Category Archives: prayer

God’s Ears

Funny what people remember, what catches their attention.  It was virtually a throwaway line in a Friday night sermonette.  I was talking about the importance of having faith in prayer.  My point was that faith in prayer and faith in God are not the same thing.  Faith in prayer, at least to me, means that when we pray we believe the experience can be transformative.  In other words, we believe engaging in prayer can make a difference in our lives, in how we relate to one another, and in how we understand who we should be.   That is faith in prayer – believing in prayer’s potential power.

This is not to be confused with faith in God.  Those ideas – faith in prayer, and faith in God, do not necessarily have to be connected.  They might be, in fact they often are, but they don’t have to be.  And one of the things I worry about today is that we’ve lost faith in prayer.  That is to say, fewer and fewer people today believe that engaging in prayer can make a difference in their lives.  I  believe prayer can be transformative – I have faith in prayer! – and that was the point of my remarks.

But in the context of what I was saying I mentioned that I am not sure if God ‘hears’ our prayers.  By way of illustrating that I briefly talked about the concept in Judaism of God’s incorporeality.  Incorporeality is a big word which means ‘lacking physical substance.’  According to Jewish tradition God is incorporeal – in other words, God does not have any physical qualities. Maimonides made this quite clear, and in fact codified the idea as one of his 13 Principles of Faith.  Those principles were incorporated into the siddur in the form of the Yigdal, a beloved song often sung at the conclusion of Friday night services, or on the holidays.  Here is the germane line in Yigdal – אין לו דמות הגוף ואינו גוף – God has neither bodily form, nor physical substance.

And now we come to the crux of the matter:  if God has no physical body, God has no ears.  This means, by definition, that when we ask the question ‘does God hear our prayers?’ we are asking a question that doesn’t really make sense.  If God has no ears God can’t hear, at least in the conventional way we understanding hearing.  This does not mean that our prayers can’t in some way be received by God.  I think they can, and if you engage in prayer in a regular basis, and if you have faith in prayer! you’ve probably experienced the sense that your prayers have in some mystical way connected with God.

But how that works is a mystery, at least to me.  Minimally it is not a normal, human, conversational process, where one party speaks and the other hears the words, and then responds.  Prayer to me is more of a reaching out into the infinitely deep mystery that is at the heart of the universe, and a reaching in to the infinitely deep mystery that lies at the heart of each of us.  Sometimes in the course of our prayers, in those moments of reaching, we are granted an insight.  It might be a moment of connection, of feeling with surety God’s presence in our lives and our world.  It might be a profound and overwhelming sense of gratitude for the blessings in our lives.  It might be a deeper understanding of ourselves, of who we are and who we should be.

Of course regular prayer has many other potential benefits.  It clears the mind, focuses the spirit, and helps us live in the world in a more positive and productive way.  It is true, we are hoping for those ‘ah ha’ moments, when something suddenly becomes clear, when we are truly and deeply touched by God’s presence.  In my experience those moments are few and far between.  But they are worth seeking, day in and day out.

From the beautiful poem written by Solomon ibn Gabirol in the 11th century, often chanted as part of the Shabbat morning service:

“At dawn I seek You, Refuge, Rock sublime;  My morning prayers I offer, and those at evening time.  I tremble in Your awesome Presence, contrite, for my deepest secrets lie stripped before Your sight.

My tongue, what can it say?  My heart, what can it do?  What is my strength, what is my spirit too?  But should music be sweet to You in mortal key, Your praises will I sing so long as breath’s in me.”

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Wonder of Wonders

A text version of my Shabbat sermon from 1/19/19 –

     For many of us of a certain age reading this morning’s Torah portion brings to mind the following image.  Charlton Heston stands on a precipice overlooking the churning waters of a vast sea.  With long white hair and a dense white beard he wears a flowing orange robe with black stripes.  In his hand he carries?  A wooden staff!  And he is surrounded by Israelites.  The camera then shifts, and you see the Pharaoh – played by?  Yul Brenner.  He sits atop his chariot with a stern expression, regal, decked out in Egyptian garb, surrounded by the Egyptian army.  

     Charlton Heston yells out to the Israelites ‘The Lord of Hosts will do battle for us,’ and then turns to face the sea, raising his staff towards the heavens.  And then a miracle happens – the waters of the sea begin to part, forming a path on dry land right through the middle of water, and the Israelites run forward, down the embankment in front of them, striding out onto the seabed, gigantic walls of water on either side of them.  

          The scene in the movie is fairly accurate in terms of what is described in this morning’s Torah reading.  Moses and the Israelites are trapped between the sea and the Egyptian army.  Pharaoh does lead the Egyptians, and they begin to draw close.  Moses does actually say the phrase that Charlton Heston cries out in the film – ה׳ ילחם לכם – God will do battle for you!  And according to the Torah text the waters do split, and the Israelites escape from the Egyptians, passing through a dry path in the middle of the sea, the sea that later will close over the Egyptian army.   

     But there is one crucial detail that is in the Torah that is not in the movie – maybe the most important detail in the entire story.  It is God’s response to Moses when Moses asks for God’s help.  And I think you can’t fully understand the miracle at the sea – and maybe you can’t fully understand the way Judaism approaches miracles in general – without taking into account that response from God in this morning’s Torah reading.  Here is what God says to Moses, immediately after Moses calls for help:  מה תצעק אלי – דבר אל בני ישראל ויסעו – “Why are you crying out to Me?!  Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to go forward.”    

     God does not say ‘don’t worry Moses, I’ll take care of it.’  God does not, by the way, just simply strike the Egyptians directly, which we must imagine God could have done, and which, when you think about it, would have been much easier.  Instead, God tells Moses to tell the people to go forward into the waters – and this is before  – before! – the waters have started to part.  In a classic rabbinic commentary on this Torah text there is a description of the moment – the Israelites are terrified, the Egyptians are coming, Moses has asked for God’s help, God has told Moses to get the people to do something.  No one moves.  And then one Israelite steps forward into the water.  Nothing happens.  Then the water is up to his knees, then up to his waist, then up to his neck.  And then finally, just at the moment when he is not going to be able to breath anymore, the waters begin to part.

     Its a very Jewish story.  You can ask God for whatever you want.  But hedge your bets.  Don’t sit around and wait for God to do it.  Get started yourself.  Walk forward.  Wade into the water, whatever your water might be.  And keep going, even when the water is up to your waist, or your chest.  And maybe something will happen that will change your life.

     The truth is big miracles are rare.  There are only a couple of them described in the entire Bible.  I would even argue that Judaism, by and large, is not that interested in big miracles.  But it is important in Judaism to recognize small miracles.  And the tradition tries to remind us that we are surrounded by those small miracles every single day.  There is a wonderful line in the Modim paragraph that is part of the amidah prayer, where we say מודים אנחנו לך ‘we thank you God – ועל ניסך שבכל יום עימנו – for the miracles that are part of our lives every day.’  

     Many of you remember the wonderful scene in Fiddler on the Roof just after Motel the tailor asks Tevye for permission to marry Tzeitel.  When permission is granted Motel breaks into song, one of the best known Broadway songs of all time – what is it?  Miracle of Miracles!  The lyrics refer to some of the Bible’s great miracles – Daniel surviving the lion’s den – the parting of the sea, from this morning’s portion – and anyone remember the other?  I think David defeating Goliath.  But then the last lines of the song – “But of all God’s miracles large and small, the most miraculous one of all, is the one I thought could never be – God has given you to me.”

     These are the human miracles, the miracles of daily life that we all too often take for granted.  Did you get out of bed this morning?  Since you are here I am imagining the answer to the question is yes.  If you’ve ever spent time in a hospital bed, unable to get up under your own power, you know that getting out of bed can feel like a miracle.  If you’ve seen a baby born, or welcomed a new life into your lives, into your family, you know how miraculous that can be.  If you found the courage and strength you needed to face a dark and difficult moment of your life, if a phone call happened to come from a friend just at the right moment, you know that too can feel like a miracle.  

     It is a miraculous thing to have your health, to share your life with a family, to have children and grandchildren.  It is a miraculous thing to show up for a friend in need, or to get up and face a new day.  These moments don’t require the parting of a sea.  Instead they come about through human courage, and strength, and love, and faith.  May we all find those qualities in ourselves, and those moments in our lives, over and over again, every single day.  

Here is a video clip of the classic scene with Charlton Heston as Moses – 

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Unbridgeable Gaps

Here is a text version of my sermon from first day Rosh Hashanah, 5779 –

     It is with a deep sense of gratitude and that I welcome you all and wish you this morning a shana tova, a happy and healthy new year.  My gratitude comes from the understanding I have – that grows stronger year by year – of how lucky I am to be serving this congregation, with the wonderful staff that we have, the incredible lay leadership, and most importantly of all, the warm congregational community.  Most of all today I am grateful to be celebrating this Rosh Hashanah with all three of our children in town – the first time in many years – and with both my parents and Becky’s parents with us as well.  I can’t imagine a sweeter way to begin a new year.  

     This is now the 21st year that I have led services at Beth El during the High Holy Days, for many years in the Offit, and the last decade here in the Berman-Rubin Sanctuary.  And for four years before that I officiated at Yom Tov services as a rabbinical student, so all told this is my 25th year in the pulpit during the fall holidays.  In all that time I cannot remember a year in which the country has felt more divided than it does right now.  And it is that sense of division that I would like to spend some time thinking about with you this morning.

     I understand that this is an uncomfortable topic.  But I also believe that one of the only ways to deal with things that are difficult and challenging is to put them out in the open, name them, and talk about them.  There is an old saying that the job of a preacher is to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted.  I might do a bit of both this morning, thinking with you first about what divides us in this year of division, in a country that feels more and more divided.  Then I hope also to remind us all of what unites us, of what brings us together.  But we must begin with afflicting the comfortable, as it were, and thinking about the divisions that are pulling us apart.

     That is a long list that seems to just get longer and longer.  We have Democrats and Republicans, Fox News or CNN, the NY Times or the Wall Street Journal, liberals and conservatives.  We have AIPAC and JStreet, blue states and red states, pro life and pro choice, and of course this being baseball season, we must acknowledge one of the deepest divisions of all, Red Sox and Yankees fans.  I know there are some of both sitting in the room this morning.  There are economic divisions, racial divisions, and educational divisions.  Those on one side or the other side of just about any issue today are more entrenched in their views, and far less likely to listen to someone who thinks differently.  Many of us feel it has become virtually impossible to talk about the issues of the day in public, particularly with people with whom we might not agree. 

     It is important to say, first of all, that we have all participated in fostering these divisions, whether consciously or unconsciously, we are all at fault.  More and more we live in our own intellectual and political silos, only exposing ourselves to news and views that support what we think, and shutting off any idea or program or opinion that does not jibe with what we believe to be true.  We have allowed ourselves to become trapped in a cycle that hardens our views and deepens the divisions between us.  What I am wondering today is if it is possible to get out of that trap, to break that cycle?  Or, if we have to live in it, what is the best way to do so?

     Many of you ask me at this time of year about how my sermons are coming along.  ‘Have you started writing them yet, rabbi?’ (July)  ‘Did you finish your sermons rabbi?’ (August) ‘What are you talking about rabbi?’  ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’  The truth is it differs year to year, but there are some elements in terms of my process that are always the same.  

     One of those is that each year Becky and I visit Gloucester, MA, the small fishing town where Becky grew up and her parents still live.  Those visits are usually mid to late summer, so the HHDs are very much on my mind, and I often talk over sermon ideas with my father in law, whom many of you know is a rabbi as well.  And this past summer – just a little more than a month ago – my father in law and I sat in Gloucester at the kitchen table one evening, sipping a bit of scotch, and we talked about this sermon.  And we had, what in Jewish tradition, is called a mahloket, a disagreement.  There was, between us, about this sermon, a division.  

     You see I am by nature A an optimist, and B, probably a bit naive.  So I said I wanted to talk in the sermon about divisions, but what I wanted to do with it ultimately was remind everyone that there is more that unites us than there is that divides us.  That we have common values as Americans and as Jews that bind us together, that we have a shared history, that there are shared beliefs that are still there, that we just need to recover those in order to create a common ground we can stand on together.  I wanted to use a line from the Mahzor, one of my favorites, ויעשו כלם אגודה אחד – we will all be bound together, in common purpose, and בלבב שלמ – with a unified and full heart.  Little did I know it at the time, but in Senator John McCain’s last statement to the American people he would write this:  “We are three-hundred-and-twenty-five million opinionated, vociferous individuals. We argue and compete and sometimes even vilify each other in our raucous public debates. But we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement. If only we remember that and give each other the benefit of the presumption that we all love our country we will get through these challenging times. We will come through them stronger than before. We always do.”  That about sums up where I wanted to try to take this sermon.

     But my father in law, older and wiser than I, (and also less naive) had a different perspective.  And he argued, quite persuasively, that it actually may not be true anymore that there is more that unites us than divides us.  That in fact the divisions that we feel every day cannot be banished by sitting around the camp fire and singing kumbaya together, and remembering shared values and easier times.  That the real question is not how we bridge the gaps and diminish the divisions, but rather how each of us will choose to live in this new world where the divisions are so deep.  

     That idea of choice – of choosing how to live, of being in control of our own actions and our own words and our own lives and even our own destiny – is a powerful idea in our tradition.  The Mahzor reminds us of that time and time again.  We choose between right and wrong.  We choose how we relate to our spouses and our children and our parents and siblings, and to friends.  We choose, when we are angry with someone, to simply walk away from them or to let them know.  And then we can choose how we will let them know.  And when someone believes something we don’t believe we choose how we react to that.  We can listen or argue, we can be silent or walk away.  We can  treat that person with dignity and respect, or treat them with disdain and disregard.  Those are choices that we are compelled to make.  And so in my father in law’s view the question is how will we choose to live in this divided world?

     Among the books I read this summer was a slender volume written by the Israeli writer Yossi Klein HaLevi, entitled ‘Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor.’  In a series of short essays, he writes to the Palestinian family that lives just over the green line and beyond the security fence, literally a stone’s throw from his backyard, a family he has never met.

    He is not naive, HaLevi, fully understanding how deep the divisions between Israelis and Palestinians truly are, and how starkly different their narratives.  He is not an optimist, either, and he offers no quick fix prescriptions.  Instead he arrives at a place of accepting that the divisions between the two peoples will remain in place for many years, if not forever.  And if that is the case, he wonders – if the gap is unbridgeable – what possibly can be done?  He writes this:  “There may well be no way to  bridge our opposing narratives…  Even as we seek a two state solution, we will likely remain with a two narrative problem….  Accommodating both our narratives, learning to live with two contradictory stories, is the only way to deny the past a veto over the future.”

     I still hold out hope in my heart that the words that Senator McCain penned before he died will prove to be prophetic, and that the deep divisions we feel today in our country will be healed by a sense of common purpose and citizenship.  I am old enough to remember a time when we began each day in the public school I went to by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.   We stood and saluted while facing the flag, and I suspect many of you still know the words by heart, as I do myself – I pledge allegiance to the flag, of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands – ONE nation…INDIVISIBLE…

     But until that time comes, if it ever does, we must learn to live in a world with contradictory values and accept that there are many more narratives than the one to which we subscribe.  And how we deal with that reality will be the true test of this country and of each of us.  

     If you think about it for a moment the very experience of the High Holy Days is predicated on an unbridgeable gap.  On the one side is God, eternal, righteous and just, and ultimately unknowable.  And on the other side we stand – imperfect and flawed, frail and limited, struggling and unsure at the start of a new year.  But as impossible as it is to bridge that chasm, nevertheless, here we are.  And we softly pray, reciting ancient words and also words unspoken in our hearts and souls.  And we send our thoughts and prayers across that great gap of time and space.  

     And God’s response comes, as it says in the Unetane Tokef, in a kol d’mama daka – in a still, small, inner voice, a Presence that judges us as we are, and yet invites us to turn and to return, through acts of righteousness and charity to ideals that uplift and ennoble us.  To chose kindness over anger, generosity over self indulgence, respect over scorn, and love over hostility.  May we choose well and wisely, so that we, our families, the Jewish world, and this country, can  be blessed in this new year with gracious deeds and peaceful hearts.

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On Saturday the Rabbi…

Went to shul, of course!  Yes, even when I am away, even when vacationing, if I can I go to shul.  The truth is I’ve always liked it, going all the way back to my Hebrew school days.  The other students in my class would complain when we were brought in to sit in services, but I didn’t mind.  There was something about it, hard to identify, difficult to pinpoint, maybe impossible for me to explain.

The truth is, I would rather sit in the pews.  My guess is if you polled a group of rabbis about this question, a fair number would tell you they want to be on the bima conducting the service.  I’ve even known a few rabbis who have said to me ‘why would I go to shul if I am not running the service?’  But I enjoy just sitting quietly, doing a bit of davening, following the Torah reading and checking some of the commentaries, just the sort of quiet head space of it all.  Isn’t that part of what shul is supposed to be about anyway?

I also enjoy seeing how things work in other congregations.  It is a big Jewish world out there!  In our own spaces we can get so tied down to OUR way of doing it, the tunes we use, the readings we do, when we sit and stand, even where people sit – it can all become sacrosanct.  There is an old joke in the ‘business’ – you could cut the entire Shema out of the service and no one would say a thing, but if you change the tune of Aleinu, beware!  Of course it isn’t exactly true, but it is true enough.

But a little bit of traveling will remind you that there are a million and one customs, a million and one different ways to do it, each community with its own version.  And yet in some profound way it is all connected, and you can feel at home in any shul, big or small, local or far away.  In one way or another the Torah will be read, the Shema recited, the Aleinu sung.  And you realize, when all is said and down, it is your place, these are your traditions, the people here are your community.  And the shul is your shul, too.

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What Did You Say?

Some thoughts about talking and listening from my Shabbat sermon on 7/28.

 Among my favorite phrases in the prayer book is a tiny, two word phrase that can be found – at least in a traditional siddur – at the beginning of every amidah.  The words are not part of an actual prayer –  instead, they are an instruction, like in some prayer books where it will say ‘take three steps back,’ or ‘bend and bow.’  The phrase, in Hebrew, is תפילה בלחש – literally translated, a ‘whisper prayer.’  

     Over the years the way we understand that instruction has changed, in some ways dramatically.  In our community we commonly say ‘we’ll continue silently’, or ‘we will continue with silent prayer,’ but a whisper is clearly not silent – it is quiet, but it is heard, it is audible.  And the original intention of the instruction was not that we should be silent, but instead that even when we are praying privately we should be talking – whispering, yes – but still, talking out loud.

     And the reason I love that phrase in the prayer book is because it so accurately reflects who we are as Jews.  We are inveterate talkers.  There is a young woman who recently began studying with me for conversion, and she comes from a Catholic background.  As part of the conversion process I have asked her to attend synagogue with some regularity, and a few weeks ago she went for the very first time, never having been in a shul before.  We met a few days later, and I asked her what she thought of the experience.  She hesitated for a few moments before she said ‘it was amazing to me that everyone talked through the service!’  She was used to a Catholic mass, where the parishioners sit quietly, reflecting in silence until they are called upon to participate in the liturgy.  But she walked into a shul!  There were a couple of guys kibitzing in the back about the Orioles.  There were people right in the middle of the congregation having a conversation about the weather.  And the talking continued throughout, waxing and waning, some areas got a bit quieter while others got louder, but it never stopped.  Even up on the bimah people were talking while the service was going on! 

     You would never see that in most Christian services, but that is what we Jews do.  It sometimes seems like we never stop talking.  There are many times when I’ve been at Levinsons and the doors open to the chapel for the family to walk out, and there is a loud hubbub of conversation, which takes a moment or two to die down – after all, people have to finish their sentences.  Mind you this is after the funeral director has been out and asked people to be quiet.  We talk during meetings – how many times have you been at a meeting for a Jewish organization and you realize there are multiple conversations going on all at the same time about a variety of topics?  We talk while we eat.  When we read the newspaper we spend half the time reading articles out loud to our spouses.  We are story tellers and kibitzers, in fact we even are known for talking with our hands, in reality an organ that cannot speak.  

     There is something hamaisch about all of that talking.  It is connective, there is a vibrancy to it, and a sense of community and closeness.  But I do worry sometimes that with all of the talking that goes on, what can sometimes suffer is listening.  After all, it is hard to listen when you are talking.  And if Jews are very good at talking, I am not sure we are all that good at listening.  So it is interesting to me that the Shema Yiisrael has become the best known prayer in our tradition.  After all, think for a moment what it means – ‘Hear O Israel’ is our normal translation.  But you could just as easily and accurately translate those words as ‘Listen Israel!’

     Now who is the speaker of those words?  It is Moses.  The Book of Deuteronomy is essentially one long speech that Moses gives to the Israelites.  The Hebrew word ‘shema’ is not actually all that common in the Torah.  In the Book of Leviticus, for example, it appears only 6 times.  But here in Deuteronomy, in the course of Moses’ long speech, he uses the word שמע 92 times.  And in our Torah portion, in the verses that lead up to the Shema Israel verse itself, Moses uses the word שמע 9 times.  We might say the more things change, the more they stay the same.  You almost get the feeling that Moses is speaking, and while he is trying to get his message across the Israelites are kibitzing, and this one is talking to that one over there, and that one is talking to this one over here  – just like shul!  And finally, Moses has to pause in his remarks, and say ‘Hey, listen up!  I am speaking over here!  This is important!  Shema Yisrael!’

     The truth is the root for the Hebrew word shema – the ש מ ע – has multiple meanings in the Bible.  Sometimes it is used in the plainest sense of the word – it just means to listen, to literally hear something that is being said.  Other times it is clearly intended to imply not just listening but also comprehension and understanding.  ‘I have heard’ means ‘I understand.’  And sometimes the Bible uses the word shema to mean obey, in the sense of I have heard you means I will do what you say.  It is a nuanced word, and when we say Shema Israel in the course of our services the intention of the liturgy is for us to have a sense of all of those meanings.  Again, our regular translation of the phrase ‘Shema Yisrael’ is Hear O Israel!  But a better translation might be something like this:  “Listen and concentrate.  Give the word of God your focused attention and strive to understand what this is all about.  Discern God’s will, and be prepared to abide by it.”

     But of course for any of that to be successful the talking has to stop, at least for a few moments here and there.  So we can hear each other, not just what we are saying, but what we mean.  And so we can give ourselves the opportunity to hear, to sense, to understand, to comprehend, what God’s will might be, and from that to decide how we will respond.  I don’t know of any other faith tradition that has a prayer like the Shema.  Normally when we think of prayer we think of saying something to God, of reaching out and trying to communicate with the Divine.  But the Shema is not directed at God in any way.  It is instead directed at us, Am Yisrael, the Jewish people.  It reminds us to study God’s word, to abide by God’s commandments, and to teach God’s traditions to our children.  And it reminds us that in order to do all of that, and to do it well, we must sometimes stop the talking, and simply listen.

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Houses of Study, Houses of Prayer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Praying With Feet

A famous phrase, attributed to Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the most influential rabbinic teachers and mentors at the Jewish Theological Seminary in the 60s.  He reportedly used the phrase when asked what it felt like to march with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the now famous Selma protest walk which took place on March 21, 1965.  Asked about the experience by a student in class, Heschel simply said ‘it felt like I was praying with my feet.’

I am not sure the thousands of students who participated in today’s school walk out, organized to raise awareness about the problem of gun violence, would have used exactly the same phrase.  But I suspect that many of those students felt like they were, in some way, engaged in holy work.  From Maryland to Connecticut to Indiana to Florida, from the west coast to the east, all across our great land, students rose from their seats at 10 o’clock this morning, walked out of their schools, and observed 17 minutes of silence, one for each of the recent Parkland shooting victims.  It was a powerful national moment, the like of which I do not remember in my adult life.

These young students remind me of the great prophets of old, the Jeremiahs and Isaiahs who set up their pulpits on the street corners of ancient Israel, and with eyes blazing and a profound sense of righteous indignation spoke truth to power.  With the NRA trying to muzzle them, with their local politicians treating them with a condescending sweetness, these students have been fearless, and full of faith – faith that they can make a difference, that the world can change for the better, and that ultimately wisdom and reason can prevail over anger and the old back room pay and wink system that creates fertile ground for the NRA’s lies.

The adults around them are weighed down with the cynicism and hopelessness that comes with age, the sense expressed in Ecclesiastes that there ‘is nothing new under the sun,’ that nothing will ever change.  We’ve witnessed the Columbines and Sandy Hooks, we’ve been angry and we’ve raised our voices, briefly.  But I wonder if all along we felt nothing was going to happen, that there was no real chance for real change.  You can’t win when you step out on the field expecting to lose.

Which is why we need these young people to step forward, to speak out, and to be the leaders we evidently cannot be on this issue.  Will they succeed, do they have the fortitude for the long haul, the marathon, that this surely will be?  We have no idea, and won’t know the answer for some time.  But they took a first bold step today, and they think they can win.  And that may be all the difference.  May they teach their parents well.

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