Category Archives: Rosh Hashanah

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.  

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

Bubbe-ball

This is a text version of my Rosh Hashanah 5780 day 2 sermon:

     We were standing graveside, burying a woman who was the family’s beloved mother and grandmother.  She had lived a long and good life, well into her 90s, having been blessed with a long and loving marriage, with children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.  There was sadness, but also there was a sense of celebration and gratitude.  The last thing we do graveside is recite the mourner’s kaddish, and I asked the mourners to stand.  As the woman’s children rose to their feet, so did her grandchildren.  And then the family – the woman’s children and her grandchildren – together! -began to say the kaddish.

     Let me give you another scenario.  A baby naming.  A beautiful baby girl is being welcomed into her family, given her Hebrew name, and entered into the covenant between God and Israel.  As her mother and father explain the names they’ve chosen for their daughter they tell us that one of the names is for a beloved grandmother of theirs.  This is not unusual – we name our children and grandchildren after beloved family members.  But what is unusual is that the woman the baby is being named for is alive and sitting in the room.  When that baby – the great granddaughter – is placed in the lap of that woman – her great grandmother – bearing her name, it is a powerful moment, one not to be forgotten.

     You probably know that neither of these things is traditional. There was a time when grandchildren would never have thought to stand for kaddish for a grandparent, and in fact they are not obligated to do so by Jewish law.  And the idea of naming a baby after a living relative was considered to be absolutely forbidden.  But more and more I am seeing grandchildren recite kaddish for their grandparents, and more and more I am seeing babies named after living relatives, usually great grandparents.  

     This is happening because the nature of the relationship between grandchildren  and grandparents has changed in the last quarter century.  There was a time when you really didn’t get to know your grandparents.  Before you were bar or bat mitzvah they were often already gone.  But today, people who are 30 or 40 or even 50 may still have their grandparents in their lives.  Grandparents and grandchildren travel together.  They go out to dinner and lunch together, they play golf or cards together.  The connection between them, the loving bonds that exist, these are things we have not seen before.  And because of that deep connection, grandchildren feel they should say kaddish when they lose a grandparent.  Or here they are, becoming parents when their grandparents are still alive, and they say what greater honor could there be than for us to name our children for this man or this woman we so deeply love and respect.

     So I would like to tell you this morning the story of a grandfather and his grandson.  The grandfather is the Boston Red Sox’s Carl Yaztremski.  Often just called Yaz, Yaztremski had a 23 year major league career, was selected as an all star 18 times, won 7 gold gloves playing the outfield, had more than 3,000 hits, 400 HRs, and in 1967 had one of the greatest seasons in baseball history, winning the triple crown while hitting .326 with 44 HRs and 121 RBIs.  Those of you who are not baseball fans, I ask for your forgiveness for all the statistics.  That is simply all a long way of saying that Carl Yaztremski was one of the greatest baseball players of all time.

     His grandson Mike – Mike Yaztremski – has a long ways to go to catch up to his grandfather.  This is his rookie season in the major leagues, playing for the San Francisco Giants.  Young Mike is having a good season – hitting .267, with 20 HRs, mostly hitting leadoff.  Now those are not Carl Yaztremski numbers, but they are nothing to sneeze at.

     That is the background.  Here is the story:

     Just about 2 weeks ago the Giants came to Fenway Park in Boston to play the Red Sox in a series, and it was there, at Fenway, where his grandfather hit so many HRs, that Mike hit his 20th.  The last time a Yaztremski had hit a HR at Fenway Park?  1983, the last time Yaz had done it.  And here we were, 36 years later, as his grandson stepped up to the plate, and hit a first pitch fastball in the 4th inning to dead center field.  As it cleared the wall you could hear the fans cheering like crazy.  

     It was a special moment, one I am sure the young Yaztremski will remember for the rest of his life.  But the next night was even more special.

     I imagine you know that baseball games begin with the ceremonial throwing out of a first pitch.  I know there are people in the room today who have done that over the years.  This night at Fenway Park they asked Carl Yaztremski to throw out that first pitch – to his grandson Mike.  The elder Yaztremski, a fiery competitor to the end, insisted on coming out of the Red Sox dugout, wearing a Red Sox jersey.  His grandson came out of the visiting team’s dugout – the Giants.  The two men, split by a half a century and two generations, walked towards each other in front of the sell out crowd, meeting right about the pitcher’s mound, and embracing one another, grandfather and grandson.  There was not a dry eye in the house.  

     After their embrace, the grandfather walked to the pitcher’s mound, the grandson crouched behind home plate.  Carl Yaztremski doesn’t spend much time these days throwing a baseball – he is after all 80 years old! – but that night at Fenway he threw a perfect strike, and the ball nestled softly into his grandson’s glove.  I saw a photo of the moment, with the senior Yaz’s arm still extended, and his grandson having just caught the ball.  The caption of the photo?  A perfect strike, from one generation to the next.

     L’dor va’dor indeed.

     One last story for you this morning.  This the story of a grandson and his grandmother – in this case, me and my Bubbe, Kate.  It was the spring of 1987, and I was working on my master’s degree at College Park.  My dad turned 50 that spring, and my mom had arranged to have a celebration, inviting the entire extended family to our home in upstate New York.  Since I was at College Park, my job was to swing through Baltimore, and pick up my Bubbe, and safely transport her to Binghamton for the party.

     Piece of cake, right?  Bubbe was 87 at the time, and I figured I would get to her place, get her settled in the car, get on the road, and then she would probably doze off, at which point I could play my Grateful Dead tapes for the duration of the four and a half hour ride.  

     There was one problem with my plan.  At 87, my Bubbe was sharp as a tack.  Not only did she not sleep, but she spent the entire four plus hours talking to me.  And she was not interested in the Grateful Dead.  She wanted to know what I was going to do with my degree, she wanted to know where I thought I might live, she wanted to know was I dating anyone – she was a bubbe, after all!

     Then I began to ask her questions.  About her life, growing up, what it was like, her parents.  She talked about my Zayde, who had died when I was 12.  She told me about why her Judaism was so important to her, and she asked me if I ever went to synagogue, and if I still remembered my Hebrew from Hebrew school. 

     I will never forget those four hours.  My Bubbe, in her old age, spoke to me as she never had before.  She told me what truly mattered to her, the values and commitments she cherished, what she had lived for.  And she told me she hoped those things would be important to me too.  That conversation changed my life.  In the days and then the months, and now the years since, I have thought about it over and over again.  I can tell you for sure I would not be as Jewishly oriented or connected as I am.  I would not be as appreciative of family.  I would not have as strong a sense of what is truly important in life.  To be honest with you, I don’t think I would be standing here, on a Rosh Hashanah day, in this pulpit, as your rabbi.  Or that our children – her great grandchildren – would have received the kind of Jewish education they did, or live with the Jewish values they do every single day.  

     That of course is exactly what we’ve read about in the Torah the last couple of days.  That conversation with my Bubbe was a continuation of a conversation that goes all the way back to Abraham and Sarah, and their struggle to transmit their dreams and values from one generation to the next.  They are in a sense our great-grandparents and grandparents and parents, and we are their grandchildren.  And we are here today to embrace them once again, to renew our love for their message to us through the ages.  And to know in our hearts and souls, at the start of a new year, who we should be, and what joys we have received in life from that golden tradition.

   You see, baseball season ends – even if you do make the playoffs.  But Bubbie-ball never does.  It continues from season to season, from year to year, and from one generation to the next.  

     May we all – children and parents, grandchildren and grandparents – do our part to play it well, and to pay it forward in this new year.  It should be a year of goodness, sustenance, and peace for all.  

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, continuity, High Holy Days, Jewish festivals, Jewish life, memory, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Rosh Hashanah, sermon, Uncategorized

Unbridgeable Gaps

Here is a text version of my sermon from first day Rosh Hashanah, 5779 –

     It is with a deep sense of gratitude and that I welcome you all and wish you this morning a shana tova, a happy and healthy new year.  My gratitude comes from the understanding I have – that grows stronger year by year – of how lucky I am to be serving this congregation, with the wonderful staff that we have, the incredible lay leadership, and most importantly of all, the warm congregational community.  Most of all today I am grateful to be celebrating this Rosh Hashanah with all three of our children in town – the first time in many years – and with both my parents and Becky’s parents with us as well.  I can’t imagine a sweeter way to begin a new year.  

     This is now the 21st year that I have led services at Beth El during the High Holy Days, for many years in the Offit, and the last decade here in the Berman-Rubin Sanctuary.  And for four years before that I officiated at Yom Tov services as a rabbinical student, so all told this is my 25th year in the pulpit during the fall holidays.  In all that time I cannot remember a year in which the country has felt more divided than it does right now.  And it is that sense of division that I would like to spend some time thinking about with you this morning.

     I understand that this is an uncomfortable topic.  But I also believe that one of the only ways to deal with things that are difficult and challenging is to put them out in the open, name them, and talk about them.  There is an old saying that the job of a preacher is to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted.  I might do a bit of both this morning, thinking with you first about what divides us in this year of division, in a country that feels more and more divided.  Then I hope also to remind us all of what unites us, of what brings us together.  But we must begin with afflicting the comfortable, as it were, and thinking about the divisions that are pulling us apart.

     That is a long list that seems to just get longer and longer.  We have Democrats and Republicans, Fox News or CNN, the NY Times or the Wall Street Journal, liberals and conservatives.  We have AIPAC and JStreet, blue states and red states, pro life and pro choice, and of course this being baseball season, we must acknowledge one of the deepest divisions of all, Red Sox and Yankees fans.  I know there are some of both sitting in the room this morning.  There are economic divisions, racial divisions, and educational divisions.  Those on one side or the other side of just about any issue today are more entrenched in their views, and far less likely to listen to someone who thinks differently.  Many of us feel it has become virtually impossible to talk about the issues of the day in public, particularly with people with whom we might not agree. 

     It is important to say, first of all, that we have all participated in fostering these divisions, whether consciously or unconsciously, we are all at fault.  More and more we live in our own intellectual and political silos, only exposing ourselves to news and views that support what we think, and shutting off any idea or program or opinion that does not jibe with what we believe to be true.  We have allowed ourselves to become trapped in a cycle that hardens our views and deepens the divisions between us.  What I am wondering today is if it is possible to get out of that trap, to break that cycle?  Or, if we have to live in it, what is the best way to do so?

     Many of you ask me at this time of year about how my sermons are coming along.  ‘Have you started writing them yet, rabbi?’ (July)  ‘Did you finish your sermons rabbi?’ (August) ‘What are you talking about rabbi?’  ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’  The truth is it differs year to year, but there are some elements in terms of my process that are always the same.  

     One of those is that each year Becky and I visit Gloucester, MA, the small fishing town where Becky grew up and her parents still live.  Those visits are usually mid to late summer, so the HHDs are very much on my mind, and I often talk over sermon ideas with my father in law, whom many of you know is a rabbi as well.  And this past summer – just a little more than a month ago – my father in law and I sat in Gloucester at the kitchen table one evening, sipping a bit of scotch, and we talked about this sermon.  And we had, what in Jewish tradition, is called a mahloket, a disagreement.  There was, between us, about this sermon, a division.  

     You see I am by nature A an optimist, and B, probably a bit naive.  So I said I wanted to talk in the sermon about divisions, but what I wanted to do with it ultimately was remind everyone that there is more that unites us than there is that divides us.  That we have common values as Americans and as Jews that bind us together, that we have a shared history, that there are shared beliefs that are still there, that we just need to recover those in order to create a common ground we can stand on together.  I wanted to use a line from the Mahzor, one of my favorites, ויעשו כלם אגודה אחד – we will all be bound together, in common purpose, and בלבב שלמ – with a unified and full heart.  Little did I know it at the time, but in Senator John McCain’s last statement to the American people he would write this:  “We are three-hundred-and-twenty-five million opinionated, vociferous individuals. We argue and compete and sometimes even vilify each other in our raucous public debates. But we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement. If only we remember that and give each other the benefit of the presumption that we all love our country we will get through these challenging times. We will come through them stronger than before. We always do.”  That about sums up where I wanted to try to take this sermon.

     But my father in law, older and wiser than I, (and also less naive) had a different perspective.  And he argued, quite persuasively, that it actually may not be true anymore that there is more that unites us than divides us.  That in fact the divisions that we feel every day cannot be banished by sitting around the camp fire and singing kumbaya together, and remembering shared values and easier times.  That the real question is not how we bridge the gaps and diminish the divisions, but rather how each of us will choose to live in this new world where the divisions are so deep.  

     That idea of choice – of choosing how to live, of being in control of our own actions and our own words and our own lives and even our own destiny – is a powerful idea in our tradition.  The Mahzor reminds us of that time and time again.  We choose between right and wrong.  We choose how we relate to our spouses and our children and our parents and siblings, and to friends.  We choose, when we are angry with someone, to simply walk away from them or to let them know.  And then we can choose how we will let them know.  And when someone believes something we don’t believe we choose how we react to that.  We can listen or argue, we can be silent or walk away.  We can  treat that person with dignity and respect, or treat them with disdain and disregard.  Those are choices that we are compelled to make.  And so in my father in law’s view the question is how will we choose to live in this divided world?

     Among the books I read this summer was a slender volume written by the Israeli writer Yossi Klein HaLevi, entitled ‘Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor.’  In a series of short essays, he writes to the Palestinian family that lives just over the green line and beyond the security fence, literally a stone’s throw from his backyard, a family he has never met.

    He is not naive, HaLevi, fully understanding how deep the divisions between Israelis and Palestinians truly are, and how starkly different their narratives.  He is not an optimist, either, and he offers no quick fix prescriptions.  Instead he arrives at a place of accepting that the divisions between the two peoples will remain in place for many years, if not forever.  And if that is the case, he wonders – if the gap is unbridgeable – what possibly can be done?  He writes this:  “There may well be no way to  bridge our opposing narratives…  Even as we seek a two state solution, we will likely remain with a two narrative problem….  Accommodating both our narratives, learning to live with two contradictory stories, is the only way to deny the past a veto over the future.”

     I still hold out hope in my heart that the words that Senator McCain penned before he died will prove to be prophetic, and that the deep divisions we feel today in our country will be healed by a sense of common purpose and citizenship.  I am old enough to remember a time when we began each day in the public school I went to by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.   We stood and saluted while facing the flag, and I suspect many of you still know the words by heart, as I do myself – I pledge allegiance to the flag, of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands – ONE nation…INDIVISIBLE…

     But until that time comes, if it ever does, we must learn to live in a world with contradictory values and accept that there are many more narratives than the one to which we subscribe.  And how we deal with that reality will be the true test of this country and of each of us.  

     If you think about it for a moment the very experience of the High Holy Days is predicated on an unbridgeable gap.  On the one side is God, eternal, righteous and just, and ultimately unknowable.  And on the other side we stand – imperfect and flawed, frail and limited, struggling and unsure at the start of a new year.  But as impossible as it is to bridge that chasm, nevertheless, here we are.  And we softly pray, reciting ancient words and also words unspoken in our hearts and souls.  And we send our thoughts and prayers across that great gap of time and space.  

     And God’s response comes, as it says in the Unetane Tokef, in a kol d’mama daka – in a still, small, inner voice, a Presence that judges us as we are, and yet invites us to turn and to return, through acts of righteousness and charity to ideals that uplift and ennoble us.  To chose kindness over anger, generosity over self indulgence, respect over scorn, and love over hostility.  May we choose well and wisely, so that we, our families, the Jewish world, and this country, can  be blessed in this new year with gracious deeds and peaceful hearts.

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, community, High Holy Days, Israel, Jewish festivals, prayer, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Rosh Hashanah, sermon, Uncategorized, Yom Kippur

Judging and Misjudging in the Uber Age

This is a text version of my sermon from the second day of Rosh Hashanah, 5779 –

     A couple of Friday nights ago Rabbi Saroken spoke about an article she had read about the Uber rating system.  As you probably know, Uber is essentially a remake of the taxi idea for the internet age, and if you want to use the service you install an app on your phone, and when you want a ride you activate the app, and it will match you and your location to the closest drivers.  

     I don’t use Uber often, but in late August Becky and I and Talia and Josh and Merav spent 5 days in San Francisco, and what we couldn’t walk to, we ‘ubered’ to.  The service is convenient, it works well, and the prices are reasonable.  But the odd thing about it, at least in my eyes, is its rating system.  As soon as you step out of your Uber your phone dings, and it wants you to rate the driver based on a 5 star system: were they on time, were they polite, were they helpful, did they drive safely.  

     At the very same time that you are rating the  driver, the driver is also rating you.  Your rating – the passenger rating – is based on things like were you nice to the driver, did he have to wait for you for a long time, did you sit in the front seat or the back seat, and I imagine also did you tip well.  The bottom line is that every Uber interaction concludes with a judgement – the passenger judging the driver, the driver judging the passenger, all based on a 5 star scale.

     In my mind there is something very High Holy Day – esque in that Uber judgement moment.  One of the primary metaphors that we use to help us think about our lives and about our relationship with God during RH and YK is an image of judgement and being judged.  That imagery fills the Mahzor, but is best known from the Unetane Tokef prayer.  In that prayer it is יום הדין, the Day of Judgement.  God is the Judge – אמת כי אתה הוא דיין says the text – in truth, You are the Judge!  And we are the flock of sheep, passing beneath God’s staff one by one, as God reads the record of our deeds from the year, JUDGES us, and תכתוב את גזר דינם – and writes down our verdict.

     And I can’t help but wonder, after my Uber experience, if God has some kind of app on a Heavenly smart phone, where the rating system that God uses to judge our lives, like all of the internet rating systems, is based on 5 stars.  And that God reads our profiles – which is the new form of the ancient book where we once wrote our deeds – and then God judges us by clicking on one of the stars on the screen – 4, or maybe 5 if we’ve had a really good year.  God forbid anyone in this room would get a lower rating than that!

     If that idea makes you uncomfortable, I expect you are part of the majority in the room today.  Why?  Because we don’t want God to judge us the way we all too often judge each other, and even ourselves,  based on a FB profile using a 5 star system like an Uber passenger after a 15 minute car ride.  We want to believe that God’s judgement has depth, that God knows us in a more profound way, maybe in a way that we don’t even know ourselves.  

     I would submit to you that that is indeed the case, that God does judge us differently than we judge ourselves, or others.  I had a strange experience this past summer.  Almost on a lark I decided to shave off my beard.  I’ve worn a beard now for 25 years, and although I’ve shaved once or twice during that stretch, it had been many years since I was clean shaven.  When I stepped out of the bathroom that morning Becky looked at me, paused for a moment, sort of shook her head, and said one thing:  grow it back!

     But the strange experience was when I looked in the mirror and a clean shaven Steve Schwartz was staring back at me.  I almost didn’t recognize myself.  And I realized how difficult it is, this task that God sets before us during the High Holy Days – which is to peel away all of the externals and to look for the inner core of who we truly are.  Because that is what we should be judging, in ourselves and others!  To at least for 10 days of the year forget about, the clothes, the hairstyle, the beard (or lack of one!), the home, the car, all of the material things that we all too often use to define our lives.  I never presume to know what God thinks or wants, but I am pretty sure that God doesn’t care if I have a beard or not.  Or what suit I wore today, or what car I will drive home in.

     But I do believe that God cares about the meditations of my heart – about what I think and feel and love.  About my morals and values.  Those are the things that form the core of who we are, and those are the things that Yom Tov is about.  There is a wonderful verse from I Samuel:  “God does not see the way people see, for people see the outward appearance, but God sees the heart.”  It is that heart that we should strive to see at this time of year, both in ourselves and in those around us.

     Yesterday morning we read for the haftara the story of Hannah.  On many levels it is a narrative about misjudgment, about looking at someone and not seeing who they truly are.  Hannah is misjudged first by her husband who can’t understand where her deep sadness comes from, and then later by the priest Eli who at least initially too quickly passes judgement on her, thinking that she is drunk when in fact she is devoutly praying.  It is only later, when she confronts him, and they have a face to face conversation, that he is able to see underneath the surface, and to gain some understanding in terms of who she really is and what troubles her soul.

     Of course we all do it that.  We judge too quickly, or we misjudge, or both.  It is much easier to look at the surface, rather than spend the time or expend the energy needed to understand the heart. 

     There is a bank teller at the bank Becky and I use, and when I stand in line I always hope she will not be the person to help me.  She is unpleasant, even a bit surly.  She rarely if ever smiles.  When I say hello to her, or try to make a bit of chit chat she does not respond.  And she never looks me in the eye.  And I figured – I am a pretty good judge of people.  Here is an angry woman, unhappy in her job, with an attitude frankly that I could do without.

     A few Thursdays ago I had to go to the bank and sure enough, my luck, I got that teller.  She was as unfriendly as ever, and I finished my business as quickly as possible, glad to be away from her presence.  

     That evening I had to run to Home Depot to pick something up.  After grabbing what I needed I went to the register and handed the light bulbs or whatever it was to the cashier, and looked up at her for a moment.  And I was stunned to see, staring back at me, the very same woman who had helped me in the bank that afternoon.

     And suddenly I saw that woman in a new way.  I now knew that she ran from her job at the bank at the end of a long day, and went to work a second job at Home Depot.  That she was weary beyond what I could understand, and probably worried about supporting a family in a way I never would have imagined.  I had misjudged her in the worst possible way, seeing her for what she was on the surface, when there was a whole different reality to her life.

     And I wondered, as I walked back to my car, how many other people I’ve misjudged in the course of this year.  That I thought they were fine when in fact they needed my help.  Or my impression of them was that they were nasty, when the reality was they were in pain and terribly sad.  Or that I grew impatient with someone, when all they were trying to do was to give me a helping hand.  We all do it.  We misjudge people we barely know at all, and we also do it to people we know well and love, the people with whom we share our lives.

    That is precisely why we need the image of God as Judge from the Mahzor.  Where we all too often rush to judgement, God is timeless and eternal.  Where our tendency is to see what is on the surface and to stop there, God looks straight at the human heart and to the depths of our souls.  We judge others based on what we see in them at a given moment in time, but God’s judgement is based on who we might be, on our potential to grow and change for the better.

    Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur present us with that model of God’s judgement, inviting us to growth and insight, and to a greater appreciation for the ideal person residing within ourselves and others.  So that we can hopefully see the challenges and the humanity within our own lives and the loves of those we love.  We imagine that God’s judgement of each of us is honest and perceptive and generous.  I pray that we find the heart, the love and the courage to do the same, for ourselves, and for every person we encounter as this new year unfolds.

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Crossing Over Into A New Year

I have for many years been fascinated by liminal spaces.  These are threshold places, where we transition from one state or status to another.  The huppah is one prime example.  The bride and groom enter the space of the huppah as single, and dwell in that liminal space for twenty minutes or so.  While they stand there, as the wedding liturgy is pronounced over them, their status changes, and when they emerge from the huppah they are not single anymore.

Mikveh is another liminal space in Jewish life.  A person enters the waters of the mikveh and they are not Jewish, but after immersion they return to their family as a full fledged Jew and member of the Jewish community.  The mikveh water is the threshold place where that transformation happens and the person crosses over from one state of being to another.

There are many other examples.  It is not a coincidence that the mezuzah is placed at the liminal space of a home, the place where we cross over from the outside world to our own homes and vice versa (in halachic (Jewish legal) language, from the ‘rishut ha’rabim’ to the ‘rishut ha’yachid’ – from the public to the private domain).

Judaism has also long been interested in liminal moments – points in time that mark a transition from one state to another.  Morning and evening services acknowledge the change from darkness to light and back again.  There is a moment when the workday week ends and Shabbat begins, and another moment that marks Shabbat’s conclusion and the beginning of ‘secular’ time.  Passover is a festival that uses sacred time to recall a liminal historical moment: when the Israelites left slavery behind and became free.  Shavuot also asks us to relive a cross over moment from Jewish history, when Torah came into the world, changing it forever.  Rosh Hashanah is perhaps Judaism’s transitional moment holiday par excellence, celebrating the ending of one year and the beginning of the next.

December 31st serves the same purpose in our secular lives.  New Year’s Eve is a holiday with far less gravitas than Rosh Hashanah.  It is commonly marked by a festive evening gathering, football games on TV, and a midnight champagne toast.  But it is a liminal moment in our year nonetheless, and we do feel the sense of wonderment that comes with the close of a year’s time in our lives.  We think back and we look forward, perhaps even making a resolution or two about what we hope the next year will hold.  More than anything else we wonder at the passage of time.  2018?!  That seems like an awfully big number.  Wasn’t it just the 1980s?  Am I really that old?  Actually, forget about me – are my children really that old?!  New Year’s Eve doesn’t necessarily help us understand how we got from here to there, but it does remind us that we have traveled through 365 days of life.  And that it does sometimes truly feel like it all happened in the blink of an eye.

The 19th Psalm captures Judaism’s sense of the sacred liminal moment:  “The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of God’s hands.  Day to day makes utterance, night to night speaks out.  There are no words whose sounds goes unheard, their voice carries to the ends of the earth, their words to the very end of the world…”

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Turn, Turn, Turn…

In December of 1965 the folk/rock group the Byrds released their second album, entitled Turn, Turn, Turn!  The record’s title was taken from its first released single, with its memorable chorus “To every thing (turn, turn, turn) there is a season (turn, turn, turn,) and a time to every purpose under Heaven.”   The lyrics, originally penned by the great Pete Seeger in the late 50s, are loosely taken from the 3rd chapter of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes.  On December 4th of ’65 the song hit number one, holding that spot for three straight weeks.

The turning image in the song reflects the mood of the biblical text.  The author of Ecclesiastes urgently feels the swift passage of time, and struggles in that powerful stream to gain his bearings.  Tradition teaches that the book was written by King Solomon in his old age as he attempted to come to terms with his own mortality.  The author speculates about life and its meaning, about the coming and going of the seasons, the rising and setting of the sun.  Is it simply cyclical, he wonders, repeating again and again and again, or is there meaning to it, does it work in a particular direction, ultimately enabling us to reach some place we are destined to be?  If we are turning to whom are we turning, and for what purpose?

This is a time of year when Jews think a lot about turning, whether they even realize it or not.  The start of a new year always brings with it the sense of time’s passage.  But the idea of turning is also central to the process of teshuvah, a word we commonly translate as repentance.  The three lettered root of the word most often means to turn, or to return, to come back to something, someone, or some place you’ve been before.  This is what we all hope to do in the weeks leading up to the High Holy Days.

A wise rabbi once observed that turning doesn’t require much effort.  It isn’t that you have to move a great distance – instead, you simply stop going in the direction you are going, and turn yourself so you are facing in a different direction.  Sometimes it is that slight reorientation that can make all the difference in the world.  Isn’t it true that life is often about the small things, the slight changes, often in attitude, that can make everything look different?

But there are two types of turning.  We can turn to, or we can turn from.  I sometimes think our initial instinct is to turn away.  When a challenge arises, when a relationship grows difficult, when we feel estranged from faith and God, turning away is often the easiest path.  We turn our backs, cast our eyes in a different direction, and in so doing shield ourselves from potential hurt and harm.  This kind of turning may feel safer, but ultimately it leaves us lonelier, more isolated, less connected.

Turning to is more difficult.  It often requires confrontation, either with ourselves, or others, or both.  It asks us to open ourselves up, to face what we might be inclined to look away from, to engage when we might feel like shutting the door.  But turning to has the potential to repair things that have gone wrong in our lives.  Turning to gives us the best chance of making changes we hope to make, of rekindling friendships, reinvigorating relationships, and reinventing ourselves.

The Talmud teaches that there is a short way that is long, and a long way that is short.  Too often in life we choose the short way and never reach the place we hope to reach.  Choosing the long way can make the journey more difficult, more time consuming, more challenging, but in the end can give us the best chance of arriving at our intended destinies/destinations.

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23,500 Words

Just one way of telling the tale of my last 6 weeks or so.  Here is how I arrived at that number:  5 High Holiday sermons, about 1800 words each (a total of 9,000 words);  3 Shabbat sermons and 1 Sukkoth sermon, about 1200 words each (4,800 total);  7 eulogies, some 1,10o words each (7,700);  plus 8 ‘bar/bat mitzvah charges’ which come in around 250 words each (total of 2,000) – all of which adds up to 23,500.

A lot of words, any way you slice it.  The average number of words on the page of an average book is 250.  So the 23,500 words I’ve written over the last weeks would make the first 94 pages of a book.  What tale would those 94 pages tell?

Perhaps a bit about the times we live in, the anxious state of our nation, weary of a bitter (and long!) election process, fearful of clouds that grow darker on the horizon.  Maybe a thing or two about the state of Jewish life in America in 2016, its challenges and bounteous blessings.  Certainly the narrative of the lives of those whom I eulogized, the habits and hobbies, quirks and passions, connections and professions that made up their lives.  A few things about the b’nai mitzvah, just beginning their journeys, looking out on a future that is bright and filled with possibility.

And also, I suppose, reading carefully, a thing or two about me.  In part what has been on my mind, what were the thoughts that were nudging me in the fall of 2016, my concerns, worries, interests, and opinions.  But also who I am.  I hope that too comes through in all of those words, the thousands upon thousands of keyboard strokes, the verbs and nouns and adjectives, the sentences and paragraphs, the metaphors and textual references.

You know the old saying is a picture is worth a thousand words.  That would make 23 and a half pictures.  Maybe it is time to take up painting!

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