Category Archives: sermon

Houses of Study, Houses of Prayer

This the text of a sermon delivered on the first day of Shavuot, 5778 –

     Traditionally in Hebrew a synagogue has two names.  On the one hand, we call the synagogue the Beit Keneset, the place of gathering, and on the other, we call it the Beit Midrash, the House of Study.  If you come to Beth El with any frequency you know that we do quite a bit of both here.  Obviously we pray here regularly.  Today we are here in prayer celebrating the Shavuot festival, but of course we gather for prayer every Friday night and Saturday morning for Shabbat, and a dedicated group of congregants even comes together on a daily basis to pray in our weekday minyanim.  And of course in the fall thousands of people come to pray during the High Holy Days.

     But Beth El is also a place of study, a Beit Midrash.  It is hard to imagine it right now, but when I first came to Beth El there was no adult education programming.  None.  Not a single class, not a single musical program, not a single movie.  And slowly, over time, first under the leadership of Allan Lipsitz of blessed memory, and more recently under the guidance and vision of Dr. Eyal Bor, the adult education programming has blossomed, becoming one of Beth El’s most important initiatives. Every year thousands of people come through our doors to learn and study, and through that process, to grow Jewishly.

     And it is that sense of the importance of study that makes Shavuot different from any of our other festivals.  I would say that for all of our other holidays, when we come to synagogue, the emphasis is on the Beit Keneset, the synagogue as the place where we gather to pray.  But on Shavuot it is different.  On Shavuot, particularly the eve of Shavuot, we come to the synagogue thinking of it as a Beit Midrash, as a place where we gather together to study Torah.

     There is actually an old tension in the tradition between the values of prayer and study.  Both are understood as being important, both crucial to living a full and meaningful Jewish life.  But by and large, when prayer and study conflict, the tradition prefers that we leave prayer aside and focus on study.  No question in my mind the Talmudic sages understood study as a higher spiritual exercise than prayer, and they believed that through study one could come closer to God than one could through prayer.  There is a Talmudic story of the sage Rava, who lived around the year 300 in the city of Pumbedita in Babylonia.  He once found a student late for class because the student was saying his prayers slowly.  We might expect a Rabbi to be pleased that one of his students was taking prayer so seriously, but Rava reprimanded the student, saying to him ‘מניחין חיי עילם ועוסקים בחיי שעה’ – you are forsaking eternal life to busy yourself with the here and now!  In the rabbinic mind prayer is the ‘here and now,’ almost  mundane.  But study?  That is the gateway to eternal life.  The Sages believed that it was through study, not prayer, that a Jew could find true salvation and meaning.

     But the importance of study is also understood as working on a national level, and that is what Shavuot is about.  The moment that symbolizes that is this morning’s Torah reading and the 5th aliyah, when we stand together to listen to the words of the 10 commandments.  In one sense we are re-enacting the moment when God spoke the words and the Israelites, standing at the foot of Mt. Sinai, heard God’s voice.  But in an other sense we are symbolizing in that moment our continued dedication – as a people – to the Torah, to our sacred book.  We are in effect saying ‘we will continue to study the book that You, God, have given us.’  And it is because of that dedication to Torah, to the values of study and education and intellect, that we are called the People of the Book.  

     And I would argue that it is that dedication to study that has enabled the Jewish people to survive for thousands of years.  The Talmud (Shabbat 30b) tells of a conversation between King David and God.  It seems that David was worrying about the end of his life, and he wanted God to tell him when he would die.  God tells David that information like that is something a human is not allowed to know.  And David pushes God, saying ‘at least tell me on which day of the week I will die.’  And God says, ‘you will die on a Shabbat.’

     Now David was a smart guy, and he knows, according to tradition, that if you are engaged in the act of study, the Angel of Death is unable to take your soul away.  So David begins to spend every Shabbat studying for 24 hours.  When the appointed day of David’s death arrives, the Angel of Death has a problem.  But he has an idea, the Angel of Death.  He’ll distract David.  And that is exactly what he does.  According to the Talmud, the Angel of Death climbs a tree near David’s window, and shakes the tree.  David is startled, and for just a moment he looks up from his book, and stops his study.  And at that instant the Angel of Death is able to take his soul away, and David dies.

     On the surface, that story might sound like an old wives tale.  But read between the lines with me for a moment.  In the course of the narrative David is transformed from a warrior king to a rabbi, spending his days engaged in the study of the tradition.  The great palace that he lived in has been transformed into a Beit Midrash – a House of Study.  And in that transformation, David has become a metaphor for a new way of Jewish life, and for a new means of Jewish survival.  Jews would not live in palaces, they would not have armies, they would not have kings, the Temple would be destroyed, and there would be no more sacrifices.  

     But what Jews would always have was the Torah, given to Moses, transmitted to the people, and studied ever since.  The Torah can go anywhere.  It can go to Babylonia and the Academy of Rava, it can go to Europe, it can be carried here to the United States.  Anywhere there is a Torah there is a Beit Midrash, a House of Study.  And anywhere there is a House of Study, there is Jewish life.  In the Talmudic story as long as David continued to study he continued to live.  We might say the same about the Jewish people.  From one generation to the next we have dedicated ourselves to the study of Torah, and by doing so we have ensured the survival of Jewish tradition, and the Jewish people.  Shavuot is the holiday when we rededicate ourselves to that process of study and the role it plays in the continuity of our people.  May we continue to do so again and again, for many years, through many generations.

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Goodness in the Wilderness

This is a text version of my sermon from this past Shabbat, 5/18/18 –

     We began reading this morning the fourth book of the Torah, called in Hebrew Bamidbar, and in English the Book of Numbers.  The book is primarily concerned with the wanderings of the Israelites through the wilderness in the course of their forty year journey to the Promised Land.  By and large it does not paint a pretty picture.  The Israelites are, to use a technical term, ‘kvetchy.’  They complain frequently to Moses, about just about everything, from the difficulty of the journey, to the quality of the food, to the qualifications of Moses to be their leader.  That complaining is a theme that runs throughout the entire book.

     And the brief snippets of narrative that the Book of Numbers offers are no better, and in fact might even be worse.  It is in Numbers where we find the disastrous episode of the quail, where God gets so angry at the people for not being satisfied with manna that God gives them so much quail to eat that they all become sick.  It is also in Numbers where we will read about the rebellion of Korah, a communal agitator who challenges the leadership of Moses.  And Numbers contains the infamous episode of the spies, who go to scout out the land, bring a bad report back to the people, and cause God to decide that none of the Israelites who left Egypt will ever get to see the Promised Land.  Or if you want to read about a family squabble you can look at Numbers 12, which describes Aaron and Miriam challenging the authority of their brother Moses, and then as punishment Miriam’s public shaming.  Last but not least it is in Numbers where Moses will strike the rock, and will be forbidden by God to enter the Promised Land.

     Not a pretty picture, by any means.

     And I’ve always wondered, wasn’t there anything good going on when the Israelites were wandering for all those long years?  If you think about it, there must have been!  It was forty years!  There must have been weddings.  And after the weddings, babies were born.  Friendships were formed.  I am sure there were countless acts of gemilut hasadim, of loving kindness, of one person helping another.  I imagine there were many sacred moments, celebrations of holidays, brises, and probably there were people who were gravely ill, and recovered, and their family felt tremendous gratitude.  There must have been hundreds and hundreds of good things that happened to the people as they wandered towards the Promised Land, but the Torah doesn’t describe any of it.

     On the one hand, I understand.  In any dramatic narrative you have to have tension.  That is what is interesting.  That is what catches people’s attention.  Imagine if you went to a movie, and the plot was as follows:  two people are married, they have two children, they get up each morning and go to work, they are successful in their jobs, they come home each night, have dinner as a family, the kids tell the parents they are getting straight ‘As’ in school, the parents put the children to bed, watch an episode of a Netflix show, and then get into bed themselves, kissing each other good night before they fall asleep. Who would watch that?  It would be boring!

     But still, reading through the Book of Numbers, you can’t help thinking you’d like a little bit of that ‘boring.’  It can feel like an unrelenting tale of woe and misfortune, as if nothing good ever happens, or ever will.  As if the only thing the people know how to do is complain.  As if there is no goodness at work in the community, no good people going about their day to day lives and doing the best they can to live with kindness, compassion and mercy.

     If you think about it, it is not unlike the way Israel is often portrayed in the news media and the international community.  It has been a difficult week for Israel.  I am sure almost everyone in the room is aware of the terrible situation at the Gaza border crossing earlier in the week, and if you pay any attention to the news you know that some 60 Palestinians were killed, and many others wounded, as they demonstrated and attempted to break through the border fence.  

     At this point there have been thousands upon thousands of words written about what happened.  Much of the debate tends to fall along political lines, between left and right, the left tending to blame Israel for what happened, the right tending to blame the Palestinians, particularly Hamas.  We know for certain that there were Hamas fighters at the border, and we know that Hamas incites violence, and that it has a stated goal of destroying the State of Israel.  That we know.  

     We also know that no Jew who cherishes the values of our tradition feels proud of what happened at that border this week.  There has been tremendous angst, both in Israel, and in the Jewish community abroad, about the loss of life on the Palestinian side, and this is something we should be proud of!  That we value life that highly, even the lives of those opposed to us, even the lives of those whose stated goal is to destroy Israel, that we feel guilty, and we worry, and we wonder if something could have been done differently so that fewer lives would have been lost.  

     This is not to say that Israel is perfect.  There is no perfect country in the world.  The United States is not perfect.  Israel also is not perfect.  But Israel is not all bad, the way it is all too often painted in the news.  Sometimes you can read the news about Israel and it is like reading the book of Numbers.  All that you find are descriptions of the tragedies and the deaths and the condemnations and the UN votes.  One grim narrative after another after another.  That is the Book of Numbers.  

     So sometimes, and maybe particularly when Israel has had a difficult week, we need to remember what goodness has come into the world because Israel has existed for 70 years.  We should remember that Israel is the sole democracy in the Middle East where equal rights for men and women are upheld, where freedom of the press is respected, and where religious diversity is allowed.  We need to remember that Israel is a nation of learning with great universities, libraries, and museums.  Since Israel’s founding 10 Nobel prizes have been awarded to Israeli scientists, more per capita than any other country in the world.  Their discoveries have been shared with every nation, and the entire world has benefitted from them.  This week it might be good to remember  that Israel is a country with state of the art medical facilities where Jew or Arab, Christian or Muslim is cared for.  We should remember that Israeli agricultural innovations are used all over the world, from South Africa to Columbia to Nigeria to India, and help feed thousands and thousands of people.  Even though we ask you to turn your phones off in shul, we should remember that there are cell phone and computer technologies that are relied on across the globe that were created in Israel.  And we should recall – in a week that has been hard for Israel – that the first ingestible video camera was invented there, that other medical technologies, invented in Israel, are used all over the world, and are saving lives every day.

     Israel is not perfect, that is true.  And it has been a hard week.  That is also true.  But Israel and her people are constantly striving to do better, to be better, and to make the world itself a better place.  May they continue to strive for those goals, and for the greatest goal of all, peace, in the years ahead – 

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Addendum (the Monday morning QB)

Any experienced public speaker will be familiar with the following:  You stand to speak, and you are working with an outline that is in your head, but without notes.  You say (approximately) what you want to say, and sit down.  Then, at a later time (sometimes right away, sometimes the next day), you realize there was something that would have worked so well in terms of your talk.  If only you had thought to add it!

But of course in the internet age, you can.

So it was that this past Friday night I spoke for a few minutes at our Shabbat evening service about being in our old neighborhood in NYC and running into a man who was begging on the street.  Not, of course, unusual for New York, except that this very person had been begging on the streets 20 years ago when we lived there.  The gist of the sermonette was that there is a problem in a culture/society where a person is still on the street begging after twenty years.

The problem with my words was that I offered no resolution, no glimmer of hope, no uplifting message.  I essentially pointed out this disturbing situation, and left it hanging in the air.  Afterwards a congregant nicely, but slightly sarcastically said to me ‘thanks for the cheerful message, Rabbi, a nice way to start Shabbat.’

Now sometimes the point of preaching is simply to call attention to something that is disturbing, that for whatever reason people don’t want to confront.  As the old saying goes, the preacher should comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.  That being said, point well taken.  And below is a story which might make a nice addendum to my Friday night comments.

You have probably heard the name James Shaw Jr.  He is the man who wrestled a rifle away from a gunman who was shooting people in a Waffle House Restaurant in Nashville a couple of weeks ago.  He has vociferously protested to being called a hero, simply saying he did what he felt he had to do.  As if his actions in the restaurant were not enough, after the tragedy he set up a GoFundMe account for those whose lives had been changed by the shooting.  His initial goal was to raise $15,000 dollars.  But two weeks after he set up the account, it already had $225,000 dollars, and was growing.

When asked to comment about the fund’s success, Mr. Shaw said this:  “I am overwhelmed.  This has been a heartwarming reminder of what is possible when we come together to care for one another.”

What is possible when we come together to care for one another?  The short answer is quite a bit, and Mr. Shaw and the victims of the shooting in Nashville have seen that first hand.  The never-ending challenge is reminding people of how much there is to do, and of how much of a difference one individual can make, and all the more so a community of people who come together, care for one another, and determine to make the world  a better place.  If anything can help to take a beggar off the streets after 20 years, it is that kind of thinking, that sense of community, and that feeling of hope.

 

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Welcoming Interfaith Families

This the text version of my sermon from 5/5/18, reflecting on the upcoming bylaws change for the congregation in terms of the membership status of people who are not Jewish.

     Just a couple of days ago we posted a link to our FB page of a blog post that has now been clicked on and read more than 3000 times.  The post explains a change to the synagogue by-laws that the congregation will vote into effect Wednesday evening May 16th at our annual meeting.  The by-law change has to do with the status of non-Jews at Beth El and membership.  Up to this point, someone who was not Jewish could not technically be a member of the congregation.  For years and years there have been many non-Jews in our community, playing meaningful roles in the life of the synagogue, making sure that their children are at Hebrew school every week, sometimes even attending services regularly, involved with committees.  But until now, technically they were not members.  

     But the recommended change in the by-laws will formally grant membership status to non-Jews for the very first time in Beth El’s 70 years history.  There will still be some caveats in place, and for the time being people who are not Jewish would not be asked to chair committees or to serve on the board.  But at next year’s annual meeting, folks who are not Jewish and who are members will have a vote and will be fully counted in the required quorum for the meeting.  

     On the one hand the change is symbolic more than anything else.  For many years – going back at least two decades – Beth El has been one of the most progressive synagogues in the Conservative Movement in terms of opening our doors to non-Jews and interfaith families.  People who are not Jewish have been welcomed to our bimah, to stand with their children at the ark during a bar or bat mitzvah and read a prayer, or to stand with their Jewish spouse at the Torah during a baby naming.  Some ten years ago or so we expanded the roles a non-Jew could play during services, creating opportunities for someone who is not Jewish to stand before the congregation and lead us in prayer during responsive readings, both Friday nights and Shabbat mornings.  We have an interfaith havurah here, a group that meets multiple times a year to talk about interfaith issues and to explore together the interfaith journey.  The Beth El clergy, from Rabbi Agus to Rabbi Loeb to the present day, have always made interfaith dialogue an important part of their communal work.

     But this is something that is different.  It is a formal embrace of those who are not Jewish, and by extension it is a formal embrace of the interfaith community.  You probably know that the intermarriage rate in the non-Orthodox Jewish community these days is hovering around 60%.  When I spoke about this issue a couple of months ago I said that it is time for the community to stop thinking about this issue as one that we need to solve.  It is not solvable.  The Jewish community has top notch leadership, bright minds, and deep pockets, but despite worrying about intermarriage and working on the issue for decades at this point, we have only watched the rate grow higher and higher.  Are there things that increase the chances of a child marrying Jewishly?  Yes!  Home observance is one, and Jewish camping is another, day school can help too – but by and large this is not something that we are going to have a lot of control over and in all likelihood in the years ahead the intermarriage rate will continue to rise.

     If so, I would argue that we should worry less about the number, the percentage of Jews intermarrying, and we should worry more about how we connect with these Jews and their families so that they feel welcome in the Jewish community in general and in synagogue life in particular.  Because if the intermarriage rate is at 60% and we don’t figure out a way to welcome those families then we are saying to 6 out of every 10 Jews we can’t help you.  And it is hard for me to understand how that is good for us, or how that is good for them.  After all, if we are saying we want the children and grandchildren of intermarried families to be Jewish, doesn’t it make sense to open the door as wide as possible so that those families might be able to find a Jewish home.  Without a Jewish home, we will certainly lose them.

     So the by-law change is one of the ways  – just one – that we are trying to say to interfaith families you can find a comfortable, meaningful, and welcoming spiritual home at Beth El for your family.  

     By and large as news of this change has spread the reaction has been very positive.  Last I looked there were close to 130 likes on the FB post, and a number of positive comments.  But I also understand that there will always be those who are uncomfortable with change, and I would like to say a word or two about that.  

     Because the truth is Judaism has always embraced change.  This morning’s Torah portion happens to be an excellent example of that.  I don’t know if you had a chance – or the inclination – to read through the entire portion, but if you did you might have noticed some of the following things described in the text.  Passover falls in the first month of the year.  A fair number of the verses deal with physical imperfections that in ancient times disqualified a priest from serving the congregation.  The system of religious worship that is described is based almost exclusively on animal sacrifice.  The celebration of Passover is mentioned in the portion, but a seder is not part of that celebration.  And at the end of the portion, there is an Israelite who publicly curses using God’s name, and that person is taken outside the camp, and everyone who heard what the person said helps to stone that person to death.

     So if you wonder whether Judaism changes or not, all you have to do is read this morning’s portion to know that – yes! Judaism changes.  And that in fact it sometimes changes radically, dramatically.  Passover now falls in the 7th month of the year, not the first, and it is celebrated through the rituals of the seder.  Our system of worship does not involve the sacrifice of animals any more.  The idea that we might tell someone they can’t serve the congregation because they have a physical disability is abhorrent to us.  And forget about the idea of taking someone who has cursed using God’s name and stoning them to death.  Were that law still practiced in modern times Rabbi Loeb wouldn’t have made it past 10 o’clock in the morning most days.

     And I would only add this.  All of the changes that have been made in the tradition, that we can see by looking in this morning’s Torah portion, and the hundreds and hundreds of other changes made in the course of our 3500 year old history, have made Judaism stronger, wiser, more tolerant and more humane.  And these changes have also enabled the Jewish people to survive, century after century after century.  

    May the change that we are embracing as a congregation on May 16th do the same, for Beth El, for our community, for our families, so that we can continue to move from strength to strength – 

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Adding Seats to the Table

This a text version of my sermon on Shabbat (4/22/18) –

     This past Wednesday evening, when many people were at Beth T’filoh, at the community celebration for Israel’s 70th birthday – which I heard was terrific – I climbed into my car and drove downtown to the Hopkins Hillel building, where I met with the chairs of the Johns Hopkins J Street U organization.  J Street U, as you may or may not know, is the college student branch of J Street, a DC based lobbying group that defines itself as pro-Israel, and pro-peace.  It is without question left of center politically, and so recently has often clashed with the Netanyahu administration, which is decidedly right of center.  J Street also focuses on the importance of a two state solution in terms of any ultimate peace deal with the Palestinians.

     The students I met with – one young man, one young woman – are bright, thoughtful, energetic, and deeply invested in their own Jewish identity, and deeply invested in the future of the State of Israel.  They worry that decisions that Israel is making today may have long term negative repercussions for the Jewish state.  In their work on campus they raise awareness about those issues – an example would be Israel’s building of settlements over the green line – which they argue will make it more difficult to disentangle the Israelis and Palestinians and to implement the idea of two states for two peoples.  

     Now you may or may not agree with their politics – I suspect many of you don’t.  But what I would ask you to consider this morning is whether those students have the right to express their views about Israel.  Can we be comfortable, as a Jewish community, when critical ideas about Israel enter the communal conversation?  Are we willing to listen to those ideas, to consider them, to respond thoughtfully to them?  Or has our community entered a space where we will not tolerate views on Israel that we don’t agree with?

     I personally hope we have not entered that kind of space, which is one of the reasons I went to meet with the Hopkins J Street U students.  I wanted them to know that someone who represents the community – a rabbi, and a rabbi from a large synagogue at that – would agree to spend time with them, would listen to their concerns, and would engage in thoughtful dialogue with them, even if I didn’t necessarily agree with everything they said or every view they hold.  The problem is this – if the community refuses to engage with young people like this, then we are shutting the door on young Jews who care about Israel, who are ready to work, to be active participants in the communal life, and once the door is shut we will lose their talent, their energy, and their love for the Jewish state.  And it is hard for me to understand how that would be good for anyone.

     It seems to me there are two challenges.  The first is we have to let young people like that know they are welcome at the communal table.  They have to feel safe in expressing their views, they have to be treated with the same respect as anyone else and not automatically and immediately shouted down every time they say something.  The double Torah portion that we read from this morning, Tazria Metzora, is filled with bizarre details about skin diseases and ritual purity and impurity that to us as modern people are extremely difficult to relate to, to say the least.  But at the heart of the double portion is one central concern – how can we bring people back into the community?  And that is the question we need to ask about these young people.  How can we let these young people know they are a valued part of the community, and that their views will be respected in the communal conversation about Israel?  That is challenge number one.

     Challenge number two has to do with a generational divide in terms of how the community understands Israel.  By and large folks who are in the 50s, 60s, and up still see Israel under what I would call the old mythology.  That is to say that Israel is a tiny country, that it is weak, that it is continually existentially threatened, and that it is continually overcoming enormous odds just to exist on a day to day basis.  And if you remember, as some of you here today do, when Israel was founded 70 years ago, if you remember the ’67 war, or the YK war in ’73, that mythology is probably an important part of the way you understand the state and relate emotionally to Israel.

     But many younger Jews today – Jews in the 40s, 30s, and 20s – don’t subscribe to that mythology.  They have lived their entire lives without Israel being in a war.  They know that Israel is strong economically and militarily, and they know Israel as the start up nation, a tech savvy, progressive, forward thinking country.  They don’t see Israel as weak, they don’t see Israel as existentially threatened, they don’t see Israel as struggling to survive on a day to day basis.  Their mythology is that Israel is a strong, established nation, now 70 years into its journey, powerful and secure and in charge of its own destiny.  

     And I would say in the course of the communal conversation about Israel both of those mythologies have to be recognized.  The young people are right – Israel is strong and secure and powerful and in charge of its own fate.  Just last month US News and World Report ranked the most powerful countries in the world, using a formula based on GDP, population, average salary, and military strength.  Here are the top 8 countries on that list – you may guess #1 – the US.  2?  Russia.  3 – China, 4 – Germany, 5 – the UK, 6 – France, 7 – Japan, and the 8th country on the list of most powerful nations in the world?  Israel!  8th in the world!  70 years into its history that is a remarkable, astonishing, incredible accomplishment.  With a GDP of 318 billion dollars, with a total population of 8.5 million people, with one of the world’s most powerful militaries, with an average citizen’s salary at around 35K per year, Israel is a true world power.  The young people are right.

     On the other hand, the older folks have a leg to stand on too.  There is truth to the old mythology.  Israel lives in a tough neighborhood to say the least.  With Iran and Syria and Lebanon, with an active Hezbollah on its borders, Israel’s sense of security is fragile, and without question Israel has to constantly be on its guard.  And when you take into account the growing Palestinian population, and the constant threat of terror attacks in Israel proper, Israel is facing challenges on a day to day basis that those of us who live in the US can barely get our heads around.  

     And I would argue that for us to be able to have a productive and meaningful communal conversation about Israel we have to take into account both the old and the new.  Talk bout the full picture, not just one side.  Israel is strong, powerful, established, but also at times threatened, and constantly facing danger and hostility from its neighbors.  And to have that full conversation – to acknowledge all that Israel is, and all of the challenges that she faces – we need everyone around the table.  Even – and maybe most importantly  – those with whom we don’t agree.  So lets open the doors as wide as we can – and with respect for one another – continue the conversation.

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Taking Out the Garbage

This is a text version of my sermon from Shabbat services on 3/24/18.

Just a couple of weeks ago I had an experience that was both rare for me these days, and also I realized, refreshing, and perhaps even important in an odd way.  I was out and about in the Baltimore area, and as happens about 99% of the time, I saw from across the room someone I know from the congregation.  I figured I would go over to say hello and check in for a moment or two, knowing of course that the person would know I was there, and might feel slighted if I didn’t say ‘hi.’

I went over to the person and reached out my hand to shake hers, and said ‘how are you, good to see you.’  She looked at me with a blank stare, clearly in her mind thinking ‘who the heck is this?!’  Now I must admit my self esteem took a small hit.  One of my own congregants, and she didn’t even recognize me!?  How was this possible?  After an awkward moment or two I said ‘its Rabbi Schwartz, from Beth El,’ at which point she realized who I was, and began to profusely apologize.  I tried to reassure her – ‘please, no worries,’ I said.  ‘Just wanted to say hello.  Have a good time and I’ll see you in shul.’

Now in my poor congregant’s defense, I wasn’t exactly dressed in shul clothes.  She is used to seeing me in a suit and tie, often with a tallis on, and that evening I was dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, plus I had a baseball cap on my head.  And it was probably in a place she was not expecting to see her rabbi.  So I was totally out of context for her, and for a couple of days in my mind that was how I rationalized what happened.

But then I began to realize that the problem had nothing to do with her, and everything to do with me.  That is to say, why should I have expected to be recognized in the first place?  Am I so important, am I such a recognizable figure, that I think people should know who I am?  What we had here was a problem of humility – namely my own lack of said quality.  I had briefly forgotten one of my chief rules of rabbinical work, which is – never believe your own press clippings.

So it is perhaps propitious that we come to this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, in the week leading up to Passover, which as I expect you all know begins this coming Friday night.  Because in both this morning’s Torah portion, and also in my experience of the Passover holiday, are lessons of humility that I will try my very best to take to heart in the months ahead.  First of all, the Torah portion.

There is a wonderful story told of the Brisker Rav, who was the head of the Brisk Yeshiva in Jerusalem.  It seems that he had a student who was having trouble getting along with his wife.  One day the student arrived early at the Rav’s home.  The Rav invited him in, poured him a cup of coffee, and asked him what was wrong.  The student replied, ‘My wife is giving me a hard time because I refuse to take out the garbage.  Can you imagine that she wants me, a Torah scholar, to actually take out the garbage.’  The Brisker Rav sagely nodded his head, and simply said to the student, ‘let me think about this.’

The very next morning -early – there was a knock on the student’s door.  Much to his astonishment the Brisker Rav was standing at his doorstep asking to come in.  When the student invited his teacher inside the Rav went straight to the kitchen, found the garbage can, and took it out to the street.  When the student asked the Rav what he was doing he simply replied “It may be beneath your dignity to take out the garbage, but I thought I’d show you it isn’t beneath my dignity.”  By the way what the student’s wife said to him was not recorded in the version of the story I saw.  We can only imagine.

But the story does reflect a small and curious detail that our Torah portion relates about the Priests in ancient times, and their service at the Temple in Jerusalem.  The Priests were the most important people in ancient Israel, honored and respected as religious authorities and sources of wisdom.  And this morning’s portion describes their day to day duties in terms of their Temple service.  One can imagine that the Priest arrived at work in the morning to great fanfare.  After all, he was going to be doing God’s work for the people, offering the sacrifices, making judgements about which things were pure and which were impure, helping people to recover from illnesses.

But the very first thing the Priest had to do when he arrived in the morning was to take off his fancy clothes, put on his schlepper clothes – old jeans and torn sweatshirt – and then he had to clean out the altar area from the ashes of the previous day’s sacrifices, and then carry those ashes outside.  So literally, the great Priests of ancient Israel started their days by taking out the garbage.  And that image is a very helpful reminder to me about he importance of humility – even when, and maybe particularly when – you find yourself in a position of Jewish leadership.

Which brings me to the second thing that helps to reset my humility needle, and that is Pesah, precisely because it is the family holiday of our tradition par excellence.  When I stand here and preach, or lead services, or help you with life cycle events, I am the rabbi, and always treated as such, with respect.  And believe me it is very much appreciated.  But when I sit down at the seder table with my family, even though I am leading the seder, I am not the rabbi.  I am Tali, Josh, and Merav’s dad.  I am Becky’s husband.  I am my parents’s son, Becky’s parents’ son in law.  My children remind me that I don’t know the proper tune to a number of the Passover songs. (which may simply be a comment on my singing)  Becky quietly reminds me I am talking too much, and that we need to get the food out on the table, something my congregants would never do while I am conducting services.  Becky’s parents remind me they knew me when.  My parents remind me they REALLY knew me when.  I think you get the picture, and as you may imagine, it is all very humbling, and it is wonderful.  Sometimes it is good to be reminded that you are no more special, no wiser, no more insightful or wonderful, than anyone else.

Of course in today’s world that is a lesson probably everyone could benefit from.  Certainly our politicians, so entrenched in their own views, so convinced of their own wisdom and that they know better than anyone else, could use a good does of humility.  Maybe they should take a cue from the Priests in the Torah, and show up early to work, change out of their suits, put on their work clothes, and spend a half hour taking out the garbage.  Lord knows there is enough of it in Washington DC.  But I am guessing the list could go on and on, and we could all think of someone we know – whether ourselves, or someone else – who could use a good dose of humility.

The question, of course, is where does that dose come from?  For me, the two best sources are my faith and my family.  My faith reminds me of how grateful I should be for every day and every blessing, of how little I should take credit for and how lucky I am.  My family reminds me of something even more important – who I truly am – which is, just a person like everyone else.

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Esther & Intermarriage

This a text version of my sermon from 2/24/18 –

Many of you know that before I went to rabbinical school I was a psychiatric social worker, and in my training for that work I completed a Masters Degree in Psychology, which I proudly hold from the University of Maryland.  The most difficult course – at least for me – in that program was the statistics class.  It was required for the degree, the thinking being you’ll have to read studies and you’ll have to be able to understand how the numbers behind the studies – the statistics – came together.  Despite my challenges with math, I somehow did well enough with that class to complete the program and earn that degree, and I figured that was the last I would see of statistics for a long time, if not ever.

Little did I know how important statistics would be in rabbinical work.  I didn’t really learn this until I was out in the field, and when every couple of years or so a new demographic study of the Jewish community comes out, as the rabbi I am expected to be an expert, to know the numbers, what they mean, and how they were calculated.  I have learned over time that professional Jews are obsessed with demographic studies.  We try to understand from them what the current trends in the community are, how old or young the Jewish population is, how many school age children it contains, how observant Jews are, the list goes on and on.  And of course the one number that professional Jews are concerned with more than any other in these studies is – the intermarriage rate!  We want to know how many Jews are marrying non-Jews.

Generally when we find out the newest numbers we wring our hands, we worry, we fear for the Jewish future – the Yiddish word geschrei comes to mind.  And there are valid reasons for this.  One is that the intermarriage rate is going up – the most recent numbers tell us that in the non-Orthodox community the intermarriage rate is around 60%.  A number this high is a potential threat to Jewish continuity, because statistics also tell us that the children and grand-children of intermarried parents are also highly likely to intermarry, and if the intermarriage rate continues to rise rapidly and exponentially there will be fewer and fewer Jewish families.

There is no question that this is a serious issue and also a serious concern, but there is also no question – at least in my mind – that it is an issue that is not going away.  That is to say, it is not ‘solvable.’  The Jewish community has top notch leadership, bright minds, and deep pockets, but despite worrying about intermarriage and working on the issue for decades at this point, we have only watched the rate grow higher and higher.  There are some things that increase the chances of a child marrying Jewishly – home observance is one, and Jewish camping is another – but by and large this is not something that we are going to have a lot of control over and in all likelihood in the years ahead the intermarriage rate will continue to rise.

If so, I would argue that we should worry less about the number, the percentage of Jews intermarrying, and we should worry more about how we connect with these Jews and their families so that they feel welcome in the Jewish community in general and in synagogue life in particular.  Because if the intermarriage rate is at 60% and we don’t figure out a way to welcome those families then we are saying to 6 out of every 10 Jews we can’t help you.  And it is hard for me to understand how that is good for us, or how that is good for them.  After all, if we are saying we want the children and grandchildren of intermarried families to be Jewish, doesn’t it make sense to open the door as wide as possible so that those families might be able to find a Jewish home.  Without a Jewish home, we will certainly lose them.

And the truth is, those families have a tremendous amount to contribute to our community.  I imagine you know that Wednesday night is Purim.  I hope you’ll all be here, we have an evening planned that should be a lot of fun for everyone, from the young to the not so young.  Just for a moment I would like to think with you this morning about the story of Esther that we will read Wednesday night.  It is one of the best known stories of the entire Bible, and I don’t feel I have to recount the narrative, because you know all about Esther and Mordecai, Vashti and King Ahashverosh, and of course the wicked Haman.  As the old joke goes, Purim tells the classic Jewish story – they tried to kill us, we won, lets eat!

But the Book of Esther is much more than that, and in fact I would argue it is the most modern of all the biblical books, at least in the way it understands and describes Jewish life.  The Jewish community of Persia in the story is highly assimilated.  Mordecai and Esther are secular Jews who still feel connected to their Jewish identity, even if they aren’t ‘religious’ in any traditional sense – which is exactly the way many Jewish describe themselves today.  And although we don’t have the intermarriage statistics for 6th century BCE Persia, we do have the story of an intermarried family from that time – the family of Esther and Ahashverosh.  The story of Purim is at least in part the story of an interfaith family – because when Esther wins that beauty contest and marries the King, she is a Jewish woman marrying a man who is not Jewish.

This is not the way we normally read the story, it is not the part of the narrative we usually focus on, but it is the truth.  Queen Esther is one of the great Jewish heroes in the Bible.  With courage and pluck (and her Uncle Mordecai’s encouragement) she fights back against Haman, and risks her life so that her people might be spared.  But that same Esther’s husband is not Jewish.  In fact, we might say lucky for the Jews that Esther is in the marriage she is in.  If not for her access to the King, it is likely the Jewish people of that time and place would have perished.  Esther alone doesn’t save the Jews in the story of Purim – her family does.  And her family is an interfaith family.

On the surface it might seem strange to think about the Purim story this way.  But we shouldn’t really be so surprised.  In today’s world, our interfaith families are some of the most devoted families we have at Beth El.  They bring their children to Hebrew school, celebrate at their sons’ and daughters’ ‘b’nai mitzvah, participate in congregational life, give generously to Jewish organizations, speak out positively about Israel, and create Jewish homes.  Our congregation is in part the kind of community we are all proud of because of the commitment and connection of our many interfaith families.

Which is why we should keep the doors open as wide as we can.  That is why we have an interfaith havurah at Beth El, a group that meets multiple times a year to talk about interfaith issues and to explore together the interfaith journey.   That is why Beth El has always been at the forefront of interfaith dialogue, from the days of Rabbi Jacob Agus to the present.  That is why we welcome non-Jewish partners and spouses to the bima for the baby namings and b’nai mitzvah of their children.  It is why we have readings for Friday night and Shabbat morning services that non Jewish family members can participate in.  Those families are a part of our larger family, and their journeys are intertwined with ours.  They may not save the Jewish people in one fell swoop the way Queen Esther and King Ahashverosh did, but their presence in our midst will help us all build a stronger Jewish community for many generations to come.

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