Category Archives: Torah

A Woman President

Following is a text version of my sermon from 1/18/20 – mazaltov to my cousins Andrea and Gidon Margolin on the naming of their beautiful daughter Romi Maya!

     If you happened to be watching the Democratic presidential candidate’s debate this past week you heard one of the best debate lines to come along in many a long year.  The question was about whether a woman could win the presidential election, and Elizabeth Warren was quick to point out that of the six people on the debate stage, the two women – Warren herself, and Amy Klobuchar – had never lost an election, while the four men who were there all had.  Classic debate moment – in one sharp line, you say something positive about yourself, you criticize your opponent, and you know people will be talking about it the next day.  And we all were.  Take that Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders!

     Whether Elizabeth Warren will be the woman to finally put that question to bed remains to be seen.  For the time being she is locked in a tight race with Sanders, her once friend and now nemesis, and it seems at this point like one of them will indeed be the democratic nominee.  But if it doesn’t happen in 2020 it can only be a matter of time before a woman will be president.  When you think about it the US is actually lagging in the area of women’s political leadership.  Germany had Angela Merkel, Britain has had Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May, Israel had our beloved Golda Meir.  Canada had Kim Campbell.  But so far in the US?  Bupkiss, as we say.  Not even a woman vice president to date.

     If it ever were to happen, now seems to feel like it might be the time.  Have you noticed in recent months how many of our major movie and TV programs revolve around women heroes?  On the small screen – or maybe not so small screen anymore – you have the TV series the Crown, about Queen Elizabeth’s life, as well as the Marvelous Ms Maisel, and the more recently popular Fleabag.  Each of these shows features a strong willed, savvy, intelligent woman who is willing to push the limits and speak truth to power, even if that power is represented by men.  

     In the movie world we’ve gone from Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker, the original Star Wars hero, to Daisy Ridley’s Ray, the woman who is the hero in the newest Star Wars trilogy.  And of course you can’t miss Little Women, the newest movie version of the classic novel by Louisa May Alcott.  This film, which tells the novel’s story faithfully but plays around a bit with the chronology, is a wonderful tour de force of acting and directing, and a powerful statement about life from a woman’s perspective, a perspective not often explored in the world of Hollywood cinema.  

     But we don’t need to look to contemporary culture for women who are heroes and role models.  They’ve been around for a long time, and are at least as old as the Torah.  We’ve just finished reading the book of Genesis, and in story after story we met women who were at the center of the great events of their day.  In each generation in Genesis a woman plays a crucial role in moving the narrative along in the direction God intends.  Sarah makes sure that Hagar is out of Abraham’s house so that Isaac will be the sole inheritor of the covenant.  Rebecca takes this to the next level, directing her son Jacob in the deception of Isaac so the birthright and blessing will go to Jacob and not Esau.  And as we saw in last week’s Torah portion, Rachel remains in Jacob’s mind, to the very end of his life, his one true love.   In each generation the matriarchs – just as well as the patriarchs, and in some cases even more so – are central figures in the historical narrative of our people.  

     And that certainly does not end with the book of Genesis!  This morning we began reading the Book of Exodus, and in the midst of the exodus narrative, with Moses and Aaron, with Pharaoh and the Egyptians, with the plagues and ultimately the splitting of the sea, it is easy to lose track of the crucial roles that women play in the story.   But the truth is there is a women’s narrative in Exodus, almost like a second theme or motif in the book, and it is particularly evident in the opening chapters that we read this morning.  On many levels it is actually the women who are propelling the action, and over and over again in the story a woman must make a choice to act, and if she doesn’t, the story would literally end.  It is no wonder that our Sages, in the Talmudic tractate Sotah, make the following statement:  בשכר נשים צדקניות שהיו באותו הדור  – נגאלו ישראל ממצריים – it was because of the merit of the righteous women of that generation that Israel was redeemed from Egypt. (Sotah 11b)

     What did these women do?

     Harold Kushner, in his commentary in our Humash on this morning’s portion notes that there is a subtle pattern in the Moses story – namely, that Moses’ life is constantly threatened by men, and when that happens, he is saved by women.  It happens with his mother – whose name was?  Yocheved!  She makes the decision to hide him in the basket and send him down the Nile when she can no longer conceal his presence.  Then it is Pharaoh’s daughter who draws him out of that basket.  Then it is Moses’ sister – what is her name?  Miriam! – who happens to be there and manages to arrange for Moses’ mother to nurse him and take care of him.  Then later in the portion there is a bizarre scene where Moses is mysteriously attacked when he and his wife – what is her name?  Tzipporah! – are traveling.  And it is Tzipporah’s action in that strange story (Exodus 4) that saves the day. 

     So the Talmudic Sages are picking up on this story, and they seem to be saying that without the actions of each of these women – Yocheved, Pharaoh’s daughter,  Miriam, and Tzipporah – then Moses would not have survived, and if Moses didn’t survive, it is possible we would still be slaves in Egypt, and not sitting in a beautiful chapel here in Baltimore, worshipping freely.  We might amend the Talmudic statement, and say it wasn’t the merit of the righteous women that redeemed Israel – instead, it was their determination and courageous action that ultimately enabled Israel to go free.

     I must also say this morning it strikes me as no coincidence that we have had the blessing of celebrating Romi’s naming.  As Andrea and Gidon explained, she is named after people who have been important in their lives and in their family.  But Romi Maya also is the great, great granddaughter of my Bubbie, Kate Schwartz, whom many of you in the room today knew as a true matriarch in our family, strong, determined, proud, and fiercely loyal to her family and her faith.

     With Gidon and Andrea’s guidance may Romi share in some of those qualities as well.  I suspect by the time she is aware of such things there will already have been a woman president of the United States.  And if not, you know what – maybe she will be the first.  Wouldn’t that be something?  A woman – and a Jew – in the Oval Office!

     As they say – halavei!!

Leave a comment

Filed under Baltimore, Beth El Congregation, Bible, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Torah, Uncategorized

Angel or Man?

A text version of my Shabbat sermon from 12/21.  Best to all for a Happy Hanukkah –

     The following scenario may be familiar to you – less so for your children and grandchildren, who have grown up with cell phones and GPS.  There are two people, driving in a car.  Let’s say, for argument’s sake, the two people are husband and wife.  And let’s also say – again, for argument’s sake – that the husband is driving.  They are going to a place that is not familiar to them, and they seem to have reached a point where they are not one hundred percent sure where they are.  In other words, they are lost.  The wife is encouraging the husband to pull over to ask for directions, but he is resistant.

     Finally they are at a stop sign, and a young stranger walks by.  The woman rolls her window down – some of you will remember roll down windows, as well – and she calls out.  The stranger comes over to their car, and once they tell him where they are trying to go, he gives them directions.  A few minutes later, they reach their destination.  Later that evening the woman says to her husband, we were lucky we ran across that young man.  The husband, of course, says “I would have found it!”

     The predicament I just described is essentially the situation that our ancestor Joseph finds himself in in this morning’s Torah portion, called Vayeishev.  You’ll remember the story of Joseph – the 11th son of his father Jacob, born to his mother Rachel, Joseph has a troubled relationship with his other brothers from the time he is young.  In part this is caused by his father’s favoritism, the symbol of which is the coat of many colors that Jacob has given Joseph as a special gift.  But in part Joseph’s sibling issues seem to stem from his own personality.

     After the Torah establishes these facts the brothers are sent by Jacob on a shepherding mission that takes them a number of days away from home.  Jacob then – maybe against his better judgement – sends Joseph, all alone, knowing of the animosity between him and his brothers – to go out and find them.  And of course we know the rest of the story.  Once he does find them they strip him of his fancy coat, throw him into a pit, and ultimately sell him into slavery.  

     But in the course of this narrative Joseph finds himself in exactly the same situation as our husband and wife in the car.   He is lost, in an unfamiliar area, and he does not seem to want to ask for directions.  Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, a mysterious man appears.  Referred to in the Torah only as an איש – meaning simply ‘a man’ – the stranger approaches Joseph and asks him מה תבקש – what are you looking for?  It is the Torah’s way of saying ‘can I help you?’  Joseph explains that he is looking for his brothers.  The man just happens to know exactly where they are, and sends Joseph to meet them.  And the rest, as they say, is history.  

     And I mean that literally.  He finds his brothers.  They sell him into slavery.  He is brought to Egypt.  Ultimately he becomes the second most powerful man in the entire country.  When there is a famine in the land of Israel Jacob and his other sons come to join Joseph.  The Israelites will be enslaved.  Moses will be born, will meet God in the form of a burning bush, and will lead the Israelites out of Egypt.  And to this very day, each spring, we celebrate Passover and tell the story of יציאת מצרים – of Exodus from Egypt.  All because of this mysterious man who sees Joseph lost, and asks if he can help.

     If you have any sense of rabbinic commentary, you probably already know that the traditional commentators are very interested in the identity of Joseph’s mysterious stranger.  They suggest a number of possibilities as to who the stranger might have been.  The great biblical commentator Rashi, who lived in France in the 11th century, explains that the stranger was really the angel Gabriel, sent by God to guide Joseph on the way.  Ibn Ezra, who lived in the 12th century in Spain, believed that the man was just a simple passer by, a regular old Joe who just happened to be in the right place at the right time.  But it is the comment of the Ramban, Nachmanides, who lived in the 13th century, that I find the most interesting.  He writes about the mysterious stranger – כי זימן לו הקב׳׳ה מורה דרך שלא מדעתו – which means, God sent him a guide – שלא מדעתו – without his knowledge.

     The question is, without whose knowledge?  It is unclear from what the Ramban writes whether he means without Joseph’s knowledge, or without the knowledge of the mysterious stranger.  The Hebrew is ambiguous.  It might mean that the stranger was sent, and Joseph didn’t know he would find a guide along the way.  But it could just as well mean that the stranger himself didn’t know he would end up being Joseph’s guide.  

     The first interpretation, I suppose, makes the most sense.  Certainly Joseph had no reason to expect to suddenly find someone, in the middle of nowhere, who would be able to point the way to his brothers.  But the second interpretation – that the stranger didn’t know he would end up helping Joseph – is, at least to me, more interesting.  Let me explain.

     We often don’t realize the effect our actions have on others.  We might say something, or do something, and in our minds what we’ve said or done is for all intents and purposes insignificant – we might not even remember it – as the Ramban said, שלא מדעתו – we do it almost without knowing it.  But what we’ve said, or done, can make a big difference in someone else’s life.  The right word of encouragement at exactly the right time.  A small act of kindness that passes in a moment, but brings warmth to someone’s heart on a difficult day.  All the stranger did was point Joseph in the right direction.  But because of that small act, everything was different.

     I’ll conclude this morning with a quick Hanukkah story.  We got a call a few weeks ago from a family that wanted to do something nice for a family in need, but whatever they did they wanted it to be strictly anonymous.  So we said ‘sure, we know of a family that could use a little extra help around the holidays.’  Thursday the family that wanted to do the mitzvah brought in a bunch of beautifully wrapped packages.  We then called the family in need, that the gifts were intended for.  It has been a terribly difficult year for them.  Illness.  Loss of a job.  Just one thought thing after another.  

     You should have seen the look on the face of the parent who came to pick up those gifts.  For a few moments the burdens were lifted.  For a few moments the parent was reminded of goodness and hope and kindness and possibility.  Knowing that they would have gifts to give to their children on Hanukkah.  Suddenly knowing that a holiday they were probably dreading, would be – filled with light.

     They will never know the identity of the family that did that kindness for them.  And the family that did the kindness will never know the impact their generosity had.  The difference they made.  In both cases, שלא מדעתו – they’ll just never know.  But I would say, somewhere, somehow, in someway, God knows.  May both those families be blessed with kindness, goodness, happiness, and health.  

Leave a comment

Filed under Beth El Congregation, Bible, Jewish festivals, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Torah, Uncategorized

Eternal Songs

What follows is a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 10/12/19, a reflection about Robert Hunter, who wrote lyrics for the Grateful Dead.

     Those of you who are obituary readers may remember that just about 3 weeks ago a man named Robert Hunter died.  It is likely you had never heard his name before, but articles about his life appeared in all of the major news papers in the country, and his death was even mentioned on TV and the radio.  You probably would not have recognized the name, because Robert Hunter, as famous as he was in some circles, was an entirely behind the scenes kind of guy, and a bit of a recluse at that.  

     His fame, such as it was, came from his writing – not the kind of writing you normally expect – he didn’t write books, or articles for magazines.  Instead, Robert Hunter wrote poetry, but more than that, lyrics for songs.  And he became famous because the words that he wrote – his lyrics – were set to music and sung by people like Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, and Bruce Hornsby.  All stars in the world of rock and roll.  But by far the most important song writing partnership for Robert Hunter was with a man named Jerry Garcia, whom I imagine you’ve heard of, particularly since I am your rabbi.  Jerry Garcia, of course, was the lead guitarist in the Grateful Dead, and Robert Hunter was the man who wrote the words to every original song Jerry Garcia ever sang.

     Hunter lived a long and eventful life.  He was 78 when he died, surrounded by his wife and his family.  He came of age in the late 50s and early 60s, and living in the San Francisco Bay area, he met the Beatniks, and when he was around twenty or so, he became friendly with Garcia.  He was largely self educated, but he loved the spoken and written word, and he fell in love with classic American folk music.  He wrote lyrics in great blasts of creative energy, some days writing two or three songs in a single sitting, words that once given to Garcia became classic songs, staples of the American musical lexicon.  In his writing he referenced psychedelic experiences, old ghost stories, English sailing songs, the blues, mythology and the Bible, and the old west as well, often painting landscapes of a dark America filled with desperate losers.  And yet for all the darkness, the possibility of redemption was always there, just on the horizon, just at the next town or train stop.  In his own words, from the song New Speedway Boogie, ‘this darkness has got to give.’

     I’ve been thinking abut Robert Hunter a lot since he died.  I’ve been listening to Grateful Dead music from the time I became bar mitzvah, and as you know if you were here last Shabbat, that is now 42 years ago, most of life.  His lyrics are always in my mind, a snippet here, a phrase there, sometimes an entire line, but always just under the surface of whatever I am doing, saying, or thinking.  He had a way – like I guess all of the great poets, the great lyricists, the great wordsmiths, of capturing a feeling that you knew from your own heart, and phrasing it in just exactly the right way.  And when Hunter’s words so seamlessly and perfectly blended into Garcia’s melodies and chord changes, and you would hear them sung in Garcia’s ragged tenor, you would simply say, that is me and that is my life.

     And here we are this morning, having read from the Torah Parshat Ha’azinu.  If you were following along in the Humash you know the portion consists of an extended poem that Moses recites in front of the people before he ascends Mt Nebo, where he will die.  Moses’ poem is often called in Hebrew שירת משה, or in English ‘the Song of Moses.’  It got that name because of a verse near the end of the portion, which describes the moment when Moses publicly said these words.  Here is that verse:  ויבא משה וידבר את כל דברי השירה הזאת באזני העם – and Moses came, and recited all the words of this – shirah – this song – in the hearing of the people.

     I’ve often wondered if Moses actually did sing the words, standing there in front of the people so long ago.  I wonder what his voice sounded like, or what melody he would have used?  The words themselves naturally create a rhythm, as all great lyrics do, the syllables of one line often matching the next. Even not knowing or understanding the Hebrew, one can hear the poetry just from those words, their sound and rhythm, and of course when chanted in the Torah, their melody.

     The Torah includes an interesting note about the end of Moses’ recitation of the song, a last comment that Moses makes to the people, in fact the very last thing he ever says to them:  “and when Moses finished reciting all these words to Israel, he said to them:  Take to heart all the words with which I have testified to you today.  Enjoin them upon your children, that they may observe faithfully all the terms of this Torah.  for it is not a trifling thing for you; כי הוא חייכם –  it is your very life…”

     Tradition teaches us that Moses said those words to the Israelites some 3,000 years ago.  And here we are today, having read them.  As we will next week, and the week after that.  Teaching them to our children and our grandchildren, living them in our lives, finding meaning in them, and a sense of hope and faith and light.  This darkness has got to give.

     Here is another Robert Hunter line, this from the elegy he wrote when Jerry Garcia died in 1995 –

“If some part of that music is heard in deepest dream,

Or on some breeze of summer a snatch of golden theme,

We’ll know you live inside us, with love that never parts;

Our good old Jack O Diamonds, become the King of Hearts”

     The great lyrics truly do live on, long after their singers are gone.  Their words can be heard in our dreams, or in the summer breeze that gently blows through the trees, or seen in the turning of the leaves in the fall, or the softly falling snow of winter.  Those words reside in our hearts and souls, informing our lives, bringing meaning to our days, easing our difficult moments, giving us comfort during dark times, helping us always to see the light in God’s world.

     One last line from Robert Hunter, this the celebratory last lyric from the classic song Ripple:  “Let there be songs to fill the air.”

     so may it always be – 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Beth El Congregation, Grateful Dead, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, rock and roll, sermon, Torah, Uncategorized

Words, Tweets, etc

A text version of my sermon from Shabbat on 8/3/19.

     As Jews we are often referred to as the People of the Book, but we might also just as well be called the People of the Word, or maybe better to say the People of Words.  We are great talkers, conversationalists, and communicators.  We like to talk so much we are known for talking with our hands.  We even have a term in our culture for a person who is a great talker, fondly referring to him or her as a kibitzer.  Kibitz is an interesting word – it comes to us from Yiddish, but it is formed from a Hebrew root – ק ב צ – a word which in the Bible means to gather together.  Have you ever realized that kibbutz (the settlements in Israel) and kibitz (to talk and joke around) are essentially the same words?  Formed from the same root? Why?  Because when you gather together you make small talk, and we Jews have perfected that to an art form.  

     It shouldn’t be surprising.  The truth is Judaism has long been invested in the idea that words have power, that they are significant, going all the way back to biblical times.  The very first story in the Torah, the Creation narrative, is an illustration of the power of words.  The phrase Vayomer Elohim – And God SAID – appears 8 times in the first chapter of Genesis, and each time another aspect of the universe is brought into being.  If you are in the habit of reading the weekly Torah portion, you would know that this week’s double portion, Matot-Ma’aseh, begins with a series of laws about vows and oaths, and the power that those words, once spoken, can carry.  And what is it we call the 10 Commandments in Hebrew?  The עשרת הדברות – what does that mean?  Literally translated that would mean something like the ‘ten utterances.’  And of course next week we’ll begin reading the fifth and final book of the Torah, called in English Deuteronomy, but its name in Hebrew is?  D’varim!  Words!!  The very first verse of that book begins with this phrase:  אלא הדברים אשר דבר משה – these are the words that Moses spoke.

     Of course we don’t necessarily need the Torah to teach us this lesson, because we know from the experiences of our own lives that words have power.  The old saying that we memorized as children is ‘sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me.’  That phrase is used as a kind of protective shield when people are saying cruel things, as if the hurtful words will in some way bounce off, not able to hit their mark.  But of course it doesn’t work, and the truth is it doesn’t even really make sense.  A broken bone actually heals – particularly if you are a child – fairly quickly.  But when someone says something cruel to you, that crushing feeling and the sting of those words is remembered for years, and sometimes forever.

     The opposite is also true.  A word of kindness or encouragement or hope can literally change someone’s life for the better.  I vividly remember to this day two phone calls I received after I interviewed for rabbinical school.  The first call was to tell me that I would not be admitted, that I didn’t have the skills or the knowledge that the committee felt I needed to succeed in the program.  About two hours later my phone rang again.  It was a rabbi who had been on my interview panel, and the first thing he said to me was ‘I know you weren’t admitted today, but I want you to know I think you can be a terrific rabbi.’  And those eight words – I think you can be a terrific rabbi’ – literally changed my life.  I would not be standing here right now had they not be spoken to me.  It is that simple.  That is the power the words can have.

     The thing about it is we have a choice with the words that we use.  Maybe as a rabbi I have an extra sensitivity to this idea, because I am often in the position of speaking publicly.  When you are seen as being a leader, what you say – or what you tweet – can make a real difference.  The right words, carefully chosen and properly spoken, can inspire, soothe, heal, mend fences, and bring hope.  The wrong words can have exactly the opposite effect – they can literally break relationships, create mistrust, hurt people, and bring anger and divisiveness into a family, or a synagogue, or a community, or large scale, even into a country. 

    That is why the recent tweets from the President disparaging Baltimore and its representatives are so disappointing.  I am not sure why it is people choose to use hateful and hurtful words.  I suppose sometimes it comes from a place of ignorance, and other times from a place of fear.  Maybe people are angry, and they speak before they should – the old hit the send button when you should let that email sit in your draft box over night and reconsider it in the morning.  But I do know that when we coarsen or cheapen our language, when we curse and yell and rant and rave, what we ultimately end up doing is diminishing ourselves.  And I also know that the opposite is true – when we use language to encourage and elevate, to sooth and celebrate, when our words are kind and caring and hopeful, we grow closer with one another and we help to make a better world.

     I’ll never forget a number of years ago when I was in line at the bank.  A few people in front of me was a woman whom I know from the community.  The teller had asked her for ID, which she didn’t have.  She lit in to the teller, demeaning him, raising her voice, making sure the teller knew how important and powerful she was, and how unimportant and powerless the teller was.

     To his credit the teller wouldn’t budge, and finally the woman turned around to leave in great anger.  Suddenly she saw me standing there and stopped dead in her tracks.  She was horrified, embarrassed, and after pausing for a moment she said ‘Rabbi I am so sorry.  I never would have used those words if I knew you were standing there.’  Then she walked out.

     I don’t know if that moment changed her behavior, but it changed mine.  Since that day, no matter where I am or what I am doing, I strive to imagine that there is someone in line behind me, someone whom I respect, someone whom I would not want to disappoint.  Imagining that helps me choose my words more carefully, and consider my actions more thoughtfully.  It helps me, to use the words of our siddur from the Friday night service, lay down at night having no regret for what has happened during the day.

     One of my favorite lines in the entire prayer book is the sentence that begins the concluding personal paragraph of the amidah – anyone remember what it is? אלוקי נצור לשוני מרע ושפתי מדבר מרמה – My God, keep my tongue from evil, and my lips from speaking deceit – 

     So it should be for all of us.

1 Comment

Filed under Beth El Congregation, Bible, prayer, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Torah, Uncategorized

To the (Jewish) Graduates

This is a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 6/15/19.

Wednesday night Becky and I watched with pride as our nephew Ezra graduated, with 27 fellow classmates, from Krieger Schechter Day School.  The ceremony included the singing of Hebrew songs, words of Torah, and as you might expect presentation of diplomas.  It concluded with Rabbi Josh Gruenberg of Chizuk Amuno blessing the 8th grade class using the words of the Birkat Cohenim, words that happen to appear in this week’s Torah portion – May God bless you and keep you – May Gods light shine in your life, may God grant you grace – May God’s countenance turns towards you, may God bless you with peace.

     Many of you know those words because we use them to conclude Shabbat and Yom Too services here at Beth El.  They are also frequently heard at weddings and baby namings and brises.  And it struck me as I heard them Wednesday night that it was a particularly Jewish way – especially since the words were spoken in both Hebrew and English – that it was a particularly Jewish way to conclude a graduation ceremony.

     And it got me thinking about what kind of message I might give if I was asked to address a class of graduates, all of whom were Jewish?  What follows is my address to the Jewish graduating class – wherever they may be – of 2019.

My dear graduates:

     I stand before you today as a representative of the Jewish community.  That idea – of Jewish community – might not mean all that much to you today.  You live in, in fact you have grown up in, a world where  – particularly for younger people – everyone is blending together, and many of the traditional distinctions between people and communities are being broken down.  I am not suggesting that is necessarily bad, but I am suggesting that it is OK to see differences in people, and to be proud of those differences, even to celebrate them.  There is a distinctive Jewish approach to family life, to communal responsibility, to education, to charity, to civil rights, and to many other things as well.  I hope in the years ahead you’ll embrace that distinctive Jewish approach and embrace it with pride.

     I want you to know today that we need you.  With an aging population and a low birth rate, youth is a precious commodity in Jewish life today.  We need your spirit and optimism, we need your energy and enthusiasm, we need your presence in our synagogues and federations and JCCs.  I know all the research!  I’ve read all the articles that describe your generation as a generation that doesn’t join formal institutions, that doesn’t buy in to traditional structures, that doesn’t sit on boards, that prefers to meet in a pub and not in a sanctuary.  But we also know (because studies have told us) that your Jewish identity is important to you, that you are proud to be Jewish.  We know that you are determined, in a new way, to make the world a better place because you are in it.  And we know that your time is precious and you want to live healthy and balanced lives.  

     And so what I also want you to know today is that you need us.  You need us to help you deepen and strengthen your Jewish identity.  You need us because at some point you are going to need a strong Jewish community.  You need us because without synagogues, and without federations, and without JCCs, the Jewish identity that you are proud of will not be able to continue to exist.  You need us.  And I hope you know that we are trying to meet you where you are.  We are creating coffee houses and meditation and yoga centers, we are hosting cooking and card playing work shops, we have book clubs and High Holy Day hiking workshops, we have rock and roll musicians playing in our sanctuaries, we have self help gurus speaking from our lecterns.  We have young leadership networking programs and wine tasting events.  And yes, if you really want to know, we will absolutely meet you in a pub.  Happily so.  We know you want to be better people, more moral and ethical and accepting and caring.  We know you want to engage in Tikkun Olam.  What I ask you to consider is this:  embracing your Judaism is a way of embracing your humanity, of growing in spirit.  It doesn’t have to be done in the way we did it – by sitting in services and going to Hebrew school.  But it has to be done, and we can help you do it, if you will let us and if you will guide us.

     I would be remiss if I didn’t say a word or two about Israel.  There is a growing gap between us regarding the Jewish homeland.  We often see Israel as threatened and the underdog, as a small country living in a dangerous and often hostile neighborhood.  We remember the wars in ’67 and ’73, we lived through those moments.  Some of us remember when there was no Israel, when Jews had no place to go during the Second World War when the Nazis were determined to destroy the Jewish people.  To you WW II is an almost mythic memory.  Your entire lives Israel has not been in a war, and you know that Israel’s army is the most powerful in the Middle East – by far.  You see Israel as strong and dominating, as technologically advanced but morally challenged by its ongoing struggle with the Palestinians.  And you see that in Jewish communal life today your views about Israel are often unwelcome and unwanted.

     We owe you a seat at that communal table.  Your voice needs to be a part of the Israel conversation, and if we have excluded you from that conversation it is our fault, and not yours.  And we need to do better.   So I hope in the years ahead you will join us as we wrestle with and find meaning in Israel, respecting our views and the history we bring to the table, but with a promise from us that we will do the same for you.  I truly believe that you can help us to understand Israel’s challenges moving forward.  But I also believe that we can help you to understand Israel’s history, and that together we can help one another help Israel to be a place of which we are all proud.

     There are so many other things we should talk about, a whole laundry list of ideas and challenges and opportunities that are just around the bend for you.  Your Judaism, I hope, will play a role in all of it.  I hope you’ll remember the history of our people, its challenges and its triumphs. My grandparents were immigrants, which means that your great grandparents, or great great grandparents were, and that is something we shouldn’t forget.  I know this probably seems like its a long way off for you, and its presumptuous, but I hope one day you’ll have children – we need more Jews in the world!  We have to talk about marriage, an institution that is under siege today, but a primary value in Jewish life.  We need to talk about Jewish literacy, which is on the wane.  I am sad to say we need to talk about anti-Semitism, which at one point I thought your generation might not have to deal with, but it looks like I was wrong.  The list goes on and on and on.

     But the rabbi should not.  A graduation speech shouldn’t be too long.  I know you are eager – not only for this ceremony to be over, but also to begin the next stage of your life, to get out there into the world and spread your wings, and hopefully fly.  As you do let me leave you with this – May God bless you and protect you.  May God’s light shine in your life, may God grand you grace.  May God’s countenance turn towards you, granting you light, life, and peace.  

Leave a comment

Filed under American Jewry, assimilation, Beth El Congregation, Bible, continuity, Jewish life, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Torah, Uncategorized

Creative Process

People often ask about how sermons are constructed, wondering where I find ideas of what to talk about, why I choose certain references, what my creative process is.  Here are a few thoughts about the sermon I gave this past Shabbat, posted yesterday, that might give a bit of insight into how a sermon comes together (at least for me).  You can read the sermon text here.

First off, the hardest thing in my experience is deciding on the topic.  It seems on the surface like there are a million and one things to talk about, and I suppose there are.  But not all of them seem like they make for good sermon material, not all of them sound interesting (to me), and not all of them are appropriate for pulpit preaching.  Sometimes it feels like finding that idea is comparable to searching for the proverbial needle in the haystack.  You know it is in there somewhere, but it can be awfully hard to locate!

My ideas generally come from one of three places.  First, something from the weekly Torah portion.  It might be a verse, it might be a word, it might be something in the commentary.  But I often find my topic while flipping through the pages of the portion.  Secondly, I commonly find a sermon idea in something that happens in the course of the week.  A meeting I’ve attended, a conversation I’ve had, something I’ve seen, an interaction between two people at the bank.  So be careful, the rabbi is always watching! And the last source for me is the news.  An article I read in the paper, or something I hear on the radio.  That might not necessarily be a current event, but could be a reference to the anniversary of an important historical moment, or a strange factoid, or a story about another cultural custom.

Once I have my idea a process of free association begins to unfold.  Sometimes it is sort of organized, and I might jot a few notes down here or there, but mostly it happens in my head, and often when I am walking our dog around the neighborhood.  (interestingly I generally do that without my mobile phone)  How this works I honestly am not exactly sure.  I think it has something to do with just giving my mind the space to float a bit, to think about things not immediately connected to anything in particular.  But I suspect that sermon kernel is running in the my back of my head the entire time, like a kind of undercurrent.  And so my thoughts are constantly being pulled into the orbit of that sermon, a process that I think is more unconscious that conscious.

As best I can, I’ll try to walk you through that process in terms of this past Shabbat’s sermon.  First off, the initial idea.  I was looking through the portion, came to the end, and there in the Hebrew was the Masoretic note about the conclusion of the book of Leviticus, and how many verses are contained in the book.  I stared at that note for a moment, and I thought ‘endings!’  That might be a viable sermon topic, because after all, we seem to be interested in endings.

Then the free association process was off and running.  Game of Thrones had just ended. We were reading in synagogue the end of a book of Torah (Leviticus).  The last word of the book, when looked at with the last words of the other four books of the Torah is interesting.  That led me to thinking about famous last lines of novels, and I thought it might be fun to include a few and see if people in the congregation could identify them.  I went back to Game of Thrones and began to think of other famous endings of television shows.  The most famous of all (at least back in the day!) was the last episode of MASH, a show that was an important part of my growing up (here is a link to the last few minutes of that episode).  Many of the pieces of the puzzle were now on the table.  There were two questions – first, how should they be assembled?  And second, what is the point of all this?

Time to walk the dog!  And so, as our trusty pooch meandered through the neighborhood, the pieces of that ‘sermon puzzle’ began to take shape.  The order, what should come first, what next, what connected to what.  At the end of the half hour walk I had a pretty good idea of where I wanted to put those pieces.  Then it was a matter of doing it, worrying a bit over transitions, weaving strands.

But there was a last piece nagging at me, which was that the Torah itself is a book that doesn’t have an ending.  Deuteronomy ends and the people are still outside of the land.  How might that connect to all of the other material about endings, about wrapping things up and concluding stories?

Then it occurred to me that might be exactly the point.  The experiences of our lives, by and large, do not end in neat and tidy sentences, carefully constructed to perfectly conclude a moment.  Instead, our lives are more like the (lack of an) ending in the Torah. We are perpetually just on the cusp, just on the other side of that (Jordan) river, always looking towards that Promised Land but never quite arriving there.  We are always in a state of having one more river to cross.

Which is the name of the last track on Bob Weir’s solo album Blue Mountain, released in the fall of 2016.  I love that record.  In it Weir wrestles with his own mortality, with the passage of time, with the importance of taking that next step even in the face of daunting odds.  And that song gave me the last paragraph of my sermon text.  One more step, one more river to cross.

One last note – the title I gave the sermon when I posted it on my blog – At the End of All Things.  That line comes from Tolkien’s the Return of the King.  The hobbits Sam and Frodo lie exhausted, having finally completed their quest and destroyed the ring of power. It looks as if they are about to die, and Frodo says to Sam “I am glad you are here with me.  Here at the end of all things, Sam.”

So there you have it.  A bit of Torah.  A dash of Game of Thrones.  A nostalgic fondness for MASH.  A good dog walk on a beautiful afternoon.  Some Bob Weir for good measure. And a little Tolkien sprinkled in.  Mix it all up, type for a while, and you never know what you’ll come up with.

Sorry about the length of this post!  Anyone who read to the end, I owe you a scotch!

 

4 Comments

Filed under Beth El Congregation, Bible, Grateful Dead, Jewish thought, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Torah, Uncategorized

At the End of All Things

This is a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 6/1/19 –

     A few moments ago before we put the Humashim away I asked you to look with me at the last verse – and specifically the last word – of the the book of Leviticus, as well as the single line underneath the verse, that summarized the number of verses in the entire book.  I would not expect anyone to remember the total number of verses – does anyone happen to?  859.  But maybe a few of you remember the last word in Leviticus, which is?  סיני, Sinai in the English, as in Mt. Sinai.

     It has long been noted by biblical scholars that the last words of each of the books of the Torah have been carefully and intentionally chosen.  Taken together they offer a five word summary of the Torah’s main narrative.  Here is how that works – the last word of Genesis?  מצריים – Egypt.  Of Exodus?  מסעיהם meaning ‘their journeys.’  Of Leviticus, as we just established, Sinai.  What about Numbers?  The last word of Numbers is יריחו – Jericho. And the last word of Deuteronomy, the very last word of the Torah?  ישראל – in English?  Israel.  

     Now think of the five words in order – Egypt – they went down to Egypt.  They left Egypt, and began their journeys.  They reached Sinai.  They prepared to cross into the land at Jericho.  And then, they became Israel.  So the authors and editors of the Torah text are very careful to make sure that they end each book in exactly the right way, choosing a specific word that is thematic and summarizes something about the book that it concludes, and also the general thrust of the Torah’s story.  You find a similar idea in the structure of the entire Hebrew Bible, again, the very last word of the Bible carefully and intentionally chosen – anyone happen to know what it is?  ויעל – and he went up, as in going up to the land – making aliyah.  

     Any writer worth his or her salt will tell you how important endings are.  Whether writing a long novel or a short essay, that last sentence and those last few words – and possibly even the very last word – can be agonizing to find and put together.  You probably won’t remember a sentence that is somewhere in the middle of a book or essay, even if it is beautifully written.  But a powerful last sentence can stay in your mind.  I’ll give you a couple of last sentences from novels and lets see if you can tell me what book they come from:

“After all, tomorrow is another day.” – Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” – The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done.  It is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”  A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens

“The scar had not pained Harry for 19 years.  All was well.”  Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, JK Rowling

     Along these same lines I’ve been thinking recently that we’ve all become a little bit ‘ending obsessed.’  That mostly expresses itself in our approach to the endings of TV shows.  When a beloved show is coming to an end there are weeks and sometimes even months of speculation about what will happen, how the loose ends will be tied up, and whether the ending will be satisfactory to the loyal fan base.  And then once the last show is finally broadcast the debate begins!  Was it well done, or not so much?  Was it what was expected?  Did they answer all the questions that needed to be answered?  We’ve seen this happen over the last years with Mad Men, with the Sopranos, with Lost, going back a bit further with Seinfeld.  And of course we’ve just been through this a couple of weeks ago with the final episode of the HBO fantasy series Game of Thrones.  Anyone follow the series to its bitter end?  Even if you didn’t watch it, it was hard to avoid it because of how intensively it was covered in the media.  Almost 20 million people tuned in to watch that last episode, which was an all time record for an HBO broadcast.   

     But that number pales in comparison with the most watched final television episode of all time – which was?  MASH, in 1983.  (Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen) 106 million people tuned in to watch that last episode, and Hawkeye Pierce’s final farewell hug with his buddy BJ Hunicutt.  At the time there were only 233 million people in the entire country – so a full %45 of Americans watched that last episode.  Not taped and watched later, not streamed, not DVRd, but watched – at the same time.  

      You know maybe it is just a human thing.  From biblical times down to this very day we love a good ending.  The last episode of the beloved show, the last movie in the series – see Avengers Endgame! – the last words of the great novel.  Or the last verses of a book of Torah when we stand and listen for the Chazak like we did this morning.  We like a narrative to come to a conclusion.  We like a quest to be fulfilled.  We like the characters to finish whatever their task is, and then to ride off into the sunset.  It was true in biblical times, and it is still true today.

     BUT – biblically there is one significant exception to that rule.  Which is that the Torah itself is a book without an ending.  It is an incomplete narrative, an unfulfilled quest.  Because what are the Israelites and Moses searching for in the Torah?  What are they looking for?  What is the quest that is at the core of the Torah’s narrative?  The land of Israel!  The Promised Land!  That has been the whole point from the very beginning.  Forget about Exodus, even going back to Genesis, Abraham is promised by God that one day his descendents would inherit the land – לזרעיך נתתי את הארץ הזאת – to your descendents I give this land! God says to Abraham in Genesis 15. 

     But when the Torah ends, and the last verses of Deuteronomy have been chanted, the Israelites are still not there.  They are outside the land, on the western bank of the Jordan river, looking over the river at the city of Jericho, and beyond Jericho to the hills that lead up to Jerusalem.  They can see the Promised Land, but they aren’t yet in it.  And that is where the Torah ends. 

     That simple fact has often been used to illustrate the point that is summarized with the following phrase – life should be about the journey, not the destination.  And there is some truth to that.  But I think also that the Torah’s ending – or probably better to say lack of an ending – is the tradition’s way of acknowledging that although novels may end with a beautifully crafted sentence and exactly the right words, the events of our lives rarely do.  You remember the old Yiddish saying – Man plans, and God – laughs.  Our lives are complicated, often messy, and in many cases out of our control.  Plans go awry.  The narrative strands of our lives don’t all neatly come together.  

     The Torah reminds us that sometimes it is enough just to reach the edge of the Jordan.  That means we are a step closer to the place we want to be.  But it also means there are many steps we have yet to take.  As we continue to take them – day by day, month by month, year by year – may we do so with family and friends, and with God’s guiding presence as a part of our lives.

1 Comment

Filed under Beth El Congregation, Bible, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Torah, Uncategorized