Category Archives: Rosh Hashanah

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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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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