Category Archives: seasons

Summer Stillness

A gentle breeze was blowing when I found Rabbi Loeb sitting on the wooden bench outside of our chapel.  It was late on a Shabbat afternoon, at the end of a gorgeous summer day, not too hot, not too cool, just exactly right.  In a short while the evening service would begin, the Torah would be read, havdallah chanted.  But in some magical way time seemed to stop.  Rabbi Loeb, always running, always with a next thing, always with a deadline, was relaxed and peaceful.  He looked at the flowers, the green grass, the leaves in the trees, at the edifice of the building that housed the congregation he had served for decades.  He looked up at the blue sky, just beginning to darken to a deeper shade in the east.

I sat down on the bench next to him.  We didn’t say a word.  Just took pleasure in the sharing of that moment, each with our own thoughts.  Spring was behind us, and the fall with its demands seemed a long ways off.  It was summer, the slower pace, the reverie, the subtle astonishment at the beauty of this world when it is in full bloom.  Somewhere a baseball game was being played, a lawn mowed, neighbors were sitting on a porch and discussing the events of the day, drinking iced tea or lemonade, listening to music playing on an old radio.  Somewhere.  But in our moment it was all stillness.

There is a beautiful midrash about the giving of the Ten Commandments, one of my favorites.  It imagines the precise moment before God spoke the words of Torah at Sinai as a moment of profound silence and stillness.  A moment when the world became soundless.  When even the endless waves of the sea stopped their incessant murmuring.  When the entire world paused to listen.

Sometimes there are no words.  That is a hard thing for a rabbi to admit.  In some ways we are paid talkers.  Our job is to speak, to teach and counsel and preach and bring meaning and context and comfort using words.  What is the old joke?  ‘Before I speak, I would just like to say a few words.’  That is a joke made for rabbis.

But sometimes silence is better.  Sometimes stillness gives us the opportunity to think and feel, to understand more deeply, to sense more profoundly, to experience more fully. In our increasingly busy and noisy world, those moments are few and far between.  But we should look for them, search them out.  Often they are right there, waiting to be discovered, waiting for us to be still, waiting for us to listen.  Like on a summer afternoon, on a wooden bench, under a clear blue sky.

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Summer Reading 2019

How To Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan – With the recent popularity of meditation and yoga as spiritual pursuits, Pollan explores an alternate, once frowned upon method of opening the mind, staying present, and finding meaning – hallucinogenics.  A blend of travelogue, scientific research, medical history, and memoir, the author ponders one of the oldest and most significant human questions:  how can we find meaning in our lives? (460 pages)

The Uninhabitable Earth (Life After Warming) by David Wallace-Wells – Concern about the devastating effects of climate change has grown exponentially in recent years.  Relying on the most recent scientific evidence, David Wallace-Wells imagines what challenges will confront humanity if climate change continues unchecked.  He also offers hope that time is still left to make changes in our behavior and environmental policies before it is too late.  (300 pages)

Thoughts in Solitude by Thomas Merton – In the information overload age there is precious little time to ponder, reflect, and just think.  Merton, Trappist monk and mystic, argues in this slim volume that moments of quiet reflection are necessary for personal health and growth, and also for the cultivation of a society of tolerance and respect for all.  (130 pages)

Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James – In a vividly imagined Africa filled with superhuman creatures and supernatural forces the Jamaican write Marlon James uses the mystery of a missing boy to weave layered stories of survival and quest.  Filled with references to popular culture, the book draws on the hero myth structure identified by Joseph Campbell to propel its protagonist, Tracker, through a violent, dangerous, and mysterious world.  (please note!  the book contains multiple violent passages – rating PG 15!)  (420 pages)

These Truths by Jill Lepore – The Harvard historian has written a brilliant one volume history of the United States.  As is so often the case, the more we know about the past the better we understand the present.  Beautifully written, Lepore shines a light on some of our greatest people and most important moments, but also reminds us of how often we fall short of the ideals that define our nation.  Every American should read this book. (800 pages)

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Spring

Often in those first few heady days of growing warmth there was still snow and ice along the sidewalks and streets, left over from the long and cold winter.  As it finally melted away it glistened in the sunshine as its dripping rivulets became tiny streams that ran along the curbs, formed puddles and eddies, searching, searching for the river down below.  Sometimes the current was strong enough to float twigs or old leaves in the water, like little boats on their way to some destination unknown.  We stomped on the thin ice layers that formed above the running water and they broke away, shattering with a satisfying crunchy sound.  Meanwhile, above our heads, the first buds were cautiously appearing on the old oaks and maples.  But we were mostly concerned with what was down below.

Despite the lingering cold we shed our jackets, left them lying on the muddy grass or hanging from an old fence post.  Isn’t it an odd thing that 48 degrees in spring feels warm, while the same temperature in late November brings on a chill?  We explored all of the hidden paths we used to navigate from yard to yard and block to block.  We knew them all, could find them in the dark, low fences that divided backyards, worn paths through fields, where certain gates were, what was the best way to scoot along someone’s home so you wouldn’t be seen.  It was a kind of sacred and arcane knowledge that gave us access to a mysterious and secret world where only we could dwell.  Our galoshes were caked with mud as we tramped along, often holding sticks we had acquired along the way.

We talked bravely of things we had seen and done, we recalled memories of summers past and riding the waves at the beach, we worried about school and friends and girls.  We imagined what we might one day do and who we might be.  We took our time, we climbed trees with low hanging branches, testing our dexterity and derring-do.  We stopped for snacks under an old pine, the remnants of candy bars carefully wrapped in wax paper tucked away in our pockets.    Before long the streets would be lined with leaf filled trees.  Summer would stretch before us, its weeks to us like an endless ribbon of warm days and adventures yet to come.  But for now it was spring, and that was more than enough.

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Sukkah of Peace

     In our minds the sukkah is a seasonal structure, one that we rush to build in the few brief days between Yom Kippur and the beginning of the festival of Sukkot.  And the season we associate with both the holiday and the actual booth that we build is fall.  Agriculturally the theme of this Yom Tov is harvest, always a fall activity.  The way we decorate our sukkot is often fall themed as well – the pumpkins and gourds, the bales of hay, the chrysanthemums with their burnt autumn colors.  The weather is fall weather as well!  Cooler evenings, and sadly for us here in Baltimore, often rainy days and nights.  And it is during this fall season that our tradition demands of us – בסוכות תשבו שבעת ימים – in booths you will dwell for seven days.

     But there is another sukkah that tradition asks us to dwell in, a sukkah that is with us throughout the year, on a weekly basis.  It is not a physical structure – thank goodness!  I would not want to have to build and take down a sukkah every single week.  I have enough trouble doing it once a year!  Instead, this other sukkah is kind of spiritual structure, and part of our observance of Shabbat. Those of you who are familiar with the Friday night liturgy may remember the following lines that come from the Hashkiveinu prayer, which is said just before the amidah.  In that prayer we ask God ופרוש עלינו סוכת שלומך – may You, God, spread over us the Sukkah of Peace.  And the prayer concludes Blessed are You, Lord our God, הפורש סוכת שלום עלינו, the One Who spreads over us a Sukkah of Peace, and over all God’s people Israel, and over Jerusalem.

     This is a lovely image, and I’ve always associated it with the peace of Shabbat.  That on at least one day of the week we can withdraw from the day to day struggles of living in the world, and we can surround ourselves with a sense of peace.  So in that sense Shabbat itself becomes a Sukkah of Peace into which we enter, and that Sukkah shields us from the outside world.

     But in building my sukkah this year, and thinking about this image of a Sukkah of Peace,  I realized there is something odd about this metaphor.  Some of you may know that the sukkah that Becky and I put up is extremely flimsy, to say the least.  A few years ago, on another rainy Sukkot holiday, during a storm, a strong wind took the entire sukkah, flipped it up into the air, right over the four foot high chain link fence at the back of our yard, and into the neighborhood catchment area.  On another occasion the wind, blowing in a different direction, slammed the sukkah into our house, denting our siding and bending a number of the sukkah poles – which are made out of metal.  Even this morning, without any serious wind, our poor sukkah looked as if it were about to topple over, the metal structure leaning, the canvas walls flapping and of course dripping wet.

     Of course that is actually the way a sukkah is supposed to be.  According to the halacha, the law, of constructing a sukkah, it must be a ‘dira arai’ – a temporary structure.  If the walls are too high, if they are too strong, if the roof is not porous, if the structure is too permanent – then the sukkah is not considered to be kosher.  To say it in another way, for a sukkah to be a sukkah, it has to be flimsy and fragile – it has to be the kind of structure that a strong wind can blow over.  If it isn’t, it isn’t a sukkah.

     Which leads me back to the image of a sukkah of peace.  If you were writing that prayer, and you wanted to use a metaphor for a structure of peace, peace, which is considered to be one of the, if not the primary value in Judaism, would you choose a sukkah?  Would you choose a structure that can be blown over by a strong wind?  Wouldn’t it make more sense to say ‘castle of peace,’ or ‘fortress of peace’?  Something made of stone, something that will last, a structure that is strong, that is permanent and not impermanent.  Why choose a sukkah?  And why make our weekly structure of peace so fragile and so easily damaged?

     But the truth is, in reality, peace is a lot more like a sukkah than it is like a castle.  The structures of peace in our lives and in our world are all too often fragile and brittle.  Think of our relationships for a moment.  We talk all the time about ‘shalom bayit,’ peace in the home.  We’ll often say about someone in the family, ‘they are the peace-maker.’  They are always trying to make sure everyone gets along.  The implication of that is people don’t always get along, and you need to have a peace maker in the family.  We know how fragile family peace actually is.  One wrong word said at the wrong time to the wrong person and it can easily be damaged, sometimes even permanently destroyed. 

     Emotional peace is just as fragile.  Think of how easily the peace of a day can be shattered.  One phone call, one unpleasant interaction, one person cutting you off in traffic, whatever it might be, and your pulse starts to race, your heart starts to beat, and you feel the anger and frustration welling up, and whatever peace you had toppling over.  

     Peace is an extremely delicate balance, a structure that has to be constantly tended, regularly repaired, and often reconstructed entirely.  I think that is why the liturgist choose the image of a sukkah for the structure of peace in the Hashkiveinu prayer.  If the prayer talked about a castle of peace we would think our work was all done, the building was completed and that we didn’t need to worry about it.  But the image of a sukkah of peace reminds us of how much work it takes to create peace in our world and our lives, and how difficult it is to maintain that peace, precisely because it is so delicate and so easily damaged.

     Building an actual sukkah each year reminds us of the same thing.  The metaphor of the prayer on Friday nights is powerful, but it can’t quite compare to seeing your sukkah flip up into the air, or hearing the sound as it is slammed into your home.  The year our sukkah went into the drainage ditch Becky and my father and I climbed over the fence into that catchment area in the midst of a driving rain storm.  We dragged the canvas walls and the metal poles out of the water and back into our yard.  The next afternoon we built the sukkah again.  It was wet and stained, but it managed to stay intact through the reminder of the holiday.  As fragile as our poor sukkah is, I am sure it is not the last time it will need to be rebuilt.  

     May this holiday of Sukkot help us all to find the strength, determination, patience, and grace we need to continually rebuild the structures of peace in our lives and our world, with one another, with family and with friends, with our communities, knowing that the work will never be done, but that when we do it together we can find meaning, strength, courage, and hope – and God willing, peace.

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Of Baseball Gloves and Tallitot

A text version of my sermon from Kol Nidre eve –

     Those of you who have been coming to High Holy Day services at Beth El for many years know that a wide variety of topics have been addressed from the pulpit during the holiday season.  From climate change to 9/11, from Israel to the American Jewish community, our rabbis have used the holidays to do their best to let you know what they think about the issues of the day.  

     But if there is one topic that has been talked about more than any other over the years, it just might be baseball.  I hesitate to bring baseball up tonight, after the season the Orioles have had.  But, as baseball fans will tell you, the game of baseball is a metaphor for life, with its ups and downs, its twists and turns, and its winning and losing.  It is filled with sermonic lessons – sacrifice, contributing to a team, being part of something greater than you are, how one deals with defeat and disappointment.  Many of you may still remember the wonderful sermon Rabbi Loeb gave the fall that Cal Ripken retired from the Orioles about Baltimore’s Iron Man.  You’ve heard from the pulpit sermons about Mo’ne Davis, the first young woman to ever win a game in the Little League World Series, and also about the famous base running mistake of Fred Merkel.  

     And tonight I would also like to talk with you for a few minutes about baseball, not a particular player or event in baseball history, but rather about a baseball glove.  You all know what a baseball glove is?  The large and padded leather glove worn by players when they are fielding.  Protects the hand against that hard ball.  Just out of curiosity, how many of you have owned a baseball glove at one point or another?  And how many of you know now where that glove is?  Well I would like to tell you tonight the story of a baseball glove that was lost for many years, and was only recently – and entirely unexpectedly – found.

     The story begins almost exactly 40 years ago in Willoughby OH, on a fall evening in September of 1978, when the Little League baseball season all star game was being played.  The very best players from the Little League teams in the area had been selected, and it was a close game that evening.  The difference maker was a young man named Christopher Lisi, who hit two home runs.  When the game ended and his team had won, Christopher was mobbed by his teammates and then carried off the field.

     The next morning, still in a celebratory mood, Christopher woke up early, and he realized his baseball glove was not in its normal spot in his room.  He looked for it and couldn’t find it anywhere, and just as the sun was coming up he got on his bike and raced back to the field where the game had been played.  There was no baseball glove in sight.  Despite his euphoria about the big win he felt the sting of disappointment for losing an object which had been an important part of his life for many years.

     Now you have to shift into the present day.  Forty years have gone by since that night.  Christopher is now a math teacher and a coach, a husband and a father, and still lives in Ohio.  His parents – Julie Anne and Mike – retired many years ago, and now make their home in Jupiter Florida.  The Florida-Lisis have a ritual they enact every Wednesday.  They go to a local good will store, schmei around for a while, and then go to an evening service at their church.  Been doing it for years.

     Ten days ago they were in that goodwill store, looking through the various and sundry items on the shelves when Julie Anne’s eyes rested on an old baseball glove, dull brown and scuffed, a classic Wilson mitt.  For whatever reason she picked up the glove, and then she saw it – written on the side in permanent marker, her son’s name – Christopher Lisi.  Her jaw nearly dropped to the floor, and she took a picture of the glove and immediately texted it to her son.  Christopher called back on the spot and said ‘buy it!’  She and her husband took it up to the counter and paid $1.49 for the old glove.  They both had tears in their eyes.  How it traveled the 1000 miles from Willoughby to Jupiter, and what happened to it during that forty years, they’ll never know.  But the baseball glove is back with their son, and Christopher, now in his mid 50s, once again considers it to be one of his most prized possessions.  Even for Orioles fans, that is a feel good baseball story.

     I would also like to tell you tonight about another prized object, also first owned by a teenager 40 years ago – actually 41 years if we are being accurate.  It is the tallit that I wore to my bar mitzvah.  I never lost my bar mitzvah tallis and later found it in a good will store, but it did travel many miles with me.  From Binghamton to Boston, to LA, to Jerusalem, to New York, to Baltimore, wherever I’ve lived I’ve taken that old tallit.  It is worn and frayed now, with holes developing along some of the creases that have been folded over and over again.  That tallis was used more than anybody could have expected at my bar mitzvah, because when I became a daily davener – in my mid 20s, now thirty years ago, that was the tallit that I put on each morning. 

     A few weeks ago I published a blog post in which I wrote that as well as my bar mitzvah tallis has served me, I have finally decided to ‘retire’ it.  I have other beautiful tallitot, and with the fraying getting worse and the holes getting bigger, it was just time.  I used it one last time and carefully set it on a shelf in our closet, and it has been resting quietly there ever since.  I don’t know exactly why, but something about that blog post and the story of my old tallit struck a chord.  Many of you emailed me about it, or called or said something to me at kiddish.  And I’ve been thinking about why people responded to a story about my old bar mitzvah tallis.  And since I heard about Christopher Lisi’s baseball glove, I’ve been wondering why I responded to that – and maybe you did too.

     And I think the answer has something to do with sacred objects, and the role they play in our lives.  I know many of you have sacred objects at home.  It might be a tallit, that was owned and worn by a grandfather or great-grandfather.  It might be a kiddish cup that has been passed down through the generations of your family, or a bris suit that babies have worn, or a special kippah, or a wedding ring that belonged to someone you love, that maybe you now wear on a chain around your neck.  Or it might be a baseball glove.  Whatever it is, that sacred object is precious to you in a way few other things are.

     Those sacred objects in our lives bear witness to two things.  On the one hand, they remind us of what once was.  Family seders when our grandparents were still there.  A bedroom we slept in as a child.  A neighborhood where we lived, filled with friends and colorful characters.  What we felt like when we stood under our huppah, or when we were 13 years old reading from the Torah at our bar mitzvah, or in the case of Christopher Lisi and his ball glove, how he felt the night he hit two home runs and his team won that all-star game.  Those objects remind us of hopes and dreams we once had, of relationships we cherished, of the memorable moments of our lives, and probably in many cases of a simpler time when everything seemed right in the world.

     But the other thing a sacred object bears witness to is how much time has gone by, how much has changed in our lives.  I decided to wear my old bar mitzvah tallit one last time, and what better time than Kol Nidre eve, the only evening of the entire year when we are asked to put on a tallis.  Wearing it tonight reminds me of how much has happened in the 41 years since I first put it on.  High school and college.  Had my first real job.  Becky and I were married.  I became a father – three times!  I lost two of my closest friends.  Went through rabbinical school and was ordained as a rabbi.  Our kids have grown and gone off to college and beyond.  And this old tallit has seen all of it.

     The holidays are like that too.  Not sacred objects, but there is no question they form sacred time.  Kol Nidre eve, like that baseball mitt, or my old tallit, is also a witness.  A witness to the hopes and dreams we recall tonight, to time gone by, and to the inevitable ways in which each of us has been transformed by the years.  But unlike a tallit or baseball mitt, this sacred moment transcends us as individuals in the here and now.  It accompanied our parents, and our grandparents too, in their darkest and most difficult moments, in all of their achievements and joys, during their journeys on earth.  And also all Jews, in every age, in every land, where we built our homes, our communities and synagogues, the thriving culture of which we are so proud.

     So this evening, in the brief time we spend together, let the words we speak and the melodies we hear link our lives to all the generations before us, and to the eternal rhythms of our people’s experience.  May the beauty and wisdom of our heritage accompany each of us on our journey in this new year, always a source of strength, comfort, hope and faith for us and those we love.

May it be a year of peace, meaning, and hope – 

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, continuity, High Holy Days, Jewish festivals, memory, neighborhoods, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, seasons, sermon, Uncategorized, Yom Kippur

The Cul-De-Sac

In our neighborhood, just around the corner from our house.  Its blacktop is grey and faded and cracked, the result of close to thirty years of hot summers, cold winters, and wet springs.  No doubt it has seen better days, and will soon need to be replaced or refinished, whatever it is they do to blacktop these days.

It has served its purpose well.  Stoically bearing the weight of cars and trucks, the day to day traffic of a neighborhood, the deliveries and service vehicles, the daily commuters.  Its passive grey face has seen quite a bit over the years.  How many children learned to ride a bike on its surface, taking those first tentative and wobbly yards, and somehow magically discovering the trick of balancing those wheels?  All those skinned knees and bruised elbows and tears of frustration!  Soon the Cul-de-Sac could not hold them, as they whisked confidently around the neighborhood.

Countless dogs have trotted across its surface, occasionally stopping to take note of some interesting smell that found its way onto the blacktop.  For the most part it was merely a conduit for them, a means to an end as they journeyed towards some other place, the yard across the street, the high school down the hill, for a walk and to see what was going on out in the great world.

In the winter storms (when they came) its duty was to serve as a snow repository.  The plows would inevitably pile the snow in the Cul-de-Sac’s wide, circular space.  Those snow piles quickly became the site of snow forts and mini sled paths, children clambering to the top and sliding down, again and again and again.  Some years the snow was piled so high the mounds would last into the early spring until finally the warmer sun, glimmering from the white surface, caused water to trickle downwards, forming puddles, rivulets, tributaries, an entire water system of melting snow and fading winter.

On nice days we gathered in the front yards and spoke about the day’s events, caught up on sports scores, made plans, chatted about our children, commented on how perplexing the world was.  The Cul-de-Sac, with its symbolic circular shape joined us together, forming a kind of connective tissue, a common space that belonged to one and all.  Part of the fabric of the neighborhood, those of us who have lived there for decades know each crack and crevice, each dip and bump.

One day soon I suppose the cracks and bumps will be gone, replaced by a smooth and shiny blackness.  But new cracks will slowly begin to form.  It is the way of things.  New seasons will come and go, new piles of snow will grow in the winter and melt in the spring.  There will be more skinned knees, more bikes that are taken for that very first spin.  New neighbors will move into the houses, carefully tending their green lawns and trimming their bushes.

The cul-de-sac will be there for them, as it was (and is) for us.

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Winter Reading

For many years I’ve posted a summer reading list so members of the congregation, if interested, will know what books I’ll be delving into over the summer months.  But the truth is winter is also a reading time, at least for me.  It is dark outside, the wind is blowing, the temperature is dipping.  Inside a single light illuminates a cozy room.  I sit in an armchair, with a thick sweater on, wool socks, perhaps a warm mug of tea, or even better a wee dram of fine whisky.  An open book on my lap, the pages turn one by one, and I am transported to some far off land or distant time.  As the hours go by and the candle begins to burn down and sputter, I hardly notice, for the words beckon.

I’ve loved to read since I was a little boy.  Some of my earliest memories are of flipping the pages of books, or of having my mother or my aunt read to me.  I read constantly, at every spare moment.  I could spend hours perusing the books at my local book store, eyes carefully scanning the covers, hands weighing the heft of each tome, even smelling the freshly cut and printed paper.   That early love of reading has been one of the most important and consistent threads in my life, and the pleasure I felt when opening a book as a lad is even deeper in my adult life.

And in the winter, with the longer nights and shorter days, with less time to be out of doors, there is more time to read.  So here are a few of the titles on my bedside table that I’ll be tackling in the weeks ahead:

I am currently about 200 pages in to Walter Isaacson’s magical biography of Leonardo da Vinci.  The author uses da Vinci’s famous notebooks as a window to peer into the great genius’s mind, and the reader feels as if he is walking along a Milanese city street in the late 1400s watching one of the unique minds of all time unpack the world around us.  The effect is not disconcerting, but is instead a source of wonderment and delight.

Simon Schama has published the second volume in his ‘The Story of the Jews,’ entitle ‘Belonging.’  Schama is a wonderful, anecdotal reporter of history, who writes with lively prose and joy.  This middle volume of his work (I am guessing there will be a third book taking the Jewish story into modernity) covers the period from 1492-1900.  It was a time when Jews began to realize that the world around them might never fully welcome them into its fold.  To be Jewish, Schama suggests, is to always feel as one apart.

Last on this mini-list – Phillip Pullman’s ‘the Book of Dust.’  A prequel to Pullman’s  ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy, the Book of Dust traces the earliest stages of his heroine Lyra’s journey, and he explores the societal structures and social norms that drive a fantasy and parallel world that sometimes seems eerily like our own.

Last but not least, check out David Brooks (the NY Times columnist) and his two columns about the best long form essays of the year.  The articles he picks are widely varied in topic, from a story about a man eaten by an alligator to a serious investigation into the current opioid epidemic.  Yet somehow, when viewed as a complete package, the essays form a picture of where we currently are, how we got here, and where we might want to go in the months ahead.

Happy reading!

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