life with.’  And Abraham and Sarah’s story reminds us of how important it is do to right by those people.  Not every once in a while, but everyday.  Because if we are able to do it, to be there again and again, day in and day out, year after year, then one day when our family sits down with a rabbi to prepare for our funeral they’ll know – and so will the rabbi! –  that together we were able to build something true and pure and sacred in our lives.  That is what Abraham and Sarah were not able to do.  That is what I hope and pray we can do better.  And Rosh Hashanah gives us the opportunity to try.

In 1965 my father, a captain in the Army, was sent overseas to Vietnam for a year’s tour of duty.  He left behind my mother and me, my mom I guess all of 23 years old, and I had just turned two.  My parents were terrified, and they prepared in the best way they could for a year apart from one another.  My dad had one additional fear – he was worried that after a year away, his son would not recognize him when he came home.  He was going to be 9000 miles away from us, and all he wanted to do was to keep us close.

So he made a conscious decision to do the best he could with a bad situation.  He wrote a letter to my mom virtually every day – over 300 of them in the course of that year.  He also sent us tapes – made on an old reel to reel tape deck – so that in the days before FaceTime or videos I could hear his voice.  On those tapes he would talk to me directly, calling me by name, telling me he loved me and he missed me, and he was going to come home to see me as soon as he could.  Some of my earliest memories are of sitting on my mom’s lap as she read me those letters, or as we listened to those tapes of my father’s voice, at the small kitchen table in our apartment on Rogene Drive.

Those were relatively small actions, but I can tell you, still to this day, a half century later, they made all the difference in the world.  And when my dad finally came home, and we opened the door, I knew two things about the man standing there – I knew he was my dad, and I knew he loved me.  That was pretty much all I needed, although it didn’t hurt that he was holding in his hand an Orioles uniform he bought for me, with number 5 on the back – Brooks Robinson.  Another act of love.  With every letter he wrote, every word he spoke into that tape deck, every little package he sent home, he had managed to keep us close.

If you’ve guessed by this time that my mom and dad have been greater influences on my life than the biblical Abraham and Sarah, you would be %100 correct.  So much of who I am comes from their guidance, their wisdom, their values, and the relationship they’ve shared for more than 50 years.  That is the way it always is.  We are profoundly important to the people with whom we share the journey of our years, just as they are to us.  Whether they are a half a world away, or in New York, or right here in Baltimore,  whether our children, our spouses, our parents or siblings or grandparents, keeping them close is the most important work that we can do, something that nourishes and sustains who we are, and helps us all to understand who we want to be.

May God help us to do that work well in this new year, diminishing the distances in our lives, and drawing us close to one another, to our tradition, and to God –

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Turn, Turn, Turn…

In December of 1965 the folk/rock group the Byrds released their second album, entitled Turn, Turn, Turn!  The record’s title was taken from its first released single, with its memorable chorus “To every thing (turn, turn, turn) there is a season (turn, turn, turn,) and a time to every purpose under Heaven.”   The lyrics, originally penned by the great Pete Seeger in the late 50s, are loosely taken from the 3rd chapter of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes.  On December 4th of ’65 the song hit number one, holding that spot for three straight weeks.

The turning image in the song reflects the mood of the biblical text.  The author of Ecclesiastes urgently feels the swift passage of time, and struggles in that powerful stream to gain his bearings.  Tradition teaches that the book was written by King Solomon in his old age as he attempted to come to terms with his own mortality.  The author speculates about life and its meaning, about the coming and going of the seasons, the rising and setting of the sun.  Is it simply cyclical, he wonders, repeating again and again and again, or is there meaning to it, does it work in a particular direction, ultimately enabling us to reach some place we are destined to be?  If we are turning to whom are we turning, and for what purpose?

This is a time of year when Jews think a lot about turning, whether they even realize it or not.  The start of a new year always brings with it the sense of time’s passage.  But the idea of turning is also central to the process of teshuvah, a word we commonly translate as repentance.  The three lettered root of the word most often means to turn, or to return, to come back to something, someone, or some place you’ve been before.  This is what we all hope to do in the weeks leading up to the High Holy Days.

A wise rabbi once observed that turning doesn’t require much effort.  It isn’t that you have to move a great distance – instead, you simply stop going in the direction you are going, and turn yourself so you are facing in a different direction.  Sometimes it is that slight reorientation that can make all the difference in the world.  Isn’t it true that life is often about the small things, the slight changes, often in attitude, that can make everything look different?

But there are two types of turning.  We can turn to, or we can turn from.  I sometimes think our initial instinct is to turn away.  When a challenge arises, when a relationship grows difficult, when we feel estranged from faith and God, turning away is often the easiest path.  We turn our backs, cast our eyes in a different direction, and in so doing shield ourselves from potential hurt and harm.  This kind of turning may feel safer, but ultimately it leaves us lonelier, more isolated, less connected.

Turning to is more difficult.  It often requires confrontation, either with ourselves, or others, or both.  It asks us to open ourselves up, to face what we might be inclined to look away from, to engage when we might feel like shutting the door.  But turning to has the potential to repair things that have gone wrong in our lives.  Turning to gives us the best chance of making changes we hope to make, of rekindling friendships, reinvigorating relationships, and reinventing ourselves.

The Talmud teaches that there is a short way that is long, and a long way that is short.  Too often in life we choose the short way and never reach the place we hope to reach.  Choosing the long way can make the journey more difficult, more time consuming, more challenging, but in the end can give us the best chance of arriving at our intended destinies/destinations.

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A Contemporary 10 Commandments

This a text version of my sermon from day 1 of Shavuot –

There is a long standing debate about the precise date of the events that we read about in this morning’s Torah portion.  Most biblical scholars believe the Exodus happened somewhere around the year 1300 BCE, give or take a couple of hundred years.  If they are correct it would mean that our ancestors were standing at Sinai some 3,300 years ago when Moses walked up to the top of the mountain, and God proclaimed the words of the 10 commandments.

So it is amazing to me that 3,300 years after the words were spoken, they still remain relevant in our lives.   We understand that if we can follow at least these 10 laws, we will be on the track to living a moral and ethical life.  And what is more, the 10 commandments are understood as a sort of foundational guide for the basis of a civilized society, at least in western culture.

All that being said, and with all due respect, the list of laws we read this morning is 3,300 years old.  Since the commandments came into being the world has changed dramatically, and the Israelites who first followed the commandments as their moral code would not even recognize the world we live in today.  So this morning I would like to offer a contemporary version of the 10 commandments.  This is not meant to replace the originals, but rather to help us think about how the words that Moses recorded so long ago can continue to bring meaning and guidance into our lives.

The first of the commandments – אנוכי ה׳ אלוקך – I am the Lord your God – is understood by Maimonides as a commandment about belief – we must believe in God is therefore the first of the 10.  I would like to understand that in today’s terms to mean that we need to have a spiritual dimension in our lives.  We are beings that exist on three levels.  There is a physical level of our existence.  We must eat, we must sleep, we must keep our bodies healthy in order to live.  We are physical creatures living in a physical world.  But we also are intellectual beings.  We think, we create, we ponder, we are curious about the world around us, we problem solve – this is our intellect at work.  But Judaism teaches that mind and body alone are not sufficient to live a fully human life – you also must have a soul.  And without those three parts working together – body, mind, and soul – we are not complete.  Commandment #1 – the spiritual dimension of life.

The second commandment is לא יהיה לך אלוקים אחרים – do not have other gods before Me.  This is commonly understood as the prohibition of idol worship, long considered one of the gravest sins a Jew could commit.  In our culture today we might rarely if ever be tempted to worship an actual idol.  That being said there are many metaphoric idols that can creep into our lives.  Money and power come to mind right away.  Ego might be another.  Work can become an idol.  So can material goods.  The list could go on an on.  So commandment #2 – be aware of the idols in contemporary life, and remember it is just as much of a sin to worship them as to worship an actual idol.

The third commandment?  לא תשא את שם ה׳ אלוקיך לשב – do not take God’s name in vain.  I’ll understand that to mean that certain things in our lives should be sacred, and they should not be wasted.  Trust would be one of those.  Our relationships another.  Our reputations as well.  Our God given talents.  When we squander these things , when we use them for vain purposes, we are less holy, we diminish ourselves, and we diminish God, in Whose image we are created.

Number four – זכור את יום השבת – remember the Sabbath day!  We need time to think and be, without the constant distractions and interruptions that have become so prevalent in modern life.  If we can carve out 24 hours a week to be screen free – no phones, no computers – we will be healthier, happier, and holier, and will have a deeper sense of peace about ourselves and our lives.

Five?  כבד את אביך – honor your father and mother.  In a world where we are living longer and longer lives, this commandment can be the basis for the moral conversation we need to have about aging with dignity.  It is a complicated conversation that touches on topics as wide ranging as medical care, assisted suicide, and how ‘quality of life’ is defined.  But the idea of honoring our elders can be a touchstone as we tackle these difficult issues.

Commandment #6 – לא תרצח – do not murder.  For contemporary times I would like to expand this commandment beyond the scope of the individual, and understand it as applying to entire communities.  There are cities all around the country with unbelievably high murder rates – Baltimore is one of them.  The sixth commandment reminds us that if we live in one of these communities, even if we don’t kill someone ourselves, we should feel a sense of responsibility for what is happening, and should work to make our communities safer and less violent.

לא תנאף – is commandment #7.  Do not commit adultery.  In a time when marriage is being challenged on multiple fronts, and when marriage rates in America are the lowest they’ve ever been, the Torah reminds us that a committed, long term relationship with a single person is a meaningful and even more importantly sacred way to live a life.

Number eight?  לא תגנב – do not steal.  We have grown accustomed to having virtually everything we want.  But there is a difference between what you want, and what you need.  If we can remember that distinction, if we can remember what it is we truly need – health, people to share our lives with, safety, a place to live and food to eat – than we would not be tempted to take what does not belong to us.

The ninth commandment is לא תענה ברעך עד שקר – do not testify falsely.  Which I will understand in this contemporary 10 commandments to be a message about truth.  Sometimes it seems like truth itself is under siege today – the phrase ‘alternate facts’ comes immediately to mind.  There are times when we may not know exactly what happened, or when facts are not entirely clear.  But often the truth can be determined and known.  The ninth commandment reminds us that truth is still a sacred value, and that when we honestly examine our lives, ourselves, and our world, the truth can often be discovered.

And finally, commandment #10 – לא תחמד – do not covet, do not be envious.  Commentators have long noted that envy is one of the most destructive emotions, and can lead to the breaking of a series of other commandments, for a person who is envious might lie, steal, commit adultery, and even murder.  In today’s world the best antidote to envy is gratitude, and in Judaism gratitude comes from understanding that everything we have is a gift from God.

So there you have it, my contemporary 10 commandments.  Again, not to replace the originals, but with the hope of reminding us again on this Shavuot of how relevant these ancient words can still be in our lives, and of what a great gift the Torah we celebrate today truly is.

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