Category Archives: seasons

An Old Dog

You know the saying, one of the most popular proverbs around:  you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.  What we mean by this is that people are set in their ways, that they reach a stage in life when they are who they are, and they will not be changing anytime soon.  In fact, they will not be changing at all.  The way they act, their interests, even how they think, are all, to use another saying, ‘set in stone.’

The implication of the proverb is the older we get, the harder it is to change.  There seems to be some truth to this idea.  When we are young we are more open to new ideas and experiences.  Our views about life and the world around us are not yet fully formed. We are more likely, in our youth, to meet new people and have experiences we’ve never had before.  But as we age our world in a sense becomes smaller.  Our friendship circles are for the most part closed.  We rarely if ever do something for the first time.  Even our general sense of the world becomes jaded – ‘it is what it is,’ we say, meaning ‘it isn’t perfect, but it isn’t going to change either.’  Perhaps this is why the tradition understands that King Solomon penned the Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes when he was an old man, a book that contains one of the Bible’s best known verses – “What has happened will happen again, what has been done will be redone – for there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

My wife and I are the owners of an actual old dog, our loyal and trusted pooch who this year will celebrate his 10th birthday.  The eager young puppy who was filled with energy, who would bound out of the house in the morning and tug you down the street, has slowed down considerably.  These days he solemnly surveys the street before going out, and once outside spends time sniffing the air before deciding in which direction to walk.  His pleasures are simple – to roll in grass on a hot summer day, or watch keenly from the top of the steps the street outside, or to lie quietly and comfortably on the couch as his ‘humans’ watch a bit of television.  Even as I type this he has just entered the room and settled himself comfortably behind my chair, somehow keeping one eye on me while napping at the same time.  If only I could learn to do that!

And yet even in his old age he has not become jaded.  The world is still wondrous to him. When a new season arrives he is thrilled at the change in weather, at the new scents that waft up from the ground in the spring, at the cold winds that ruffle his fur coat in the winter.  He is master of the neighborhood now, the oldest dog on the block, literally, but he loves to meet a young puppy, all bubbly energy, huge paws, overgrown ears.  He’ll play with his younger compatriot, as if to say ‘here is how you do it, now go out and have fun while I lie back here and take a snooze!’  He continues to change, to grow, to study the world around him, to live in the moment.  And this old dog will even, when properly motivated, learn a new trick.

One of the fundamental ideas of Judaism is that people have the capacity to change.  As set in our ways as we might be, as comfortable in our shoes, to fully live life we must be open to what is new.  New people, new experiences, new ideas, new relationships, new knowledge – all of these should be part of the way we grow and change, and growth and change should be a life long processes.  The old proverb and King Solomon were both wrong.  An old dog, when open to the world, can learn new tricks.  And there are many new things under the sun, waiting out in God’s world to be discovered.  As it says in the Talmud:  זיל וגמור – go out and learn!pooch

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Sunrise

You missed it if you slept late, seduced by the warmth of the covers, waiting for the heat to slowly warm up the house.  There was a ribbon of red in the  eastern sky, the bare tree tops forming an uneven silhouette in the distance, their leafless branches reaching and twisting, waiting for first light, and soon, spring.  There is a pattern there, ancient secrets, chill morning air, fresh wind, light growing softly.

And you would not believe how brightly Jupiter burned in the western darkness!  Cold and beautiful.  It too looked back towards the east, acknowledging the coming of a new day, yet reluctant to leave its post, king of the predawn quietness.

Across the field I saw a light go on in the window of a home.  All over the neighborhood covers were being pushed back, feet were touching cold floors, yawns and stretches and first thoughts were emerging from a deep world of dreams.  Soon coffee would be brewing, sleepy eyes might glance at the headlines of a news paper.  Tousled hair would be combed, clothes chosen, bread toasted, or perhaps a special treat for breakfast on a cold morning – cream of wheat?  Oatmeal?  As the light of day grew stronger, the trees began to look ordinary, with just the faintest hint of their former magic.  Even Jupiter dimmed, turning in for the day.

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A New Year’s Eve Psalm

The dog never noticed, so intensely interested in the ground as he was, the damp grass and the smells and secrets it held.  As he sniffed from spot to spot, decoding a brief history of our backyard, what animals (and possibly people) had passed through it this New Year’s Eve, he would occasionally pause and look out into the distant darkness.  Perhaps he sensed a late night reveler, some wandering fox or deer wending its way home in the first hours of the new year.

For my part I was impatient, my mind already rushing, wanting bed and a few hours of sleep before the day dawned and tomorrow arrived.  Responsibility lay in that tomorrow, crouching, waiting for me, as sure as the daylight that would inevitably seep over the bare trees and soggy fields.  Time was already pressing, calling and whispering and rustling, even in that quiet darkness.

The dog had no such qualms.  No doubt he would have stayed out for hours, wandering, welcoming the new year in his own way, checking the various spots that he regularly inventories, keeping track in his mind of the comings and goings of other dogs in our neighborhood, the location of old scraps of food and interesting sticks that might be chewed.  He did not know that some arbitrary number had been reached, some intercalated measure of human time.  His way of sensing time’s passage is subtler and deeper.  He knows what lies ahead.  The cold days and colder nights, the chilly winds, perhaps falling snow and the quiet it brings.

Just then it was that I looked up.  The entire sky was draped in cloud, but magically a gap appeared and I could see the blackness of space.  There was the Big Dipper, just above us. Implacable, unknowable, untouchable, the infinite distance, the cold whiteness of its seven stars.  Too high for the dog, nothing to smell there, nothing even remotely as interesting as dirt and leaves and the roots of trees.  But I did pause for a moment, considering in my tired mind the majesty and mystery of this vast universe we call our home.  As deep as the earth, as high as the heavens.

Here a paraphrase of the 148th Psalm –

In praise of God, the sun and moon, the shining stars, the highest heavens;  the great ocean depths, teeming with life, the fire and hail and snow and storms;  the hills and mountains, trees, singing leaves, growing fruit;  beasts, wild and tame;  winged birds and creatures of the ground, men and women, young and old.

And this, from the 19th –

Day after day the word goes forth, night after night the story is told.  Soundless the speech, voiceless the talk, yet the story is echoed throughout the world.

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The Rabbi’s Holiday

Thanksgiving, of course.  A day when you actually might not have to  work, when you can stay at home with your family, make pancakes, read the paper, leisurely sip your morning coffee, watch some football later in the day, drink a beer in the middle of the afternoon.  You know, like normal people, normal families, do on weekends.  Those days are few and far between in the rabbinate.

People often say to me after the fall holidays “I hope you are resting up after the holidays, rabbi!”  But I’ve learned that one of the busiest times of my year is from the END of the holidays to Thanksgiving.  Suddenly the weddings begin (I’ve had one every Saturday night for the last month, another one Wednesday night before Thanksgiving).  Unveilings, people trying to get them in before the real cold arrives.  Meetings, delayed by the yom tov days, begin in earnest.  All of the email you couldn’t keep up with during the holiday season you try to wade through.  This year for me funerals as well (nine since Simhat Torah).  Every year through the holiday season an extended stretch of working many days in a row.  This year for me that stretch reached 42.  But who is counting?

I worry about it, I really do.  I worry first and foremost that my children’s main memory of their father as they grew up will be me walking down the stairs, leaving the house, saying ‘see you later,’ and the kids responding ‘bye, dad.’  And that is it.  No games of catch.  No kicking the soccer ball around.  No watching football together on Sundays, or brunches making omelettes together, or raking leaves, or just getting in the car and going for a ride. Zip. Zero. Zilch.  These experiences make up many of the fond memories I have of time spent with my dad while I was growing up, and I just wasn’t able to provide them for my own children.  Deep regret there, no doubt about it.

I worry also about burnout.  Heavy phrase, that.  Sounds almost violent, destructive.  But it also has a sense of hollowing, like what is done to a giant tree trunk to make a canoe.  What you have left in the end from the outside looks good, strong, and stable.  It even floats!  Performs its mission with competence, as intended.  But the inside is gone, nothing there but emptiness.  A literal shell of its original form.  I am often reminded of these lines from one of my favorite Hunter/Garcia compositions, called ‘Comes a Time’:

From day to day just letting it ride
You get so far away from how it feels inside
You can’t let go ’cause you’re afraid to fall
But the day may come when you can’t feel at all

I understand everything is a trade off.  There are many professions where people work hard, long hours, high pressure jobs, no question about it.  And I’ve been blessed professionally in many ways, serving a fabulous congregation, working with talented and caring people (fun people as well!).  Making a good living (not to be underestimated!).  My children have been able to grow up in one community, something that rabbi’s children rarely do, and I am enormously grateful for that.  But a trade off is exactly what it implies – something gained, something lost.  The question is, what is the price of that loss?

So thank goodness for Thanksgiving!  An actual break in the never ending flow of dedicated time.  A day to spend with people we love.  A day to walk the dog under a fall sky, to watch the last leaves gently fall from the trees, to browse the paper, sip some coffee, watch some football, live life, and just think and be.  Yes, a day like that.  Even for a rabbi.

This the chorus of that Hunter/Garcia song:

Comes a time when the blind man takes your hand
Says, “Don’t you see?
Gotta make it somehow on the dreams you still believe
Don’t give it up, you got an empty cup
That only love can fill, only love can fill, only love can fill”

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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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Ice Cream & Football

Yom Kippur 5777

At this time of year, with the changing of seasons and the arrival of our holidays, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the passage of time.  Hard as it is for me to believe, this is the 19th occasion we’ve celebrated the High Holy Days together here at Beth El, and for our Cantor, it’s his 20th year with you!  I’ve had the distinct pleasure over the last year to officiate at a number of weddings for young people whose b’nai mitzvah I participated in when they were 13, right here in the Berman Rubin Sanctuary.  Needless to say, my wife Becky is ageless. But our children, Talia, Josh, and Merav, are now 22, 20, and 17.  And next week we will mark Rabbi Mark Loeb’s 7th yahrzeit. I realized just the other day, that at 52 I am now older than Rabbi Loeb was, when I came here to serve as his assistant.

 

And I would guess it is at least in part because of the nostalgic mood of the holidays that on Rosh Hashanah we look back to the very first Jews and read the biblical stories of Abraham and Sarah and Isaac.  But we also read about them on RH because with their family struggles, their flaws and foibles, they are the perfect models for us in terms of understanding our own lives, our own needs and hopes and dreams – very much what the High Holy Days are about.  So it is always a bit challenging – at least for me – to turn from the richness of those stories and characters to the dry 16th chapter of Leviticus that we read on Yom Kippur, with its rote description of the ancient sacrifices.  But the truth is YK also has a biblical hero, just a little bit less obvious.  Anyone want to take a guess as to who it is?   To give you a hint, we’ve been reading the most intimate part of his story every Shabbat, during these last weeks of our liturgical year. Yes! Moses.

In the rabbinic mind, Moses and YK were synonymous.  The Talmud teaches that it was on YK day that Moses convinced God to forgive the Israelites for the sin of the golden calf, and God granted the second set of tablets.  If there is a refrain in the liturgy of YK, it is the 13 attributes, the Adonai, Adonai,  El rachum v’chanun phrase from the Torah that we chant again and again, and that is God’s response in Exodus 34 when Moses asks for forgiveness.  Tradition understands that phrase as a promise, still in effect today, that God will deal with us mercifully – with ‘rachmanis!’  -on Yom Kippur.  And that promise is extracted from God by Moses.  Moses and YK go together like gefilte fish and horse radish, if you’ll excuse the reference on a fast day!

But I’ve always suspected there is another reason why Moses is the central figure of Yom Kippur.  Do a bit of math with me – if it is YK today, when is Simhat Torah?  In two weeks.  And that means in our weekly Torah cycle we are reading the very last chapters of Deuteronomy.  Those chapters are all about Moses summing up the meaning of his life and what he hoped for in the future. They are a record of Moses’ last days, of the thoughts that he has as he looks back on his years.  He remembers successes and failures, he realizes that some of his goals will remain unfulfilled, he revisits regrets, and ultimately he emerges from the process with head held high, with his dignity and moral strength intact.

Now in any book, the last chapters can be the most important.  They make sense of the narrative’s previous events, they tie up the loose ends, solve the mysteries;  sometimes they come to terms with the simple fact that not everything in life is resolved to our satisfaction.  But when they are well done, when the writing is fluid and the language clear, the last chapters create a sense of wholeness and completion.  You know that feeling when you’ve reached the end of a great book.  Your eyes linger on the page, you read the last words reluctantly, you close the cover slowly and carefully, you feel sad, but you also feel whole.  And so it is, as we read these last pages of Moses’ five books.

But what about our own last chapters?  What about the last chapters of those we love?  Are we prepared to write them, or help write them, the way we would want to?  We often talk about being the authors of our own stories – it is a common metaphor today – and in the prime of life we may know exactly what it is we want and need.  We set goals and pursue them, focusing on careers, supporting families and maintaining a quality of living.  But when we arrive at old age, when we are challenged by illness or the passing of the years, it is more difficult to put pen to paper.  What are our goals?  What should our priorities be?  If time is limited, what do we want to focus on?  When we need clarity, where can we find it?  Those last chapters are difficult ones to write, but they are perhaps the most important in our entire story.

I had the opportunity over the summer to read a beautiful and poignant book entitled Being Mortal, written by the physician and author Atul Gawande.  Part memoir, part sociological survey, part exploration of medical ethics, the book traces Gawande’s struggle with the following dilemma – in a world where medical technology can often extend life, but in doing so may actually diminish its quality – how do we make wise and sound decisions about health care as we age?  How do we face the frailties and fears that will inevitably arise in our lives?  How do we help our parents and grandparents as they transition to supported living, or struggle with losing their independence?  What does dignity mean, and who defines that?  When choices need to be made, choices about health care or supported living, about terminal illness, who should make those choices, and how should they be made?

The book is beautifully written, and it is powerful.  If you or someone you love is facing a significant health challenge, if you are caring for an elderly parent or grandparent, if you are growing older – and we all are – you should read this book.  It does not necessarily give answers, because these questions don’t have right or wrong answers.  But with depth and feeling it will help you wrestle with whatever challenge you may be facing.  And we will all – every single one of us in this room – face these challenges in the course of our lives.

At its core, Gewande’s book is about one fundamental question:  what makes a good life?  When push comes to shove, when you realize time is limited, when you have to choose two or three things that are absolutely most important, that define your being, what are they?  And his thesis is if you can figure out how to ask that question, of yourself, if you can have that conversation with someone you love, then you will be able to write the last chapters, or to help someone else write them, with some sense of control, and even more importantly, with dignity and with humanity.

The book is filled with anecdotes from Gewande’s work as a surgeon and physician, and there is just one I would like to share with you this morning, and I hope you’ll again excuse me because it does reference food.  This is the story of a professor of psychology, in his mid-seventies, who discovers that he has a mass growing in the spinal chord region in his neck.  His prognosis is grim, but there is a surgical procedure that may help him extend his life with quality.  But it is a risky procedure, coming with a %20 chance of his becoming paraplegic.

While trying to decide what to do, the professor’s daughter asks him two questions:  “What are you willing to go through to have a shot at being alive, and what level of being alive is tolerable to you?”  And in responding, he surprised his daughter, and perhaps even himself:  “If I’m able to eat chocolate ice cream and watch football, I want to give it a shot.”

Now I suppose if we asked everyone in this room the questions the man’s daughter asked him, we would get a different answer from each person.  For some the answer might be time with family and friends.  Others may say they want to visit a special place one last time, or finish a project they’ve spent years working on, or repair a relationship they’ve regretted for many years.  The point is this –   everyone has their ice cream and football.  And the High Holy Days are supposed to help us remember what those things are in our own lives.

These sacred days and the words of our Mahzor come to remind all of us, no matter how old we are, of the passage of time, of our fragility and mortality, and of our significance and worth in God’s sight at every age of life. They remind us of the value of each day of our lives, young or old, each day to be treasured and purpose oriented, and so should be the arc of our years. As we age our priorities may slowly shift, as we begin to sense our time is limited, as we begin to think about mortality, our focus on family, on friends, on the things we love the most, on discovering the meaning of what has been – those things become more and more important to us. And this, our YK fast day, and the prayers and reflections with which we spend the day, are intended to focus our minds on those very same aspects of our experience.

In the last verses of Scripture we are told that at the end of Moses’ life, after 120 years of struggle with God and with his people, לא כהתה עינו ולא נס לחו, “his vision was undimmed, his vigor unabated.”  Isn’t that what every one of us wishes for, every single day of our lives? We want our work to be meaningful, to engage our minds and our hearts. We want our loves to be true, enduring, and mutual. We want to be respected and loved even when we are imperfect and incomplete – even when we are infirm or grow old.  Like Moses, we may never enter a promised land where all of our dreams are fulfilled, but we hope that we are able to see it from a distance, to have that perspective on our lives. So that when we each reach a certain age, we can look to the generations after ourselves, knowing that they live by values we cherish, continuing our ancient path in new ways and in new times. That we and they together may find comfort, hope, promise and peace in God’s sheltering embrace in all the new years yet to come.

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Moving Forward While Looking Back

this the text version of a sermon from the 7th day of Passover –

We are in a period of our calendar that we call the ‘sefirat ha’omer’ – the counting of the omer.  The counting comes from the an ancient agricultural ritual described in the Torah, in Leviticus 23, where the very first sheaf of grain that was harvested was brought to the priest on the day after Passover, marking the beginning of the harvest season.  The Torah commands that we count seven times seven days to link this first sheaf to the fuller barley crop that would grow throughout the spring.

Over time the 49 days of the counting came to be understood as a period of sadness and mourning.  This is the reason why the tradition asks us to not hold weddings during the sefira – it is not considered appropriate during a time of sadness for the Jewish people to hold festive celebrations.  I’ve learned over the years that people are aware of this tradition, so that each year I get phone calls from families trying to plan weddings and worrying that their chosen date will fall during the omer period.  The truth is there is a wide variety in terms of how that tradition is observed.  At one time there was a split in the Sephardic and Ashkanazic communities, so that Ashkenazic Jews would have weddings at the beginning of the period, from Passover to Rosh Hodesh Iyar, but then stop for the rest of the time, while Sephardic Jews would do the opposite – have no weddings from Pesah until the 33rd day of the counting, known as ‘lag b’omer’, but then permit weddings during the rest of the counting.

The strange thing about this association of the omer counting and sadness its that we are not really sure where it comes from.  Maimonides, in his great code of Jewish law the Mishnah Torah, does not even mention it.  The only hint of it we have from early sources is a strange passage in the Talmud, which tells us that thousands of Torah students were killed by a plague between Passover and Shavuot during the time of Rabbi Akiva.  Even so the Talmud does not suggest that the period be observed as one of mourning moving forward, and it does not attempt to create any type of day that commemorates the student’s deaths.  And it wasn’t until hundreds of years later – probably 800 or so the common era – that Jewish sources begin to shape the omer counting into a time of communal sadness.  Why did the tradition make that decision, and make it so difficult for us to plan our spring weddings?

One answer to that question may be found in an examination of Jewish history.  We know we don’t have to look too hard to find tragedy in our past, but the period of the omer counting seems to be particularly full of it.  It was during this time in the year 135 that the Jewish revolt led by the messianic figure Bar Kochba was brutally put down by the Romans.  Ultimately killed thousands upon thousands of Jews, destroyed Jewish cities, and by the way changed the name of the land from Judea to Syria-Palestine.  The famous story of the 10 martyrs, recited during the Eila Ezkara on Yom Kippur comes from this time, so we have a sense that the physical destruction of the Jewish people was only part of the Roman agenda – they also wanted to destroy the sprit of the Jewish people.  Torah study was banned upon pain of death, Jews were not allowed to assemble publicly, to gather in synagogues, to hold worship services or classes.  It was without question one of the darkest and most dangerous times in Jewish history.  When you think about it that way it begins to make sense that the tradition wants us to mark the period as one of tragedy and sadness, in the same way that we mark the Holocaust with a specific day of commemoration in modern times.

But the strange thing about it to me is this:  during the entire period of the counting there is not a single word said about any of these historical memories of sadness.  It is on Yom Kippur the we read the story of the 10 martyrs.  It is on Tisha B’Av in the summer when we recall the destruction of Jerusalem.  It is not like the tradition is shy in terms of including these memories in our liturgy, or choosing scriptural readings that in some way reflect the historical memory.  So why didn’t the tradition do anything to reflect the historical memory of sadness that we say this period is about?

To try to answer that question for a moment I’ll turn to one of my favorite novels, Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations.  You may remember the story – it is a coming of age tale about a young man named – Pip – who learns in the course of the novel about his origins, and also about what is truly most important about life.  Perhaps the most memorable character in the novel is an old dowager named – Ms Havisham.  She was left on the altar as a young woman, and since that day she has dedicated herself to  mourning that moment in her life.  Years later she still wears the wedding dress she had on that day.  She keeps the clocks throughout her home set to the exact time when the wedding was supposed to begin and didn’t.  Even the wedding cake that was prepared for the celebration sits on her dining room table, decaying slowly into dust.  Ms. Havisham is the paradigmatic example of a person who cannot leave her grief behind, whose entire life is defined by one great loss.  She lives only in the past, and is unable to move forward into the future.

Judaism has always rejected this idea.  In Jewish life grief is taken seriously, it is confronted head on, it is experienced deeply.  But it is also limited by the tradition.  There is a powerful moment at the end of shiva when the mourners are asked to leave the shiva house, to physically walk out of the door and to close it behind them.  This is a symbolic moment – I will not spend the rest of my life in a shiva house, I will not let mourning define my life – I will not only live in the past, I will not only look backwards.  In fact, the tradition demands of me that I look forward, into the future.  Not that I leave the past behind – I will always carry it.  But the Jewish way is to look forward, to affirm life, to survive, and to search for hope.  Even in the darkest times.

And I wonder if that is why the sages decided not to included any specific prayers or readings that remind us of why the omer counting is supposed to be a period of sadness.  In a sense we carry the past with us – we remember it, acknowledge it, it even affects our behavior – we don’t have the weddings.  But at the same time by leaving the past in the past we are better able to walk forward into the future with hope and faith, better prepared, perhaps, to receive the Torah at the end of the road that the counting also represents.

May we all find the strength and courage we need to bear our burdens from the past, but at the same time to walk forward into a new spring with hopeful hearts for what a new day – and a new season – can bring –

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