Category Archives: synagogue

Joseph’s Bones and The Humility of Moses

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

Tradition has long understood the 7th day of Passover as the day the Israelites crossed through the Reed Sea, finally escaping the Egyptians, and that is why the Sages chose the narrative of the Song at the Sea for this morning’s Torah reading.  It is a dramatic moment, long anticipated, and our custom is to reflect the drama of the text by standing together as a congregation when it is read aloud.  We even participate in the song itself, joining in with the Torah reader when he chants some of the phrases, like מי כמוכה or ה׳ ימלוך לעולם ועד.

But this morning I would like to turn our attention away from that moment of high drama to focus on what is the traditional beginning of this morning’s reading.  As with any great moment of life, there was an extensive amount of mundane preparation that preceded the parting of the sea.  And the Torah gives us a fair amount of detail about those preparations.  The Israelites had to pack their things, and prepare for the long journey that lay ahead of them.  They also had to enact the entire Passover ritual, sacrificing lambs and painting some of the lamb’s blood on the doorposts of their homes.  And they went to the Egyptians, who gave them provisions and even gold to take on the journey.  This was all of the behind the scenes hustle and bustle that went on before they left Egypt, before the drama enacted at the Sea that marks the high point of this morning’s reading.

One can imagine that Moses was quite busy during these last hours in Egypt.  He was the project manager, if you will.  The Torah tells us Moses met with Pharaoh four separate times just before the Israelis left.  He also had to give the people instructions, telling them what they needed to do and how they were to prepare.  He must have been running from place to place, from person to person, making sure everyone knew what their role was, making sure that all the preparations had been properly attended to.

And then there is one additional responsibility that Moses carries out, just at the very moment when the Israelites are leaving Egypt, what must have been the busiest time of all for Moses.  The Torah tells us ויקח משה את עצמות יוסף – Moses took the bones of Joseph.  You may remember that at the very end of Genesis, in fact the second to the last verse of the book, Joseph tells his brothers, just as he is about to die – “you must bring my bones up out of here.  Make sure that one day my bones will be taken to the land of Israel.”  And here is Moses – some four hundred years later – fulfilling Joseph’s wish.

What commentators notice about this is that Moses does it himself.  In everything that was going on, meetings with Pharaoh, preparing more than a million people to leave their homes, the religious rites of the first Passover sacrifices, in all of that, one might have expected Moses to delegate the job of retrieving some 400 year old bones.  Even if they were the bones of Joseph.  If he wanted, he could have sent someone important – he could have sent Aaron, or Miriam.  But he doesn’t – he goes himself, and he schleps.

I am reminded of what I consider to be one of the most valuable lessons I’ve ever learned about being in the working world.  As is so often the case, this lesson came to me not in a classroom or a meeting, but in a casual conversation I had with a secretary, these days an administrative assistant, a conversation that took place now about 30 years ago.  I was working on my Master’s degree at Maryland, and found a part time job working in Rockville for a place called the Care Center.  We had a small office space in the large government complex in Rockville at the center of town, and the secretary of the head of the department sat just across the hall from my desk, and over the months as I worked there I got to know her a bit.

One day we were talking about something – I don’t even remember what – and she said to me that her boss – that department head – was the best boss she had ever worked for.  So I asked the natural question – which is?  Why?  What makes him the best boss you’ve ever worked for?  And she said this:  he would never ask me to do something he wouldn’t do himself.

Now on the surface that is a pretty simple and straight forward statement.   But under the surface there is a lot going on there.  What she was really saying was this:  “My boss and I might have very different jobs, but – he respects me, he values my time as much as his own, he is not afraid to get his hands dirty, and we are in this together, we are working together as a team to do what we need to do.”  And she was saying one other thing – “He is humble.  He doesn’t care what his title is, he is not impressed by his own resume, he doesn’t think he is any more important than anyone else here, including me.  And that is the kind of person for whom I like to work.”

Let me return now to Moses, and the Torah’s understanding of his character.  As large as Moses looms in the Torah, we have very little information from the text about his character.  We are never told, anywhere in the Torah, that Moses is brave, or courageous, or wise, or understanding, or moral or ethical.  In fact, we are only told one thing – directly – about Moses’ character.  We are told that he is humble.  (Numbers 12:3)  And it seems to me that only a person of true humility, on one of the busiest days of his life, would take the time to dig up some old dusty bones because of a promise made 400 years ago.  I guess like the boss of the secretary, Moses also would not ask anyone to do something he wouldn’t do himself.

And I don’t know about you, but that is a very important lesson for a rabbi to remember.  Sometimes in the rabbinate it can feel like every day is the busiest day of your life.  And you are often told all kinds of wonderful things about yourself.  All of it very much appreciated, don’t get me wrong!  But if you are not careful, you can begin to believe your own press clippings, if you know what I mean.  And at the end of the day you have to strive to keep everything in perspective, to remember that you are no better or no more important that anyone else, no more deserving of respect or attention, no less deserving of doing a little schlepping every once in a while.

Because keeping that lesson in mind not only helps you to be a better rabbi, or whatever else it is you might do – it also helps you to be a better Jew, and a better person.  And at the end of the day, isn’t that what we are really all after anyway?

Leave a comment

Filed under Beth El Congregation, Bible, clergy, holidays, Jewish festivals, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, synagogue, the rabbinate, Uncategorized

Come On Down – Why You Should Come to Shul for the High Holy Days

This a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 9/17 –

The weekly Jewish newspaper The Forward published an op ed piece this week written by a rabbi named Jay Michaelson.  The headline of the article is ‘Why You Shouldn’t – should not –  Go to Synagogue on Rosh HaShanah this Year,” and Rabbi Michaelson spends some 1500 words or so explaining why he thinks it is a bad idea for Jews to come to shul to celebrate the beginning of the New Year.  And I understand that some folks just like to be provocative, because that will get them a lot of hits on the internet, and I also understand that sometimes you have a deadline looming, and your are running out of time, and you end up writing the first thing that comes into your mind without fully thinking it through.  So I am not sure whether the Rabbi is in the former category, the latter category, of whether he really believes everything he wrote.  But he does raise three particular points in the article that give him pause, and he says should give us pause, in terms of attending services on the High Holy Days.  And I would like to spend a few minutes with you this morning thinking about each of those points.

Interestingly (at least to me!) his first complaint is a theological one.  We should probably establish a fundamental sense of what theology is – what is it?  Essentially, the way you understand and think about God.  And Rabbi Michaelson says that you shouldn’t come to shul on Rosh HaShanah because when you get there and open your Mahzor you are going to find theological concepts that will make you uncomfortable and that you may not believe.  And as proof of this he cites, also interesting to me, probably the most beloved prayer in the entire Mahzor, the Unetane Tokef prayer.  That is the one where we imagine God with a book that holds a record of our deeds from the year gone by, and where we say, ‘who will live and who will die, who by fire, who by water.’

Now I know that the theological implications of that prayer are problematic, and I myself don’t literally believe that God sits with a book and is writing names into it ‘who is going to live and who is going to die.’  But I also know that the prayer has a power and meaning that still speaks to people today.  It may be because they’ve been reading it since they were little, and it brings to mind sweet memories of Rosh Hashanas gone by.  It may be because the image itself, whether you believe it or not, can get you to think about your own deeds, which is one of the things people do find meaningful at the start of a new year.   It may also be that there is a core truth to the prayer that Rabbi Michaelson either forgot or never understood, and that is in the course of any given year members of our community will pass away, and we truly don’t know what a year will hold.

But I think in general by couching his first objection to shul on Rosh HaShanah in theological terms Rabbi Michaelson misses the point entirely.  Because theology is an intellectual exercise.  It is a rational, philosophical approach to trying to understand God and our relationship with God.  And I don’t think that is why Jews come to shul on Rosh HaShanah.  I am a rabbi, and I can tell you I don’t wake up Rosh HaShanah morning and say ‘boy I can’t wait to do some theology today!’  For most of us the holidays are not about intellectually unpacking something.  They are instead about emotion, about feeling something, that can’t and probably even shouldn’t be quantified by an intellectual process.  So Rabbi Michelson’s first wrong turn is to assume the biggest problem with shul on Rosh HaShanah is an intellectual one, while the truth is most Jews engage in the experience emotionally.

The Rabbi’s second objection to Rosh HaShanah is that the holiday itself sends a series of mixed messages.  He says it is about ‘celebration and seriousness,’ ‘rejoicing and repentance,’ and he sees those ideas as diametrically opposed, concepts that shouldn’t be combined into a single holiday, or ritual.  But Judaism does that with virtually every holiday.  On Passover the matzah is the bread of affliction, and the bread of freedom.  On Sukkoth we rejoice in life and the bountiful harvest, but we also acknowledge life’s temporal quality with the fragile sukkah and the decaying branches of the lulav.  On Shavuot we celebrate the giving of the Torah but we also recall that the Torah has been both a guide and at times a heavy burden to bear and a draining responsibility.  And there is a reasons that themes come together on the holidays to conflicts and sometimes contrast – and that is because it reflects the ebb and flow of life.  There are few perfect days, and even fewer perfect lives.  The truth is most of life is a mixed bag, a combination of celebrations and sadnesses, of triumphs and tragedies, of the good and the bad.  And the holidays, with their interplay of themes, acknowledge life’s complexity, and create sacred spaces in time that are recognizable to us and reflect our own lives.

And by the way, sometimes it is only from contrast that the power of an idea becomes apparent.  Would the sense of freedom, and the gratitude that we feel for it on Pesah feel as powerful it we didn’t see it through the lens of slavery?  On Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur would the focus on life and the celebration of a new year be as meaningful if we didn’t also find in the Mahzor images of life’s fragility?  It is precisely the contrast that makes it all work, that makes it come alive.  The only way you appreciate a sunrise is to have seen a sun set and to have lived through a night.

The Rabbi’s final objection to shul on the High Holy Days is that the services have become some kind of show, where the audience sits passively and watches as the rabbis and cantors perform some kind of ancient and arcane ritual, intoning words that have no meaning and that no one understands.  And I do believe that he may at least have a point here, because it is a danger of modern Jewish life that sometimes the service can turn into a show.

But I don’t think he has even been to High Holy Days services here at Beth El.  I don’t think he has been here in this sanctuary on Rosh HaShanah eve when a thousand Jews stand together, chasing in full voice the words of the Shema Yisrael.  He certainly has not been here on the second day of Rosh HaShanah when for the 5th aliyah the entire congregation stands together to chant the Torah blessings.  And there is no way he has been here during Ne’ilah, when the ark opens, and hundreds and hundreds of people stream forward to spend a few precious seconds in front of the Torahs on the holiest day of our year, to offer their personal prayers of gratitude and hope.

Now I don’t mean to suggest that shul is for everyone.  I know it is not.  But in a Jewish community of growing complexity, where people identity Jewishly in ways that they never have before, surely there is still plenty of space for the synagogue, for the particular and powerful community that can grow within walls like these, for the unique and sacred experience of continuing a three thousand year old tradition.  The great prophet Isaiah, in the text of this morning’s haftara, reminds us that the Jewish tent may grow large – הרחיבי מקום אהלך – “Enlarge the size of your tent, extend the size of your dwelling, lengthen the ropes, drive the pegs firm!”

The Jewish tent grows larger and larger, but the synagogue is still at its center, an institution that conveys identity and transmits tradition like no other in the Jewish world –

may our shuls be full this Rosh HaShanah – and for many, many new years to come –

Leave a comment

Filed under American Jewry, Beth El Congregation, community, High Holy Days, Jewish festivals, Jewish life, Jewish thought, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Rosh Hashanah, sermon, synagogue, Uncategorized

(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.

1 Comment

Filed under American Jewry, clergy, High Holy Days, Jewish life, politics, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Rosh Hashanah, Shakespeare, synagogue, Uncategorized, Yom Kippur

Father and Son

IMG_3497 (1)It just happened to catch my eye. I was there to watch the synagogue’s Hebrew school choir. The children were performing at a nursing home (elderly care facility? supported living environment?). The residents gathered in the common room, eager for a change in their daily routine, happy to see the faces of children and to feel the energy and optimism of youth.

The children sang, so strikingly un-selfconcious. I stood at the back, leaning against the wall. Just in front of me was an old man sitting with his son. The ‘boy’ was probably in his mid 50s, gruff, tense, uncomfortable in his duty. He sat by his father’s side and his eyes darted around the room. I imagined he performs this task often, forces himself to walk through the doors, to find his father, to once again be confronted by the long years and inevitable wearing down of life, and perhaps even by his own future.

As the children sang the man reached over to take his father’s hand. There they sat, hand in hand, father and son. I was surprised by the tender gesture. What a powerful statement and striking promise! You are not alone. I am here with you, I care about you, I love you. I hope I can give you even a little bit of what you’ve given me all these long years.

Then another surprise. The children began to sing Oseh Shalom and I saw the man’s face soften. He held tighter to his father’s hand and his eyes moistened, just that welling up of some deep feeling made of memory and mystery. I turned away, not wanting him to suddenly realize a stranger was intruding on his private moment. The singing ended, the children said their goodbyes, giggling and smiling and shuffling their feet back and forth. As I turned to go I glanced one last time at the man. Still he held his father’s hand, and a sad smile rested on his lips. What the visit meant to his father. What the visit meant to him.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Jewry, Baltimore, Beth El Congregation, community, continiuty, Jewish life, memory, synagogue, Uncategorized

When in Shul, Do as the Romans

You are more familiar with the traditional version of the quote, ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans.’ That is to say, when you are somewhere with a different culture you should by and large conform to that culture. At the very least be sensitive to the fact that a culture that might seem strange to you can have deep meaning and familiarity to others. Be respectful, don’t look down on it, and sometimes just go with it. It is, minimally, the polite thing to do.

One of the challenging things about shul life today is that many Jews feel like foreigners in their own sanctuaries. They are so unfamiliar with the service, so uncomfortable with the rituals, and so detached from a sense of meaning and connection to the tradition, that the experience of shul is alien to them, foreign, something they watch from afar but do not engage in.

Of course the synagogue has some responsibility for this. This is at least in part our failure. We have not successfully communicated the knowledge and skills that people need to participate in our services. I know this, I feel bad about it, I sympathize, and yes, we have our work cut out for us. We will keep trying!

But we need partners. We need people who want to learn, who feel that their lack of connection is important, is something they would like to change. I’ve noticed recently how fewer and fewer people even bother to pick up a siddur during services. They come and sit, they watch the proceedings, they seem to pay some attention when sermons are delivered. But I just don’t understand why you would sit in a two hour service and not want to pick up the prayer book. We call the pages. We do a fair amount in English. There are responsive readings you can participate in, even if you can’t read Hebrew.

Think for a moment of the message you give to your children if you sit there with them and don’t open the prayer book. You don’t have to say anything to them – they’ll know. Mom thinks this is boring! This must not be important, dad isn’t following what is going on. And then the obvious question – why should I?

And I know many people can’t read the Hebrew. And I also know that many people are not comfortable with prayer (both of those issues, by the way, we can work on!). But out of common courtesy, please pick up the prayer book. Follow the service. You don’t have to believe it! You don’t even have to believe in God! Besides, you might be surprised, and something in those pages might be interesting, moving, meaningful, dare I say it, even spiritual. But just by picking up the book you are showing you are part of the community. You are saying ‘even if I don’t understand this, I respect it.’ And you are showing your children that this is something to participate in, something to be taken seriously, something that might one day have meaning for them, even if it doesn’t for you.

So when in shul, please don’t do as the Romans. Do as the Jews.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Jewry, Beth El Congregation, clergy, continiuty, Jewish life, prayer, ritual, synagogue, the rabbinate, Uncategorized

The Difficult and Daunting Search for God

this a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 1/2/16 –

The young man who came to see me was disappointed with God.  He had always been a good person, doing his best to make the right choices and do the right things, to include dutifully coming to shul over the years when his family expected him to be there.  But some things had gone wrong in his life.  It hadn’t worked out as he had wanted or planned.  There was a career misstep here, and a failed relationship there.  A close friend had been sick and suffered.  He had always been told that God cared and that God took care of us – watched out for us, rewarded our good behavior and punished our bad.  But from what he saw, from what he had experienced, it didn’t work that way.  So he made a decision.  He would never set foot in a shul again.  After all, if God didn’t do what God had promised, why should he bother?  Why should he come to a service where God’s name was invoked, where God’s essence was praised?

This was painful to his family.  Judaism was important to them, synagogue life was important to them, the rhythms of the Jewish year, the holidays, the family dinners, were part and parcel of their lives.  But he would have none of it.  The system, as he understood it, had been proven false.  His heart had become hardened to the traditions and history of our people.

I knew that part of this was my fault.  Not in the sense of something I did wrong, but rather because of the system I represent.  He had gone to Hebrew school, had a bar mitzvah, studied Hebrew and holidays and Jewish history.  And somewhere along the line he had learned about God.  This is what he had learned:  God is somewhere up there in the sky, looking down on us.  God watches us, our day to day lives.  When we ask something of God, God hears our request, and when our request isn’t answered, God has decided not to answer it.  When something goes wrong, when we don’t get what we hope for, when we fail or get sick or suffer a loss, God has allowed the thing that hurts us to happen to us.  That is to say, God could have prevented it, but chose not to.  In essence, he had learned that God is a micromanager, deciding on a case by case basis that some will have success while others will fail, that some will have lives of goodness while others will suffer, that on a given day one person will be in a car accident while another person will be spared.

These ideas are of course not new, and the young man is not the first person to understand God in this way, nor to be disappointed in this God.  The Talmud tells the story of Elisha ben Abuya, one of the great sages of his day, a rising star in the talmudic academy.  But living in Roman times he sees terrible things.  He sees Jews being persecuted.  He sees great sages who are humiliated in front of Roman soldiers.  And one day, says the Talmud, he sees a young boy trying to get eggs from a bird’s nest, high in a tree.  And the boy knows the Torah commands that the mother bird should be sent away before the eggs are taken.  But in trying to get the mother to leave her nest the boy loses his balance and falls to the ground and is killed.  And Elisha ben Abuya, one of the great sages of his time, and perhaps of all time, loses his faith.  How could God let something like this happen?, he thinks.

The young man who came to my office did not know about Elisha ben Abuya, had never heard of him I am sure, but he suffered from the same malady and he subscribed to the same theology.  And he had the same question: how could God let something like this happen?

Being a crafty old rabbi, this was not the first time this question had crossed my desk, this was not the first person to sit in the chair across from me with feelings of anger and disappointment about God, and I knew two things – one, there are answers to that question.  And two, none of the answers is fully satisfactory.  So we talked for a while, and I gave him some of those standard answers, and he paused to think seriously about one or two of them, but I don’t think I’ll be seeing him in shul anytime soon.  The misconceptions he holds about how God works are too deeply ingrained for him to let them go, at least now.  But I thought, as he walked out of my office, if we talk about these things more often and more openly, it might help someone else, who is struggling in the same way, to find a different path, and to feel more comfortable walking into a sanctuary carrying doubts about God.

There is an odd passage in this morning’s Torah portion, the first in the book of Exodus.   The Israelites have been enslaved in Egypt.  They are suffering, and the Torah tells us that they cried out to God, a cry for help, for release from suffering and slavery, and that the cry rose up to God.  And then the Torah tells us that God heard their cry, and that God remembered the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  And then the Torah says this:  וירא ה׳ את בני ישראל וידע ה׳ – Elohim saw the Israelites, and Elohim – God – knew.

There are two things about the passage that strike me, one implied, and the other an unanswered question.  First what is implied – if the Torah tells us that God remembered, it means that at some point God forgot.  God forgot about the Israelites.  God forgot they were in Egypt, that they were slaves, seemingly, that they even existed.  I think this is the Torah’s way of telling us that there will be times in our lives when we will not feel God’s presence.  When we will look for God, call out to God, ask for God’s help, and there will not be a response.  Eventually, God did remember.  But for a long time – ימים רבים the Torah says – for a long, long time, God forgot.

And the second thing that strikes me about the passage – the unanswered question – is this:  what did God know?  If you look at the translation of that verse in your Humash, you’ll see it says “and God took notice of them,” but the Hebrew simply says וידע ה׳ – Elohim knew.  God knew what?  And I think the answer to that question is the very next word in the Torah, a word that you all know – Moshe.  Moses.  God knew that a human being had arrived on the scene who would through his own efforts and actions begin the process of freeing the Israelites.  God wasn’t going to do it.  What changed wasn’t that God was now paying attention to the Israelites when God hadn’t been paying attention before – what changed was that the right person had come.  And because of that God knew that soon the Israelites would be free.

Despite what the young man who came to my office had learned growing up, the tradition often teaches us that God is not a micromanager.  God is not looking at the lives of individuals and deciding that certain prayers will be answered while others will be rejected, that certain hopes will be fulfilled while others will be dashed, that this person will suffer while this other person will be saved.  That is not a God I have seen or known in the course of my life, or through my experience.  But I have known a God who blesses a Moses with the strength, courage, wisdom, and hope to lead a people to freedom.  And I have known a God who gives us as individuals the strength, courage, and hope we need to live our lives, to get up and face another day, to be there for people that we love, and to live with faith.  I tried in my office to introduce the young man to that God that I have known.  I hope that one day they’ll meet.  But my prayer today is that the young man should not stop looking – may he find meaning in his search and each of us in ours –

Leave a comment

Filed under Beth El Congregation, clergy, grief, Jewish thought, loss, prayer, preaching, predestination, sermon, synagogue, Torah, Uncategorized

The Ouroboros of the Synagogue

The Ouroboros is a mythic snake, vast in proportion, sustaining its life force by eating its own tail.  Commonly the great snake is understood as a symbol of continual renewal, of regeneration and the endless cycle of life.  But I’ve always felt the symbolism of the Ouroboros has a darker side, for in feeding itself it consumes itself, thereby diminishing what it is and the amount of time and energy it has left.

Lately I have been wondering if an Ouroboros has quietly grown larger and larger in the synagogue community over the last fifty years.  For decades now the bar and bat mitzvah has in many ways been the bread and butter of synagogue life, the driving force behind so much of what we do.  New (and often young) members join synagogues because they want to have a bar or bat mitzvah for their child.  Parents enroll their children in Hebrew school so they can properly be prepared for the ‘big day.’  And the bar and bat mitzvah structure is an important foundation of synagogue income (membership dues, Hebrew school and tutoring fees, post event meals, etc).  As the structure evolved over time, it became a kind of ouroboros – self feeding and self sustaining.

It wasn’t long before a significant slice of the synagogue’s time, effort, and energy was directed towards the bar and bat mitzvah experience.  The ritual itself grew in importance, becoming something that is larger than life.   Commonly today families understand bar/bat mitzvah as a final destination, instead of a stopping point along the way in a Jewish education.  The shul, in turn, focused on it more and more as way of connecting with families and engaging them in synagogue life.  As the ritual grew in importance in the eyes of families, the synagogue put more and more effort into training the students, focused the service on the bar/bat mitzvah ritual, and relied more and more on the celebration attendees to bolster service attendance.   Before our very eyes the Ouroboros grew and grew.

But what happens when it simply can’t sustain itself anymore?  In today’s Jewish world Hebrew school takes a back seat to sports leagues.  Jews are less interested in general in religious life and ritual behavior, both of which serve as traditional pillars of the synagogue.  And more and more, families feel free to create a custom bar/bat mitzvah experience for their child outside of the shul walls, just for family and friends, without clergy, and entirely outside of the synagogue community.

In the near future it seems as if these trends will continue.  The bar/bat mitzvah experience will not nourish and sustain the synagogue as it has in the past.  The challenge for the synagogue community will be to adjust.  Can Hebrew school be reimagined?  Can the bar/bat mitzvah ritual, fundamentally a way to mark a young person’s coming of age, be redesigned so that it remains Jewish, but may not be what it has been for as long as most of us remember – a public reading of scripture by a child?   These are the pressing questions that synagogues are facing.

In a sense the challenge is this:  how do you turn a large ocean liner?  The answer is not easily.  But if talented, committed, caring, imaginative people work together, you have a chance.  One thing we are learning – the time to start trying has arrived.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Jewry, Beth El Congregation, celebration, clergy, community, continiuty, Jewish life, ritual, synagogue, the rabbinate, Uncategorized