Category Archives: Torah

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 – 

 

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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.

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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.  

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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!

 

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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.

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What You Can’t Buy

     Each year, year in and year out, just as we finish celebrating Purim and start getting ready for Passover, we are confronted in our annual Torah reading cycle with the Book of Leviticus.  Most people will tell you that Leviticus is the least accessible of the five books of Torah.  It is filled with ancient and arcane laws, most of them connected to the sacrificial cult operated by the Priests – the Kohanim – some 2500 years ago.  So much of Leviticus deals with priestly material that the talmudic sages actually referred to the book as Torat-Kohanim – which you could translate literally as the Torah for the Priests.  In other words, these are exclusive rules, made for an exclusive club, and the regular Jew doesn’t even need to read it.  So what is a poor rabbi to do with these Torah portions?

     And I thought I might think with you for a few minutes this morning about that very fact – that the Priestly group is exclusive, a closed club which one only becomes a member of through inheritance.  There is an old joke which probably doesn’t pack quite the punch that it used to, about a young man who makes an appointment with his rabbi.  On such and such a day at such and such a time the he shows up at the rabbi’s office.  When he has settled into a chair, the rabbi asks ‘how can I help you?’  

     ‘Well Rabbi,’ the young man replied.  ‘I’ve done well in my business, and I’ve come today to make you an offer.  I will donate 25K to the shul if you will make me a Kohen.’  The rabbi, a bit nonplussed, says ‘That is very generous, but I am sorry, I can’t make you into a Kohen.’  ‘OK, Rabbi,’ the young man says, ‘it is so important to me to be a Kohen that I am prepared to pay you 50K!’  Again the rabbi responds ‘I am truly sorry, but it is something that is out of my hands.  I cannot make you into a Kohen.’  The young man gets up in anger, and as he is walking out the door, the rabbi asks him:  ‘By the way, why is it so important to you to be a kohen?’  ‘Because,’ the young man replied, ‘my father was a Kohen, my grandfather was a Kohen, and I also want to be a Kohen.’  ‘Ah, I understand,’ said the rabbi.  ‘Lets talk about that 50K.’

     The punch line of course is that the young man was already a Kohen, because if his father was a Kohen, he is a Kohen.  It is automatic.  But the undercurrent of the joke is the idea that there are some things in life that you simply can’t buy.  You could have all the money in the world, and it won’t make you into a Kohen.  

     I’ve been thinking about that joke over the last couple of weeks since the news broke about the college admissions scandal.  I am sure you have followed the story, it has been hard to miss.  A man named William Rick Singer was running a college ‘consulting’ business, a business that has become fairly common these days, where a family hires a consultant to manage their child’s college admissions process.  What Singer did that – I hope – most college admissions consultants don’t do – is bribe college admissions officials and college coaches, basically just paying them to admit students that would otherwise not have qualified.  He also ran more elaborate schemes, to include changing SAT test scores, sometimes sending someone else to take the SAT test, and even photoshopping the faces of some of his clients onto the bodies of athletes.  

     Mr. Singer didn’t have trouble finding clients, and he was by all reports doing quite a business.  At this point more than 50 people have been arrested in connection with his schemes, a number of them prominent and wealthy actors who, like the young man who walked into the rabbi’s office, were willing to pay pretty much whatever it took to get what they wanted, in this case, their child into a particular college.  

     It is perhaps a sign of the times that we think we can acquire status by paying for it.  After all there is some truth to that in our culture today.  A fancier and more expensive car has a certain amount of status attached to it.  So does a big fancy house in the neighborhood.  So does a country club membership.  And these are all things that are for sale, it is just a matter of having enough money to pay for them.  But what Mr. Singer and his clients clearly lost track of – what they forgot – is something that it might be good for all of us to reflect on and to remember – which is that somethings just are not for sale.

     We’ve known this for a while now.  There have been a number of research studies completed in the last few years that demonstrate that happiness is not directly correlated to the amount of money that you have.  The four wealthiest nations in the world are the US, China, Japan, and Germany.  None of them rank in the top 10 in happiness ratings.  When you look at the annual rankings of happiest countries, you find the Nordic states at the top of the list – the most recent ranking is Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, and Switzerland.  None of them are wealthy countries.  Individuals in those countries live in small homes, drive small cars, and compared to Americans own very little in terms of material goods.  What those countries have in common is – One – they are progressive, particularly socially progressive.  Second thing – the social service infrastructure in those countries is strong.  Also, and probably most importantly, they all foster a much stronger sense of community for their citizens.  People in those countries feel cared for and supported.

     It works the same way for individuals.  Research shows that happiness – or maybe a better way to say it is satisfaction with your life – comes from a variety of sources.  One is the quality of your relationships.  Another is your sense of having a place, of belonging to something that is greater than you – as an example, people who are connected to their synagogue, church, or mosque report a higher level of satisfaction with their lives.  Another ingredient is giving back – people who feel they are giving something back to their community, giving to others who need help, feel happier, more fulfilled, and more grateful.  Isn’t that interesting – when you give something back, you feel grateful.

     And none of those things are for sale.  It is true that you can pay to belong to a synagogue, but you can’t buy a feeling of connection to it – that only comes from being involved.  You certainly can’t buy relationships – I’ve known – and I am sure you have too – many families who have plenty of money, but can’t figure out how to get along with each other.  There are some things in life – and I would argue they are the most important things – that you cannot buy.  Instead, they require hard work, honest effort, integrity, generosity, self awareness, and self sacrifice, among other things.

     Judaism has known this for a long time.  To get back to the priestly class for a moment, you can’t pay to be a member – you’ve either inherited it from your father, or you haven’t.  There is that famous mishnaic statement, symbolized by the four crowns you see on the outside of the wall behind me.  There is the crown of Torah, earned through many years of study.  The crown of the Priesthood, that can only be inherited.  There is a crown of royalty that only comes to a few.  But the larger crown at the top is the כתר שם טוב – the crown of a good name.  That crown you cannot inherit, you certainly cannot buy it – it can only be earned.  Imagine what the world would be like if more people in it were working to earn that crown?

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Wonder of Wonders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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