Category Archives: loss

Voices of the Past

This a text version of my introductory remarks to Yizkor on Shemini Atzeret 5777 –

Just a few weeks ago I was looking through some old files hoping for High Holy Day sermon inspiration when I cam across a text I at first did not recognize.  It was 16 pages long, in a larger font, and when I began to read through it I realized what it was – a text of the last Yizkor sermon Rabbi Mark Loeb ever gave.  Some of you may remember the occasion – it was on YK afternoon, 9 years ago, and it was the first time we had combined our afternoon yizkor services.  We had advertised that Rabbi Loeb would be giving that afternoon’s sermon, hoping to draw a large crowd, and we were not disappointed.  The Berman Rubin Sanctuary was packed, standing room only, with more than 1500 people who had come not only to recite their yizkor prayers on our tradition’s most sacred day, but also to hear their beloved Rabbi give perhaps his last major sermon.

As you may expect, Rabbi Loeb did not disappoint.  I remember the powerful emotion in the room that afternoon, but to be honest I did not remember much of what Rabbi Loeb said, which simply proves my experience that most sermons are not remembered.  I knew he had approached the talk as a ‘last lecture’ – an idea that comes from the world of academia, where a retiring professor will give a final talk in which he hopes to summarize his life’s work.  And he had listed out a number of specific points about Judaism and Jewish life that he felt were the keys to finding meaning in our tradition.  And I also remember he had concluded the sermon with a classic Hasidic tale, the point of which is to be true to yourself.

I have a feeling the text of his sermon fell into my hands that very day, בעצם היום הזה the tradition would say, when he left it on the pulpit he had so powerfully graced for more than 30 years.  He was not one for saving sermons, and when he did take them he casually tossed them into the trash can in his office after services.  But that day I saw the text lying there, took it, and slipped it into my own files, thinking that one day it would be insightful, a historical artifact for the congregation, a testament to Rabbi Loeb’s thinking and teaching.

Since I have rediscovered it, I have read through the text a number of times during this holiday season.  It is almost as if Rabbi Loeb’s booming voice is coming back across the void, his be-robed figure swaying slightly as he leaned into the words of his message, his organized mind and elegant tongue laying out his sense of what it means to be Jew.  What was most striking to me about his remarks as I read and reread them was how often he spoke of love.  His love of Baltimore, his adopted home town, and most importantly his love of Beth El, our community and our congregants.  And of course his deep love of the tradition he had served and wrestled with for all those long years.

When things settle down after the holidays I will have the entire text of Rabbi Loeb’s sermon published on our FB page.  But today, as we come together near the conclusion of our holiday season, as we gather to recite our yizkor prayers, 9 years after Rabbi Loeb spoke those words from this pulpit, and just a few days after we marked his 7th yartzeit, there is one section of his text I would like to share with you.  This is the 7th of the 12 messages of Judaism that he spoke about that day, and I am quoting directly:

“I love Judaism because it has taught the world the idea of a covenantal love relationship between God and humankind, the ideal expression of a love that at times may falter but will never end.  Such a paradigm of love is meant to inform our view of the sanctity of human relationships, reminding us that it is our religious duty to try never to give up on one another, whether it be our children, our brothers, our sisters, our husbands, our wives, our parents or our friends.  We must never treat each other as objects, but, as Martin Buber taught, as sacred others.  Things are replaceable but people, even those we find difficult to abide at a given moment, are not.”

And it seems to me those few words capture the idea of what yizkor is all about.  First that we have not given up, that through the pain of loss, through grief, through guilt and sadness, and whatever other emotions we struggle with today, we have not given up.  And secondly, that the people we stand to say yizkor for today can never be replaced.  Their presence continues to be a part of our lives, their values and morals guideposts to our characters, to how we live and who we are.  It is a brave thing to stand to say yizkor – to once again stare into the face of loss, knowing that our grief will feel fresh and raw, but determined to fulfill our obligations and to do our very best to move forward, carrying our losses while at the very same time living our lives with a renewed sense of gratitude and faith.

Towards the end of Rabbi Loeb’s remarks on that day he said this, and again I quote directly:  “I would never have had the opportunities and experiences that have enriched my life so much if it hadn’t been for you… and as my service to Beth El comes to a close this spring, (I know) that a part of you will always live in me.  I hope the converse is true.”

As we rise together to say our yizkor prayers we acknowledge how very true that statement is, for our friends, our family members, for all those we call to mind today – may their memories always be for a blessing –

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Dueling Bibles – the Importance of Defending and Supporting the LGBT Community

This a text version of my sermon from 6/18/16.  My thanks to Bob Weir for his comments at  the conclusion of the Dead and Co show from Bonnaroo .  Folks often ask where sermons come from, and this one in large part started with those comments.

Just a few hours after the horrific events in Orlando last Sunday morning the Lieutenant Governor of Texas, a man by the name of Dan Patrick, sent out a tweet on his official Twitter account that read ‘God cannot be mocked – a man reaps what he sows.’  It is a well known quote from the Christian Bible, Galatians chapter 7 verse 6, that is generally read as a warning to people to remember that their actions have consequences.  But in this context, with the posting of the tweet right after the shooting, and with Patrick’s history of hostility towards the LGBT community, the message was seen in a different light – namely, as his way of suggesting that people who are gay deserve to be punished because of who they are, the lifestyle the live, and the people they love.

As you may imagine the reaction to the tweet was swift and fierce.  It was widely condemned, and within a short time Mr. Patrick had deleted it from his account, once again demonstrating that politicians will stay strong in their views until they realize just how unpopular those views are.  But you almost can’t blame Mr. Patrick for what he did, in fact you might have expected it.  He comes from a religious community and religious background where such views are not only common, but also commonly accepted.  People in his community will often justify the homophobic positions they take by citing scripture, knowing that there are verses in the Hebrew Bible – what they would call the Old Testament – that on the surface seem to forbid homosexual behavior.

There are two things I would like to say about that this morning.  The first is this – if those folks want to read their scripture literally, then they should stick with it all the way, and not just pick and choose certain verses.  Because it also says in the Hebrew Bible that a child who insults his parents should be stoned to death at the city gate, and I don’t see these folks tweeting about that.  It also says, by the way, that pork is a forbidden food, but the last I checked the Great State of Texas was pretty well known for its BBQ pork ribs – not that that is something a rabbi knows much about – and I don’t see anyone in the Texas legislature trying to ban pork ribs or Dan Patrick tweeting about them.

And by the way, when thinking about how we should relate to the LGBT community there are many other biblical verses we might consider.  How about the one in Genesis chapter 1 where it says that human beings are created in God’s image.  All human beings – white, black, brown, gay, straight, man, woman.  All people, regardless of their background, religion, ethnicity, sexuality, are a reflection of God’s image on this earth – and therefore deserving of equal respect and dignity.  Maybe the Lieutenant Governor forgot about that verse when he sent his tweet.  What about the verse in Leviticus 19, perhaps the best known verse in the entire Bible – Love your neighbor as yourself.  Or the first half of that same verse, less frequently cited but worth mentioning today – לא תקום ולא תטור את בני עמיך – you shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your fellow – that might have been a better one for Lieutenant Governor to send out after what happened in Orlando.

So that is thing number one.  If you want to talk scripture we can talk scripture all day long, and what you’ll see, if you are honest and looking at the big picture, is that the Bible is far more interested in protecting the fundamental rights and dignity of a person than it is in the person’s sexual identity.

Thing number two is this – the Bible should not be read literally anyway.  It is an ancient document that expresses a deep wisdom about the world, that defines values that we use to guide our lives even today, and that for Jews certainly lays out the history of our people and our covenant with God.  But it is also a reflection of what the world was like 2500 years ago, and so it expresses certain ideas and values that today we simply know are wrong.  That is why Judaism has never read the Bible in a fundamentalist way, in other words literally.  Instead, Judaism figured out a way to keep the Bible meaningful and central to faith and worship – after all, here we are this morning, still taking the Torah out of the ark and reading from it – but while keeping it central to introduce changes into the practices the Bible lays out, so the tradition over time can come to terms with new understandings we have of our world and ourselves.

These changes don’t happen all at once.  Sometimes they take years, sometimes even decades.  But they happen.  If they didn’t we wouldn’t be gathered today in a prayer service in a sanctuary, we would instead be offering animal sacrifices, as the Torah tells us to do on the Sabbath day.  If the tradition didn’t change over time there wouldn’t be Hanukkah, or a Passover seder, or the lighting of Shabbat candles, all of which are not mentioned in the Bible.  The changes in terms of how the tradition understands gay rights have been slow, but they have happened, in the Conservative Movement mostly over the last decade.  When I was in rabbinical school if you were gay you had to be in the closet, and if it was discovered you were gay you were asked to leave the seminary.  That was 20 years ago.

But today the Conservative Movement ordains openly gay rabbis.  That became official policy of the Movement, and the first openly gay rabbi was ordained in 2011, just 5 years ago.  The Movement has created a wedding ceremony for gay couples in the last couple of years.  And in response to the Orlando shootings, the Movement released an official statement that in part reads as follows:

“This shooting rampage targeted the LGBT community in the midst of Pride month, a time where the LGBT community comes together to publicly acknowledge and celebrate their identities, their common history, and their struggle for social recognition and equality. The RA has passed multiple resolutions calling on the community to ‘work for full and equal civil rights for gays and lesbians in our national life, deplore violence against gays and lesbians, encourage inclusion of gay and lesbian Jews in our congregations, and increase our awareness of issues facing gay and lesbian Jews.’ We know that we stand with people of good will of all faiths in continuing this work.”  And the statement concluded with this sentence:  “Our thoughts and prayers go out to all the members of the LGBT community, their families, their friends, and their loved ones.”

That is the kind of statement that makes me proud to be a Conservative Jew and a Conservative rabbi.

I am about ready to wrap up my remarks this morning, and I suspect you are about ready for me to wrap up my remarks, but if you’ll permit me there is one last verse I would like to point out from the Bible, actually from this morning’s Torah portion, a verse I feel the Lieutenant Governor of Texas should be more familiar with.  This from Numbers chapter 5, verses 6 and 7  – “When a person commits any wrong toward a fellow, thus breaking faith with God, that person shall confess the wrong he has done and make restitution for it.”

If he does know that verse, then the next tweet Dan Patrick sends out might just be an apology.  But while we wait for it, we’ll move forward, supporting the LGBT community in any and every way we can.

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Community, Healing, and Hope

This a text version of yesterday’s introduction to Yizkor (Shavuot 5776) –

Judaism has long understood that one essential component of coping with loss is community.  From the very moment that a family loses a loved one community is there.  Friends begin to gather at the home, to offer comfort, guidance, and help.  The funeral is a communal moment structured to honor and remember the life of the person who has died.  Shiva is a paradigmatic communal exercise – at least 10 people are required for each service held in the shiva home, the days of shiva are filled with visits by friends and family members, the mourners are guided from one conversation to the next, from one moment to the next, always surrounded by people who care about them.

And then there is the period of saying the kaddish, for some 30 days, for others who have lost a parent a full eleven months.  The minyan is again required because the kaddish is only fully valid when said in the presence of community.  The services, morning and night, bring the mourner out of the home, into the synagogue, into the service with its sense of communal life and connection.  I have watched many times as mourners have connected with our minyan, making new friends, finding a sense of purpose and resolve, finding in the community a reason to get out of bed and begin a new day.  People are waiting here for you, they call when you don’t come, they care, they understand where you are and how you feel, because they’ve been there and they’ve felt those things, and they somehow made it through.  And they will tell you that the community helped them do it.

We saw this in Orlando yesterday, that terrible, unimaginable, unthinkable tragedy that we will long wrestle with as a nation.  Immediately community came together.  People set aside political divides and racial differences and religious perspectives, and came together as one, came together as community to support and console the families of the victims and also one another.  There was a powerful sense of fundamental humanity – it didn’t matter if people were black or white, gay or straight, young or old, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, conservative or liberal.  There is a powerful picture on the front page of the Sun this morning, a black clergyman embracing a white man and a white woman, the three of them weeping together.

In community there is hope.  In community there is healing.  In community there is a sharing of difficult burdens, a sense that one does not have to walk alone on a path of sadness and loss, and perhaps sometimes even despair.  Not that there is a magic formula, not that there is a secret ritual that will wipe the grief away.  But there are people who will share the journey with you, and you are not alone.

The people in Orlando are not alone.  They are surrounded by the thoughts and prayers of an entire nation, 300 million strong, a nation that believes in equality, in peace and freedom, and in the common human dignity that unites us all.  In the months ahead they will come to see how this powerful sense of communal caring and sharing helped to ease the burden of their grief.  They will gradually rediscover how beautiful it is when the wind blows gently through the leaves of a tree on a warm summer day.  They will one day realize that they have begun to laugh again, to sometimes feel joy, to emerge from the darkness and the shadows to go back out into the world with purpose and courage and hope.  This is the journey from loss to life, from sadness to meaning, from darkness to light, and it is a life long journey.

In Judaism part of that journey is Yizkor.  A stopping point along the way that brings you back to community, to tradition, to the shul, to the minyan, that reminds you of the pain of loss but also, as time goes by, of the sacred power of life.  As we rise together for this last Yizkor service of the year, as we prepare to say our personal Yizkor prayers, we also pray for hope and healing and peace, in our own hearts, in our lives, in our communities, and in the world.

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Filed under America, Beth El Congregation, civil rights, clergy, community, gay rights, grief, Jewish life, loss, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, ritual, sermon, Uncategorized, Yizkor

The End

Some of you may remember the song by the Doors.  Released in January 1967 on their eponymously titled debut album, it was a 12 minute long guided tour through the brilliant yet burning mind of Jim Morrison, the group’s singer and lyricist.  When asked about the song he explained it was written originally about breaking up with his girlfriend.  Maybe so.  But with its explicit references to death, its images of twisting snakes and preternatural lakes, it has always been viewed as an exploration of the end of life, of saying goodbye not for a day, not for a time, but forever.

When I was in college I spent a semester hosting a late Sunday night/early Monday morning (midnight to 5 AM) radio show on the campus station.  Mostly I played Grateful Dead bootlegs and album side long jams from the Dead’s Europe ’72 record or the Allman Brothers At Fillmore East (check out the 23 minute Whipping Post on side 4 if you haven’t heard it in a while).  But every show, precisely at 2:15 in the morning, the station’s phone would ring and a young man would request The End.  Seeing as that he was probably my only listener how could I not comply?  It was a bit eerie, hearing Morrison’s oily voice coming out of the station speakers, no one else around, the campus dark and quiet during those predawn hours.

Of course when you are young death is a distant concept, an idea you are aware of but that for the most part is entirely disconnected from your reality.  Not something that actually happens to you or those you love.  Maybe even a bit romantic, Romeo and Juliet-esque.  But rabbis know differently.  Death is a day to day reality, it is a destination, a shared fate, a deep chasm we all cross.  Death don’t have no mercy in this land, sang the Reverend Gary Davis.  Amen to that, brother.

Of course most of the time we all live in that ‘suspended state of disbelief.’  That we’ll wake up and have a normal day.  That we will walk God’s green earth, feel the breeze, watch spring blossom in its fullness, talk with our neighbors, enjoy time with our family and friends, work, eat, drink, read the paper.  Just a normal day.  What did Garcia sing in Black Peter?  “See here how everything lead up to this day, and its just like any other day that’s ever been.”  And the truth is we have to live like that. You can’t go about your life as if you are Max van Sydow wandering through some Ingmar Bergman film, Death trailing and tracking you every step of the way.  So seize the day you have, live fully, be grateful, enjoy the little moments and the great ones as well.  Walk out from under the shadow and soak up the light.  In today’s vernacular, that is how we (rock and) roll.  All of us, one way or another.

One last thought.  After referencing the Doors, the Allmans, the Dead, it is only appropriate to go all the way back to the words of the Psalmist:  “This is the day that God has made.  Let us exult and rejoice in it.” (Psalm 118:24)  Amen to that as well.

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Rolling Clouds

The great clouds rolled back reluctantly, west to east, slowly giving way to blue skies and a gently setting sun.  It was the first glimmer of sunshine we had seen in some time.  Days for sure.  Maybe even weeks?  Some vast storm front had blanketed the northeast, stretching from Maryland to Maine.  Rain every day.  Grey skies.  Starless nights and an ever dimming daylight.  At first it was daunting, tiring, people kvetched and fretted, it dampened our spirits, wearied out souls.  But then it went on for so long it almost became  the new normal.

I watched the clouds as they moved.  It seemed to me they cast dark glances back towards the light that defiantly rose, illuminating almost as if for the first time newly grown flowers, blossoming trees, thick grass, all the promise of spring.  The clouds would be back no doubt, but for those few hours they were banished.  My dog craned his head slightly higher, pointing his snout into the wind, sensing the change, picking up the scents that told him of growth, warm days, fertile soil, the summer to come.  We paused together and a soft wind rustled the tree tops, leaves magically springing to life, sharp and verdant greens highlighted against the sky’s deep blue.

There is a favorite scene of mine from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.  The Lady Eowyn has been grievously injured in battle.  In due time she recovers from her physical injuries, but she also suffers from a broken heart.  And this, as we all know, is more difficult to mend.  The gentle and courageous Faramir, a warrior who is also filled with deep wisdom, visits her daily.  Together they stand on the ramparts of the great city of Gondor, looking to the east.  Then there is a moment where Eowyn understands that she feels love again, that she can again become whole:  “Then the heart of Eowyn changed, or else at last she understood it.  And suddenly her winter passed, and the sun shone on her.”

Perhaps it is not change so much as understanding that enables our hearts to open up again, to be healed.

A last vignette.  Morning minyan.  I am sitting in my regular spot, at the back.  Two widows who have just recently lost their beloved husbands sit together, searching for hope and healing in the context of ancient words and rituals.  They silently share their burden.  Then I see one of the women lean closer to the other, whisper a few words.  They smile, one to the other, in that private moment.  There is just a bit more light in the sanctuary.  And, I hope, in their wounded hearts.

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Moving Forward While Looking Back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Difficult and Daunting Search for God

this a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 1/2/16 –

The young man who came to see me was disappointed with God.  He had always been a good person, doing his best to make the right choices and do the right things, to include dutifully coming to shul over the years when his family expected him to be there.  But some things had gone wrong in his life.  It hadn’t worked out as he had wanted or planned.  There was a career misstep here, and a failed relationship there.  A close friend had been sick and suffered.  He had always been told that God cared and that God took care of us – watched out for us, rewarded our good behavior and punished our bad.  But from what he saw, from what he had experienced, it didn’t work that way.  So he made a decision.  He would never set foot in a shul again.  After all, if God didn’t do what God had promised, why should he bother?  Why should he come to a service where God’s name was invoked, where God’s essence was praised?

This was painful to his family.  Judaism was important to them, synagogue life was important to them, the rhythms of the Jewish year, the holidays, the family dinners, were part and parcel of their lives.  But he would have none of it.  The system, as he understood it, had been proven false.  His heart had become hardened to the traditions and history of our people.

I knew that part of this was my fault.  Not in the sense of something I did wrong, but rather because of the system I represent.  He had gone to Hebrew school, had a bar mitzvah, studied Hebrew and holidays and Jewish history.  And somewhere along the line he had learned about God.  This is what he had learned:  God is somewhere up there in the sky, looking down on us.  God watches us, our day to day lives.  When we ask something of God, God hears our request, and when our request isn’t answered, God has decided not to answer it.  When something goes wrong, when we don’t get what we hope for, when we fail or get sick or suffer a loss, God has allowed the thing that hurts us to happen to us.  That is to say, God could have prevented it, but chose not to.  In essence, he had learned that God is a micromanager, deciding on a case by case basis that some will have success while others will fail, that some will have lives of goodness while others will suffer, that on a given day one person will be in a car accident while another person will be spared.

These ideas are of course not new, and the young man is not the first person to understand God in this way, nor to be disappointed in this God.  The Talmud tells the story of Elisha ben Abuya, one of the great sages of his day, a rising star in the talmudic academy.  But living in Roman times he sees terrible things.  He sees Jews being persecuted.  He sees great sages who are humiliated in front of Roman soldiers.  And one day, says the Talmud, he sees a young boy trying to get eggs from a bird’s nest, high in a tree.  And the boy knows the Torah commands that the mother bird should be sent away before the eggs are taken.  But in trying to get the mother to leave her nest the boy loses his balance and falls to the ground and is killed.  And Elisha ben Abuya, one of the great sages of his time, and perhaps of all time, loses his faith.  How could God let something like this happen?, he thinks.

The young man who came to my office did not know about Elisha ben Abuya, had never heard of him I am sure, but he suffered from the same malady and he subscribed to the same theology.  And he had the same question: how could God let something like this happen?

Being a crafty old rabbi, this was not the first time this question had crossed my desk, this was not the first person to sit in the chair across from me with feelings of anger and disappointment about God, and I knew two things – one, there are answers to that question.  And two, none of the answers is fully satisfactory.  So we talked for a while, and I gave him some of those standard answers, and he paused to think seriously about one or two of them, but I don’t think I’ll be seeing him in shul anytime soon.  The misconceptions he holds about how God works are too deeply ingrained for him to let them go, at least now.  But I thought, as he walked out of my office, if we talk about these things more often and more openly, it might help someone else, who is struggling in the same way, to find a different path, and to feel more comfortable walking into a sanctuary carrying doubts about God.

There is an odd passage in this morning’s Torah portion, the first in the book of Exodus.   The Israelites have been enslaved in Egypt.  They are suffering, and the Torah tells us that they cried out to God, a cry for help, for release from suffering and slavery, and that the cry rose up to God.  And then the Torah tells us that God heard their cry, and that God remembered the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  And then the Torah says this:  וירא ה׳ את בני ישראל וידע ה׳ – Elohim saw the Israelites, and Elohim – God – knew.

There are two things about the passage that strike me, one implied, and the other an unanswered question.  First what is implied – if the Torah tells us that God remembered, it means that at some point God forgot.  God forgot about the Israelites.  God forgot they were in Egypt, that they were slaves, seemingly, that they even existed.  I think this is the Torah’s way of telling us that there will be times in our lives when we will not feel God’s presence.  When we will look for God, call out to God, ask for God’s help, and there will not be a response.  Eventually, God did remember.  But for a long time – ימים רבים the Torah says – for a long, long time, God forgot.

And the second thing that strikes me about the passage – the unanswered question – is this:  what did God know?  If you look at the translation of that verse in your Humash, you’ll see it says “and God took notice of them,” but the Hebrew simply says וידע ה׳ – Elohim knew.  God knew what?  And I think the answer to that question is the very next word in the Torah, a word that you all know – Moshe.  Moses.  God knew that a human being had arrived on the scene who would through his own efforts and actions begin the process of freeing the Israelites.  God wasn’t going to do it.  What changed wasn’t that God was now paying attention to the Israelites when God hadn’t been paying attention before – what changed was that the right person had come.  And because of that God knew that soon the Israelites would be free.

Despite what the young man who came to my office had learned growing up, the tradition often teaches us that God is not a micromanager.  God is not looking at the lives of individuals and deciding that certain prayers will be answered while others will be rejected, that certain hopes will be fulfilled while others will be dashed, that this person will suffer while this other person will be saved.  That is not a God I have seen or known in the course of my life, or through my experience.  But I have known a God who blesses a Moses with the strength, courage, wisdom, and hope to lead a people to freedom.  And I have known a God who gives us as individuals the strength, courage, and hope we need to live our lives, to get up and face another day, to be there for people that we love, and to live with faith.  I tried in my office to introduce the young man to that God that I have known.  I hope that one day they’ll meet.  But my prayer today is that the young man should not stop looking – may he find meaning in his search and each of us in ours –

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