Tag Archives: America

Summer Reading 2019

How To Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan – With the recent popularity of meditation and yoga as spiritual pursuits, Pollan explores an alternate, once frowned upon method of opening the mind, staying present, and finding meaning – hallucinogenics.  A blend of travelogue, scientific research, medical history, and memoir, the author ponders one of the oldest and most significant human questions:  how can we find meaning in our lives? (460 pages)

The Uninhabitable Earth (Life After Warming) by David Wallace-Wells – Concern about the devastating effects of climate change has grown exponentially in recent years.  Relying on the most recent scientific evidence, David Wallace-Wells imagines what challenges will confront humanity if climate change continues unchecked.  He also offers hope that time is still left to make changes in our behavior and environmental policies before it is too late.  (300 pages)

Thoughts in Solitude by Thomas Merton – In the information overload age there is precious little time to ponder, reflect, and just think.  Merton, Trappist monk and mystic, argues in this slim volume that moments of quiet reflection are necessary for personal health and growth, and also for the cultivation of a society of tolerance and respect for all.  (130 pages)

Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James – In a vividly imagined Africa filled with superhuman creatures and supernatural forces the Jamaican write Marlon James uses the mystery of a missing boy to weave layered stories of survival and quest.  Filled with references to popular culture, the book draws on the hero myth structure identified by Joseph Campbell to propel its protagonist, Tracker, through a violent, dangerous, and mysterious world.  (please note!  the book contains multiple violent passages – rating PG 15!)  (420 pages)

These Truths by Jill Lepore – The Harvard historian has written a brilliant one volume history of the United States.  As is so often the case, the more we know about the past the better we understand the present.  Beautifully written, Lepore shines a light on some of our greatest people and most important moments, but also reminds us of how often we fall short of the ideals that define our nation.  Every American should read this book. (800 pages)

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Not All Who Wander Are Lost

The title is a quote from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.  Below is a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 2/4/17.

Not really a sermon this morning, but three brief vignettes that might help us, as Jews, think about about some of what is going on in Washington these days, particularly the immigration ban.  Sometimes it can be helpful to look back, because it is easy when you get comfortable – as we are today – to very quickly forget where you’ve actually come from.

And we’ll begin by looking way, way back, all the way back to this morning’s Torah portion, the events of which most scholars would date about 3500 years ago.  I want to introduce you to a young Israelite slave who was living in Egypt at that time.  His name was Nahshon, the son of Aminadav, from the tribe of Judah.  He was about 18 or 19 years old, and had lived his entire life in slavery, working in the hot Egyptian son, doing the backbreaking work of building the pyramids.  But there was something special about Nahshon.  Unlike his parents’ generation, whose spirits had been crushed by the cruel bondage of Egypt, Nahshon had a fire burning inside of him.  He had always believed that one day there might be a way to escape the slavery, to leave Egypt behind, and to live life as a free man.  But he never really knew how that night happen.

And then one day a man named Moses appeared.  He would come to the Israelite villages, and he talked about ideas that seemed strange, even crazy.  He said that the old God of the ancestors, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah had returned.  That that God had heard the cry of the Israelites in their slavery, and had set in motion a series of events that would somehow enable them to be free.  Many of the people didn’t believe Moses, but Nahshon did.  He began to quietly talk about a moment that would soon come, a door that would suddenly open, a window in time, when the Israelites would leave Egypt and set out on a journey to freedom.  Nahshon watched, and waited, and bided his time.

Then one night it actually happened.  It was the middle of the night, and a terrible cry could be heard throughout the land of Egypt.  A deathly power was making its way through the Egyptian homes, slaying all of the first born.  Moses and his messengers went through the Israelite settlements, urging people to pack a few belongings in haste, to take with them only what they absolutely needed the most.  And so the people quickly assembled – men, women, children.  Nahshon fell in with his tribe, with a small sack over his shoulder.  In his heart he felt a sense of hope he had never before felt in his life.  He turned his face to the east where the sun was rising, and he began to walk forward.  As the first rays of the sun fell on his face, his eyes burned brightly.

Lets now take our minds out of the Egyptian desert, and move forward in time about 1000 years.  In the year 586 BCE a Jew named Azariah lived on the outskirts of Jerusalem.  He was a simple man, living a simple life.  He made his living by harvesting grapes and olives in the groves and vineyards around his small home, and making wine and olive oil that he sold to travelers who were on their way to see the great city.  But Azariah lived in troubled times.  Jerusalem has been besieged by the Babylonian army, the greatest power in the ancient world, and the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar.  The Babylonians have built great war towers around the city’s walls, and they waited patiently as hunger and thirst began to set in.

In the course of a few weeks during that terrible summer Azariah watched the Babylonians bring Jerusalem to its knees.  The siege lasted for three months, but the end was quick.  The Babylonians finally breached the outer walls, and then steadily made their way towards the Temple mount, burning and destroying everything in their path.  When they reached the Temple they set it on fire, and later tore it down, stone by stone, to its foundation.  A few days later Babylonian soldiers appeared and informed the local population they would be exiled and sent to a far away land.  They had one day to prepare.  Azariah didn’t know it, or think about it this way, but very much like his distant ancestor Nahshon he packed a small sack with his few belongings.  The next morning he joined a long line of his fellow Jews, 4,600 of them, and guarded by Babylonian soldiers, they began a journey that would take many months, and would end with them living in exile on the banks of the K’var River in Babylonia.  For the first time in Jewish history there was a diaspora community, but they never forgot Jerusalem their sacred city, or Israel their holy land.

Of course there have been countless other Jewish journeys in the course of time, some forced, others taken freely. As the Muslim civilization grew to power in the 7th century Jews followed trade routes and established small communities on the Iberian peninsula.   In the the late 800s Jews gradually made their way into Europe, settling in small villages along the Rhine River, and in Italy and France.  There were forced expulsions – from England in 1290, and of course from Spain in 1492.  Each time, like Nahshon and Azariah before them, the Jews packed their few belongings and began another journey, searching for a home, searching for freedom.

I would like to share one last story with you this morning.

This story begins fairly recently in the long scope of Jewish history, on the 13th day of May, in the year 1939.  On that day a young woman named Regina Adler boarded a boat called the SS St Louis in Hamburg Germany.  There were 937 passengers on that boat, almost all of them Jewish.  They were afraid, fleeing a country they had believed to be a safe haven, a place where until recently they thought they could live freely as both Jews and Germans.  Regina was born in Austria Hungary, in 1897, but had come to Germany with her parents as a teenager.

When the ship set sail the destination was Havanah, and despite difficult conditions on board the trip went smoothly.  Every passenger on the ship left Germany with proper documentation and permits that should have allowed them to enter Cuba, but when the boat arrived at the Havanah port they were told all permits had been revoked and they were forced to remain on board.  In desperation the boat headed for US shores, but it was met by US Coastguard ships and told in no uncertain terms that it would not be permitted to land.  On June 6 the decision was made to turn the St Louis around and head back to Europe.

About half the passengers on the boat would survive the war.  England, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France all agreed to take in some of the Jewish refugees.  Most of those who ended up in Nazi controlled areas died in the camps.  But Regina Adler was permitted to enter England, and she lived there for many years after the war ended.

These are our stories, Jewish stories.  Of exile and forced travel, of wandering and searching for home and freedom.  They are ingrained into our souls and psyches – informing who we are and how we see the world.  Robert Louis Stevenson wrote “we are all travelers in the wilderness of this world.”  When we think about today’s events, about a world filled with refugees, about immigrants searching for a new home, about borders and who should be permitted to cross them, we should remember our own history.  After all, it wasn’t so long ago that we were packing our own small bags, leaving our homes behind, and setting out with hope for the Promised Land.

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Looking for Kansas

You will remember the famous line from the Wizard of Oz, spoken by Dorothy to her dog Toto just after they arrive in a strange and magical land:  ‘We’re not in Kansas anymore.’ Over the years that phrase has entered the vernacular, generally used to indicate the moment when you realize you’ve entered unknown territory, that you’ve come to a place, whether physical or metaphysical, where you’ve never before been.

So where are we today?  With constant protests and regular ‘executive orders.’  With immigration bans and simmering anger.  With simple and straight forward facts being doubted and questioned and sometimes blatantly denied.  I actually had to step between two men in their 80s at our kiddish after services this past Shabbat.  I was afraid they were going to come to blows, one speaking out in support of the administration, one against.  Both of them, by the way, are immigrants.

Wherever we are, we are not in Kansas.  Of that I am sure.  I guess the question might be how do we get back?

Being honest, at this point I don’t know.  Perhaps the Wizard of Oz is instructive.  Dorothy had a long way to go before she found her way back home.  Challenges and even some dangers to overcome.  The Yellow Brick Road.  The Lion and Scarecrow and Tin Man.  Those weird looking flying monkey things.  The Emerald City, even the Wizard of Oz himself.  And of course the Wicked Witch!  Along the way she had moments of heartbreak, despair, and doubt.  And even at the end of that long road it was touch and go.  But she made it.  And when she arrived, boy did Kansas look good.

And all the way through she maintained the courage of her convictions.  Not  that she didn’t learn along the way, and change and grow.  She did!  But her innate sense of decency and fairness and the kindly inclination of her heart remained steady.

Maybe that is what is happening in America today.  People are realizing what really matters to them, and the country itself is rediscovering fundamental values like tolerance and kindness, caring for the marginalized, and welcoming the stranger, fairness and human dignity.  Sounds a lot like Kansas.  And people have been pulling their ruby red slippers out of their closets all over this land.

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U.S. Blues

The Grateful Dead canon is filled with references to America, a land (in the Dead’s eyes) of on the one hand potential, possibility, and freedom, and on the other absurdity and utter hypocrisy. Think of the Bob Weir/Robert Hunter composition Jack Straw, with its cowboy anti-heroes, its flying eagles, its reference to the 4th of July and its copping of the phrase ‘sea to shining sea’ from America the Beautiful. In song after song Garcia and Weir sing of old time America, of the Great West and backroom card games, of cowboys on the dusty trail, of small town life and homemade whiskey, Tennessee Jed and ‘just like New York City.’ With parched throats and dusty boots the Dead came out of the West, fresh off the trail, seeking truth through experience, exploring the power of music to reveal the real, creating alternate community but connecting to something at the core of what our great country is about.

They knew in the end there was only so much they could do, but they never flinched. They were pranksters at their core and they could spot a con a mile a way. That may be why for so many years they intentionally maintained an apolitical stance, watching the issues and the elections come and go from the sidelines with bemused expressions. Even later when they started to touch on topics that might have been political they were big picture issues – the rain forest and the climate, the general human tendency to self destruct (Weir and Barlow’s Throwing Stones.) But to actually immerse in the game, to endorse a candidate, or take a position on a particular issue was anathema. Whether right or wrong, the Dead left that kind of thing to Springsteen or Bono or Kid Rock.

But they always watched, keeping the country and its doings in view, shaking their collective head at the sheer strangeness of the entire enterprise. There was anger, too. Over the years Weir changed the lyrics in Throwing Stones: ‘Money green, its the only way – you can buy a whole God damned government today!’- always shouted with conviction and a ragged righteousness. In essence, in their own strange, bizarre, and beautiful way, they nobly filled the role of the artist, through their music granting us the flash of insight that reminds us of what it all should be about. Even politics.

The song US Blues captures it. Politics?! Uncle Sam?! The ultimate con-game, the largest and most dangerous wolf in sheep’s clothing you’ll even encounter in your life. Beware of patriotism – it can muddle your mind! Watch out for politicians – they’ll try to ‘run your life, steal your wife!’ The song’s couplets are playful, even comical. But the title drives it home – US…BLUES! This is a tragedy of epic proportions. The blues is sadness personified, the lowest and worst situation you can imagine. A blues for the United States is almost a requiem, rock and roll style.

Sounds about right as a description for the political farce we are all so avidly watching unfold day by day. The ratings are through the roof! Can you imagine that? This is what we want to do with our time? Watch men in suits yell at each other, talk over each other, and insult each other with ever worsening vulgarities? Here is a better suggestion: read Mary Beard’s new history of ancient Rome, SPQR. There are some eerie parallels in terms of rising and falling, of how great countries come into being, and of what brings about their demise.

At this point it really does have to play itself out. This great and uncontrollable wave, cresting and crashing, who knows where it might actually make shore? In that very last batch of Garcia/Hunter collaborations there was a sort of US Blues redux, entitled Liberty. Here its first verse: Saw a bird with a tear in its eye, walking to New Orleans, my oh my. Hey now bird wouldn’t you rather die, than walk this world when you are born to fly?

The bird, of course is America. The question is where is it going? And maybe even more importantly, how will it get there? Will it walk or fly?

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Why I Vote (Thank you God for making me free…)

There is a tradition that in the course of each day a Jew should strive to say 100 blessings.  Technically, a blessing is any liturgical unit, no matter how short or long, that begins ‘Baruch Atah Adonai..’  One hundred may sound like a lot, but in the course of living an observant Jewish life you get pretty close just by going about your normal routine.  For example the Shaharit service alone (the morning service) has almost 50 ‘blessings’ and that would get you half way there.  Then of course there are blessings before and after eating.  Special blessings are recited upon seeing a rainbow or hearing thunder.  There is a blessing for washing your hands in the morning, putting on a tallit or tefilin, even a blessing one recites after going to the bathroom.  The real question isn’t ‘how do you get to 100?’  The real question is why so many blessings?

In my mind the answer is simple – each blessing reminds us to be grateful for something we might otherwise take for granted.  Reciting blessings before and after eating help us remember that not everyone in the world has enough food to eat.  The blessings in the prayer service touch on the beauty of the world, the power of community, even the proper functioning of our bodies – all things we commonly take for granted.  One of my teachers in rabbinical school had a habit of literally stopping whatever he was doing, closing his eyes, and then reciting whatever blessing was required with purposeful intent.  The truth is if we get out of bed in the morning, walk to a faucet with running water, and then to a refrigerator with all the food we could want, we should be deeply, deeply grateful.  Because some people can’t get out of bed.  Others have to walk a half mile to get fresh water.  And millions of people around the world struggle to find enough food to sustain themselves.  Heck, millions of people right here in the United States struggle with that.  Thank you God, that I got out of bed this morning and feel pretty good.  Thank you God, that I can walk under my own power.  Thank you God that I can simply turn a faucet handle and have water to drink and to wash.  And thank you God, for this food that sustains my life.

And believe it or not, that is why I vote.  Yes, the idea of civic duty speaks to me (somewhat).  But for me, casting a vote is like reciting a blessing.  Every time I do it I am reminded of how lucky I am to live in this country.  To walk into a polling place with absolutely no fear.  To vote for which ever candidates I choose, and to know that those votes will be counted.  We too often take this incredible gift for granted, understanding it as a right, as something that will always be there, as something so mundane as to not merit our attention.  I suspect that is one of the reasons that the turnout for elections is often so poor.

Voting is a profound coming together of two of our most cherished values, freedom on the one hand and responsibility on the other.  It also, in a unique way, is a statement of gratitude made through action.  How lucky we are to live in this place at this time.

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