Category Archives: synagogue

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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Shining A Light

Below is a text version of the brief remarks I will deliver tonight at a special program we are hosting at my synagogue called Freedom Song.  The program was created by Beit Tshuvah, a residential addiction treatment center in the LA area, and explores the issue of addiction in the Jewish community.  The stage setting is in and of itself a symbol both powerful and provocative – half the stage is set as a Passover seder table, where the generations of a Jewish family gather to tell the story of our people.  The other half is a 12 step meeting, where addicts gather to tell their personal stories of struggle and salvation.

The program tonight begins at 6:45 with a performance by the Helping Up Mission Choir, to be followed by a performance of Freedom Song.  It promises to be a moving evening.

My remarks:

     During my now more than two decades in the rabbinate I have become intimately familiar with the terrible struggle that families face when a loved one becomes an addict.  All of the emotions – the fear, the guilt, the sense of shame, the bewilderment, the worry, the sleepless nights, the pervasive sense of pain, and sometimes despair, and always, always, the desperate search for a solution.  

     For too long the Jewish community has either ignored the issue of substance abuse in our midst, swept it under the rug, or talked about it only in hushed whispers and behind closed doors.  The old myths of ‘this can’t happen in a Jewish family,’ or ‘Jewish children don’t do such things,’ or ‘Jews don’t drink or use drugs’ have been perpetuated for too long in our community – and that has hurt our families, and made it harder for them to find the help they need, and the support from their community that they deserve.  

     That is precisely why we are gathered together in a synagogue tonight.  The synagogue is the public face of Jewish life, it is the place where Jews gather to celebrate and mourn, to mark sacred time, to learn and study, and to grow in soul.  It is the public square of the Jewish community.  And so tonight, we are gathered together as Jewish community, in our public square, in a public setting thinking about addiction, acknowledging its pain and its presence, but also, I hope, letting our families know that we are there for them, and that they are not alone in their journey, or their struggle.

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A Tribute to Rabbi Seymour Essrog

This a text version of my comments from Friday night, 10/25, at Adat Chaim, the Rabbi Seymour Essrog Memorial Lecture –

     Let me first thank Toby for the invitation to be here tonight, and the opportunity to share some thoughts with you and pay tribute to my friend of blessed memory, Rabbi Seymour Essrog.  Thank you also to Rabbi Seidler for his gracious hosting of this evening, and also a personal point of privilege, for all of the work he does at Sinai for the patients there, not only for the patients there, but for the rabbis in the community, always helping us to serve our congregants.

     I don’t think any of you are aware of this, but this is not the first time I’ve spoken here at Adat Chaim.  The first time was in the building on Cockeysmill Rd, and the date was October 18th 2002, 17 years ago almost exactly, the day that Seymour passed from this world to Olam Ha’Bah, to the world to come.  That was a Friday, and at Beth El we received a phone call from Adat Chaim in the late morning, telling us that Seymour was gone, but also asking us if we could help run the services that Friday night.  At the time I was the assistant rabbi to Mark Loeb, also of blessed memory, and Mark, who could be gruff at times on the outside, had a heart of gold and also always did the right thing.  He called me into his office, and asked me – actually he told me – that I would be speaking at services at Adat Chaim that evening.

     And so it was.

     I don’t honestly remember what I said that night, I am sure some words about Seymour, and something to do with the Torah portion of the week, which was Lech Lecha, and I suppose I spoke about the journey the congregation needed to make after losing its beloved rabbi.  I certainly do remember the emotion in the room – the sadness, the disbelief, the prayers for strength and courage in the face of a terrible time.  Seymour, as well as anyone I ever met, knew how to walk the line between mensch and leader, and his loss was deeply felt, by your congregation, by the community, but the Conservative Movement, and also by the rabbis of Baltimore, and this last piece is key to understanding Seymour, so let me pause there for a moment to wax nostalgic about the glory days of the Baltimore rabbinate.

     These days the Baltimore Board of Rabbis is a convivial group.  When we meet we chat, have some lunch, talk a bit of business, catch up, and head back to work.  But in 1998 when I came to town, the Board of Rabbis was serious business.  Imagine for a moment walking into a room where Mark Loeb, Joel Zaiman, MItchell Wohlberg, Floyd Herman, Gus Buchdahl, and Donald Berlin were all sitting around the table, eyeing each other respectfully, but a bit warily as well.  In those meetings the business of the community really got done, the agenda of the Associated was often set, turf issues were navigated, and these great rabbis solved the community’s problems and laid down the community’s foundation.  And Seymour Essrog was at the center of those conversations.  He was known and respected by all.  He was a voice of reason and wisdom.  When he spoke, people listened – when the conversation came to an impasse, it was Seymour who often figured out a way through.  

     All of this is to say that Seymour was a rabbi’s rabbi.  When you needed advice, you know you could call him and get a good perspective on things.  When you needed a sermon idea, you could check in with Seymour.  He wanted you to succeed, to do well, and he wanted that for two reasons – first, because he thought it was good for the Jewish people.  He believed that you couldn’t have a strong Jewish community without strong synagogues, and he believed that you couldn’t have strong synagogues without quality rabbis.  But the other reason he wanted you to succeed is because he cared about you.  He genuinely did.  When may wife and I came to town one of the first welcoming phone calls I received was from Seymour.  He and Toby invited us to their house for Shabbes dinners.  That was just the way Seymour was, that was the kind of life he and Toby lived, that was the kind of home they made.  As I said before, both a leader and a mensch.

     I suppose I would be remiss if I did not spend a least a few moments thinking about this week’s Torah portion.  After all it is hard to resist when you have Bereishit right in front of you.  It is sort of the rabbi’s equivalent of a 90 MPH fastball coming right down the middle to a major league hitter.  All kinds of narrative.  The creation story.  Adam and Eve.  Cain and Able.  The snake, the forbidden fruit.  Quite a bit to choose from.

     But tonight I would like to point your attention not to the text itself, but to a comment made by Rashi, the medieval sage and commentator, in fact the very first comment that he makes in his Torah commentary.  And he says לא היה צריך להתחיל את התורה אלא מהחודש הזה לכם – which means, ‘you could have started the Torah from the verse “This month will be for you the beginning of months.”’  And if you were to take out your concordance and find that verse you would see that it occurs at the beginning of the 12th chapter of Exodus.  So Rashi is suggesting that we could eliminate all of Genesis – the Creation story, the stories about Abraham and Sarah, about Isaac and Rebecca, about Jacob and Rachel and Leah and Joseph and his brothers – all of those beloved stories! – Rashi seems to be saying – could be skipped over.  They are not needed.  They could be discarded.

     And if that isn’t enough, Rashi also suggests that we throw out the beginning of Exodus, all the way up to chapter 12.  Those first 11 chapters of Exodus contain the Moses birth story, the burning bush text in Exodus 3, the beginning of the Pharaoh / Moses clashes, the first series of plagues.  And why does Rashi suggest we start at Exodus 12?  Because, he says, that is where the mitzvoth really begin.  It is at that point that the Torah starts giving commandments to the Jewish people.  

     Rashi’s point is that Judaism is a faith tradition that is based on laws.  Without the laws, you don’t have Jewish life!  So go right to the laws!  After all, that is what you really need.  

     But then Rashi goes on to say this:  wait a minute!  Maybe we need those stories after all.  Those narratives give us our history.  They teach us about who we are and where we’ve come from.  The stories about the Patriarchs and Matriarchs remind us that we are descended from the first people to ever think about God in a monotheistic way.  The Exodus story reminds us of universal Jewish values, like freedom and human dignity and the importance of justice.  We need those stories, Rashi seems to suggest, because without them, without the context they provide, the law wouldn’t have any meaning to us.

     You see, you need an infrastructure – the law.  But you also need a compelling narrative, stories that will motivate people, capture their attention, and connect them to one another.

     The same might be said of Jewish community.  We need our infrastructure – the Associated, the synagogues, Jewish Community Services, Israel bonds, you can go down the list.  One of the things that makes Baltimore so strong as a Jewish community is the quality of its infrastructure.  

     But infrastructure alone isn’t enough.  It needs to be matched with a story that speaks to people, with a narrative that motivates people.  Another way to say it is that the ‘how’ of the infrastructure – in other words, this is how you do this – has to matched by they ‘why’ we do it.  

     Seymour was a master of both.  He helped to build the infrastructure of Baltimore’s Jewish community, and he is one of the reasons that infrastructure is still so strong today.  At the same time, like the Magid of old, Seymour knew how to tell the story so that it spoke to people’s hearts.  

     We are still telling that story today, as we carry his memory forward, here at Adat Chaim, and throughout the Jewish community.  May we continue to tell it for many years to come.  

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It was the slightest thing, just barely noticeable.  Maybe it was my own sense of perception, maybe reading my own hopes, my own romantic sensibilities into what I saw.  But then again, maybe not.

They were widowers, you see, having lost their spouses after long and loving marriages.  I officiated at each funeral, maybe a year or so apart.  He was lost without his wife for a time, had struggled, they were so close, but now a year and a half had gone by and he was feeling lighter, as if warmth had begun to creep back into his heart.  Her story was similar.  She was wonderful, kind and wise.  She came to services every day after her husband died, and kept coming even after the kaddish period had ended.  She and her husband had made a truly good life together, traveling the world, raising children, maintaining friendships.  I didn’t know they knew each other, my two widowers, had never thought their social paths would have crossed.  At first I thought it was just sheer coincidence that they were sitting next to one another.  After all, it was crowded at Friday night services, seats were at a premium, few and far between.  Perhaps it was simply fate that cast them together.

But there was something more than that.  At least I hope there was.  Just the way they sat, like teens on a first date, so intensely aware of where the other was, of how a forearm rested on a chair, or legs crossed.  It was one of those things you feel, maybe better to say sense – almost like there was some kind of electricity in the air around them.  So carefully keeping their eyes on their prayer books, so intent on not looking up at the wrong time, not wanting to accidentally catching the other’s eye when someone else might see.

And yet the slightest, almost imperceptible, leaning in, one towards the other.  In that subtle way it seemed to me they acknowledged something, if not to others than at least to themselves.  Yes, we are here together.  We are exploring this together, to see what it means, how it feels, how strange, and also exciting, how sad and also maybe how sweet.

There is a passage in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, one of my favorites.  The Lady Eowyn has lost one love, and her heart has grown cold and distant.  But the possibility of love begins to come back into her life.  Slowly, quietly, almost imperceptibly, the young prince Faramir heals her heart.  And then finally she understands that it is possible for her to feel love again, and that darkness, even the deepest darkness, can give way to warmth and light.

From Tolkien, the Return of the King, the chapter entitled The Steward and the King”

“Then the heart of Eowyn changed, or she at last understood it.  And suddenly her winter passed, and the sun shone on her.”

“And Faramir took her in his arms and kissed her under the sunlit sky, and he cared not that they stood high upon the walls in the sight of many.  And many indeed saw them and the light that shone about them as they came down from the walls and went hand in hand to the Houses of Healing.”


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Wonder of Wonders

A text version of my Shabbat sermon from 1/19/19 –

     For many of us of a certain age reading this morning’s Torah portion brings to mind the following image.  Charlton Heston stands on a precipice overlooking the churning waters of a vast sea.  With long white hair and a dense white beard he wears a flowing orange robe with black stripes.  In his hand he carries?  A wooden staff!  And he is surrounded by Israelites.  The camera then shifts, and you see the Pharaoh – played by?  Yul Brenner.  He sits atop his chariot with a stern expression, regal, decked out in Egyptian garb, surrounded by the Egyptian army.  

     Charlton Heston yells out to the Israelites ‘The Lord of Hosts will do battle for us,’ and then turns to face the sea, raising his staff towards the heavens.  And then a miracle happens – the waters of the sea begin to part, forming a path on dry land right through the middle of water, and the Israelites run forward, down the embankment in front of them, striding out onto the seabed, gigantic walls of water on either side of them.  

          The scene in the movie is fairly accurate in terms of what is described in this morning’s Torah reading.  Moses and the Israelites are trapped between the sea and the Egyptian army.  Pharaoh does lead the Egyptians, and they begin to draw close.  Moses does actually say the phrase that Charlton Heston cries out in the film – ה׳ ילחם לכם – God will do battle for you!  And according to the Torah text the waters do split, and the Israelites escape from the Egyptians, passing through a dry path in the middle of the sea, the sea that later will close over the Egyptian army.   

     But there is one crucial detail that is in the Torah that is not in the movie – maybe the most important detail in the entire story.  It is God’s response to Moses when Moses asks for God’s help.  And I think you can’t fully understand the miracle at the sea – and maybe you can’t fully understand the way Judaism approaches miracles in general – without taking into account that response from God in this morning’s Torah reading.  Here is what God says to Moses, immediately after Moses calls for help:  מה תצעק אלי – דבר אל בני ישראל ויסעו – “Why are you crying out to Me?!  Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to go forward.”    

     God does not say ‘don’t worry Moses, I’ll take care of it.’  God does not, by the way, just simply strike the Egyptians directly, which we must imagine God could have done, and which, when you think about it, would have been much easier.  Instead, God tells Moses to tell the people to go forward into the waters – and this is before  – before! – the waters have started to part.  In a classic rabbinic commentary on this Torah text there is a description of the moment – the Israelites are terrified, the Egyptians are coming, Moses has asked for God’s help, God has told Moses to get the people to do something.  No one moves.  And then one Israelite steps forward into the water.  Nothing happens.  Then the water is up to his knees, then up to his waist, then up to his neck.  And then finally, just at the moment when he is not going to be able to breath anymore, the waters begin to part.

     Its a very Jewish story.  You can ask God for whatever you want.  But hedge your bets.  Don’t sit around and wait for God to do it.  Get started yourself.  Walk forward.  Wade into the water, whatever your water might be.  And keep going, even when the water is up to your waist, or your chest.  And maybe something will happen that will change your life.

     The truth is big miracles are rare.  There are only a couple of them described in the entire Bible.  I would even argue that Judaism, by and large, is not that interested in big miracles.  But it is important in Judaism to recognize small miracles.  And the tradition tries to remind us that we are surrounded by those small miracles every single day.  There is a wonderful line in the Modim paragraph that is part of the amidah prayer, where we say מודים אנחנו לך ‘we thank you God – ועל ניסך שבכל יום עימנו – for the miracles that are part of our lives every day.’  

     Many of you remember the wonderful scene in Fiddler on the Roof just after Motel the tailor asks Tevye for permission to marry Tzeitel.  When permission is granted Motel breaks into song, one of the best known Broadway songs of all time – what is it?  Miracle of Miracles!  The lyrics refer to some of the Bible’s great miracles – Daniel surviving the lion’s den – the parting of the sea, from this morning’s portion – and anyone remember the other?  I think David defeating Goliath.  But then the last lines of the song – “But of all God’s miracles large and small, the most miraculous one of all, is the one I thought could never be – God has given you to me.”

     These are the human miracles, the miracles of daily life that we all too often take for granted.  Did you get out of bed this morning?  Since you are here I am imagining the answer to the question is yes.  If you’ve ever spent time in a hospital bed, unable to get up under your own power, you know that getting out of bed can feel like a miracle.  If you’ve seen a baby born, or welcomed a new life into your lives, into your family, you know how miraculous that can be.  If you found the courage and strength you needed to face a dark and difficult moment of your life, if a phone call happened to come from a friend just at the right moment, you know that too can feel like a miracle.  

     It is a miraculous thing to have your health, to share your life with a family, to have children and grandchildren.  It is a miraculous thing to show up for a friend in need, or to get up and face a new day.  These moments don’t require the parting of a sea.  Instead they come about through human courage, and strength, and love, and faith.  May we all find those qualities in ourselves, and those moments in our lives, over and over again, every single day.  

Here is a video clip of the classic scene with Charlton Heston as Moses – 

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A Shifting Ground

Almost right under your feet, and you may not even realize it.  A recent NY Times Book Review issue dedicated its core article to the changing conditions and dynamics of America’s Jewish community.  ‘God is in the Crowd,’ ‘the Jewish American Paradox,’ ‘ ‘The New American Judaism’ – these are a few of the books reviewed in the article, itself tellingly entitled ‘Lamentations.’ (see the NY Times Book Review from November 18th)

Lamentations is of course the name of the biblical book traditionally chanted on Tisha B’Av, the annual commemoration of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples in ancient times.  It is a book about, in a narrow sense, the destruction of a Jewish city, Jerusalem.  But in a larger sense the Book of Lamentations is about the destruction of an entire Jewish community, even a Jewish way of life.  Once the Temple was gone the foundation of Jewish living and religious observance no longer existed.  The Jews at that time (the second Temple destruction occurred in 70 CE) were forced to entirely reinvent themselves, their culture, and their religious life.  Temple rituals were shifted and reflected symbolically in synagogue and home observance.  Study and prayer replaced animal sacrifice.  The rabbi became the central focus of Jewish life, and the role of the Priest began to diminish.  Over time Rabbinic Judaism emerged from the ashes of the Israelite sacrificial cult and Temple-centric worship.  As the process unfolded it was at times torturous, certainly filled with lamentation.  But when it was all said and done, we had become ‘rabbinic’ Jews, following the system of law the talmudic rabbis established some two thousand years ago.  And to this day, that system has defined Jewish life.

What the ‘Lamentations’ article seems to suggest is that the era of Rabbinic Judaism may finally be coming to an end.  We are living, some have suggested, in a ‘post-halachic’ (post Jewish legal system) age.  Understandings of religious life are changing rapidly, particularly for young Jews.  Ideas of traditional Jewish structures like synagogue affiliation, bar and bat mitzvah, worship, and holiday and Shabbat observance are shifting, and in some cases even being discarded.  Recent surveys suggest that today’s Jews identify ethnically, more as lox and bagel and Jerry Seinfeld Jews, as opposed to Jews who define themselves through a religious lens.  Pick your catchy phrase.  This is not your father’s synagogue/Judaism comes quickly to mind.  Perhaps even better, however:  we aren’t in Kansas anymore!

Traditional Jewish institutions are rushing to catch up.  The bar and bat mitzvah ritual is being reimagined, in some cases not even involving reading from the Torah.  So called ‘spiritual centers’ are springing up in synagogues from coast to coast, dressing up modern self improvement programs like yoga or meditation with a Jewish flavor.  Synagogues are becoming cultural centers, hosting music programs, adult education classes, cooking and bridge playing classes and movie nights.  Some of this is Jewishly oriented, some of it is entirely secular, some of it is somewhere in between.  All of it is an attempt, in one way or another, to cope with the shifting Jewish landscape of modern America.

The million dollar question, of course, is will it work?  The answer is, we don’t know.  We may, for a time, convince Jews to keep coming into the synagogue, if not to sit in services and listen to the rabbi’s sermon, at least to learn to play bridge.  But long term will this new kind of Jewish connection enable the Jewish community to retain a sense of distinct identity and to live meaningfully through Judaism?  After all, not everyone even likes lox, if you understand my meaning.

Of course the challenge is to have our cake and eat it too.  In an ideal world we would entice people into the building to meditate or learn to play bridge, and then figure out a way to connect them to Jewish life so they’ll end up more knowledgeable and practicing Jews.  Certainly Jews can meditate and also study Talmud, or play bridge on Thursdays and come to services Shabbat mornings.  Whether they will or not is something we are about to find out.

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On Saturday the Rabbi…

Went to shul, of course!  Yes, even when I am away, even when vacationing, if I can I go to shul.  The truth is I’ve always liked it, going all the way back to my Hebrew school days.  The other students in my class would complain when we were brought in to sit in services, but I didn’t mind.  There was something about it, hard to identify, difficult to pinpoint, maybe impossible for me to explain.

The truth is, I would rather sit in the pews.  My guess is if you polled a group of rabbis about this question, a fair number would tell you they want to be on the bima conducting the service.  I’ve even known a few rabbis who have said to me ‘why would I go to shul if I am not running the service?’  But I enjoy just sitting quietly, doing a bit of davening, following the Torah reading and checking some of the commentaries, just the sort of quiet head space of it all.  Isn’t that part of what shul is supposed to be about anyway?

I also enjoy seeing how things work in other congregations.  It is a big Jewish world out there!  In our own spaces we can get so tied down to OUR way of doing it, the tunes we use, the readings we do, when we sit and stand, even where people sit – it can all become sacrosanct.  There is an old joke in the ‘business’ – you could cut the entire Shema out of the service and no one would say a thing, but if you change the tune of Aleinu, beware!  Of course it isn’t exactly true, but it is true enough.

But a little bit of traveling will remind you that there are a million and one customs, a million and one different ways to do it, each community with its own version.  And yet in some profound way it is all connected, and you can feel at home in any shul, big or small, local or far away.  In one way or another the Torah will be read, the Shema recited, the Aleinu sung.  And you realize, when all is said and down, it is your place, these are your traditions, the people here are your community.  And the shul is your shul, too.

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