Category Archives: Rosh Hashanah

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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Filed under Beth El Congregation, Bible, High Holy Days, Jewish festivals, Jewish life, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, rock and roll, Rosh Hashanah, Uncategorized

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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Finding Your Runway

this a text version of my sermon from day one of Rosh Hashanah 5777

The young couple, looking forward to their wedding, smiled as they entered my office and settled into their seats across from me.  It was a meeting I’ve had hundreds of times over the years, and one I always enjoy.  Talking about the wedding, getting to know the bride and groom, and exploring with them at least a bit their hopes and dreams for the life they will make together as husband and wife.  In the course of those meetings I always ask the couple about their plans for having a family – how many children might they like to have?  When will they start?  I know it is a nosy question!  But if the rabbi can’t ask that question who can?  And the truth is we need more Jews in the world.

But as soon as I broached the topic with this couple, I could tell they were uncomfortable.  They looked at each other for a few moments before the young woman said this:  “Rabbi, we just don’t know if we want to bring children into this world.  It seems like such a dangerous and scary place right now, like it is all headed the wrong way.  There is terrorism and climate change, racism and riots in the streets, shootings in schools, how can we bring a child into this kind of world?”

I was a bit taken aback, but I caught myself and I talked with them about it.  That we need more Jews in the world.  That we need more good people in the world.  That we need hope in the world.  But as I talked, in the back of my mind I was thinking ‘who can blame them?’  I was sitting with them in the first week of September, coming off one of the most disturbing summers probably any of us can remember.  Police were shot in the streets of Dallas and Baton Rouge.  There was horrible gun violence in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.  Refugees from the Syrian civil war wandered through Europe.  The terrorist attack in Nice France on Bastille Day.  Financial anxiety as the market teetered and tottered back and forth, the unsettling and frankly sometimes bizarre rhetoric of the presidential campaign.  There were new reports about climate change and rising seas.  It seemed for a while every day the news was worse than that of the day before.

And I also knew that my young couple was not alone in its feelings. We can actually measure these things today, in ways that we never have before.  Big data, as they call it, can be assembled by analyzing the millions upon millions of Goggle searches that take place on a daily basis.  Over the past 8 years internet search rates for anxiety have gone through the roof.  Searches for ‘anxiety at work,’ or ‘anxiety at night’ or ‘anxiety at school’ are the highest they’ve ever been since scientists started tracking such things.  So if you feel that sense of unease that my young couple feels, if you are anxious about the world, worried about what is happening around us, then you are in good company, because it seems that almost everyone is experiencing that in one way or another.

Of course we Jews understand ourselves as worrying experts.  Who worries better than the Jews?  We gave the world Woody Allen and Larry David.  It was Woody Allen who once famously said, “Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering – and its all over much too soon!”  It is a particularly Jewish joke that the mother who is about to visit sends a telegram that simply reads ‘start worrying details to follow.’  And we are the people who brought the world the phrase ‘oy vey!’   We use the term so often that Penny Wolin, the great Jewish photographer, once remarked that oy is not merely an ordinary word for Jews, but is actually an expression of an entire world view.  This certainly was a summer that deserved a lot of ‘oys.’

I think there is a cogent argument to be made that the presidential election process we’ve watched unfold over the last months was a direct reflection of that pervasive sense of unease and anxiety.  As Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders rose in the polls many experts saw them as two different sides of the same coin, in both cases attracting groups of people who felt disenfranchised, who felt they did not have a voice in the traditional political system, and who felt afraid about what the future may hold.  The general sense of both groups was that the country is heading in the wrong direction, and that radical action needs to be taken in order to set it right.

And we also know that come November 8th, when Americans head to the voting booths to elect a new president, many of us will cast a ballot with great trepidation, regardless of which candidate we vote for.  Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are the two most unpopular presidential candidates in recent memory, maybe in history, and I know from speaking to many of you that regardless of which person you vote for you may very well feel uncomfortable with the ballot you cast.  And so even our presidential election, which is so often filled with hope and expectation for a brighter future, I think will be filled this year with anxiety.

A few of you here today are old enough to remember the ringing phrase from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first inaugural address in 1933.  That also was a dark time for our country, it was the height of the Great Depression, and FDR stood in front of the nation vowing to speak candidly and honestly.  What was his memorable phrase?  “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  I understand that phrase in two ways:  One, fear can paralyze us, fear can keep us from acting when we must act.  But I also think it means that fear and anxiety can distort our understanding of things, and prevent us from seeing things as they really are.

This morning’s Torah reading is a perfect illustration of that idea.  You remember the story – Sarah, Abraham’s wife, is threatened by the concubine Hagar’s presence in the household.  She presses Abraham to send Hagar away, and he relents.  Early one morning he takes some simple supplies, a loaf of bread, a single skin of water – he gives them to Hagar and he sends her and their son Ishmael out into the wilderness.

Things unravel quickly.  She gets lost, she wanders aimlessly, the water runs out,  and Hagar falls into despair.  She places her son under a bush and walks away to suffer alone, not wanting to see his pain, wanting only to withdraw from the cruel world she sees all around her.  But then the story turns, an angel appears, and Hagar is able to rediscover the strength she needs to carry on.  What is striking about the passage is that Hagar’s circumstances don’t change.  God does not make a miracle for her, but what God does do is open her eyes.  ויפקח א׳׳לוהים את עיניה – God opened her eyes – and then she was able to truly see, and to realize there was a spring of water just a ways away that could sustain her and her son.  The well had been there all along, but her fear prevented her from seeing it.

And I am wondering what the fear and anxiety of our time are preventing us from seeing.  You remember being a child, and your mother or father turns out the lights at night and leaves your room.   All of a sudden any ordinary object – a dresser, a chair, a jacket – could be transformed into a menacing shape.  I feel like that is where we are right now.  Standing in a dark room.  And in that darkness we can lose our way, and in losing our way, lose our understanding of what truly matters most.  The values we cherish.  The people we love.  The expectations we have for ourselves and our lives.  And I think, I hope, that Yom Tov is a time to reclaim what truly matters most.  To dispel darkness, to open eyes, to see with clarity our lives and our world.

I am sure you are familiar with the so called Miracle on the Hudson, the story of the pilot Chesley Sullenberger, who miraculously managed to land a failing jet plane on the Hudson River, saving the lives of every crew member and passenger.   The story is playing in theaters these days in the movie Sully, Tom Hanks playing the no nonsense pilot.  Haven’t seen it, but I’ve heard the movie is ‘OK’ but Hanks is terrific.  Fundamentally that story is about one person who is able to set aside fear and to see something, to perceive it, to truly understand it – in a way others could not.  Everyone else looked at the Hudson and they saw water and a sinking plane.  Sully looked at the same river, and he saw a runway.  What angel gave him that insight, opened his eyes in that kind of way, we will never know.

But what if an angel were to appear to you and God were to open your eyes during these sacred days? What might you see? Could we recognize the wells that are right beside us? If we did we might take a fresh look at our families and see them as the gift they are.  We might reach out to old friends we once laughed and cried with. We might feel compelled to reconnect to a community of faith and service that sustained our people for thousands of years. We could see within ourselves the strength, always there,  to overcome disappointment and fear and anxiety, to emerge with new found hope and faith in ourselves, in those we love, in humanity and in God.

The holidays come each year to open our eyes.  They remind us of what matters most, they give us an opportunity to reaffirm our very best qualities.   The holidays come to help us truly see that there is great light in the world, and enduring hope and kindness and caring in the human heart.  May that be our faith and our fate as we together welcome this New Year.

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Come On Down – Why You Should Come to Shul for the High Holy Days

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

The weekly Jewish newspaper The Forward published an op ed piece this week written by a rabbi named Jay Michaelson.  The headline of the article is ‘Why You Shouldn’t – should not –  Go to Synagogue on Rosh HaShanah this Year,” and Rabbi Michaelson spends some 1500 words or so explaining why he thinks it is a bad idea for Jews to come to shul to celebrate the beginning of the New Year.  And I understand that some folks just like to be provocative, because that will get them a lot of hits on the internet, and I also understand that sometimes you have a deadline looming, and your are running out of time, and you end up writing the first thing that comes into your mind without fully thinking it through.  So I am not sure whether the Rabbi is in the former category, the latter category, of whether he really believes everything he wrote.  But he does raise three particular points in the article that give him pause, and he says should give us pause, in terms of attending services on the High Holy Days.  And I would like to spend a few minutes with you this morning thinking about each of those points.

Interestingly (at least to me!) his first complaint is a theological one.  We should probably establish a fundamental sense of what theology is – what is it?  Essentially, the way you understand and think about God.  And Rabbi Michaelson says that you shouldn’t come to shul on Rosh HaShanah because when you get there and open your Mahzor you are going to find theological concepts that will make you uncomfortable and that you may not believe.  And as proof of this he cites, also interesting to me, probably the most beloved prayer in the entire Mahzor, the Unetane Tokef prayer.  That is the one where we imagine God with a book that holds a record of our deeds from the year gone by, and where we say, ‘who will live and who will die, who by fire, who by water.’

Now I know that the theological implications of that prayer are problematic, and I myself don’t literally believe that God sits with a book and is writing names into it ‘who is going to live and who is going to die.’  But I also know that the prayer has a power and meaning that still speaks to people today.  It may be because they’ve been reading it since they were little, and it brings to mind sweet memories of Rosh Hashanas gone by.  It may be because the image itself, whether you believe it or not, can get you to think about your own deeds, which is one of the things people do find meaningful at the start of a new year.   It may also be that there is a core truth to the prayer that Rabbi Michaelson either forgot or never understood, and that is in the course of any given year members of our community will pass away, and we truly don’t know what a year will hold.

But I think in general by couching his first objection to shul on Rosh HaShanah in theological terms Rabbi Michaelson misses the point entirely.  Because theology is an intellectual exercise.  It is a rational, philosophical approach to trying to understand God and our relationship with God.  And I don’t think that is why Jews come to shul on Rosh HaShanah.  I am a rabbi, and I can tell you I don’t wake up Rosh HaShanah morning and say ‘boy I can’t wait to do some theology today!’  For most of us the holidays are not about intellectually unpacking something.  They are instead about emotion, about feeling something, that can’t and probably even shouldn’t be quantified by an intellectual process.  So Rabbi Michelson’s first wrong turn is to assume the biggest problem with shul on Rosh HaShanah is an intellectual one, while the truth is most Jews engage in the experience emotionally.

The Rabbi’s second objection to Rosh HaShanah is that the holiday itself sends a series of mixed messages.  He says it is about ‘celebration and seriousness,’ ‘rejoicing and repentance,’ and he sees those ideas as diametrically opposed, concepts that shouldn’t be combined into a single holiday, or ritual.  But Judaism does that with virtually every holiday.  On Passover the matzah is the bread of affliction, and the bread of freedom.  On Sukkoth we rejoice in life and the bountiful harvest, but we also acknowledge life’s temporal quality with the fragile sukkah and the decaying branches of the lulav.  On Shavuot we celebrate the giving of the Torah but we also recall that the Torah has been both a guide and at times a heavy burden to bear and a draining responsibility.  And there is a reasons that themes come together on the holidays to conflicts and sometimes contrast – and that is because it reflects the ebb and flow of life.  There are few perfect days, and even fewer perfect lives.  The truth is most of life is a mixed bag, a combination of celebrations and sadnesses, of triumphs and tragedies, of the good and the bad.  And the holidays, with their interplay of themes, acknowledge life’s complexity, and create sacred spaces in time that are recognizable to us and reflect our own lives.

And by the way, sometimes it is only from contrast that the power of an idea becomes apparent.  Would the sense of freedom, and the gratitude that we feel for it on Pesah feel as powerful it we didn’t see it through the lens of slavery?  On Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur would the focus on life and the celebration of a new year be as meaningful if we didn’t also find in the Mahzor images of life’s fragility?  It is precisely the contrast that makes it all work, that makes it come alive.  The only way you appreciate a sunrise is to have seen a sun set and to have lived through a night.

The Rabbi’s final objection to shul on the High Holy Days is that the services have become some kind of show, where the audience sits passively and watches as the rabbis and cantors perform some kind of ancient and arcane ritual, intoning words that have no meaning and that no one understands.  And I do believe that he may at least have a point here, because it is a danger of modern Jewish life that sometimes the service can turn into a show.

But I don’t think he has even been to High Holy Days services here at Beth El.  I don’t think he has been here in this sanctuary on Rosh HaShanah eve when a thousand Jews stand together, chasing in full voice the words of the Shema Yisrael.  He certainly has not been here on the second day of Rosh HaShanah when for the 5th aliyah the entire congregation stands together to chant the Torah blessings.  And there is no way he has been here during Ne’ilah, when the ark opens, and hundreds and hundreds of people stream forward to spend a few precious seconds in front of the Torahs on the holiest day of our year, to offer their personal prayers of gratitude and hope.

Now I don’t mean to suggest that shul is for everyone.  I know it is not.  But in a Jewish community of growing complexity, where people identity Jewishly in ways that they never have before, surely there is still plenty of space for the synagogue, for the particular and powerful community that can grow within walls like these, for the unique and sacred experience of continuing a three thousand year old tradition.  The great prophet Isaiah, in the text of this morning’s haftara, reminds us that the Jewish tent may grow large – הרחיבי מקום אהלך – “Enlarge the size of your tent, extend the size of your dwelling, lengthen the ropes, drive the pegs firm!”

The Jewish tent grows larger and larger, but the synagogue is still at its center, an institution that conveys identity and transmits tradition like no other in the Jewish world –

may our shuls be full this Rosh HaShanah – and for many, many new years to come –

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(What) To Say or Not to Say,That is the Question

You’ll recognize the paraphrase of the famous line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  (Act III, scene 1)  Interesting fact about that line, in fact that entire speech, now so sealed into our minds, as ‘canonized’ as anything in Shakespeare:   There was actually a series of earlier versions.  As an example, this version was printed in the First Quarto (1603):

To be, or not to be, I there’s the point,
To Die, to sleep, is that all? Aye all:
No, to sleep, to dream, aye marry there it goes…

So Shakespeare, arguably the greatest writer of them all, despite his preternatural gifts, worked in drafts!  And even after the play had been performed the Bard’s work continued, massaging the lines, rethinking concepts, rewriting.  Evidently when he arrived at the following formula he realized perfection, and he stopped:

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; aye, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.

Pause indeed.  For in the rabbinic world, this is the time of writing and rewriting, of switching phrases, of working ideas, struggling with transitions, worrying over the ebb and flow of a text that ironically and ultimately is meant to be spoken.  Perfection in a sermon will never be achieved, for it simply does not exist.  But we work hard, and we spend more time with these sermons that we do with anything else we’ll preach the rest of the year.

This year there is an extra challenge.  What to say, or not to say, about Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, the Presidential election?  There is a clear legal definition you work with – a preacher may not endorse a candidate from the pulpit.  Such an endorsement would forfeit the preacher’s house of worship’s non-profit status.  But as we all know you can get awfully close to that line without crossing it.  I’ve heard rabbis (and Christian preachers as well) say everything BUT ‘and you should vote for..’   They didn’t even need to say it, because their message was already clear.

Of course in today’s highly polarized political atmosphere some folks feel that even touching on politics during a sermon is akin to landing on the third rail.  I had a congregant once tell me I shouldn’t even use the words Democrat or Republican from the pulpit.  At the same time it feels almost cowardly, or in some way irresponsible, not to address the one issue that is on everyone’s mind.

So what to say?  Or not to say?  This is the challenge rabbis around the country are struggling with this year.  In a way it is like the old joke about rabbis:  the ideal rabbi has 25 years experience in the field, but is only 35 years old.  She spends no money and requires little pay, but must dress well and drive a respectable car.  He should be at meetings morning, noon, and night, but should also find time to spend with his family.  You get the idea.  So it is with the High Holiday sermon – it should be topical, but not touch on politics.   And oh yes, it should make them laugh and cry, be filled with original insight and ancient wisdom, not make anyone angry, and perhaps most importantly of all, make them want to come back for more.  After all, there is always Yom Kippur.

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The Kosher Person

this a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 7/30 –

When we think about ‘kashrut’ – the question of whether something is kosher or not kosher – the first thought that probably jumps into our minds is food.  But in Judaism the idea of ‘kosher’ applies to other things as well, not only to food.  Can anyone give another example?  One is the Sefer Torah – a Torah that is usable – that we are permitted to read from – is actually called a kosher Torah.  Which of course begs a question – what makes a Torah kosher or not kosher?  With food we have a pretty strong sense of how that question is answered – certain foods are by definition not kosher – pork the most obvious example.  And certain foods can’t be mixed – like dairy and meat.  If they are mixed, the food is no longer kosher.  But what about a Torah?  What makes a Torah kosher, and what might make it not kosher?

Let us first think for a minute about what makes a Torah kosher.  First of all, the materials used to make the Torah have stringent requirements.  The ink that is used to write the letters must be made in a certain way, and it absolutely must be black – any other color and the Torah is not considered kosher.  The parchment, called in Hebrew ‘klaf’ must come from a kosher animal, usually a cow or a goat, sometimes even a deer.  the letters must be written using a special quill, usually one made from the feather of a kosher bird like a turkey.  When sections are sewn together the thread is made from the sinew of a kosher animal.  And if any of these things are not right – if the quill is not proper, or the parchment is not from a kosher animal, or even the thread, the Torah is not kosher, it is not usable.

But it isn’t only the materials that make the Torah kosher.  It also has to do with how the letters themselves are written.  No letter in the Torah can touch any other letter – if two letters are touching, the Torah is not kosher.  Certain letters have to be written larger than other letters – the best example is verse 4 in Deuteronomy chapter 6, the Shema Israel line, where the ‘shin’ of Shema and the ‘daled’ of echad must be written larger than the other letters.  At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion there is another example – the word Shalom appears in the third verse of this morning’s portion – how do you spell that word in Hebrew?  Shim, lamed, mem, vav, mem-sofit.  And how do you write a ‘vav’ in Hebrew?  One straight down line.  Believe me, there are a lot of ‘vavs’ in the Torah.  And all of them have to be written with a straight, uninterrupted line – except this vav in our word Shalom from this week’s portion.  It has to be written with an interruption in the line – a space – and if that space isn’t there, once again, the entire Torah is not kosher and may not be used.  That gives you just a little bit of an idea of what makes a Torah kosher or not kosher.

What about applying the same idea to a human being?  What makes a person kosher, or not kosher?  It might sound strange in our ears to phrase it that way, again because we so commonly associate that idea with food – but there is a talmudic concept of the ‘adam kasher’ – the kosher person.  In the Talmud this is a person who is deserving of the ultimate respect, so much so that the Talmud says when an ‘adam kasher’ – a kosher person – dies – everyone in community is obligated to make a tear in their clothing, something normally only immediate mourners do.  And everyone in the community is responsible for mourning this person’s loss.  That is the level of respect and love that an ‘adam kasher’ engenders in the course of his or her life.

Now it might seem to you like the High Holy Days are still very far away, after all we sit here at the end of July, and Rosh Hashanah isn’t until the beginning of October!  But the truth is in our liturgical cycle we are already pointing towards the fall holidays.  We read today the first in a series of 10 haftara texts that try to build up our spirits so that we can stand before God with clean hearts and souls at the beginning of the new year.  10 weeks from Sunday night is RH.  I don’t know about you – I tend to be a bit of a procrastinator – but the time is set aside for us, and I think the reason we are given so much time is that sometimes it can actually take quite a while to figure out how to be a kosher person.  It isn’t as black and white as the laws of what makes food kosher or not, or a Torah scroll kosher or not.  And wouldn’t it be nice if the tradition gave us some guidance as we went through this process.  What is it that makes a kosher person?

It is an old tradition during the summer months to spend some time studying Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers.  Probably more than any other text in Judaism, Pirke Avot lays out for us the tradition’s idea of what makes a person kosher.  It deals with ethics and morals, with how a person should act towards his or her fellow, with what kind of responsibility one has in terms of being part of a community.  The material is fairly wide ranging, but there are a few themes that come up again and again, ideals that the rabbis of old clearly believed defined what a kosher person should be.

A number of the ideals are things you might expect.  Be a kind and compassionate person.  Treat others with respect and dignity.  Live with a sense of God’s presence in your life.  All important qualities of the kosher person.  But there are three particular ideals that the text identifies, ideals that are at the core of being an ‘adam kasher’ – that might not normally come to our minds.

The first of them is humility.  The text reminds us that we are no more important that any other person, and that when we begin to feel more important than others – something we all seem to do at one time or another – we have wandered onto the wrong path and need to find our way back.

The next quality of a kosher person is communal engagement and commitment, a sense of communal responsiblity.  In today’s world we tend to emphasize the individual over the community and the individuals needs and rights over the community’s needs.  But in Judaism it is exactly the opposite.  When an individual’s need conflicts with a communal need, it is the community’s need that takes precedence.  As Jews we have an obligation not only to be connected to Jewish community, but to make sure that because of our presence the community becomes a better place for all.

The last thing is to be a learning Jew, to constantly strive to grow through the study of Judaism, Jewish thought, Jewish life, Jewish text, Jewish history.  Tradition understands that we nourish our bodies with food and drink, but that we must always make sure to nourish our souls and spirits, and one powerful way to do that is through the study of Torah – not only the scroll we take out of the ark, but Torah writ large, our ancient tradition with all of its wisdom.

So as we begin our slow but steady walk towards the High Holy Days, and begin to weigh in our minds who we are and who we want to be, we can perhaps keep in mind the wisdom our our sages and an ideal they at least believed we should all strive for – not necessarily to keep kosher, all though that wouldn’t be so bad – but to actually, in the way we live our lives and the quality of our own characters, to BE kosher –

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, Bible, community, High Holy Days, Jewish festivals, Jewish thought, mindfulness, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Rosh Hashanah, sermon, Torah, Uncategorized, Yom Kippur

Making Young Sports Fans, Making Young Jews

this the text of my sermon from Erev Rosh Hashanah 5776 (2015)

It was just about 10 days ago when people began to realize that today’s opening Ravens game was going to conflict with this evening’s RH service, and the phone calls began to come in. One particular call was from a member I’ve known for many years, a devout – Ravens fan – who said to me: “Rabbi, the Ravens open the season in Denver, and the game won’t be starting Sunday until almost 4:30!” “Yes,” I replied, “I know that.” “And Rosh Hashanah services begin at 6!” “ I know that as well,” I calmly said. “But rabbi,” my congregant continued, “that means the second half of the game will directly conflict with erev Rosh Hashanah services! What should I do?” “Why don’t you just use your DVR and record it?” I suggested. “Rabbi,” my astonished congregant replied, “You mean you can DVR Rosh Hashanah services?”

That is a tried and true joke – and an old one. But like with any joke that has staying power, there is a kernel of truth in it. I think many of you know that I myself am a sports fan, albeit a largely star crossed one. This year my beloved Mets are actually being talked about in mid-September, but for the most part my teams are unsuccessful, the kind of teams only a true fan could love. But love them I do, regardless. And the disappointment I feel when they lose, or the joy when they win, is undiminished by their years of wandering in the proverbial sports wilderness of mediocrity.

That being said, I learned a hard lesson from my parents about how sports should rank on the priority list many years ago, a lesson that has stuck with me to this very day, and I learned it on Rosh Hashanah. I was a soccer player in high school, and my senior year I was the captain of my team. There was nothing in my life more important than soccer. That year the game against our biggest rival was scheduled for the late afternoon of Rosh Hashanah day. And I went to my parents and I said ‘The game starts at 4. Services will be over, we’ll be home already, so I can play, right?” And I was shocked – dumbfounded – flabbergasted – when my parents said to me ‘You are not playing in the game. It is Rosh Hashanah.’

And I mustered every argument I could think of but my parents would not budge. They had given me a clear message that I only truly understood over time. Rosh Hashanah is more important than a soccer game – even a big game. And by extension, I learned that Judaism is more important than sports. Sports is entertainment – it is fun, often family centric (not to be underestimated), and filled with passion, and maybe even a few life lessons. But Judaism is life – it is about our history and peoplehood, our culture and language, a system of values by which we raise our children. These are matters of the heart and soul, core pieces of our identity, sometimes literally our life and our death. As I always say, very few of our children and grandchildren will play sports after they are 20, but all of them will be Jewish the rest of their lives. Are we giving them enough ‘Jewish’ when they are young to sustain them as they get older?

A couple of months ago I gave a sermon on Shabbat morning where I talked about how successful we’ve become at making young sports fans. Think of the young people that you know – your children and grandchildren, and maybe great-grandchildren. My guess is that many of them – a very high percentage – are committed sports fans. Sports is a huge part of the lives of young people today – hours and hours – and dollars and dollars – are spent playing sports, watching sports, going to games, buying gear, and playing in fantasy leagues. And I suggested in that sermon that there is a formula that turns a young person into a young sports fan – you start them young, you share with them the knowledge they need to understand and appreciate the game, and most importantly of all, you let them know how passionate you are about the team. And by doing that, and being consistent about it, we turn out young sports fans with a very high rate of success.

And I wondered if we applied that same formula to our young people in a Jewish way, if we would more successfully make young Jews. Starting them young with a baby naming or a bris, and Jewish pre-school. Bringing them to synagogue as they grow up, for holidays and programs so the shul is a natural and familiar part of their lives. Then giving them the knowledge. A fundamental understanding of our sacred stories, of the flow of Jewish history, the ability to read Hebrew, familiarity with the service. But most importantly of all, to let our children and grandchildren know how important Judaism is to us, how passionate we feel about it and how much we care about it.

I guess the problem with that idea, and maybe it is a question we can wrestle with this High Holy Day season, is this: are WE as passionate about our faith as we would like our children and grandchildren to be? Are we living Jewish lives with the kind of commitment and belief – with the kind of passion – that can be an example for the generations of our families? When the children in our lives look to us, when they watch us, they know we love our sports teams – our Ravens and Orioles, or for a poor New Yorker like me my Mets and Knicks. But can they look at us and know that we love our Judaism even more?

The next two days in shul we’ll be reading from the Torah stories about Abraham, the very first human being chosen by God to live a Jewish life. In the entire Torah – all of those verses, all of those chapters, all of those words, there is only one verse that tells us why Abraham was chosen for that task – “I have singled him out אשר יצוה את בניו ואת ביתו אחריו so that he may teach his children and grandchildren the way of the Lord.” (Genesis 18:19) It is not a mistake that the rabbinic tradition calls Abraham אברהם אבינו – Abraham our Father. It is what we talk about when we recite the ‘vahavta’ paragraph, that so many of us know by heart, just after the Shema – ושננתם לבניך ודברת בם – you shall teach these words of the tradition to your children, and speak of them in all things that you do. In the Hebrew it is not ‘you’ second person plural, not you in a generic, communal sense. It is you, second person singular, you – the parent or grandparent of that child.

Because at the end of the day it is not a synagogue that makes a child Jewish. It is not something a rabbi can do. Or a cantor. Or a Hebrew school teacher. Of course we can help. We can give them some of the tools they’ll need. We can provide programs that will give them the chance to immerse in Jewish life, to learn about their heritage and history. But their sense of the importance of being Jewish has to come from you, their parents and grandparents. A child’s Jewish identity isn’t formed in a synagogue, it is formed in a home, in the context of a family. Your homes. Your families. So lets make our homes the kinds of places that foster Jewish life and identity, lets make our families families that live Judaism every day, and lets make our lives models for the kinds of Jewish lives we hope our children and grandchildren will one day live themselves. If we can do that, then one day – 10, or 15, or 20 years from now, our children and grandchildren will realize we’ve given them a great gift. And by the way – in doing it – in giving that gift – our own lives, homes, and families will be better, stronger, and holier in the New Year that is beginning. May it be a year of health, happiness, and hope for us all.

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Filed under continiuty, High Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah, sermon