Category Archives: preaching

What Did You Say?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hevruta

Here is a text version of my sermon from 7/14/18 –

     I would like to tell you a tale this morning of two rabbinical students, who entered the rabbinical program at the Jewish Theological Seminary in the same year.  They had never met before, and came from very different backgrounds, but they quickly became friends, sharing a number of common interests, among them the Grateful Dead and good beer.  Before long they were not only friends, but also they were a hevruta, they were study partners.

     In the traditional world of Jewish text study your hevruta becomes your closest companion.  You spend an inordinate amount of time with your study partner tackling difficult texts, and the dynamic of the relationship is supposed to be one of prodding and pushing the other, of challenging the other’s interpretation of a given text, of using your partner to test ideas and to explore concepts.  To do this you must trust the other person, because you must also make yourself vulnerable.  That is to say you must at times be willing to acknowledge the limits of your own intellectual ability, you must also be willing to admit sometimes before someone else that you don’t know the answer, something that generally rabbis don’t like to admit.

     Over time, the relationship – the hevruta – either works or it doesn’t.  If it doesn’t work, it breaks apart.  But if it does work, the study partners become very close, through the shared time, the intellectual exploration, and coming to know one another in a deep way.  And so it was for me – I imagine you’ve already guessed I am one of the students in this story – and my hevruta, my rabbinical school study partner.  In fact depending on whether you ask me, Becky, or my study partner, our son Josh is named for my rabbinical school hevruta.  

     But as it has to happen in all the great tales, there was a parting of the ways.  This did not happen because we fell out of favor.  It did not happen because we grew distant from one another – in fact we are close to this very day.  It happened because at some point during our third year of rabbinical school my study partner Josh decided to make aliyah, to move to Israel and become an Israeli citizen, and Becky and I decided to return home, to the States.  Josh ultimately left rabbinical school and pursued an academic career, while I continued on the rabbinic track, and am now twenty one years into my pulpit career.

     Now that I’ve taught you the term hevruta – which means?  study partner! – I want to teach you another term – bar plugta.  Your bar plugta is the person with whom you often disagree, and it is not uncommon that your hevruta is at times your bar plugta – that your study partner is often the intellectual thorn in your argument, or in the way you understand something about the world.  And so it was with me and with Josh about Israel.  He made aliyah from a deep belief that there is only one place on the earth that a Jew can fully live as a Jew, and that there is only one place on the earth where the Jewish people can fully realize their destiny – and that place is?  the land of Israel, Eretz Yisrael.

     But I returned from Israel to the States with a deep belief that my Jewish life would be most meaningfully lived here in the Diaspora, and what is more, that a healthy and vibrant diasporic Jewish community is important for the Jewish people, and for the land of Israel itself.  And what is curious is that now 23 years after Josh decided to stay in Israel and Becky and I came back to the States, I think we are both right.  In other words, there is something to be said for Josh’s position – more and more the destiny of the Jewish people as a nation is being played out in the land of Israel, and those of us who live in the Diaspora are in many ways observers of that great saga.  Not that we don’t love Israel, not that we don’t follow events there closely, not that we don’ travel there and send our children and grandchildren there – we do all of that.  But what we do not do is live there.

     On the other hand, as the years have gone by, I have been more and more convinced of the need for a healthy Jewish community outside the land of Israel.  You may have noticed an odd narrative that appears in this morning’s double Torah portion Matot -Ma’aseh.  It is curious because for forty years now the Israelites have wandered in the wilderness with one goal in mind – which is?  To make it to the promised land.  And now here they are, just on the other edge of the Jordan River, just about to cross over into that land.  And suddenly – as if out of nowhere – the leaders of two tribes – Gad and Reuben – come forward to ask Moses a question.  “Would it be OK,” they ask Moses, “if we don’t go into the land.  Would it be OK if we just stay here, on the east side of the river, outside the land that God has promised, and make our lives?  It is a good land,” they say, “So would you mind terribly if we don’t go into the land?”  Moses at first is not pleased with the request, but in the end, after some negotiation, he permits it.   And in that moment Moses establishes what for all intents and purposes is the very first diaspora Jewish community.  

     Why did Moses agree to do that?  He had worked his entire life to get the Israelites into the land, and just when that goal was about to be realized he backed off, at least for two of the tribes.  Why?

     To answer that question I would like to point your attention to a fanciful midrashic text that imagines that before Moses died God showed him the entire future of the Jewish people.  And if we set aside reason for a moment and take that textual idea to its logical conclusion, then Moses knew what a crucial role the Diaspora would play in Jewish life and Jewish history.  

     Moses knew, for example, that for 2000 years Jews would not have a homeland, and would need to figure out how to maintain their faith and their identity when those things were not tied to a specific place.  He knew that Jews would need the intellectual give and take of the larger world around them.  He knew, for example, that what would make Maimonides great one day would not be his knowledge of Jewish texts, that what would set Maimonides apart would be his knowledge of Greek philosophy and secular sciences.  Moses knew that one day there would be an Einstein, and that what would make Einstein Einstein would be his Jewish propensity to ask questions set against a secular scientific method that came from the non-Jewish world.  He knew what Judaism would give to the world, and he also knew what Judaism would need from the world.

     Perhaps Moses also knew that Israel would need both a hevruta and a bar plugta.  A study partner to support her, to be close to her, but also to push and prod her, to sometimes challenge her, even to respectfully disagree with her.  To live a Jewish life outside of the land, and so to see things through a Jewish lens but from a totally different perspective.  He knew that at times the Diaspora community would carry the Jewish torch, while at other times it would burn most brightly and beautifully in the land of Israel itself.   That one community would strengthen and support the other, and that the ethical and moral vision of Judaism could be lived in the land, but taken to many other lands.  So may it continue to be for many generations to come.

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Immigration Reflections

Following is a text version of my sermon from Shabbat services on 6/30/18 – some reflections about the current immigration debate –

     It has been a rough season for the Orioles, with poor play on the field and loss after loss piling up in the standings.  But this week, for a brief time, there was a ray of light on the field at Camden Yards.  Those of you who are still watching the games probably know that on Thursday afternoon the Os fell to the Seattle Mariners 4-2.  What you may not know, unless you tuned in to the game very early, is that the best moment of the afternoon happened before the game even started, with the singing of the National Anthem.

     A young man named Nicholas Nauman – 18 years old – was wheeled out onto the field by his mother in his wheel chair.  He has a host of serious challenges that he wrestles with every day, among them cerebral palsy and cortical vision impairment, which essentially means Nicholas is blind.  He was adopted from eastern Europe and raised by his parents in Maryland, and grew up rooting for the Orioles.  With his mother holding a microphone at his mouth, he leaned his head back in the wheel chair and sang the National Anthem.  When he finished singing the crowd burst into thunderous applause, the umpires came over and shook his hand, and a number of the players and staff from the teams came by to say hi and thank him.  

     It was a heart warming moment, and in many ways struck me as being quintessentially American.  It wasn’t just the setting – Camden Yards, still to this day one of the most beautiful ballparks in the Major Leagues.  It was the spirit of what happened on the field Tuesday afternoon.  The sense that we are all equal, all human, regardless of the severity of the challenges we face in life.  That we all deserve to be treated equally, and that we all deserve – again, regardless of the challenges we face – to have every opportunity to live our lives fully and with meaning, with the support not only of family and friends, but of the very society we call our home.

     Those are classic American values – freedom, opportunity, equality, and of course baseball.  As the young man sang the Stars and Stripes was waving gently in the breeze of a summer afternoon.  The crowd stood, many putting their hands over their hearts, doffing their caps, feeling a joined sense of identity and common purpose.  They all came together in one beautiful moment Thursday afternoon at the ballpark.  

     And it seems so odd to me – such an incongruity – that that moment happened in our present time.   That moment that was so much about our shared humanity, and the capacity we have to recognize in the struggle of our others our own story, and the sense we so often have that there but for the grace of God go I.  I guess maybe that is precisely why Nicholas’ singing of the National Anthem stood out so starkly in this dark and disturbing time.  

     I guess what seems so jarring to me is this:  how can we, on the one hand, as a nation, create that kind of moment – so beautiful, and pure, and uplifting – how can we create that on the one hand, while on the other hand we have been forcibly separating parents from children, or figuring out ways to close our doors to those who would wish to join with us in common purpose?  Which of these things reflects what America truly is?  Which of them reflects what and who we are, as Jews, as members of a community, as human beings?

     Perhaps the answer is that always we are some balance between those two poles.  That within our society – and within our selves – there is always the capacity to create that Camden Yards kind of moment – a sacred, uplifting, that celebrates our humanity.  But also, within our society and within ourselves, there is the capacity to create moments when we give in to fear of the other, when our baser instincts get the best of us, when we focus on what makes us different, not what makes us the same, and when we fail to live up to the promise of our tradition, our national values, or for that matter ourselves.  And sometimes, as Lincoln said it, the better angels of our nature prevail, and we find ourselves celebrating a young man who is somehow, almost miraculously able to sing our national anthem.  And other times we lose the battle, and we give in to our fear and paranoia, and we suddenly find that we have separated thousands of children from their parents.  

     I say ‘we’ because in a sense we are all responsible.  Rabbi Loeb would often say that there are sins of commission and sins of omission.  With sins of commission we participate in the wrong that is done.  With sins of omission we don’t lend a hand, we just look the other way.  But our tradition is crystal clear on this – whether we actually participate in what is wrong, whether we look the other way and pretend it is all fine, or whether we decide to speak out for what we know in our hearts to be true and right and just – what ever our decision, it is OUR decision and we alone are responsible.

     We read from the Torah this morning the sad tale of Bilaam the prophet, called upon by the Moabite King to curse the Israelites.  Three times Bilaam steps forward to utter those curses demanded by the King, and three times, instead of cursing the Israelites, he blesses them.  Tradition has long understood that Bilaam’s sudden reversals are caused by God.  That is to say, his true intention is to curse our people, but God forces him to bless them.

     But what if Bilaam’s blessings came about not because of an external force – God – but because of his own internal struggle.  That is to say, it wasn’t God that forced Bilaam to do the right thing.  Instead, in his own heart and soul he came to an understanding of what was right and what was wrong, he managed to conquer the fear and the suspicion of the Israelites that was driving him, and then he made a choice – HE made the choice.  Instead of cursing these foreigners, (he said to himself) instead of wishing them harm, I am going to bless them, because I see myself in who they are, I see in their struggle a struggle that I may have had, I see in their humanity my humanity, and also simply because it is the right thing to do.

     Please note, by the way, this is not an argument about who should or should not be allowed into the country.  It actually has nothing to do with that.  Bilaam does not invite the Israelites into Moab.  It is obvious that our immigration system needs a serious overhaul, and it goes without saying that there must be a system in place, and that it has to have restrictions and guidelines.  And the politicians will have to figure that out.

     But this argument is about something different – it is about how we treat people, whether we say yes or no to them.  Because how we treat them says a lot more about us than it does about them.  And in every case, in every interaction, we can choose to treat them with respect and dignity.  And when we don’t, it is our own respect and dignity and values that are diminished. 

     A moment like that young man’s singing of the national anthem reminds us all of what we aspire to be, as a nation, as a community, as individuals.  Let us choose that path, let us fulfill those aspirations, let us reaffirm those values, remembering that we are all children of God, whether wheel chair bound or walking free, whether black or white, whether stranger in a strange land, or long time resident.

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Tweets and Coffee

     Well, if you follow the news at all you probably know it has been a tough week for Roseanne Barr, the actress and comedienne.  She had been riding high.  The reboot of her mega-hit sitcom was at the top of the ratings, and had just been renewed for a second season.  Roseanne seemed to be as popular as she was during the mid-90s, when her original show was pulling down huge ratings.  But as is true in many areas of life, everything can change in a single instant, or in her case with a single tweet.  And after sending that tweet – that many read as racist – a crude comment about an African American woman named Valerie Jarrett – Roseanne suddenly found the rug pulled out from under her.  Within a few hours ABC had cancelled her show, and she faced a firestorm of criticism, much of it coming at her on that same Twitter platform that got her in trouble in the first place.

     It seemed more than coincidental that all of this happened the very same week that Starbucks closed its stores – almost 8,000 of them across the US, so that its 175,000 employees could engage in a conversation about race, and could participate in a training program that was designed to help the workers be more sensitive to people of different racial backgrounds.  This was Starbucks’ response to an incident that occurred in one of its Philadelphia coffee shops, where staff called the Police on two African American men because they were sitting in the store and had not yet ordered.  In a moving and beautifully worded letter about the closure Howard Schultz, the founder of the company – who is Jewish by the way – wrote about the angst that he felt that something of this nature had happened in one of his stores, and about the plan the company had put together to make sure it wouldn’t happen again.

     Many of you know that I grew up in the Reform movement, and I remember to this day one of the lines in the Reform Mahzor we used in my shul on the HHDs.  It was in that list of sins that we recite on YK, and the reason I remember it so well is that it had a word in it that I didn’t understand as a boy – it said this:  on the sin we have sinned, because of xenophobia.  Xenophobia, I thought as a boy?  How could any word that sounds so strange and seems so complicated be describing a sin?  It was only later that I found out – probably when I was studying vocabulary words for my SATs – that xenophobia meant fear of the other.  The word comes from two ancient Greek words – xenos, meaning ‘strange,’ or ‘foreigner.’  And the second word we all know – phobos, which means fear.  Fear of the stranger, of the other, of what you are not.

     Certainly as Jews we know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of that kind of fear.  I am reading the second volume in Simon Schama’s new history of the Jewish people.  It begins time wise in the mid 1400s, and location wise in Spain where Jews were being forcibly converted to Christianity by the thousands.  As we know many of these Jews – called Marannos – continued to live Jewish lives in secret.  But one of the things that struck me about Schama’s description of the period was that even when the Jews converted, and even the Jews who converted who lived faithful Christian lives – they were always under suspicion, they were always viewed as being other, different, suspicious, strange, even dangerous, and they were never fully accepted.  

     It may be that the natural human tendency to view ‘the stranger’ – those who are not like you – with suspicion is as old as human history.  It certainly is as old as the Bible, and that sense of xenophobia that seems so present in our society today is at the heart of a troubling story that appears in this morning’s Torah portion.  It is a difficult time for the Israelites as they begin their journey through the wilderness, a journey that will last for forty years.  And it is an even more difficult time for Moses, who has to deal with the people’s complaining, and a variety of rebellions along the way.  But I suspect the most difficult moment of the entire journey for Moses occurs in this morning’s reading because it is personal, it is his own brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam, who are publicly speaking out against him.  And what is their complaint?  כי אישה כושית לקח – they complain that their brother has married a Cushite woman.  That is to say, he has married a foreigner, someone who is a stranger.  So Aaron and Miriam, two of the greatest figures in the Torah, fall prey to the sin of xenophobia.

     And if it can happen to Aaron and Moses, it can happen to any of us.  Particularly in these difficult times, when political discourse has become so strained and even conversation between friends can be so difficult.   I don’t know about you, but it feels to me like that natural human tendency to fear the other is as strong as it has been in a long, long time.  Which is one of the reasons why police are called when young black men are innocently sitting in a Starbucks.  And it is also one of the reasons, by the way, why anti-Semitism is on the rise.  The old saying is ‘a rising tide lifts all boats.’  But the opposite is also true.  Xenophobia, racism, hatred, fear, mistrust of the other will not only affect a single group.  It will not only be directed at African Americans, or Muslims, or immigrants, or Jews – it will ultimately be directed at every minority group, and as that happens, it brings us all down, coarsening our society and our culture and diminishing our values.

     So in Roseanne’s tweet, you saw one reaction to what is going on, and that was to buy into it and to contribute to it.  To give in, either to the fear that she felt, or the distrust, or the racism, or maybe a combination of all of those things.  But in Howard Schultz’s letter, you saw a different reaction.  Not only the apology, the sincere regret, but also the determination to actually do something about it, to create something through his stores that would help, even if in a small way, to make our society more tolerant, more open, and more accepting.  So that, as he wrote in his letter, a Starbucks store will be a place where everyone feels welcome, regardless of where they’ve come from, what language they speak, what color their skin is, or what faith they believe in.  Don’t we need more places in America like that?

     The Torah would suggest the answer to that question is yes.  One thing Judaism is quite clear about is that God created all people, and that all people are equal in God’s eyes.  One faith tradition is not better than another, one skin color is not better than another, one ethnic identity is not better than another.  Our job is to always remember that.  If we are able to do that, if we are able to remember it, we will be living more authentically Jewish lives.  We will also, one conversation at a time, one interaction at a time, one friendship at a time, rise up together on a tide that draws us closer to one another, and to God.

may that be God’s will, may that be our work, and may we do it together – 

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Houses of Study, Houses of Prayer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Goodness in the Wilderness

This is a text version of my sermon from this past Shabbat, 5/18/18 –

     We began reading this morning the fourth book of the Torah, called in Hebrew Bamidbar, and in English the Book of Numbers.  The book is primarily concerned with the wanderings of the Israelites through the wilderness in the course of their forty year journey to the Promised Land.  By and large it does not paint a pretty picture.  The Israelites are, to use a technical term, ‘kvetchy.’  They complain frequently to Moses, about just about everything, from the difficulty of the journey, to the quality of the food, to the qualifications of Moses to be their leader.  That complaining is a theme that runs throughout the entire book.

     And the brief snippets of narrative that the Book of Numbers offers are no better, and in fact might even be worse.  It is in Numbers where we find the disastrous episode of the quail, where God gets so angry at the people for not being satisfied with manna that God gives them so much quail to eat that they all become sick.  It is also in Numbers where we will read about the rebellion of Korah, a communal agitator who challenges the leadership of Moses.  And Numbers contains the infamous episode of the spies, who go to scout out the land, bring a bad report back to the people, and cause God to decide that none of the Israelites who left Egypt will ever get to see the Promised Land.  Or if you want to read about a family squabble you can look at Numbers 12, which describes Aaron and Miriam challenging the authority of their brother Moses, and then as punishment Miriam’s public shaming.  Last but not least it is in Numbers where Moses will strike the rock, and will be forbidden by God to enter the Promised Land.

     Not a pretty picture, by any means.

     And I’ve always wondered, wasn’t there anything good going on when the Israelites were wandering for all those long years?  If you think about it, there must have been!  It was forty years!  There must have been weddings.  And after the weddings, babies were born.  Friendships were formed.  I am sure there were countless acts of gemilut hasadim, of loving kindness, of one person helping another.  I imagine there were many sacred moments, celebrations of holidays, brises, and probably there were people who were gravely ill, and recovered, and their family felt tremendous gratitude.  There must have been hundreds and hundreds of good things that happened to the people as they wandered towards the Promised Land, but the Torah doesn’t describe any of it.

     On the one hand, I understand.  In any dramatic narrative you have to have tension.  That is what is interesting.  That is what catches people’s attention.  Imagine if you went to a movie, and the plot was as follows:  two people are married, they have two children, they get up each morning and go to work, they are successful in their jobs, they come home each night, have dinner as a family, the kids tell the parents they are getting straight ‘As’ in school, the parents put the children to bed, watch an episode of a Netflix show, and then get into bed themselves, kissing each other good night before they fall asleep. Who would watch that?  It would be boring!

     But still, reading through the Book of Numbers, you can’t help thinking you’d like a little bit of that ‘boring.’  It can feel like an unrelenting tale of woe and misfortune, as if nothing good ever happens, or ever will.  As if the only thing the people know how to do is complain.  As if there is no goodness at work in the community, no good people going about their day to day lives and doing the best they can to live with kindness, compassion and mercy.

     If you think about it, it is not unlike the way Israel is often portrayed in the news media and the international community.  It has been a difficult week for Israel.  I am sure almost everyone in the room is aware of the terrible situation at the Gaza border crossing earlier in the week, and if you pay any attention to the news you know that some 60 Palestinians were killed, and many others wounded, as they demonstrated and attempted to break through the border fence.  

     At this point there have been thousands upon thousands of words written about what happened.  Much of the debate tends to fall along political lines, between left and right, the left tending to blame Israel for what happened, the right tending to blame the Palestinians, particularly Hamas.  We know for certain that there were Hamas fighters at the border, and we know that Hamas incites violence, and that it has a stated goal of destroying the State of Israel.  That we know.  

     We also know that no Jew who cherishes the values of our tradition feels proud of what happened at that border this week.  There has been tremendous angst, both in Israel, and in the Jewish community abroad, about the loss of life on the Palestinian side, and this is something we should be proud of!  That we value life that highly, even the lives of those opposed to us, even the lives of those whose stated goal is to destroy Israel, that we feel guilty, and we worry, and we wonder if something could have been done differently so that fewer lives would have been lost.  

     This is not to say that Israel is perfect.  There is no perfect country in the world.  The United States is not perfect.  Israel also is not perfect.  But Israel is not all bad, the way it is all too often painted in the news.  Sometimes you can read the news about Israel and it is like reading the book of Numbers.  All that you find are descriptions of the tragedies and the deaths and the condemnations and the UN votes.  One grim narrative after another after another.  That is the Book of Numbers.  

     So sometimes, and maybe particularly when Israel has had a difficult week, we need to remember what goodness has come into the world because Israel has existed for 70 years.  We should remember that Israel is the sole democracy in the Middle East where equal rights for men and women are upheld, where freedom of the press is respected, and where religious diversity is allowed.  We need to remember that Israel is a nation of learning with great universities, libraries, and museums.  Since Israel’s founding 10 Nobel prizes have been awarded to Israeli scientists, more per capita than any other country in the world.  Their discoveries have been shared with every nation, and the entire world has benefitted from them.  This week it might be good to remember  that Israel is a country with state of the art medical facilities where Jew or Arab, Christian or Muslim is cared for.  We should remember that Israeli agricultural innovations are used all over the world, from South Africa to Columbia to Nigeria to India, and help feed thousands and thousands of people.  Even though we ask you to turn your phones off in shul, we should remember that there are cell phone and computer technologies that are relied on across the globe that were created in Israel.  And we should recall – in a week that has been hard for Israel – that the first ingestible video camera was invented there, that other medical technologies, invented in Israel, are used all over the world, and are saving lives every day.

     Israel is not perfect, that is true.  And it has been a hard week.  That is also true.  But Israel and her people are constantly striving to do better, to be better, and to make the world itself a better place.  May they continue to strive for those goals, and for the greatest goal of all, peace, in the years ahead – 

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Addendum (the Monday morning QB)

Any experienced public speaker will be familiar with the following:  You stand to speak, and you are working with an outline that is in your head, but without notes.  You say (approximately) what you want to say, and sit down.  Then, at a later time (sometimes right away, sometimes the next day), you realize there was something that would have worked so well in terms of your talk.  If only you had thought to add it!

But of course in the internet age, you can.

So it was that this past Friday night I spoke for a few minutes at our Shabbat evening service about being in our old neighborhood in NYC and running into a man who was begging on the street.  Not, of course, unusual for New York, except that this very person had been begging on the streets 20 years ago when we lived there.  The gist of the sermonette was that there is a problem in a culture/society where a person is still on the street begging after twenty years.

The problem with my words was that I offered no resolution, no glimmer of hope, no uplifting message.  I essentially pointed out this disturbing situation, and left it hanging in the air.  Afterwards a congregant nicely, but slightly sarcastically said to me ‘thanks for the cheerful message, Rabbi, a nice way to start Shabbat.’

Now sometimes the point of preaching is simply to call attention to something that is disturbing, that for whatever reason people don’t want to confront.  As the old saying goes, the preacher should comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.  That being said, point well taken.  And below is a story which might make a nice addendum to my Friday night comments.

You have probably heard the name James Shaw Jr.  He is the man who wrestled a rifle away from a gunman who was shooting people in a Waffle House Restaurant in Nashville a couple of weeks ago.  He has vociferously protested to being called a hero, simply saying he did what he felt he had to do.  As if his actions in the restaurant were not enough, after the tragedy he set up a GoFundMe account for those whose lives had been changed by the shooting.  His initial goal was to raise $15,000 dollars.  But two weeks after he set up the account, it already had $225,000 dollars, and was growing.

When asked to comment about the fund’s success, Mr. Shaw said this:  “I am overwhelmed.  This has been a heartwarming reminder of what is possible when we come together to care for one another.”

What is possible when we come together to care for one another?  The short answer is quite a bit, and Mr. Shaw and the victims of the shooting in Nashville have seen that first hand.  The never-ending challenge is reminding people of how much there is to do, and of how much of a difference one individual can make, and all the more so a community of people who come together, care for one another, and determine to make the world  a better place.  If anything can help to take a beggar off the streets after 20 years, it is that kind of thinking, that sense of community, and that feeling of hope.

 

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