Category Archives: preaching

A Woman President

Following is a text version of my sermon from 1/18/20 – mazaltov to my cousins Andrea and Gidon Margolin on the naming of their beautiful daughter Romi Maya!

     If you happened to be watching the Democratic presidential candidate’s debate this past week you heard one of the best debate lines to come along in many a long year.  The question was about whether a woman could win the presidential election, and Elizabeth Warren was quick to point out that of the six people on the debate stage, the two women – Warren herself, and Amy Klobuchar – had never lost an election, while the four men who were there all had.  Classic debate moment – in one sharp line, you say something positive about yourself, you criticize your opponent, and you know people will be talking about it the next day.  And we all were.  Take that Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders!

     Whether Elizabeth Warren will be the woman to finally put that question to bed remains to be seen.  For the time being she is locked in a tight race with Sanders, her once friend and now nemesis, and it seems at this point like one of them will indeed be the democratic nominee.  But if it doesn’t happen in 2020 it can only be a matter of time before a woman will be president.  When you think about it the US is actually lagging in the area of women’s political leadership.  Germany had Angela Merkel, Britain has had Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May, Israel had our beloved Golda Meir.  Canada had Kim Campbell.  But so far in the US?  Bupkiss, as we say.  Not even a woman vice president to date.

     If it ever were to happen, now seems to feel like it might be the time.  Have you noticed in recent months how many of our major movie and TV programs revolve around women heroes?  On the small screen – or maybe not so small screen anymore – you have the TV series the Crown, about Queen Elizabeth’s life, as well as the Marvelous Ms Maisel, and the more recently popular Fleabag.  Each of these shows features a strong willed, savvy, intelligent woman who is willing to push the limits and speak truth to power, even if that power is represented by men.  

     In the movie world we’ve gone from Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker, the original Star Wars hero, to Daisy Ridley’s Ray, the woman who is the hero in the newest Star Wars trilogy.  And of course you can’t miss Little Women, the newest movie version of the classic novel by Louisa May Alcott.  This film, which tells the novel’s story faithfully but plays around a bit with the chronology, is a wonderful tour de force of acting and directing, and a powerful statement about life from a woman’s perspective, a perspective not often explored in the world of Hollywood cinema.  

     But we don’t need to look to contemporary culture for women who are heroes and role models.  They’ve been around for a long time, and are at least as old as the Torah.  We’ve just finished reading the book of Genesis, and in story after story we met women who were at the center of the great events of their day.  In each generation in Genesis a woman plays a crucial role in moving the narrative along in the direction God intends.  Sarah makes sure that Hagar is out of Abraham’s house so that Isaac will be the sole inheritor of the covenant.  Rebecca takes this to the next level, directing her son Jacob in the deception of Isaac so the birthright and blessing will go to Jacob and not Esau.  And as we saw in last week’s Torah portion, Rachel remains in Jacob’s mind, to the very end of his life, his one true love.   In each generation the matriarchs – just as well as the patriarchs, and in some cases even more so – are central figures in the historical narrative of our people.  

     And that certainly does not end with the book of Genesis!  This morning we began reading the Book of Exodus, and in the midst of the exodus narrative, with Moses and Aaron, with Pharaoh and the Egyptians, with the plagues and ultimately the splitting of the sea, it is easy to lose track of the crucial roles that women play in the story.   But the truth is there is a women’s narrative in Exodus, almost like a second theme or motif in the book, and it is particularly evident in the opening chapters that we read this morning.  On many levels it is actually the women who are propelling the action, and over and over again in the story a woman must make a choice to act, and if she doesn’t, the story would literally end.  It is no wonder that our Sages, in the Talmudic tractate Sotah, make the following statement:  בשכר נשים צדקניות שהיו באותו הדור  – נגאלו ישראל ממצריים – it was because of the merit of the righteous women of that generation that Israel was redeemed from Egypt. (Sotah 11b)

     What did these women do?

     Harold Kushner, in his commentary in our Humash on this morning’s portion notes that there is a subtle pattern in the Moses story – namely, that Moses’ life is constantly threatened by men, and when that happens, he is saved by women.  It happens with his mother – whose name was?  Yocheved!  She makes the decision to hide him in the basket and send him down the Nile when she can no longer conceal his presence.  Then it is Pharaoh’s daughter who draws him out of that basket.  Then it is Moses’ sister – what is her name?  Miriam! – who happens to be there and manages to arrange for Moses’ mother to nurse him and take care of him.  Then later in the portion there is a bizarre scene where Moses is mysteriously attacked when he and his wife – what is her name?  Tzipporah! – are traveling.  And it is Tzipporah’s action in that strange story (Exodus 4) that saves the day. 

     So the Talmudic Sages are picking up on this story, and they seem to be saying that without the actions of each of these women – Yocheved, Pharaoh’s daughter,  Miriam, and Tzipporah – then Moses would not have survived, and if Moses didn’t survive, it is possible we would still be slaves in Egypt, and not sitting in a beautiful chapel here in Baltimore, worshipping freely.  We might amend the Talmudic statement, and say it wasn’t the merit of the righteous women that redeemed Israel – instead, it was their determination and courageous action that ultimately enabled Israel to go free.

     I must also say this morning it strikes me as no coincidence that we have had the blessing of celebrating Romi’s naming.  As Andrea and Gidon explained, she is named after people who have been important in their lives and in their family.  But Romi Maya also is the great, great granddaughter of my Bubbie, Kate Schwartz, whom many of you in the room today knew as a true matriarch in our family, strong, determined, proud, and fiercely loyal to her family and her faith.

     With Gidon and Andrea’s guidance may Romi share in some of those qualities as well.  I suspect by the time she is aware of such things there will already have been a woman president of the United States.  And if not, you know what – maybe she will be the first.  Wouldn’t that be something?  A woman – and a Jew – in the Oval Office!

     As they say – halavei!!

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Angel or Man?

A text version of my Shabbat sermon from 12/21.  Best to all for a Happy Hanukkah –

     The following scenario may be familiar to you – less so for your children and grandchildren, who have grown up with cell phones and GPS.  There are two people, driving in a car.  Let’s say, for argument’s sake, the two people are husband and wife.  And let’s also say – again, for argument’s sake – that the husband is driving.  They are going to a place that is not familiar to them, and they seem to have reached a point where they are not one hundred percent sure where they are.  In other words, they are lost.  The wife is encouraging the husband to pull over to ask for directions, but he is resistant.

     Finally they are at a stop sign, and a young stranger walks by.  The woman rolls her window down – some of you will remember roll down windows, as well – and she calls out.  The stranger comes over to their car, and once they tell him where they are trying to go, he gives them directions.  A few minutes later, they reach their destination.  Later that evening the woman says to her husband, we were lucky we ran across that young man.  The husband, of course, says “I would have found it!”

     The predicament I just described is essentially the situation that our ancestor Joseph finds himself in in this morning’s Torah portion, called Vayeishev.  You’ll remember the story of Joseph – the 11th son of his father Jacob, born to his mother Rachel, Joseph has a troubled relationship with his other brothers from the time he is young.  In part this is caused by his father’s favoritism, the symbol of which is the coat of many colors that Jacob has given Joseph as a special gift.  But in part Joseph’s sibling issues seem to stem from his own personality.

     After the Torah establishes these facts the brothers are sent by Jacob on a shepherding mission that takes them a number of days away from home.  Jacob then – maybe against his better judgement – sends Joseph, all alone, knowing of the animosity between him and his brothers – to go out and find them.  And of course we know the rest of the story.  Once he does find them they strip him of his fancy coat, throw him into a pit, and ultimately sell him into slavery.  

     But in the course of this narrative Joseph finds himself in exactly the same situation as our husband and wife in the car.   He is lost, in an unfamiliar area, and he does not seem to want to ask for directions.  Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, a mysterious man appears.  Referred to in the Torah only as an איש – meaning simply ‘a man’ – the stranger approaches Joseph and asks him מה תבקש – what are you looking for?  It is the Torah’s way of saying ‘can I help you?’  Joseph explains that he is looking for his brothers.  The man just happens to know exactly where they are, and sends Joseph to meet them.  And the rest, as they say, is history.  

     And I mean that literally.  He finds his brothers.  They sell him into slavery.  He is brought to Egypt.  Ultimately he becomes the second most powerful man in the entire country.  When there is a famine in the land of Israel Jacob and his other sons come to join Joseph.  The Israelites will be enslaved.  Moses will be born, will meet God in the form of a burning bush, and will lead the Israelites out of Egypt.  And to this very day, each spring, we celebrate Passover and tell the story of יציאת מצרים – of Exodus from Egypt.  All because of this mysterious man who sees Joseph lost, and asks if he can help.

     If you have any sense of rabbinic commentary, you probably already know that the traditional commentators are very interested in the identity of Joseph’s mysterious stranger.  They suggest a number of possibilities as to who the stranger might have been.  The great biblical commentator Rashi, who lived in France in the 11th century, explains that the stranger was really the angel Gabriel, sent by God to guide Joseph on the way.  Ibn Ezra, who lived in the 12th century in Spain, believed that the man was just a simple passer by, a regular old Joe who just happened to be in the right place at the right time.  But it is the comment of the Ramban, Nachmanides, who lived in the 13th century, that I find the most interesting.  He writes about the mysterious stranger – כי זימן לו הקב׳׳ה מורה דרך שלא מדעתו – which means, God sent him a guide – שלא מדעתו – without his knowledge.

     The question is, without whose knowledge?  It is unclear from what the Ramban writes whether he means without Joseph’s knowledge, or without the knowledge of the mysterious stranger.  The Hebrew is ambiguous.  It might mean that the stranger was sent, and Joseph didn’t know he would find a guide along the way.  But it could just as well mean that the stranger himself didn’t know he would end up being Joseph’s guide.  

     The first interpretation, I suppose, makes the most sense.  Certainly Joseph had no reason to expect to suddenly find someone, in the middle of nowhere, who would be able to point the way to his brothers.  But the second interpretation – that the stranger didn’t know he would end up helping Joseph – is, at least to me, more interesting.  Let me explain.

     We often don’t realize the effect our actions have on others.  We might say something, or do something, and in our minds what we’ve said or done is for all intents and purposes insignificant – we might not even remember it – as the Ramban said, שלא מדעתו – we do it almost without knowing it.  But what we’ve said, or done, can make a big difference in someone else’s life.  The right word of encouragement at exactly the right time.  A small act of kindness that passes in a moment, but brings warmth to someone’s heart on a difficult day.  All the stranger did was point Joseph in the right direction.  But because of that small act, everything was different.

     I’ll conclude this morning with a quick Hanukkah story.  We got a call a few weeks ago from a family that wanted to do something nice for a family in need, but whatever they did they wanted it to be strictly anonymous.  So we said ‘sure, we know of a family that could use a little extra help around the holidays.’  Thursday the family that wanted to do the mitzvah brought in a bunch of beautifully wrapped packages.  We then called the family in need, that the gifts were intended for.  It has been a terribly difficult year for them.  Illness.  Loss of a job.  Just one thought thing after another.  

     You should have seen the look on the face of the parent who came to pick up those gifts.  For a few moments the burdens were lifted.  For a few moments the parent was reminded of goodness and hope and kindness and possibility.  Knowing that they would have gifts to give to their children on Hanukkah.  Suddenly knowing that a holiday they were probably dreading, would be – filled with light.

     They will never know the identity of the family that did that kindness for them.  And the family that did the kindness will never know the impact their generosity had.  The difference they made.  In both cases, שלא מדעתו – they’ll just never know.  But I would say, somewhere, somehow, in someway, God knows.  May both those families be blessed with kindness, goodness, happiness, and health.  

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Strangers in a Strange Land

Following is a text version of my sermon from 12/14, touching on the Executive Order signed this week to combat anti-Semitism.

     It has been a tumultuous week in the news, to say the least, from the election results in England to the need for a third election in Israel, to the impeachment hearings taking place in Washington DC, to the tragic shooting in Jersey City.  But there was a particular story that, at least for a couple of days in the middle of the week, captured the attention of the Jewish community.  That was the signing of an Executive Order by the President entitled Executive Order on Combatting Anti-Semitism.  As with so many other issues these days, reaction was swift and at times fierce, some people in the Jewish community claiming this was a good thing for the Jews, others claiming it was not so good.  

     If you didn’t follow the story, the order essentially connects Jewish identity to Title VI of the Civil Rights act that was passed in 1964.  That act outlaws discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities receiving Federal financial assistance.  So, for example, if a university receives financial assistance from the Federal Government – and most do – and it refused to hire someone because of their race – that university would lose the federal assistance it receives.  And for many universities this is serious money – at Maryland, for example, %16 of the budget comes from federal money.  And the new Executive Order ensures that this same law will be applied to Jews.

     Whether in the end this will be good or bad for the Jews only time will tell.  If I had to guess at this point it will be mostly neither good nor bad.  If you’ve read the order it has a parve feel to it, and sometimes within the document, which is short – the whole thing is about a page long – there are sections that work at cross purposes, and it really doesn’t say anything new as far as I can tell.  I would honestly be surprised if at some point in the near future we read a story in the paper about the Order actually being applied in a court of law.  

     What did catch people’s attention about the order, particularly in the Jewish community, was the inclusion of Jewish identity in the general rubric of the Title VI law, which again, is about race, color, and national identity.  And of course the question about this is does Judaism fall into any of those categories?  By and large we understand Judaism as a faith tradition, as a religion, like Islam, or Catholicism.  You cannot convert into another race or nationality.  If I wanted to be Italian, for example, I can’t!  There is no mechanism, no structure, that I can use to become Italian – it is a nationality, an ethnic identity.  But it is possible to convert to Judaism.  That in and of itself seems to indicate that Judaism is defined not as an ethnic identity, but as a faith, a religion.

     That being said, there is a strong ethnic flavor to Jewish life.  You can’t find, for example, lox, or herring, or gefilte fish for that matter, listed as requirements for a Jewish diet in any of the codes of Jewish law.  But those foods are associated with Jews and with Jewish life, with Jewish breakfasts and lunches.  There is a tribal sense to being Jewish, and that comes from ethnic identification.  In the most recent Pew study of the Jewish community younger Jews report that they are very proud to be Jewish, but they don’t want to do anything religious.  And what that means by definition is that they see themselves as Jews, even though they are not at all engaged in religious life.  How can they do that if not through their ethnicity, through ethnic or national identity?

     So the truth seems to be that Judaism is an odd bird in terms of the world’s great faith traditions.  It is a weird hybrid of ethnic and national identity, on the one hand, and religion on the other.  It is possible to live your life as a proud Jew, connected to Jewish history, to the Jewish people, proud of Israel, and to be entirely areligious.  You can’t say that, for example, about Catholicism.  It just wouldn’t work.  

     In part Judaism developed this way over time because we have so often in our history lived in lands that were not ours.  When Moses’ wife Zipporah has their first child she names the boy Gershom, and she gives the name an etymology, an explanation for its origin.  The name Gershom comes from two words – גר – which means stranger – and שם – which means there.  “I was a stranger there,” or as Zipporah herself says it in the Torah, גר הייתי בארץ נכריה – literally, I was a stranger in foreign land.  And that sums up the majority of Jewish history.  

     And that also is the story of our ancestor Jacob, about whom we read in this morning’s Torah portion.  At the beginning of the reading we find Jacob returning to the land of his birth, but he has been away for twenty years, living in a land not his own.  If you think about it the arc of Jacob’s life parallels the history of the American Jewish community.  He leaves home as a young man, with nothing – he himself says כי במקלי עברתי את הירדן הזה – I left with a staff in my hand, nothing else.  Exactly like our grandparents and great grandparents left Eastern Europe, with a few bags, with little to no money, with virtually nothing in terms of material possessions.  

     And then Jacob arrives in Haran.  A foreigner, a stranger there.  But he makes a good life.  He marries, he has children, he works hard, he is clever, and also smart.  He builds a business, becomes very wealthy, his life is a success in every measurable way.  And again the parallel to the American Jewish community and our ancestors – coming to these shores, working hard, emphasizing the importance of education and the intellect, creating successful businesses, and over time the Jewish community here, and many of our families, becoming successful and thriving.

     But Jacob never feels fully settled in Haran.  And he is never fully accepted.  He always feels that he is other, he remains the stranger who arrived with nothing so many years ago.  And I think that is also our experience here.  Despite the fact that we’ve put down roots, despite the successes we’ve had, despite the level of assimilation, the way we’ve integrated into American life – despite all of that, there are moments when we are reminded we are still ‘other,’ still looked at as strangers.  

     The shooting in Jersey City this week was certainly one of those moments, now one in a series of anti-semitic incidents that our community has had to grapple with over the last year plus.  But the Executive Order signed into law this week is also one of those moments.  It is theoretically designed to protect Jewish life, but it is also a reminder that we are still seen as a distinct minority, we are still seen as other, by the culture and society in which we live.  

     That is why we need each other.  And by the way we need each other in both senses of Jewish identity, both ethnically and religiously.  We need that tribal feeling of connection and caring, that sense of responsibility, of looking out for one another and caring for each other.  But we also need a connection to religious life, to our distinct rituals and customs and holy days.  We need to have Hanukkah when there is so much Christmas around us!  

     We should always be grateful for where we are.  We have been truly blessed as Jews to make a life, both as families and as a community, here in America.  But when we are grateful for where we are, we should never forget who we are.  Ethnically, religiously, in every facet of our being, in every aspect of our lives.

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Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood

A text version of my sermon from Shabbat services on 11/30/19 –

     Who could have imagined that more than a half century after the very first episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood debuted – on February 19th, 1968 – that Fred Rogers would be a virtually ubiquitous personality.  With not one, but two major movies about his life, the most recent starring Tom Hanks; with article after article and op ed piece after op ed piece, Fred Rogers – now 16 years after his death – has suddenly become one of the most thought about and prominent public figures in the country.  

     On the surface this is an odd phenomenon, to say the least.  I am guessing most of the people in the room this morning remember Mr. Rogers.  Soft spoken and gentle, kind and caring, sneaker and red sweater wearing, his TV show ran for 31 seasons, influencing generation after generation of children as they grew up and watched TV during their formative years.  A child of the late 60s and early 70s, I remember settling in front of an old black and white TV with a screen smaller than the screen I currently use for my computer, and watching Fred Rogers spin his stories, relating life lessons, unpacking issues like anger and sadness, and in his gentle way teaching moral and ethical principles that could help you to be a better person, the kind of person your parents and grandparents clearly thought you should be.

     Mr. Rogers died only a couple of years after his show went off the air.  The TV episodes were still on, replayed usually as part of the early morning PBS schedule, but the person of Fred Rogers entered a sort of quiescent period.  He was remembered, but mostly in a  nostalgic way, the way we remember with fondness a time in our lives – or in the life of our country – with a golden sheen.  Fifteen years ago – probably even ten years ago – if someone had told you there would be two major motion pictures made about the life of Fred Rogers, you probably would not have taken that person’s investment advice.  And yet here we are.  Fred Rogers is so popular right now that there is even an article about his wife – whose name is?  Joanne!  – in yesterday’s New York Times.  She is still alive, and in good health, God bless her.

     I’ve always believed we create the hero we need at the time when we need him – or her – and evidently at this contentious time in our country there is a sense that we need Fred Rogers.  Maybe it is the soothing tone of his voice during a time when people, especially public figures, seem to mostly yell at each other.  We might be attracted to his calm demeanor when everything, and everyone, seems to be so frantic.  Perhaps it has to do with the way he listens in an age when all anyone seems to want to do is talk.  Or maybe it is his fundamental and unshakable optimism that appeals to us, when so much of the world seems dark and hope is hard to come by.  Most likely it is some combination of all of these things.  We are living in unsettled times, and Fred Rogers had a way of making us believe everything would be OK, and reminding us that at the end of the day, we can trust one another. 

     I know that evidence often seems to be to the contrary.  Forget about our country and the deepening divisions that we see everywhere, whether racial or political or economic or otherwise.  All you have to do is take a cursory glance through this morning’s Torah portion to remember how difficult we humans can be, even to the people closest to us.  This morning’s reading contains some of the Bible’s best known stories, all of them focusing on the family of Isaac and Rebecca, and their sons – what are their names?  Esau and Jacob!  

     I imagine you know the narrative well.  It begins with one of the most fundamental of all parenting mistakes, namely one parent favoring one child, while another parent favors the other child.  In this case it is Rebecca who loves her son Jacob but doesn’t care much for his older brother Esau.  But just to make sure things in the family are truly impossible, Isaac does the same thing in reverse, always proud of and talking about Esau, but seemingly not too fond of Jacob.  If you’ve ever known a family like this, you know this is a recipe for disaster, and that is in fact what ensues.  By the time this morning’s reading is done Jacob has deceived his older brother Esau into selling him the family birthright.  Then Isaac tells a group of men that his wife Rebecca is his sister, putting her in a very uncomfortable position, to say the least.  And if you thought things couldn’t get any worse, the portion ends with Rebecca and Jacob, mother and son, hatching a plot to trick Isaac, their husband and father, into giving the family inheritance to Jacob.  

     And you thought Washington DC was bad.

     Of course the sad truth is that people do nasty things to one another all the time.  Cheat, steal, and lie.  Betray.  Physically harm one another.  The list could go on and on, but you get the point.  It is not always easy for us – and in fact sometimes it is quite difficult – to treat one another the way God wants us to.  To respect one another, care for each other, help and support one another,  sacrifice for one another, give one another the benefit of the doubt.  To live honestly and admirably, and to regularly ask, paraphrasing JFK, not what others can do for us, but what we can do for them.  You see, the Torah lays out the very worst human behavior in front of us, because once you see the worst you have a deeper appreciation for how important it is to strive to be the best.

     Mr. Rogers came at that idea from the other way around.  He also wanted to show us that we should strive to be the best we can be, but he illustrated that by focusing on the positive.  It wasn’t that he denied the difficulties of human nature.  He acknowledged that people make mistakes, hurt others, and fall short on a regular basis.  But in Fred Rogers world that moment of failure was seen as the beginning of something better.  Growing, changing, understanding more deeply, and figuring out how, the next time around, to do it right.

     And I think that is why – at least one of the reasons why – Mr. Rogers is at the front of the national consciousness these days.  We are getting tired of all the negativity.  And we like seeing the spirit of a person who said, over and over again, there is a better way, and you can, with a little help from your friends, figure out what it is.  What was the name of Fred Roger’s show?  Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood!  I am sure the choice of the word neighborhood is very intentional – a place filled with all kinds of people, and animals, different backgrounds and ethnicities, but working for a common goal.  

     Anyone happen to know the Hebrew word for neighborhood?  שכונה – it comes from the root that means ‘to dwell.’  So the שכונה is the place where people dwell together.  And of course if you just change one letter  – take that ‘vav’, and make it a ‘yud’ – you have what?  שכינה – one of the names we use for God, a name that reminds us particularly of God’s sheltering presence.  The sense seems to be that when we dwell together – truly, not just in place but in spirit – God’s presence is brought into our world.  Mr. Rogers spent his life teaching children – and maybe all of us – that that kind of world is not only ideal, it can be real.  His job was to teach us that lesson – and the rest is up to us.

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The Stranger

IMG_1028 2     It was 42 years ago this fall that I asked my mom to drive me to the Oakdale Mall, in Binghamton NY, where I walked into Tower Records and bought the first rock and roll album of my life.  Knowing me as many of you do, you might be surprised to find out that that record was not a Grateful Dead album – it would be another year or so before I began to get into the Grateful Dead.  Instead, the record was Billy Joel’s ‘the Stranger.’  

     The record had been released in September, and by November of 1977 you couldn’t help but hear one of the songs from the album every single time you were in the car.  The love song Just the Way You Are was the biggest hit, rising to #3 on the billboard charts, but the album had three other songs in the top twenty five, including She’s Always a Woman and Only the Good Die Young.  Rebel that I was, that was my favorite at the time.  

     You may remember the cover of the record, a photograph of Billy Joel, dressed in a suit, reclining on a bed, and staring intently at an object that lay next to him.  Anyone remember what it was?  A mask, resting on a pillow, its vacant eyes looking up towards the singer.  The image reflected both the title of the album – the Stranger – and also the lyric of the song of the same name, found on side one – it was the second track.

     I’ve always understood the image, and the song, to be about the way we separate our public and private selves.  We all have a public persona, generally our ‘best face’ that we use when we are in front of the world.  We want not only to look our best, but to be our best – calm and organized, satisfied with life, funny and fun to be with, patient and kind, competent and wise.  But for many of us there is also a private face – in the photo on the cover of the Billy Joel record it is represented by the mask resting on the pillow.  Here is how the song lyric describes it:  we all have a face that we hide away forever, but we take them out and show ourselves when everyone is gone…

     It might seem like a strange thing to say, but I often think about that song, and that lyric, when I read this week’s Torah portion, called Vayera.  Abraham is the portion’s main character, and I’ve always been deeply puzzled by the contradictory Abrahams that the text portrays.  On the one hand there is a heroic Abraham.  This is the Abraham who argues with God about whether or not the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah should be destroyed.  You’ll remember the passage – one of the Bible’s most famous.  God tells Abraham of the plan to destroy the cities, and Abraham, in a direct dialogue, challenges God.  Is this the just thing to do? Abraham demands.  And then Abraham pushes God – what if there are fifty righteous people?  What about forty five?  Forty?  Thirty?  Working his way down to ten, Abraham demands of God, would you spare the cities to save the ten?  And somewhat astonishingly, God agrees, saying if there are ten righteous people, I will spare the cities.

     This is the Abraham we can all stand and cheer for!  This is the Abraham who is fearless in his pursuit of justice, not even afraid to challenge God, if it means that innocents will be spared.  To me this is the outer Abraham, the person Abraham wants the world to see.

     But then there is another Abraham in this morning’s portion, what I call the inner Abraham.  This is the Abraham we meet at the beginning of the binding of Isaac story.  God comes to Abraham and demands that he offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice.  And after Abraham’s eloquent argument with God about Sodom and Gomorrah – arguing so passionately for the lives of people he didn’t know – we expect him to stand up to God here also.  To say ‘God, he is my son.  I am not going to sacrifice my son.  Even to you.’

     But what does he actually say?  Not a single word.  Not one.  Instead, he quickly and efficiently follows God’s instructions, gets up early in the morning, saddles the donkey, takes the servants and Isaac, splits the wood, and sets out for the mountain, where, at least as far as we know, he intends to sacrifice his son.  Not one word.

     And I’ve always understood the dichotomy in Abraham’s responses to be indicative of his public and his private sides.  On the outside, Abraham is just, a great leader of men, brave, compassionate, wise, and strong.  On the inside he has a stranger – an Abraham you rarely see, conflicted, filled with doubts, worried about disappointing others, and unable to stand up for what he truly believes in.  

     I suspect many of us can identity with both Abrahams.  What is it we see when we look at that mask on the cover of the Billy Joel record?  What is the inner side that we rarely if ever expose to the world.  Maybe there is anger there, or fear, or doubt.  Maybe it is poor self image, or a deep sadness about something that happened to us long ago, or guilt.  Whatever it might be, we keep that part of ourselves out of the public view.  We might know it is there, but we certainly don’t want others to know about it.  So we cover it up, close it off, compartmentalize it in some way, remove it and set it aside.  

     You might guess this can be a difficult challenge for people in the clergy business.  We are public figures, and we often have public faces, personas that we show to everyone, that reflect, at least we hope, our very best selves.  And so we smile and we laugh, we are attentive in our conversations, we are witty and engaging, we are thoughtful and patient and hopefully we are also compassionate and wise.  We are like the Abraham in the Sodom and Gomorrah story.  

     But the real challenge, the real test, what will really define our lives, is this:  how are we when we get home after a long day of being our best?  Is the compassion still there?  The wit and wisdom?  The attentiveness and caring?

     Those of you who were here last week heard Rabbi Saroken tell a classic Hasidic story about Rabbi Zusya.  At the end of the story the Rabbi tells his students he now knows when he dies, he will not be asked ‘why weren’t you Moses?’  Instead, he says, I’ll be asked ‘Why were you not Rabbi Zusya.’

     I’d like to put a finer point on that story this morning.  Because my sense of it is this – when my time finally comes, and I am standing before the great Heavenly Court, I will not be asked ‘Why weren’t you Rabbi Schwartz?’  But I think I will be asked, ‘Why weren’t you Steve?’

     If you’ll permit me, I’ll wrap it up this morning going from one great lyricist to the next, from Billy Joel to another Billy – William Shakespeare.  You may remember the wonderful line from Hamlet, Act 1, scene 3, the advice Polonius gives to his son Laertes, who is about to leave for Paris:

“This above all:  to thine own self be true, 

And it must follow, as the night the day, 

thou canst not then be false to any man.”

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Jonah’s Sukkah

A text version of my sermon from first day Sukkot, 5780 –

     One of the more interesting, and at the same time less familiar traditions, of Sukkot is called Ushpizin.  Ushpizin is an Aramaic word that means guests, and the idea is that each night when you sit in your sukkah you invite a special guest to join you for dinner, traditionally a biblical figure.  As the tradition has evolved over time there is a specific guest you are supposed to invite each night – the first night is Abraham, for example.  As you might expect, Isaac and Jacob, the other patriarchs are also invited, as are Moses and Aaron, and Joseph and David.  Essentially a who is who’s list of the great biblical figures.  And then the spiritual presence of that guest is supposed to enhance your observance of the holiday that evening. 

     The tradition is not Jewish law, it is a custom.  So people have felt free to play around with it over the years and to invite other guests.  Women, for example, like Sarah or Rebecca from the Torah, or famous historical figures.  And ever since Yom Kippur I’ve been thinking there is one particular person that I would like to invite to the sukkah this year, a person whom I really feel could benefit from a visit to a sukkah – namely the prophet Jonah.  

     I’m sure you all remember Jonah, after all we just read his story a few days ago on Yom Kippur afternoon, what we call Maftir Yonah.  Jonah is a cantankerous character at best.  If you’ll allow me to digress fo a moment, I am guessing many of you are familiar with the Odd Couple TV show from the 70s?  The premise of the show was that two divorced friends decide to move in together, and they are very different people.  Jack Klugman plays Oscar, a sports writer who is a complete slob, and Tony Randall plays Felix Unger, a neat freak and a perfectionist who must have everything exactly the way he wants it to be.  The Felix character?  That is sort of like Jonah the prophet.

     Jonah is argumentative, head strong, critical, very particular, and also in his own way, a perfectionist.  If something is going to be done, he wants it done his way, and if it isn’t done his way he doesn’t have much interest in it.  At the beginning of the book he doesn’t think the mission that God assigns to him is worth his time, so tries to flee from God by climbing on a ship and sailing away.  When God finally forces him to go to Nineveh and pronounce a prophecy, he does so reluctantly and petulantly.  Most prophets once they start talking, they talk!  But Jonah begrudgingly walks into Nineveh, and says exactly 5 words.  

     And then there is that curious story at the end of the book of Jonah.  He is clearly disappointed that God decides to spare the city, almost like he feels God wasted his time.  And he sulks off, and sits down pouting, מקדם לעיר – on the east side of the city.  And what does he do there, Jonah?  ויעש לו שם סוכה – he makes for himself a sukkah.  Remember that one of the rules for building a sukkah is it must have a roof made from material that comes from a living plant, and Jonah’s sukkah even has some sechach.  It is that weird plant that God makes grow over Jonah’s head while he sits in his sukkah.

     But if you build a sukkah yourself during the holiday, you know that there are inevitably problems with it.  Wind might come up and blow the roof off.  Rain might cause it to collapse.  Inevitably in the course of the holiday the sukkah requires repair, sometimes even complete rebuilding.  And that is what happens with Jonah’s sukkah.  That weird plant that God made for the sukkah’s roof, it dies.  OK!  It happens on Sukkot, it is part of the holiday.  But Jonah becomes despondent!  So much so that he actually says, “I don’t want to live anymore!”  טוב מותי מחיי

     And I’ve always thought that is Jonah’s way of saying “if things are not going to be the way I want them to be, then I don’t want to have anything to do with it!  Leave me out!”  Jonah’s failure is that he doesn’t learn the lesson that sitting in a sukkah is supposed to teach us, or at least one of the lessons.  A sukkah by definition is imperfect.  It has to be flimsy in order to be considered kosher.  Its roof has to have holes in it.  It is going to be dirty, a little bit uncomfortable, and crowded.  At night it might be cold, in the day too hot.  There are spiders and other creepy crawly things in it.  But the tradition says to us, in this place of imperfection, that is where you will find שמחה – that is where you will find joy.  

     I think that is an often over looked message of Sukkot, but an important one.  Because the sukkah – with all of its imperfections, its challenges, its difficulties –  is in a sense a microcosm of the world.  And when the tradition tells us we can find joy in the imperfection of a sukkah, what it is really doing is reminding us that we can find joy in our lives and in the world around us – despite the fact that neither – not our lives, not the world – is perfect.  And that, I think, is precisely the lesson that Jonah fails to grasp.

     Which is why I would like to invite him back to the sukkah this year, as one of the Ushpizin.  To give him another chance to sit in a sukkah, and maybe this time to be able to set aside his need for control and perfection, and to learn to live  – and live with joy – in a world that might not always meet his expectations.  

     May we all learn to do the same in our sukkot on this holiday, and beyond – 

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What We Stand For – Yom Kippur 5780

A text version of my sermon from Yom Kippur day, 5780 –

There is a story told of a rabbi who was having trouble with a sleepy congregant.  It seems every time the rabbi began to preach, the congregant, within the first couple of minutes of the rabbi speaking, would fall into a sound sleep.  It didn’t bother the rabbi all that much on a regular Shabbat, because that particular congregant – we’ll call him Greenberg – sat towards the back of the shul.  But on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur there were tickets and people had assigned seats, and Greenberg’s seat was front and center, right in front of the rabbi.

     On the first day of Rosh Hashanah the rabbi begins his sermon, he has worked weeks and weeks on it, and within a minute Mr. Greenberg is out, snoring audibly.  Second day Rosh Hashanah the same thing – two minutes into the sermon and Greenberg is sound asleep.  On Yom Kippur morning the rabbi steps into the pulpit, and there is Greenberg, and again, almost as soon as the rabbi begins to speak Greenberg is out like a light.  But the rabbi is determined, and he starts pounding on the pulpit.  Greenberg doesn’t stir.  And finally the poor rabbi can’t take it anymore, and he yells out ‘Everyone in the congregation stand up!’ – and everyone stands up, except Greenberg, still sleeping peacefully.  And then the rabbi yells, ‘Everyone sit down!’  And everyone in the congregation sits down at once, and it startles Greenberg out of his sleep, and he jumps up to his feet.  

     He looks around, and he is standing right in front of the rabbi, the rabbi standing right in front of him, and everyone else in the congregation sitting down.  “Do you know what this sermon is about Mr. Greenberg,” yells the rabbi.  Greenberg answers back “I can’t rightly say that I do rabbi, but I can see that you and I are the only ones who agree about it.”

     And that is what I would like to think with you about for a few minutes this morning.  What is it that we stand for?  What are the Jewish values that should animate our lives?  What are the ideals that should guide us each and every day?  The moral compass we should follow?  What is it that the tradition would like us to emerge from these holy days with a deeper understanding of and commitment to?

     There are of course many answers to these questions, and many values that guide us, and that I hope we reconnect with during these sacred days.  There are personal, traditional values, like honesty and integrity, work ethic and self sacrifice, kindness and compassion.  In Jewish life family is a primary value.  Education as well.  We might include community in that same list, and charity.  Some would say worry is a Jewish value!  Certainly honoring our parents.  These are the values that we grew up learning about in Hebrew school, from our parents and our grandparents, and each of them is a thread in the fabric that makes up Jewish life. 

     But this morning I would like to suggest three particular values – big picture ideals – that we as Jews should return to during this season of returning.  I find them in the Unetane Tokef prayer.  You all know that prayer.  It begins with the idea that we are like sheep and God is our shepherd.  But it is the refrain of the prayer and its conclusion that resonate most powerfully in people’s minds – The refrain you all know:  בראש השנה יכתבון וביום צום כיפור יחתמון – On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed – you know the rest – who shall live, and who shall die.  That is the first half of the prayer – it is about the fragility of life.

     But then the tone shifts, and the prayer’s powerful conclusion presents us with three words that encapsulate core Jewish values –  ותשובה, ותפילה וצדקה מעבירין את רוע הגזירה – but repentance, prayer, and charity can, in the translation in our Mahzor, ‘transform the harshness of our destiny.’  It is up to us, that is what we are saying, it is up to us!  There are things we can do, courses of action we can take, that can transform us, the communities in which we live, our families, and even the world that God created for us.

     That is the whole idea of Teshuvah.  How do we normally translate that?  Repentance!  But repentance by definition implies that change is possible, and that it comes about through human action. You may have followed in recent weeks the story of Greta Thunberg.  She is a the young woman from Sweden who has become one of the best known climate activists in the entire world.  She was in the States last month to attend a series of rallies and to speak about climate change at the United Nations General Assembly.  She is articulate, bright, and thoughtful, but what she is more than anything else is passionate about her cause.  She believes two things – first, that human activity, especially the production of greenhouse gases, is destroying our climate.  And the second thing she believes is that through her own actions she can make a difference.  That she has the power to literally change the world, and make it a better place because she is in it.

     That is a core Jewish value!  Human action changes the world.  Many of you will remember, in the 1960s, that Jews, particularly young Jews, were deeply involved in the civil rights movement, many of them leaders.  They came to that cause from their Jewish roots,  because they knew the Torah teaches ideals of universal human dignity, freedom, and equality.  And in the 1960s, in part because of their action and commitment, our country changed for the better!  In the 70s the world wide Jewish community united around our Russian brothers and sisters, demanding their freedom and rights, because we all felt responsible for one another.  And with the help of Jews around the world, Soviet Jews emigrated, and the Jewish world changed.  And after WW II and the Holocaust Israel was a common thread through the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and even the 90s, a cause that animated the Jewish community, and brought Jews together, and we have watched Israel flourish and because of that the world itself has changed! 

     Those things happened not because God created miracles, but because human beings decided to take a stand.  All you have to do today is open the morning paper to know that our world is profoundly troubled and desperately in need of change.  Anti-Semitism is rising.  Gun violence is out of control.  Racial inequality does still exist.  The gap continues to grow between those with means and those without.  The list could go on and on.  Change is desperately needed in our world – and our tradition reminds us that we are the ones who must bring it about. 

     The second redemptive value in the Unetaneh Tokef is Tefilah – what does that mean?  Prayer!  Our tradition teaches us there must be a spiritual dimension to human life.  The yearning of our souls cannot be satisfied with materialism, despite what we are constantly told by the culture around us.  We need our Judaism to live full and meaningful lives.  You may have seen an article by Bari Weiss, published a month or so ago, on the problem of rising anti-Semitism and how to combat it.  She argues that one thing Jews can do to fight against anti-Semitism is to live more fully and authentic Jewish lives.  To be more Jewish, to do more Jewish things, to grow Jewishly by studying our traditions, our history, and the wisdom of our people.  To make Shabbat at home with our children and grandchildren. To come to services more often!  I just said to someone the other day that I love having 4000 people in the building on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but honestly I would rather have 300 people here every Shabbat morning.  

     And you don’t have to stop with shul!  You can engage in Jewish life through the Associated and its agencies, making a difference everyday in people’s lives in our community.  Or get involved in Israel bonds, or AIPAC, or J Street, or the growing mindfulness movement in Jewish life.  But whatever it is, be proud Jews!  For three thousand years we have been different and distinct, for three thousand years we have lived by Jewish values which at times seem out of date or unpopular or out of step.  But we’ve done it for 3000 years.  We are stubborn, we Jews.  Am k’shei oref, the Mahzor calls us.  A stiff necked people.  We should not stop living that way now.  That is the second value:  live more deeply and fully as a Jew in the new year.

     The last guiding value from the Unetane Tokef is Tzedekah.  Normally when we hear that word we think of charity, and that is in fact the way it is translated in our Mahzor.  It is the check writing and the Blue JNF boxes and the donations to the Associated and its agencies.  It is our annual appeal.  We’ve all been raised on that ideal, those blue boxes and what they represent – giving – that is ingrained in our hearts and our minds.  It is part of what defines us as Jews.  It is Jewish DNA.

     But tzedekah also means doing what is just in God’s eyes.  The root for the word is the same root that makes the word tzedek – justice.  Justice for all people.  It may be that the greatest accomplishment of Judaism is that it has enriched the world with the idea that all human beings are equal in the eyes of God.  And so they should be in our eyes.  That includes all races, all sexual orientations, all gender identities, all faiths.  It includes the stranger, the poor, both the immigrant and the native born.  It includes those who are marginalized and cannot speak for themselves.  If Jews don’t speak for those people, who will?  If Jews don’t stand up for their rights, who will?  Who knows better than we do what happens when justice, and dignity, and freedom are taken away?  That ideal, that all people are created in God’s image, that every person deserves justice, should be at the core of our communal work, and a guiding light in our lives every day.

     It is no mistake that the Sages assigned the words of the Prophet Isaiah for our haftara reading this morning.  It is a text that powerfully demonstrates the responsibility we have to care for one another and for our world.  Isaiah asks, what does God want from us?  And the answer the prophet provides is as clear as the call of the shofar:

 “To let the oppressed go free, to break off every yoke, to share our bread with the hungry, to take the wretched poor into our home, to cloth the naked…to take away the menacing hand, and evil speech, to offer our compassion to those in need.”

     In other words, to care for our fellow human beings, and not to judge them.  To stand up to evil, to speak out for truth.  To care for God’s world.  To live our lives according to God’s law.

     If we can live our lives in this way in the year that is beginning, and in all the years to come, then, Isaiah tells us, when we call out to God, God will answer us הניני – Here I am.  Giving us strength, courage, and hope, to make our world – and God’s – the way we know it should be.  May we begin that work soon, may we do it well, and, God willing, for many years –

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