Category Archives: preaching

Imagination

a text version of my sermon from Shabbat Hol HaMoed Sukkot –

As the Nobel prizes have been awarded in the last week the winners have been making their media rounds, patiently engaging in interviews and answering questions about their work and what got them to where they are.  On the radio a few days ago I heard Rainer Weiss, one of the physics prize winners, talking about his work.  In the course of his interview he referred over and over again to Albert Einstein, saying that his life’s work had in large part been based on principles that Einstein had theorized about more than 100 years ago.  The problem for Einstein was that the technical ability to verify many of his own theories didn’t exist back then.  But today, that technology is in place, and Rainer Weiss’s Nobel prize in physics was awarded because he had finally been able to scientifically prove some of Einstein’s ideas.

It is an astonishing thing to think about.  Even with no way to test many of his theories, without any ability to do trial and error experimentation in a lab, the work that Einstein did more than a century ago has been proven right time and time again, and what is more, to this day remains the fundamental bedrock of modern physics.  Einstein himself often spoke about thought experiments.  He would, for example – in his mind! –  put an imaginary person on an imaginary train, and then imagine that the train was moving at the speed of light.  And then he asked himself questions.  If it was possible to actually make this happen, how would the person on the train experience time and space?  How would someone watching the person on the train experience the same things?  And as Einstein answered these questions, his theories came together.

These thought experiments were so important to Einstein that some believe it was his ability to imagine these things, and not his ability to do complicated math, that made him the greatest physicist of all time.  His original paper on the theory of relativity, written in 1905, is mostly prose with a few relatively simple algebraic equations sprinkled in.  It wasn’t a math brain that set Einstein apart and that made him a genius – it was his ability to imagine things, to look at something that anyone could see, but to understand it and think about it in a totally different way.

It is a little bit like the way another genius, Michelangelo, approached his work.  Art historians have long struggled to understand how Michelangelo created his great sculptures.  To this day the particular techniques he used remain largely unknown.  But the best possible explanation for his greatness may come from the way he was able to use his imagination.  Speaking about one of his statues, he once said “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”  You and I might look at the same block of marble and see it simply as a solid piece of stone.  But Michelangelo’s imagination was such that in his mind there was a figure locked inside that block – and all he had to do was take the stone away to reveal that figure.  In the same way Einstein could look out at the universe, and in his imagination he saw the physics in it that holds it all together and makes it work.

Einstein grew up in a secular Jewish household, with very little exposure to traditional Jewish life, and in fact he went to a Catholic school for his elementary education.  But I’ve always wondered if his Jewish roots helped to free his mind and imagination, giving him the ability to see things differently than other people.  Judaism would not exist without the ability of Jews and the Jewish people to look at the world at to imagine it in a different way – to use Michelangelo’s phrase, to ‘see the angel and to set it free.’

This is what Abraham was able to do, and Moses as well.  Abraham looked out on a world of idol worshippers, where the people around him offered their children as sacrifices to the gods.  But in his mind he imagined a different world, a world with a loving and forgiving God, a world where human sacrifice was forbidden, and a world where God was unique – where there was only one God.  And because Abraham could imagine this world, could see it in his mind’s eye, he worked his entire life to make that world a reality.

It was the same for Moses.  Moses was raised in the Egyptian palace, where Pharaoh was ‘god,’ in a culture where royalty was everything and slavery was part and parcel of every day life.  But Moses could imagine a different world, a world where values like freedom and human dignity were lived and embraced, a world where slaves deserved to be free.  And because Moses could see that world in his imagination when no one else was able to see it, he walked into Pharaoh’s throne room and demanded freedom for his people.

And that same sense of imagination is at the heart of the modern state of Israel.  Herzl’s famous phrase was אם תרצו אין זו אגדה – if you imagine it, it will come into being.  And he saw in his mind a Jewish state in the ancient land of Israel, when almost no one else at the time could imagine that possibility.  The first settlers who came to the land looked out at a desert wilderness, a barren land, where nothing grew.  But what they imagined was ארץ זבת חלב ודבש – a land filled with milk and honey.  And in their mind’s eye they saw green fields, and orange groves, and vineyards.  And if you go to Israel today, you’ll see with your own eyes how that vision becomes Israel’s reality.

Even our celebration of the festivals is grounded in our ability to imagine a different world.  On Passover we sit at the seder table and imagine that we are slaves.  On Shavuot we stay up all night studying Torah, and in that exercise we imagine that we are at the foot of Mt Sinai, waiting for God’s revelation.  And on Sukkot, we build booths in our yards, eat and sometimes even sleep in them, and we imagine that we are wandering in the wilderness and searching for the Promised Land.

In each case the tradition asks us to look out at the world and to see what is – to acknowledge that fully and honestly –  but at the very same time to imagine what could and should be.  And then to imagine what role we will play in making that vision become a new reality for all.  As Einstein himself said:  “Logic will get you from A to Z, but imagination will get your everywhere.”

Shabbat Shalom, Hag Sameach

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The Blacklist – Yom Kippur 5778

My phone started dinging with unusual frequency early in the morning of July 9th.  Each text or email came with a strange question:  ‘Is it you?’  After the 3rd or 4th text message and 5th or 6th email I decided I had better figure out what exactly was going on.  With one quick google search I discovered that Israel’s chief rabbinate had released a blacklist of rabbis – 160 names of rabbis not to be trusted.  And as my eyes scanned down that list, about half way through it, I saw my own name  – Rabbi Steven Schwartz.

Most of the rabbis whose names appeared on the list are from the US.  Many are Conservative rabbis, although there are Orthodox rabbis and Reform rabbis listed as well.  We received no notification, no communication from the Chief Rabbinate, and no explanation.  But best guess, after speaking with some of my colleagues, is that you made that list if you had people who had studied with you for conversion, and then after they became Jewish they made aliyah, they moved to Israel.  And if you wrote supporting documents for their aliyah process, you made the blacklist.

Now please don’t feel bad for me, if you were inclined to do so.  My feelings were not hurt, my ego, such as it is, not bruised.  The timing was ironic, because when the list was released I had just returned from Israel, where for 10 days I had done my best to give a group of Beth El travelers a sense of pride in and love for the Jewish homeland.  But even while we were there there were storms brewing and controversies swirling, all revolving around the question of how Israel, in a religious sense, Israel as a Jewish state, relates to the Jewish community outside of Israel, those of us who live in the Diaspora.

If you follow Jewish news you probably came across these issues during the summer.  There have been two primary points of contention.  The first has to do with access to Judaism’s most sacred site, the Kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem.  If you’ve ever been to the Kotel you know it is run like an Orthodox synagogue – there is a men’s section of the Wall, and a women’s section.  The sections are divided by a mechitza.  It is clear that if you are a Conservative or Reform or Reconstructionist Jew that your brand of Judaism is not looked upon kindly there.  And some of you who have traveled with me and Dr. Bor to Israel may remember how uncomfortable we felt when trying to have a Beth El service, not even at the wall, but in the general vicinity, usually at the back of the plaza.

Almost two years ago a compromise was negotiated with the Netanyahu administration that was supposed to resolve this tension.  The plan was to give Reform and Conservative Jews access to the wall’s southern section, where they would be able to have egalitarian services, with women and men participating fully and praying together.  But the government never implemented the agreement, giving one excuse after another, finally announcing this summer that the agreement would be indefinitely shelved.  And the message to the Diaspora community really was if you are a Conservative or Reform Jew your Judaism is not authentic, and you do not have the same Jewish rights in Israel, the Jewish homeland, as Orthodox Jews.  Controversy #1.

Controversy number 2, which connects to my being black listed, revolves around the status of Jews by Choice, who have converted in the Diaspora.  Since the establishment of the state 70 years ago in 1948, conversion status worked as follows – if someone converted under non-Orthodox auspices, they were considered to be Jewish by the state of Israel and they were allowed to make aliyah as a Jew under the Law of Return.  But just over the last number of months there has been legislation introduced in the Knesset that would make only Orthodox conversions approved by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate to be considered valid.  It is another message sent – from the Israeli government – that non Orthodox Judaism, in their eyes, is not authentic.

This past summer the Conservative and Reform communities finally felt like they had had enough.  You may or may not know but you should that our President Denise Franz and I signed on to a letter a few weeks ago that was sent from the Conservative Movement to PM Netanyahu.  It was signed by 600 Conservative rabbis and the presidents of almost 400 conservative synagogues around the country.  In the strongest possible terms the letter expressed the deep disappointment we feel communally with the Netanyahu administration’s positions on these issues. (the text of the letter is easy to find online if you want to read it)

To this point there has been no movement from the Netanyahu administration, and no response that I know of to the letter or the points it raises.  And that lack of response, particularly at this time of year, when Judaism urges us to reach out to God and to each other, to admit oversights and promise to do better, is both hurtful and telling.  It is a rejection of our Judaism, and our Jewish way of life.

I don’t have to tell you that we are living in a world today that feels both dark and dangerous.  With violence, and terrorism, and mass migration, and a threat of nuclear war that we have not felt since I was in elementary school;  with challenges of modernization, and the feeling that technology is taking over our lives, and the recent natural disasters, and the growing threat of climate change – the list could go on and on and on.  To say the least, these are unsettled and troubled times.

And that is the general world!  Think for a moment about the Jewish world.  We have plenty of our own tzuras!  In Israel the unresolved situation with the Palestinians and the continuing occupation divides the country internally between left and right.  The left recognizes that the occupation cannot continue because A) it is morally compromising and B) it alienates the rest of the world. But the left has a problem because it doesn’t know if a full withdrawal from the West Bank will finally result in peace or if it will locate Hamas rockets 10 miles from Ben Gurion airport.  The right in Israel also has its problems.  It believes that the Israeli claim to Judea and Samaria is God given, even Messianic, and withdrawal is impossible. Yet it understands that something has to be done about the Palestinians, and also that making a single state will not preserve Israel’s Jewish identity in the long term.  That is internally.  And externally, Israel lives in one of the most challenging, unstable, and dangerous neighborhoods in the world, and has to share its backyard with Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Lebanon.  Israel can never seem to catch a break, and never seems to have an easy year.

But we Jews who live in the Diaspora haven’t had it much better this year.  I imagine many of us are still deeply disturbed by the events that took place in Charlottesville this summer, when Nazis and white supremacists marched in the streets of an American city chanting Nazi slogans and waving flags with swastikas.  Our brothers and sisters in Europe have their own concerns, with the left in England revisiting classic anti-Semitic tropes, and the right in Germany electing neo-Nazis to sit in the German parliament.  %13 in last week’s elections!

And in this kind of world, in this kind of year, do Jews have to spend their time telling other Jews they don’t practice Judaism the right way, that they aren’t authentically Jewish, they aren’t observant enough?  Does the Chief Rabbinate have to release blacklists of rabbis?  Does the government of Israel have to renege on its agreements with the liberal Jewish community, does it have to alienate Jews at a time when if anything Jews should becoming together?  I understand that we all have a tendency to pass judgement on others. That is one of the reasons why YK exits!  And in the Jewish community we seem to have a particular talent for judging others.  But don’t we Jews have other things to worry about, aside from judging each other?

The message of Yom Kippur is to look inwards, and to judge oneself, and to leave the judging of others to God.  In ancient times, when the High Priest went into the inner precincts of the Temple, to pray for a good year, he prayed for all Jews.  He didn’t say, ‘I am going to pray for the Jews of Beth El, and not Chizuk Amuno.’   And if we wake up in the morning, and somehow the Temple has miraculously been rebuilt over night, and a High Priest found, his prayer in that Temple would also be for ALL Jews – in Israel, and in the Diaspora, Orthodox and Conservative and Reform and Reconstructionist.

In its introduction to the Avoda service, our mahzor quotes the teaching of a Hasidic master.  “Wherever a person stands to lift up eyes to heaven, that place is a Holy of Holies. Every human being created by God in God’s own image is a High Priest. Each day of a person’s life is the Day of Atonement. Each one of us can face God with the language of the heart. Each one of us can be forgiven. Each one of us can achieve atonement and be made pure in the eyes of God.”

That is a message that I hope and pray the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the Netanyahu administration will take to heart.  But the truth is it is a message all of us need to hear and take to heart, in Israel and in the Diaspora.  It affirms every person and every place as part of God’s creation. That each of us despite our diversity, in age, in location, in language, in observance, in worldly goods can find God’s love and support as we journey through life.

We all pray in the same words on the HHDs, the pious and those less so. בספר חיים…וכל עמך בית ישראל. May we and the entire House of Israel be called to mind and inscribed for life, blessing, sustenance, and peace in the Book of Life.

May that be God’s wish, and the wish of all Jewish people, one for another, in this new year –

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Problems of Prayer

This text of my Kol Nidre sermon from 9/29/17 –

One week ago tomorrow, on Shabbat afternoon, I took our dog for a long walk around the neighborhood with our niece Lily.  Lily is the daughter of my brother and sister in law and just starting second grade, and as we walked we talked about various things – school, a strange bug we saw, the dog, cracks in the sidewalk – I guess pretty typical conversation with a seven year old.  That morning she had come to Shabbat services, so I figured I would ask her what she thought about shul.  ‘How did you like services?’ I asked.  ‘It was pretty boring,’ she said. ‘What was boring about it?’ I asked.  ‘Well,’ she said, ‘you just sit around and say all those prayers.’

And I don’t know if Lily’s comments reflect your experience of shul, but I can tell you they brought back memories of my own childhood, and sitting in services next to my father, particularly on the High Holy Days.  I had a general sense of what page the service ended on, and I would keep my finger in that place of the prayer book, counting the number of pages we had left to go.  It was always exciting when the rabbi skipped a bunch of pages – for example, we’d go from page 60 to page 70!  That was great!  We were that much closer to the aleinu!

But if the prayers were challenging for me, what I did enjoy about shul were the various scriptural readings of the holidays.  I liked hearing about Abraham and Sarah, I enjoyed the dramatic narrative of the High Priest and the YK day ritual that we read tomorrow morning.  And I particularly liked the story of the prophet Jonah, that we will read at Minha tomorrow afternoon.

I am sure you all remember the story of Jonah.  He is asked by God to deliver a message to the city of Nineveh and its residents, to tell them they have sinned but that if they repent they will be spared.  As a child I didn’t know much about sin and repentance and all of that business, but I did love the part of the story where Jonah is swallowed up by a ? big fish!  In my mind I tried to imagine how Jonah could have survived for three days and nights in the fish’s belly.  I thought about how big the fish must have been to swallow a man whole.  I wondered at how dark it was, Jonah all by himself, deep under the water, with no light and no source of comfort or hope.

And my favorite part of the story came at that moment – that low and dark moment in Jonah’s life – when the text tells us he prayed to God from the belly of the fish.  קראתי מצרה לי אל ה׳ ויענני – In my trouble I called out to God, and God answered me.  מבטן שאול שועתי שמעת קולי – from the darkest place I called, and You heard my voice.  I don’t know how my niece Lily would feel about that prayer, but for me it has always had a distinctive power, and it has grown even more compelling as I’ve aged, and certainly as I’ve worked in the rabbinate over the last two decades.

There is a simple reason for that – in my eyes, Jonah’s prayer reflects the human experience, that at the difficult and dark moments of our lives, the moments of doubt and pain, the moments of loss, the moments of fear, the moments when we feel hopeless – at those moments we turn to God, we call out for help, and we seek God’s presence.  But over the last few years I’ve become worried that we do that less and less today.  I am concerned that our faith in prayer is waning, and that it has become more and more difficult for us to find in the experience of prayer meaning and value.

Many years ago Alvin Book, a long time member of Beth El, came to see me.  When he walked into my office, in his hands, he held this little abridged Bible.  These were standard issue, given to the Jewish soldiers in the Army during the Second World War.  Alvin told me that he had landed on the Normandy beaches, on June 7, 1944, the day after D Day.  The beaches were still not secure, and the troops were being heavily shelled.  He ran to the closest fox hole he could find, a shallow ditch in the sand.  And he huddled there, and he was terrified, paralyzed with no idea of what to do or how to move forward.  As the shells were exploding he was saying ‘God please help me.’  And he told me he reached to his heart, because it was beating so heavily, and his hand hit the pocket of his uniform, and in that pocket was this Bible.  And for some reason, just really looking for something to help him, he took this Bible out of his pocket, and with shaking hands opened it.  And this is the passage he opened it to –

Out of the depths I call to You, O Lord.  Listen to my cry, let Your ears be attentive to my plea for mercy…

I look to the Lord, I look to God, I await God’s word.  I wait for God like watchmen wait for the dawn…  (Psalm 130)

Alvin told me the moment he read that passage he felt a sense of calm, he felt that God was there with him, he felt he was going to be OK.

Notice that nothing external changed in his situation.  The shells didn’t stop falling.  He was still lying in a fox hole.  He was still in grave mortal danger.  None of that changed.  God did not make a miracle, create a protective shield, or move him out of harm’s way.  His circumstances were exactly the same as before he reached for that Bible.  But there was a transformation that occurred at that moment.  An internal transformation.  Something changed inside of Alvin, something that helped him feel a sense of courage and hope and strength that he didn’t have before.

And you know what?  Rabbis also struggle with prayer.  And Alvin’s story has helped me to understand prayer, how prayer works, and how it can be meaningful in my life, and maybe it can do the same for you.  I think my niece Lily was on to something last Shabbat afternoon – prayer can be enormously difficult for us.  As Lily said, it can be boring at times, after all we sit here for hours on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, reciting prayer after prayer, and if you are one of those who mark the end of the service with your finger in the Mahzor, you know we still have a long ways to go.  (In fact tonight, 40 more pages to be exact!)  And there are additional challenges – Hebrew not the least of them!  How many of us can read Hebrew well, let alone understand what we are reading?  And even if we go to the English side of the page we struggle with the meaning of many of the prayers, some of them close to 2000 years old, and it can be difficult to understand how they can connect to us and our lives.

But I think the biggest challenge to prayer today is that we have lost faith in its power.  We don’t believe that prayer can be a transformational experience, that it can make a difference in how we live, or who we are.  One of the primary reasons for that is that we’ve come to think of prayer as a process of asking God for something.  And once we ask, our request is either granted or not.  In the simplest of terms, we ask God for a new bike.  If we get the bike, we believe our prayer has been answered.  If we don’t, we feel that either God said ‘no,’ or that God never heard our prayer in the first place.  And if that is the way we think of prayer then we very well may sit here for hours on RH and YK and wonder whether it is even worthwhile opening our Mahzorim.

But what if we think about prayer differently?  What if prayer is supposed to be what happened to Alvin Book on that beach 73 years ago?  That the power of prayer is NOT about making external changes in the world.  God does not miraculously produce the bike!  Instead the power of prayer is about making internal changes, in our own hearts and minds.  And then maybe, when we are transformed internally, we will go out into the world and make it a better place because of our presence in it.

Ten years ago tomorrow, on Yom Kippur afternoon, 2007, the Jewish year 5768, Rabbi Mark Loeb of blessed memory gave his last High Holy Day sermon to our congregation.  Many of you will remember that in those days we recited Yizkor in the afternoon, and Rabbi Loeb spoke just before that Yizkor service.  The Berman Rubin sanctuary was packed, fuller than I have ever seen it, before or since – my guess would be close to 2000 people were in the room.  Rabbi Loeb was in a reflective mood that Yom Kippur, sensing the power of that moment in his life magnified by the most powerful day of the Jewish year, and he delivered his remarks with a characteristic brilliance, but with an uncharacteristic depth of emotion.

At the very end of that sermon he told the following story in the name of Rabbi Israel Salantar:  “When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world.  I went out, and worked, and tried, but I found it was very difficult to change the world.  Then I thought I might change my nation, but I found I couldn’t change my nation.  When I realized that, I thought to change my community, but even that was too difficult for me.  Now that I am an older man, I’ve realized the only thing I can change is myself.  And if I can do that, then one day maybe I will be able to change the world.”

Had you asked Rabbi Loeb if he thought that the prayers we recite during these holy days are heard by God, I think he would have said “I don’t really know.”  Were you to ask me the same question, I would say the same thing.  I don’t honestly know if my prayers today will somehow reach God’s presence, in some distant heavenly throne room, or even in any way, shape, or form.  But I do believe with all of my heart and soul that the prayers of my mouth and the meditations of my heart can make a real difference in how I understand my role in this world, in how I live my life, and in how I relate to the people that I love.  And I also know that if those things happen through my prayers during these holy days, then my prayers will have truly been answered.  So may all our prayers on this Yom Kippur arrive at their proper destination, transforming our lives for the good, enabling us all to enter this new year with faith, courage, and hope.IMG_4981

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Celebrations!

A text version of my sermon from Rosh Hashanah day 2 –

I will confess something this morning, being our season of confession, which is that I am feeling a bit nervous.  Not about this morning’s service, which after all is almost over.  Not about this sermon, which will also be over in a few minutes.  But instead, about tomorrow morning, when many of you won’t be here.  Because tomorrow morning, Shabbat Shuvah, I will celebrate the 40th anniversary of my bar mitzvah.  And some weeks ago I agreed, in honor of this occasion, to chant both the haftara and the maftir tomorrow.  But I’ve been so busy, I haven’t practiced!  So I feel a bit like a bar mitzvah bachor, and all afternoon I’ll be practicing my maftir!

What is helping me is that I know I’ll be in good company.  Not only with all of the bar and bat mitzvah boys and girls who will be celebrating with their families in this new year, but also with all of the congregants who will come to the Torah in the coming months to thank God for reaching a milestone day their lives.  You may know the baseball expression ‘hitting for the cycle’ – what does it mean?  Right!  And there are Shabbat mornings where we have the shul equivalent of that here at Beth El – a baby naming and an auffruff, a 50th wedding anniversary and a 90th birthday, all in one morning.  People come to the Torah to celebrate those moments because they want to connect that important day in their lives with something that is sacred, and they also want to thank God for that gift of time.  Over the years I have been privileged to stand with many couples at the Torah as they expressed the gratitude they felt for the time they had shared and they life they had made.

I don’t know how many couples I’ve shared that anniversary moment with, at this point probably a couple of hundred or more.  But there are two such moments particularly that stand out in my mind.  The first was many years ago, when Sam and Vera Singer came to the Torah on the occasion of their 60th wedding anniversary.  Sam was a wonderful guy, a bit of a character, and as I was talking to him and to Vera, and saying ‘what a wonderful thing,’ and ‘mazaltov,’ and ’60 years of marriage!’ with a twinkle in his eye Sam leaned over to me – in front of the entire congregation – with his mouth near the microphone – and said ‘rabbi, it seems like longer.’  I will always remember that!

And the second moment, just a few weeks ago, in the Gorn Chapel, when Lucille and Nathan Goldberg came to the Torah to celebrate their 76th wedding anniversary.  I did not misstate that number – they’ve been married for 76 years. That is a rare thing.  It is a wedding anniversary I will probably never see again in my rabbinate.  There are a series of things that have to happen for a couple to be married 76 years.  Obviously they need to be blessed with good health, and to live well into their 90s.  I think a devoted, caring, and loving family around them makes a huge difference as well.  Some luck along the way is a necessity.  And of course they have to have a love, a respect, and a level of caring that nourishes and sustains their relationship for decade after decade.  But they need one other thing, that happens at the very beginning of their relationship – and that is a leap of faith.  Because every anniversary – whether it is the first or the 76th –  begins with a leap of faith.

Certainly that is true for couples.  Every couple faces an unknown future when they stand under the huppah.  Their hope and expectation is that they will find all of the good things that life has to offer – health, a family, financial success, and many years to be together.  But the truth is they don’t know what their future will hold.  Almost half of the couples that marry today will get divorced, and every couple will face significant challenges in the course of their journey together.  And yet they take the chance, and they make that leap.

That was certainly the case for Gertrude Mokotoff and Alvin Mann.  Like many couples, they were introduced by a mutual friend.  They took a liking to each other, had a first date, and quickly became an item.  It took a few years – and it was Gert Mokotoff who had to pop the question – but they were finally married this summer in upstate New York.  Alvin is 94.  And he married an older woman – Gert is 98.  And that folks is quite a leap of faith.  At their wedding celebration Alvin told the story of their first sleep over.  This is the way he described it:  “We had spent the whole day together, and at night, I set up the bedroom for her, and I was going to be in the next room.  She gets into the bed, and I say good night and start walking out, and she says, ‘Where are you going?’”  God willing, in the summer of 2018 Alvin and Gert will celebrate their first anniversary.  But that never would have happened if not for the leap of faith they took, that they could make a future together as husband and wife.

Of course the same is true for institutions, and even nations.  You may or may not know that Beth El and the State of Israel share the same birth year – 1948.  That means, if my math is correct (which it rarely is) that the modern Jewish homeland will turn 70 this spring.  And this year, 5778, is the 70th time our congregation has gathered together to welcome in a new year.  That does not quite match Nathan and Lucille’s 76th anniversary, but it is striking nonetheless.  And think for a moment of the leaps of faith required for those two 70th anniversaries to come to pass.

This May it will be 70 years since the founders of Israel gathered with David Ben Gurion in Independence Hall in Tel Aviv.  At 4 o’clock in the afternoon of the 14th of that month Ben Gurion banged his gavel on the table, but before order could even be established the 250 assembled guests rose to their feet and spontaneously burst out into an emotional singing of Hatikvah.  When things quieted down Ben Gurion read, live on the Israeli radio station Kol Yisrael, Israel’s Declaration of Independence.  When he finished the last words, Rabbi Yehuda Fishman came to the mic, and recited the שהחיינו blessing.  It was a powerful moment, full of emotion and hope, but who could have known then that in just 70 years Israel would become one of the greatest nations in the entire world?

And who could have known, 70 years ago, when a small group of 8 families came together with the goal of creating a congregation where progressive Jewish values would be embraced, where men and women would sit together, where a vibrant Judaism for the 20th century and beyond would be lived – who could have known then where the congregation’s journey would take it?  Who could have known that in 70 years Beth El would become one of the largest and most respected synagogues in the United States, with 1700 families, open 365 days a year, helping thousands and thousands of Jews to feel closer to their heritage, tradition, and God?

Who could have known?  With the possible exception of God Godself, no one.  And yet 70 years ago Ben Gurion stood and declared Israel to be an independent nation.  And 70 years ago our founders made a pact that they would do their best to bring a new congregational community into being.   76 years ago Lucille and Nathan left a huppah to walk out together into the future.  One month ago Gert Mokotoff and Alvin Mann did the same.

There is even a rabbinic tradition that it was the leap of faith of one individual that enabled the Jewish people to become a nation.  You all know the story – fleeing Egypt, the Israelites are trapped at the edge of the sea with the Egyptian army closing in behind them.  Moses pleads to God, but God says to Moses ‘you have to do something.’  And the waters don’t move, and the army is getting closer and closer.

But the Sages teach that one individual – Nachshon – begins to walk forward into the water.  And all of Israel, even Moses, watches him.  And the water reaches his waste.  And then his chest.  And then his neck.  And he keeps walking forward.  And he stretches his head up, to catch the last gasps of air before the waters close over his head, and just at that moment the sea begins to part.  And then one Israelite, and then another, and another, and another, begin to follow Nachshon, and when they together emerge on the far shore, they have become Am Israel, the Jewish people.

It all began with a leap of faith.  But if you think about it, so does every human undertaking.  We have limited and imperfect knowledge of the road we travel and the journey we are on.  It is not just Nachshon, or Ben Gurion, or the Singers or the Goldbergs, or even Gert Mokotoff and Alvin Mann.  Each one of us begins a day not knowing what it will hold.  Each one of us begins a new year wondering where it will take us.  May God grant us the faith we need to leap forward into this new year with hope and courage and trust, that our days will be full, our journey fulfilling, and our lives a blessing.

May that be God’s will – כן יהי רצון

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Emma Lazarus and Lady Liberty

This a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 9/19/17 –

One hundred and thirty one years ago next month the Statue of Liberty was dedicated on a day of great ceremony and celebration.  There was a parade through Manhattan that hundreds of thousands of people attended, followed by a nautical parade of dignitaries.  The ceremony itself, taking place at the foot of the great statue, was presided over by none other than President Grover Cleveland.  In his remarks that day he explained Lady Liberty’s symbolism in the following way:  “her stream of light shall pierce the darkness of ignorance and man’s oppression until Liberty enlightens the world.”

It wasn’t until 17 years later that the poem ‘the New Colossus’ was installed at the base of what had become by that time America’s most famous and symbolic statue.  Written in sonnet form, the 14 lines of the poem captured Lady Liberty’s symbolism, and also perfectly described the sense of America as a place of refuge, safety, and freedom.  I expect some of you probably memorized these lines at some point in school, but it is worth repeating them this morning:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The sea washed sunset gates of the poem are the Hudson and East Rivers, framing Manhattan on her east and west sides.  The imprisoned lightning?  The torch in Lady Liberty’s raised right hand, lit by electric light.  The twin cities?  New York is obviously one – what about the other?  Brooklyn, the true center of the world!  And the huddled masses are of course the thousands upon thousands of immigrants who came to these shores through the gates of Ellis Island.  A nearly perfect description in words of what the statue had come to mean to our country, and to the world.  America, a land of freedom, opportunity, and welcome to all.

The New Colossus was written by a Sephardic Jew named Emma Lazarus.  Lazarus lived a largely secular life until she was in her early 30s when she read the great George Eliot novel Daniel Deronda, about a young Jew who suddenly discovers his Jewish identity and decides to devote himself to the Jewish people.  She saw in that narrative a reflection of her own life, and from that point forward Emma Lazarus began to devote herself to Jewish causes.  She was particularly interested in the eastern European Jews who came to this country in the 1880s and 90s.  She was moved by their stories of hardship and suffering, combined with their deep faith and the sense of hope they maintained that they could build a better life here in America.  Lazarus saw her poem as an expression of gratitude for the past, for her own ancestors who had made their way to this country and the goodness that they found here, and she also saw it as expression of hope, that future generations of immigrants would be welcomed to these shores, where they could one day build lives of dignity and opportunity.

I’ve often wondered during the last week what Emma Lazarus would have thought about our current debate over the DACA law (deferred action for childhood arrivals) and the so called ‘Dreamers.’  I imagine you have followed the news.  DACA was put into place 5 years ago by then President Obama, and its intention was to enable children whose parents who had come to this country illegally to become legitimate citizens.  This week it was announced that the DACA protections would expire in 6 months, and if congress does not act (which it seems virtually incapable of) it is possible that as many as 800,000 young adults, who have grown up in this country, many of whom have jobs, or are in school full time, would be deported.

Of course like with everything these days the debate has become intensely politically charged, and there are also legal arguments being made on both sides.  But I wonder what Emma Lazarus would have thought in terms of the values that are being expressed in this national conversation.  Because at the end of the day this debate really is about values.  What do we want this country to symbolize, to stand for?   What ideals do we hope the citizens of this country believe in?  At the heart of this conversation is a question of whether we still subscribe to the ideals and values that are so elegantly and beautifully laid out in the 14 lines of that sonnet that Emma Lazarus composed 134 years ago.

There can be no question that caring for the stranger is a primary value of the Torah’s.  There are no fewer than 46 references to the stranger in the Torah, each of them a reminder of the responsibility the community has to care for those who find themselves on the margins of society.  And there are two reasons why the tradition is so concerned with this ideal.  The first is it understands the Jewish experience to be that of the stranger.  Jews know what it feels like to be ostracized, Jews know what it feels like to be marginalized, Jews know what it feels like to be expelled from a country.  And so if any people should have an extra sensitivity to the stranger, it should be the Jewish people.

But the other reason is that Judaism understands that the way a society treats its strangers is a measure of that culture’s quality.  There is an odd verse in this morning’s Torah portion.  In a series of curses, of bad things that will happen to the Israelites if they don’t obey God, you find the following:  והיית ממשש בצהרים כאשר ימשש העור באפלה – you will grope about in the daylight in the same way a blind man gropes about in the darkness.  And the commentators are puzzled.  Because what difference does it make to a blind man whether it is night or day, dark or light?

The Talmud provides a wonderful answer.  If a blind man is groping about in the darkness, no one else can see that man to help him.  But in daylight others will see him struggling, and they will come to him to help him find his way.

And that is where we are.  We are at a crossroads, not just with DACA, but in so many other ways, of deciding what kind of nation we want to be, what kind of values we want to embrace.  Do we want to be the kind of country where we grope about in the dark, each person trying to fend for him or herself, unable or unwilling to help one another?  Not able to truly see the other?  Or do we want to be the kind of nation that seeks the light, a light that is symbolized by the torch held up in the hand of Lady Liberty, so that when one of us stumbles, when when of us needs help, when one of us can’t see a way forward, he or she is embraced by others, and welcomed home?

What do we sing in the Sim shalom paragraph of the amidah?  כי באור פניך נתת לנו ה אלוקינו תורת חיים ואהבת חסד – in the Light of Your countenance, You gave us God a Torah of life, and a love of kindness, righteousness, blessing, compassion, life, and peace.

May that light and those values guide us and our nation in the months and years ahead –

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Leadership and Scholarship

On a quiet street in Tel Aviv Yaffo, the area where the ancient city of Jaffa blends into the modern metropolis of Tel Aviv, you can find a quiet and unassuming house built in the early 30s.  It is easy to walk right by it without having any idea that it is today a museum, with no entry fee by the way, the first and second floors the place where David Ben Gurion and his family lived during the events of the founding of the State of Israel.  You may know that Ben Gurion later settled in the Negev, in Sde Boker, but the family kept the Tel Aviv home, and used it off and on for decades, even into the 70s.

There are two things that are striking about the home.  The first is how austere it is.  We are used to our presidents being surrounded by opulence, the White House is expensively decorated, our leaders wear expensive suits and ties, they look like men of wealth and largely live in the style of the rich and famous.  Ben Gurion’s uniform of choice was a short sleeve khaki shirt, and the home he lived in was sparsely furnished, just the basics, with worn furniture, a small kitchen, old pots and pans, almost as if to say material things are not important.

The only indulgence in the home can be found on the second floor, which is where Ben Gurion spent most of his time.  There are 5 rooms on the second floor.  One of them is a small bedroom, with an old bedside table with a lamp.  But the other four rooms are filled with shelves, and the shelves are filled with books.  There are volumes in various languages – Latin and Greek, English, French and German, even Turkish, and of course Hebrew.  All told there are some 20,000 volumes in those four rooms.  Ben Gurion spent any spare time that he had reading and writing, studying the contents of his library, thinking about the great minds and the great works of literature, from antiquity to the modern day.  He was a statesman, a leader, a politician – but he was also a scholar, and his world view was formed through study and the world of the mind.

Ben Gurion knew that Jewish tradition had long demanded scholarship from its leaders.  The two greatest biblical kings, David and his son Solomon, are both understood in the tradition as being authors.  King David wrote?  The Book of Psalms.  And how about King Solomon?  According to tradition, Solomon wrote three biblical books – as a young man, he wrote the Song of Songs, the Bible’s great love poem.  In his middle age Solomon wrote the book of Proverbs, filling it with witty sayings and wise observations about the world.  And then in his old age he wrote the book of Kohelet, called in English Ecclesiastes, with its world weary observations about the temporal quality of life.

This idea that the king should also be a scholar is found in the Torah itself, and comes from this week’s portion, called Shoftim.  There is an extended passage at the end of the 17th chapter of Deuteronomy that describes what was expected of the ancient Israelite kings.  The passage concludes with the following verses:  “When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of the Torah written for him by the Levitical Priests.  Let it remain with him and let him read it every day of his life, so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God, and to observe faithfully every word of this Torah and its laws.  In this way he will not act arrogantly against his fellows, nor deviate from this Teaching…”  (Deuteronomy 17: 18-20)

I see in the passage two ideas that are instructive in terms of how we hope our leaders will conduct themselves.  The first is the Torah clearly believes that a necessary quality for successful leadership is humility.  The text says it quite plainly – the king needs to study so that he will not act arrogantly against his fellows.  A leader who thinks he or she always knows best is not a leader.  True leaders understand that they might be wrong – they doubt, they question, they agonize over decisions.  But even more importantly, true leaders know on a fundamental level that they are no better than anyone else.  When they begin to think that they always know best, when they begin to believe that they have some kind of exalted status, that they are intrinsically deserving of their leadership role, they will lose the ability to properly fulfill that role.  So the Torah reminds us that leaders must maintain a sense of perspective, and that humility is a necessary ingredient for true leadership.

The second thing is that the Torah expects that the king will be a scholar.  A leader must also be a learner – a studier, a digester of information, a thinker, a cogitator, a reader.  The biblical kings had their prophets – Saul had his Samuel, David had his Nathan, Hezekiah had his Isaiah.  And modern heads of state must have their advisors, experts on the wide and varied subjects that cross the leaders desk.  But according to the Torah the leader is not permitted to abdicate the tasks of studying, reading, thinking, and even writing.  That is precisely why in this country we create presidential libraries to honor a president’s service.  You may remember that Winston Churchill won a Nobel Prize for literature in 1953.  And that is why David Ben Gurion’s home in Tel Aviv contains those 20,000 volumes.  He knew that true leaders have to learn, and read, and study, they have to familiarize themselves with the world of ideas, with the great thinkers of the ages.  They have to have a sense of the past, of where we’ve come from, they need to be students of history, and they also have to have a sense of where we are today, of the problems and challenges of our time.  And there is no shortcut  – the only way you do it is by taking the books off the shelf, and delving into the ideas with your own mind.

It is clear from the Torah’s text that ancient Israelite culture felt intensely ambiguous about the institution of the monarchy.  On the one hand the text acknowledges the need for centralized power, and understands that a strong king can unite the people and give them a sense of national identity.  On the other hand the Torah knows all too well that a king without the proper checks and balances can become dangerous and even deadly.  After all, our ancestors were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, a king who had ultimate power.

Of course we know the end of the story.  The monarchy comes into existence, and kings sit on the throne of ancient Israel for generations.  The most successful of those kings – the ones who are remembered as beloved, both by God and the people, are those who follow the advice in this morning’s portion – והיתה עמו – the book will be always with him – וקרא בו כל ימיי חייו – and he will read from it all the days of his life – in order to learn to fear the Lord his God, observing all of the laws of this Torah.

We should hope and pray for the same sense of humility and depth of understanding in our own leaders.  May they realize the need for it so we see it soon –

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#Charlottesville

This a text version of my sermon from Shabbat services on 8/19 –

It was a Shabbat morning, and a small group of Jews – about 40 or so – had gathered together in their shul to recited the morning prayers.  They were there for various reasons – some to celebrate, some for the sense of community, some because they felt obligated – the same reasons why many of us are here today.  The little synagogue was their spiritual home, connecting them to our ancient tradition.

While they prayed storm clouds were gathering outside.  There was unrest in the streets, marchers waving flags, chanting slogans, and spewing hate.  The president of the shul stood outside at the entranceway, with an armed guard the congregation had hired for protection.  For a time three men dressed in fatigues and armed with semi-automatic rifles stood across the street, staring coldly at the front of the building.  Multiple times in the course of the morning loosely organized groups of Nazis marched by the synagogue, pointing at it, screaming out ‘there is the synagogue!’, and anti-semitic slurs, and carrying flags with swastikas on them.  When the services ended, the shul president advised the worshippers that they should leave the synagogue by the back door, and they should walk in groups until they get to their cars.  And so the worshippers had to sneak out of their own shul, by the back door, because they were afraid.

What I just described happened over and over again in Germany in the 1930s.  Who would have imagined that it could happen here in the United States, in Charlottesville Virginia, in the year 2017, just last weekend?  Nazis marched in the streets, openly.  Jews were afraid to go outside, a synagogue was threatened, and as we know later in the day a young woman was killed and others injured by a Nazi sympathizer.  Perhaps things we never expected to see in the United States.  I think we all felt like the nation had taken a step back to a darker and more dangerous time.

The first verse of this morning’s Torah portion is ראה אנכי נותן לפניכם היום ברכה וקללה – Behold!  I put before you this day both blessing and curse.  And we have indeed seen both this week.  The curse has shown itself in the violence and hatred, in the stark reminder from the events in Charlottesville that the twisted tropes of anti-semitism can still be found in the dark corners of our country and in the ignorant minds of the Neo Nazis and White Supremacists who marched last week.  That is the ‘kellalah’ – the curse, that we have seen, that we have been forced to confront.

What is the ברכה, what is the blessing?  It has not come from the White House, and many in the Jewish community have been deeply disappointed by the response or lack of response from Washington.  Perhaps we thought that at least the President’s daughter and son in law, both Jews, would step forward and speak out, but to this point they have not.  So what is the ברכה, and where can we find it?

And the truth is, there have been many rays of light in the darkness.  America’s top ranking military officers forcefully and unequivocally spoke out against extremism and bigotry in all its forms.  Leaders from across the communal spectrum – from both sides of the aisle – were quick to condemn the hate groups.  CEOs from some of the top businesses in the country made it clear they would not stand for anything less than the dignified treatment of all people, regardless of race, color, or faith.  The mother of Heather Heyer, the young woman who was killed during the violence by a man who revered Nazi Germany, gave an eloquent eulogy for her daughter that reminded us all of what we can be at our very best.  Each bright moment helped to counter the darkness, each ray of light helped to restore hope to our hearts, and we were reminded of what makes this country great.

Freedom is at the core of that greatness.  That is why Jews came to these shores, that is why Jews have done so well here, that is why we love this country.  But the key is remembering that freedom cannot exist without freedom for all.  We know as Jews that when some are free and others are not, the freedom is not real. That is the insight that has enabled America to become the greatest country in the world.  We haven’t yet fully realized that vision, but we subscribe to it, we believe in it, we find hope and comfort in it.  We work for it.  And when others try to destroy it, we have a responsibility to speak out.

Those are the values and ideals that we must embrace as a nation and as individuals as we try to move forward from Charlottesville.  If and when we feel hatred and prejudice tugging at our own hearts and poisoning our own minds, we must reject them, categorically.  If and when we see hatred and prejudice in our communities, we must not turn our heads away, but instead walk forward to confront what we know in our heats to be wrong.  If and when we see hatred and bigotry in our nation, we must call it what it is, and discover what our role is in making sure it will not happen again.

You see the berachah – the blessing – is in each and every one of us.  The courage and strength and faith and hope that God gives to each one of us, that enables us to stand up for what we know to be right, to embrace in our daily lives the values of freedom and tolerance and dignity for all that the founding fathers of our nation learned from the words of our Torah.  When we ignore those values we fall short, and we are all diminished.  But when we embrace those values we become the blessing, and we fulfill our destiny as human beings and as Jews.

In 1861 Abraham Lincoln concluded his first Inaugural Address with the following passionate words:  “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”  May we together follow those angels to a more peaceful, tolerant,  and just world for all.

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