Category Archives: liminal moments

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

What a Swing Set Measures

For almost twenty years the wooden swing set had been standing in our back yard.  The wood beams and metal jousts gracefully and patiently bore the passage of time, the vagaries of the weather, the hot sun of summer, the cold and snow of the winter months. For many years the swing set was busy.  It would creak with delight when children were swinging on its bright blue swings, laughing and trying to reach the sky above them.  Its crow’s nest was host to various clubs and secret societies. Meetings took place there where important topics were discussed, like the best way to eat a grilled cheese sandwich, or what might be the perfect container for a pine cone collection.

In those days the swing set was a hub of activity.  When the locusts swarmed one summer, its crow’s nest provided shelter from their flying, buzzing bodies.  One winter the snow piled so high the swings disappeared, and the children built a snow man to guard the old wooden structure until spring came and the snow melted away.  In the fall, when we built our sukkah, the swing set was just a few yards away, a welcome escape from the confining walls of our temporary harvest tent.  One year, in a high storm, the swing set watched stoically as our entire sukkah was blown over by a strong wind, almost laughing at the sukkah, as if to say ‘Look at me, I’ve been standing here for years, and this wind can’t even move me one inch.’

As the years went by trees grew up around the swing set.  A cherry tree’s branches intruded on the crow’s nest.  A strong maple grew up just behind the swings, so that children might feel they were swinging high up in the branches of a magical tree.  Finally a great willow grew swiftly, its massive branches blanketing the old structure in perpetual shade.

There were fewer and fewer visits to the swing set as the years passed.  Its crow’s nest was mostly silent and empty.  Squirrels scuttled across its top beams, but children rarely visited.  They were grown, too big for the swings, to old for such things as ‘crow’s nests’ and ‘secret clubs.’  The swing set became a kind of artifact.  It told stories.  Of a broken arm from swinging too high and landing too hard.  Of aimless summer days.  Of intricate projects and plans that were made and made again, but never implemented.  Of back yard barbecues and tie dye birthday parties.  Of watching young children grow.

We took the old swing set down this week.  Its time had come and gone, but it was a bitter sweet moment.  All of those memories wrapped up in its grooved and worn boards, its tattered canopy.  As it rested in the front yard, waiting for someone to come haul it away, a young woman drove by with her three young children in tow.  She noticed the aged crow’s nest, still proudly standing strong, bravely awaiting its fate.  ‘Were we getting rid of it?’ she wondered.  ‘And would we mind, if she could find someone to bring it down the street, if she gave that crow’s nest a new home?’

Just yesterday we walked around the neighborhood in the late afternoon.  It was an end of summer day, the sun warm and high in a bright blue sky, but the trees already starting to shed their leaves.  There at the bottom of the hill we saw the crow’s nest, tucked neatly away in a new back yard.  It was again surrounded by trees, not the old willow and maple, but evergreens that will guard it from the wind in the cold winter months.  Our neighbor scrubbed at the wood, working to sand it smooth so it would be ready for bare hands and feet.  It won’t be long.  Soon children will be playing there as they once did, and we will hear their laughter, as we walk by wondering where the past has gone, or if it has gone at all.  FullSizeRender 3

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Filed under community, continuity, liminal moments, memory, mindfulness, neighborhoods, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, seasons, Uncategorized

Teach Your Children

Penned by Graham Nash, the song first appeared on the classic CSNY album Deja Vu, released in 1970.  Arguably one of the best known and most beloved rock songs of all time, the opening lyrics are unforgettable, sung in the high, soaring harmonies that marked the group at its height:

You who are on the road
Must have a code that you can live by
And so become yourself
Because the past is just a good-bye.
Teach your children well,
Their father’s hell did slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The one they picks, the one you’ll know by.
Don’t you ever ask them why, if they told you, you will cry,
So just look at them and sigh
And know they love you.*

The song came into my mind this past Sunday evening, when Becky and I had the chance to see Dark Star Orchestra at the Maine State Pier in Portland.  The band was in rare form, probably the best I’ve seen them, playing with energy and verve through a concert, as they say, ‘originally performed by the Grateful Dead’ in the spring of 1989.  It was a GA venue over looking the water, a gorgeous and sunny Maine afternoon, everything just about exactly perfect.

It just so happened that we found our spot in the sea of Deadheads a few yards in front of the soundboard.  To our right was a multi-generational Deadhead family.  The original Heads, now in their mid-60s, brought their daughters and grandchildren to the show.  The grandmother took great joy in sharing the time and the music with her grandchildren, spending a good part of the evening dancing with them, holding them, laughing and playing with them.

There is something about old Deadheads that tugs at my heartstrings.  They’ve often seen a lot, been through a lot, done a lot (maybe in some cases too much!).  Their bodies don’t quite move like they used to (whose do?!).  But there is a powerful resiliency there.  And also a love of something deep and true.  When the lights go down and the music comes up, the first notes ringing loud and clear through the blue sky of a late summer afternoon, they get to their feet and begin to move.  The heads start to nod, the hips shake, the feet shuffle, the fingers snap.  And yes, the lips smile.  They feel it in their hearts and souls, the sweet melodies that have accompanied them through so many years, so many moments of their lives.  The music brings them to their feet, rejuvenates their spirits, gives them a few precious hours to leave the world behind and to join in the great tribal celebration with family, friends, the extended Deadhead community, and yes, even with grandchildren.  Perhaps, especially with grandchildren.

The second set of the show opened with Shakedown Street, the Dead’s nod to the late 70s disco revolution, somehow turned into one of their great jamming vehicles.  “Don’t tell me this town ain’t got no heart!”  We might say the very same thing about the old Deadheads.  Teaching the next generations, they are still on the road, still driving the bus.

* Deadheads will remember that the opening pedal steel guitar licks of the tune are played by Jerry Garcia

here is a link to the Grateful Dead’s original performance of the Pittsburgh ’89 show

And below a picture of the proud grandmother and her grandchildren at the show – IMG_4940

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Filed under celebration, community, continiuty, Grateful Dead, liminal moments, music, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Uncategorized

The Car

It was a 1979 Peugeot 504 diesel.  A nondescript brown/grey color, stick shift, manual sunroof, four door.  It was slow as molasses, the diesel engine struggling to propel the car up any incline of even moderate degree.  The back of the car – bumper, rear window, heck even the side windows – entirely covered in Grateful Dead stickers.  I remember at one point counting them, and there were more than twenty.  I actually had a debate with my dad about whether there was still enough room to see safely with the rear view mirror because the stickers blocked your view.

I drove that car my senior year of high school and freshman year of college.  It was no frills.  No AC.  Hand crank windows.  No power steering or power brakes.  It got great mileage – I could make it from Boston to Binghamton NY on a half a tank of diesel fuel.  The trunk was not huge, but I could get everything I owned in that car – everything – including my Polk Audio speakers, always stacked in the back seat.  One time I even had a keg of beer in the trunk that made loud clunking noises every time I turned or accelerated.  I had installed an Alpine cassette deck/radio in the dash.  It played through the tinny speakers, and I kept a small wooden box filled with Maxell cassette tapes on the carpeted mound between the driver’s  and ‘shotgun’ seats.

That old Peugeot rarely started in the winter.  There was a heating element for the engine that you turned on before you tried to start it in the cold, but it didn’t work well.  In cold weather I always parked at the top of a hill, and would gather 3 or 4 hearty friends to push me out into the road.  If you kept your foot on the clutch, and the car managed to get to 10 or 15 miles an hour drifting down the slope, you could ‘pop’ the clutch (suddenly release it)  and the engine would cough its way into running.  Sometimes you had to do it a couple of times before it would start.  If you got to the bottom of the hill and it didn’t go, you were out of luck.  Wait until spring, I guess.

We had all kinds of adventures in that car.  There was the time in the snowstorm, when my friend reached from the back seat and released the sunroof, allowing 6 inches of snow to tumble into the front seats.  Yes this was while we were driving.  There was the drive back from Baltimore in 1982, having seen the Dead at the Civic downtown, when the windshield wiper fluid ran out.  It was early spring, the Pennsylvania roads were covered in brown slush and dirty, melting snow.  As I drove, my friend reached out the window with tissues and tried to wipe it clean every few minutes.  One New Year’s eve in a heavy snow storm the car slid 5o yards down a steep road, gently and softly settling into a mound of snow before sighing to a stop.  There were late nights and early mornings, full moons surrounded by bright stars, hazy sun rises, trips to the beach, long rides alone singing along to a favorite song or gazing out at the beautiful rocks and trees of western Massachusetts.  Dozens of Grateful Dead shows.  Stops in Buffalo and Saratoga, in Harrisburg and Hartford, in Portland and Syracuse.  Endless miles.  The road does indeed go ever on and on.

That car transported us.  Physically of course, taking us from place to place, that unimaginable sense of freedom, of knowing you can pretty much go anywhere at anytime.  But also metaphysically, transporting our minds and hearts, our souls and spirits, those shared moments of joy and laughter and struggle and adventure that would never happen again.  Eventually that old Peugeot gave up the ghost.  Some irreparable, fatal flaw developed – the engine block cracked, I think.  It was put to pasture in a junk yard somewhere, rusting in the summer rains and cold winter snows of upstate New York, Dead stickers slowly fading over time.  It wasn’t a great car – slow, difficult to drive, mechanically flawed.  But it was a classic.  And they just don’t make ’em like that anymore.  car

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The Window

The window was right there, just a couple of feet to my left.  I was in fourth grade, Mrs. Cronk’s class (yes that was actually her name!), Thomas Jefferson School.  My classmates and I sat and squirmed, stared at the chalk board, poked at one another when the teacher’s back was turned, sometimes sighed with boredom, sometimes learned something new and surprising, still remembered to this day.  We watched the clock at the front of the room, the minutes ticking by at a painfully slow pace, three o’clock our magic hour of release.

But my view from the window called to me.  In the late summer the leaves of the trees were still green.  Just beyond that blue house on the corner with the worn front step was a field where I often played football.  And at the end of the street, at the edge of my vision, was a yard where a friendly dog lived.  He would be sleeping just a about now, in the shade of that tree in their front yard.

In fall the leaves turned, and I watched this miraculous process unfold through my classroom window, day after day.  I knew as I sat at my desk that acorns were collecting at the base of an old oak tree, that the wind was blowing fallen leaves along the sidewalk, that a leaf pile I had jumped in just yesterday was waiting for another chance.  The air was crisper, and out in the school yard a gym class played kickball.

In the winter mounds of snow piled up in the school parking lot.  When I stole a glance out my window I could see the largest of those piles to my left.  We had played king of the hill on it that morning, reluctantly entering our classrooms wet and cold, with flushed cheeks, numb hands and feet.  There was unfinished business on that greying mound of snow, if only the clock would somehow find its way to ‘3.’

In early spring my window framed a view of melting ice and snow, of grey trees silently and inscrutably watching the length of the days, feeling the temperature, their tops bare and exposed to the still cold wind.  A fifty degree day was a revelation!  Looking out my window I knew what the walk home would be.  We would shed our jackets, kick stones down the street, poke at the melting snow with sticks fallen from the trees during the winter, stomp in a puddle or two just for good measure.

For school might hold us for a while, but outside the window was an adventure waiting to happen, each walk home a journey of exploration, with a sense of freedom and independence, of possibility, of becoming.  The window looked out on my small home town, the narrow streets, the neatly trimmed lawns, the cracked sidewalks and running rows of hedges.  But it also looked out on a big world, grand and open, mountains, rivers, hills, vast plains.  A day would come when I would go there, too.

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One Good Day

For me, the ingredients are simple and straight forward.  First of all a chance to read, to spend time with my mind drifting to the furthest shore, to go back in time or forward, and then back again, to visit faraway lands, to feel the sting of loss or the triumph of truth or the swell of a heart, all through the pages of a book.  Perhaps also to study a new subject, or to relearn an old one.  To reflect on the issues of the day.  I still read the ‘old fashioned’ way – real books, with covers and pages, even actual newspapers, dirty-finger producing, paper crinkling, awkwardly sized as they might be.

The second thing?  Just some family time.  Unhurried, unscheduled, no clear agenda, no places to be, no times to keep.  There is a simple and calm joy in those moments, rare as they are, almost a quiet wonderment, a lightness of being and a poignant feeling of gratitude.  Just to be together.  To celebrate, without word or ritual, or even thought, the powerful connection that binds us to those we love.

And also to spend some time outside.  Preferably during the liminal moments of the day, dawn or dusk, the sun rising or falling, the colors changing, the unmistakable sense that the world is moving beneath your very feet.  To mark the wind and see  – yes, see – the air.  To hear the sharp bark of a dog, the rustle of a breeze, the subtle song of a bird.  To notice how an acorn falls from a tree, or how the nose of a rabbit wrinkles again and again, wondering if the scent of danger has arrived.  To walk in quiet thought, pondering, musing, considering, and also wondering – how is it that this great world in all its beauty is somehow connected to me?

Last but not least, to play my guitar.  Not particularly well, of course.  But just to strum the strings and form the chords, to juxtapose the majors and minors, to pick a simple melody which has been picked so many times before, for so many years.  Perhaps to play a song I’ve loved, and to hum along, occasionally forming the words in my mind.  There is something calming about it to me, almost meditative.  The world outside recedes, the troubles and tribulations and sorrows and sadnesses begin to fade.  For the song is eternal. It was always in the world, just waiting for some unknowing person to pick up an instrument at just the right time, so the song can, ever briefly, find a home.  It may stay for a time, a generation or even two, and then it will go back to the place from whence it came.  But while it dwells with me, in my hands, in my mind, in the sweet spruce and dark mahogany woods of my guitar, it brings a sense of soul-calm.

But soon the guitar must be laid aside, the song let go.  Darkness has fallen, somehow the day is coming to an end.  And the dog must be walked!  A last dish or two attended to.  And if I hurry some time, at the very end of this day, to go back to my book.

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A Day in the Life

Of a rabbi, of course.  This was Sunday, a busy one, filled with lifecycle events as Sundays so often are.  My schedule had been complicated by a funeral (something you simply can’t plan for).  I was writing the eulogy by 7:30, doing my best to pull together the threads of the conversation I had had with the family the previous day.  A long and well lived life, one worthy of both celebration and gratitude.  The funeral was scheduled for 1.

But there were other things on the docket.  First up a conversion of a 6 month old baby boy.  I met the family, helped the parents navigate a moment that is both simple and at the very same time enormously complex.  When the baby was out of the mikveh and dry and smiling, I was back in my office.  My remaining schedule for the day:  an unveiling at 12:15, the funeral at 1, and then a wedding downtown scheduled to begin at 3:30.

Of course I had to prepare for the wedding, put together a few comments to make to the bride and groom, make sure I knew exactly what the order of the ceremony would be.  I spent the 40 minutes or so between the conversion and the time I had to leave for the unveiling doing the wedding prep.  At 11:45 I was climbing into my car to head to the cemetery for the unveiling.

Now it would be a sprint – unveiling, funeral, burial, wedding, all in rapid succession.  I met the family for the unveiling in the cemetery at 12:10, a small group gathered a year after their loss to pay tribute to memory and presence.  At 12:25 I left the cemetery and drove to the funeral home.  The funeral service began promptly at 1, with beautiful words of tribute spoken by the son and daughter of the woman who had died.  From the funeral home back to the cemetery for the burial service.  It was now 2:45.  I left the cemetery for the second time that day, pulled onto the highway, and headed downtown.

I found the proper lot, parked, took my tallit and of course the ever present Rabbi’s Manual.  I found the wedding coordinator (s!) and they led me to the bride and groom.  There is always a reaction when the rabbi arrives at a wedding – yes!  This is actually going to happen!  And soon! We signed the ketubah, were led downstairs, got in line for the procession, the music started, and we were off.  Wonderful bride and groom, laughing and so at ease.  In twenty minutes it was all over, the young couple joined together as husband and wife.

I took a breath.  A kindly bartender poured me a bourbon, and I chatted with some of the wedding guests for a time, even got to wish the groom a mazaltov.  But the day was over.  Dusk was falling, and I headed home.

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