Category Archives: Shakespeare

Winter of Discontent

The seemingly endless rain in the northeast over these last days is a fitting match for the mood of the country.  We walk in a collective daze, heads bowed under grey skies, feet stomping over soaked earth, faces averted from the chilly winds.  Gazing downward we fail to notice the starless nights.  It is all unsettling, a bizarre semi-winter concoction created by the rapidly changing climate and the warming of the planet.  The dark and dreary weather is the perfect background for our political bitterness, the shameful impeachment proceedings, the angst of the Democratic party nominating battle, and the inept Iowa caucus process.  One begins to wonder if the climate, both weather-wise and political, will ever change.

There is something strikingly dystopian about it all.  From the weather itself to the rejection of truth and the embrace of conspiracy theories, it feels like we have lost our way.  Remember Blade Runner, that bleak portrait of a future world where robots and humans struggle for dignity and control?  In Ridley Scott’s brilliant film the rain was constant, slicking the filthy city streets with slime.  We aren’t there yet, but one wonders what will happen if we keep going this way.

The synagogue, for those who still come, is a refuge from the darkness and gloom.  There is fellowship there, community and caring, a sense of connection, and also the understanding that in the long stream of time represented by the tradition the current moment is just a blip on a radar screen.  The liturgy is filled with cautious messages of hope, reminding us of the power we have, even as individuals, to change the world for the better.  If we are lucky we leave the synagogue calmer, a bit wiser, perhaps with a better understanding of the current moment and its context in a far grander narrative.  All is not lost, at least not yet.

But there is a sense of urgency that grows stronger and stronger.  What do they always say?  Follow the money!  And the proposed budget released by the White House yesterday is a clear illustration of where the country is headed if we don’t change course.  It shows an America that takes away from the neediest and most vulnerable, that ignores (and even contributes to) the dire plight of the planet, that invests in the most destructive weapons imaginable but leaves people out in the cold.  In the last few years we have become crueler, more angry, more divided, and less caring.  Can anyone honestly argue that makes us greater?

Truly a winter of discontent.

That phrase, of course, comes from the very first line of Shakespeare’s great tragedy, Richard III.  The full line is ‘Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York.”  The imagery of the sentence plays winter against summer, expressing the idea that darkness and cold will eventually give way to warmth, that the low points inevitably fade, and that in some mysterious way humanity pushes forward towards the light.

The problem is that some winters are longer than others, and sometimes discontent is deeper, more corrosive.  After all of the rain that we’ve had it will take the sun a long time to dry things up.  At this point even a little bit of sun will be appreciated, reminding us that spring and summer will come, helping us discover the hope we need to get through the dark times.

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The Stranger

IMG_1028 2     It was 42 years ago this fall that I asked my mom to drive me to the Oakdale Mall, in Binghamton NY, where I walked into Tower Records and bought the first rock and roll album of my life.  Knowing me as many of you do, you might be surprised to find out that that record was not a Grateful Dead album – it would be another year or so before I began to get into the Grateful Dead.  Instead, the record was Billy Joel’s ‘the Stranger.’  

     The record had been released in September, and by November of 1977 you couldn’t help but hear one of the songs from the album every single time you were in the car.  The love song Just the Way You Are was the biggest hit, rising to #3 on the billboard charts, but the album had three other songs in the top twenty five, including She’s Always a Woman and Only the Good Die Young.  Rebel that I was, that was my favorite at the time.  

     You may remember the cover of the record, a photograph of Billy Joel, dressed in a suit, reclining on a bed, and staring intently at an object that lay next to him.  Anyone remember what it was?  A mask, resting on a pillow, its vacant eyes looking up towards the singer.  The image reflected both the title of the album – the Stranger – and also the lyric of the song of the same name, found on side one – it was the second track.

     I’ve always understood the image, and the song, to be about the way we separate our public and private selves.  We all have a public persona, generally our ‘best face’ that we use when we are in front of the world.  We want not only to look our best, but to be our best – calm and organized, satisfied with life, funny and fun to be with, patient and kind, competent and wise.  But for many of us there is also a private face – in the photo on the cover of the Billy Joel record it is represented by the mask resting on the pillow.  Here is how the song lyric describes it:  we all have a face that we hide away forever, but we take them out and show ourselves when everyone is gone…

     It might seem like a strange thing to say, but I often think about that song, and that lyric, when I read this week’s Torah portion, called Vayera.  Abraham is the portion’s main character, and I’ve always been deeply puzzled by the contradictory Abrahams that the text portrays.  On the one hand there is a heroic Abraham.  This is the Abraham who argues with God about whether or not the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah should be destroyed.  You’ll remember the passage – one of the Bible’s most famous.  God tells Abraham of the plan to destroy the cities, and Abraham, in a direct dialogue, challenges God.  Is this the just thing to do? Abraham demands.  And then Abraham pushes God – what if there are fifty righteous people?  What about forty five?  Forty?  Thirty?  Working his way down to ten, Abraham demands of God, would you spare the cities to save the ten?  And somewhat astonishingly, God agrees, saying if there are ten righteous people, I will spare the cities.

     This is the Abraham we can all stand and cheer for!  This is the Abraham who is fearless in his pursuit of justice, not even afraid to challenge God, if it means that innocents will be spared.  To me this is the outer Abraham, the person Abraham wants the world to see.

     But then there is another Abraham in this morning’s portion, what I call the inner Abraham.  This is the Abraham we meet at the beginning of the binding of Isaac story.  God comes to Abraham and demands that he offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice.  And after Abraham’s eloquent argument with God about Sodom and Gomorrah – arguing so passionately for the lives of people he didn’t know – we expect him to stand up to God here also.  To say ‘God, he is my son.  I am not going to sacrifice my son.  Even to you.’

     But what does he actually say?  Not a single word.  Not one.  Instead, he quickly and efficiently follows God’s instructions, gets up early in the morning, saddles the donkey, takes the servants and Isaac, splits the wood, and sets out for the mountain, where, at least as far as we know, he intends to sacrifice his son.  Not one word.

     And I’ve always understood the dichotomy in Abraham’s responses to be indicative of his public and his private sides.  On the outside, Abraham is just, a great leader of men, brave, compassionate, wise, and strong.  On the inside he has a stranger – an Abraham you rarely see, conflicted, filled with doubts, worried about disappointing others, and unable to stand up for what he truly believes in.  

     I suspect many of us can identity with both Abrahams.  What is it we see when we look at that mask on the cover of the Billy Joel record?  What is the inner side that we rarely if ever expose to the world.  Maybe there is anger there, or fear, or doubt.  Maybe it is poor self image, or a deep sadness about something that happened to us long ago, or guilt.  Whatever it might be, we keep that part of ourselves out of the public view.  We might know it is there, but we certainly don’t want others to know about it.  So we cover it up, close it off, compartmentalize it in some way, remove it and set it aside.  

     You might guess this can be a difficult challenge for people in the clergy business.  We are public figures, and we often have public faces, personas that we show to everyone, that reflect, at least we hope, our very best selves.  And so we smile and we laugh, we are attentive in our conversations, we are witty and engaging, we are thoughtful and patient and hopefully we are also compassionate and wise.  We are like the Abraham in the Sodom and Gomorrah story.  

     But the real challenge, the real test, what will really define our lives, is this:  how are we when we get home after a long day of being our best?  Is the compassion still there?  The wit and wisdom?  The attentiveness and caring?

     Those of you who were here last week heard Rabbi Saroken tell a classic Hasidic story about Rabbi Zusya.  At the end of the story the Rabbi tells his students he now knows when he dies, he will not be asked ‘why weren’t you Moses?’  Instead, he says, I’ll be asked ‘Why were you not Rabbi Zusya.’

     I’d like to put a finer point on that story this morning.  Because my sense of it is this – when my time finally comes, and I am standing before the great Heavenly Court, I will not be asked ‘Why weren’t you Rabbi Schwartz?’  But I think I will be asked, ‘Why weren’t you Steve?’

     If you’ll permit me, I’ll wrap it up this morning going from one great lyricist to the next, from Billy Joel to another Billy – William Shakespeare.  You may remember the wonderful line from Hamlet, Act 1, scene 3, the advice Polonius gives to his son Laertes, who is about to leave for Paris:

“This above all:  to thine own self be true, 

And it must follow, as the night the day, 

thou canst not then be false to any man.”

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Almost Cut My Hair

Actually my beard, and I did cut it.  After shaving my face clean I am beardless for the first time in many years.  It is an interesting experience to see my simultaneously recognizable and unrecognizable face staring back from whatever mirror I happen to look in.  I confess the lack of that all grey beard does indeed make me look quite a bit younger.  That being said I am already growing it back, because as I always say, it beats shaving.

It is an odd thing, how we see ourselves, how we understand our own identities.  It isn’t something we pause to think about all that often, but every once in a while it catches you and hits home.  A lot of it at the end of the day is surface level.  The clothes, the hairstyle, the beard (or lack of one!), the home, the car, all of the material items that become part of our image, even in our own minds.  But peel those things away and there is some kind of core, independent of all of the societally imposed images and ideas of who we are and who we should be.  Here is the thing, almost counterintuitive – that core is invisible, in some ways undefinable, untouchable, but it is stronger, more powerful and profound and true that all of the accoutrements.  There is a wonderful verse from I Samuel, chapter 16:  “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, both in ourselves and in others.  What was it that Polonius so famously said to Laertes in Act 1 of Hamlet?  “To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”

And so to ‘Almost Cut My Hair,’ the title of this post.  It comes from one of my all time favorite rock and roll songs, and is the title of the third track on the classic CSNY album Deja Vu, released in 1970.  In one of the great recorded rock vocal performances, David Crosby rants against the ever intensifying pressure to conform to expected norms.  ‘Get a job!  Clean up your act!  Dress like a normal human being!  And last, but certainly not least, get a haircut!’  In the end the song’s protagonist stays true to his own values, and makes the decision to walk his own path, difficult as that may be.  Here are the lyrics from the song’s first stanza:

Almost cut my hair/ It happened just the other day/  It was gettin’ kind of long/  I could have said it was in my way/ but I didn’t, and I wonder why/ I feel like letting my freak flag fly/  and I owe it to someone…

Every once in a while you have to let your freak flag fly.  You owe it to someone, and that someone just might be you.

 

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Summer Reading List 2018*

Each year around Memorial Day I publish a summer reading list, letting the congregation know what books I expect to be delving into during the summer months.  Happy reading!

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel – A post apocalyptic tale of a traveling Shakespeare troupe, this novel explores memory, friendship, family, and asks the ultimate question:  what is it that truly makes us human? (378 pages)

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, by Tom Wolfe – Published in 1968, this book (non-fiction) chronicles the early hippie movement in the San Francisco Bay area, particularly the escapades of Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters.  In a time when psychedelics are making a bit of a comeback this is worth a re-read, just after the author’s death at the age of 88.

The Story of the Jews:  Belonging, 1492-1900 – the long fight to survive, by Simon Schama – The British historian has just published part 2 of his history of the Jewish people.  The second installment covers a 500 year span as the Jewish community struggled with what it meant to live in the Diaspora.  Will the Jews be accepted or rejected?  Questions of antisemitism, assimilation, and Jewish identity come to life in Schama’s lively prose, and reading his book reminds us those questions are just as relevant today as they have ever been. (some 600 plus pages!)

The Great Shift, Encountering God in Biblical Times, by James Kugel – One of the best modern Bible commentators, Kugel explores the shifting sense of God that is conveyed by the Hebrew Bible.  Why is God present and active when the Bible begins, but remote and invisible when it ends?  This book is Kugel’s answer to that question.

On Middle Ground, a History of the Jews in Baltimore, by Eric Goldstein and Deborah Weiner – As advertised, a comprehensive history of Baltimore’s Jewish community, from its very first Jews to Pikesville.  Close readers will find that Rabbi Mark Loeb z’l does get a mention! (about 400 pages)

Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, by Yossi Klein Halevi – One of Israel’s most thoughtful writers, Halevi explores with frank honesty his sadness at the Palestinian situation, his longing for reconciliation, and his fierce belief in Israel, its mission, and its right to exist.  In a world where we are all too often driven to extreme views, Halevi’s nuanced exploration of the ‘matzvah’ is poignant and necessary.

* As always, a caveat emptor – I may not read all of these books this summer, and I probably will read one or two books not on the list!  Enjoy the reading!!

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The Gift

It was a beautiful silver kiddish cup, contemporary in design.  They gave it to me as a gift, hoping to thank me for some help I had given them.  Their son had maintained a long running feud with them, not even speaking with them for a number of years.  They had come to see me about it before, desperate for any suggestion that might help things improve.  In reality I didn’t do anything new.  Just a simple, logical suggestion that I think I had made to them before.  This time, for whatever reason, it worked.  The lines of communication opened, the relationship began to heal, the skies brightened.  They were so grateful, and the kiddish cup was just a token of that gratitude.  Would I please accept it?

I loved that kiddish cup.  I often used it on holidays, and it brought an added sense of sanctity to our table.  Hiddur mitzvah is a term the rabbis often use – the beautification of a mitzvah.  You can fulfill the mitzvah of kiddish using a paper cup to hold your wine, or a beer stein for that matter.  But a nice kiddish cup adds to the sense of doing the mitzvah right.  And a beautiful kiddush cup?  A gorgeous kiddish cup?  Sterling silver, carved design, polished and shined – now that is the proper way to say kiddish on a Yom Tov eve!

But things went awry.  The son became angry with his parents again, the relationship soured in the course of a year’s time.  He dropped out of their lives entirely, moved away, and they weren’t even sure where he was living.  To make matters worse, the parents were upset with me.  They felt I had sided with their son, that I had perhaps even encouraged him to sever the relationship.  It wasn’t true, but the idea was formed in their minds.  It was bad enough the rabbi had failed them, but he had also, in their eyes, betrayed them.

The kiddush cup sat on a shelf.  The sense of sanctity it had once contained seemed diminished.  Instead of reminding me of my great wisdom, of my rabbinic gravitas, it instead brought to my mind my foibles and failures, my inadequacies, both personal and professional.  The object itself hadn’t changed – it was just as beautiful as ever.  But it was tainted, no longer holy, no longer fit for use.

And yet I keep it.  I glance at it now and again.  Sometimes I even pick it up, remembering how the cold silver felt when the cup was filled with sweet wine.  I wonder if it will ever become sacred again.  Is there some way to repurpose it, to metaphorically smelt it into liquid silver and create it from scratch so that it no longer contains its bitterness and complexity?

Only time will tell.  Perhaps in some future year the ragged harshness of it all will somehow fade away, and the cup will be restored (in my mind) to its former beauty.  But for now it sits quietly.  What did Cassius say to Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar?  “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” (Act I scene ii)  I might say the same thing about my cup, which of course has done nothing wrong except to be freely given as a gift.

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Summer Reading List 2017

Enjoy the books!

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?  Roz Chast – Chast, a cartoonist at the New Yorker for years, published this graphic novel in 2014.  It is a poignant and brutally honest confrontation with what it means to age, and what it means to care for aging parents.  And it is definitely presented through a Jewish lens.  228 pages, and the first time a graphic novel has made the list.

The Handmaid’s Tale  Margaret Atwood – This chilling novel from 1986 describes a world where women have been subjected to a secondary role in society, where fundamentalist religion rules, and where the elected United States government has been forcibly removed via a military coup.  To read it today is to understand how great fiction both unpacks the past and warns about the future. 300 pages (give or take!)

American War Omar El Akkad – The second dystopian novel on this year’s list.  El Akkad’s debut work of fiction explores a near future where a second American civil war between blue and red states takes place.  If our partisan political divisions grow even greater, if terrorism becomes a regular occurrence on American soil, if climate change continues to escalate, what will our world look like?  El Akkad has created a stunning vision of one possible answer to that question.  333 pages

Hillbilly Elegy J.D. Vance – Part memoir, part sociological analysis, Vance writes movingly about the world he grew up in, the culture that defined it, and the experience of watching that world slowly but surely fade away.  This book explores the dynamics of the poor, white, working class world in rural America at a time when its culture is in crisis.  260 pages

All Creatures Great and Small James Herriot – This beloved book from 1972 takes you back to a simpler time.  The author chronicles his ‘adventures’ as a veterinarian in the remote Yorkshire Dales, tending to the various animals (and sometimes humans) who need his help.  It is a powerful page by page reminder of the great beauty that exists in God’s world that we all too often fail to see. 425 pages

Lincoln in the Bardo George Saunders – In this debut novel a grief stricken Abraham Lincoln visits the grave of his recently deceased 11 year old son Willie.  While in the cemetery he encounters the ghosts of others who are buried there, and listens to their life stories told from beyond the grave.  The novel is a meditation on national loss and an acknowledgment of the pain and heartbreak that are inevitable components of living a human life.  343 pages

Measure for Measure William Shakespeare – This late comedy explores themes of justice, mortality, and mercy, as well as the fine line that sometimes exists between corruption and purity.  The line “some rise by sin, some by virtue fall” (Act ii scene 1) reads as fresh and contemporary commentary given today’s political climate.

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(What) To Say or Not to Say,That is the Question

You’ll recognize the paraphrase of the famous line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  (Act III, scene 1)  Interesting fact about that line, in fact that entire speech, now so sealed into our minds, as ‘canonized’ as anything in Shakespeare:   There was actually a series of earlier versions.  As an example, this version was printed in the First Quarto (1603):

To be, or not to be, I there’s the point,
To Die, to sleep, is that all? Aye all:
No, to sleep, to dream, aye marry there it goes…

So Shakespeare, arguably the greatest writer of them all, despite his preternatural gifts, worked in drafts!  And even after the play had been performed the Bard’s work continued, massaging the lines, rethinking concepts, rewriting.  Evidently when he arrived at the following formula he realized perfection, and he stopped:

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; aye, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.

Pause indeed.  For in the rabbinic world, this is the time of writing and rewriting, of switching phrases, of working ideas, struggling with transitions, worrying over the ebb and flow of a text that ironically and ultimately is meant to be spoken.  Perfection in a sermon will never be achieved, for it simply does not exist.  But we work hard, and we spend more time with these sermons that we do with anything else we’ll preach the rest of the year.

This year there is an extra challenge.  What to say, or not to say, about Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, the Presidential election?  There is a clear legal definition you work with – a preacher may not endorse a candidate from the pulpit.  Such an endorsement would forfeit the preacher’s house of worship’s non-profit status.  But as we all know you can get awfully close to that line without crossing it.  I’ve heard rabbis (and Christian preachers as well) say everything BUT ‘and you should vote for..’   They didn’t even need to say it, because their message was already clear.

Of course in today’s highly polarized political atmosphere some folks feel that even touching on politics during a sermon is akin to landing on the third rail.  I had a congregant once tell me I shouldn’t even use the words Democrat or Republican from the pulpit.  At the same time it feels almost cowardly, or in some way irresponsible, not to address the one issue that is on everyone’s mind.

So what to say?  Or not to say?  This is the challenge rabbis around the country are struggling with this year.  In a way it is like the old joke about rabbis:  the ideal rabbi has 25 years experience in the field, but is only 35 years old.  She spends no money and requires little pay, but must dress well and drive a respectable car.  He should be at meetings morning, noon, and night, but should also find time to spend with his family.  You get the idea.  So it is with the High Holiday sermon – it should be topical, but not touch on politics.   And oh yes, it should make them laugh and cry, be filled with original insight and ancient wisdom, not make anyone angry, and perhaps most importantly of all, make them want to come back for more.  After all, there is always Yom Kippur.

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