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Eastern Europe

A text version of my remarks from this past Shabbat (7/6/19) –

     As I think most of you know our Beth El group has just returned from its Eastern European trip.  In a ten day span we visited four cities – Warsaw, Krakow, Prague, and Berlin.  A trip to Eastern Europe that focuses on Jewish history is not ‘fun’ – it is not a vacation that you return from feeling refreshed or recharged.  Each day you wrestle with difficult and often painful moments from the history of our people.  You are faced with questions that often are unanswerable.  A trip to Israel is celebratory, you are rejoicing in what has been found.  But a trip to Eastern Europe is elegiac, you are mourning what was lost.

     At least for me that sense of loss was pervasive, as day after day we were reminded of Jewish communities that had once been centers of Jewish life that no longer existed.  It is often striking to me how the Torah portion we read on any given week will in some way reflect the lives we live and the issues with which we wrestle.  This week our portion is Korach, which tells the tale of the ill fated rebellion that Korach and his followers launch against Moses and Aaron.  You’ll remember the narrative – Korach publicly challenges Moses, accusing him of setting himself above and apart from the people.  Moses responds, telling Korach there will be a public ritual, almost like a spiritual shoot out, between Moses and Korach and his followers.  

     The very next day the ritual is enacted.  Korach and his followers on one side, Moses on the other.  At the moment of confrontation, what is it that happens?  The earth opens, and Korach and his followers are swallowed up, never to be seen again.  Here is the verse from the Torah that describes that moment:  וירדו הם וכל אשר להם חיים שאולה – they went down alive into Sheol, with all that belonged to them – ותכס עליהם הארץ – and the earth closed over them – ויאבדו מתוך הקהל – and they vanished from the midst of the community.  I’ll give you just the English so you can hear it straight – “They went down alive into Sheol, with all that belonged to them, the earth closed over them, and they vanished from the midst of the community.”

     That is what happened to Jews of Europe.  Before the war in Warsaw had the second largest Jewish community in the world, second only to New York City – 350,000 Jews lived there, close to %30 of the city’s population.  Today there are fewer that 2,000 Jews.  And that is a story told in one way or another in every major eastern European city.  To sum it all up, before the way 3.5 million Jews lived in Poland alone, and today there are fewer than 10,000.  Literally town by town, community by community, city by city, the Jews of Eastern Europe were swallowed up by Nazi Germany, like a great, vast chasm had opened up in the earth, and almost over night they were gone.  Some 75 years later the Jewish population of the world has still not recovered.  Before the war there were more than 16 million Jews in the world.  Today there are maybe 15 million, almost all of them living in Israel and here in the US.  

     So our group struggled with that pervasive sense of loss.  We said kaddish near a barbed wire fence in Birkenau.  We walked through a crematorium in Auschwitz, our heads low and our eyes cast to the ground.  We stood at the platform of track 17 just outside of Berlin, where the Germans had deported Jews, sending them from their homes to the camps, never to return.  And we walked through the sumptuous halls and gardens of the villa where the Wannsee conference was held and the details of the so called Final Solution were meticulously discussed and recorded.  These are experiences that can not be summed up in a sermon, experiences that I think we will all be pondering for a long time.

     But as difficult as the trip was at times there were moments of light and life.  In Krakow we had dinner at the vibrant JCC, the center of Jewish life in that area.  Johnathan Ornstein, the charismatic director, spoke with us about his mission of revitalizing Jewish life in Krakow.  He told us stories about young Poles discovering that they had a Jewish grandparent, or even a Jewish parent, and that they were coming, one by one by one, to the Krakow JCC to explore what that means, and to think about Judaism and Jewish life.  When we left the building that evening the JCC’s courtyard was filled with young people dancing and singing, drinking and eating, and we couldn’t help but feel the energy and the sense of hope that Jewish life could continue to grow there.

     On Shabbat, on Friday night, we davened in the Maisel shul, a synagogue from the 1500s that is now a museum of Jewish life in Krakow.  A small Jewish community led by a young rabbi meets each week, holds services, sings and prays, and maintains a sense of Jewish community and ongoing Jewish life.  As our Cantor and members of our congregation helped to lead the service we truly felt part of a world wide Jewish community, supporting one another, caring for each other, and sharing in our common history and brotherhood.  

     The tour guides we had in both Prague and Berlin were Jewish, having grown up in Israel and moved at some point to Europe where they now make their lives.  They were proud of their Jewish identities, proud to be guiding a group of Jews, and I believe they felt that part of their mission was to not only convey to us the history, but to remind the cities we visited that there is a vital and vibrant world wide Jewish community, that Jews will come to visit Eastern Europe and by doing so we bear witness to what happened, but we also symbolize the ultimate failure and defeat of the Nazis.  At Birkenau and also track 17, after we said the kaddish we chanted the Shema, as if to say despite what we’ve seen we still have faith, despite what happened here Judaism survives and thrives, despite the sadness we might feel we still hope.  Hope beats so powerfully in the Jewish heart, and עם ישראל חי – and the Jewish people continue to live!

     One last vignette.  Our farewell dinner took place at an elegant restaurant in Berlin.  Towards the end Dr. Bor played a few songs on his clarinet, with the Cantor singing along.  Suddenly he played the opening notes of Hatikvah, and we all stood up, singing together Israel’s national anthem, a song entitled the Hope that is a symbol of Jewish freedom and the Jewish future.  The lyrics of the song were written by an Eastern European Jew named Naftali Herz Imber in the late 1880s.  It was a striking moment, and a striking way to conclude our trip – a group of Jews from Baltimore, singing the lyrics composed by a Jew who lived his life in the lands through which we had just traveled, lyrics that became the national anthem of the homeland of the Jewish people, and singing those words together, publicly, in the heart of Berlin.  

     This is a translation of the words you know so well in the Hebrew – As long as within our hearts the Jewish soul sings, as long as towards the east, towards Zion, looks the eye – our hope is not yet lost.  It is 2000 years old – to be a free people, in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.

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Auschwitz – Birkenau

Even being there, even standing in the barracks and walking along the same dusty and stone filled streets they walked on, it is so hard to get your head around it all. How did human beings actually do these things to other human beings?

Of course there are academic answers to that question. The Holocaust has been studied intensely. Brilliant historical minds have analyzed it, unpacked it, looked at it again and again. The economy. The foundation of antisemitism that had been cultivated for centuries. The willingness of people to set aside rational thinking and to dehumanize the other.

But the experience of Auschwitz is not academic, not rational and intellectual. It is instead emotional, it comes from the gut, as we say the kishkes. It is something experienced feelingly. You walk lost in your own thoughts in a world that seems almost surrealistic.

I took very few pictures. Not sure why exactly. Too distracted by the enormity of it all? Or maybe it felt like some kind of desecration. Judaism does teach that we are not permitted to look at the dead, to stare at them, as if we are saying ‘we are still in this world, still in life, but you are gone.’

And small things caught my eye. The baby in the yellow dress playing with her father. The barbed wire, rusting but still there , as it was so many years ago. The 1913 date on the cattle car axle. So mundane, such little things, yet what they mean together in that place I will be unpacking for a long time.

And so many people. Droves of them, hundreds and hundreds. On the one hand thank goodness. They come to learn and maybe understand and acknowledge and remember. On the other hand they murmur and laugh, they smile and eat and drink, as people must. It is difficult to find sacred space, the solitude needed for deep reflection.

We will continue to seek it out. That is one of the reasons we are on this journey.

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Journey

After two days in Warsaw our group of 60 plus travelers is making its way to Krakow by bus, a ride of some three hours. Congregational trips are wonderful. Bonds are immediately formed, new friendships ignited and old relationships renewed. Together we learn and discover, understanding the past so that our sense of the present is altered. At the same time we deepen our own identities, developing a new sense of origin, of where we’ve come from, how far we’ve come, and how we were formed.

In Warsaw we came face to face with the destruction and despair of the Second World War. We explored the monuments that tell the story of the Warsaw Ghetto and its resistance. We visited the crowded Jewish cemetery, containing not only ancient matzeivot, but also a mass grave from the war, marked out by stark white standing stones. We saw the last remnants of the ghetto wall. I thought of the actual people who may have risked their lives to climb over that wall, desperate for food and also for freedom and dignity.

After Warsaw and it’s focus on the WW II period we are traveling back into the Middle Ages on our sleek bus. In Krakow we’ll see the Altshul, the oldest standing synagogue in Poland, originally built in the 1400s. We will also meet one of the greatest Jewish scholars of all time, Rabbi Moshe Isserles, known as the Rama. In the 1500s he was the most important halachist in the Ashkenazic world. We will visit his shul, that dates to the 1500s, where his מקום, his place of prayer, is maintained to this day.

Tomorrow will be the most spiritually demanding day of our trip as we head to Auschwitz, it’s horrors still lingering in the air and crying out from the ground. But then tomorrow evening a klezmer concert.

It might seem an odd juxtaposition, from a concentration camp’s grounds to the joyous music. But that also is symbolic, for even in the darkest times hope dwells in the Jewish heart. And the very presence of our group here speaks to prayers that have been answered and hopes that have been realized.

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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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Summer Stillness

A gentle breeze was blowing when I found Rabbi Loeb sitting on the wooden bench outside of our chapel.  It was late on a Shabbat afternoon, at the end of a gorgeous summer day, not too hot, not too cool, just exactly right.  In a short while the evening service would begin, the Torah would be read, havdallah chanted.  But in some magical way time seemed to stop.  Rabbi Loeb, always running, always with a next thing, always with a deadline, was relaxed and peaceful.  He looked at the flowers, the green grass, the leaves in the trees, at the edifice of the building that housed the congregation he had served for decades.  He looked up at the blue sky, just beginning to darken to a deeper shade in the east.

I sat down on the bench next to him.  We didn’t say a word.  Just took pleasure in the sharing of that moment, each with our own thoughts.  Spring was behind us, and the fall with its demands seemed a long ways off.  It was summer, the slower pace, the reverie, the subtle astonishment at the beauty of this world when it is in full bloom.  Somewhere a baseball game was being played, a lawn mowed, neighbors were sitting on a porch and discussing the events of the day, drinking iced tea or lemonade, listening to music playing on an old radio.  Somewhere.  But in our moment it was all stillness.

There is a beautiful midrash about the giving of the Ten Commandments, one of my favorites.  It imagines the precise moment before God spoke the words of Torah at Sinai as a moment of profound silence and stillness.  A moment when the world became soundless.  When even the endless waves of the sea stopped their incessant murmuring.  When the entire world paused to listen.

Sometimes there are no words.  That is a hard thing for a rabbi to admit.  In some ways we are paid talkers.  Our job is to speak, to teach and counsel and preach and bring meaning and context and comfort using words.  What is the old joke?  ‘Before I speak, I would just like to say a few words.’  That is a joke made for rabbis.

But sometimes silence is better.  Sometimes stillness gives us the opportunity to think and feel, to understand more deeply, to sense more profoundly, to experience more fully. In our increasingly busy and noisy world, those moments are few and far between.  But we should look for them, search them out.  Often they are right there, waiting to be discovered, waiting for us to be still, waiting for us to listen.  Like on a summer afternoon, on a wooden bench, under a clear blue sky.

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