Category Archives: the rabbinate

A Week in the Life

Some of what I’ve seen this week:

A four month old baby nestling in the lap of his 90 year old great-grandmother.  His head fit perfectly into the crook of her right arm.  It was a celebration of his naming and conversion (he had been to the mikveh earlier in the day), and also of her special birthday.  The entire family was gathered around.  The children, now in their late sixties, the grandchildren creeping close to their forties, the great-grandchildren, ranging from 10 or so all the way down to this newest addition.  His eyes were bright and wide as he took in his surroundings, his cousins, the generations of his family.  She radiated joy, even tough life was not easy, even though she was mostly wheelchair bound, even though …

But what is a day like that, a moment like that, a family like that, worth?  Maybe the answer is this:  everything.

 

A seventy year old man got up to eulogize his mother.  She died at 94, after a long, good, and full life.  She had seen the birth of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, had been blessed with good health well into her 90s, had lived with a sense of joy and gratitude.  Truly a good life, a life to celebrate.

He spoke simply and clearly, related a story or two, talked about characteristics and qualities, laughed a bit.  And then cried.  Even when you are 70 and your mother is 94, even when the life was good and long, even when there is so much to be grateful for, a loss is a loss, and your mother is your mother, and the one who brought you into the world is no longer there for you, as she always was.  The grief is real, and the pain is deep, and the heart is torn and needs time to mend and heal and feel grateful again.

 

A man in his 80s has been fighting an insidious disease for a long time.  I visit him every few months, to check in, to catch up, maybe to lighten his spirit just a bit.

His independence is slowly but surely eroding.  From living alone to living in a supported living environment, from being able to walk with a walker to riding in a motorized wheelchair, to now needing to be pushed everywhere.  His mind is sharp, he watches it happen, bit by bit, day by day.

He fights with great strength of spirit and even greater dignity.  He smiles and jokes, he goes about his day in the best way he can, he gets up each morning, gets dressed, mindless tasks for us, monumental tasks for him.

We chat about the stock market (oy!), the Ravens (he is a fan and anticipating this weekend’s game), and most of all about his family.  He plans for the future, thinks about how he can improve his life, and finds within himself the grit and determination to do so.

The morning blessings we recite each day remind us to be grateful for the ability to stand, to move, to stretch, to dress, to rise from bed, to welcome the morning’s first light.

Life, too, can remind us of how grateful we should be for each and every day.

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, Jewish life, liminal moments, mindfulness, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, the rabbinate, Uncategorized

Looking for God In All the Right Places

This is the time of year when I begin to receive phone calls from congregants who ask me to put in a good word for the Ravens, and with a big game coming up this Sunday agains the Steelers I received a number of those calls over the last few days.  Generally the calls go something like this:  ‘Rabbi, are you going to daven today?’  And I respond ‘yes, I daven every day.’  ‘Well, if you don’t mind, put in a few good words for the Ravens.’  

     These calls always make me uncomfortable, and the truth is there are a number of problematic assumptions that the caller is making.  The first of those is that the caller is presuming I am a Ravens fan, but I am not, I am a Dolphins fan, so if my prayers about the NFL moved God in any way whatsoever the Dolphins would have won at least a Super Bowl or two since 1974, and we’ve seen how that has worked out.  But the other problematic assumption is that those callers are implying that I have access to God in a way that other people don’t, that my prayer would carry weight in the Divine throne room in a way that someone else’s prayer would not.  And maybe even that I have some kind of special knowledge of God, that I understand God in a way that other people are not able to.

     Those phone calls often remind me of the passage we read from the Torah this morning.  It is a bit of an odd choice by the Sages, used both for the Shabbats of Hol Hamoed Sukkot and Pesah, probably chosen for this role because it contains a few brief verses about the Pilgrimage Festivals.  But when those calls about the Ravens reach me it is the earlier part of the Torah reading that comes to my mind.  It is a narrative about what happens between Moses and God, just after the incident of the Sin of the Golden Calf.  

     The narrative of the Sin itself is well known.  To tell it in short form, as it is a busy day this morning in shul:  Moses is up on the mountain? 40 days and 40 nights, the people get nervous, Aaron gets even more nervous, together they make an idol in the form of a golden calf, God gets angry, Moses gets angry, the tablets get shattered, God punishes the people.  For those of you keeping track that is the entire 35 verses of Exodus chapter 32 presented in 46 words.  A little more than one word per verse!

     But what is far less familiar is what we read this morning, what at least I find to be a painful conversation between Moses and God, as they try to process everything that has just happened, the sin, the broken tablets, God’s anger, Moses’ anger, everything that has gone wrong.  And in the course of that conversation, Moses reaches a low point, a point of despair when he is just about ready to give up the entire project.  And at that precise moment, Moses says one thing to God:  הראיני נא את כבודך – ‘God,’ Moses says, ‘please show me what you really are, show me Your essence.’

     Now remember, Moses is God’s guy.  Moses is the one human being God trusts.  Moses is the one God tasked with getting the Israelites out of Egypt.  Moses is the one God called to the top of Mt. Sinai for forty days and forty nights.  Moses is the one to whom God gave the Torah.  And Moses, in a desperate moment, is saying ‘God, give me something!  A little extra strength, courage, hope, something!’

     And what does God say back to Moses?  God says, ‘no!’  לא תוכל לראות את פני כי לא יראני האדם וחי – you may not see My face, my essence, because no person can see my face and live.’  

     This is a time of year when I suspect a lot of God searching is going on.  We’ve just spent hours upon hours sitting in shul on RH and YK, praying, fasting, thinking about our lives, and in the course of all that, probably wondering if God will be there for us in the new year, if God will show us just a little bit, give us a sign, let us know that God is there for us.  And I guess what I want to say to you today is that I am searching in the same way that you are.  And I have just as much trouble with that search as you.  In fact sometimes I might have more trouble.  I will let you in on a little secret, just between you and me, please keep it in this room.  A rabbi is no different than anyone else.  You actually don’t need a rabbi in Judaism to officiate at a funeral or a wedding or an unveiling, or to give a sermon for that matter.  You just need a knowledgeable person.  A rabbi might know more about certain topics, because a rabbi has probably studied more than you have.  But a rabbi is not any more special, or more holy, or for that matter, any  closer to God than anyone else.  

     So when you want to call someone about praying to God for the Ravens to beat the Steelers, you might want to call someone who knows a lot more about football and a lot less about Talmud.  Minimally you’ll have the same chances of success.  And you never know, what if God asks about player X,Y,or Z?  I don’t even know the players names!

     I said a moment ago that when Moses asks God for a sign, for a deeper knowledge of God’s ways, God says no.  Full confession, that is not entirely true.  What God really says is ‘You can’t know me Moses, because no human being can know me.  But you can catch a glimpse.  Just the merest hint of My Presence.’  The text never tells us what that experience is like for Moses.  What he felt, or how much he saw, or what exactly happened.  The only thing we know is that whatever Moses got, as little as it might have been, it was enough.  And he continued his search, went back up the mountain, and began to carve the second set of tablets.

     In many ways I feel like our task is the same.  To continue our own searches, and perhaps to see a glimpse – just the faintest hint – of what we are hoping to find.  To look for God in the sukkah, or in the daily minyan, or in our interactions with those with whom we share our lives.  Or in the golden and red leaves of fall.  To walk back up to the top of the mountain, to carve our own tablets, and to every once in a while feel that what we are carving is true.  As a rabbi I can’t honestly tell you how to get there, or what you might find at the top.  No rabbi can.  But I do believe if we make the journey together we will find meaning along the way.

May that be God’s will!

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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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A Retired Tallit

It was purchased just before my bar mitzvah, now 41 years ago.  I wore it proudly that day, one of the few bar mitzvah boys in the temple I grew up in to wear a prayer shawl the morning of my service.  In those days traditional practices like that were frowned upon in the Reform Movement.  But those very same practices fascinated me.  It seemed to me it smacked of something – tradition?  Authenticity?  Some ancient mysticism?  Whatever it was, I remember to this day the feeling as my rabbi helped to drape the tallit over my shoulders.

Who could have known at the time how often that prayer shawl would be worn?  At first it was just the occasional holiday service, when I would take it off the shelf where I kept it, carefully folded in its blue velvet bag.  But in my twenties it became a daily companion.  I had another tallit, a large, multicolored, gorgeous wool shawl that covered my entire six foot frame.  But that I used mostly on Shabbat and holidays.  In terms of my daily davening I used my bar mitzvah tallit.  It was relatively small, easy to store and fold, took up very little room in a suitcase when I traveled.  Each morning I would reach for it, unzip its bag and remove it, unfolding it.  After reciting the requisite blessing I kissed the edges of its atarah, and then briefly held the shawl over my head before letting it fall into place.

This ritual – for so it must be called! – was repeated over and over again, day after day, week after week, year after year.  I guess it would now be close to thirty years that the old tallit has served me so faithfully.  I often wondered if it somehow knew the inner workings of my heart?  I put it on on bad days and good ones.  Sometimes when it rested on me I was filled with sadness, other times with profound gratitude.  There were weary mornings after nights with little sleep, and bleary eyed I would still take the tallit from its bag, still say the blessing, still wear it for the brief moments of my morning prayers.  I wore it when doubts nagged at me, even when it seemed there was no reason to wear it, or perhaps even a reason not to.

As time went by the blue bag faded, the zipper no longer worked, the bag’s yellow lining was torn and threadbare.  The tallit itself suffered from the constant folding and unfolding, its creases wearing until finally holes began to appear.   Still I used it, perhaps folding it more gingerly, but not reducing its daily workload.  The tallit had been with me for thirty years, in LA and Boston, in New York and Jerusalem, in dozens of other cities we’ve visited and places we’ve stayed.  And remember, that formative and transformational moment, that bar mitzvah morning.

It was just a few weeks ago when I finally realized the holes were getting too large, and before long the tallit would just begin to fall apart.  I used it one last time, one last time taking it from its bag, one last time saying the ancient words with its barely noticeable weight on my shoulders, one last time carefully folding it and putting it away. Maybe it understood, somehow sensing that it could finally rest.  It had done its job well, always there for me, guiding me from the wide eyed bar mitzvah boy of over forty years ago to the rabbi and middle aged man of today.  One day I may bury it with honor in the cemetery, in the geniza grave with the other talleisim and prayer books and old humashim.  But for now it will sit on my shelf, in its old place, as it ever was.  There is now a new tallit there as well, and I’d like the two to get to know one another for a time.

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Addendum (the Monday morning QB)

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

But of course in the internet age, you can.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The Glasses

These are the little things that remind us that time is creeping by.  A bit like an honest look in the mirror, one of those moments when you realize you aren’t in Kansas anymore, that you actually do look your age, and that your age is somewhere in the mid-50s!  Who knew?!

And so it was that I set out, just late enough not to turn back, to officiate at a funeral.  I was most of the way down the street when I realized I had left my reading glasses at home.  I’ve been wearing reading glasses for some time now, close to a decade, but until very recently I could pretty much get by without them in a pinch, particularly if the light in the room was good and I wasn’t too tired.  If you use reading glasses yourself, you’ll know what I mean.

But just the last month or so I’ve needed them more and more.  Those little blurry things on that page are letters?  Good light still helped, but trying to read a menu in a restaurant had become impossible – it essentially looked like a series of ink schmears on yellow paper.  Nevertheless, here I was, Rabbi’s Manual in hand, eulogy printed out in 12 point font, and in 15 minutes or so I would be standing in front of a group of mourners, reading from that manual and delivering that eulogy, no reading glasses in sight.

It wasn’t perfect, but in the end it worked out OK.  The light was good, and I adjusted the lectern so it was as far away from my eyes as it could possibly be.  I had just written the eulogy, so it was fresh in my mind, and that also helped.  The truth is I barely need the Rabbi’s Manual.  I’ve read those prayers hundreds and hundreds of times, and they are imprinted in my mind.  It is pretty much like starting the tape and letting it play.  Even so, I’ve seen Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead forget the words to Me and My Uncle, a song he has sung more than a thousand times.  He now uses an iPad so the lyrics are always there, just in case.  So it is with my Rabbi’s Manual.  More of a crutch than a necessity.

And that is the funny thing about it.  As a young rabbi, I didn’t need the glasses.  Everything was crystal clear, whether near or far.  But I sure needed that Rabbi’s Manual.  The thought of conducting a service without one would have terrified me twenty years ago.  Now it is exactly the opposite.  The manual I don’t really need anymore, or at least I know I can get buy without it in a pinch.  But I sure need those reading glasses!  The more experience I have, the muddier things get.  Ah, the wisdom of aging…

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Running Down A Dream

You might recognize the phrase as the title of a track from Tom Petty’s 1989 album Full Moon Fever.  The rock and roll world lost one of its greats when Petty died at the (relatively) young age of 66 just a couple of weeks ago.  I was never a huge Petty fan, never even bought one of his records, and saw him live only once, on July 4th 1986.  But his music was always around, ubiquitous, part of the soundtrack of my high school and college years, his songs constantly on the radio, so many hits, so many catchy licks, so much good music for so long.  Like all great song writers Petty loved a turn of phrase, and ‘running down a dream’ is a wonderful example.  Although the lyrics of the song are mostly bright and cheery, the title evokes the edginess of dreams, and perhaps also the difficulty of attaining them.  You have to chase after a dream, work for it, hunt it down.  Only then, over time, might it become reality.  And the chorus of the song reminds us that often, ultimately, dreams are out of our reach:  “running down a dream, that would never come to me..”

It reminds me a bit of navigating the fall holiday cycle in the Jewish calendar.  The introspection of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are supposed to lead to the festive joy of Sukkot and the celebratory release of Simhat Torah.  That is the dream, and throughout the holiday season those of us who work in the synagogue world chase that dream with everything we have.  But the truth is it always feels slightly out of reach, ephemeral, just at the edge of your peripheral vision.  To paraphrase another great rock and roller, Bruce Springsteen,  ‘you can look but you cannot touch.’  Part of clergy work is simply the expenditure of personal energy – bringing your spirit to the service, to try in some way to heighten the atmosphere, to make things feel festive, warm, worthwhile.  You are chasing that dream, running it down.  But sometimes in the chase, it runs you down instead.

And the truth is you rarely, if ever, get there.  You know the old joke – the mother wakes up her son on Shabbat morning and says ‘you have to get up, it is time to go to shul!’  The son responds ‘I don’t want to go!  I am tired of shul!  I went yesterday! I am not going!’  ‘But,’ responds the mother, ‘you are the rabbi!’  Most rabbis, if being candid, will tell you they are just as tired of shul at the end of the holiday cycle as their congregants.  That energy gets more and more difficult to muster, the dream of joy and celebration more and more elusive.  The protagonist in Petty’s song never finds his dream.  Here is the last stanza:

I rolled on as the sky grew dark
I put the pedal down to make some time
There’s something good waitin’ down this road
I’m pickin’ up whatever’s mine

And there again you see the great song writer at work.  Just a few words, but what it captures!  Hope springs eternal in the human heart.  We can’t see the road ahead, but we always believe that something good waits for us there.  We hurry forward, picking up the cards we are dealt, chasing that dream, hoping against hope that at the end of the road we will find joy, maybe even ecstasy.

Of course what Jews learned long ago is that joy is almost always tempered.  When found it comes about through hard work, through effort and energy, often blood, sweat, and tears.  But on the rare occasions when it is found, the difficulty of the journey makes the taste sweeter and the appreciation deeper.  In the meantime we continue down the road under darkening skies.  Just beyond the next mile marker the clouds may part and the sun might shine.  Put the convertible top down!  Here is the first stanza of Running Down A Dream:

It was a beautiful day, the sun beat down
I had the radio on, I was drivin’
Trees flew by, me and Del were singin’ little Runaway
I was flyin’…

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, celebration, High Holy Days, holidays, Jewish festivals, Jewish life, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, rock and roll, the rabbinate, Uncategorized