Category Archives: the rabbinate

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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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?

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Integrity

 

In his column in this morning’s NY Times David Brooks seems to suggest that we should evaluate the Trump presidency by dividing the president elect into two.  On the one hand, we’ll have the Trump who will send out late night tweets, ranting and raving against those whom he sees as enemies, making strange policy pronouncements, commenting on product lines or movie stars (Trump #1).  On the other, we’ll have the Trump who sits in the Oval Office and works with his staff, crafting the nation’s agenda and working to implement economic, domestic, and foreign policy (Trump #2).  Brooks argues that we shouldn’t evaluate Trump #2 by what Trump #1 might say or tweet. Almost as if they are two different people, unconnected in all but appearance.

Certainly there is precedent for this idea.  We have long understood that the private behavior of the president does not necessarily reflect on his ability to do the job, to lead the nation, to be the voice for all Americans.  Bill Clinton’s indiscretions come to mind.  So do JFK’s, the famous Camelot of early 60s Washington now tarnished by the probing scope of history.  But there does seem to be a limit.  Nixon’s image was irreparably damaged by Watergate, crossing the line from indiscretion to illegality the way he did.  Nevertheless, at the end of the day evidence indicates that we want someone in the office who can do the job, whether or not they are a paradigm of moral rectitude and probity.  Whether or not they are a person of integrity.

Of course integrity has another meaning, commonly the second definition you’ll find when you look it up in the dictionary.  From its verb form, ‘to integrate,’ the word also means the state of being whole and undivided.  That is to say that the outside of a person matches the inside, the public persona and private persona are one and the same.  This is a challenge for members of the clergy.  Publicly we espouse certain values, we sermonize  about faith and our fellow man, we challenge our congregants to become better people (and for rabbis better Jews!).  But privately we may struggle with our own faith.  We may all too often give in to our baser instincts, over time souring and sinking in a sea of cynicism.  We may begin to look at others and wonder what they want from us, instead of what we can give to them.  This may be all too human, but it is not holy.

There is an old midrashic comment about the ark that contained the tablets that Moses brought down from Sinai.  According to Torah text that ark was gilded with gold, both on the outside, and the inside.  Of course the outside makes sense – that is what is visible to the world, so when the people looked at the ark they saw the beautiful gold gleaming in the sun.  But why bother with gold on the inside, a part of the ark that no one saw?  The answer, of course, is that the inside is just as important as the outside.  At the end of the day the people we are most impressed with are those whose inner qualities shine through, creating a brighter light than any polished gold ever could.

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The Height

Of hypocrisy, that is.  The Orthodox rabbinate in Israel was in a pickle.  A bind.  Facing a conundrum.  They had vigorously and vociferously supported Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy.  When Trump was elected one prominent Israeli rabbi publicly said it was a sign that the Messiah was about to arrive.  But there was a problem, and it had to be resolved fairly quickly.  Trump’s daughter Ivanka was a convert to Judaism, but Israel’s Orthodox rabbis had previously stated that her conversion was not valid.  What to do?  How could they not accept the Jewish status of the daughter of the man they so desperately wanted to be president?

It seems it wasn’t so complicated after all.  The very rabbis who deemed the conversion not halachic (not properly performed according to Jewish law) were now willing to ‘reexamine’ the issue.  Just last week Israel’s chief rabbis released a statement in which they said a check list for proper conversion procedure would be put together, and once a rabbi was determined to follow that list all of his conversions would be considered valid.  Interestingly the statement mentioned Ivanka Trump by name, adding that in a case like hers there would not be a need for investigation – her conversion would be valid, end of story.

What a relief!  Just in the nick of time Israel’s Orthodox rabbinate remembered that in fact Jewish law can be flexible.  It is a good thing, because it sure would have been embarrassing (awkward!  in today’s vernacular)  if those Orthodox rabbis had so warmly embraced Donald Trump while at the very same time so coldly rejecting his daughter.   What would the Messiah have thought of that?  We should be able to ask him soon.  Now that Trump is going to be president, he should be here any day.

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The Rabbi’s Holiday

Thanksgiving, of course.  A day when you actually might not have to  work, when you can stay at home with your family, make pancakes, read the paper, leisurely sip your morning coffee, watch some football later in the day, drink a beer in the middle of the afternoon.  You know, like normal people, normal families, do on weekends.  Those days are few and far between in the rabbinate.

People often say to me after the fall holidays “I hope you are resting up after the holidays, rabbi!”  But I’ve learned that one of the busiest times of my year is from the END of the holidays to Thanksgiving.  Suddenly the weddings begin (I’ve had one every Saturday night for the last month, another one Wednesday night before Thanksgiving).  Unveilings, people trying to get them in before the real cold arrives.  Meetings, delayed by the yom tov days, begin in earnest.  All of the email you couldn’t keep up with during the holiday season you try to wade through.  This year for me funerals as well (nine since Simhat Torah).  Every year through the holiday season an extended stretch of working many days in a row.  This year for me that stretch reached 42.  But who is counting?

I worry about it, I really do.  I worry first and foremost that my children’s main memory of their father as they grew up will be me walking down the stairs, leaving the house, saying ‘see you later,’ and the kids responding ‘bye, dad.’  And that is it.  No games of catch.  No kicking the soccer ball around.  No watching football together on Sundays, or brunches making omelettes together, or raking leaves, or just getting in the car and going for a ride. Zip. Zero. Zilch.  These experiences make up many of the fond memories I have of time spent with my dad while I was growing up, and I just wasn’t able to provide them for my own children.  Deep regret there, no doubt about it.

I worry also about burnout.  Heavy phrase, that.  Sounds almost violent, destructive.  But it also has a sense of hollowing, like what is done to a giant tree trunk to make a canoe.  What you have left in the end from the outside looks good, strong, and stable.  It even floats!  Performs its mission with competence, as intended.  But the inside is gone, nothing there but emptiness.  A literal shell of its original form.  I am often reminded of these lines from one of my favorite Hunter/Garcia compositions, called ‘Comes a Time’:

From day to day just letting it ride
You get so far away from how it feels inside
You can’t let go ’cause you’re afraid to fall
But the day may come when you can’t feel at all

I understand everything is a trade off.  There are many professions where people work hard, long hours, high pressure jobs, no question about it.  And I’ve been blessed professionally in many ways, serving a fabulous congregation, working with talented and caring people (fun people as well!).  Making a good living (not to be underestimated!).  My children have been able to grow up in one community, something that rabbi’s children rarely do, and I am enormously grateful for that.  But a trade off is exactly what it implies – something gained, something lost.  The question is, what is the price of that loss?

So thank goodness for Thanksgiving!  An actual break in the never ending flow of dedicated time.  A day to spend with people we love.  A day to walk the dog under a fall sky, to watch the last leaves gently fall from the trees, to browse the paper, sip some coffee, watch some football, live life, and just think and be.  Yes, a day like that.  Even for a rabbi.

This the chorus of that Hunter/Garcia song:

Comes a time when the blind man takes your hand
Says, “Don’t you see?
Gotta make it somehow on the dreams you still believe
Don’t give it up, you got an empty cup
That only love can fill, only love can fill, only love can fill”

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Some Election Thoughts – or Maybe Not

This is one of those Shabbats where a rabbi is darned if he does, and darned if he doesn’t, if you know what I mean.  If I decide not to talk about the election some of you will be happy, probably feeling, as my wife Becky warned me, just simply exhausted from the whole business, and not wanting to hear any more about it.  On the other hand, some of you will be upset, wondering why I chose not to deal with what without question is a significant moment in the history of our country.  That being said, if I decide to talk about the election those of you who don’t want to hear about it will be disgruntled, while others might not like what I have to say.  As I said, darned if I do, darned if I don’t.

It is perhaps no coincidence that we are reading Parshat Lech Lecha this week, the Torah portion that tells of God’s initial call to Abraham and the beginning of his journey.  I often think of how Abraham must have felt during those moments.  First going to Sarah, and saying to her ‘we have to pack, we are going to leave the one place we’ve ever known.’  They readied their possessions, took their nephew Lot, their flocks and herds, their servants.  And then a morning came, and as the sun began to rise, Abraham turned his back on the dawn and looked into the darkness of the distant west.  He looked out at that moment on an unknown future, and I imagine he was filled with trepidation, wondering what would happen in the course of his journey.

And there are many Americans this week who feel much like Abraham did so long ago, looking out on an unknown future with trepidation, wondering what that new landscape will mean to their lives, to their families, to their country.  The simple truth at this point is that no one knows what the future will hold – if the election taught us anything, it surely should have taught us that.  And one of the striking things about the Abraham narrative is that as unsure as he was of his future, he stepped out into it boldly, and with faith.  I don’t think that was because he believed it was going to be easy, and in fact we know, because we know his entire story, that he would have more than his fair share of trials and tribulations along the way.  Instead I think that Abraham was able to begin that journey, take that first step, because he knew he was not taking it alone.  He had Sarah with him.  God also was with him.  He was not alone.

Neither are we.  We will travel the next years together, together with our families, together with our friends, and together as a sacred community, as a congregation.  We will share the road with our fellow travelers, some of whom we agree with, some of whom we disagree with, some of whom make us a bit crazy, some of whom we’ve known for years, some of whom we’ve just met.  But all of whom we care about, all of whom we will support and respect.  Our journey will not be physical the way Abraham’s was, but Abraham’s journey was also, and perhaps more so, spiritual, emotional, and intellectual, and it was also a journey of personal growth.  And God willing that is the kind of journey we will all be blessed with in the months and years ahead.

Of course we have a say in that, we have the ability to at least in part determine our own destinies, the quality of the journey we take.  That is one of the chidushim, the new ideas, that Abraham brought into the world as the first Jew, and over time that idea would grow into one of Judaism’s great gifts to the world.  Our actions matter, they make a difference in our own lives, and even in the world we live in.  The classic commentators note that Abraham is the first person in the entire Bible to call God by the name Adonai, a name we still use for God today.  It happens in this morning’s Torah portion, toward the end of the sedra, in the context of a conversation that Abraham has with God.  God assures Abraham that he will one day be in possession of the land of Israel, Abraham responds to God by saying this:  Adonai Elohim, במה עדה כי אירשנה  – literally, how will I know that I will possess it?  But you can hear in Abraham’s address to God the word Adonai – the very first time it is used by a human in the Bible.

What does the term mean, literally translated, the word Adonai?  Literally translated it means ‘my Lord.’  Lord in the sense of a master, like in the Middle Ages, the Lord of the Manor.  And the Talmud teaches that Abraham uses this term for God intentionally because he had an insight that no other person had had, namely that religion, at least Judaism, is less concerned with belief in God, and more concerned with serving God, with doing God’s work.  And so Abraham called God Adonai – my master, my Lord – the One I will serve.

And that is something I’ve come to understand over the last few days.  My service of God is not dependent upon who sits in the Oval Office.  It is something that is independent of politics, or elections, or the way the country may or may not be divided ideologically.  The issues I care about, the concerns that I have, the way that I live Jewishly, the mitzvoth that I engage in, would remain the same regardless of what state I lived in, what country I lived in, or who the leader of that country was.  These come out of my understanding of what kind of world God wants us to build together, and what my role in that building process is, and what responsibilities are incumbent upon me in terms of living a committed Jewish life.

For me that is a fairly long list.  It includes rituals I engage in every day, like tallit and tefillin and daily prayer.  It includes study of our sacred texts and traditions.  The celebration of Shabbat and the festivals.  And it also includes heeding the words of the great prophet Isaiah, to care about the downtrodden, to cloth the poor and feed the hungry, to stand up for the rights of those who don’t have a voice in our world, to ensure that hateful speech and hateful actions are not tolerated, and to cry out when any one group – whether ethnic, racial, religious, or gender oriented –  is singled out because it is different.  And my service of God consists of some complicated stew of all of those things, the values and the practices and the traditions and the texts and the ideals that together make up a full and meaningful Jewish life.

As presidents come and go, as congressional seats change hands, as stentorian senators speak, my sense of what it means to serve God stays the same.  In that I take comfort – this week, in all the weeks gone by, and in all the weeks yet to come.  There is much work to do to make this a Godlike world, as there was, as there always will be.  And I have a responsibility to engage in that work, as I always have.  To paraphrase the great words of our sages, I don’t have to finish the job myself, but I am not permitted to walk away from it either.

So there you have it.  Darned if I did, darned if I didn’t.  In a way I suppose I did both.   Or maybe neither – you’ll tell me.

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