Category Archives: Rabbi Steven Schwartz

In Defense of Clutter

There is a tidying up fad that is seeping through our culture these days.  Sparked by Marie Kondo’s best selling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, the anti-clutter movement holds out hope that as we declutter our homes what we are really doing is changing our lives.  Kondo often talks about the tidying up process being connected to  personal transformation.  The premise is that as you sort through your old clothes, as you tidy up your closets and drawers, as you separate the wheat from the chaff, you somehow become a calmer, more capable, more mindful person.

One of Kondo’s fundamental principles is that the decluttering process should be based on whether an object ‘sparks joy’ or not.  That is to say, as you declutter you evaluate each item on a joy scale.  Something that gives you a feeling of joy should be kept, something that does not should be thrown away.  This idea seems to me flawed at best.  Like so many of the currently popular self help structures it creates a beautiful mirage, a kind of hologram, that dissolves upon closer inspection.  I wonder how much ‘there’ is actually there.  Life is not always about joy.  Often life is about pragmatism. What needs to be done is not always what is fun to do, or easy to do.

The truth is life is messy, unpredictable, often out of our control, and yes, dare I say it, cluttered.  Parents age and become infirm (as do we all!).  Divorce happens.  Responsibility encroaches.  Children and grandchildren are flawed and not always exactly what we hope they will be, let alone perfect.  Illness confronts us.  Life can change on a dime, and when it does having a clean closet won’t help you one bit.

Besides, clutter adds texture.  Clutter is interesting.  All those piles, those awkwardly stacked books, those drawers filled with old mementos, those photographs stashed away in boxes, the magazines tucked away on a shelf.  That is the stuff of life, not clean, but certainly colorful, and also real.  What would we be without our clutter?  Calmer?  Perhaps a bit.  But I would argue also much more boring, cookie cutter copies of one another with identical closets and drawers and shelves.  Isn’t that weird?  Impersonal?  A bit robotic, even?

The old saying is ‘a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind.’  The famous riposte to that phrase still stands:  ‘if a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is the sign of an empty desk?’

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Vows

He fed her tenderly, a soft smile on his lips and a gentle glow in his eyes.  They had a table for two, at the back of the restaurant, just at the edge of the candle light.  She was dressed elegantly, her eyes sparkled, she smiled, they talked and laughed together, their conversation a product of years and years of shared journey.

The waiters hovered, not too much, but they kept an eye on the couple.  Perhaps they knew the story, the background, what had happened, the history of what led them to this moment.  It was a fancy place, fine French food, the wait staff in black tie, the wine list extensive, the dishes classic and perfectly cooked.  Each table was occupied, the hum and buzz of conversation filled the small room.  You could hear the sizzling of meats and fish from the open kitchen.

It was such a small table that they shared.  Looking casually about the room you would never have noticed they were different than any of the other couples, that their table was different than any of the other tables.  But he was feeding her.  Patiently cutting her food, gently reaching a fork across the table to her mouth, then wiping her lips with a soft white napkin.  Each forkful was filled with such devotion and love and care.

It was her hands.  When not at rest they shook terribly, and she never would have been able to force those trembling hands to make the short trek from plate to mouth.  I thought about it for a long time afterward.  Did they talk about it?  Discuss what it would be like to be out in public?  The potential embarrassment of it, the staring, perhaps the questions or well intended yet uncomfortable comments?

There was such peace to it all.  This is who we are, let it be and we’ll live our lives.  We need not hide, there is no shame in this.  Sadness perhaps, challenge and difficulty, struggle even.  But it was life in all of its beauty and frailty and humanity.  And they were living it together, as they had for so many years.

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God’s Ears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wonder of Wonders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Thin Blue Line

A paraphrase of the title of the 1988 documentary film ‘The Thin Blue Line,’ about the mistaken murder conviction of Randall Adams for the killing of police officer Robert Wood.  The events the film investigates took place in Dallas, Texas, in the fall of 1976.  The title of the movie is taken from a phrase the prosecutor uses in his closing argument at Adams’ trial – the police in essence form a ‘thin blue line’ that separates an ordered society from anarchy.

I would argue there are other ‘thin lines’ of varying colors that serve the same purpose.  The rule of law, the democratic system, honesty in voting, decorum in public discourse, honesty and integrity, and personal responsibility, just to name a few.  All of these ideals form, each in their own way, a thin line between ordered society and anarchy.  We might throw in the separation of church and state as well.  At different times one or the other of these lines might strain, even crack, but if the others maintain their integrity the line – the big one that separates us from a total breakdown – holds.

Some might say those lines are being stretched and stressed as they never have before.  So it was heartening this week to see that there are still some lines that cannot be crossed, still some standards that are held as inviolable, even in Washington DC.  If you’ve followed the news you know that Representative Steve King of Iowa went on the record earlier in the week in an interview with the NY Times, stating “”White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?”  King has a long history of making questionable, if not outright racist remarks about immigrants and minorities, and the fact that he occupies a seat in the House is troubling enough in and of itself.  But this last statement was beyond the pale, and politicians from both sides of the isle condemned King.  He also was stripped of his committee responsibilities.  Just a few minutes ago as I type this the House overwhelmingly voted to pass a resolution condemning King’s comments.

The line still holds.  At least it does today.

There is a concept in Judaism, ‘one should be killed, and not violate.’  The idea is there are certain commandments that are so central one must not violate them even upon pain of death.  The tradition specifies three commandments that fall into this category:  sexual sins, the spilling of blood, and worshipping idols.  The idea seems to be that the violation of said commandments so thoroughly corrupts the sinner that he or she becomes irredeemable.  In other words, the sinner crosses an inviolable line, and once they’ve crossed it, there is no way back.  Better to die knowing what you are and what you stand for than to be lost, both to yourself and to your culture and society.

What are we, and what do we stand for?  In part we answer those questions by the ‘thin lines’ we draw and how we protect them.  This week Steve King found out that at least one of those lines still holds.  What about the others?  Do they still hold?  And if so, do we have the will and the strength to make sure they do not break?

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A Week in the Life

Some of what I’ve seen this week:

A four month old baby nestling in the lap of his 90 year old great-grandmother.  His head fit perfectly into the crook of her right arm.  It was a celebration of his naming and conversion (he had been to the mikveh earlier in the day), and also of her special birthday.  The entire family was gathered around.  The children, now in their late sixties, the grandchildren creeping close to their forties, the great-grandchildren, ranging from 10 or so all the way down to this newest addition.  His eyes were bright and wide as he took in his surroundings, his cousins, the generations of his family.  She radiated joy, even tough life was not easy, even though she was mostly wheelchair bound, even though …

But what is a day like that, a moment like that, a family like that, worth?  Maybe the answer is this:  everything.

 

A seventy year old man got up to eulogize his mother.  She died at 94, after a long, good, and full life.  She had seen the birth of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, had been blessed with good health well into her 90s, had lived with a sense of joy and gratitude.  Truly a good life, a life to celebrate.

He spoke simply and clearly, related a story or two, talked about characteristics and qualities, laughed a bit.  And then cried.  Even when you are 70 and your mother is 94, even when the life was good and long, even when there is so much to be grateful for, a loss is a loss, and your mother is your mother, and the one who brought you into the world is no longer there for you, as she always was.  The grief is real, and the pain is deep, and the heart is torn and needs time to mend and heal and feel grateful again.

 

A man in his 80s has been fighting an insidious disease for a long time.  I visit him every few months, to check in, to catch up, maybe to lighten his spirit just a bit.

His independence is slowly but surely eroding.  From living alone to living in a supported living environment, from being able to walk with a walker to riding in a motorized wheelchair, to now needing to be pushed everywhere.  His mind is sharp, he watches it happen, bit by bit, day by day.

He fights with great strength of spirit and even greater dignity.  He smiles and jokes, he goes about his day in the best way he can, he gets up each morning, gets dressed, mindless tasks for us, monumental tasks for him.

We chat about the stock market (oy!), the Ravens (he is a fan and anticipating this weekend’s game), and most of all about his family.  He plans for the future, thinks about how he can improve his life, and finds within himself the grit and determination to do so.

The morning blessings we recite each day remind us to be grateful for the ability to stand, to move, to stretch, to dress, to rise from bed, to welcome the morning’s first light.

Life, too, can remind us of how grateful we should be for each and every day.

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Earthrise

A text version of my sermon from Shabbat (12/22/18):

     Some of you will remember that it was fifty years ago this weekend when the Apollo 8 space mission was making its way towards the moon.  The flight launched on December 21st 1968 – fifty years ago yesterday – and lasted for 6 days.  It was manned by three astronauts – Jim Lovell, Bill Anders, and Frank Borman – and was the second manned Apollo flight and the first to actually reach the moon’s orbit.  After circling the moon 10 times on December 24th and 25th, the astronauts set a course for Earth, and returned home on December 27, splashing down in the northern Pacific Ocean.

     The spirit of the mission, what it meant to Americans, and to people everywhere, was captured in a spectacular photograph taken by Bill Anders that would come to be known as Earthrise.  The photo shows a fragile and delicate – and also indescribably beautiful – blue and white sphere, half shrouded in darkness, and set in the deep blackness of infinite space, hovering in the distance over the stark white surface of the moon.  No one knew it at the time, but that photograph would become one of the most iconic images in the history of human kind.  

     The great irony in that moment is that in one of the greatest accomplishments of human history, manned space flight, with all of its technology, human ingenuity, its illustration of our ability to master the world around us – in the midst of all of that human greatness and achievement, we rediscovered our sense of how ultimately small we really are.  To see the Earth from that distance and perspective is to immediately understand that we live on just one tiny planet orbiting an ordinary star in a medium sized galaxy in an incredibly vast universe.  

     Fifty years ago that Earthrise photograph created what I call a ‘Grand Canyon’ moment for millions and millions of people.  That is the moment when you stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon, looking out over its vastness, and you suddenly realize – or maybe it is better to say you feel – that you are an infinitesimal part of a world, and a universe, that is vast beyond imagining.  It is what people feel when they enter some of the great European medieval churches, with their towering ceilings, or walk through a redwood forest, the enormous and ancient trees rising and rising into the distance of the sky.  This is the feeling captured by the Psalmist in Psalm 8:  “When I see your Heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars that You set in place, what am I that You, God, are mindful of me; a mere human being, yet you take note of my life.” (my own translation with a bit of paraphrasing)  It is precisely the greatness and beauty of God’s world and the infinite vastness of God’s universe that reminds us of our mortality and our limits and also, I would argue, of our humanity.

     The Book of Genesis that we finished reading this morning, for the most part, does not work on that grand scale that the Psalmist was writing about.  Instead, Genesis tells stories of intimacy and immediacy, of husbands and wives and parents and children, often during critical moments of their lives.  It describes Abraham and Sarah in the bedroom, talking about the fate of Hagar.  Or the private conversation between Jacob and his mother Rebecca about how to deceive Isaac.  We read in Genesis about Abraham and Isaac, alone, just father and son, walking to the top of Mount Moriah, and the few words that they share in that journey.  This morning’s portion, the last in Genesis, is also filled with intimate moments.  Jacob in his old age blesses his grandsons Efraim and Menasheh, drawing them close, kissing them, hugging them, placing his hands on their heads and tousling their hair, whispering over them a blessing.  And later in the portion we are flies on the wall of the bedroom where Jacob is dying, surrounded by his sons, as he gives each of them a last message that he hopes they will carry with them after he is gone.  

     These are human moments that we all can recognize from our own lives, moments of touching and talking, of whispered hopes and private expressions of fear and doubt.  Next week when we begin reading the Book of Exodus the Torah will leave those intimate moments behind, but in Genesis they are the primary focus as we learn about the lives of the patriarchs and matriarchs.  

     There is of course one glaring exception to that sense of intimacy that Genesis focuses on, and that is?  The creation story, told in the first two chapters.  There God works on a cosmic scale, bringing the universe into being out of chaos, dividing up the waters and the lands, establishing the Heavens, putting into the sky the sun, the moon, and the stars.  I’ve always believed that the Torah begins that way because it wants us to understand that the God we are in relationship with, the God Who called to Abraham and Sarah, the God we prayed to this morning, the God we thanked for two long and loving marriages, the God we asked to heal our loved ones – that God is the Creator of all things.  And one of the great mysteries that Judaism explores is the idea that that cosmic, universal Creator can somehow be in relationship with us as small as we are, and can take note of and care about our lives.

      Fifty years ago on that Apollo 8 mission NASA arranged for the three astronauts to make a live broadcast to earth on that December 24th evening, a night observed in the Christian community as Christmas Eve.  When the crew asked what they should do for that broadcast they were told ‘just anything you feel is appropriate.’  One of the Astronauts brought a Bible, and in the course of the broadcast, as they crew circled the moon, with that spectacular view of earth captured in the photograph that would be called ‘Earthrise’, the crew took turns reading the first 10 verses of the Book of Genesis. 

     The last verse they read – they 10th – is as follows:  ויקרא אלוקים ליבשה ארץ ולמקוה המים קרא ימים וירא אלוקים כי טוב – And God called the dry land – Earth – and the gathering of waters, God called seas.  And God saw that this was good.

So it was.  So it is.  So may it always be.earthrise

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