Category Archives: Jewish thought

An Old Dog

You know the saying, one of the most popular proverbs around:  you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.  What we mean by this is that people are set in their ways, that they reach a stage in life when they are who they are, and they will not be changing anytime soon.  In fact, they will not be changing at all.  The way they act, their interests, even how they think, are all, to use another saying, ‘set in stone.’

The implication of the proverb is the older we get, the harder it is to change.  There seems to be some truth to this idea.  When we are young we are more open to new ideas and experiences.  Our views about life and the world around us are not yet fully formed. We are more likely, in our youth, to meet new people and have experiences we’ve never had before.  But as we age our world in a sense becomes smaller.  Our friendship circles are for the most part closed.  We rarely if ever do something for the first time.  Even our general sense of the world becomes jaded – ‘it is what it is,’ we say, meaning ‘it isn’t perfect, but it isn’t going to change either.’  Perhaps this is why the tradition understands that King Solomon penned the Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes when he was an old man, a book that contains one of the Bible’s best known verses – “What has happened will happen again, what has been done will be redone – for there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

My wife and I are the owners of an actual old dog, our loyal and trusted pooch who this year will celebrate his 10th birthday.  The eager young puppy who was filled with energy, who would bound out of the house in the morning and tug you down the street, has slowed down considerably.  These days he solemnly surveys the street before going out, and once outside spends time sniffing the air before deciding in which direction to walk.  His pleasures are simple – to roll in grass on a hot summer day, or watch keenly from the top of the steps the street outside, or to lie quietly and comfortably on the couch as his ‘humans’ watch a bit of television.  Even as I type this he has just entered the room and settled himself comfortably behind my chair, somehow keeping one eye on me while napping at the same time.  If only I could learn to do that!

And yet even in his old age he has not become jaded.  The world is still wondrous to him. When a new season arrives he is thrilled at the change in weather, at the new scents that waft up from the ground in the spring, at the cold winds that ruffle his fur coat in the winter.  He is master of the neighborhood now, the oldest dog on the block, literally, but he loves to meet a young puppy, all bubbly energy, huge paws, overgrown ears.  He’ll play with his younger compatriot, as if to say ‘here is how you do it, now go out and have fun while I lie back here and take a snooze!’  He continues to change, to grow, to study the world around him, to live in the moment.  And this old dog will even, when properly motivated, learn a new trick.

One of the fundamental ideas of Judaism is that people have the capacity to change.  As set in our ways as we might be, as comfortable in our shoes, to fully live life we must be open to what is new.  New people, new experiences, new ideas, new relationships, new knowledge – all of these should be part of the way we grow and change, and growth and change should be a life long processes.  The old proverb and King Solomon were both wrong.  An old dog, when open to the world, can learn new tricks.  And there are many new things under the sun, waiting out in God’s world to be discovered.  As it says in the Talmud:  זיל וגמור – go out and learn!pooch

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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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Just the Evidence, Ma’am

This a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 3/20/17

Some of you will remember the TV show Dragnet, which ran on first NBC and then ABC through the entire decade of the 50s.  Week in and week out a dedicated audience would tune in to watch the adventures of the plain spoken detective – what was his name?  Joe Friday (Jack Webb) – as he methodically and systematically investigated crimes, solved cases, and brought in the bad guys.  There was very little actual action in the show.  Occasionally Joe Friday might draw his gun and run after a criminal.  But for the most part he went about his job using his mind, interviewing people who were connected to the case, figuring out what the truth was by assembling the facts.  And if you remember the show you also remember Joe Friday’s famous phrase, which became part of the vernacular – what was it?  Just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.

It is sad to say, but it is hard to imagine Joe Friday being successful in today’s world.  The criminals he chased down were not psychopaths or serial killers, they didn’t have some kind of infernal plot to destroy an entire city like so many of today’s TV evildoers.  There was no violence in the show, I don’t recall even a fist fight, there were no explosions, no car chases.  There were no fancy cars for that matter – I think Joe Friday drove around an old Buick – and no fancy clothes – just a plain grey suit, a white shirt, and a dark skinny tie.  And of course in those days, in the 50s – admittedly a simpler time – there were actual facts – something that today seems to be regularly called into question.

So in Joe Friday’s world, he could say ‘just the facts, ma’am,’ and everyone knew what he meant.  There was a fundamental assumption shared by all that facts could be determined, and once they were determined they were not debated.  Something either happened or it didn’t.  A person said something, or they didn’t say something.  If you read something in the newspaper or heard Walter Cronkite say it on TV you believed it was true.

But today we seem to be in a different place.  Facts are debated, not accepted.  People seem to make assertions about what did or did not happen based more on what they wished had transpired, as opposed to what actually did.  This isn’t entirely new, and no question it is something that has been going on in politics in one way or another for awhile, but it does feel like it has reached a new level.  Certainly a number of assertions that have been made by the current administration don’t seem to have any factual support at all, from inaugural numbers to wire tapping accusations to voter fraud.  But the left does it too.  You may remember the uproar a couple of weeks ago from the about Uber, the car service.  There were claims that when JFK airport taxi drivers joined in a strike against the administration’s immigrant policy Uber had rushed in and taken advantage.  Almost immediately the left started a #deleteUber campaign to try to get people to stop using the service.  The problem was, there was no actual evidence that Uber had done anything wrong.  To put it simply, there were no facts to support the claim that the left was making.

And it is precisely about this issue that Judaism might have something to teach us.  Going all the way back to Torah times Judaism has insisted on the use of evidence to determine what has happened or not happened.  The Torah teaches that witnesses – first hand, eye witnesses – must be consulted when criminal cases are tried.  And one eye witness is never sufficient – at least two are required, because when two people say the same thing it is more likely to be true.  Rabbinic law develops this idea further in the Talmud, creating strict criteria for determining whether witnesses should be considered trustworthy, and also describing an extensive procedure for examining witnesses to make sure that the actual facts of any given case are being uncovered.  Joe Friday might not be very comfortable with the way we deal with facts today, but had he studied the Jewish laws about evidence requirements and witnesses he would have been in very familiar surroundings.

The Torah also insists that the system of law should not be influenced by the power, or lack thereof, of those involved in any given case.  That is to say that a poor person should not be believed just because they are poor – nor should a wealthy person, a person in a position of power, be believed just because of who they are.  The very same requirements of evidence apply either way.  Neither the low person or the high person on the totem pole should get any preferential treatment.  Torah law is insistent on this point, teaching in Leviticus 19 the following:  לא תישא פני דל ולא תהדר פני גדול – do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich – rather judge them fairly. (19:15)

In fact I would argue that the Torah seems to believe that even God is not to be believed without verification.  In this morning’s portion we read about the sin of the golden calf.  It is a story we know well – Moses at the top of the mountain, communing with God, receiving the law, while the people at the mountain’s base are worshipping an idol.  At a certain point God says to Moses ‘hey, you had better get down there, the people are out of control, and they are worshipping an idol.’  And Moses’ first reaction is to defend the people and try to calm God down.  Once he does this Moses goes down himself, and he is carrying the tablets that God gave him.  What does he doe with those tablets?  He breaks them!  When?  Not until he sees with his own eyes what has actually transpired.

God have given Moses testimony.  God had told Moses exactly what was going on.  If he fully believed God, why didn’t he just break the tablets right then and there?  But he doesn’t – he waits until he has seen it with his own eyes, until the actual evidence is right in front of him – and at that point, the facts become clear to him, and he acts, shattering the tablets and punishing the people.  It seems that even with God the tradition insists on actual evidence to establish the facts, to determine what has or has not happened.

I think we should insist on the same.  When statements are made today, regardless of who makes them, when stories are reported, regardless of whether we hear about them on Fox News or read about them in the NY Times, we should follow our tradition and wait for the evidence to appear.  A claim without evidence is not a fact – it is simply a claim.  That was not good enough for Moses, even though the claim came from God.  It was certainly never good enough for Joe Friday.  And it shouldn’t be good enough for us either.  Just the evidence, ma’am, just the evidence.

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Dylan and the Nobel

This a text version of my remarks about Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize award from Shabbat morning 10/15

Robert Zimmerman was a Jewish boy from a small town in Minnesota, gifted with an artistic vision and a powerful spirit of rebellion, who made his way from the hinterlands of America to New York City’s Greenwich Village.  The folk scene there was bursting at the seems, a writhing and living organism of creativity and cross pollination.  The Kingston Trio, clean cut and ready for a high school year book photo, was singing Tom Dooley.  Pete Seeger popularized If I had a Hammer.   Joan Baez reached the top of the charts in 1960, and Peter, Paul, and Mary were playing the coffee houses and cafes.  Robert Zimmerman arrived on the scene like stranger coming to town in a western, trailed by a mysterious past, and ultimately leaving behind his given name to become Bob Dylan.

In a few short years he was the biggest musical star in the world, almost a prophet to the young people in the mid 60s who looked to music for guidance and spiritual sustenance.  The hit records came one after another, too many to name, and the songs he wrote became a generational soundtrack.  He had various periods – a folk period followed by an electric period when he began to use amplified instruments.  There was Christian period when for a time he seemed to embrace Christianity, or at least many of its ideals on his record Slow Train Coming.  There was a return to Judaism, Dylan davening with tallit and tefillin at the Kotel in Jerusalem.  After a motorcycle accident he withdrew from the public eye and regrouped.

But he always came back, he always reappeared.  There were always new songs to sing and play.  He was restless, his mind jumping from idea to idea, his gaze soaking up the American scene, and somehow spitting it back out with song lyrics that sometimes seemed to be divinely inspired, some kind of uber-muse working through Dylan’s inscrutable eyes.  There were songs of social conscience like ‘the Times They Are a Changing,’ or ‘Blowing in the Wind.’  There were protest songs like ‘Highway 61 Revisited,’ and there were powerful personal portraits of love and longing, of loss and the sheer determination to survive against all odds.

To know that he came from Jewish roots is to recognize the prophetic pull of the tradition in his themes and music.  He sang about justice and truth, the power of the human spirit, and freedom.  All Jewish ideals, all concepts that distinguished ancient Israel from its neighbors.  And Dylan was a seeker, somehow discovering the way to drill down to the very core of an idea or issue or emotion, to uncover the truth, and then to lay it bare before our eyes, without flinching or turning away, and daring us to look at what he had uncovered.  In this search for truth he was reflecting the biblical prophets of old, their fiery spirit and unforgettable words, still read and chanted 2000 years or more after they were spoken.

Bob Dylan has been no saint.  He was always mercurial, often obscure, he was iconoclastic, complicated, and sometimes downright ornery and cantankerous.  But his talent was undeniable, and I would argue it was primarily expressed through his words.  The music was mostly made up of simple chords, songs with traditional musical progressions, classic folk and blues riffs and even melodies that had been played and replayed for decades.  But his language was unique and entirely original, and this was his genius.  The often dense and symbolic lyrics that he composed to express in timeless language the very moments, emotions, and ideas that define our lives.

It is because of that unique gift with words, words that changed music, words that defined a generation, that Bob Dylan was presented with the Nobel Prize in literature this week.  There has been some controversy about the choice – after all, he is a musician and not a writer, some have argued.  Others have said that rock and roll should never been considered on the same cultural level as the great novel or beautiful poetry.  But if the prize at its core is about how the words of an artist can both shape and change the world, then it seems to me hard to argue, for few artists in modern times have shaped and changed the world through words the way Bob Dylan has.

Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the Nobel was awarded to Dylan the very week that we are reading two of the greatest biblical songs ever composed.  In the Torah portion we read Moses’ last message to the Israelites, a song of warning and a powerful charge to the people to stay true to the task at hand as they enter the promised land. And in this morning’s haftara text we read King David’s great hymn of victory and thanksgiving, with its soaring language, its metaphors of darkness and light, and its imagery of the great hand of God drawing David from the rushing mighty waters.  In both cases the biblical poetry is a testament to the lasting power of song, and an example of how language, in the hands of the greatest artists, can create work of enduring, and sometimes even eternal value.

I don’t mean to suggest that Bob Dylan’s work should be considered on the same level as that of the Hebrew Bible or Shakespeare or Milton.  Those authors were some of the greatest geniuses of literature in all of human history, artists who changed not only their own time but all the time to come, and who helped us to see ourselves in a new light, with a deeper understanding of what it means to be human.  And maybe 100 years from now people will look back at Dylan’s body of work and see him as a simple traveling minstrel with an electric guitar.

But the Nobel Prize is not of the past or the future.  It is of our time.  And as we Jews qvell when a Jewish scientist or novelist or economist wins the Nobel Prize, so too we should be qvelling this week.  Fifty six years ago a young Jewish boy from Hibbing Minnesota walked onto the world’s biggest stage.  He is still standing there, and he has never looked back.

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Come On Down – Why You Should Come to Shul for the High Holy Days

This a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 9/17 –

The weekly Jewish newspaper The Forward published an op ed piece this week written by a rabbi named Jay Michaelson.  The headline of the article is ‘Why You Shouldn’t – should not –  Go to Synagogue on Rosh HaShanah this Year,” and Rabbi Michaelson spends some 1500 words or so explaining why he thinks it is a bad idea for Jews to come to shul to celebrate the beginning of the New Year.  And I understand that some folks just like to be provocative, because that will get them a lot of hits on the internet, and I also understand that sometimes you have a deadline looming, and your are running out of time, and you end up writing the first thing that comes into your mind without fully thinking it through.  So I am not sure whether the Rabbi is in the former category, the latter category, of whether he really believes everything he wrote.  But he does raise three particular points in the article that give him pause, and he says should give us pause, in terms of attending services on the High Holy Days.  And I would like to spend a few minutes with you this morning thinking about each of those points.

Interestingly (at least to me!) his first complaint is a theological one.  We should probably establish a fundamental sense of what theology is – what is it?  Essentially, the way you understand and think about God.  And Rabbi Michaelson says that you shouldn’t come to shul on Rosh HaShanah because when you get there and open your Mahzor you are going to find theological concepts that will make you uncomfortable and that you may not believe.  And as proof of this he cites, also interesting to me, probably the most beloved prayer in the entire Mahzor, the Unetane Tokef prayer.  That is the one where we imagine God with a book that holds a record of our deeds from the year gone by, and where we say, ‘who will live and who will die, who by fire, who by water.’

Now I know that the theological implications of that prayer are problematic, and I myself don’t literally believe that God sits with a book and is writing names into it ‘who is going to live and who is going to die.’  But I also know that the prayer has a power and meaning that still speaks to people today.  It may be because they’ve been reading it since they were little, and it brings to mind sweet memories of Rosh Hashanas gone by.  It may be because the image itself, whether you believe it or not, can get you to think about your own deeds, which is one of the things people do find meaningful at the start of a new year.   It may also be that there is a core truth to the prayer that Rabbi Michaelson either forgot or never understood, and that is in the course of any given year members of our community will pass away, and we truly don’t know what a year will hold.

But I think in general by couching his first objection to shul on Rosh HaShanah in theological terms Rabbi Michaelson misses the point entirely.  Because theology is an intellectual exercise.  It is a rational, philosophical approach to trying to understand God and our relationship with God.  And I don’t think that is why Jews come to shul on Rosh HaShanah.  I am a rabbi, and I can tell you I don’t wake up Rosh HaShanah morning and say ‘boy I can’t wait to do some theology today!’  For most of us the holidays are not about intellectually unpacking something.  They are instead about emotion, about feeling something, that can’t and probably even shouldn’t be quantified by an intellectual process.  So Rabbi Michelson’s first wrong turn is to assume the biggest problem with shul on Rosh HaShanah is an intellectual one, while the truth is most Jews engage in the experience emotionally.

The Rabbi’s second objection to Rosh HaShanah is that the holiday itself sends a series of mixed messages.  He says it is about ‘celebration and seriousness,’ ‘rejoicing and repentance,’ and he sees those ideas as diametrically opposed, concepts that shouldn’t be combined into a single holiday, or ritual.  But Judaism does that with virtually every holiday.  On Passover the matzah is the bread of affliction, and the bread of freedom.  On Sukkoth we rejoice in life and the bountiful harvest, but we also acknowledge life’s temporal quality with the fragile sukkah and the decaying branches of the lulav.  On Shavuot we celebrate the giving of the Torah but we also recall that the Torah has been both a guide and at times a heavy burden to bear and a draining responsibility.  And there is a reasons that themes come together on the holidays to conflicts and sometimes contrast – and that is because it reflects the ebb and flow of life.  There are few perfect days, and even fewer perfect lives.  The truth is most of life is a mixed bag, a combination of celebrations and sadnesses, of triumphs and tragedies, of the good and the bad.  And the holidays, with their interplay of themes, acknowledge life’s complexity, and create sacred spaces in time that are recognizable to us and reflect our own lives.

And by the way, sometimes it is only from contrast that the power of an idea becomes apparent.  Would the sense of freedom, and the gratitude that we feel for it on Pesah feel as powerful it we didn’t see it through the lens of slavery?  On Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur would the focus on life and the celebration of a new year be as meaningful if we didn’t also find in the Mahzor images of life’s fragility?  It is precisely the contrast that makes it all work, that makes it come alive.  The only way you appreciate a sunrise is to have seen a sun set and to have lived through a night.

The Rabbi’s final objection to shul on the High Holy Days is that the services have become some kind of show, where the audience sits passively and watches as the rabbis and cantors perform some kind of ancient and arcane ritual, intoning words that have no meaning and that no one understands.  And I do believe that he may at least have a point here, because it is a danger of modern Jewish life that sometimes the service can turn into a show.

But I don’t think he has even been to High Holy Days services here at Beth El.  I don’t think he has been here in this sanctuary on Rosh HaShanah eve when a thousand Jews stand together, chasing in full voice the words of the Shema Yisrael.  He certainly has not been here on the second day of Rosh HaShanah when for the 5th aliyah the entire congregation stands together to chant the Torah blessings.  And there is no way he has been here during Ne’ilah, when the ark opens, and hundreds and hundreds of people stream forward to spend a few precious seconds in front of the Torahs on the holiest day of our year, to offer their personal prayers of gratitude and hope.

Now I don’t mean to suggest that shul is for everyone.  I know it is not.  But in a Jewish community of growing complexity, where people identity Jewishly in ways that they never have before, surely there is still plenty of space for the synagogue, for the particular and powerful community that can grow within walls like these, for the unique and sacred experience of continuing a three thousand year old tradition.  The great prophet Isaiah, in the text of this morning’s haftara, reminds us that the Jewish tent may grow large – הרחיבי מקום אהלך – “Enlarge the size of your tent, extend the size of your dwelling, lengthen the ropes, drive the pegs firm!”

The Jewish tent grows larger and larger, but the synagogue is still at its center, an institution that conveys identity and transmits tradition like no other in the Jewish world –

may our shuls be full this Rosh HaShanah – and for many, many new years to come –

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The Kosher Person

this a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 7/30 –

When we think about ‘kashrut’ – the question of whether something is kosher or not kosher – the first thought that probably jumps into our minds is food.  But in Judaism the idea of ‘kosher’ applies to other things as well, not only to food.  Can anyone give another example?  One is the Sefer Torah – a Torah that is usable – that we are permitted to read from – is actually called a kosher Torah.  Which of course begs a question – what makes a Torah kosher or not kosher?  With food we have a pretty strong sense of how that question is answered – certain foods are by definition not kosher – pork the most obvious example.  And certain foods can’t be mixed – like dairy and meat.  If they are mixed, the food is no longer kosher.  But what about a Torah?  What makes a Torah kosher, and what might make it not kosher?

Let us first think for a minute about what makes a Torah kosher.  First of all, the materials used to make the Torah have stringent requirements.  The ink that is used to write the letters must be made in a certain way, and it absolutely must be black – any other color and the Torah is not considered kosher.  The parchment, called in Hebrew ‘klaf’ must come from a kosher animal, usually a cow or a goat, sometimes even a deer.  the letters must be written using a special quill, usually one made from the feather of a kosher bird like a turkey.  When sections are sewn together the thread is made from the sinew of a kosher animal.  And if any of these things are not right – if the quill is not proper, or the parchment is not from a kosher animal, or even the thread, the Torah is not kosher, it is not usable.

But it isn’t only the materials that make the Torah kosher.  It also has to do with how the letters themselves are written.  No letter in the Torah can touch any other letter – if two letters are touching, the Torah is not kosher.  Certain letters have to be written larger than other letters – the best example is verse 4 in Deuteronomy chapter 6, the Shema Israel line, where the ‘shin’ of Shema and the ‘daled’ of echad must be written larger than the other letters.  At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion there is another example – the word Shalom appears in the third verse of this morning’s portion – how do you spell that word in Hebrew?  Shim, lamed, mem, vav, mem-sofit.  And how do you write a ‘vav’ in Hebrew?  One straight down line.  Believe me, there are a lot of ‘vavs’ in the Torah.  And all of them have to be written with a straight, uninterrupted line – except this vav in our word Shalom from this week’s portion.  It has to be written with an interruption in the line – a space – and if that space isn’t there, once again, the entire Torah is not kosher and may not be used.  That gives you just a little bit of an idea of what makes a Torah kosher or not kosher.

What about applying the same idea to a human being?  What makes a person kosher, or not kosher?  It might sound strange in our ears to phrase it that way, again because we so commonly associate that idea with food – but there is a talmudic concept of the ‘adam kasher’ – the kosher person.  In the Talmud this is a person who is deserving of the ultimate respect, so much so that the Talmud says when an ‘adam kasher’ – a kosher person – dies – everyone in community is obligated to make a tear in their clothing, something normally only immediate mourners do.  And everyone in the community is responsible for mourning this person’s loss.  That is the level of respect and love that an ‘adam kasher’ engenders in the course of his or her life.

Now it might seem to you like the High Holy Days are still very far away, after all we sit here at the end of July, and Rosh Hashanah isn’t until the beginning of October!  But the truth is in our liturgical cycle we are already pointing towards the fall holidays.  We read today the first in a series of 10 haftara texts that try to build up our spirits so that we can stand before God with clean hearts and souls at the beginning of the new year.  10 weeks from Sunday night is RH.  I don’t know about you – I tend to be a bit of a procrastinator – but the time is set aside for us, and I think the reason we are given so much time is that sometimes it can actually take quite a while to figure out how to be a kosher person.  It isn’t as black and white as the laws of what makes food kosher or not, or a Torah scroll kosher or not.  And wouldn’t it be nice if the tradition gave us some guidance as we went through this process.  What is it that makes a kosher person?

It is an old tradition during the summer months to spend some time studying Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers.  Probably more than any other text in Judaism, Pirke Avot lays out for us the tradition’s idea of what makes a person kosher.  It deals with ethics and morals, with how a person should act towards his or her fellow, with what kind of responsibility one has in terms of being part of a community.  The material is fairly wide ranging, but there are a few themes that come up again and again, ideals that the rabbis of old clearly believed defined what a kosher person should be.

A number of the ideals are things you might expect.  Be a kind and compassionate person.  Treat others with respect and dignity.  Live with a sense of God’s presence in your life.  All important qualities of the kosher person.  But there are three particular ideals that the text identifies, ideals that are at the core of being an ‘adam kasher’ – that might not normally come to our minds.

The first of them is humility.  The text reminds us that we are no more important that any other person, and that when we begin to feel more important than others – something we all seem to do at one time or another – we have wandered onto the wrong path and need to find our way back.

The next quality of a kosher person is communal engagement and commitment, a sense of communal responsiblity.  In today’s world we tend to emphasize the individual over the community and the individuals needs and rights over the community’s needs.  But in Judaism it is exactly the opposite.  When an individual’s need conflicts with a communal need, it is the community’s need that takes precedence.  As Jews we have an obligation not only to be connected to Jewish community, but to make sure that because of our presence the community becomes a better place for all.

The last thing is to be a learning Jew, to constantly strive to grow through the study of Judaism, Jewish thought, Jewish life, Jewish text, Jewish history.  Tradition understands that we nourish our bodies with food and drink, but that we must always make sure to nourish our souls and spirits, and one powerful way to do that is through the study of Torah – not only the scroll we take out of the ark, but Torah writ large, our ancient tradition with all of its wisdom.

So as we begin our slow but steady walk towards the High Holy Days, and begin to weigh in our minds who we are and who we want to be, we can perhaps keep in mind the wisdom our our sages and an ideal they at least believed we should all strive for – not necessarily to keep kosher, all though that wouldn’t be so bad – but to actually, in the way we live our lives and the quality of our own characters, to BE kosher –

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Moving Forward While Looking Back

this the text version of a sermon from the 7th day of Passover –

We are in a period of our calendar that we call the ‘sefirat ha’omer’ – the counting of the omer.  The counting comes from the an ancient agricultural ritual described in the Torah, in Leviticus 23, where the very first sheaf of grain that was harvested was brought to the priest on the day after Passover, marking the beginning of the harvest season.  The Torah commands that we count seven times seven days to link this first sheaf to the fuller barley crop that would grow throughout the spring.

Over time the 49 days of the counting came to be understood as a period of sadness and mourning.  This is the reason why the tradition asks us to not hold weddings during the sefira – it is not considered appropriate during a time of sadness for the Jewish people to hold festive celebrations.  I’ve learned over the years that people are aware of this tradition, so that each year I get phone calls from families trying to plan weddings and worrying that their chosen date will fall during the omer period.  The truth is there is a wide variety in terms of how that tradition is observed.  At one time there was a split in the Sephardic and Ashkanazic communities, so that Ashkenazic Jews would have weddings at the beginning of the period, from Passover to Rosh Hodesh Iyar, but then stop for the rest of the time, while Sephardic Jews would do the opposite – have no weddings from Pesah until the 33rd day of the counting, known as ‘lag b’omer’, but then permit weddings during the rest of the counting.

The strange thing about this association of the omer counting and sadness its that we are not really sure where it comes from.  Maimonides, in his great code of Jewish law the Mishnah Torah, does not even mention it.  The only hint of it we have from early sources is a strange passage in the Talmud, which tells us that thousands of Torah students were killed by a plague between Passover and Shavuot during the time of Rabbi Akiva.  Even so the Talmud does not suggest that the period be observed as one of mourning moving forward, and it does not attempt to create any type of day that commemorates the student’s deaths.  And it wasn’t until hundreds of years later – probably 800 or so the common era – that Jewish sources begin to shape the omer counting into a time of communal sadness.  Why did the tradition make that decision, and make it so difficult for us to plan our spring weddings?

One answer to that question may be found in an examination of Jewish history.  We know we don’t have to look too hard to find tragedy in our past, but the period of the omer counting seems to be particularly full of it.  It was during this time in the year 135 that the Jewish revolt led by the messianic figure Bar Kochba was brutally put down by the Romans.  Ultimately killed thousands upon thousands of Jews, destroyed Jewish cities, and by the way changed the name of the land from Judea to Syria-Palestine.  The famous story of the 10 martyrs, recited during the Eila Ezkara on Yom Kippur comes from this time, so we have a sense that the physical destruction of the Jewish people was only part of the Roman agenda – they also wanted to destroy the sprit of the Jewish people.  Torah study was banned upon pain of death, Jews were not allowed to assemble publicly, to gather in synagogues, to hold worship services or classes.  It was without question one of the darkest and most dangerous times in Jewish history.  When you think about it that way it begins to make sense that the tradition wants us to mark the period as one of tragedy and sadness, in the same way that we mark the Holocaust with a specific day of commemoration in modern times.

But the strange thing about it to me is this:  during the entire period of the counting there is not a single word said about any of these historical memories of sadness.  It is on Yom Kippur the we read the story of the 10 martyrs.  It is on Tisha B’Av in the summer when we recall the destruction of Jerusalem.  It is not like the tradition is shy in terms of including these memories in our liturgy, or choosing scriptural readings that in some way reflect the historical memory.  So why didn’t the tradition do anything to reflect the historical memory of sadness that we say this period is about?

To try to answer that question for a moment I’ll turn to one of my favorite novels, Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations.  You may remember the story – it is a coming of age tale about a young man named – Pip – who learns in the course of the novel about his origins, and also about what is truly most important about life.  Perhaps the most memorable character in the novel is an old dowager named – Ms Havisham.  She was left on the altar as a young woman, and since that day she has dedicated herself to  mourning that moment in her life.  Years later she still wears the wedding dress she had on that day.  She keeps the clocks throughout her home set to the exact time when the wedding was supposed to begin and didn’t.  Even the wedding cake that was prepared for the celebration sits on her dining room table, decaying slowly into dust.  Ms. Havisham is the paradigmatic example of a person who cannot leave her grief behind, whose entire life is defined by one great loss.  She lives only in the past, and is unable to move forward into the future.

Judaism has always rejected this idea.  In Jewish life grief is taken seriously, it is confronted head on, it is experienced deeply.  But it is also limited by the tradition.  There is a powerful moment at the end of shiva when the mourners are asked to leave the shiva house, to physically walk out of the door and to close it behind them.  This is a symbolic moment – I will not spend the rest of my life in a shiva house, I will not let mourning define my life – I will not only live in the past, I will not only look backwards.  In fact, the tradition demands of me that I look forward, into the future.  Not that I leave the past behind – I will always carry it.  But the Jewish way is to look forward, to affirm life, to survive, and to search for hope.  Even in the darkest times.

And I wonder if that is why the sages decided not to included any specific prayers or readings that remind us of why the omer counting is supposed to be a period of sadness.  In a sense we carry the past with us – we remember it, acknowledge it, it even affects our behavior – we don’t have the weddings.  But at the same time by leaving the past in the past we are better able to walk forward into the future with hope and faith, better prepared, perhaps, to receive the Torah at the end of the road that the counting also represents.

May we all find the strength and courage we need to bear our burdens from the past, but at the same time to walk forward into a new spring with hopeful hearts for what a new day – and a new season – can bring –

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, Bible, grief, holidays, Jewish thought, liminal moments, loss, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, seasons, sermon, Uncategorized