Category Archives: preaching

Jonah’s Sukkah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Beth El Congregation, High Holy Days, Jewish festivals, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, ritual, sermon, Uncategorized

What We Stand For – Yom Kippur 5780

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leave a comment

Filed under American Jewry, Beth El Congregation, High Holy Days, Jewish festivals, Jewish life, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Uncategorized, Yom Kippur

Eternal Songs

What follows is a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 10/12/19, a reflection about Robert Hunter, who wrote lyrics for the Grateful Dead.

     Those of you who are obituary readers may remember that just about 3 weeks ago a man named Robert Hunter died.  It is likely you had never heard his name before, but articles about his life appeared in all of the major news papers in the country, and his death was even mentioned on TV and the radio.  You probably would not have recognized the name, because Robert Hunter, as famous as he was in some circles, was an entirely behind the scenes kind of guy, and a bit of a recluse at that.  

     His fame, such as it was, came from his writing – not the kind of writing you normally expect – he didn’t write books, or articles for magazines.  Instead, Robert Hunter wrote poetry, but more than that, lyrics for songs.  And he became famous because the words that he wrote – his lyrics – were set to music and sung by people like Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, and Bruce Hornsby.  All stars in the world of rock and roll.  But by far the most important song writing partnership for Robert Hunter was with a man named Jerry Garcia, whom I imagine you’ve heard of, particularly since I am your rabbi.  Jerry Garcia, of course, was the lead guitarist in the Grateful Dead, and Robert Hunter was the man who wrote the words to every original song Jerry Garcia ever sang.

     Hunter lived a long and eventful life.  He was 78 when he died, surrounded by his wife and his family.  He came of age in the late 50s and early 60s, and living in the San Francisco Bay area, he met the Beatniks, and when he was around twenty or so, he became friendly with Garcia.  He was largely self educated, but he loved the spoken and written word, and he fell in love with classic American folk music.  He wrote lyrics in great blasts of creative energy, some days writing two or three songs in a single sitting, words that once given to Garcia became classic songs, staples of the American musical lexicon.  In his writing he referenced psychedelic experiences, old ghost stories, English sailing songs, the blues, mythology and the Bible, and the old west as well, often painting landscapes of a dark America filled with desperate losers.  And yet for all the darkness, the possibility of redemption was always there, just on the horizon, just at the next town or train stop.  In his own words, from the song New Speedway Boogie, ‘this darkness has got to give.’

     I’ve been thinking abut Robert Hunter a lot since he died.  I’ve been listening to Grateful Dead music from the time I became bar mitzvah, and as you know if you were here last Shabbat, that is now 42 years ago, most of life.  His lyrics are always in my mind, a snippet here, a phrase there, sometimes an entire line, but always just under the surface of whatever I am doing, saying, or thinking.  He had a way – like I guess all of the great poets, the great lyricists, the great wordsmiths, of capturing a feeling that you knew from your own heart, and phrasing it in just exactly the right way.  And when Hunter’s words so seamlessly and perfectly blended into Garcia’s melodies and chord changes, and you would hear them sung in Garcia’s ragged tenor, you would simply say, that is me and that is my life.

     And here we are this morning, having read from the Torah Parshat Ha’azinu.  If you were following along in the Humash you know the portion consists of an extended poem that Moses recites in front of the people before he ascends Mt Nebo, where he will die.  Moses’ poem is often called in Hebrew שירת משה, or in English ‘the Song of Moses.’  It got that name because of a verse near the end of the portion, which describes the moment when Moses publicly said these words.  Here is that verse:  ויבא משה וידבר את כל דברי השירה הזאת באזני העם – and Moses came, and recited all the words of this – shirah – this song – in the hearing of the people.

     I’ve often wondered if Moses actually did sing the words, standing there in front of the people so long ago.  I wonder what his voice sounded like, or what melody he would have used?  The words themselves naturally create a rhythm, as all great lyrics do, the syllables of one line often matching the next. Even not knowing or understanding the Hebrew, one can hear the poetry just from those words, their sound and rhythm, and of course when chanted in the Torah, their melody.

     The Torah includes an interesting note about the end of Moses’ recitation of the song, a last comment that Moses makes to the people, in fact the very last thing he ever says to them:  “and when Moses finished reciting all these words to Israel, he said to them:  Take to heart all the words with which I have testified to you today.  Enjoin them upon your children, that they may observe faithfully all the terms of this Torah.  for it is not a trifling thing for you; כי הוא חייכם –  it is your very life…”

     Tradition teaches us that Moses said those words to the Israelites some 3,000 years ago.  And here we are today, having read them.  As we will next week, and the week after that.  Teaching them to our children and our grandchildren, living them in our lives, finding meaning in them, and a sense of hope and faith and light.  This darkness has got to give.

     Here is another Robert Hunter line, this from the elegy he wrote when Jerry Garcia died in 1995 –

“If some part of that music is heard in deepest dream,

Or on some breeze of summer a snatch of golden theme,

We’ll know you live inside us, with love that never parts;

Our good old Jack O Diamonds, become the King of Hearts”

     The great lyrics truly do live on, long after their singers are gone.  Their words can be heard in our dreams, or in the summer breeze that gently blows through the trees, or seen in the turning of the leaves in the fall, or the softly falling snow of winter.  Those words reside in our hearts and souls, informing our lives, bringing meaning to our days, easing our difficult moments, giving us comfort during dark times, helping us always to see the light in God’s world.

     One last line from Robert Hunter, this the celebratory last lyric from the classic song Ripple:  “Let there be songs to fill the air.”

     so may it always be – 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Beth El Congregation, Grateful Dead, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, rock and roll, sermon, Torah, Uncategorized

Darkness and Light

Here is a text version of my sermon from day one of Rosh Hashanah, 5780:

     It was on Rosh Hashanah, 75 years ago today, 1944, that a small group of Jews, prisoners at Auschwitz, were sent on a work detail to a remote area in the woods on the edge of the camp.  The details of that day are lost in the mists of time, but somehow they had arranged, whether by trickery or bribery, to conduct a short Rosh Hashanah service.  By memory they chanted the Shema and other passages from the Mahzor.  At one point a prisoner produced a small object wrapped in dirty rags.  It was a shofar that had somehow made its way into the camp, and had been successfully hidden from the guards.  A member of the group called out the ancient calls – tekia, shevarim, teruah –  and there, 75 years ago, on the edges of Auschwitz, the shofar was sounded.

     The story of that shofar has resurfaced in recent days.  Within a year of that Rosh Hashanah the war had ended and the camps had been liberated.  One of the prisoners, Chaskel Tydor, secretly kept the shofar and took it with him when he was freed.  It was preserved by his family, even used over the years on the holidays.  A week ago that shofar was installed at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan, as part of an exhibit entitled “Auschwitz, Not Long Ago, Not Far Away.”  Today that shofar is being taken to a number of different synagogues in New York City where it will be sounded again, as Jews gather, 75 years after the events of the Holocaust, to welcome in a new year, in the Jewish calendar 5780.

     In terms of time’s passage it is astonishing to me that this is the 26th time I am conducting High Holy Day services, 22 years here at Beth El, and four years when I was a rabbinical student.  Many of those holidays were wonderful, but the most memorable of them all was the first, and I’ve been thinking about it even more lately because of the story of the shofar.  Becky and I were living in LA at the time, and I was hired by an old world European Cantor to fill the rabbi role at the Yom Tov services he ran.  My job was to give the sermons, call the pages, to make a few remarks about the Torah readings, and to read Torah.

     I did not know it when he hired me, but most of the people who came to that service were either survivors of the Holocaust, or family members of survivors.  As I got to know the old Cantor better I learned that he himself had been a prisoner at Auschwitz-Birkenau.  I don’t think he was part of that group that sounded the shofar at Auschwitz 75 years ago, at least he never told me about it.  But he did tell me that on Yom Kippur eve that year –  again, 1944 – he had, from memory, chanted the Kol Nidre prayer in the concentration camp barracks.  A watchman was set at the door, and the Jews gathered around the young Cantor at one end of the long wooden room. 

     When the Cantor told me that story it moved me deeply, but I confess I didn’t understand it.  I wondered how could those Jews, in that place, with its horrors, surrounded by evil and the Malech HaMavet, the Angel of Death, how could those Jews have had the spiritual strength and courage to acknowledge Yom Kippur, let alone to come together in prayer.  That Kol Nidre was 75 years ago.  The Cantor told me that story 26 years ago.  And now, 26 years later, I think I am beginning to understand.

     Many of you know that a large Beth El group of close to 60 people traveled to Eastern Europe this past summer.  In the span of 10 days we visited Warsaw, Krakow, Prague, and finally Berlin.   The trip was powerful, moving, and emotional.  Each day we wrestled with difficult and often painful moments from the history of our people.  We were faced with questions that were often unanswerable.  And day after day we traveled to places that had once been thriving centers of Jewish life, and were now entirely bereft of Jews.  

     Just one example.  Before the war Warsaw had the second largest Jewish community in the world, second only to New York City – 350,000 Jews lived in Warsaw, close to 30% of the city’s population.  Today there are fewer than 2,000 Jews there.  And that is a story told in one way or another in every major eastern European city.   Town by town, community by community, city by city, the Jews of Eastern Europe were swallowed up by Nazi Germany.  And our group struggled with that pervasive sense of loss.  We said kaddish near a barbed wire fence in Birkenau.  We walked through a crematorium in Auschwitz, our heads low and our eyes cast to the ground.  We stood at the platform of track 17 just outside of Berlin, where the Germans had deported Jews, sending them from their homes to the camps, never to return.  And we walked through the sumptuous halls and gardens of the villa where the Wannsee conference was held and the details of the so called Final Solution were meticulously discussed and recorded.  These are experiences that can not be summed up in a sermon, experiences that I think we will all be pondering for a long time.

     But it was not all darkness, and there were moments of light and life.  In Krakow we had dinner at the vibrant JCC, the center of Jewish life in that area.  Johnathan Ornstein, the charismatic director, spoke with us about his mission of revitalizing Jewish life in Poland.  He told us the story of a young woman who went to see her dying grandmother.  She entered the grandmother’s bedroom, and her grandmother told her to close the door and come to the bedside.  She then took out a small box from a bedside table and handed it to the young woman, not saying a word.  The young woman opened the box and inside it was a Star of David on a silver necklace.  For the first time in her life she realized her grandmother was Jewish, her mother was Jewish, and so was she.  The next day she showed up at that JCC to begin to explore what it will mean to her to live a Jewish life.  When we left the building that evening the courtyard was filled with young people dancing and singing, drinking and eating, many of them also having discovered that they have Jewish roots and Jewish family members, and we couldn’t help but feel the energy and the sense of hope that Jewish life could continue to grow there.   

     But it was at Birkenau, standing by that barbed wire fence and praying with our group, that I began to understand the story the Cantor told me 26 years ago about chanting KN in those barracks.  After we said the kaddish we chanted the Shema, as if to say despite what we’ve seen we still have faith, despite what happened here Judaism survives and thrives, despite the sadness we might feel we still hope.  That is what Jews have learned to do over the long years, even in the darkest times.  Even standing by a barbed wire fence at Birkenau there is hope, even 75 years ago in a dark barracks in Auschwitz there was hope, even in a forest at the edge of the camps, the shofar can be sounded and hope can grow in the human heart. Hope beats so powerfully in the Jewish heart, and עם ישראל חי – and the Jewish people continue to live! 

     One last vignette.  Our farewell dinner took place at an elegant restaurant in Berlin.  Towards the end Dr. Bor played a few songs on his clarinet, with the Cantor singing along.  Suddenly he played the opening notes of Hatikvah, and we all stood up, singing together Israel’s national anthem, a song entitled the Hope that is a symbol of Jewish freedom and the Jewish future.  The lyrics of the song were written by an Eastern European Jew named Naftali Herz Imber in the late 1880s.  It was a striking moment, and a striking way to conclude our trip – a group of Jews from Baltimore, singing the lyrics composed by a Jew who lived his life in the lands through which we had just traveled, lyrics that became the national anthem of the homeland of the Jewish people, and singing those words together, publicly, in the heart of Berlin.  

     This is a translation of the words you know so well in the Hebrew – As long as within our hearts the Jewish soul sings, as long as towards the east, towards Zion, looks the eye – our hope is not yet lost.  It is 2000 years old – to be a free people, in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.

     That hope existed 75 years ago at Aushwitz, on that Rosh Hashanah day when the shofar was sounded and on that Kol Nidre eve when a group of Jews huddled together to hear the ancient words of our tradition.  That hope exists today in the JCC in Krakow.  It exists in Israel, where Jewish life is thriving.  It exists here in the United States, wherever Jews gather, it exists here at Beth El, as we welcome in this new year in community and fellowship, with gratitude for the blessings in our lives, hearing once again the clarion call of the shofar.  

1 Comment

Filed under Baltimore, Beth El Congregation, High Holy Days, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Rosh Hashanah, sermon, Uncategorized

Loyalties of American Jews and Jewish Americans

Following is a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 8/24/19 –

Just a few years ago I was vacationing at Bethany Beach with my family when I received a FB message from a young man, also vacationing at the beach.  He was with his extended family, and at conversation over dinner one night the topic turned to the difference between being a Jewish American, or an American Jew.  In other words, when push comes to shove, do you consider yourself first and foremost to be an American, and your Jewish identity is secondary, or is your Jewish identity the primary one?

    Of course the question was not a new one. For the better part of 1500 years it was clear that Jews were aliens in the country in which they lived. But when the Enlightenment began in the late 1600s, the thinking of that time began to embrace ideas about the humanity and equality of all people, regardless of race or religion.  And European nation states began to develop a sense of national identity so that everyone living within their distinct borders might be considered a citizen. In time, Frenchmen began to feel French, and Germans began to identify ethnically as Germans, or English people as English.  But Jews were different! At that point, if you were Jewish and living in one of those countries, you weren’t yet German or French or English, you were Jewish – you were of a different nationality. And for much of the next centuries the question was asked of Jews, “Are you able to join us in our national identity, to be a Frenchman or an Englishman or a German or a member of any nation state, or will you always be an alien, who cannot be integrated into modern society?”

      The problem was that the Jews, while they became more and more integrated into the societies and cultures they were living in, still maintained a distinct identity.  Most of the time they still lived in neighborhoods that were exclusively Jewish.  They kept their own religious practices – they wouldn’t eat gentile food, or drink gentile wine, or marry into the non-Jewish community.  They kept a different day as their Sabbath.  And so the Frenchmen or the Germans, the majority population in whatever country the Jews were living in, began to wonder whether the Jews could ever embrace national citizenship, or whether they were taking advantage or their new rights without taking on the obligations and loyalties accompanying those rights.  And suspecting that Jews were secretly, in their hearts and minds, first and foremost Jews.  

     That is why you have Napoleon, in 1807, summoning a group of Jewish leaders and and asked them to essentially fill out a questionnaire, the purpose of which was to determine whether the Jews of France were Jewish Frenchmen – in other words, they were first and foremost Jews, who happened to live in France.  Or whether they were French Jews – that is to say people who prioritized France as their nation, French culture as their culture, French as their spoken language, and they just happened to be Jewish.  (when they went to church, it happened to be a shul on Saturday)

     The 6th of the 12 questions that Napoleon posed to the Jews of his time begins in the following way:

Do Jews born in France, and treated by the laws as France citizens, consider France their country?

What Napoleon is really doing is asking the Jews a question of loyalty.  To which nation are you loyal?  To which culture?  To which ethnic identity?  Do your consider yourselves, at the end of the day, to be Jews, or to be Frenchmen?  And if you consider yourselves to be Jews first, then you are disloyal, and cannot be loyal Frenchmen.

     I’ve always felt there was a fundamental logical flaw in Napoleon’s question, and also in the question posed by the young congregant at Bethany Beach of whether one is a Jewish American or an American Jew.  Because the presumption of the question is that you can’t be both.  You can’t be both a loyal Frenchmen and a loyal Jew, or a loyal American and a loyal Jew.  You have to choose one or the other.  And the one you choose, you are loyal to, the one you don’t choose you are disloyal to.  

     But human beings, at least it seems to me, are structured in such a way that we can maintain multiple loyalties in our hearts and minds at the same time.  In a very mundane example, we might be die hard Orioles fans during baseball season, and Ravens fans during football season.  We can love and be loyal to multiple friends at the same time.  Or multiple children at the same time, for that matter.  When you are supporting, loving, caring for, helping one child, it doesn’t mean you are disloyal to your other children. 

     If anyone should know this, it is the Jews.  We are the masters of holding multiple ideas in our minds, we are invested in the idea of arguing an issue from one side, and then arguing it from the opposite side.  The Talmud, at least in part, is a record of that particularly Jewish kind of conversation.   

      Which is why when the young man asked me a few years ago are we Jewish Americans, or American Jews, I said – yes.  Because I believe that we can be loyal Jews and loyal Americans.  I believe we can be lovers of and supporters of the State of Israel, and at the very same time we can be deeply patriotic Americans, who love our own country.  To suggest otherwise is to create a false dichotomy.  

     The President made a similar mistake this week when he said you can only be a loyal Jew if you vote for a particular political party.  In fact, he made two mistakes.  The first is the same mistake Napoleon made, because the President’s statement presumes that being a Jew is a zero sum game, that one can only be loyal or disloyal.  He didn’t take into account the idea that one could be loyal to multiple entities, multiple traditions, and multiple nations at the same time.  And his second mistake was to assume that there is only one way to be loyal, and that is to be uncritical, and agreeable with his point of view.  But when you think about it, the greatest form of loyalty might be the very opposite – to be critical and demanding, and to have high expectations of someone, or something you love.  That is the way we love the people we truly care about, and our loyalty to America, to Israel, to our own Judaism, should be no less.

     The truth is loving people cast their love in many directions, they live their loyalty in many ways, to their family, to their community, to their ethnicity, to their nation. Whether that nation be Israel, or the United States.  

     It is my hope and prayer that our love and loyalty for the United States and for Israel remain strong and true in the years ahead, and all the other loves and loyalties that enrich and define our lives be continuous, fulfilling and rewarded.

1 Comment

Filed under American Jewry, assimilation, Baltimore, Beth El Congregation, Jewish life, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Uncategorized

Words, Tweets, etc

A text version of my sermon from Shabbat on 8/3/19.

     As Jews we are often referred to as the People of the Book, but we might also just as well be called the People of the Word, or maybe better to say the People of Words.  We are great talkers, conversationalists, and communicators.  We like to talk so much we are known for talking with our hands.  We even have a term in our culture for a person who is a great talker, fondly referring to him or her as a kibitzer.  Kibitz is an interesting word – it comes to us from Yiddish, but it is formed from a Hebrew root – ק ב צ – a word which in the Bible means to gather together.  Have you ever realized that kibbutz (the settlements in Israel) and kibitz (to talk and joke around) are essentially the same words?  Formed from the same root? Why?  Because when you gather together you make small talk, and we Jews have perfected that to an art form.  

     It shouldn’t be surprising.  The truth is Judaism has long been invested in the idea that words have power, that they are significant, going all the way back to biblical times.  The very first story in the Torah, the Creation narrative, is an illustration of the power of words.  The phrase Vayomer Elohim – And God SAID – appears 8 times in the first chapter of Genesis, and each time another aspect of the universe is brought into being.  If you are in the habit of reading the weekly Torah portion, you would know that this week’s double portion, Matot-Ma’aseh, begins with a series of laws about vows and oaths, and the power that those words, once spoken, can carry.  And what is it we call the 10 Commandments in Hebrew?  The עשרת הדברות – what does that mean?  Literally translated that would mean something like the ‘ten utterances.’  And of course next week we’ll begin reading the fifth and final book of the Torah, called in English Deuteronomy, but its name in Hebrew is?  D’varim!  Words!!  The very first verse of that book begins with this phrase:  אלא הדברים אשר דבר משה – these are the words that Moses spoke.

     Of course we don’t necessarily need the Torah to teach us this lesson, because we know from the experiences of our own lives that words have power.  The old saying that we memorized as children is ‘sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me.’  That phrase is used as a kind of protective shield when people are saying cruel things, as if the hurtful words will in some way bounce off, not able to hit their mark.  But of course it doesn’t work, and the truth is it doesn’t even really make sense.  A broken bone actually heals – particularly if you are a child – fairly quickly.  But when someone says something cruel to you, that crushing feeling and the sting of those words is remembered for years, and sometimes forever.

     The opposite is also true.  A word of kindness or encouragement or hope can literally change someone’s life for the better.  I vividly remember to this day two phone calls I received after I interviewed for rabbinical school.  The first call was to tell me that I would not be admitted, that I didn’t have the skills or the knowledge that the committee felt I needed to succeed in the program.  About two hours later my phone rang again.  It was a rabbi who had been on my interview panel, and the first thing he said to me was ‘I know you weren’t admitted today, but I want you to know I think you can be a terrific rabbi.’  And those eight words – I think you can be a terrific rabbi’ – literally changed my life.  I would not be standing here right now had they not be spoken to me.  It is that simple.  That is the power the words can have.

     The thing about it is we have a choice with the words that we use.  Maybe as a rabbi I have an extra sensitivity to this idea, because I am often in the position of speaking publicly.  When you are seen as being a leader, what you say – or what you tweet – can make a real difference.  The right words, carefully chosen and properly spoken, can inspire, soothe, heal, mend fences, and bring hope.  The wrong words can have exactly the opposite effect – they can literally break relationships, create mistrust, hurt people, and bring anger and divisiveness into a family, or a synagogue, or a community, or large scale, even into a country. 

    That is why the recent tweets from the President disparaging Baltimore and its representatives are so disappointing.  I am not sure why it is people choose to use hateful and hurtful words.  I suppose sometimes it comes from a place of ignorance, and other times from a place of fear.  Maybe people are angry, and they speak before they should – the old hit the send button when you should let that email sit in your draft box over night and reconsider it in the morning.  But I do know that when we coarsen or cheapen our language, when we curse and yell and rant and rave, what we ultimately end up doing is diminishing ourselves.  And I also know that the opposite is true – when we use language to encourage and elevate, to sooth and celebrate, when our words are kind and caring and hopeful, we grow closer with one another and we help to make a better world.

     I’ll never forget a number of years ago when I was in line at the bank.  A few people in front of me was a woman whom I know from the community.  The teller had asked her for ID, which she didn’t have.  She lit in to the teller, demeaning him, raising her voice, making sure the teller knew how important and powerful she was, and how unimportant and powerless the teller was.

     To his credit the teller wouldn’t budge, and finally the woman turned around to leave in great anger.  Suddenly she saw me standing there and stopped dead in her tracks.  She was horrified, embarrassed, and after pausing for a moment she said ‘Rabbi I am so sorry.  I never would have used those words if I knew you were standing there.’  Then she walked out.

     I don’t know if that moment changed her behavior, but it changed mine.  Since that day, no matter where I am or what I am doing, I strive to imagine that there is someone in line behind me, someone whom I respect, someone whom I would not want to disappoint.  Imagining that helps me choose my words more carefully, and consider my actions more thoughtfully.  It helps me, to use the words of our siddur from the Friday night service, lay down at night having no regret for what has happened during the day.

     One of my favorite lines in the entire prayer book is the sentence that begins the concluding personal paragraph of the amidah – anyone remember what it is? אלוקי נצור לשוני מרע ושפתי מדבר מרמה – My God, keep my tongue from evil, and my lips from speaking deceit – 

     So it should be for all of us.

1 Comment

Filed under Beth El Congregation, Bible, prayer, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Torah, Uncategorized

The Work of Our Hands

This is a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 7/27/19 –

     On three separate occasions I have been involved with the rabbinic ordination ceremonies at the Jewish Theological Seminary.  Once was my own ordination, the very moment I became a rabbi in my own eyes.  The other two times I was asked to participate in the ceremony by ordaining rabbinical students.  The ritual is simple but powerful.  The person being ordained is called forward, and words of blessing are spoken.  Then a tallit is taken and placed upon the student’s shoulders, and as the hands of the ordaining rabbi rest on the student’s shoulders, the student is for the very first time publicly called ‘Harav’ – rabbi.

     That ordination ritual comes in part from a scene in this morning’s Torah portion, one of the most poignant moments in the entire Bible.  God tells Moses that his time is almost up, that he is about to die.  God takes Moses to the top of a mountain outside the land, and shows him the place where the Israelites will make their home.  That in and of itself is painful – Moses, who has given everything to God and to the people will never see the fruits of his own labors.  But it is the simple exchange between Moses and God that follows that I find so striking.

     Moses says to God ‘OK, God, if I am not going to be the leader, then go ahead and appoint someone else to lead this people.’  And I’ve always felt this is Moses’ way of saying ‘God, no one else can do what I do!  If you think you can find another person to fill my shoes, go ahead, good luck!’  I’ve always read Moses’ response as a way of indicating to God that he is indispensable, of trying to remind God that God needs Moses, otherwise the whole project will fall apart.  

     But God’s response is devastating, at least that is the way it has always seemed to me.  Immediately, God responds to Moses:  קח לך את יהושע בן נון – just take Joshua! אשר רוח בו – he also has the spirit of God – וסמכת את ידך עליו – and lay your hands upon him.  In other words, God is saying, don’t worry Moses.  It won’t be hard to find someone to fill your shoes!  In fact, Joshua is right here.  So if you don’t mind, ordain him in front of the people, and he’ll be the leader from this point forward.  And that moment of ordination, that transfer of power, is marked in the Torah by Moses laying his hands upon Joshua’s shoulders.  At that very instant the people know that Moses is out, and Joshua is in.  And it is that laying of hands that became the symbol in Judaism of the transfer of authority, from one generation to the next, which is why it is used during rabbinic ordination ceremonies down to this very day.

     I’ve always wondered how Moses felt at that moment.  Wasn’t he crushed by God’s response?  Wouldn’t it have been nice if God had paused, at least for a minute or two, and said ‘You know you are right Moses, it won’t be easy to find someone to replace you!’  Bit it is like Joshua is right on the tip of God’s tongue!  God doesn’t even say ‘nice job Moses, here is a gold watch, I’ll set you up in a nice condo in Boca.’  No words of praise, no words of thank.  It is all matter of fact.  It is done in a second, almost before you even know what happened. It isn’t hard to imagine Moses standing off to the side, while Joshua, now suddenly the center of attention, is surrounded by the people.

     The passage has reminded me, as I encounter it year in and year out, of the all too common indignities of aging that confront us as the years go by.  One of the most difficult challenges that families face is the take the keys away moment.  I suspect you know what I’m talking about.  The family feels a person’s driving is no longer safe.  They fret and worry that the person might hurt him or herself, or someone else in an accident.  But they also know that driving is a major measure of independence, and that to take that away from their loved one will cause hurt and pain, embarrassment, and even anger.  But eventually, whether by hook or by crook, whether by force or subterfuge, those keys are taken.

      This scene plays out in our lives over and over again, in ways large and small.  It might be the moment you switch from a weekly singles game in tennis to a doubles game.  Or maybe it is the first year that the seder no longer takes place at your home, but moves to the home of a child or grandchild.  Some people retire from work willingly, eager to let go and enter a less stressful and demanding time of their lives.  But others have to be dragged out kicking and screaming, and they want to stay in the game for as long as they possibly can.  What was it that Bette Davis said?  Getting old ain’t for sissies.  And I’ve always understood the encounter between God and Moses in this morning’s Torah portion as that kind of moment, a moment where something is taken away from Moses, where his independence is lost, and his self worth is diminished.

     But I also wonder if Moses found some comfort in that moment that he laid his hands upon Joshua.  Because in a sense that means he had done his work well.  That because of his teaching, because of the way he had mentored Joshua, a new leader was ready when the time came.  Moses knew Joshua well, they had worked together, he must have been proud of him, he must have known that Joshua was qualified for the job, and that if anyone would be able to do it, he would be the one.  

     This is not to say that the moment wasn’t hard for Moses.  I am sure it was.  But maybe it wasn’t all bad.  Maybe balancing the sense of loss he felt was a sense of accomplishment.  That moment of semicha – of laying on the hands – is a moment of continuity, of acknowledging that we are part of a stream of tradition, that moves from one generation to the next.  And if we play our part well, then we will know that our values and the traditions that mean so much to us will be carried forward by the next generation, and the one after that.  

     So let us play our part.  To the best of our ability, with whatever strength God grants to us.  Knowing that no person is indispensable – not even a Moses.  But knowing also that if we are blessed in the course of our lives what we create can truly change the world for the better.  Consider these verses that conclude the 90th Psalm –  ויהי נועם ה׳ אלוקינו עלינו ומעשה ידינו כוננה עלינו, ומעשה ידינו כונניהו – The favor of the Lord our God be upon us.  God will establish the work of our hands.  The work of our hands God will surely establish.

Leave a comment

Filed under Beth El Congregation, Bible, liminal moments, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Uncategorized