Category Archives: Torah

Imperfections (Superman vs. Spiderman)

     There is a traditional debate about the very first verse of this morning’s Torah portion, and at the heart of the debate is the question of the quality of Noah’s character.  The verse tells us נח איש תמים היה בדורותיו – Noah was righteous man, in his generation.  That can be interpreted in two ways – he was righteous – even in a generation where no one else was!  Or you could understand that to mean ‘in his generation he was righteous!’ – but in another generation, maybe not so much!

     The truth is there is evidence for both sides of the argument.  He was clearly righteous.  God chose Noah from among all the other people on earth to warn him about the flood.  He listens to God’s commands, he builds the ark, he guides his family and the animals into a post-diluvian world, a world after the destruction of the flood.  All righteous behaviors, all proof of the quality of Noah’s character.  

     But Noah also had some problematic moments.  He is the patriarch of a family that seems to have some serious issues.  He drinks to the extent that it has a serious and negative impact on his life.  And perhaps most troubling of all, Noah never warns other people about what is about to happen.  Nor does he challenge God in terms of God’s plans to destroy the earth.  We are waiting for Noah’s Abraham moment – the moment when he says to God “I don’t agree with this, it is wrong!”  Or “Are you telling me no one else on the earth is worth saving?  Save someone else, too!”  But that moment never arrives.  

     Knowing what you know now about Noah, both the good and the bad, the pluses and the minuses, lets take a quick vote.  You will have two choices, please only vote once.  Your choices will be that Noah was purely righteous, regardless of his generation, or that he was a flawed person, and was only considered righteous because everyone else in his generation was worse.  OK – how many of you would say Noah was purely righteous?  And how many of you would say Noah was fairly flawed, and only righteous when compared with others who were worse?

     Now let me ask another question – of those two Noahs, which do you prefer?

     I have to say the I actually prefer the flawed Noah, and in fact I think it is the flawed Noah who is more in line with the general way that biblical characters are presented.  If you think about any other biblical character – from Moses to Abraham to Sarah to King David and on and on, any other major character, you don’t have to look too far to find significant flaws.  Moses struggles with anger issues, let alone the fact that he kills another man in his youth.  Abraham is unaware of the dynamics in his own home that are tearing his family apart.  Sarah is jealous and hostile towards Hagar.  David is manipulative, steals another man’s wife, and ultimately arranges for that man to be killed.  These characters are not only flawed, not only imperfect, but deeply so.  And Noah is right in line with all of them.

     But let me tell why I actually prefer that.  And to do that I would like to shift genres for a moment, and talk about comic books.  (Just another from of literature!)  I grew up reading and collecting comic books, and I always preferred Marvel comics to DC comics.  DC was the line with? –  Superman and Batman and the Flash and Wonder Woman.  And Marvel had? –  the X-Men and Spiderman and the Fantastic 4 and the Avengers.  The symbol of DC comics was Superman.  Superman was perfect – תמים היה בדורותיו – perfect in his generation and every generation.  He was impervious to harm, he had strength beyond measure, he could fly through the air, he had x-ray vision.  

     But the symbol of Marvel comics was Spiderman.  Spiderman was stronger than the average person, and faster, but he was by no means impervious.  He didn’t have X-ray vision, he couldn’t fly – he had to use those web cartridges taped to his wrists, which would occasionally run out.  Superman was noble, moral, ethical, never had a doubt as to why he was doing what he was doing, never had a doubt about anything. 
Spiderman was filled with doubts.  Doubts about whether he should even use his powers.  He worried, he failed, he dropped out of school, and then struggled to hold on to a job, and he couldn’t keep a girlfriend.

     And as a kid I looked at Superman, and I couldn’t relate one bit.  Perfect, I think, is boring.  But also perfect is not me.  But Spiderman, with his doubts and his struggles, with his failures and foibles, that was the kind of hero to whom I could relate.  I knew I would never climb walls, or swing from webs on skyscrapers.  But I also knew I would fail, there would be moments when it wouldn’t work out, I knew my character needed work.  Spiderman was my guy!  

     And that is why I liked the flawed Noah.  That is why it has always made sense to me that the Bible’s heroes are mistake prone and emotional, that they struggle with jealousy and anger, that they sometimes  – maybe even often – don’t treat one another well, that they repeatedly fail to understand what God wants of them and to follow God’s commands.  If I opened up the Torah and every character was perfect, completely moral and ethical, righteous and just, kind and wise – go through you list – I would say who are these people?  They are not my people, and they are not like me.  But when I see them struggle and fail, when I read about Moses’ self-doubt, or Abraham’s insensitivty, or Noah’s selfishness – I say boy, that looks awfully familiar.  And when I see myself in the text and in those characters I  can not only relate to them, I can also learn from them.

     So in Moses’ spiritual growth I can see hope for myself and a path to follow.  In Abraham’s deep faith I can find inspiration.  And through Noah’s story I can understand in a deeper way what it means to face the difficult challenges of life with determination and courage.  

     That is why we’ve been reading these stories for some three thousand years.  May we come to them again and again, in this new year and every year, seeing in their heroes our own lives and struggles and flaws, and also the potential we all have to grow in soul, and to live with courage and faith.

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Lady Liberty

Here is a text version of my Yom Kippur sermon, 5770 –

  One hundred and thirty two years ago next month – on October 28th, 1886 –  the Statue of Liberty was dedicated on a day of great ceremony and celebration.  There was a parade through Manhattan that hundreds of thousands of people attended, followed by a nautical parade of dignitaries.  The ceremony itself, taking place at the foot of the great statue, was presided over by none other than President Grover Cleveland.  It was a day that symbolized the hope and promise and freedom for which America would come to be known around the world.  Lady Liberty!   

     It wasn’t until 17 years later – in the year 1903 – that the poem ‘the New Colossus’ was installed at the base of what had become by that time America’s most famous and symbolic statue.  Written in sonnet form, the 14 lines of the poem captured Lady Liberty’s symbolism, and also perfectly described the sense of America as a place of refuge, safety, and freedom.  I expect some of you probably memorized these lines at some point in school, but it is worth repeating them this morning:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, 

With conquering limbs astride from land to land; 

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand 

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame 

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name 

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand 

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command 

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame. 

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she 

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, 

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, 

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. 

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, 

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

     The sea washed sunset gates of the poem are the Hudson and East Rivers, framing Manhattan on her east and west sides.  The imprisoned lightning?  The torch in Lady Liberty’s raised right hand, lit by electric light.  The twin cities?  New York is obviously one – what about the other?  Brooklyn of course, the true center of the world!  And the huddled masses are the thousands upon thousands of immigrants who came to these shores through the gates of Ellis Island.  A nearly perfect description in words of what the statue had come to mean to our country, and to the world.  America, a land of freedom, opportunity, and welcome to all.  

     The New Colossus was written by a Sephardic Jew named Emma Lazarus.  Lazarus lived a largely secular life until she was in her early 30s when she read the great George Eliot novel Daniel Deronda, about a young Jew who suddenly discovers his Jewish identity and decides to devote himself to the Jewish people.  She saw in that narrative a reflection of her own life, and from that point forward Emma Lazarus began to devote herself to Jewish causes.  She was particularly interested in the eastern European Jews who came to this country in the 1880s and 90s.  She was moved by their stories of hardship and suffering, combined with their deep faith and the sense of hope they maintained that they could build a better life here in America.  Lazarus saw her poem as an expression of gratitude for the past, for her own ancestors who had made their way to this country and the goodness that they found here, and she also saw it as expression of hope, that future generations of immigrants would be welcomed to these shores, where they could one day build lives of dignity and opportunity.

     My Bubbe was one of those immigrants.  She arrived on these shores in 1903, the very same year the New Colossus poem was affixed to the Statue of Liberty.  She was a strong willed woman, feisty, tough as nails when she needed to be, determined, hard working, and fiercely protective of the people she loved.  She married my Zayde – also an immigrant – as a young woman.  Together they ran a series of small neighborhood grocery stores here in Baltimore, often with the help of their four sons.  As immigrants they were vulnerable and unsure of how to make their way in this new country.  They moved forward and made a life in the only way they knew how – they worked hard, they saved every penny they made, and they did everything, as they would have said, for the kinder, for their family. 

     My Bubbe was proud of three things in her life – she was proud to be an American, understanding this country as a place of opportunity where she ultimately was able to make a good life.  She was proud of her family, and in the course of her 98 years was blessed to welcome not only 11 grandchildren into the world, but great grandchildren as well.  And she was intensely proud to be a Jew.  Her commitment to our tradition left a deep impression through the generations of my family, it still resonates today, and there is no question in my mind without my Bubbe’s influence I would not be a rabbi.

     I expect her story sounds familiar to you, and that there is someone in your family – a parent or grandparent or great-grandparent – whose life experiences were very similar to my Bubbe’s.  And it is this shared Jewish experience that Emma Lazarus connected to.  That we Jews are wanderers, often in the course of our long history looking for a place to call home.  That it is enormously difficult to find that place, and it is incredibly precious once it has been found.  That is what my Bubbe and Zayde found here in Baltimore – a true home, a place where they could work hard, raise their boys, and stay committed to their roots without being afraid.  I’ve often thought about them as the debate about immigration and immigrants has taken place in our country over the last two years.  From DACA, which is still unresolved, to the question of which countries we are willing to accept immigrants from, to the question of numbers, and who ultimately gets in and who does not, to the policy, now revoked, of separating illegal immigrants from their children. 

     Last night at Kol Nidre we prayed the line אנו מתירין להתפלל עם העברינים  – on this most sacred of nights, let us remember those who are rarely remembered, and let us welcome them in to our community.  Those who are on the outside, those who are marginalized, those who do not have a voice.  It is one of the most striking lines in the entire Mahzor, and a distillation of a classic Jewish value.  In the Torah there are no fewer than 46 references to the גר, the ‘stranger’, each of them a reminder of the responsibility the community has to care for those who find themselves on the margins of society.   And there are two reasons why the tradition is so concerned with this ideal.  The first is it understands the Jewish experience to be that of the stranger.  Jews know what it feels like to be ostracized, Jews know what it feels like to be marginalized, Jews know what it feels like to be subject to quotas, and Jews know what it feels like to be expelled from a country.  And so if any people should have an extra sensitivity to the stranger, it should be the Jewish people.

     But the other reason is that Judaism understands that the way a society treats its strangers, its weakest members, is a measure of that culture’s quality and morality.  I am not suggesting that our immigration system should let in every person who wants to make their home in the United States.  But what I am suggesting is that regardless of whether or not someone is admitted to the country, how we treat them matters.  And that is what this debate is about.  It is not about numbers and quotas.  It is about values and morals.  It is about what we want this country to symbolize and stand for.  It is about what ideals we hope the citizens of this country believe in.  It really is, at the end of the day, about whether we still subscribe to the ideals and values that are so elegantly and beautifully laid out in the 14 lines of that sonnet that Emma Lazarus composed 135 years ago. 

     You see, how we treat the stranger – the immigrant, the foreigner, the poor and disenfranchised – those of other races and religions and beliefs – how we treat them says a lot more about us than it does about them.  And in every case, in every interaction, we can choose to treat them with respect and dignity and decency – like the human beings that they are.  And when we we don’t, it is our own respect and dignity and decency and values that are diminished.

     115 years ago my Bubbe was a stranger coming to these shores.  How would she have fared in today’s world, with these debates raging through our society?  Would she have been accepted or turned away?  Would she have been separated from her parents?  Would she have been treated with dignity and decency, would her humanity have been recognized and honored, would she have been respected?  Her story is the Jewish story shared by so many of our families.  And those questions – about decency and dignity and humanity and morality and values – those are Jewish questions, questions that as Jews we should constantly be asking.  

     On that October day 132 years ago when the Statue of Liberty was dedicated, President Cleveland was the keynote speaker at the ceremonies.  In his remarks that day he explained Lady Liberty’s symbolism with this hope:  “her stream of light shall pierce the darkness of ignorance and man’s oppression until Liberty enlightens the world.”  It is that same aspiration that we Jews remember three times each day in the last paragraph of the amidah.  We recited the words just a few minutes ago, and will do so three more times today –   כי באור פניך נתת לנו ה אלוקינו תורת חיים ואהבת חסד – in the Light of Your countenance, You gave us, God, a Torah of life, and a love of kindness, righteousness, blessing, compassion, life, and peace. 

     May that light and those values guide us and our nation in the months and years ahead.

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Hiding Yourself

A text version of my Shabbat sermon from 8/25/18 –

     This morning’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, contains more laws than any other portion in the Torah.  The laws cover a vast variety of topics, from proper ethics in business to adulterous relationships, to the importance of treating the poor and marginalized with respect and dignity.  All told there are 27 positive commandments in the portion, and 47 negative commandments, for a grand total of 74.  

     And in that long list of commandments there are a couple of my favorites, maybe not exactly what you would expect, but I would like to share them with you this morning, and then try to explain why I find them so compelling.  These come from the beginning of Deuteronomy chapter 22, where the text reads as follows:  “If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it, you must take it back to your fellow. You shall do the same with his donkey, you shall do the same with his garment, and so too with anything that your fellow loses and you find – you must not remain indifferent.” 

     There is a difficulty in the passage that comes from one of the key Hebrew words.  Its repeated twice, and is clearly understood as being important by the text, but not fully clear in terms of what it means.  The word is והתעלמת.  In modern Hebrew it means to disregard or ignore something, and that is the way the translator in our Humash is working with the word – and so our translation says, when you see this ox, or sheep, or object, and you know it isn’t yours – והתעלמת – don’t ignore it, don’t remain indifferent, you have to do something about it.  And our translator is really working with the commentary of the great sage Rashi, who says the word והתעלמת means ‘don’t close your eyes, pretending the thing isn’t there.’  

     And what I love about this is the psychology of these verses.  The Torah knows me better than I know myself!  The Torah knows when a difficult or challenging or unpleasant circumstance confronts me, I might have a tendency to look the other way, or pretend the thing just isn’t there and walk right on by.  And so the Torah reinforces its commands about returning these lost objects by telling me והתעלמת!!  Don’t ignore it!  Instead, walk towards it, take care of it, confront it if you need to.

     Many of you know that the rabbinate is a second career for me.  Before I began rabbinical school I worked for four years as a sort of psychiatric social worker at a place called the Genesis Club, a psychiatric rehab program in the Boston area.  Our mission was to help people who were struggling with major psychiatric illness – like manic-depression or schizophrenia – to transition from the state hospital back out into the community.  

     I carried a case load that was fo all intents and purposes randomly assigned.  There was a young man named Jim, who was as sweet as they come, and before he became sick could throw a 90 mile an hour fastball, a true major league prospect.  There was an older gentleman named Robert who had a brilliant mind, was a trained physicist, but because of his illness had become homeless and was struggling to put his life back together.  And the list could go on and on, each person I worked with had their own compelling story, their own challenges and struggles, and their own hopes and expectations and goals.  I was very fond of those people and I loved that job, and felt truly blessed to have had the opportunity to be a source of support for them as they worked so hard to have the kind of lives any of us hope to have.

     But there was one young man that I worked with with whom I struggled terribly.  I was at the time 24, and he was younger than I, big and strong, very aggressive, and prone to intense outbursts where he would scream and yell, throw things, and although I never saw him strike another person, it always seemed like he was just on the edge of doing that.  I was scared of him, A, and B, virtually every interaction with him was unpleasant.  So I came up with a coping strategy – I would avoid this young man at all costs.

     And so it went.  If I came up to the top of the steps, and saw him down the hallway, I would quickly retreat and head back downstairs.  If I entered the lunch room, and he was there, I would eat in some other area or go out to lunch.  I was supposed to meet with him on a weekly basis, but I managed to work it out so that we only met every other week, or maybe even every third week.  On the one hand I felt guilty about it, but on the other hand it was much easier, as it so often is, to take the easy way out. 

     At a certain point my boss called me into his office.  He asked me specifically about the young man, how was my work going with him, how was he doing, was he making any progress?  After hemming and hawing for a moment or two I fessed up, and told my boss that I was so uncomfortable, and frankly so scared of the guy, that I really didn’t want to deal with him, and so I had in essence been shirking my duties.  And my boss said something that has stayed with me all these years – that was almost 30 years ago – and that I work very hard to keep in mind in my day to day interactions with others.  He said ‘oftentimes the people who are the hardest to deal with are the people who actually need you the most.’  I walked out of his office, found the young man, and walked right up to him – ‘lets talk,’ I said, and we did.  It wasn’t easy, but at least I knew it was right.

     I said moment ago that that word from the Torah text – what is it?  והתעלמת – is tricky to translate, and in our Humash the translator understands it as ‘to not ignore’ something.  Applying the verse to my story of the young man, it would be to not ignore him, to not close my eyes to him – we might say, to truly see him.  And that was what I tried to do, after the conversation with my boss.

     But there is another way to understand the word from the verse, and I’d like to share it with you before I wrap up.  There is another Humash in my office where that word – והתעלמת – is translated as ‘do not hide yourself.’  So the end of the verse would read ‘you will return any lost object of your brother that you find – do not hide from yourself!’  What exactly does that mean?!

     And the way I’ve come to understand it is this:   when you hide from others, when you ignore the responsibilities that you have to help others, to be there for them, to give them support and care – when you pretend they aren’t there, when you allow them to disappear – there is a part of you that disappears as well.  We might say it like this:  when you hide from others you are hiding from yourself as well – from who you are supposed to be, from who you have the potential to be, from who God wants you to be.  

     It isn’t always easy, and sometimes it can be quite hard.  My interactions with the young man were always challenging, and that never changed.  But in walking towards him instead of walking away I was at least there for him, and I think on some level he knew that, because so many other people had walked away from him in his life.  And in walking towards him, in truly seeing him, in those challenging conversations and difficult moments, I also was growing and learning, and instead of hiding from myself, I came to a deeper understanding both who I truly was and of who I should strive to be.  

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Tweets and Coffee

     Well, if you follow the news at all you probably know it has been a tough week for Roseanne Barr, the actress and comedienne.  She had been riding high.  The reboot of her mega-hit sitcom was at the top of the ratings, and had just been renewed for a second season.  Roseanne seemed to be as popular as she was during the mid-90s, when her original show was pulling down huge ratings.  But as is true in many areas of life, everything can change in a single instant, or in her case with a single tweet.  And after sending that tweet – that many read as racist – a crude comment about an African American woman named Valerie Jarrett – Roseanne suddenly found the rug pulled out from under her.  Within a few hours ABC had cancelled her show, and she faced a firestorm of criticism, much of it coming at her on that same Twitter platform that got her in trouble in the first place.

     It seemed more than coincidental that all of this happened the very same week that Starbucks closed its stores – almost 8,000 of them across the US, so that its 175,000 employees could engage in a conversation about race, and could participate in a training program that was designed to help the workers be more sensitive to people of different racial backgrounds.  This was Starbucks’ response to an incident that occurred in one of its Philadelphia coffee shops, where staff called the Police on two African American men because they were sitting in the store and had not yet ordered.  In a moving and beautifully worded letter about the closure Howard Schultz, the founder of the company – who is Jewish by the way – wrote about the angst that he felt that something of this nature had happened in one of his stores, and about the plan the company had put together to make sure it wouldn’t happen again.

     Many of you know that I grew up in the Reform movement, and I remember to this day one of the lines in the Reform Mahzor we used in my shul on the HHDs.  It was in that list of sins that we recite on YK, and the reason I remember it so well is that it had a word in it that I didn’t understand as a boy – it said this:  on the sin we have sinned, because of xenophobia.  Xenophobia, I thought as a boy?  How could any word that sounds so strange and seems so complicated be describing a sin?  It was only later that I found out – probably when I was studying vocabulary words for my SATs – that xenophobia meant fear of the other.  The word comes from two ancient Greek words – xenos, meaning ‘strange,’ or ‘foreigner.’  And the second word we all know – phobos, which means fear.  Fear of the stranger, of the other, of what you are not.

     Certainly as Jews we know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of that kind of fear.  I am reading the second volume in Simon Schama’s new history of the Jewish people.  It begins time wise in the mid 1400s, and location wise in Spain where Jews were being forcibly converted to Christianity by the thousands.  As we know many of these Jews – called Marannos – continued to live Jewish lives in secret.  But one of the things that struck me about Schama’s description of the period was that even when the Jews converted, and even the Jews who converted who lived faithful Christian lives – they were always under suspicion, they were always viewed as being other, different, suspicious, strange, even dangerous, and they were never fully accepted.  

     It may be that the natural human tendency to view ‘the stranger’ – those who are not like you – with suspicion is as old as human history.  It certainly is as old as the Bible, and that sense of xenophobia that seems so present in our society today is at the heart of a troubling story that appears in this morning’s Torah portion.  It is a difficult time for the Israelites as they begin their journey through the wilderness, a journey that will last for forty years.  And it is an even more difficult time for Moses, who has to deal with the people’s complaining, and a variety of rebellions along the way.  But I suspect the most difficult moment of the entire journey for Moses occurs in this morning’s reading because it is personal, it is his own brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam, who are publicly speaking out against him.  And what is their complaint?  כי אישה כושית לקח – they complain that their brother has married a Cushite woman.  That is to say, he has married a foreigner, someone who is a stranger.  So Aaron and Miriam, two of the greatest figures in the Torah, fall prey to the sin of xenophobia.

     And if it can happen to Aaron and Moses, it can happen to any of us.  Particularly in these difficult times, when political discourse has become so strained and even conversation between friends can be so difficult.   I don’t know about you, but it feels to me like that natural human tendency to fear the other is as strong as it has been in a long, long time.  Which is one of the reasons why police are called when young black men are innocently sitting in a Starbucks.  And it is also one of the reasons, by the way, why anti-Semitism is on the rise.  The old saying is ‘a rising tide lifts all boats.’  But the opposite is also true.  Xenophobia, racism, hatred, fear, mistrust of the other will not only affect a single group.  It will not only be directed at African Americans, or Muslims, or immigrants, or Jews – it will ultimately be directed at every minority group, and as that happens, it brings us all down, coarsening our society and our culture and diminishing our values.

     So in Roseanne’s tweet, you saw one reaction to what is going on, and that was to buy into it and to contribute to it.  To give in, either to the fear that she felt, or the distrust, or the racism, or maybe a combination of all of those things.  But in Howard Schultz’s letter, you saw a different reaction.  Not only the apology, the sincere regret, but also the determination to actually do something about it, to create something through his stores that would help, even if in a small way, to make our society more tolerant, more open, and more accepting.  So that, as he wrote in his letter, a Starbucks store will be a place where everyone feels welcome, regardless of where they’ve come from, what language they speak, what color their skin is, or what faith they believe in.  Don’t we need more places in America like that?

     The Torah would suggest the answer to that question is yes.  One thing Judaism is quite clear about is that God created all people, and that all people are equal in God’s eyes.  One faith tradition is not better than another, one skin color is not better than another, one ethnic identity is not better than another.  Our job is to always remember that.  If we are able to do that, if we are able to remember it, we will be living more authentically Jewish lives.  We will also, one conversation at a time, one interaction at a time, one friendship at a time, rise up together on a tide that draws us closer to one another, and to God.

may that be God’s will, may that be our work, and may we do it together – 

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Houses of Study, Houses of Prayer

This the text of a sermon delivered on the first day of Shavuot, 5778 –

     Traditionally in Hebrew a synagogue has two names.  On the one hand, we call the synagogue the Beit Keneset, the place of gathering, and on the other, we call it the Beit Midrash, the House of Study.  If you come to Beth El with any frequency you know that we do quite a bit of both here.  Obviously we pray here regularly.  Today we are here in prayer celebrating the Shavuot festival, but of course we gather for prayer every Friday night and Saturday morning for Shabbat, and a dedicated group of congregants even comes together on a daily basis to pray in our weekday minyanim.  And of course in the fall thousands of people come to pray during the High Holy Days.

     But Beth El is also a place of study, a Beit Midrash.  It is hard to imagine it right now, but when I first came to Beth El there was no adult education programming.  None.  Not a single class, not a single musical program, not a single movie.  And slowly, over time, first under the leadership of Allan Lipsitz of blessed memory, and more recently under the guidance and vision of Dr. Eyal Bor, the adult education programming has blossomed, becoming one of Beth El’s most important initiatives. Every year thousands of people come through our doors to learn and study, and through that process, to grow Jewishly.

     And it is that sense of the importance of study that makes Shavuot different from any of our other festivals.  I would say that for all of our other holidays, when we come to synagogue, the emphasis is on the Beit Keneset, the synagogue as the place where we gather to pray.  But on Shavuot it is different.  On Shavuot, particularly the eve of Shavuot, we come to the synagogue thinking of it as a Beit Midrash, as a place where we gather together to study Torah.

     There is actually an old tension in the tradition between the values of prayer and study.  Both are understood as being important, both crucial to living a full and meaningful Jewish life.  But by and large, when prayer and study conflict, the tradition prefers that we leave prayer aside and focus on study.  No question in my mind the Talmudic sages understood study as a higher spiritual exercise than prayer, and they believed that through study one could come closer to God than one could through prayer.  There is a Talmudic story of the sage Rava, who lived around the year 300 in the city of Pumbedita in Babylonia.  He once found a student late for class because the student was saying his prayers slowly.  We might expect a Rabbi to be pleased that one of his students was taking prayer so seriously, but Rava reprimanded the student, saying to him ‘מניחין חיי עילם ועוסקים בחיי שעה’ – you are forsaking eternal life to busy yourself with the here and now!  In the rabbinic mind prayer is the ‘here and now,’ almost  mundane.  But study?  That is the gateway to eternal life.  The Sages believed that it was through study, not prayer, that a Jew could find true salvation and meaning.

     But the importance of study is also understood as working on a national level, and that is what Shavuot is about.  The moment that symbolizes that is this morning’s Torah reading and the 5th aliyah, when we stand together to listen to the words of the 10 commandments.  In one sense we are re-enacting the moment when God spoke the words and the Israelites, standing at the foot of Mt. Sinai, heard God’s voice.  But in an other sense we are symbolizing in that moment our continued dedication – as a people – to the Torah, to our sacred book.  We are in effect saying ‘we will continue to study the book that You, God, have given us.’  And it is because of that dedication to Torah, to the values of study and education and intellect, that we are called the People of the Book.  

     And I would argue that it is that dedication to study that has enabled the Jewish people to survive for thousands of years.  The Talmud (Shabbat 30b) tells of a conversation between King David and God.  It seems that David was worrying about the end of his life, and he wanted God to tell him when he would die.  God tells David that information like that is something a human is not allowed to know.  And David pushes God, saying ‘at least tell me on which day of the week I will die.’  And God says, ‘you will die on a Shabbat.’

     Now David was a smart guy, and he knows, according to tradition, that if you are engaged in the act of study, the Angel of Death is unable to take your soul away.  So David begins to spend every Shabbat studying for 24 hours.  When the appointed day of David’s death arrives, the Angel of Death has a problem.  But he has an idea, the Angel of Death.  He’ll distract David.  And that is exactly what he does.  According to the Talmud, the Angel of Death climbs a tree near David’s window, and shakes the tree.  David is startled, and for just a moment he looks up from his book, and stops his study.  And at that instant the Angel of Death is able to take his soul away, and David dies.

     On the surface, that story might sound like an old wives tale.  But read between the lines with me for a moment.  In the course of the narrative David is transformed from a warrior king to a rabbi, spending his days engaged in the study of the tradition.  The great palace that he lived in has been transformed into a Beit Midrash – a House of Study.  And in that transformation, David has become a metaphor for a new way of Jewish life, and for a new means of Jewish survival.  Jews would not live in palaces, they would not have armies, they would not have kings, the Temple would be destroyed, and there would be no more sacrifices.  

     But what Jews would always have was the Torah, given to Moses, transmitted to the people, and studied ever since.  The Torah can go anywhere.  It can go to Babylonia and the Academy of Rava, it can go to Europe, it can be carried here to the United States.  Anywhere there is a Torah there is a Beit Midrash, a House of Study.  And anywhere there is a House of Study, there is Jewish life.  In the Talmudic story as long as David continued to study he continued to live.  We might say the same about the Jewish people.  From one generation to the next we have dedicated ourselves to the study of Torah, and by doing so we have ensured the survival of Jewish tradition, and the Jewish people.  Shavuot is the holiday when we rededicate ourselves to that process of study and the role it plays in the continuity of our people.  May we continue to do so again and again, for many years, through many generations.

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Welcoming Interfaith Families

This the text version of my sermon from 5/5/18, reflecting on the upcoming bylaws change for the congregation in terms of the membership status of people who are not Jewish.

     Just a couple of days ago we posted a link to our FB page of a blog post that has now been clicked on and read more than 3000 times.  The post explains a change to the synagogue by-laws that the congregation will vote into effect Wednesday evening May 16th at our annual meeting.  The by-law change has to do with the status of non-Jews at Beth El and membership.  Up to this point, someone who was not Jewish could not technically be a member of the congregation.  For years and years there have been many non-Jews in our community, playing meaningful roles in the life of the synagogue, making sure that their children are at Hebrew school every week, sometimes even attending services regularly, involved with committees.  But until now, technically they were not members.  

     But the recommended change in the by-laws will formally grant membership status to non-Jews for the very first time in Beth El’s 70 years history.  There will still be some caveats in place, and for the time being people who are not Jewish would not be asked to chair committees or to serve on the board.  But at next year’s annual meeting, folks who are not Jewish and who are members will have a vote and will be fully counted in the required quorum for the meeting.  

     On the one hand the change is symbolic more than anything else.  For many years – going back at least two decades – Beth El has been one of the most progressive synagogues in the Conservative Movement in terms of opening our doors to non-Jews and interfaith families.  People who are not Jewish have been welcomed to our bimah, to stand with their children at the ark during a bar or bat mitzvah and read a prayer, or to stand with their Jewish spouse at the Torah during a baby naming.  Some ten years ago or so we expanded the roles a non-Jew could play during services, creating opportunities for someone who is not Jewish to stand before the congregation and lead us in prayer during responsive readings, both Friday nights and Shabbat mornings.  We have an interfaith havurah here, a group that meets multiple times a year to talk about interfaith issues and to explore together the interfaith journey.  The Beth El clergy, from Rabbi Agus to Rabbi Loeb to the present day, have always made interfaith dialogue an important part of their communal work.

     But this is something that is different.  It is a formal embrace of those who are not Jewish, and by extension it is a formal embrace of the interfaith community.  You probably know that the intermarriage rate in the non-Orthodox Jewish community these days is hovering around 60%.  When I spoke about this issue a couple of months ago I said that it is time for the community to stop thinking about this issue as one that we need to solve.  It is not solvable.  The Jewish community has top notch leadership, bright minds, and deep pockets, but despite worrying about intermarriage and working on the issue for decades at this point, we have only watched the rate grow higher and higher.  Are there things that increase the chances of a child marrying Jewishly?  Yes!  Home observance is one, and Jewish camping is another, day school can help too – but by and large this is not something that we are going to have a lot of control over and in all likelihood in the years ahead the intermarriage rate will continue to rise.

     If so, I would argue that we should worry less about the number, the percentage of Jews intermarrying, and we should worry more about how we connect with these Jews and their families so that they feel welcome in the Jewish community in general and in synagogue life in particular.  Because if the intermarriage rate is at 60% and we don’t figure out a way to welcome those families then we are saying to 6 out of every 10 Jews we can’t help you.  And it is hard for me to understand how that is good for us, or how that is good for them.  After all, if we are saying we want the children and grandchildren of intermarried families to be Jewish, doesn’t it make sense to open the door as wide as possible so that those families might be able to find a Jewish home.  Without a Jewish home, we will certainly lose them.

     So the by-law change is one of the ways  – just one – that we are trying to say to interfaith families you can find a comfortable, meaningful, and welcoming spiritual home at Beth El for your family.  

     By and large as news of this change has spread the reaction has been very positive.  Last I looked there were close to 130 likes on the FB post, and a number of positive comments.  But I also understand that there will always be those who are uncomfortable with change, and I would like to say a word or two about that.  

     Because the truth is Judaism has always embraced change.  This morning’s Torah portion happens to be an excellent example of that.  I don’t know if you had a chance – or the inclination – to read through the entire portion, but if you did you might have noticed some of the following things described in the text.  Passover falls in the first month of the year.  A fair number of the verses deal with physical imperfections that in ancient times disqualified a priest from serving the congregation.  The system of religious worship that is described is based almost exclusively on animal sacrifice.  The celebration of Passover is mentioned in the portion, but a seder is not part of that celebration.  And at the end of the portion, there is an Israelite who publicly curses using God’s name, and that person is taken outside the camp, and everyone who heard what the person said helps to stone that person to death.

     So if you wonder whether Judaism changes or not, all you have to do is read this morning’s portion to know that – yes! Judaism changes.  And that in fact it sometimes changes radically, dramatically.  Passover now falls in the 7th month of the year, not the first, and it is celebrated through the rituals of the seder.  Our system of worship does not involve the sacrifice of animals any more.  The idea that we might tell someone they can’t serve the congregation because they have a physical disability is abhorrent to us.  And forget about the idea of taking someone who has cursed using God’s name and stoning them to death.  Were that law still practiced in modern times Rabbi Loeb wouldn’t have made it past 10 o’clock in the morning most days.

     And I would only add this.  All of the changes that have been made in the tradition, that we can see by looking in this morning’s Torah portion, and the hundreds and hundreds of other changes made in the course of our 3500 year old history, have made Judaism stronger, wiser, more tolerant and more humane.  And these changes have also enabled the Jewish people to survive, century after century after century.  

    May the change that we are embracing as a congregation on May 16th do the same, for Beth El, for our community, for our families, so that we can continue to move from strength to strength – 

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The Pugilists

Ah God.  The ‘tester.’  At least that is one of the sides of You we meet in the Torah.  Testing  Abraham, and testing the people as well.  Why the test, what exactly the test is, what it is supposed to measure, these things are not clear.  But that there is a test, or tests, that is something the text tells us explicitly.  “And it was after these things that God tested Abraham.”  “For God has come only to test you…”  “In order to test you by hardships…” “…that I may thus test them, to see whether they will follow my instruction or not.”  Perhaps we don’t even need the explicit textual references, because we are all tested, at one time or another, in our own experiences, our own lives, our own doubts and fears.

I feel sometimes like we are two old and weary wrestlers, You and I.  Theological pugilists.  Warily circling the ring, eyeing one another suspiciously, waiting for one or the other to blink, to turn away, maybe even to leave the ring entirely.  Bruised and battered. It is a kind of contest of wills and also perhaps a continual test of patience.  Still here, I see.  Ready for another round?  But those words are spoken (or thought?) with a tired resignation.  Yes still here, but not necessarily sure why.

There is a heartbreaking story in the Talmud of four rabbis who entered a testing-ground of faith.  The text uses a forest as the metaphor for the place of trial, but what exactly the test is is not clear.  Some say the rabbis gave up on God after living through the terrors of the Roman persecutions.  Others explain the forest as a symbol of forbidden knowledge, of what can happen when we let the mind wander to a place where it cannot find its way back.  Whatever the forest represents, it is clear it is a place of theological danger and existential psychological struggle.  Three of the rabbis are destroyed during their journey.  But one rabbi – the famous Akiva – emerges whole.

How to be Akiva?  That is, perhaps, the question.  How to find one’s way through the dark groves and overgrown thickets, the thickly woven branches and fading leaves to once again emerge into the light?  No easy task, and one certainly worthy of despair.  And yet what You dangle before us.  The rising sun in the morning, the full moon and clear stars at night.  The promise of a new day.  The love of family and friends.  The sudden hope that springs unbidden and unexpected into our hearts.  The moments of joy that touch our souls.

Is it time for another round?  Give me a moment or two, and I will be there.

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