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Lady Liberty

Here is a text version of my Yom Kippur sermon, 5770 –

  One hundred and thirty two years ago next month – on October 28th, 1886 –  the Statue of Liberty was dedicated on a day of great ceremony and celebration.  There was a parade through Manhattan that hundreds of thousands of people attended, followed by a nautical parade of dignitaries.  The ceremony itself, taking place at the foot of the great statue, was presided over by none other than President Grover Cleveland.  It was a day that symbolized the hope and promise and freedom for which America would come to be known around the world.  Lady Liberty!   

     It wasn’t until 17 years later – in the year 1903 – that the poem ‘the New Colossus’ was installed at the base of what had become by that time America’s most famous and symbolic statue.  Written in sonnet form, the 14 lines of the poem captured Lady Liberty’s symbolism, and also perfectly described the sense of America as a place of refuge, safety, and freedom.  I expect some of you probably memorized these lines at some point in school, but it is worth repeating them this morning:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, 

With conquering limbs astride from land to land; 

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand 

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame 

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name 

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand 

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command 

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame. 

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she 

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, 

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, 

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. 

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, 

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

     The sea washed sunset gates of the poem are the Hudson and East Rivers, framing Manhattan on her east and west sides.  The imprisoned lightning?  The torch in Lady Liberty’s raised right hand, lit by electric light.  The twin cities?  New York is obviously one – what about the other?  Brooklyn of course, the true center of the world!  And the huddled masses are the thousands upon thousands of immigrants who came to these shores through the gates of Ellis Island.  A nearly perfect description in words of what the statue had come to mean to our country, and to the world.  America, a land of freedom, opportunity, and welcome to all.  

     The New Colossus was written by a Sephardic Jew named Emma Lazarus.  Lazarus lived a largely secular life until she was in her early 30s when she read the great George Eliot novel Daniel Deronda, about a young Jew who suddenly discovers his Jewish identity and decides to devote himself to the Jewish people.  She saw in that narrative a reflection of her own life, and from that point forward Emma Lazarus began to devote herself to Jewish causes.  She was particularly interested in the eastern European Jews who came to this country in the 1880s and 90s.  She was moved by their stories of hardship and suffering, combined with their deep faith and the sense of hope they maintained that they could build a better life here in America.  Lazarus saw her poem as an expression of gratitude for the past, for her own ancestors who had made their way to this country and the goodness that they found here, and she also saw it as expression of hope, that future generations of immigrants would be welcomed to these shores, where they could one day build lives of dignity and opportunity.

     My Bubbe was one of those immigrants.  She arrived on these shores in 1903, the very same year the New Colossus poem was affixed to the Statue of Liberty.  She was a strong willed woman, feisty, tough as nails when she needed to be, determined, hard working, and fiercely protective of the people she loved.  She married my Zayde – also an immigrant – as a young woman.  Together they ran a series of small neighborhood grocery stores here in Baltimore, often with the help of their four sons.  As immigrants they were vulnerable and unsure of how to make their way in this new country.  They moved forward and made a life in the only way they knew how – they worked hard, they saved every penny they made, and they did everything, as they would have said, for the kinder, for their family. 

     My Bubbe was proud of three things in her life – she was proud to be an American, understanding this country as a place of opportunity where she ultimately was able to make a good life.  She was proud of her family, and in the course of her 98 years was blessed to welcome not only 11 grandchildren into the world, but great grandchildren as well.  And she was intensely proud to be a Jew.  Her commitment to our tradition left a deep impression through the generations of my family, it still resonates today, and there is no question in my mind without my Bubbe’s influence I would not be a rabbi.

     I expect her story sounds familiar to you, and that there is someone in your family – a parent or grandparent or great-grandparent – whose life experiences were very similar to my Bubbe’s.  And it is this shared Jewish experience that Emma Lazarus connected to.  That we Jews are wanderers, often in the course of our long history looking for a place to call home.  That it is enormously difficult to find that place, and it is incredibly precious once it has been found.  That is what my Bubbe and Zayde found here in Baltimore – a true home, a place where they could work hard, raise their boys, and stay committed to their roots without being afraid.  I’ve often thought about them as the debate about immigration and immigrants has taken place in our country over the last two years.  From DACA, which is still unresolved, to the question of which countries we are willing to accept immigrants from, to the question of numbers, and who ultimately gets in and who does not, to the policy, now revoked, of separating illegal immigrants from their children. 

     Last night at Kol Nidre we prayed the line אנו מתירין להתפלל עם העברינים  – on this most sacred of nights, let us remember those who are rarely remembered, and let us welcome them in to our community.  Those who are on the outside, those who are marginalized, those who do not have a voice.  It is one of the most striking lines in the entire Mahzor, and a distillation of a classic Jewish value.  In the Torah there are no fewer than 46 references to the גר, the ‘stranger’, each of them a reminder of the responsibility the community has to care for those who find themselves on the margins of society.   And there are two reasons why the tradition is so concerned with this ideal.  The first is it understands the Jewish experience to be that of the stranger.  Jews know what it feels like to be ostracized, Jews know what it feels like to be marginalized, Jews know what it feels like to be subject to quotas, and Jews know what it feels like to be expelled from a country.  And so if any people should have an extra sensitivity to the stranger, it should be the Jewish people.

     But the other reason is that Judaism understands that the way a society treats its strangers, its weakest members, is a measure of that culture’s quality and morality.  I am not suggesting that our immigration system should let in every person who wants to make their home in the United States.  But what I am suggesting is that regardless of whether or not someone is admitted to the country, how we treat them matters.  And that is what this debate is about.  It is not about numbers and quotas.  It is about values and morals.  It is about what we want this country to symbolize and stand for.  It is about what ideals we hope the citizens of this country believe in.  It really is, at the end of the day, about whether we still subscribe to the ideals and values that are so elegantly and beautifully laid out in the 14 lines of that sonnet that Emma Lazarus composed 135 years ago. 

     You see, how we treat the stranger – the immigrant, the foreigner, the poor and disenfranchised – those of other races and religions and beliefs – how we treat them says a lot more about us than it does about them.  And in every case, in every interaction, we can choose to treat them with respect and dignity and decency – like the human beings that they are.  And when we we don’t, it is our own respect and dignity and decency and values that are diminished.

     115 years ago my Bubbe was a stranger coming to these shores.  How would she have fared in today’s world, with these debates raging through our society?  Would she have been accepted or turned away?  Would she have been separated from her parents?  Would she have been treated with dignity and decency, would her humanity have been recognized and honored, would she have been respected?  Her story is the Jewish story shared by so many of our families.  And those questions – about decency and dignity and humanity and morality and values – those are Jewish questions, questions that as Jews we should constantly be asking.  

     On that October day 132 years ago when the Statue of Liberty was dedicated, President Cleveland was the keynote speaker at the ceremonies.  In his remarks that day he explained Lady Liberty’s symbolism with this hope:  “her stream of light shall pierce the darkness of ignorance and man’s oppression until Liberty enlightens the world.”  It is that same aspiration that we Jews remember three times each day in the last paragraph of the amidah.  We recited the words just a few minutes ago, and will do so three more times today –   כי באור פניך נתת לנו ה אלוקינו תורת חיים ואהבת חסד – in the Light of Your countenance, You gave us, God, a Torah of life, and a love of kindness, righteousness, blessing, compassion, life, and peace. 

     May that light and those values guide us and our nation in the months and years ahead.

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, High Holy Days, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Torah, Uncategorized, Yom Kippur

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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Unbridgeable Gaps

Here is a text version of my sermon from first day Rosh Hashanah, 5779 –

     It is with a deep sense of gratitude and that I welcome you all and wish you this morning a shana tova, a happy and healthy new year.  My gratitude comes from the understanding I have – that grows stronger year by year – of how lucky I am to be serving this congregation, with the wonderful staff that we have, the incredible lay leadership, and most importantly of all, the warm congregational community.  Most of all today I am grateful to be celebrating this Rosh Hashanah with all three of our children in town – the first time in many years – and with both my parents and Becky’s parents with us as well.  I can’t imagine a sweeter way to begin a new year.  

     This is now the 21st year that I have led services at Beth El during the High Holy Days, for many years in the Offit, and the last decade here in the Berman-Rubin Sanctuary.  And for four years before that I officiated at Yom Tov services as a rabbinical student, so all told this is my 25th year in the pulpit during the fall holidays.  In all that time I cannot remember a year in which the country has felt more divided than it does right now.  And it is that sense of division that I would like to spend some time thinking about with you this morning.

     I understand that this is an uncomfortable topic.  But I also believe that one of the only ways to deal with things that are difficult and challenging is to put them out in the open, name them, and talk about them.  There is an old saying that the job of a preacher is to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted.  I might do a bit of both this morning, thinking with you first about what divides us in this year of division, in a country that feels more and more divided.  Then I hope also to remind us all of what unites us, of what brings us together.  But we must begin with afflicting the comfortable, as it were, and thinking about the divisions that are pulling us apart.

     That is a long list that seems to just get longer and longer.  We have Democrats and Republicans, Fox News or CNN, the NY Times or the Wall Street Journal, liberals and conservatives.  We have AIPAC and JStreet, blue states and red states, pro life and pro choice, and of course this being baseball season, we must acknowledge one of the deepest divisions of all, Red Sox and Yankees fans.  I know there are some of both sitting in the room this morning.  There are economic divisions, racial divisions, and educational divisions.  Those on one side or the other side of just about any issue today are more entrenched in their views, and far less likely to listen to someone who thinks differently.  Many of us feel it has become virtually impossible to talk about the issues of the day in public, particularly with people with whom we might not agree. 

     It is important to say, first of all, that we have all participated in fostering these divisions, whether consciously or unconsciously, we are all at fault.  More and more we live in our own intellectual and political silos, only exposing ourselves to news and views that support what we think, and shutting off any idea or program or opinion that does not jibe with what we believe to be true.  We have allowed ourselves to become trapped in a cycle that hardens our views and deepens the divisions between us.  What I am wondering today is if it is possible to get out of that trap, to break that cycle?  Or, if we have to live in it, what is the best way to do so?

     Many of you ask me at this time of year about how my sermons are coming along.  ‘Have you started writing them yet, rabbi?’ (July)  ‘Did you finish your sermons rabbi?’ (August) ‘What are you talking about rabbi?’  ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’  The truth is it differs year to year, but there are some elements in terms of my process that are always the same.  

     One of those is that each year Becky and I visit Gloucester, MA, the small fishing town where Becky grew up and her parents still live.  Those visits are usually mid to late summer, so the HHDs are very much on my mind, and I often talk over sermon ideas with my father in law, whom many of you know is a rabbi as well.  And this past summer – just a little more than a month ago – my father in law and I sat in Gloucester at the kitchen table one evening, sipping a bit of scotch, and we talked about this sermon.  And we had, what in Jewish tradition, is called a mahloket, a disagreement.  There was, between us, about this sermon, a division.  

     You see I am by nature A an optimist, and B, probably a bit naive.  So I said I wanted to talk in the sermon about divisions, but what I wanted to do with it ultimately was remind everyone that there is more that unites us than there is that divides us.  That we have common values as Americans and as Jews that bind us together, that we have a shared history, that there are shared beliefs that are still there, that we just need to recover those in order to create a common ground we can stand on together.  I wanted to use a line from the Mahzor, one of my favorites, ויעשו כלם אגודה אחד – we will all be bound together, in common purpose, and בלבב שלמ – with a unified and full heart.  Little did I know it at the time, but in Senator John McCain’s last statement to the American people he would write this:  “We are three-hundred-and-twenty-five million opinionated, vociferous individuals. We argue and compete and sometimes even vilify each other in our raucous public debates. But we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement. If only we remember that and give each other the benefit of the presumption that we all love our country we will get through these challenging times. We will come through them stronger than before. We always do.”  That about sums up where I wanted to try to take this sermon.

     But my father in law, older and wiser than I, (and also less naive) had a different perspective.  And he argued, quite persuasively, that it actually may not be true anymore that there is more that unites us than divides us.  That in fact the divisions that we feel every day cannot be banished by sitting around the camp fire and singing kumbaya together, and remembering shared values and easier times.  That the real question is not how we bridge the gaps and diminish the divisions, but rather how each of us will choose to live in this new world where the divisions are so deep.  

     That idea of choice – of choosing how to live, of being in control of our own actions and our own words and our own lives and even our own destiny – is a powerful idea in our tradition.  The Mahzor reminds us of that time and time again.  We choose between right and wrong.  We choose how we relate to our spouses and our children and our parents and siblings, and to friends.  We choose, when we are angry with someone, to simply walk away from them or to let them know.  And then we can choose how we will let them know.  And when someone believes something we don’t believe we choose how we react to that.  We can listen or argue, we can be silent or walk away.  We can  treat that person with dignity and respect, or treat them with disdain and disregard.  Those are choices that we are compelled to make.  And so in my father in law’s view the question is how will we choose to live in this divided world?

     Among the books I read this summer was a slender volume written by the Israeli writer Yossi Klein HaLevi, entitled ‘Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor.’  In a series of short essays, he writes to the Palestinian family that lives just over the green line and beyond the security fence, literally a stone’s throw from his backyard, a family he has never met.

    He is not naive, HaLevi, fully understanding how deep the divisions between Israelis and Palestinians truly are, and how starkly different their narratives.  He is not an optimist, either, and he offers no quick fix prescriptions.  Instead he arrives at a place of accepting that the divisions between the two peoples will remain in place for many years, if not forever.  And if that is the case, he wonders – if the gap is unbridgeable – what possibly can be done?  He writes this:  “There may well be no way to  bridge our opposing narratives…  Even as we seek a two state solution, we will likely remain with a two narrative problem….  Accommodating both our narratives, learning to live with two contradictory stories, is the only way to deny the past a veto over the future.”

     I still hold out hope in my heart that the words that Senator McCain penned before he died will prove to be prophetic, and that the deep divisions we feel today in our country will be healed by a sense of common purpose and citizenship.  I am old enough to remember a time when we began each day in the public school I went to by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.   We stood and saluted while facing the flag, and I suspect many of you still know the words by heart, as I do myself – I pledge allegiance to the flag, of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands – ONE nation…INDIVISIBLE…

     But until that time comes, if it ever does, we must learn to live in a world with contradictory values and accept that there are many more narratives than the one to which we subscribe.  And how we deal with that reality will be the true test of this country and of each of us.  

     If you think about it for a moment the very experience of the High Holy Days is predicated on an unbridgeable gap.  On the one side is God, eternal, righteous and just, and ultimately unknowable.  And on the other side we stand – imperfect and flawed, frail and limited, struggling and unsure at the start of a new year.  But as impossible as it is to bridge that chasm, nevertheless, here we are.  And we softly pray, reciting ancient words and also words unspoken in our hearts and souls.  And we send our thoughts and prayers across that great gap of time and space.  

     And God’s response comes, as it says in the Unetane Tokef, in a kol d’mama daka – in a still, small, inner voice, a Presence that judges us as we are, and yet invites us to turn and to return, through acts of righteousness and charity to ideals that uplift and ennoble us.  To chose kindness over anger, generosity over self indulgence, respect over scorn, and love over hostility.  May we choose well and wisely, so that we, our families, the Jewish world, and this country, can  be blessed in this new year with gracious deeds and peaceful hearts.

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, community, High Holy Days, Israel, Jewish festivals, prayer, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Rosh Hashanah, sermon, Uncategorized, Yom Kippur

Judging and Misjudging in the Uber Age

This is a text version of my sermon from the second day of Rosh Hashanah, 5779 –

     A couple of Friday nights ago Rabbi Saroken spoke about an article she had read about the Uber rating system.  As you probably know, Uber is essentially a remake of the taxi idea for the internet age, and if you want to use the service you install an app on your phone, and when you want a ride you activate the app, and it will match you and your location to the closest drivers.  

     I don’t use Uber often, but in late August Becky and I and Talia and Josh and Merav spent 5 days in San Francisco, and what we couldn’t walk to, we ‘ubered’ to.  The service is convenient, it works well, and the prices are reasonable.  But the odd thing about it, at least in my eyes, is its rating system.  As soon as you step out of your Uber your phone dings, and it wants you to rate the driver based on a 5 star system: were they on time, were they polite, were they helpful, did they drive safely.  

     At the very same time that you are rating the  driver, the driver is also rating you.  Your rating – the passenger rating – is based on things like were you nice to the driver, did he have to wait for you for a long time, did you sit in the front seat or the back seat, and I imagine also did you tip well.  The bottom line is that every Uber interaction concludes with a judgement – the passenger judging the driver, the driver judging the passenger, all based on a 5 star scale.

     In my mind there is something very High Holy Day – esque in that Uber judgement moment.  One of the primary metaphors that we use to help us think about our lives and about our relationship with God during RH and YK is an image of judgement and being judged.  That imagery fills the Mahzor, but is best known from the Unetane Tokef prayer.  In that prayer it is יום הדין, the Day of Judgement.  God is the Judge – אמת כי אתה הוא דיין says the text – in truth, You are the Judge!  And we are the flock of sheep, passing beneath God’s staff one by one, as God reads the record of our deeds from the year, JUDGES us, and תכתוב את גזר דינם – and writes down our verdict.

     And I can’t help but wonder, after my Uber experience, if God has some kind of app on a Heavenly smart phone, where the rating system that God uses to judge our lives, like all of the internet rating systems, is based on 5 stars.  And that God reads our profiles – which is the new form of the ancient book where we once wrote our deeds – and then God judges us by clicking on one of the stars on the screen – 4, or maybe 5 if we’ve had a really good year.  God forbid anyone in this room would get a lower rating than that!

     If that idea makes you uncomfortable, I expect you are part of the majority in the room today.  Why?  Because we don’t want God to judge us the way we all too often judge each other, and even ourselves,  based on a FB profile using a 5 star system like an Uber passenger after a 15 minute car ride.  We want to believe that God’s judgement has depth, that God knows us in a more profound way, maybe in a way that we don’t even know ourselves.  

     I would submit to you that that is indeed the case, that God does judge us differently than we judge ourselves, or others.  I had a strange experience this past summer.  Almost on a lark I decided to shave off my beard.  I’ve worn a beard now for 25 years, and although I’ve shaved once or twice during that stretch, it had been many years since I was clean shaven.  When I stepped out of the bathroom that morning Becky looked at me, paused for a moment, sort of shook her head, and said one thing:  grow it back!

     But the strange experience was when I looked in the mirror and a clean shaven Steve Schwartz was staring back at me.  I almost didn’t recognize myself.  And I realized how difficult it is, this task that God sets before us during the High Holy Days – which is to peel away all of the externals and to look for the inner core of who we truly are.  Because that is what we should be judging, in ourselves and others!  To at least for 10 days of the year forget about, the clothes, the hairstyle, the beard (or lack of one!), the home, the car, all of the material things that we all too often use to define our lives.  I never presume to know what God thinks or wants, but I am pretty sure that God doesn’t care if I have a beard or not.  Or what suit I wore today, or what car I will drive home in.

     But I do believe that God cares about the meditations of my heart – about what I think and feel and love.  About my morals and values.  Those are the things that form the core of who we are, and those are the things that Yom Tov is about.  There is a wonderful verse from I Samuel:  “God does not see the way people see, for people see the outward appearance, but God sees the heart.”  It is that heart that we should strive to see at this time of year, both in ourselves and in those around us.

     Yesterday morning we read for the haftara the story of Hannah.  On many levels it is a narrative about misjudgment, about looking at someone and not seeing who they truly are.  Hannah is misjudged first by her husband who can’t understand where her deep sadness comes from, and then later by the priest Eli who at least initially too quickly passes judgement on her, thinking that she is drunk when in fact she is devoutly praying.  It is only later, when she confronts him, and they have a face to face conversation, that he is able to see underneath the surface, and to gain some understanding in terms of who she really is and what troubles her soul.

     Of course we all do it that.  We judge too quickly, or we misjudge, or both.  It is much easier to look at the surface, rather than spend the time or expend the energy needed to understand the heart. 

     There is a bank teller at the bank Becky and I use, and when I stand in line I always hope she will not be the person to help me.  She is unpleasant, even a bit surly.  She rarely if ever smiles.  When I say hello to her, or try to make a bit of chit chat she does not respond.  And she never looks me in the eye.  And I figured – I am a pretty good judge of people.  Here is an angry woman, unhappy in her job, with an attitude frankly that I could do without.

     A few Thursdays ago I had to go to the bank and sure enough, my luck, I got that teller.  She was as unfriendly as ever, and I finished my business as quickly as possible, glad to be away from her presence.  

     That evening I had to run to Home Depot to pick something up.  After grabbing what I needed I went to the register and handed the light bulbs or whatever it was to the cashier, and looked up at her for a moment.  And I was stunned to see, staring back at me, the very same woman who had helped me in the bank that afternoon.

     And suddenly I saw that woman in a new way.  I now knew that she ran from her job at the bank at the end of a long day, and went to work a second job at Home Depot.  That she was weary beyond what I could understand, and probably worried about supporting a family in a way I never would have imagined.  I had misjudged her in the worst possible way, seeing her for what she was on the surface, when there was a whole different reality to her life.

     And I wondered, as I walked back to my car, how many other people I’ve misjudged in the course of this year.  That I thought they were fine when in fact they needed my help.  Or my impression of them was that they were nasty, when the reality was they were in pain and terribly sad.  Or that I grew impatient with someone, when all they were trying to do was to give me a helping hand.  We all do it.  We misjudge people we barely know at all, and we also do it to people we know well and love, the people with whom we share our lives.

    That is precisely why we need the image of God as Judge from the Mahzor.  Where we all too often rush to judgement, God is timeless and eternal.  Where our tendency is to see what is on the surface and to stop there, God looks straight at the human heart and to the depths of our souls.  We judge others based on what we see in them at a given moment in time, but God’s judgement is based on who we might be, on our potential to grow and change for the better.

    Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur present us with that model of God’s judgement, inviting us to growth and insight, and to a greater appreciation for the ideal person residing within ourselves and others.  So that we can hopefully see the challenges and the humanity within our own lives and the loves of those we love.  We imagine that God’s judgement of each of us is honest and perceptive and generous.  I pray that we find the heart, the love and the courage to do the same, for ourselves, and for every person we encounter as this new year unfolds.

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Hiding Yourself

A text version of my Shabbat sermon from 8/25/18 –

     This morning’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, contains more laws than any other portion in the Torah.  The laws cover a vast variety of topics, from proper ethics in business to adulterous relationships, to the importance of treating the poor and marginalized with respect and dignity.  All told there are 27 positive commandments in the portion, and 47 negative commandments, for a grand total of 74.  

     And in that long list of commandments there are a couple of my favorites, maybe not exactly what you would expect, but I would like to share them with you this morning, and then try to explain why I find them so compelling.  These come from the beginning of Deuteronomy chapter 22, where the text reads as follows:  “If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it, you must take it back to your fellow. You shall do the same with his donkey, you shall do the same with his garment, and so too with anything that your fellow loses and you find – you must not remain indifferent.” 

     There is a difficulty in the passage that comes from one of the key Hebrew words.  Its repeated twice, and is clearly understood as being important by the text, but not fully clear in terms of what it means.  The word is והתעלמת.  In modern Hebrew it means to disregard or ignore something, and that is the way the translator in our Humash is working with the word – and so our translation says, when you see this ox, or sheep, or object, and you know it isn’t yours – והתעלמת – don’t ignore it, don’t remain indifferent, you have to do something about it.  And our translator is really working with the commentary of the great sage Rashi, who says the word והתעלמת means ‘don’t close your eyes, pretending the thing isn’t there.’  

     And what I love about this is the psychology of these verses.  The Torah knows me better than I know myself!  The Torah knows when a difficult or challenging or unpleasant circumstance confronts me, I might have a tendency to look the other way, or pretend the thing just isn’t there and walk right on by.  And so the Torah reinforces its commands about returning these lost objects by telling me והתעלמת!!  Don’t ignore it!  Instead, walk towards it, take care of it, confront it if you need to.

     Many of you know that the rabbinate is a second career for me.  Before I began rabbinical school I worked for four years as a sort of psychiatric social worker at a place called the Genesis Club, a psychiatric rehab program in the Boston area.  Our mission was to help people who were struggling with major psychiatric illness – like manic-depression or schizophrenia – to transition from the state hospital back out into the community.  

     I carried a case load that was fo all intents and purposes randomly assigned.  There was a young man named Jim, who was as sweet as they come, and before he became sick could throw a 90 mile an hour fastball, a true major league prospect.  There was an older gentleman named Robert who had a brilliant mind, was a trained physicist, but because of his illness had become homeless and was struggling to put his life back together.  And the list could go on and on, each person I worked with had their own compelling story, their own challenges and struggles, and their own hopes and expectations and goals.  I was very fond of those people and I loved that job, and felt truly blessed to have had the opportunity to be a source of support for them as they worked so hard to have the kind of lives any of us hope to have.

     But there was one young man that I worked with with whom I struggled terribly.  I was at the time 24, and he was younger than I, big and strong, very aggressive, and prone to intense outbursts where he would scream and yell, throw things, and although I never saw him strike another person, it always seemed like he was just on the edge of doing that.  I was scared of him, A, and B, virtually every interaction with him was unpleasant.  So I came up with a coping strategy – I would avoid this young man at all costs.

     And so it went.  If I came up to the top of the steps, and saw him down the hallway, I would quickly retreat and head back downstairs.  If I entered the lunch room, and he was there, I would eat in some other area or go out to lunch.  I was supposed to meet with him on a weekly basis, but I managed to work it out so that we only met every other week, or maybe even every third week.  On the one hand I felt guilty about it, but on the other hand it was much easier, as it so often is, to take the easy way out. 

     At a certain point my boss called me into his office.  He asked me specifically about the young man, how was my work going with him, how was he doing, was he making any progress?  After hemming and hawing for a moment or two I fessed up, and told my boss that I was so uncomfortable, and frankly so scared of the guy, that I really didn’t want to deal with him, and so I had in essence been shirking my duties.  And my boss said something that has stayed with me all these years – that was almost 30 years ago – and that I work very hard to keep in mind in my day to day interactions with others.  He said ‘oftentimes the people who are the hardest to deal with are the people who actually need you the most.’  I walked out of his office, found the young man, and walked right up to him – ‘lets talk,’ I said, and we did.  It wasn’t easy, but at least I knew it was right.

     I said moment ago that that word from the Torah text – what is it?  והתעלמת – is tricky to translate, and in our Humash the translator understands it as ‘to not ignore’ something.  Applying the verse to my story of the young man, it would be to not ignore him, to not close my eyes to him – we might say, to truly see him.  And that was what I tried to do, after the conversation with my boss.

     But there is another way to understand the word from the verse, and I’d like to share it with you before I wrap up.  There is another Humash in my office where that word – והתעלמת – is translated as ‘do not hide yourself.’  So the end of the verse would read ‘you will return any lost object of your brother that you find – do not hide from yourself!’  What exactly does that mean?!

     And the way I’ve come to understand it is this:   when you hide from others, when you ignore the responsibilities that you have to help others, to be there for them, to give them support and care – when you pretend they aren’t there, when you allow them to disappear – there is a part of you that disappears as well.  We might say it like this:  when you hide from others you are hiding from yourself as well – from who you are supposed to be, from who you have the potential to be, from who God wants you to be.  

     It isn’t always easy, and sometimes it can be quite hard.  My interactions with the young man were always challenging, and that never changed.  But in walking towards him instead of walking away I was at least there for him, and I think on some level he knew that, because so many other people had walked away from him in his life.  And in walking towards him, in truly seeing him, in those challenging conversations and difficult moments, I also was growing and learning, and instead of hiding from myself, I came to a deeper understanding both who I truly was and of who I should strive to be.  

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Flat Tires and Other Tests

     You may be familiar with the old story of a group of four college friends who decide to take a holiday weekend before a big exam they have on Monday morning.  Despite their best intentions, they realize Sunday night that they haven’t studied one lick all weekend, and so they devise a plan.  Early Monday morning they will call the professor, and tell him they’ve had a flat tire while traveling back to school, and won’t be able to make it back for the test.  This way they’ll have extra time to study.  The professor says OK, not to worry, you’ll take the exam Wednesday morning, and she gives them a time and a room to come to for the test.

     Wednesday morning precisely at 9 AM they arrive and find the room set in an unusual way.  There are only 4 desks in the room, one in each corner.  On each desk is a single piece of paper, turned upside down hiding the writing on its front side.  The students sit down at their desks, take out their pens, and the professor says ‘you may begin!’  The students turn the papers over and are surprised to find just a single question each sheet – which tire was flat?

     This is a time of our year when we begin to think quite a bit about exams and being tested, not because soon students will be going back to school, but instead because the HHDs are coming, and one of the metaphors we use to understand the importance of those days is the idea of being examined, of being tested.  Certainly the most powerful prayer of the holidays is the Unetane Tokef, where God is imagined as a sort of austere professor, grading our exam books, in which are written the deeds we’ve performed during the past year, both good and bad.  The sense of the metaphor is very much that we are being tested, and even graded, even if it is a pass/fail course, passing meaning our names are written in the Book of Life.

     The truth is the idea of God testing us is much older than the HHD liturgy.  It is a concept that appears often in the Torah itself, our oldest text, most prominently known from the story of the Binding of Isaac which begins ‘And it was after these things that God TESTED Abraham…’   That is obviously an individual test, but there is another kind of testing in the Torah that grows more prominent in the Book of Deuteronomy, namely the idea of God testing the entire Jewish people, en masse.  And there is a reference to that kind of testing in this morning’s Torah portion, Parshat Eikev, where we find the following passage from Deuteronomy 8:  “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past 40 years, – למען ענתך לנסותך that God might test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts.

     And then the text gives a series of things which it seems to understand as part of that test.  But two of the things in the list – one, the manna, the food they were given to eat every day, and the other, that fact that their clothes would not wear out, are puzzling.  Why?  Because they are positive things.  How can something that is positive be a test?  Think of it like this – if you want to test someone’s physical endurance, you do that by making them run, or walk uphill.  You don’t do it by telling them to go take a nap!  

     So the commentators on the text are puzzled, and they try to understand how something positive – food to eat every day, and clothes that don’t wear out – how those things could be a test.  And the answer that they seem to settle on, that they find most acceptable, is this:  the Israelites didn’t know for sure whether or not the manna would appear every day, and they didn’t really know that their clothes wouldn’t wear out, so they worried about it!  Every morning when they woke up they didn’t know if they would have food to eat that day, and so the test was to see if they would have enough faith to go out and look for the manna, to see if their belief was strong enough in the idea that God would provide for them, and they would survive.  In other words, the test was a hardship – when things were tough, when things were difficult, when they were afraid they might not have food – would they still have faith?

     But there is another possible explanation of the test – sort of the reverse side of that coin – that I’ve always found compelling, which is this:  would they remain faithful to God even when they knew that every day that manna would be there, and there was no question in their minds that they would have food to eat and clothes to wear in the wilderness, it didn’t matter how long they wandered.  That test is almost exactly the opposite!  It is a test that comes from things being good, things being easy, and the question is, when everything is great, when you have absolutely no problems, when life looks like easy street – will you still look to God then?

     If you think about it, we have the answer to situation number 1, the hardship test.  The answer comes from Jewish history.  I am about chest deep now in Simon Shama’s Story of the Jews volume 2, and any broad read through of Jewish history immediately reminds you of how difficult it has been historically to be Jewish.  It didn’t matter where the Jews lived, it didn’t matter when, it didn’t even really matter if it was a more tolerant culture or a less tolerant one – it was enormously difficult to be Jewish.  And yet generation after generation after generation, those Jewish communities and the Jews that lived in them kept their faith.  That is the test of hardship, and the Jews always passed.

     We have a lot less information about the other kind of test, the test of a good and easy life.  That experience has been so rare for Jews, particularly in the modern period.  It has really just been the last 40 or 50 years when the doors have fully opened for Jews here in the States.  And that goodness, that openness, that opportunity, is testing us, no question in my mind.  And whether we will pass this test or not I think is a very open question at this point.  We can minimally say that this test of the good life is not an easy one.  Because when every opportunity is open, we take fewer Jewish ones.  When we can study any subject and work in any profession, we spend less time studying our tradition and thinking about our Judaism.  When we can belong to  – almost – any country club, we spend more time of the golf course and the tennis court and less time in shul.  When our bubbies and zaydies are no longer around to remind us of the old country and the importance of traditional observance, we forget where we’ve come from, and do fewer Jewish things in our homes.  

     The final results are not in yet, but in terms of the test of a good life, the mid term results have not been very positive for the Jewish community so far.  The good news is I think there is still time to study.  The professor will give us a couple of extra days, or we might say a couple of extra generations, to prepare.  The real question is will we be able to identify which tire is flat?!  Shabbat Shalom – 

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What Did You Say?

Some thoughts about talking and listening from my Shabbat sermon on 7/28.

 Among my favorite phrases in the prayer book is a tiny, two word phrase that can be found – at least in a traditional siddur – at the beginning of every amidah.  The words are not part of an actual prayer –  instead, they are an instruction, like in some prayer books where it will say ‘take three steps back,’ or ‘bend and bow.’  The phrase, in Hebrew, is תפילה בלחש – literally translated, a ‘whisper prayer.’  

     Over the years the way we understand that instruction has changed, in some ways dramatically.  In our community we commonly say ‘we’ll continue silently’, or ‘we will continue with silent prayer,’ but a whisper is clearly not silent – it is quiet, but it is heard, it is audible.  And the original intention of the instruction was not that we should be silent, but instead that even when we are praying privately we should be talking – whispering, yes – but still, talking out loud.

     And the reason I love that phrase in the prayer book is because it so accurately reflects who we are as Jews.  We are inveterate talkers.  There is a young woman who recently began studying with me for conversion, and she comes from a Catholic background.  As part of the conversion process I have asked her to attend synagogue with some regularity, and a few weeks ago she went for the very first time, never having been in a shul before.  We met a few days later, and I asked her what she thought of the experience.  She hesitated for a few moments before she said ‘it was amazing to me that everyone talked through the service!’  She was used to a Catholic mass, where the parishioners sit quietly, reflecting in silence until they are called upon to participate in the liturgy.  But she walked into a shul!  There were a couple of guys kibitzing in the back about the Orioles.  There were people right in the middle of the congregation having a conversation about the weather.  And the talking continued throughout, waxing and waning, some areas got a bit quieter while others got louder, but it never stopped.  Even up on the bimah people were talking while the service was going on! 

     You would never see that in most Christian services, but that is what we Jews do.  It sometimes seems like we never stop talking.  There are many times when I’ve been at Levinsons and the doors open to the chapel for the family to walk out, and there is a loud hubbub of conversation, which takes a moment or two to die down – after all, people have to finish their sentences.  Mind you this is after the funeral director has been out and asked people to be quiet.  We talk during meetings – how many times have you been at a meeting for a Jewish organization and you realize there are multiple conversations going on all at the same time about a variety of topics?  We talk while we eat.  When we read the newspaper we spend half the time reading articles out loud to our spouses.  We are story tellers and kibitzers, in fact we even are known for talking with our hands, in reality an organ that cannot speak.  

     There is something hamaisch about all of that talking.  It is connective, there is a vibrancy to it, and a sense of community and closeness.  But I do worry sometimes that with all of the talking that goes on, what can sometimes suffer is listening.  After all, it is hard to listen when you are talking.  And if Jews are very good at talking, I am not sure we are all that good at listening.  So it is interesting to me that the Shema Yiisrael has become the best known prayer in our tradition.  After all, think for a moment what it means – ‘Hear O Israel’ is our normal translation.  But you could just as easily and accurately translate those words as ‘Listen Israel!’

     Now who is the speaker of those words?  It is Moses.  The Book of Deuteronomy is essentially one long speech that Moses gives to the Israelites.  The Hebrew word ‘shema’ is not actually all that common in the Torah.  In the Book of Leviticus, for example, it appears only 6 times.  But here in Deuteronomy, in the course of Moses’ long speech, he uses the word שמע 92 times.  And in our Torah portion, in the verses that lead up to the Shema Israel verse itself, Moses uses the word שמע 9 times.  We might say the more things change, the more they stay the same.  You almost get the feeling that Moses is speaking, and while he is trying to get his message across the Israelites are kibitzing, and this one is talking to that one over there, and that one is talking to this one over here  – just like shul!  And finally, Moses has to pause in his remarks, and say ‘Hey, listen up!  I am speaking over here!  This is important!  Shema Yisrael!’

     The truth is the root for the Hebrew word shema – the ש מ ע – has multiple meanings in the Bible.  Sometimes it is used in the plainest sense of the word – it just means to listen, to literally hear something that is being said.  Other times it is clearly intended to imply not just listening but also comprehension and understanding.  ‘I have heard’ means ‘I understand.’  And sometimes the Bible uses the word shema to mean obey, in the sense of I have heard you means I will do what you say.  It is a nuanced word, and when we say Shema Israel in the course of our services the intention of the liturgy is for us to have a sense of all of those meanings.  Again, our regular translation of the phrase ‘Shema Yisrael’ is Hear O Israel!  But a better translation might be something like this:  “Listen and concentrate.  Give the word of God your focused attention and strive to understand what this is all about.  Discern God’s will, and be prepared to abide by it.”

     But of course for any of that to be successful the talking has to stop, at least for a few moments here and there.  So we can hear each other, not just what we are saying, but what we mean.  And so we can give ourselves the opportunity to hear, to sense, to understand, to comprehend, what God’s will might be, and from that to decide how we will respond.  I don’t know of any other faith tradition that has a prayer like the Shema.  Normally when we think of prayer we think of saying something to God, of reaching out and trying to communicate with the Divine.  But the Shema is not directed at God in any way.  It is instead directed at us, Am Yisrael, the Jewish people.  It reminds us to study God’s word, to abide by God’s commandments, and to teach God’s traditions to our children.  And it reminds us that in order to do all of that, and to do it well, we must sometimes stop the talking, and simply listen.

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