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Leaping Souls

There is a lithograph that hangs at the end of our upstairs hall.  It is a depiction of one of the Bible’s best known scenes, showing a sleeping Jacob at the foot of a tall ladder that runs from Earth to Heaven.  On the ladder angels can be seen, seemingly going from one place to the other, although it is a bit unclear from the picture if they are going up or down.

I’ve always read the biblical story (Genesis 28:10-19) as a narrative about the way God’s presence can suddenly appear in unexpected places at unexpected times.  Here was Jacob, alone in the wilderness, in a place that might actually be described as ‘God-forsaken,’ and he has an experience that reminds him that God is still with him.  Even there.  But the lithograph in our home has given me a different perspective on the story.  The two lower angels seem to beckoning to Jacob, waving their arms upwards, as if to say, ‘Rise with us, shake off your slumber, you can follow us to a higher place, a more sacred space, and we can show you the way.’

Freud might say the angels are a representation of Jacob’s unconscious.  Even while he sleeps there is a part of him that is striving to do and be better, to ‘rise’ to become the person he knows he should be.  After all, Jacob has at best a complicated history.  He has just deceived his father, and this seems to be part of a pattern in his life, having previously done something similar to his brother Esau.  He knows Esau is threatening to kill him.  So Jacob flees for his life.  He is physically alone when he dreams of the ladder and the angels, but he is also suffering from an existential loneliness, and perhaps he is engaged in what the Sages would call a Heshbon HaNefesh, an accounting of the soul.  So that night, alone with his thoughts, he dreams not only of a way out, but also of a way up.

The Kotsker Rebbe taught that when we are born God sends our souls from Heaven to Earth on a ladder, and that the fundamental task of our lives is to climb back up that ladder in the course of our earthly journey.  But there is a trick.  For according to the Kotsker, God pulls the ladder up, just out of our reach, the moment we arrive on Earth.  We might sense the ladder is there, but we can’t see it.  Some souls leap, trying to grasp the ladder, and after trying for a time get discouraged.  But other souls continue to leap, year after year, knowing that something sacred is there, and never giving up on finding it.  The Kotsker Rebbe said that for those souls God has mercy, and ultimately reveals the ladder to them.

Our task then, in the words of the Kotsker Rebbe, is to be leaping souls.

That image is a powerful one, particularly during our fall holiday season.  We do spend these weeks thinking about our lives, weighing our own characters, and wondering what we can do to be better.  Just like leaping, the process can be tiring, even discouraging at times.  We know ourselves well, we know the foibles and the flaws, the shortcomings and the sorrows.  But we ask God for the strength to continue to leap, to almost literally jump forward into a new year, with all of its possibility and hope.  A metaphoric leap of faith.

The picture in our hall reminds me, day in and day out, that the ladder is out there, even if I can’t see it everyday.  Like the angels with Jacob, there are so many forces in my life that constantly encourage me to continue to reach for that first rung.  People who love me and trust me.  Family and friends with whom I’ve shared the joys and sadnesses of life.  The beauty of God’s world that brings to me a sense of the sacred.  And always the start of a New Year and the chance to both return and renew.IMG_0932

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Loyalties of American Jews and Jewish Americans

Following is a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 8/24/19 –

Just a few years ago I was vacationing at Bethany Beach with my family when I received a FB message from a young man, also vacationing at the beach.  He was with his extended family, and at conversation over dinner one night the topic turned to the difference between being a Jewish American, or an American Jew.  In other words, when push comes to shove, do you consider yourself first and foremost to be an American, and your Jewish identity is secondary, or is your Jewish identity the primary one?

    Of course the question was not a new one. For the better part of 1500 years it was clear that Jews were aliens in the country in which they lived. But when the Enlightenment began in the late 1600s, the thinking of that time began to embrace ideas about the humanity and equality of all people, regardless of race or religion.  And European nation states began to develop a sense of national identity so that everyone living within their distinct borders might be considered a citizen. In time, Frenchmen began to feel French, and Germans began to identify ethnically as Germans, or English people as English.  But Jews were different! At that point, if you were Jewish and living in one of those countries, you weren’t yet German or French or English, you were Jewish – you were of a different nationality. And for much of the next centuries the question was asked of Jews, “Are you able to join us in our national identity, to be a Frenchman or an Englishman or a German or a member of any nation state, or will you always be an alien, who cannot be integrated into modern society?”

      The problem was that the Jews, while they became more and more integrated into the societies and cultures they were living in, still maintained a distinct identity.  Most of the time they still lived in neighborhoods that were exclusively Jewish.  They kept their own religious practices – they wouldn’t eat gentile food, or drink gentile wine, or marry into the non-Jewish community.  They kept a different day as their Sabbath.  And so the Frenchmen or the Germans, the majority population in whatever country the Jews were living in, began to wonder whether the Jews could ever embrace national citizenship, or whether they were taking advantage or their new rights without taking on the obligations and loyalties accompanying those rights.  And suspecting that Jews were secretly, in their hearts and minds, first and foremost Jews.  

     That is why you have Napoleon, in 1807, summoning a group of Jewish leaders and and asked them to essentially fill out a questionnaire, the purpose of which was to determine whether the Jews of France were Jewish Frenchmen – in other words, they were first and foremost Jews, who happened to live in France.  Or whether they were French Jews – that is to say people who prioritized France as their nation, French culture as their culture, French as their spoken language, and they just happened to be Jewish.  (when they went to church, it happened to be a shul on Saturday)

     The 6th of the 12 questions that Napoleon posed to the Jews of his time begins in the following way:

Do Jews born in France, and treated by the laws as France citizens, consider France their country?

What Napoleon is really doing is asking the Jews a question of loyalty.  To which nation are you loyal?  To which culture?  To which ethnic identity?  Do your consider yourselves, at the end of the day, to be Jews, or to be Frenchmen?  And if you consider yourselves to be Jews first, then you are disloyal, and cannot be loyal Frenchmen.

     I’ve always felt there was a fundamental logical flaw in Napoleon’s question, and also in the question posed by the young congregant at Bethany Beach of whether one is a Jewish American or an American Jew.  Because the presumption of the question is that you can’t be both.  You can’t be both a loyal Frenchmen and a loyal Jew, or a loyal American and a loyal Jew.  You have to choose one or the other.  And the one you choose, you are loyal to, the one you don’t choose you are disloyal to.  

     But human beings, at least it seems to me, are structured in such a way that we can maintain multiple loyalties in our hearts and minds at the same time.  In a very mundane example, we might be die hard Orioles fans during baseball season, and Ravens fans during football season.  We can love and be loyal to multiple friends at the same time.  Or multiple children at the same time, for that matter.  When you are supporting, loving, caring for, helping one child, it doesn’t mean you are disloyal to your other children. 

     If anyone should know this, it is the Jews.  We are the masters of holding multiple ideas in our minds, we are invested in the idea of arguing an issue from one side, and then arguing it from the opposite side.  The Talmud, at least in part, is a record of that particularly Jewish kind of conversation.   

      Which is why when the young man asked me a few years ago are we Jewish Americans, or American Jews, I said – yes.  Because I believe that we can be loyal Jews and loyal Americans.  I believe we can be lovers of and supporters of the State of Israel, and at the very same time we can be deeply patriotic Americans, who love our own country.  To suggest otherwise is to create a false dichotomy.  

     The President made a similar mistake this week when he said you can only be a loyal Jew if you vote for a particular political party.  In fact, he made two mistakes.  The first is the same mistake Napoleon made, because the President’s statement presumes that being a Jew is a zero sum game, that one can only be loyal or disloyal.  He didn’t take into account the idea that one could be loyal to multiple entities, multiple traditions, and multiple nations at the same time.  And his second mistake was to assume that there is only one way to be loyal, and that is to be uncritical, and agreeable with his point of view.  But when you think about it, the greatest form of loyalty might be the very opposite – to be critical and demanding, and to have high expectations of someone, or something you love.  That is the way we love the people we truly care about, and our loyalty to America, to Israel, to our own Judaism, should be no less.

     The truth is loving people cast their love in many directions, they live their loyalty in many ways, to their family, to their community, to their ethnicity, to their nation. Whether that nation be Israel, or the United States.  

     It is my hope and prayer that our love and loyalty for the United States and for Israel remain strong and true in the years ahead, and all the other loves and loyalties that enrich and define our lives be continuous, fulfilling and rewarded.

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Statements, Politics, Presidents

Just to clear up a few things.

First of all, someone can be reasonable, rational, intelligent, and a lover of Israel and dislike the policies of the Netanyahu government.  Or dislike the current President of the United States.  Or be a Democrat, for that matter.  In terms of Israel, there are arguments to be made for and against both sides, but neither side – right, nor left – is in possession of the absolute ‘truth.’  If that were the case, the Palestinian problem would have been solved long ago.  But you can disagree with Bibi, you can worry about Israel’s moral and ethical character, you can be concerned about Israel being the only Western state in the world to forcibly maintain control of a foreign population, and be a lover of the Jewish state.  In fact, you might have those concerns precisely because you are a lover of Israel.

Second thing, the President’s bizarre statement.  First of all, sort of like the Second Amendment, it is not really clear what he meant.  Disloyal to whom, exactly?  It seems he was referring to Israel herself.  But then the Republican Jewish Coalition tried to explain the President’s words as referring to oneself.  In other words, if you vote for a Democrat you are being disloyal to yourself.  This doesn’t make much sense to me, but whatever was meant by the President, he has no right to define for me or for anyone else when we are being loyal to our faith tradition, to Israel, or to the Jewish people.  And if he was trying to tell Jews they must vote a certain way or they are disloyal, I think that takes us to a very dangerous place.  This is a fee country, and we can vote for any candidate we choose.

And yes, that voting thing.  I am sure the President is enormously frustrated by the fact that 70 -80 percent of Jews vote for Democratic candidates.  What he utterly fails to understand is that Jews do not vote about one issue and one issue only.  Israel is important to us when we step into the voting booth.  So is climate change.  So is gun control.  So are women’s rights.  So is immigration.  Health care as well.  So are issues like abortion, taxes, public schools, LGBTQ rights, and the list goes on and on.  It is demeaning and an ugly ethnic trope to assume that Jews only care about Israel when they vote.

Last, and certainly not least, the President’s attempt to use Israel and Jewish identity as wedge issues that divide the Democratic and Republican parties has reached a new low with this statement.  As has been stated by many others, far wiser than I, this is enormously dangerous.  What happens, for example, if a few years down the road there is a Democrat sitting in the Whitehouse?  And her party controls the House, and maybe even the Senate?  If Trump succeeds in making Jewish life a wedge issue, where would Israel be then?  Where would the Jewish community be?

Jewish organizations that care about Israel’s well being should roundly condemn the President’s statement.  So should politicians from both sides of the aisle.  So should Israelis.  It is yet another step down a long, dark, and dangerous road.  If the President wants to go that way,  let him.  But those who truly care about Israel, Jewish life, and a healthy and vibrant democracy here in the States should not follow.

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The Old Knuckle Curve

If you are a baseball fan you know that the game has lost some of its subtlety in recent years.  Today’s baseball is largely about power – namely, power pitching, and power hitting.  Pitchers routinely throw fastballs in the high 90s, and to see 97 miles an hour on the old radar gun has become routine.  And hitters?  Juiced/changed ball or not, home runs are on a record pace this season.  In a game in June between Arizona and Philadelphia 13 home runs were hit.  13!! In one game!  Baseball today has in large part become a question of whether power hitters can make contact with near 100 mph fastballs.  When they do, the baseball leaves the ball park.

And yet.  A few weeks ago my brother and I were at Citi Field watching our beloved Mets play the San Diego Padres.  The Padres had a young power pitcher on the mound, and the stadium pitch tracker regularly reported pitches in the high 90s, many of them 96 mph plus.  The Mets pitcher was Jason Vargas, a 36 year old journeyman left hander (since traded to the Phillies) who has played for 6 different teams in the course of his career.  At 36 Vargas’ arm doesn’t have the ‘juice’ it once did.  His fastballs were reaching the plate at a tepid 88 mph.  His curve ball registered in the low to mid 70s.  And yet somehow, inning after inning, Vargas retired the Padres lineup.  When he left the mound in the 6th he had given up exactly zero runs, while the Padres flamethrower had given up 5.

There was one particular pitch by Vargas that caught my eye.  After he released the ball and it settled firmly into the catcher’s mitt, I checked the pitch tracker.  ‘Knuckle curve’ was the pitch type reported by the tracker graphic.  Oh, and miles per hour? 67.

The knuckle curve is a rarely thrown pitch, a weird hybrid of a curve ball and a knuckle ball, that somehow manages to both curve and float.  Few pitchers have it in their arsenal, and only a crafty and grizzled veteran like a Jason Vargas will throw one in a game.  In most circumstances a 67 mph pitch looks to a major league hitter like the moon floating towards him, large, bright, easy to see and to strike.  But a knuckle curve is a pitch of subtlety, not power.  In its almost leisurely journey to home plate it floats a bit, curves a bit, looks so tempting, so slow, but then at the very moment when you swing it somehow isn’t where you thought it would be.   To paraphrase the venerable Wee Will Keeler, the knuckle curve is thrown where they ain’t.

You see, that is precisely how Vargas pitched those 6 shutout innings.  Rarely if ever hitting even 90 on the radar gun, he painted the corners.  He ‘located’ his pitches.  He threw up in the zone when the hitter thought it was going to be low.  He threw on the inside corner when they expected the outside of the plate, he threw his 88 mph fastball when they were looking for the curve ball.  And he threw the knuckle curve when they were looking for anything but that.

It happens to the best of us.  As we age our bodies just can’t work the way they used to.  Forget about 95 mile per hour fastballs.  We can’t play tennis the same way.  Or hit the golf ball as far.  Or do quite as much yard work.  Or even walk the same distance with ease.  Or drive at night with the same confidence.  We reach for the reading glasses to glance at the menu, we spend a few moments stretching before we get out of bed. And that only takes care of some of the aches and pains.  Even our minds aren’t quite as quick as they used to be.  What we never forgot we sometimes don’t remember, at least not in that instantaneous way we once did.

The question is, have we learned to ‘paint the corners’ over the years?  Have we added a knuckle curve or two to our arsenal?  Do we appreciate life’s subtitles, the quiet moments, the long standing friendships, the small accomplishments, the moments shared with those we love?  There are spaces in life that you only learn to fill as the years go by.  They can’t be charged through, or overcome with blunt force of will.  As the years pass there is an accumulated wisdom that settles in, a patient understanding of what something’s true value is, of what matters most, and of what, in the end, barely matters at all.  When those lessons are learned, it is easier to relinquish that 95 mph fastball.  And you begin to understand, as time goes by,  how sweet that knuckle curve truly can be when it is throw in just exactly the right way.

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Gun Laws

As the nation goes through yet another round of soul searching following not one, but two mass shootings that took place within a few hours of each other, I would suggest our legislators look to Israel to get a sense of what responsible gun regulation legislation looks like.

Maybe that sounds surprising to you.  There is a common misconception among Americans that guns are commonplace in Israel, that most Israelis own guns and know how to use them.  How often do Americans return from their first trip to Israel struck by the vision of young Israelis, many still in their late teens, walking the streets of Jerusalem in their Army uniforms, machine guns slung over their shoulders?  And it is true that Israelis are more familiar with guns than most Americans, because the vast majority of Israelis serve in the military where they are trained in the use of firearms.  But the truth is guns are very carefully and thoughtfully regulated in Israel.

First off, there are a series of preconditions that Israelis must meet before they can even apply for a gun license.  They must first of all be of a minimum age.  That is defined as 20 if you have completed your military service.  Let me restate that.  In Israel, even if you’ve served in the military and been trained in the use of firearms, you can’t apply for personal gun ownership until you are 20.  And if for some reason you did not serve in the Army, you can’t own a gun until you are 27 years old.  27!  In addition, background checks are strict.  Any person who applies for a gun license must include medical information from his or her doctor, with the doctor’s knowledge that the person is applying for gun ownership.  The doctor takes into account both physical and mental health in the evaluation.  Once the individual satisfies these requirements, they are permitted to apply.

In the application the individual must explain why he or she needs to own a gun.  And the answer ‘because I want to keep my home safe at night’ is not acceptable.  Licenses are typically granted to people who might regularly cross through the West Bank, or who work in security, people who could find themselves in truly dangerous situations.  Figures vary, but estimates are that minimally 40% of applicants are rejected.  Let alone the fact that the entire process of applying takes many months.

Even more importantly, gun ownership is tracked carefully by the State.  Citizens are permitted to own a single gun at a time.  One gun at a time.  If you want to sell your gun, you have to ask the Israeli government for permission first.  Ammunition is also regulated.  An Israeli can legally be in possession of fifty bullets at any given time.  That is it.  Before they buy new bullets they must shoot or return the old ones, and that has to happen at a tightly regulated shooting range where the bullets – the bullets themselves! – are registered.

There is more, but I suspect you have a pretty good sense of it at this point.  After these most recent shootings the President, parroting Fox News, talked about the problems of mental health and video games.  Clearly mental health plays a role in these tragedies.  But video games?  Seriously?  The problem is crystal clear, in each and every shooting, one after another after another:  someone who should not have a gun was able to quickly and easily purchase one, and often times more than one, with as much ammunition as they wanted.

The Israelis, pragmatists that they are, understand this and have taken care of it through strict and responsible gun regulation.  When American Jews talk to their legislators about Israel, they might want to remind them that along with Israel’s many other accomplishments it has some of the most tightly regulated gun laws in the world.

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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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The Work of Our Hands

This is a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 7/27/19 –

     On three separate occasions I have been involved with the rabbinic ordination ceremonies at the Jewish Theological Seminary.  Once was my own ordination, the very moment I became a rabbi in my own eyes.  The other two times I was asked to participate in the ceremony by ordaining rabbinical students.  The ritual is simple but powerful.  The person being ordained is called forward, and words of blessing are spoken.  Then a tallit is taken and placed upon the student’s shoulders, and as the hands of the ordaining rabbi rest on the student’s shoulders, the student is for the very first time publicly called ‘Harav’ – rabbi.

     That ordination ritual comes in part from a scene in this morning’s Torah portion, one of the most poignant moments in the entire Bible.  God tells Moses that his time is almost up, that he is about to die.  God takes Moses to the top of a mountain outside the land, and shows him the place where the Israelites will make their home.  That in and of itself is painful – Moses, who has given everything to God and to the people will never see the fruits of his own labors.  But it is the simple exchange between Moses and God that follows that I find so striking.

     Moses says to God ‘OK, God, if I am not going to be the leader, then go ahead and appoint someone else to lead this people.’  And I’ve always felt this is Moses’ way of saying ‘God, no one else can do what I do!  If you think you can find another person to fill my shoes, go ahead, good luck!’  I’ve always read Moses’ response as a way of indicating to God that he is indispensable, of trying to remind God that God needs Moses, otherwise the whole project will fall apart.  

     But God’s response is devastating, at least that is the way it has always seemed to me.  Immediately, God responds to Moses:  קח לך את יהושע בן נון – just take Joshua! אשר רוח בו – he also has the spirit of God – וסמכת את ידך עליו – and lay your hands upon him.  In other words, God is saying, don’t worry Moses.  It won’t be hard to find someone to fill your shoes!  In fact, Joshua is right here.  So if you don’t mind, ordain him in front of the people, and he’ll be the leader from this point forward.  And that moment of ordination, that transfer of power, is marked in the Torah by Moses laying his hands upon Joshua’s shoulders.  At that very instant the people know that Moses is out, and Joshua is in.  And it is that laying of hands that became the symbol in Judaism of the transfer of authority, from one generation to the next, which is why it is used during rabbinic ordination ceremonies down to this very day.

     I’ve always wondered how Moses felt at that moment.  Wasn’t he crushed by God’s response?  Wouldn’t it have been nice if God had paused, at least for a minute or two, and said ‘You know you are right Moses, it won’t be easy to find someone to replace you!’  Bit it is like Joshua is right on the tip of God’s tongue!  God doesn’t even say ‘nice job Moses, here is a gold watch, I’ll set you up in a nice condo in Boca.’  No words of praise, no words of thank.  It is all matter of fact.  It is done in a second, almost before you even know what happened. It isn’t hard to imagine Moses standing off to the side, while Joshua, now suddenly the center of attention, is surrounded by the people.

     The passage has reminded me, as I encounter it year in and year out, of the all too common indignities of aging that confront us as the years go by.  One of the most difficult challenges that families face is the take the keys away moment.  I suspect you know what I’m talking about.  The family feels a person’s driving is no longer safe.  They fret and worry that the person might hurt him or herself, or someone else in an accident.  But they also know that driving is a major measure of independence, and that to take that away from their loved one will cause hurt and pain, embarrassment, and even anger.  But eventually, whether by hook or by crook, whether by force or subterfuge, those keys are taken.

      This scene plays out in our lives over and over again, in ways large and small.  It might be the moment you switch from a weekly singles game in tennis to a doubles game.  Or maybe it is the first year that the seder no longer takes place at your home, but moves to the home of a child or grandchild.  Some people retire from work willingly, eager to let go and enter a less stressful and demanding time of their lives.  But others have to be dragged out kicking and screaming, and they want to stay in the game for as long as they possibly can.  What was it that Bette Davis said?  Getting old ain’t for sissies.  And I’ve always understood the encounter between God and Moses in this morning’s Torah portion as that kind of moment, a moment where something is taken away from Moses, where his independence is lost, and his self worth is diminished.

     But I also wonder if Moses found some comfort in that moment that he laid his hands upon Joshua.  Because in a sense that means he had done his work well.  That because of his teaching, because of the way he had mentored Joshua, a new leader was ready when the time came.  Moses knew Joshua well, they had worked together, he must have been proud of him, he must have known that Joshua was qualified for the job, and that if anyone would be able to do it, he would be the one.  

     This is not to say that the moment wasn’t hard for Moses.  I am sure it was.  But maybe it wasn’t all bad.  Maybe balancing the sense of loss he felt was a sense of accomplishment.  That moment of semicha – of laying on the hands – is a moment of continuity, of acknowledging that we are part of a stream of tradition, that moves from one generation to the next.  And if we play our part well, then we will know that our values and the traditions that mean so much to us will be carried forward by the next generation, and the one after that.  

     So let us play our part.  To the best of our ability, with whatever strength God grants to us.  Knowing that no person is indispensable – not even a Moses.  But knowing also that if we are blessed in the course of our lives what we create can truly change the world for the better.  Consider these verses that conclude the 90th Psalm –  ויהי נועם ה׳ אלוקינו עלינו ומעשה ידינו כוננה עלינו, ומעשה ידינו כונניהו – The favor of the Lord our God be upon us.  God will establish the work of our hands.  The work of our hands God will surely establish.

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