Category Archives: Jewish thought

Creative Process

People often ask about how sermons are constructed, wondering where I find ideas of what to talk about, why I choose certain references, what my creative process is.  Here are a few thoughts about the sermon I gave this past Shabbat, posted yesterday, that might give a bit of insight into how a sermon comes together (at least for me).  You can read the sermon text here.

First off, the hardest thing in my experience is deciding on the topic.  It seems on the surface like there are a million and one things to talk about, and I suppose there are.  But not all of them seem like they make for good sermon material, not all of them sound interesting (to me), and not all of them are appropriate for pulpit preaching.  Sometimes it feels like finding that idea is comparable to searching for the proverbial needle in the haystack.  You know it is in there somewhere, but it can be awfully hard to locate!

My ideas generally come from one of three places.  First, something from the weekly Torah portion.  It might be a verse, it might be a word, it might be something in the commentary.  But I often find my topic while flipping through the pages of the portion.  Secondly, I commonly find a sermon idea in something that happens in the course of the week.  A meeting I’ve attended, a conversation I’ve had, something I’ve seen, an interaction between two people at the bank.  So be careful, the rabbi is always watching! And the last source for me is the news.  An article I read in the paper, or something I hear on the radio.  That might not necessarily be a current event, but could be a reference to the anniversary of an important historical moment, or a strange factoid, or a story about another cultural custom.

Once I have my idea a process of free association begins to unfold.  Sometimes it is sort of organized, and I might jot a few notes down here or there, but mostly it happens in my head, and often when I am walking our dog around the neighborhood.  (interestingly I generally do that without my mobile phone)  How this works I honestly am not exactly sure.  I think it has something to do with just giving my mind the space to float a bit, to think about things not immediately connected to anything in particular.  But I suspect that sermon kernel is running in the my back of my head the entire time, like a kind of undercurrent.  And so my thoughts are constantly being pulled into the orbit of that sermon, a process that I think is more unconscious that conscious.

As best I can, I’ll try to walk you through that process in terms of this past Shabbat’s sermon.  First off, the initial idea.  I was looking through the portion, came to the end, and there in the Hebrew was the Masoretic note about the conclusion of the book of Leviticus, and how many verses are contained in the book.  I stared at that note for a moment, and I thought ‘endings!’  That might be a viable sermon topic, because after all, we seem to be interested in endings.

Then the free association process was off and running.  Game of Thrones had just ended. We were reading in synagogue the end of a book of Torah (Leviticus).  The last word of the book, when looked at with the last words of the other four books of the Torah is interesting.  That led me to thinking about famous last lines of novels, and I thought it might be fun to include a few and see if people in the congregation could identify them.  I went back to Game of Thrones and began to think of other famous endings of television shows.  The most famous of all (at least back in the day!) was the last episode of MASH, a show that was an important part of my growing up (here is a link to the last few minutes of that episode).  Many of the pieces of the puzzle were now on the table.  There were two questions – first, how should they be assembled?  And second, what is the point of all this?

Time to walk the dog!  And so, as our trusty pooch meandered through the neighborhood, the pieces of that ‘sermon puzzle’ began to take shape.  The order, what should come first, what next, what connected to what.  At the end of the half hour walk I had a pretty good idea of where I wanted to put those pieces.  Then it was a matter of doing it, worrying a bit over transitions, weaving strands.

But there was a last piece nagging at me, which was that the Torah itself is a book that doesn’t have an ending.  Deuteronomy ends and the people are still outside of the land.  How might that connect to all of the other material about endings, about wrapping things up and concluding stories?

Then it occurred to me that might be exactly the point.  The experiences of our lives, by and large, do not end in neat and tidy sentences, carefully constructed to perfectly conclude a moment.  Instead, our lives are more like the (lack of an) ending in the Torah. We are perpetually just on the cusp, just on the other side of that (Jordan) river, always looking towards that Promised Land but never quite arriving there.  We are always in a state of having one more river to cross.

Which is the name of the last track on Bob Weir’s solo album Blue Mountain, released in the fall of 2016.  I love that record.  In it Weir wrestles with his own mortality, with the passage of time, with the importance of taking that next step even in the face of daunting odds.  And that song gave me the last paragraph of my sermon text.  One more step, one more river to cross.

One last note – the title I gave the sermon when I posted it on my blog – At the End of All Things.  That line comes from Tolkien’s the Return of the King.  The hobbits Sam and Frodo lie exhausted, having finally completed their quest and destroyed the ring of power. It looks as if they are about to die, and Frodo says to Sam “I am glad you are here with me.  Here at the end of all things, Sam.”

So there you have it.  A bit of Torah.  A dash of Game of Thrones.  A nostalgic fondness for MASH.  A good dog walk on a beautiful afternoon.  Some Bob Weir for good measure. And a little Tolkien sprinkled in.  Mix it all up, type for a while, and you never know what you’ll come up with.

Sorry about the length of this post!  Anyone who read to the end, I owe you a scotch!

 

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Our Stories

Following is a text version of my sermon from Shabbat and the first day of Passover, 4/20/19 –

     I am sure you’ve all known someone who is famous for telling stories.  Almost every family has that person.  Maybe an uncle or grandfather or grandmother, maybe a friend.  You can see them getting amped up, getting into story telling mode, their hands start to wave around, their voices rise in excitement.  Often their stories are repeated – you’ve heard them more than a few times over the years.  In fact, we can often repeat the stories ourselves, even finish the sentences, because we’ve heard them so often, and we know all of the punch lines.

     But we love those stories.  As much as we laugh about them, as much as we might roll our eyes, or glance across the table at one another when they are being told, those stories are part of our lives, they are about our families, they reflect our history, our origins, our understanding of who we are and where we’ve come from.  We Jews are story tellers, it is part of our DNA.  Every holiday has its story.  On Purim we tell the tale of Esther and Mordecai and Haman.  On Rosh Hashanah the story of Abraham taking Isaac to the top of the mountain.  On Hanukkah we tell our children and grandchildren about the brave Maccabees and the miracle of a small vial of oil that burned for 8 days.    

     But the story telling holiday par excellence in Judaism in Passover.  Passover is the only holiday where the telling of a story is actually considered to be a mitzvah, a commandment.  The text of the Haggadah itself makes that clear – “even if we are all wise and understanding, all elders, all expert in Torah, מצוה עלינו לספר ביציאת מצראים – we are still commanded to tell the story of the Exodus.  That is the Magid section of the Haggadah, Magid a word that actually means ‘telling.’  It is the core of the Haggadah, beginning with the הא לחמא עניא, including the four questions, the story of the five rabbis in B’nei Barak, and the extended midrash on the passage ‘My father was a wandering Aramean.’  And even if we’ve heard it a hundred times, even if we know the passages by heart, we are still commanded to tell that story at the seder.

      And we have a particular way of telling the story.  A Jewish way.  If you think for a moment about the old fairy tales, the old stories we heard growing up, they all began and ended in the same way.  The beginning was always what?  ‘Once upon a time, in a land far, far away.’  And what is always the last line of those classic stories?  ‘And they lived happily ever after.’  In between that beginning and ending you will always find, in one form or an other, a prince and a princess, an evil witch or a dangerous dragon, and in the course of the story the dragon is slain, or the witch is defeated, the prince and the princess find one another, fall in love, get married, move to a beautiful castle, and then that last sentence  – ‘and they lived happily ever after.’ 

    But the Jewish story is told differently.  We don’t begin our stories by saying ‘once upon a time in a land far away.’  Instead we begin our stories by talking about a specific time, a specific place, and specific people.  Last night we said ‘we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.’  An actual time, a real place – Egypt; the villain is a real person, Pharaoh; and the story is about real people – in fact, our ancestors.  That is how a Jewish story begins!

     But we also end our stories differently.  If the fairy tale ends with ‘they lived happily ever after,’ how did we end the seder last night?  Next year in Jerusalem!  What do we mean when we say that?  We talked about this at our seder last night.  What happens if you are celebrating Passover in Jerusalem?  You’ve completed the seder, and you are ready to go to bed, everyone is full and tired, let alone that they’ve had four cups of wine, but you need that last sentence, you need to conclude your story.  It wouldn’t make sense to say ‘next year in Jerusalem’ when you are actually sitting in Jerusalem having your seder.  So what do you say?  Next year in a rebuilt  Jerusalem!  The last line of the seder ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ isn’t about an actual place, it is about a spiritual place and a future time, when one day the Messiah will come, and the world will be healed, and Jerusalem will a symbol of hope and healing and faith.  We don’t end our stories by tying everything up into that neat box.  Instead, we end our stories by looking to the future, with caution, but also with hope.  Next year in Jerusalem isn’t really an ending.  It is a pause, but more than anything else it is an acknowledgement that the story continues.  Today, tomorrow, next month, next year, and beyond.  

     And I think there are two reasons we end the seder that way.  The first is that it reminds us of our responsibility in terms of making the world the way it should be.  When you say ‘they lived happily ever after’ it means they went to their castle, and the story was over.  They were done with their work.  They were no longer interested in changing the world.  But when you say ‘next year in Jerusalem’ it means there is much work to be done, it means that the world needs to be changed, and it reminds you that you have a role in making that happen.  

     But the other thing next year in Jerusalem does is remind you of your role in the telling of the story.  In a story that doesn’t end, someone needs to pick it up, someone needs to carry the thread of the narrative, and bring it to the next generation and the next and the next.  That is what happens at the seder table.  

     There is a scene in the Return of the King, the last volume of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, one of my favorites.  The hobbits Sam and Frodo have completed their quest, and against all odds managed to destroy the magic ring of the enemy.  They have played their role in the great drama of their time, as we all do in our own way.  And Sam pauses, thinking about all that they’ve seen, all that they’ve been through, and he says this:  “What a tale we have been in, Mr. Frodo, haven’t we?  I wish I could hear it told!  And I wonder how it will go on after our part.”

     At the seder table we both tell the tale, and acknowledge our role in it.  We look to the past, our past, and recount great deeds and momentous events that miraculously still to this very day continue to shape our lives.  But we also understand on Passover that we have each played a part in this great story, and God willing we should continue to do so for many years, and many seders, to come.

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Of Gates and Other Interstitial Spaces

Just as the beautiful back shore curves around to the west there is an ancient looking gate.  It has a small wooden tile roof, covered with moss.  The wooden door is often open,  unlatched, in some way beckoning the passers by to a mythic inner sanctum.  A low stucco house can be glimpsed, a stone path, flowers English garden style running alongside.  The gate posts are large, even imposing, made of great stones cemented together long ago by an old world stonemason, his practiced eye picking and choosing for shape and size as he worked.

What is astonishing about any gate is that it can suddenly bring you from one world to another.  Remember the back of the closet in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lucy fumbling through old coats and scarves and suddenly walking along a snowy lane.  Or in Tolkien’s work the various gates that lead into the Mines of Moria or the Old Forest or the halls of the Elven King in Mirkwood.  The gate is an interstitial space, a kind of tunnel between two distinct areas, or even better a mystic link between one world and another.  On one side is what we know, where we dwell and walk and go about our day to day life.  But just beyond the gate is another world.  Of Magic and adventure, of mystery and the unknown, of gorgeous gardens and storm tossed seas, where otherworldly creatures might dwell, or time works differently, or the rain falls in a certain kind of way that we’ve never seen before.

There are gates in nature and gates in time as well.  When dawn comes or night falls, when the year turns, when the clouds of a great storm move swiftly through the sky as the weather clears, when we peer into the darkness as we stand on the edge of a wood, these are all gates of time and place and mind.  Death and birth are gates, perhaps of an altogether different kind, but gates nonetheless.gates

And there are gates in Judaism.  Three volumes of Talmud are called the First, Middle, and Last Gates.  The huppah in the wedding ceremony is a kind of gate, the bride and groom entering that space as single and emerging from it as a married couple.  We speak on Yom Kippur of the Gates of Prayer and how they close at the end of that sacred day, a moment marked by the Ne’ilah service.  There is a traditional Shabbat song, Hasidic in feel, with the following lyrics:  ‘the entire world is a narrow bridge, and the main thing is not to fear.’

Every gate is a narrow bridge, linking one world to another.  Every gate is an opportunity to walk into a never before seen space.  Every gate leads from what is known to what is unknown.  Every gate opens before us a series of new possibilities.  Gates can be entered and bridges crossed.  The main thing is not to fear.

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Houses of Study, Houses of Prayer

This the text of a sermon delivered on the first day of Shavuot, 5778 –

     Traditionally in Hebrew a synagogue has two names.  On the one hand, we call the synagogue the Beit Keneset, the place of gathering, and on the other, we call it the Beit Midrash, the House of Study.  If you come to Beth El with any frequency you know that we do quite a bit of both here.  Obviously we pray here regularly.  Today we are here in prayer celebrating the Shavuot festival, but of course we gather for prayer every Friday night and Saturday morning for Shabbat, and a dedicated group of congregants even comes together on a daily basis to pray in our weekday minyanim.  And of course in the fall thousands of people come to pray during the High Holy Days.

     But Beth El is also a place of study, a Beit Midrash.  It is hard to imagine it right now, but when I first came to Beth El there was no adult education programming.  None.  Not a single class, not a single musical program, not a single movie.  And slowly, over time, first under the leadership of Allan Lipsitz of blessed memory, and more recently under the guidance and vision of Dr. Eyal Bor, the adult education programming has blossomed, becoming one of Beth El’s most important initiatives. Every year thousands of people come through our doors to learn and study, and through that process, to grow Jewishly.

     And it is that sense of the importance of study that makes Shavuot different from any of our other festivals.  I would say that for all of our other holidays, when we come to synagogue, the emphasis is on the Beit Keneset, the synagogue as the place where we gather to pray.  But on Shavuot it is different.  On Shavuot, particularly the eve of Shavuot, we come to the synagogue thinking of it as a Beit Midrash, as a place where we gather together to study Torah.

     There is actually an old tension in the tradition between the values of prayer and study.  Both are understood as being important, both crucial to living a full and meaningful Jewish life.  But by and large, when prayer and study conflict, the tradition prefers that we leave prayer aside and focus on study.  No question in my mind the Talmudic sages understood study as a higher spiritual exercise than prayer, and they believed that through study one could come closer to God than one could through prayer.  There is a Talmudic story of the sage Rava, who lived around the year 300 in the city of Pumbedita in Babylonia.  He once found a student late for class because the student was saying his prayers slowly.  We might expect a Rabbi to be pleased that one of his students was taking prayer so seriously, but Rava reprimanded the student, saying to him ‘מניחין חיי עילם ועוסקים בחיי שעה’ – you are forsaking eternal life to busy yourself with the here and now!  In the rabbinic mind prayer is the ‘here and now,’ almost  mundane.  But study?  That is the gateway to eternal life.  The Sages believed that it was through study, not prayer, that a Jew could find true salvation and meaning.

     But the importance of study is also understood as working on a national level, and that is what Shavuot is about.  The moment that symbolizes that is this morning’s Torah reading and the 5th aliyah, when we stand together to listen to the words of the 10 commandments.  In one sense we are re-enacting the moment when God spoke the words and the Israelites, standing at the foot of Mt. Sinai, heard God’s voice.  But in an other sense we are symbolizing in that moment our continued dedication – as a people – to the Torah, to our sacred book.  We are in effect saying ‘we will continue to study the book that You, God, have given us.’  And it is because of that dedication to Torah, to the values of study and education and intellect, that we are called the People of the Book.  

     And I would argue that it is that dedication to study that has enabled the Jewish people to survive for thousands of years.  The Talmud (Shabbat 30b) tells of a conversation between King David and God.  It seems that David was worrying about the end of his life, and he wanted God to tell him when he would die.  God tells David that information like that is something a human is not allowed to know.  And David pushes God, saying ‘at least tell me on which day of the week I will die.’  And God says, ‘you will die on a Shabbat.’

     Now David was a smart guy, and he knows, according to tradition, that if you are engaged in the act of study, the Angel of Death is unable to take your soul away.  So David begins to spend every Shabbat studying for 24 hours.  When the appointed day of David’s death arrives, the Angel of Death has a problem.  But he has an idea, the Angel of Death.  He’ll distract David.  And that is exactly what he does.  According to the Talmud, the Angel of Death climbs a tree near David’s window, and shakes the tree.  David is startled, and for just a moment he looks up from his book, and stops his study.  And at that instant the Angel of Death is able to take his soul away, and David dies.

     On the surface, that story might sound like an old wives tale.  But read between the lines with me for a moment.  In the course of the narrative David is transformed from a warrior king to a rabbi, spending his days engaged in the study of the tradition.  The great palace that he lived in has been transformed into a Beit Midrash – a House of Study.  And in that transformation, David has become a metaphor for a new way of Jewish life, and for a new means of Jewish survival.  Jews would not live in palaces, they would not have armies, they would not have kings, the Temple would be destroyed, and there would be no more sacrifices.  

     But what Jews would always have was the Torah, given to Moses, transmitted to the people, and studied ever since.  The Torah can go anywhere.  It can go to Babylonia and the Academy of Rava, it can go to Europe, it can be carried here to the United States.  Anywhere there is a Torah there is a Beit Midrash, a House of Study.  And anywhere there is a House of Study, there is Jewish life.  In the Talmudic story as long as David continued to study he continued to live.  We might say the same about the Jewish people.  From one generation to the next we have dedicated ourselves to the study of Torah, and by doing so we have ensured the survival of Jewish tradition, and the Jewish people.  Shavuot is the holiday when we rededicate ourselves to that process of study and the role it plays in the continuity of our people.  May we continue to do so again and again, for many years, through many generations.

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The Pugilists

Ah God.  The ‘tester.’  At least that is one of the sides of You we meet in the Torah.  Testing  Abraham, and testing the people as well.  Why the test, what exactly the test is, what it is supposed to measure, these things are not clear.  But that there is a test, or tests, that is something the text tells us explicitly.  “And it was after these things that God tested Abraham.”  “For God has come only to test you…”  “In order to test you by hardships…” “…that I may thus test them, to see whether they will follow my instruction or not.”  Perhaps we don’t even need the explicit textual references, because we are all tested, at one time or another, in our own experiences, our own lives, our own doubts and fears.

I feel sometimes like we are two old and weary wrestlers, You and I.  Theological pugilists.  Warily circling the ring, eyeing one another suspiciously, waiting for one or the other to blink, to turn away, maybe even to leave the ring entirely.  Bruised and battered. It is a kind of contest of wills and also perhaps a continual test of patience.  Still here, I see.  Ready for another round?  But those words are spoken (or thought?) with a tired resignation.  Yes still here, but not necessarily sure why.

There is a heartbreaking story in the Talmud of four rabbis who entered a testing-ground of faith.  The text uses a forest as the metaphor for the place of trial, but what exactly the test is is not clear.  Some say the rabbis gave up on God after living through the terrors of the Roman persecutions.  Others explain the forest as a symbol of forbidden knowledge, of what can happen when we let the mind wander to a place where it cannot find its way back.  Whatever the forest represents, it is clear it is a place of theological danger and existential psychological struggle.  Three of the rabbis are destroyed during their journey.  But one rabbi – the famous Akiva – emerges whole.

How to be Akiva?  That is, perhaps, the question.  How to find one’s way through the dark groves and overgrown thickets, the thickly woven branches and fading leaves to once again emerge into the light?  No easy task, and one certainly worthy of despair.  And yet what You dangle before us.  The rising sun in the morning, the full moon and clear stars at night.  The promise of a new day.  The love of family and friends.  The sudden hope that springs unbidden and unexpected into our hearts.  The moments of joy that touch our souls.

Is it time for another round?  Give me a moment or two, and I will be there.

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Schwartz vs. Greenberg, or Reimagining the First Commandment

This is a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 2/3/18 –

Many years ago, as a young rabbinical student, I had a job teaching in the Introduction to Judaism Program at the 92nd Street Y in New York.  The class consisted mostly of couples – one person Jewish, one person not Jewish, with the non Jewish person considering conversion.  One evening, at the end of class, a student – a young woman – asked me if I though it was possible to convert to Judaism without believing in God.

After pondering the question for a moment or two I said ‘Yes, I do believe it is possible to convert to Judaism without believing in God.’  Then I went on to talk with the class about Judaism’s emphasis on action – on what we do on a day to day, sometimes moment to moment basis – and its DE-emphasis on what we believe.  I said to the students ‘Our tradition will often tell us what we should be doing, but it will rarely tell us what we should be thinking.  And that is why,’ I concluded, ‘I think someone could convert without believing in God.’

The next evening the phone rang in our apartment.  It was my supervisor for the Introduction to Judaism course.  He said ‘I heard you had an interesting discussion in class last night.’  He talked the previous night’s conversation through with me, wanting to hear my perspective on what was said.  Then he said two things to me.  First, he said ‘you may be right, but you also may want to carefully consider when and how you say things like that in public, especially in a class full of people who are considering conversion.’  And the second thing he said was ‘you also may want to study the debate between Maimonides (the RambaM) and Nachmanides (the RambaN!) about the first of the 10 commandments.’

This debate is well known in rabbinic circles, going back to the early Middle Ages when Maimonides lived in the 12th century (1135 – 1204) and Nachmanides in the 13th (1194 – 1270).  And their debate, which played out on the pages of various commentaries over the years, revolved around the first of the 10 commandments, which is?  “I am the Lord your God who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, out of the House of Bondage.” (Exodus 20:2)  Of course the problem with this verse if you read it closely is that it does not contain a commandment.  And that is what Nahmanides pointed out.  The verse does not say, for example, ‘believe in the Lord your God.’  The other 9 all contain specific verbs that command the listener to do something, or to not do something.  Honor your father and mother!  Remember the Sabbath!  Don’t worship idols!  Don’t steal, or commit adultery, or covet!  Those are commandments, no question about it.  But “I am the Lord your God” does not fit into that category.  No question about that either.

Nevertheless, Maimonides, in a book he wrote called Sefer HaMitzvot – the Book of Commandments – lists belief in God as commandment number one, and the verse he cites as proof is the first verse of the 10 commandments we read this morning – ‘I am the Lord your God.’  Nachmanides argued that he was wrong, and that a true commandment must include a rule about behavior, about something you should or should not do, and that in some way a commandment should be measurable.  That is to say, you should be able to know if you have fulfilled it or not.  Most of Judaism works that way.  You know specifically what prayers you are supposed to recited at a given service, and you either complete them or you don’t.  You know you are supposed to eat matzah at the seder, and you even know how much you are supposed to eat, and then you either fulfill the commandment or you don’t.  You know you are not supposed to eat certain things, and you either abide by that commandment, or you violate it.  But you know whether you’ve done it or not.

Belief is something that is entirely different.  People believe in different ways, they believe different things about God, their belief about God changes over time, it waxes and wanes, sometimes it is stronger, sometimes it is weaker.  Sometimes it might not be there at all, and then it might come back.  On top of that belief is such a personal thing – I am not sure I can even describe my belief to you.  How can you regulate something like that?  How can you determine whether it is being fulfilled or not, how can you measure it?  And as the debate about the first commandment that began with Maimonides and Nachmanides continued to play out through the centuries, some Jewish philosophers began to argue that matters of belief should not be commanded at all.  That  – like I said to my group of students more than twenty years ago – being Jewish is not something that should be defined by what you think, particularly by what you believe about God, or even if you believe in God or not!   Instead it should be defined by what you do.

You may know the old story about Schwartz and Greenberg, a story I’ve told before.  Schwartz and Greenberg are old friends and they come to shul together every morning, and they sit together in the morning minyan.  They both put on tallit and tefillin, they both know the service, follow the Hebrew, and can participate.  But there is one problem.  Schwartz does not believe in God.  And every morning, Schwartz’s wife gives him a hard time.  ‘Why do you go to shul all the time?  Greenberg I can understand, Greenberg is a believer, Greenberg has faith, but you, you have no faith, so why do you go?’  And finally one day Schwartz says ‘You know, Greenberg goes to shul to talk to God, and I go to shul to talk to Greenberg.’

The truth, of course, is that we all probably have a little Schwartz in us, and we all probably have a little Greenberg as well.  There may be days when we sit here with doubt in our hearts, when our faith is at a low point or maybe it is not there at all.  On those days are we any less Jewish?  And there may be other days when for one reason or another, probably for reasons we don’t even understand, our belief is stronger, and we are more sure that God exists and that God’s presence is a part of our lives.  On those days are we more Jewish?

I can only speak for myself, and I can tell you I’ve been in shul many times feeling like Greenberg, but I’ve also been here many times feeling like – well, Schwartz.  What I am grateful for either way, whether my faith that day is strong or weak, is waxing or waning, is that I am part of a tradition and community that honors that struggle, and that gives me a place to live my Jewish life with meaning every single day.

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The King’s Speech

You may know that Rabbi Saroken and I spent a good part of the week at the Pearlstone Center in Westminster at the annual Rabbinic Training Institute.  Every January some 70 Conservative rabbis from around the country gather to study, talk, pray, eat, even drink a little bit – and of course sing karaoke.  I will simply say after the Wednesday night session, if you haven’t seen a bunch of rabbis singing karaoke than you haven’t really lived!

One of the morning text classes I took was a Bible class that focused on characters in the text who struggle with disabilities.  The idea behind the course was that if we can see disabilities in some of our biblical heroes than our communities and synagogues will be more open and welcoming to people in the disabled community.  With close textual reading our teacher, Dr. Ora Prouser, showed us how Esau could be seen as a person struggling with ADHD.  Jacob, Esau’s brother, lives most of his life with a significant limp.  And perhaps most famously of all, we poured through texts describing Moses, thinking about the disability that he struggled with throughout his life, which is?  Yes, his speech.  Although the text is unclear as to what exactly Moses’ problem is – it has been suggested that perhaps he stuttered, or had a severe speech impediment –  it is absolutely clear that Moses had trouble talking.

There are multiple occasions where Moses reminds God of his difficulty with speaking, one of them in this morning’s Torah portion.  When God tells Moses to bring a message to Pharaoh, Moses responds by saying “אני ערל שפתים ואיך ישמע אלי פרעה – I am of impeded speech, how will Pharaoh hear me?!”  Almost implying that his speech is unintelligible.  God at first seems to pay no heed, but the truth is if you look a bit closer God seems to agree – how do we know this?  God says to Moses “OK, I’ll speak to you, you speak to Aaron, your brother, and then Aaron will be the one to speak to Pharaoh and the people.”  We can presume that Aaron, being Moses’ brother, can understand him, just as a parent of a child learning to speak can understand what the child is saying even thought to everyone else it sounds like gibberish.

I always knew about these passages, and the truth is most people, if you ask them, will be familiar with the idea that Moses has trouble speaking.  But what I had never really thought about before was that Moses carried this struggle throughout his life.  If you take out conversations that Moses has with God, which are already something different, and if you take out the book of Deuteronomy, which is also a book that is distinct in the Torah, and if you just look at the Moses in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, you’ll find a Moses who struggles to speak.  There are a few short speeches here and there, but for the most part Moses speaks in short spurts, a few words at a time, and by and large seems to speak as little as possible.

You may be thinking of the movie The King’s Speech, which tells the story of King George VI.  I don’t want to get into all of the palace intrigue, and the abdication of the throne by the older brother, but if you know the story you know that when King George came to the throne he had a terrible stuttering problem.  The movie follows his efforts to defeat that difficulty, and with the help of a speech therapist he is ultimately able to address his people, both on the radio and in person, with moving words during some of Britain’s darkest days, helping them maintain faith and hope for a better future.

The parallels between our Torah narrative and Moses, and the story about the King are clear.  Both are the leaders of their people, both have deep misgivings about whether they are suited to the roles they have been called to, and of course, both struggle with their ability to speak.  But there is one distinct difference.  The King overcomes his speech difficulties, but Moses never does.  Imagine the pressure he felt walking in to Pharaoh’s throne room knowing how hard it would be to get his words out properly.  Or the humiliation he might have felt having to whisper God’s laws into Aaron’s ear, who would then proclaim them to the people.  But despite this challenge, Moses persists and, if you’ll excuse the expression, carries on.  He never again brings up the fact that it is hard for him to properly speak.  He goes about his business, using Aaron when he needs to, sometimes speaking for himself when there is no other recourse.  Despite his difficulty with speech, he is able to lead his people to freedom.

Now I have a sense  – mostly from my own work – of how difficult it can be to speak properly, even when you DON’T have a speech impediment.  As a leader, your words carry real weight, and what you say makes a difference.  People want to hear from you, they want to know what is on your mind, what you think about issue x,y, or z.  The right words, carefully chosen and properly spoken, can inspire, soothe, heal, mend fences, and bring hope.  The wrong words can have the opposite effect – they can break relationships, create mistrust, hurt people, and bring anger and divisiveness into a family, or large scale, into a country.

Judaism was always sensitive to the power of words.  It is no accident that God creates the universe at the beginning of the Torah by using words.  That is an illustration of the power of words to create and bring goodness into the world.  But our tradition was well aware that the opposite side of the coin is also true, and that words can destroy, damage and hurt.  I imagine most of us are familiar with the concept of לשון הרע, commonly translated as gossip, but literally meaning ‘evil speech.’  This concept is considered so important in Jewish thought that the Chafetz Hayim, one of the great rabbis of the 19th century, wrote an entire book about the subject that he called שמירת הלשון, the Guarding of Language.

But this morning I would like to bring to your attention another Jewish concept about proper speech, less well known than לשון הרע , a concept called לשון נקי, which literally translated would mean ‘clean language.’  It is a simple and straight forward idea – when we speak, we should strive to elevate our language, to speak to our fellow human beings – or to speak about them – in the same way we might try to speak to or about God.  And that when we coarsen or cheapen our language, when we curse, or yell, when we rant and rave, we diminish others, but even more so we diminish ourselves.

That is a lesson we should all remember, in every interaction we have, whether with friends or family, whether at work or standing in line at the food store, whether we are a rabbi, an accountant, a teacher, whether Moses or the King of England, or even the President of the United States.  Hateful words, especially from leaders, will build a hateful world.  But clean language – לשון נקי – elevated language – will help us all to rise.  God willing in the months ahead we will figure out a way to leave the hate behind, and to rise together to build a more hopeful, peaceful, tolerant world for all.

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