Category Archives: Yom Kippur

The Blacklist – Yom Kippur 5778

My phone started dinging with unusual frequency early in the morning of July 9th.  Each text or email came with a strange question:  ‘Is it you?’  After the 3rd or 4th text message and 5th or 6th email I decided I had better figure out what exactly was going on.  With one quick google search I discovered that Israel’s chief rabbinate had released a blacklist of rabbis – 160 names of rabbis not to be trusted.  And as my eyes scanned down that list, about half way through it, I saw my own name  – Rabbi Steven Schwartz.

Most of the rabbis whose names appeared on the list are from the US.  Many are Conservative rabbis, although there are Orthodox rabbis and Reform rabbis listed as well.  We received no notification, no communication from the Chief Rabbinate, and no explanation.  But best guess, after speaking with some of my colleagues, is that you made that list if you had people who had studied with you for conversion, and then after they became Jewish they made aliyah, they moved to Israel.  And if you wrote supporting documents for their aliyah process, you made the blacklist.

Now please don’t feel bad for me, if you were inclined to do so.  My feelings were not hurt, my ego, such as it is, not bruised.  The timing was ironic, because when the list was released I had just returned from Israel, where for 10 days I had done my best to give a group of Beth El travelers a sense of pride in and love for the Jewish homeland.  But even while we were there there were storms brewing and controversies swirling, all revolving around the question of how Israel, in a religious sense, Israel as a Jewish state, relates to the Jewish community outside of Israel, those of us who live in the Diaspora.

If you follow Jewish news you probably came across these issues during the summer.  There have been two primary points of contention.  The first has to do with access to Judaism’s most sacred site, the Kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem.  If you’ve ever been to the Kotel you know it is run like an Orthodox synagogue – there is a men’s section of the Wall, and a women’s section.  The sections are divided by a mechitza.  It is clear that if you are a Conservative or Reform or Reconstructionist Jew that your brand of Judaism is not looked upon kindly there.  And some of you who have traveled with me and Dr. Bor to Israel may remember how uncomfortable we felt when trying to have a Beth El service, not even at the wall, but in the general vicinity, usually at the back of the plaza.

Almost two years ago a compromise was negotiated with the Netanyahu administration that was supposed to resolve this tension.  The plan was to give Reform and Conservative Jews access to the wall’s southern section, where they would be able to have egalitarian services, with women and men participating fully and praying together.  But the government never implemented the agreement, giving one excuse after another, finally announcing this summer that the agreement would be indefinitely shelved.  And the message to the Diaspora community really was if you are a Conservative or Reform Jew your Judaism is not authentic, and you do not have the same Jewish rights in Israel, the Jewish homeland, as Orthodox Jews.  Controversy #1.

Controversy number 2, which connects to my being black listed, revolves around the status of Jews by Choice, who have converted in the Diaspora.  Since the establishment of the state 70 years ago in 1948, conversion status worked as follows – if someone converted under non-Orthodox auspices, they were considered to be Jewish by the state of Israel and they were allowed to make aliyah as a Jew under the Law of Return.  But just over the last number of months there has been legislation introduced in the Knesset that would make only Orthodox conversions approved by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate to be considered valid.  It is another message sent – from the Israeli government – that non Orthodox Judaism, in their eyes, is not authentic.

This past summer the Conservative and Reform communities finally felt like they had had enough.  You may or may not know but you should that our President Denise Franz and I signed on to a letter a few weeks ago that was sent from the Conservative Movement to PM Netanyahu.  It was signed by 600 Conservative rabbis and the presidents of almost 400 conservative synagogues around the country.  In the strongest possible terms the letter expressed the deep disappointment we feel communally with the Netanyahu administration’s positions on these issues. (the text of the letter is easy to find online if you want to read it)

To this point there has been no movement from the Netanyahu administration, and no response that I know of to the letter or the points it raises.  And that lack of response, particularly at this time of year, when Judaism urges us to reach out to God and to each other, to admit oversights and promise to do better, is both hurtful and telling.  It is a rejection of our Judaism, and our Jewish way of life.

I don’t have to tell you that we are living in a world today that feels both dark and dangerous.  With violence, and terrorism, and mass migration, and a threat of nuclear war that we have not felt since I was in elementary school;  with challenges of modernization, and the feeling that technology is taking over our lives, and the recent natural disasters, and the growing threat of climate change – the list could go on and on and on.  To say the least, these are unsettled and troubled times.

And that is the general world!  Think for a moment about the Jewish world.  We have plenty of our own tzuras!  In Israel the unresolved situation with the Palestinians and the continuing occupation divides the country internally between left and right.  The left recognizes that the occupation cannot continue because A) it is morally compromising and B) it alienates the rest of the world. But the left has a problem because it doesn’t know if a full withdrawal from the West Bank will finally result in peace or if it will locate Hamas rockets 10 miles from Ben Gurion airport.  The right in Israel also has its problems.  It believes that the Israeli claim to Judea and Samaria is God given, even Messianic, and withdrawal is impossible. Yet it understands that something has to be done about the Palestinians, and also that making a single state will not preserve Israel’s Jewish identity in the long term.  That is internally.  And externally, Israel lives in one of the most challenging, unstable, and dangerous neighborhoods in the world, and has to share its backyard with Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Lebanon.  Israel can never seem to catch a break, and never seems to have an easy year.

But we Jews who live in the Diaspora haven’t had it much better this year.  I imagine many of us are still deeply disturbed by the events that took place in Charlottesville this summer, when Nazis and white supremacists marched in the streets of an American city chanting Nazi slogans and waving flags with swastikas.  Our brothers and sisters in Europe have their own concerns, with the left in England revisiting classic anti-Semitic tropes, and the right in Germany electing neo-Nazis to sit in the German parliament.  %13 in last week’s elections!

And in this kind of world, in this kind of year, do Jews have to spend their time telling other Jews they don’t practice Judaism the right way, that they aren’t authentically Jewish, they aren’t observant enough?  Does the Chief Rabbinate have to release blacklists of rabbis?  Does the government of Israel have to renege on its agreements with the liberal Jewish community, does it have to alienate Jews at a time when if anything Jews should becoming together?  I understand that we all have a tendency to pass judgement on others. That is one of the reasons why YK exits!  And in the Jewish community we seem to have a particular talent for judging others.  But don’t we Jews have other things to worry about, aside from judging each other?

The message of Yom Kippur is to look inwards, and to judge oneself, and to leave the judging of others to God.  In ancient times, when the High Priest went into the inner precincts of the Temple, to pray for a good year, he prayed for all Jews.  He didn’t say, ‘I am going to pray for the Jews of Beth El, and not Chizuk Amuno.’   And if we wake up in the morning, and somehow the Temple has miraculously been rebuilt over night, and a High Priest found, his prayer in that Temple would also be for ALL Jews – in Israel, and in the Diaspora, Orthodox and Conservative and Reform and Reconstructionist.

In its introduction to the Avoda service, our mahzor quotes the teaching of a Hasidic master.  “Wherever a person stands to lift up eyes to heaven, that place is a Holy of Holies. Every human being created by God in God’s own image is a High Priest. Each day of a person’s life is the Day of Atonement. Each one of us can face God with the language of the heart. Each one of us can be forgiven. Each one of us can achieve atonement and be made pure in the eyes of God.”

That is a message that I hope and pray the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the Netanyahu administration will take to heart.  But the truth is it is a message all of us need to hear and take to heart, in Israel and in the Diaspora.  It affirms every person and every place as part of God’s creation. That each of us despite our diversity, in age, in location, in language, in observance, in worldly goods can find God’s love and support as we journey through life.

We all pray in the same words on the HHDs, the pious and those less so. בספר חיים…וכל עמך בית ישראל. May we and the entire House of Israel be called to mind and inscribed for life, blessing, sustenance, and peace in the Book of Life.

May that be God’s wish, and the wish of all Jewish people, one for another, in this new year –

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Filed under American Jewry, Beth El Congregation, High Holy Days, Israel, Israeli-American relations, Jewish festivals, Jewish life, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, religious fundamentalism, sermon, Uncategorized, Yom Kippur

Problems of Prayer

This text of my Kol Nidre sermon from 9/29/17 –

One week ago tomorrow, on Shabbat afternoon, I took our dog for a long walk around the neighborhood with our niece Lily.  Lily is the daughter of my brother and sister in law and just starting second grade, and as we walked we talked about various things – school, a strange bug we saw, the dog, cracks in the sidewalk – I guess pretty typical conversation with a seven year old.  That morning she had come to Shabbat services, so I figured I would ask her what she thought about shul.  ‘How did you like services?’ I asked.  ‘It was pretty boring,’ she said. ‘What was boring about it?’ I asked.  ‘Well,’ she said, ‘you just sit around and say all those prayers.’

And I don’t know if Lily’s comments reflect your experience of shul, but I can tell you they brought back memories of my own childhood, and sitting in services next to my father, particularly on the High Holy Days.  I had a general sense of what page the service ended on, and I would keep my finger in that place of the prayer book, counting the number of pages we had left to go.  It was always exciting when the rabbi skipped a bunch of pages – for example, we’d go from page 60 to page 70!  That was great!  We were that much closer to the aleinu!

But if the prayers were challenging for me, what I did enjoy about shul were the various scriptural readings of the holidays.  I liked hearing about Abraham and Sarah, I enjoyed the dramatic narrative of the High Priest and the YK day ritual that we read tomorrow morning.  And I particularly liked the story of the prophet Jonah, that we will read at Minha tomorrow afternoon.

I am sure you all remember the story of Jonah.  He is asked by God to deliver a message to the city of Nineveh and its residents, to tell them they have sinned but that if they repent they will be spared.  As a child I didn’t know much about sin and repentance and all of that business, but I did love the part of the story where Jonah is swallowed up by a ? big fish!  In my mind I tried to imagine how Jonah could have survived for three days and nights in the fish’s belly.  I thought about how big the fish must have been to swallow a man whole.  I wondered at how dark it was, Jonah all by himself, deep under the water, with no light and no source of comfort or hope.

And my favorite part of the story came at that moment – that low and dark moment in Jonah’s life – when the text tells us he prayed to God from the belly of the fish.  קראתי מצרה לי אל ה׳ ויענני – In my trouble I called out to God, and God answered me.  מבטן שאול שועתי שמעת קולי – from the darkest place I called, and You heard my voice.  I don’t know how my niece Lily would feel about that prayer, but for me it has always had a distinctive power, and it has grown even more compelling as I’ve aged, and certainly as I’ve worked in the rabbinate over the last two decades.

There is a simple reason for that – in my eyes, Jonah’s prayer reflects the human experience, that at the difficult and dark moments of our lives, the moments of doubt and pain, the moments of loss, the moments of fear, the moments when we feel hopeless – at those moments we turn to God, we call out for help, and we seek God’s presence.  But over the last few years I’ve become worried that we do that less and less today.  I am concerned that our faith in prayer is waning, and that it has become more and more difficult for us to find in the experience of prayer meaning and value.

Many years ago Alvin Book, a long time member of Beth El, came to see me.  When he walked into my office, in his hands, he held this little abridged Bible.  These were standard issue, given to the Jewish soldiers in the Army during the Second World War.  Alvin told me that he had landed on the Normandy beaches, on June 7, 1944, the day after D Day.  The beaches were still not secure, and the troops were being heavily shelled.  He ran to the closest fox hole he could find, a shallow ditch in the sand.  And he huddled there, and he was terrified, paralyzed with no idea of what to do or how to move forward.  As the shells were exploding he was saying ‘God please help me.’  And he told me he reached to his heart, because it was beating so heavily, and his hand hit the pocket of his uniform, and in that pocket was this Bible.  And for some reason, just really looking for something to help him, he took this Bible out of his pocket, and with shaking hands opened it.  And this is the passage he opened it to –

Out of the depths I call to You, O Lord.  Listen to my cry, let Your ears be attentive to my plea for mercy…

I look to the Lord, I look to God, I await God’s word.  I wait for God like watchmen wait for the dawn…  (Psalm 130)

Alvin told me the moment he read that passage he felt a sense of calm, he felt that God was there with him, he felt he was going to be OK.

Notice that nothing external changed in his situation.  The shells didn’t stop falling.  He was still lying in a fox hole.  He was still in grave mortal danger.  None of that changed.  God did not make a miracle, create a protective shield, or move him out of harm’s way.  His circumstances were exactly the same as before he reached for that Bible.  But there was a transformation that occurred at that moment.  An internal transformation.  Something changed inside of Alvin, something that helped him feel a sense of courage and hope and strength that he didn’t have before.

And you know what?  Rabbis also struggle with prayer.  And Alvin’s story has helped me to understand prayer, how prayer works, and how it can be meaningful in my life, and maybe it can do the same for you.  I think my niece Lily was on to something last Shabbat afternoon – prayer can be enormously difficult for us.  As Lily said, it can be boring at times, after all we sit here for hours on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, reciting prayer after prayer, and if you are one of those who mark the end of the service with your finger in the Mahzor, you know we still have a long ways to go.  (In fact tonight, 40 more pages to be exact!)  And there are additional challenges – Hebrew not the least of them!  How many of us can read Hebrew well, let alone understand what we are reading?  And even if we go to the English side of the page we struggle with the meaning of many of the prayers, some of them close to 2000 years old, and it can be difficult to understand how they can connect to us and our lives.

But I think the biggest challenge to prayer today is that we have lost faith in its power.  We don’t believe that prayer can be a transformational experience, that it can make a difference in how we live, or who we are.  One of the primary reasons for that is that we’ve come to think of prayer as a process of asking God for something.  And once we ask, our request is either granted or not.  In the simplest of terms, we ask God for a new bike.  If we get the bike, we believe our prayer has been answered.  If we don’t, we feel that either God said ‘no,’ or that God never heard our prayer in the first place.  And if that is the way we think of prayer then we very well may sit here for hours on RH and YK and wonder whether it is even worthwhile opening our Mahzorim.

But what if we think about prayer differently?  What if prayer is supposed to be what happened to Alvin Book on that beach 73 years ago?  That the power of prayer is NOT about making external changes in the world.  God does not miraculously produce the bike!  Instead the power of prayer is about making internal changes, in our own hearts and minds.  And then maybe, when we are transformed internally, we will go out into the world and make it a better place because of our presence in it.

Ten years ago tomorrow, on Yom Kippur afternoon, 2007, the Jewish year 5768, Rabbi Mark Loeb of blessed memory gave his last High Holy Day sermon to our congregation.  Many of you will remember that in those days we recited Yizkor in the afternoon, and Rabbi Loeb spoke just before that Yizkor service.  The Berman Rubin sanctuary was packed, fuller than I have ever seen it, before or since – my guess would be close to 2000 people were in the room.  Rabbi Loeb was in a reflective mood that Yom Kippur, sensing the power of that moment in his life magnified by the most powerful day of the Jewish year, and he delivered his remarks with a characteristic brilliance, but with an uncharacteristic depth of emotion.

At the very end of that sermon he told the following story in the name of Rabbi Israel Salantar:  “When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world.  I went out, and worked, and tried, but I found it was very difficult to change the world.  Then I thought I might change my nation, but I found I couldn’t change my nation.  When I realized that, I thought to change my community, but even that was too difficult for me.  Now that I am an older man, I’ve realized the only thing I can change is myself.  And if I can do that, then one day maybe I will be able to change the world.”

Had you asked Rabbi Loeb if he thought that the prayers we recite during these holy days are heard by God, I think he would have said “I don’t really know.”  Were you to ask me the same question, I would say the same thing.  I don’t honestly know if my prayers today will somehow reach God’s presence, in some distant heavenly throne room, or even in any way, shape, or form.  But I do believe with all of my heart and soul that the prayers of my mouth and the meditations of my heart can make a real difference in how I understand my role in this world, in how I live my life, and in how I relate to the people that I love.  And I also know that if those things happen through my prayers during these holy days, then my prayers will have truly been answered.  So may all our prayers on this Yom Kippur arrive at their proper destination, transforming our lives for the good, enabling us all to enter this new year with faith, courage, and hope.IMG_4981

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Ice Cream & Football

Yom Kippur 5777

At this time of year, with the changing of seasons and the arrival of our holidays, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the passage of time.  Hard as it is for me to believe, this is the 19th occasion we’ve celebrated the High Holy Days together here at Beth El, and for our Cantor, it’s his 20th year with you!  I’ve had the distinct pleasure over the last year to officiate at a number of weddings for young people whose b’nai mitzvah I participated in when they were 13, right here in the Berman Rubin Sanctuary.  Needless to say, my wife Becky is ageless. But our children, Talia, Josh, and Merav, are now 22, 20, and 17.  And next week we will mark Rabbi Mark Loeb’s 7th yahrzeit. I realized just the other day, that at 52 I am now older than Rabbi Loeb was, when I came here to serve as his assistant.

 

And I would guess it is at least in part because of the nostalgic mood of the holidays that on Rosh Hashanah we look back to the very first Jews and read the biblical stories of Abraham and Sarah and Isaac.  But we also read about them on RH because with their family struggles, their flaws and foibles, they are the perfect models for us in terms of understanding our own lives, our own needs and hopes and dreams – very much what the High Holy Days are about.  So it is always a bit challenging – at least for me – to turn from the richness of those stories and characters to the dry 16th chapter of Leviticus that we read on Yom Kippur, with its rote description of the ancient sacrifices.  But the truth is YK also has a biblical hero, just a little bit less obvious.  Anyone want to take a guess as to who it is?   To give you a hint, we’ve been reading the most intimate part of his story every Shabbat, during these last weeks of our liturgical year. Yes! Moses.

In the rabbinic mind, Moses and YK were synonymous.  The Talmud teaches that it was on YK day that Moses convinced God to forgive the Israelites for the sin of the golden calf, and God granted the second set of tablets.  If there is a refrain in the liturgy of YK, it is the 13 attributes, the Adonai, Adonai,  El rachum v’chanun phrase from the Torah that we chant again and again, and that is God’s response in Exodus 34 when Moses asks for forgiveness.  Tradition understands that phrase as a promise, still in effect today, that God will deal with us mercifully – with ‘rachmanis!’  -on Yom Kippur.  And that promise is extracted from God by Moses.  Moses and YK go together like gefilte fish and horse radish, if you’ll excuse the reference on a fast day!

But I’ve always suspected there is another reason why Moses is the central figure of Yom Kippur.  Do a bit of math with me – if it is YK today, when is Simhat Torah?  In two weeks.  And that means in our weekly Torah cycle we are reading the very last chapters of Deuteronomy.  Those chapters are all about Moses summing up the meaning of his life and what he hoped for in the future. They are a record of Moses’ last days, of the thoughts that he has as he looks back on his years.  He remembers successes and failures, he realizes that some of his goals will remain unfulfilled, he revisits regrets, and ultimately he emerges from the process with head held high, with his dignity and moral strength intact.

Now in any book, the last chapters can be the most important.  They make sense of the narrative’s previous events, they tie up the loose ends, solve the mysteries;  sometimes they come to terms with the simple fact that not everything in life is resolved to our satisfaction.  But when they are well done, when the writing is fluid and the language clear, the last chapters create a sense of wholeness and completion.  You know that feeling when you’ve reached the end of a great book.  Your eyes linger on the page, you read the last words reluctantly, you close the cover slowly and carefully, you feel sad, but you also feel whole.  And so it is, as we read these last pages of Moses’ five books.

But what about our own last chapters?  What about the last chapters of those we love?  Are we prepared to write them, or help write them, the way we would want to?  We often talk about being the authors of our own stories – it is a common metaphor today – and in the prime of life we may know exactly what it is we want and need.  We set goals and pursue them, focusing on careers, supporting families and maintaining a quality of living.  But when we arrive at old age, when we are challenged by illness or the passing of the years, it is more difficult to put pen to paper.  What are our goals?  What should our priorities be?  If time is limited, what do we want to focus on?  When we need clarity, where can we find it?  Those last chapters are difficult ones to write, but they are perhaps the most important in our entire story.

I had the opportunity over the summer to read a beautiful and poignant book entitled Being Mortal, written by the physician and author Atul Gawande.  Part memoir, part sociological survey, part exploration of medical ethics, the book traces Gawande’s struggle with the following dilemma – in a world where medical technology can often extend life, but in doing so may actually diminish its quality – how do we make wise and sound decisions about health care as we age?  How do we face the frailties and fears that will inevitably arise in our lives?  How do we help our parents and grandparents as they transition to supported living, or struggle with losing their independence?  What does dignity mean, and who defines that?  When choices need to be made, choices about health care or supported living, about terminal illness, who should make those choices, and how should they be made?

The book is beautifully written, and it is powerful.  If you or someone you love is facing a significant health challenge, if you are caring for an elderly parent or grandparent, if you are growing older – and we all are – you should read this book.  It does not necessarily give answers, because these questions don’t have right or wrong answers.  But with depth and feeling it will help you wrestle with whatever challenge you may be facing.  And we will all – every single one of us in this room – face these challenges in the course of our lives.

At its core, Gewande’s book is about one fundamental question:  what makes a good life?  When push comes to shove, when you realize time is limited, when you have to choose two or three things that are absolutely most important, that define your being, what are they?  And his thesis is if you can figure out how to ask that question, of yourself, if you can have that conversation with someone you love, then you will be able to write the last chapters, or to help someone else write them, with some sense of control, and even more importantly, with dignity and with humanity.

The book is filled with anecdotes from Gewande’s work as a surgeon and physician, and there is just one I would like to share with you this morning, and I hope you’ll again excuse me because it does reference food.  This is the story of a professor of psychology, in his mid-seventies, who discovers that he has a mass growing in the spinal chord region in his neck.  His prognosis is grim, but there is a surgical procedure that may help him extend his life with quality.  But it is a risky procedure, coming with a %20 chance of his becoming paraplegic.

While trying to decide what to do, the professor’s daughter asks him two questions:  “What are you willing to go through to have a shot at being alive, and what level of being alive is tolerable to you?”  And in responding, he surprised his daughter, and perhaps even himself:  “If I’m able to eat chocolate ice cream and watch football, I want to give it a shot.”

Now I suppose if we asked everyone in this room the questions the man’s daughter asked him, we would get a different answer from each person.  For some the answer might be time with family and friends.  Others may say they want to visit a special place one last time, or finish a project they’ve spent years working on, or repair a relationship they’ve regretted for many years.  The point is this –   everyone has their ice cream and football.  And the High Holy Days are supposed to help us remember what those things are in our own lives.

These sacred days and the words of our Mahzor come to remind all of us, no matter how old we are, of the passage of time, of our fragility and mortality, and of our significance and worth in God’s sight at every age of life. They remind us of the value of each day of our lives, young or old, each day to be treasured and purpose oriented, and so should be the arc of our years. As we age our priorities may slowly shift, as we begin to sense our time is limited, as we begin to think about mortality, our focus on family, on friends, on the things we love the most, on discovering the meaning of what has been – those things become more and more important to us. And this, our YK fast day, and the prayers and reflections with which we spend the day, are intended to focus our minds on those very same aspects of our experience.

In the last verses of Scripture we are told that at the end of Moses’ life, after 120 years of struggle with God and with his people, לא כהתה עינו ולא נס לחו, “his vision was undimmed, his vigor unabated.”  Isn’t that what every one of us wishes for, every single day of our lives? We want our work to be meaningful, to engage our minds and our hearts. We want our loves to be true, enduring, and mutual. We want to be respected and loved even when we are imperfect and incomplete – even when we are infirm or grow old.  Like Moses, we may never enter a promised land where all of our dreams are fulfilled, but we hope that we are able to see it from a distance, to have that perspective on our lives. So that when we each reach a certain age, we can look to the generations after ourselves, knowing that they live by values we cherish, continuing our ancient path in new ways and in new times. That we and they together may find comfort, hope, promise and peace in God’s sheltering embrace in all the new years yet to come.

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(What) To Say or Not to Say,That is the Question

You’ll recognize the paraphrase of the famous line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  (Act III, scene 1)  Interesting fact about that line, in fact that entire speech, now so sealed into our minds, as ‘canonized’ as anything in Shakespeare:   There was actually a series of earlier versions.  As an example, this version was printed in the First Quarto (1603):

To be, or not to be, I there’s the point,
To Die, to sleep, is that all? Aye all:
No, to sleep, to dream, aye marry there it goes…

So Shakespeare, arguably the greatest writer of them all, despite his preternatural gifts, worked in drafts!  And even after the play had been performed the Bard’s work continued, massaging the lines, rethinking concepts, rewriting.  Evidently when he arrived at the following formula he realized perfection, and he stopped:

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; aye, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.

Pause indeed.  For in the rabbinic world, this is the time of writing and rewriting, of switching phrases, of working ideas, struggling with transitions, worrying over the ebb and flow of a text that ironically and ultimately is meant to be spoken.  Perfection in a sermon will never be achieved, for it simply does not exist.  But we work hard, and we spend more time with these sermons that we do with anything else we’ll preach the rest of the year.

This year there is an extra challenge.  What to say, or not to say, about Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, the Presidential election?  There is a clear legal definition you work with – a preacher may not endorse a candidate from the pulpit.  Such an endorsement would forfeit the preacher’s house of worship’s non-profit status.  But as we all know you can get awfully close to that line without crossing it.  I’ve heard rabbis (and Christian preachers as well) say everything BUT ‘and you should vote for..’   They didn’t even need to say it, because their message was already clear.

Of course in today’s highly polarized political atmosphere some folks feel that even touching on politics during a sermon is akin to landing on the third rail.  I had a congregant once tell me I shouldn’t even use the words Democrat or Republican from the pulpit.  At the same time it feels almost cowardly, or in some way irresponsible, not to address the one issue that is on everyone’s mind.

So what to say?  Or not to say?  This is the challenge rabbis around the country are struggling with this year.  In a way it is like the old joke about rabbis:  the ideal rabbi has 25 years experience in the field, but is only 35 years old.  She spends no money and requires little pay, but must dress well and drive a respectable car.  He should be at meetings morning, noon, and night, but should also find time to spend with his family.  You get the idea.  So it is with the High Holiday sermon – it should be topical, but not touch on politics.   And oh yes, it should make them laugh and cry, be filled with original insight and ancient wisdom, not make anyone angry, and perhaps most importantly of all, make them want to come back for more.  After all, there is always Yom Kippur.

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Baseless Hatred

The Hebrew term is שנאת חנם.  Hatred out of spite, groundless, with no reason, generated by the darkness that all too often lies hidden in the human heart.  It is understood in the rabbinic tradition as particularly applying to Jew on Jew hostility.  There is a well known passage in the Talmud (Gittin 55b) which blames the destruction of the Temple on this kind of baseless hatred.  When it appears it is ugly and irrational, and a desecration to God’s name.

And so I was saddened to hear from a congregant the following anecdote:  The family held the unveiling for their beloved father and grandfather this past Sunday.  It happened to be Tisha B’Av, the day that commemorates the destruction of the Temples and which also is a fast day in traditional Jewish circles.  It is not a day that is high on the radar screen for most Jews in the liberal Jewish community, and very few Conservative, Reform, or Reconstructionist Jews observe the fast.  A few days before the unveiling the family called a local kosher bagel shop to reserve a dozen and a half bagels for a post unveiling brunch.  That morning a family member went to pick up the order, and found the shop closed.

Returning home with bagels from another shop, a call was placed about the original order. Someone happened to answer the phone in the kosher shop.  ‘What happened, we placed an order and no one was there when we came to pick it up?’  The response from the worker:  ‘Are you Jewish?’  ‘Yes I am,’ my congregant responded.  ‘Shame on you,’ said the worker, and hung up the phone.

Really?  Forget about the fact that no person has the right to impose his or her religious views on another person.  We have the right to make our own choices, and to ‘do Jewish’ in the best and most meaningful way we can for ourselves and our families.  It is not the worker’s business, or anyone else’s for that matter, whether a fellow Jew chooses to fast or not to fast on Tisha B’Av.

But what about the idea of keiruv, of finding ways to bring Jews into the community, to help Jews deeepen their connection to the tradition and God, of opening doors and making the community a welcoming place for all Jews, regardless of level of observance?  Imagine the difference had the worker said ‘Ma’am I am so sorry, the person who took your order must have forgotten that today is traditionally a fast day and we are closed.  We’ll make it up to you by filling the order for free another time.  Meanwhile try down the street, they’ll be open today.’  Instead of raising a wall, opening a door.  Instead of spite and hostility, helping a fellow Jew on a difficult day.

I don’t presume to know what God ‘thinks’ but I wonder this.  Would God be more concerned about someone observing a ritual fast, or about one Jew treating another with respect, decency, and dignity?  The High Holy Days are seven weeks away.  Remember these stinging words from the prophet Isaiah, read on Yom Kippur morning:  “No, this is the fast I desire:  to unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the chords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free;  to break off every yoke.  It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched into your home;  when you see the naked, to cloth him, and not to ignore your own kin.”

I am guessing the worker at that shop was in shul last Yom Kippur.  Perhaps he fell asleep during the chanting of that great haftara.  Or perhaps he was awake and heard the words, but for some reason chooses to ignore them.  That, it seems to me, is where the true shame lies.

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The Kosher Person

this a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 7/30 –

When we think about ‘kashrut’ – the question of whether something is kosher or not kosher – the first thought that probably jumps into our minds is food.  But in Judaism the idea of ‘kosher’ applies to other things as well, not only to food.  Can anyone give another example?  One is the Sefer Torah – a Torah that is usable – that we are permitted to read from – is actually called a kosher Torah.  Which of course begs a question – what makes a Torah kosher or not kosher?  With food we have a pretty strong sense of how that question is answered – certain foods are by definition not kosher – pork the most obvious example.  And certain foods can’t be mixed – like dairy and meat.  If they are mixed, the food is no longer kosher.  But what about a Torah?  What makes a Torah kosher, and what might make it not kosher?

Let us first think for a minute about what makes a Torah kosher.  First of all, the materials used to make the Torah have stringent requirements.  The ink that is used to write the letters must be made in a certain way, and it absolutely must be black – any other color and the Torah is not considered kosher.  The parchment, called in Hebrew ‘klaf’ must come from a kosher animal, usually a cow or a goat, sometimes even a deer.  the letters must be written using a special quill, usually one made from the feather of a kosher bird like a turkey.  When sections are sewn together the thread is made from the sinew of a kosher animal.  And if any of these things are not right – if the quill is not proper, or the parchment is not from a kosher animal, or even the thread, the Torah is not kosher, it is not usable.

But it isn’t only the materials that make the Torah kosher.  It also has to do with how the letters themselves are written.  No letter in the Torah can touch any other letter – if two letters are touching, the Torah is not kosher.  Certain letters have to be written larger than other letters – the best example is verse 4 in Deuteronomy chapter 6, the Shema Israel line, where the ‘shin’ of Shema and the ‘daled’ of echad must be written larger than the other letters.  At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion there is another example – the word Shalom appears in the third verse of this morning’s portion – how do you spell that word in Hebrew?  Shim, lamed, mem, vav, mem-sofit.  And how do you write a ‘vav’ in Hebrew?  One straight down line.  Believe me, there are a lot of ‘vavs’ in the Torah.  And all of them have to be written with a straight, uninterrupted line – except this vav in our word Shalom from this week’s portion.  It has to be written with an interruption in the line – a space – and if that space isn’t there, once again, the entire Torah is not kosher and may not be used.  That gives you just a little bit of an idea of what makes a Torah kosher or not kosher.

What about applying the same idea to a human being?  What makes a person kosher, or not kosher?  It might sound strange in our ears to phrase it that way, again because we so commonly associate that idea with food – but there is a talmudic concept of the ‘adam kasher’ – the kosher person.  In the Talmud this is a person who is deserving of the ultimate respect, so much so that the Talmud says when an ‘adam kasher’ – a kosher person – dies – everyone in community is obligated to make a tear in their clothing, something normally only immediate mourners do.  And everyone in the community is responsible for mourning this person’s loss.  That is the level of respect and love that an ‘adam kasher’ engenders in the course of his or her life.

Now it might seem to you like the High Holy Days are still very far away, after all we sit here at the end of July, and Rosh Hashanah isn’t until the beginning of October!  But the truth is in our liturgical cycle we are already pointing towards the fall holidays.  We read today the first in a series of 10 haftara texts that try to build up our spirits so that we can stand before God with clean hearts and souls at the beginning of the new year.  10 weeks from Sunday night is RH.  I don’t know about you – I tend to be a bit of a procrastinator – but the time is set aside for us, and I think the reason we are given so much time is that sometimes it can actually take quite a while to figure out how to be a kosher person.  It isn’t as black and white as the laws of what makes food kosher or not, or a Torah scroll kosher or not.  And wouldn’t it be nice if the tradition gave us some guidance as we went through this process.  What is it that makes a kosher person?

It is an old tradition during the summer months to spend some time studying Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers.  Probably more than any other text in Judaism, Pirke Avot lays out for us the tradition’s idea of what makes a person kosher.  It deals with ethics and morals, with how a person should act towards his or her fellow, with what kind of responsibility one has in terms of being part of a community.  The material is fairly wide ranging, but there are a few themes that come up again and again, ideals that the rabbis of old clearly believed defined what a kosher person should be.

A number of the ideals are things you might expect.  Be a kind and compassionate person.  Treat others with respect and dignity.  Live with a sense of God’s presence in your life.  All important qualities of the kosher person.  But there are three particular ideals that the text identifies, ideals that are at the core of being an ‘adam kasher’ – that might not normally come to our minds.

The first of them is humility.  The text reminds us that we are no more important that any other person, and that when we begin to feel more important than others – something we all seem to do at one time or another – we have wandered onto the wrong path and need to find our way back.

The next quality of a kosher person is communal engagement and commitment, a sense of communal responsiblity.  In today’s world we tend to emphasize the individual over the community and the individuals needs and rights over the community’s needs.  But in Judaism it is exactly the opposite.  When an individual’s need conflicts with a communal need, it is the community’s need that takes precedence.  As Jews we have an obligation not only to be connected to Jewish community, but to make sure that because of our presence the community becomes a better place for all.

The last thing is to be a learning Jew, to constantly strive to grow through the study of Judaism, Jewish thought, Jewish life, Jewish text, Jewish history.  Tradition understands that we nourish our bodies with food and drink, but that we must always make sure to nourish our souls and spirits, and one powerful way to do that is through the study of Torah – not only the scroll we take out of the ark, but Torah writ large, our ancient tradition with all of its wisdom.

So as we begin our slow but steady walk towards the High Holy Days, and begin to weigh in our minds who we are and who we want to be, we can perhaps keep in mind the wisdom our our sages and an ideal they at least believed we should all strive for – not necessarily to keep kosher, all though that wouldn’t be so bad – but to actually, in the way we live our lives and the quality of our own characters, to BE kosher –

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Cluttered Desks

sermon text from Yom Kippur 5776 (2015)

If you’ve ever been to my office over the years you probably know that I keep a cluttered desk. This is not something I’m proud of, it is just the way I do business, and for as long as I can remember, going all the way back to my boyhood, any desk of mine was filled with piles of papers, often books, pens, coffee mugs, and all of the things you would expect to see on someone’s desk – just more so. And I will confess that I am always a bit envious of those whose desks are totally clear – maybe one sheet of paper, perfectly centered, with pens tucked safely away in a drawer, and not a single item to be seen anywhere in the desk’s bare landscape.

When I open my office door every day that cluttered desk is the first thing I see, and it reminds me – as Becky will affirm – that I have a tendency to procrastinate. Things languish on that desk until the very last moment, and sometimes beyond that. Old letters that I should have responded to. Books I meant to look through. Old ‘to do’ lists, where often the first item is ‘clean your desk!’ I came to terms with my procrastinating tendencies many years ago, and have managed to adjust my life accordingly. And I’ve also learned over the years that I am in pretty good company, because everyone procrastinates to one extent or another, even those of us with clean desks – waiting and waiting to complete the tasks of our lives.

My complicated relationship with my desk always takes a turn around the High Holy Days. As Rosh Hashanah creeps closer I feel a sudden urge to try to straighten the piles, answer the letters, return the books. It may in part simply be another sign of my procrastinating tendencies – after all, if I am spending time cleaning my desk, I am not spending time working on sermons! But I also believe it has something to do with a sense of urgency I suspect we all feel in our kishkas when the holidays arrive. Just like blinking our eyes another year has come and gone! And it is really that sense of urgency, that stirring in our stomachs, that fluttering in our minds and souls, that voice quietly whispering in our ear – that I would like to speak about on this Yom Kippur Day.

I suspect you all know that the liturgy for the High Holy Days is unique. There are prayers we recite on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that we do not say on any other day of the year. And the amidah – the central, standing prayer, is an example of that. The core section of our holiday amidah contains three paragraphs only said on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, that all begin with the same word – the word ובכן. That word is hard to translate, in fact in our Mahzor you will not find it translated at all, and instead they begin the English paragraphs with a transliteration of the word, just writing out ‘uvechein’ in English letters. If we wanted to translate it, we would say it means something like ‘and therefore’ or ‘and so,’ but what it really is is a phrase of emphasis, almost like a wake up call, and it clearly carries a sense of urgency.

The phrase itself – ובכן- comes from the Bible, and somewhat surprisingly, it is from the Book of Esther. The Megillah that we read on Purim, the story that we all know so well, about Esther and Mordecai, King Ahashveirosh and Queen Vashti, and the villain Haman. Not exactly the text that you would expect the Sages to reference in the core section of the amidah for RH and YK. It is a quote of what Esther says just after Mordecai asks her to go in to see the King, to plead for the Jewish people. And you might remember that Esther knows that to go in to the King without being invited is dangerous, possibly even life threatening. But she says ובכן – And so! אבוא אל המלך – I will go in to do what you ask. I will go in to the King.

I have always suspected that at that moment Esther might have felt the urge to procrastinate. Were I Esther, I might have said to my uncle “You know Uncle Mordecai, I am busy today. The whole King thing, I will get to it first thing tomorrow, I promise you!” And then tomorrow would have come, and I would have found myself busy with some other, probably less important task. The going in to see the King I would have put on my desk, and there it would sit.

And maybe that is why our Sages chose a phrase from the Book of Esther for the core of the High Holy Day liturgy. Because that phrase reminds us that we should have a sense of urgency about our lives. That another year HAS come and gone. That time is fleeting. That despite our best intentions, here we sit, tasks that we promised to take care of last year still unfulfilled. Phone calls we needed to make, conversations we should have had, people we wanted to connect with, emails we needed to answer, the list could go on and on.

But of course there are larger issues we grapple with today. And the uvecheins of the Mahzor remind us of urgent tasks we should all be engaged in, not only in our own lives, but in the world around us. The first is to live our lives in such a way that God’s presence will be more visible in this world. To me that means living with kindness and grace. It means being a forgiving and patient person. It means being sensitive to the needs of others, and living daily remembering that our Torah teaches us that all human beings are created in the image of God – and that includes me! ובכן – and so! I will determine to make the world a more Godly place because I am in it.

The second uvechein reminds us that we are part of a larger community, of Am Israel, and that that should also carry a sense of urgent responsibility. To raise Jewish children and grandchildren. To stay involved with community institutions – the Associated, the synagogue, the JCCs, Israel bonds, to visit Israel, to read Jewish books and take Jewish classes and visit Jewish neighborhoods when we travel. And so! I will determine to make the Jewish people stronger, more connected, and more sacred because I am a part of it.

And the last uvechein is a reminder that as we look outward, at the world, at the Jewish people, so we must also look inward on this day. To search our own hearts and souls, to see our own faults and frailties, to come to terms with our own limitations, to acknowledge the clutter in our own lives, to be aware that our own hearts in the course of a year or a life might become hardened, and homes to jealousy and festering anger, racism and intolerance, cynicism and deceit, violence and stubbornness. ובכן – and so! I will make myself more the way I know I should be, and more the way God intends me to be, in this new year.

The question, of course, is how do we get from here to there. How did Esther find the courage, the sense of urgency that she needed, to open that door and walk in to see the King. How do we stand today before the מלך המלכים – the King of Kings – and find the courage to do the things we need to do so that this year will truly be a sweet one for us and our families?

And to try to answer that question, let me turn to another area of clutter in my life. As you may imagine, I get quite a bit of email, so much so that it is virtually impossible to keep up with it. So I am keenly interested in any article I see that offers suggestions in terms of coping with ‘inbox overload.’ And recently I read an article written by a young woman who at one point had over 30,000 unread emails in her inbox. 30,000! But she figured out a way to take care of it. She deleted all of them! In one fell swoop, her inbox was empty. And I suppose I could clean my desk the same way. Bring a large box, set it at the edge of my desk, and sweep my arms over the top. Just imagine – all of the papers, the books, the notes, the reminders – they would drop gently into the box, I could close it up, tape it shut, and simply put it away. And for a day, or at least a few hours, my desk would actually be clean!

But of course life doesn’t work like that. You can’t sweep your arms over the clutter of your life, magically making it disappear. You can’t press a delete key to suddenly find a clear conscience, or to remove bitter memories or sadness. But there is another way to clean a desk, which might help us more in the real world, in our real lives. So allow me to take you to just one other place of clutter, this the closet in my childhood bedroom.

That closet was filled with all kinds of interesting things. My father’s old army jacket was in there. Seashells that I had collected during summer trips to the beach were in a worn bag. My baseball glove hung in the inside of the door. Old models I had made were tucked in the back. But at a certain point, when I was 7 or 8 years old, I became convinced that the closet had something else in it – a monster. And I remember for a time that after my parents would shut off the lights, I was terrified that if I moved – even slightly, the littlest bit – the monster would come out of the closet, and that was not something I wanted to happen! So each night I lay in bed, barely daring to breath, for fear of that closet and what it contained.

And then one night I determined, regardless of what would happen to me, I was going to open that door and look inside of it. To see for my own eyes what my mind was imagining. The lights went out, my parents said goodnight. As my eyes adjusted to the dark I could see the outlines of the closet door, just across the room, barely 10 feet from where I lay. I mustered all of the courage I had, and I moved, sitting up in my bed. And that very instant my fear vanished. I didn’t even have to open the door – I just had to take one step.

And it is always that way. The first step is the most difficult by far. Once Esther began to walk to the King’s door there was no doubt in her mind she was going through. Once you pick up the phone, chances are you’ll make the call. If you can just get yourself to walk into the hospital you’ll make the visit. And of course that is the second way to clean a cluttered desk. The piles are impossible. But that one piece of paper, that I think I can manage. But I have to pick it up.

Our desks may remain cluttered in the year to come, but our lives do not have to. The High Holy Days remind us that there are things we need to do, things we’ve waited too long to attend to. But the holidays also remind us that we can do those things, and that the time to take the first step is now! May our steps be firm, our minds clear, and our hands ready to do the work of this new year –

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