Category Archives: liminal moments

Strong Winds

With a promise of winter a stiff and chilly wind blew in from the east this morning, doing its best to wrest the last leaves off the trees and drying the ground from last night’s rain.  I stood for a time at an upstairs window looking out over our back yard.  My eyes were level with the tops of the trees.  The evergreens and the giant willow at the edge of our yard bent and flowed with the gusts, an elegant and ancient dance.

There was something majestic about it all.  The wind itself has a certain power – physically, yes, but also over the imagination.  That sense of shifting, of being lost in the midst of great movement, the ebb and flow of it, the whooshing as the air and the remaining leaves enact their annual fall battle.  Sometimes it seems as if the trees are passing the wind from one to the next, down the street, from bare branches to red and gold leaves and back again, as one tree top after another will begin to sway.  A great and intricate pattern, known only to nature.

The animals sense it too.  Winter is coming!  The squirrels have been furiously busy, canvassing the yards for undiscovered acorns and then stashing them away in some secret place.  The deer have been nervously pacing the neighborhood, wondering where their winter food will come from, especially now that the woods has been virtually taken away by the new housing development.  And in the late afternoon, as the sun began to sink and the cold intensified, a great hawk sat for a time on a low branch.  Surveying the ground stoically, the wind ruffled its feathers.  Suddenly it took to the air, cruising low over the ground, and then disappearing from view in a copse of trees.

You may remember the song Four Strong Winds.  Written in 1961 by Ian Tyson, the best known version of the song is on Neil Young’s classic 1978 record Comes A Time.  With haunting harmonies sung by Nicolette Larson, it is a song about loss and longing, about moving on when the chill of winter begins to creep in.  And also about how hope endures in the human heart, even in darkness.  From the song’s chorus:

Four strong winds that blow lonely, seven seas that run high
All those things that don’t change, come what may…

Here is a link to the Neil Young version of Four Strong Winds – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PTMMS88gi6c

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Leaping Souls

There is a lithograph that hangs at the end of our upstairs hall.  It is a depiction of one of the Bible’s best known scenes, showing a sleeping Jacob at the foot of a tall ladder that runs from Earth to Heaven.  On the ladder angels can be seen, seemingly going from one place to the other, although it is a bit unclear from the picture if they are going up or down.

I’ve always read the biblical story (Genesis 28:10-19) as a narrative about the way God’s presence can suddenly appear in unexpected places at unexpected times.  Here was Jacob, alone in the wilderness, in a place that might actually be described as ‘God-forsaken,’ and he has an experience that reminds him that God is still with him.  Even there.  But the lithograph in our home has given me a different perspective on the story.  The two lower angels seem to beckoning to Jacob, waving their arms upwards, as if to say, ‘Rise with us, shake off your slumber, you can follow us to a higher place, a more sacred space, and we can show you the way.’

Freud might say the angels are a representation of Jacob’s unconscious.  Even while he sleeps there is a part of him that is striving to do and be better, to ‘rise’ to become the person he knows he should be.  After all, Jacob has at best a complicated history.  He has just deceived his father, and this seems to be part of a pattern in his life, having previously done something similar to his brother Esau.  He knows Esau is threatening to kill him.  So Jacob flees for his life.  He is physically alone when he dreams of the ladder and the angels, but he is also suffering from an existential loneliness, and perhaps he is engaged in what the Sages would call a Heshbon HaNefesh, an accounting of the soul.  So that night, alone with his thoughts, he dreams not only of a way out, but also of a way up.

The Kotsker Rebbe taught that when we are born God sends our souls from Heaven to Earth on a ladder, and that the fundamental task of our lives is to climb back up that ladder in the course of our earthly journey.  But there is a trick.  For according to the Kotsker, God pulls the ladder up, just out of our reach, the moment we arrive on Earth.  We might sense the ladder is there, but we can’t see it.  Some souls leap, trying to grasp the ladder, and after trying for a time get discouraged.  But other souls continue to leap, year after year, knowing that something sacred is there, and never giving up on finding it.  The Kotsker Rebbe said that for those souls God has mercy, and ultimately reveals the ladder to them.

Our task then, in the words of the Kotsker Rebbe, is to be leaping souls.

That image is a powerful one, particularly during our fall holiday season.  We do spend these weeks thinking about our lives, weighing our own characters, and wondering what we can do to be better.  Just like leaping, the process can be tiring, even discouraging at times.  We know ourselves well, we know the foibles and the flaws, the shortcomings and the sorrows.  But we ask God for the strength to continue to leap, to almost literally jump forward into a new year, with all of its possibility and hope.  A metaphoric leap of faith.

The picture in our hall reminds me, day in and day out, that the ladder is out there, even if I can’t see it everyday.  Like the angels with Jacob, there are so many forces in my life that constantly encourage me to continue to reach for that first rung.  People who love me and trust me.  Family and friends with whom I’ve shared the joys and sadnesses of life.  The beauty of God’s world that brings to me a sense of the sacred.  And always the start of a New Year and the chance to both return and renew.IMG_0932

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The Old Knuckle Curve

If you are a baseball fan you know that the game has lost some of its subtlety in recent years.  Today’s baseball is largely about power – namely, power pitching, and power hitting.  Pitchers routinely throw fastballs in the high 90s, and to see 97 miles an hour on the old radar gun has become routine.  And hitters?  Juiced/changed ball or not, home runs are on a record pace this season.  In a game in June between Arizona and Philadelphia 13 home runs were hit.  13!! In one game!  Baseball today has in large part become a question of whether power hitters can make contact with near 100 mph fastballs.  When they do, the baseball leaves the ball park.

And yet.  A few weeks ago my brother and I were at Citi Field watching our beloved Mets play the San Diego Padres.  The Padres had a young power pitcher on the mound, and the stadium pitch tracker regularly reported pitches in the high 90s, many of them 96 mph plus.  The Mets pitcher was Jason Vargas, a 36 year old journeyman left hander (since traded to the Phillies) who has played for 6 different teams in the course of his career.  At 36 Vargas’ arm doesn’t have the ‘juice’ it once did.  His fastballs were reaching the plate at a tepid 88 mph.  His curve ball registered in the low to mid 70s.  And yet somehow, inning after inning, Vargas retired the Padres lineup.  When he left the mound in the 6th he had given up exactly zero runs, while the Padres flamethrower had given up 5.

There was one particular pitch by Vargas that caught my eye.  After he released the ball and it settled firmly into the catcher’s mitt, I checked the pitch tracker.  ‘Knuckle curve’ was the pitch type reported by the tracker graphic.  Oh, and miles per hour? 67.

The knuckle curve is a rarely thrown pitch, a weird hybrid of a curve ball and a knuckle ball, that somehow manages to both curve and float.  Few pitchers have it in their arsenal, and only a crafty and grizzled veteran like a Jason Vargas will throw one in a game.  In most circumstances a 67 mph pitch looks to a major league hitter like the moon floating towards him, large, bright, easy to see and to strike.  But a knuckle curve is a pitch of subtlety, not power.  In its almost leisurely journey to home plate it floats a bit, curves a bit, looks so tempting, so slow, but then at the very moment when you swing it somehow isn’t where you thought it would be.   To paraphrase the venerable Wee Will Keeler, the knuckle curve is thrown where they ain’t.

You see, that is precisely how Vargas pitched those 6 shutout innings.  Rarely if ever hitting even 90 on the radar gun, he painted the corners.  He ‘located’ his pitches.  He threw up in the zone when the hitter thought it was going to be low.  He threw on the inside corner when they expected the outside of the plate, he threw his 88 mph fastball when they were looking for the curve ball.  And he threw the knuckle curve when they were looking for anything but that.

It happens to the best of us.  As we age our bodies just can’t work the way they used to.  Forget about 95 mile per hour fastballs.  We can’t play tennis the same way.  Or hit the golf ball as far.  Or do quite as much yard work.  Or even walk the same distance with ease.  Or drive at night with the same confidence.  We reach for the reading glasses to glance at the menu, we spend a few moments stretching before we get out of bed. And that only takes care of some of the aches and pains.  Even our minds aren’t quite as quick as they used to be.  What we never forgot we sometimes don’t remember, at least not in that instantaneous way we once did.

The question is, have we learned to ‘paint the corners’ over the years?  Have we added a knuckle curve or two to our arsenal?  Do we appreciate life’s subtitles, the quiet moments, the long standing friendships, the small accomplishments, the moments shared with those we love?  There are spaces in life that you only learn to fill as the years go by.  They can’t be charged through, or overcome with blunt force of will.  As the years pass there is an accumulated wisdom that settles in, a patient understanding of what something’s true value is, of what matters most, and of what, in the end, barely matters at all.  When those lessons are learned, it is easier to relinquish that 95 mph fastball.  And you begin to understand, as time goes by,  how sweet that knuckle curve truly can be when it is throw in just exactly the right way.

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The Work of Our Hands

This is a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 7/27/19 –

     On three separate occasions I have been involved with the rabbinic ordination ceremonies at the Jewish Theological Seminary.  Once was my own ordination, the very moment I became a rabbi in my own eyes.  The other two times I was asked to participate in the ceremony by ordaining rabbinical students.  The ritual is simple but powerful.  The person being ordained is called forward, and words of blessing are spoken.  Then a tallit is taken and placed upon the student’s shoulders, and as the hands of the ordaining rabbi rest on the student’s shoulders, the student is for the very first time publicly called ‘Harav’ – rabbi.

     That ordination ritual comes in part from a scene in this morning’s Torah portion, one of the most poignant moments in the entire Bible.  God tells Moses that his time is almost up, that he is about to die.  God takes Moses to the top of a mountain outside the land, and shows him the place where the Israelites will make their home.  That in and of itself is painful – Moses, who has given everything to God and to the people will never see the fruits of his own labors.  But it is the simple exchange between Moses and God that follows that I find so striking.

     Moses says to God ‘OK, God, if I am not going to be the leader, then go ahead and appoint someone else to lead this people.’  And I’ve always felt this is Moses’ way of saying ‘God, no one else can do what I do!  If you think you can find another person to fill my shoes, go ahead, good luck!’  I’ve always read Moses’ response as a way of indicating to God that he is indispensable, of trying to remind God that God needs Moses, otherwise the whole project will fall apart.  

     But God’s response is devastating, at least that is the way it has always seemed to me.  Immediately, God responds to Moses:  קח לך את יהושע בן נון – just take Joshua! אשר רוח בו – he also has the spirit of God – וסמכת את ידך עליו – and lay your hands upon him.  In other words, God is saying, don’t worry Moses.  It won’t be hard to find someone to fill your shoes!  In fact, Joshua is right here.  So if you don’t mind, ordain him in front of the people, and he’ll be the leader from this point forward.  And that moment of ordination, that transfer of power, is marked in the Torah by Moses laying his hands upon Joshua’s shoulders.  At that very instant the people know that Moses is out, and Joshua is in.  And it is that laying of hands that became the symbol in Judaism of the transfer of authority, from one generation to the next, which is why it is used during rabbinic ordination ceremonies down to this very day.

     I’ve always wondered how Moses felt at that moment.  Wasn’t he crushed by God’s response?  Wouldn’t it have been nice if God had paused, at least for a minute or two, and said ‘You know you are right Moses, it won’t be easy to find someone to replace you!’  Bit it is like Joshua is right on the tip of God’s tongue!  God doesn’t even say ‘nice job Moses, here is a gold watch, I’ll set you up in a nice condo in Boca.’  No words of praise, no words of thank.  It is all matter of fact.  It is done in a second, almost before you even know what happened. It isn’t hard to imagine Moses standing off to the side, while Joshua, now suddenly the center of attention, is surrounded by the people.

     The passage has reminded me, as I encounter it year in and year out, of the all too common indignities of aging that confront us as the years go by.  One of the most difficult challenges that families face is the take the keys away moment.  I suspect you know what I’m talking about.  The family feels a person’s driving is no longer safe.  They fret and worry that the person might hurt him or herself, or someone else in an accident.  But they also know that driving is a major measure of independence, and that to take that away from their loved one will cause hurt and pain, embarrassment, and even anger.  But eventually, whether by hook or by crook, whether by force or subterfuge, those keys are taken.

      This scene plays out in our lives over and over again, in ways large and small.  It might be the moment you switch from a weekly singles game in tennis to a doubles game.  Or maybe it is the first year that the seder no longer takes place at your home, but moves to the home of a child or grandchild.  Some people retire from work willingly, eager to let go and enter a less stressful and demanding time of their lives.  But others have to be dragged out kicking and screaming, and they want to stay in the game for as long as they possibly can.  What was it that Bette Davis said?  Getting old ain’t for sissies.  And I’ve always understood the encounter between God and Moses in this morning’s Torah portion as that kind of moment, a moment where something is taken away from Moses, where his independence is lost, and his self worth is diminished.

     But I also wonder if Moses found some comfort in that moment that he laid his hands upon Joshua.  Because in a sense that means he had done his work well.  That because of his teaching, because of the way he had mentored Joshua, a new leader was ready when the time came.  Moses knew Joshua well, they had worked together, he must have been proud of him, he must have known that Joshua was qualified for the job, and that if anyone would be able to do it, he would be the one.  

     This is not to say that the moment wasn’t hard for Moses.  I am sure it was.  But maybe it wasn’t all bad.  Maybe balancing the sense of loss he felt was a sense of accomplishment.  That moment of semicha – of laying on the hands – is a moment of continuity, of acknowledging that we are part of a stream of tradition, that moves from one generation to the next.  And if we play our part well, then we will know that our values and the traditions that mean so much to us will be carried forward by the next generation, and the one after that.  

     So let us play our part.  To the best of our ability, with whatever strength God grants to us.  Knowing that no person is indispensable – not even a Moses.  But knowing also that if we are blessed in the course of our lives what we create can truly change the world for the better.  Consider these verses that conclude the 90th Psalm –  ויהי נועם ה׳ אלוקינו עלינו ומעשה ידינו כוננה עלינו, ומעשה ידינו כונניהו – The favor of the Lord our God be upon us.  God will establish the work of our hands.  The work of our hands God will surely establish.

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Summer Stillness

A gentle breeze was blowing when I found Rabbi Loeb sitting on the wooden bench outside of our chapel.  It was late on a Shabbat afternoon, at the end of a gorgeous summer day, not too hot, not too cool, just exactly right.  In a short while the evening service would begin, the Torah would be read, havdallah chanted.  But in some magical way time seemed to stop.  Rabbi Loeb, always running, always with a next thing, always with a deadline, was relaxed and peaceful.  He looked at the flowers, the green grass, the leaves in the trees, at the edifice of the building that housed the congregation he had served for decades.  He looked up at the blue sky, just beginning to darken to a deeper shade in the east.

I sat down on the bench next to him.  We didn’t say a word.  Just took pleasure in the sharing of that moment, each with our own thoughts.  Spring was behind us, and the fall with its demands seemed a long ways off.  It was summer, the slower pace, the reverie, the subtle astonishment at the beauty of this world when it is in full bloom.  Somewhere a baseball game was being played, a lawn mowed, neighbors were sitting on a porch and discussing the events of the day, drinking iced tea or lemonade, listening to music playing on an old radio.  Somewhere.  But in our moment it was all stillness.

There is a beautiful midrash about the giving of the Ten Commandments, one of my favorites.  It imagines the precise moment before God spoke the words of Torah at Sinai as a moment of profound silence and stillness.  A moment when the world became soundless.  When even the endless waves of the sea stopped their incessant murmuring.  When the entire world paused to listen.

Sometimes there are no words.  That is a hard thing for a rabbi to admit.  In some ways we are paid talkers.  Our job is to speak, to teach and counsel and preach and bring meaning and context and comfort using words.  What is the old joke?  ‘Before I speak, I would just like to say a few words.’  That is a joke made for rabbis.

But sometimes silence is better.  Sometimes stillness gives us the opportunity to think and feel, to understand more deeply, to sense more profoundly, to experience more fully. In our increasingly busy and noisy world, those moments are few and far between.  But we should look for them, search them out.  Often they are right there, waiting to be discovered, waiting for us to be still, waiting for us to listen.  Like on a summer afternoon, on a wooden bench, under a clear blue sky.

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Spring

Often in those first few heady days of growing warmth there was still snow and ice along the sidewalks and streets, left over from the long and cold winter.  As it finally melted away it glistened in the sunshine as its dripping rivulets became tiny streams that ran along the curbs, formed puddles and eddies, searching, searching for the river down below.  Sometimes the current was strong enough to float twigs or old leaves in the water, like little boats on their way to some destination unknown.  We stomped on the thin ice layers that formed above the running water and they broke away, shattering with a satisfying crunchy sound.  Meanwhile, above our heads, the first buds were cautiously appearing on the old oaks and maples.  But we were mostly concerned with what was down below.

Despite the lingering cold we shed our jackets, left them lying on the muddy grass or hanging from an old fence post.  Isn’t it an odd thing that 48 degrees in spring feels warm, while the same temperature in late November brings on a chill?  We explored all of the hidden paths we used to navigate from yard to yard and block to block.  We knew them all, could find them in the dark, low fences that divided backyards, worn paths through fields, where certain gates were, what was the best way to scoot along someone’s home so you wouldn’t be seen.  It was a kind of sacred and arcane knowledge that gave us access to a mysterious and secret world where only we could dwell.  Our galoshes were caked with mud as we tramped along, often holding sticks we had acquired along the way.

We talked bravely of things we had seen and done, we recalled memories of summers past and riding the waves at the beach, we worried about school and friends and girls.  We imagined what we might one day do and who we might be.  We took our time, we climbed trees with low hanging branches, testing our dexterity and derring-do.  We stopped for snacks under an old pine, the remnants of candy bars carefully wrapped in wax paper tucked away in our pockets.    Before long the streets would be lined with leaf filled trees.  Summer would stretch before us, its weeks to us like an endless ribbon of warm days and adventures yet to come.  But for now it was spring, and that was more than enough.

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A Week in the Life

Some of what I’ve seen this week:

A four month old baby nestling in the lap of his 90 year old great-grandmother.  His head fit perfectly into the crook of her right arm.  It was a celebration of his naming and conversion (he had been to the mikveh earlier in the day), and also of her special birthday.  The entire family was gathered around.  The children, now in their late sixties, the grandchildren creeping close to their forties, the great-grandchildren, ranging from 10 or so all the way down to this newest addition.  His eyes were bright and wide as he took in his surroundings, his cousins, the generations of his family.  She radiated joy, even tough life was not easy, even though she was mostly wheelchair bound, even though …

But what is a day like that, a moment like that, a family like that, worth?  Maybe the answer is this:  everything.

 

A seventy year old man got up to eulogize his mother.  She died at 94, after a long, good, and full life.  She had seen the birth of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, had been blessed with good health well into her 90s, had lived with a sense of joy and gratitude.  Truly a good life, a life to celebrate.

He spoke simply and clearly, related a story or two, talked about characteristics and qualities, laughed a bit.  And then cried.  Even when you are 70 and your mother is 94, even when the life was good and long, even when there is so much to be grateful for, a loss is a loss, and your mother is your mother, and the one who brought you into the world is no longer there for you, as she always was.  The grief is real, and the pain is deep, and the heart is torn and needs time to mend and heal and feel grateful again.

 

A man in his 80s has been fighting an insidious disease for a long time.  I visit him every few months, to check in, to catch up, maybe to lighten his spirit just a bit.

His independence is slowly but surely eroding.  From living alone to living in a supported living environment, from being able to walk with a walker to riding in a motorized wheelchair, to now needing to be pushed everywhere.  His mind is sharp, he watches it happen, bit by bit, day by day.

He fights with great strength of spirit and even greater dignity.  He smiles and jokes, he goes about his day in the best way he can, he gets up each morning, gets dressed, mindless tasks for us, monumental tasks for him.

We chat about the stock market (oy!), the Ravens (he is a fan and anticipating this weekend’s game), and most of all about his family.  He plans for the future, thinks about how he can improve his life, and finds within himself the grit and determination to do so.

The morning blessings we recite each day remind us to be grateful for the ability to stand, to move, to stretch, to dress, to rise from bed, to welcome the morning’s first light.

Life, too, can remind us of how grateful we should be for each and every day.

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