Category Archives: liminal moments

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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Filed under Baltimore, Beth El Congregation, clergy, liminal moments, mindfulness, neighborhoods, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, ritual, seasons, Uncategorized

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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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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Filed under Gloucester MA, High Holy Days, Jewish thought, liminal moments, mindfulness, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, transitions, Uncategorized

A Retired Tallit

It was purchased just before my bar mitzvah, now 41 years ago.  I wore it proudly that day, one of the few bar mitzvah boys in the temple I grew up in to wear a prayer shawl the morning of my service.  In those days traditional practices like that were frowned upon in the Reform Movement.  But those very same practices fascinated me.  It seemed to me it smacked of something – tradition?  Authenticity?  Some ancient mysticism?  Whatever it was, I remember to this day the feeling as my rabbi helped to drape the tallit over my shoulders.

Who could have known at the time how often that prayer shawl would be worn?  At first it was just the occasional holiday service, when I would take it off the shelf where I kept it, carefully folded in its blue velvet bag.  But in my twenties it became a daily companion.  I had another tallit, a large, multicolored, gorgeous wool shawl that covered my entire six foot frame.  But that I used mostly on Shabbat and holidays.  In terms of my daily davening I used my bar mitzvah tallit.  It was relatively small, easy to store and fold, took up very little room in a suitcase when I traveled.  Each morning I would reach for it, unzip its bag and remove it, unfolding it.  After reciting the requisite blessing I kissed the edges of its atarah, and then briefly held the shawl over my head before letting it fall into place.

This ritual – for so it must be called! – was repeated over and over again, day after day, week after week, year after year.  I guess it would now be close to thirty years that the old tallit has served me so faithfully.  I often wondered if it somehow knew the inner workings of my heart?  I put it on on bad days and good ones.  Sometimes when it rested on me I was filled with sadness, other times with profound gratitude.  There were weary mornings after nights with little sleep, and bleary eyed I would still take the tallit from its bag, still say the blessing, still wear it for the brief moments of my morning prayers.  I wore it when doubts nagged at me, even when it seemed there was no reason to wear it, or perhaps even a reason not to.

As time went by the blue bag faded, the zipper no longer worked, the bag’s yellow lining was torn and threadbare.  The tallit itself suffered from the constant folding and unfolding, its creases wearing until finally holes began to appear.   Still I used it, perhaps folding it more gingerly, but not reducing its daily workload.  The tallit had been with me for thirty years, in LA and Boston, in New York and Jerusalem, in dozens of other cities we’ve visited and places we’ve stayed.  And remember, that formative and transformational moment, that bar mitzvah morning.

It was just a few weeks ago when I finally realized the holes were getting too large, and before long the tallit would just begin to fall apart.  I used it one last time, one last time taking it from its bag, one last time saying the ancient words with its barely noticeable weight on my shoulders, one last time carefully folding it and putting it away. Maybe it understood, somehow sensing that it could finally rest.  It had done its job well, always there for me, guiding me from the wide eyed bar mitzvah boy of over forty years ago to the rabbi and middle aged man of today.  One day I may bury it with honor in the cemetery, in the geniza grave with the other talleisim and prayer books and old humashim.  But for now it will sit on my shelf, in its old place, as it ever was.  There is now a new tallit there as well, and I’d like the two to get to know one another for a time.

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, continuity, Jewish life, liminal moments, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, the rabbinate, Uncategorized

Augusta ’84

The Deadheads among you will recognize the reference to the show played by the Grateful Dead at the Augusta Civic Center, in (where else?) Augusta, Maine, on the 12th of October, 1984.   Commonly acknowledged as one of the best concerts played by the Dead in the 80s, its reputation was sealed when it was included in a list of the top twenty Dead shows of all time, and then included as THE 1984 show in the CD box set release 30 Trips Around the Sun.

At the time, those of us who were lucky enough to be there had a sense that something special had happened.  We may not have fully grasped the magnitude, we may not have wrapped our heads around the ultimate historical significance, we weren’t talking about top twenty all time lists, but we knew that the band had conjured up the magic that evening.  I saw the Dead seven times that fall, twice in Worcester, MA (10/8 & 10/9), twice in Augusta (10/11 & 10/12), twice in Hartford, CT (10/14 & 10/15), and the tour closer at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse New York on 10/20.

The famous Augusta show was without question the peak of the tour, and within the show itself there was a moment that captured it all, that encapsulated what made the Dead the Dead.  I’ll return to that in a moment.  But the truth is the band was playing well in general that fall.  They were having fun, throwing in some rare gems, mixing up the setlists.  New England was cozy for the Dead, the venues all within a few hours drive of each other, many of the towns small, and that particular tour just happened to coincide with peak foliage, the oaks and maples deep into their oranges, yellows, and reds.

I guess what I am trying to say is as great as Augusta was, you could kind of see it (or feel it) coming.  The vibe was good, Jerry energized and playing well, Mydland digging deep into a new found commitment to the blues and his Hammond B3, Weir as frisky as ever, and the drummers tight.  Phil, for his part, was in a good personal space, sober, in love, and feeling groovy.  The table was set.

And you could trace it in the arc of the shows.  There was the explosive Help on the Way > Slipknot > Franklin’s Tower > Jack Straw to open set two of night two in Worcester.  It is true that the Help > Slip > Franklin’s is a bit sloppy and choppy, Jerry not quite keeping pace with the complicated transitional leads, but the venerable old Worcester Centrum simply explodes when the crowd realizes that Jack Straw is being served up in the heart of a strong second set.  Night one in Augusta, by the way, is a strong show in its own right.  The first set is particularly well played, with hot versions of Shakedown, Big River, Ramble on Rose, Looks Like Rain, and Might As Well.

And post Augusta the band played a phenomenal show in Hartford.  Often lost in the shuffle of the greatness of Augusta, the 10/14 Hartford show is one for the ages, with an eleven song first set, a powerful run of China > Rider, Samson and Delilah, High Time, Estimated > Eyes, all before drums!!  And then post-drums a gorgeous China Doll, with the breakout of Lovelight, only the 5th time the band had played the song since 1972.  Whew!

But allow me to return, for a moment, to Augusta.  A fair amount has been written about the 10/12/84 show.  The energetic playing.  The wild setlist, filled with rarities and songs only performed once or twice that entire year.  The phenomenal Morning Dew, and the Good Lovin’ encore.  But there was a moment, locked forever in my memory, that captured it all, that pushed the show from great to all-time top twenty lists, and that truly   expressed the quintessence of what the Dead were after night after night, of how powerful it was when they found it, and of why we went to so many shows looking for it.

It was in the second set, post drums.  There is a long, long jam, winding and twisting and turning out of the space.  Garcia’s guitar weaves sonic theme after sonic theme, but keeps coming back to the graceful notes that lead into Playing in the Band.  The problem was, they had played Playing in the Band the night before.  What was Jerry doing?  He brought the band right up to the edge of the song, and then danced away, then back again.  The notes appeared and disappeared, circling, close, almost, and then gone again.

And here is the thing.  We were all on that ride together, Garcia’s guitar like some kind of massive magic carpet that we all were riding.  Even the band!  It was electric, how closely they were listening, how intently following Jerry, how ready to be vessels for the great muse that was about to descend.  And we were too!  Knowing, even more so feeling that a giant and beautiful and powerful wave was about to crash, and we were all ready to ride it.

Then it happened.  Jerry turned towards Weir and Lesh, peering at them over his glasses in that Jerry way.  At that very moment Mickey leaned forward over his drum kit, yelling out to Bobby, ‘Playin?!’  Weir turned to the drummers for an instant, and with the briefest nod confirmed what was about to happen.  Suddenly, with tremendous force and power, just as Bobby turned back to the mic, the entire band came together on the mystical ‘one.’  Playing in the Band – the ‘Playin’ playout’ section – just the end, the reprise – filled up the old Augusta Civic.  I believe to this day the entire concrete shell of the building momentarily lifted a few feet off of God’s good earth, with 4,000 Deadheads aboard for the ride, and the greatest band we’d ever seen on one of their greatest nights.

In one of the oddest and nearly impossible karmic Grateful Dead occurrences, somehow, someone video taped that entire night in Augusta.  Remember, this was 1984!!  Like with seemingly everything else in the universe, you can find the video on Youtube.  The quality is iffy, but there is no question that it is the show from that evening.  You can’t see the drummers on the video – it is filmed from Phil’s side of the stage, and so you see some of Phil, and Bobby, Jerry, and Brent.

But that magic moment after the space is quite clear, vivd and captured for posterity by the mysterious videographer.  You see Weir turn back towards the drum kit, confirming Mickey’s query,  ‘Playin?!’  That slight nod, which I guess means something like ‘evidently so!’  And then the explosion.  Still gives me chills.  Even 34 years later.

Let there be songs to fill the air!  And magic, too, that will last a lifetime.

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Crossing Over Into A New Year

I have for many years been fascinated by liminal spaces.  These are threshold places, where we transition from one state or status to another.  The huppah is one prime example.  The bride and groom enter the space of the huppah as single, and dwell in that liminal space for twenty minutes or so.  While they stand there, as the wedding liturgy is pronounced over them, their status changes, and when they emerge from the huppah they are not single anymore.

Mikveh is another liminal space in Jewish life.  A person enters the waters of the mikveh and they are not Jewish, but after immersion they return to their family as a full fledged Jew and member of the Jewish community.  The mikveh water is the threshold place where that transformation happens and the person crosses over from one state of being to another.

There are many other examples.  It is not a coincidence that the mezuzah is placed at the liminal space of a home, the place where we cross over from the outside world to our own homes and vice versa (in halachic (Jewish legal) language, from the ‘rishut ha’rabim’ to the ‘rishut ha’yachid’ – from the public to the private domain).

Judaism has also long been interested in liminal moments – points in time that mark a transition from one state to another.  Morning and evening services acknowledge the change from darkness to light and back again.  There is a moment when the workday week ends and Shabbat begins, and another moment that marks Shabbat’s conclusion and the beginning of ‘secular’ time.  Passover is a festival that uses sacred time to recall a liminal historical moment: when the Israelites left slavery behind and became free.  Shavuot also asks us to relive a cross over moment from Jewish history, when Torah came into the world, changing it forever.  Rosh Hashanah is perhaps Judaism’s transitional moment holiday par excellence, celebrating the ending of one year and the beginning of the next.

December 31st serves the same purpose in our secular lives.  New Year’s Eve is a holiday with far less gravitas than Rosh Hashanah.  It is commonly marked by a festive evening gathering, football games on TV, and a midnight champagne toast.  But it is a liminal moment in our year nonetheless, and we do feel the sense of wonderment that comes with the close of a year’s time in our lives.  We think back and we look forward, perhaps even making a resolution or two about what we hope the next year will hold.  More than anything else we wonder at the passage of time.  2018?!  That seems like an awfully big number.  Wasn’t it just the 1980s?  Am I really that old?  Actually, forget about me – are my children really that old?!  New Year’s Eve doesn’t necessarily help us understand how we got from here to there, but it does remind us that we have traveled through 365 days of life.  And that it does sometimes truly feel like it all happened in the blink of an eye.

The 19th Psalm captures Judaism’s sense of the sacred liminal moment:  “The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of God’s hands.  Day to day makes utterance, night to night speaks out.  There are no words whose sounds goes unheard, their voice carries to the ends of the earth, their words to the very end of the world…”

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