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Wonder of Wonders

A text version of my Shabbat sermon from 1/19/19 –

     For many of us of a certain age reading this morning’s Torah portion brings to mind the following image.  Charlton Heston stands on a precipice overlooking the churning waters of a vast sea.  With long white hair and a dense white beard he wears a flowing orange robe with black stripes.  In his hand he carries?  A wooden staff!  And he is surrounded by Israelites.  The camera then shifts, and you see the Pharaoh – played by?  Yul Brenner.  He sits atop his chariot with a stern expression, regal, decked out in Egyptian garb, surrounded by the Egyptian army.  

     Charlton Heston yells out to the Israelites ‘The Lord of Hosts will do battle for us,’ and then turns to face the sea, raising his staff towards the heavens.  And then a miracle happens – the waters of the sea begin to part, forming a path on dry land right through the middle of water, and the Israelites run forward, down the embankment in front of them, striding out onto the seabed, gigantic walls of water on either side of them.  

          The scene in the movie is fairly accurate in terms of what is described in this morning’s Torah reading.  Moses and the Israelites are trapped between the sea and the Egyptian army.  Pharaoh does lead the Egyptians, and they begin to draw close.  Moses does actually say the phrase that Charlton Heston cries out in the film – ה׳ ילחם לכם – God will do battle for you!  And according to the Torah text the waters do split, and the Israelites escape from the Egyptians, passing through a dry path in the middle of the sea, the sea that later will close over the Egyptian army.   

     But there is one crucial detail that is in the Torah that is not in the movie – maybe the most important detail in the entire story.  It is God’s response to Moses when Moses asks for God’s help.  And I think you can’t fully understand the miracle at the sea – and maybe you can’t fully understand the way Judaism approaches miracles in general – without taking into account that response from God in this morning’s Torah reading.  Here is what God says to Moses, immediately after Moses calls for help:  מה תצעק אלי – דבר אל בני ישראל ויסעו – “Why are you crying out to Me?!  Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to go forward.”    

     God does not say ‘don’t worry Moses, I’ll take care of it.’  God does not, by the way, just simply strike the Egyptians directly, which we must imagine God could have done, and which, when you think about it, would have been much easier.  Instead, God tells Moses to tell the people to go forward into the waters – and this is before  – before! – the waters have started to part.  In a classic rabbinic commentary on this Torah text there is a description of the moment – the Israelites are terrified, the Egyptians are coming, Moses has asked for God’s help, God has told Moses to get the people to do something.  No one moves.  And then one Israelite steps forward into the water.  Nothing happens.  Then the water is up to his knees, then up to his waist, then up to his neck.  And then finally, just at the moment when he is not going to be able to breath anymore, the waters begin to part.

     Its a very Jewish story.  You can ask God for whatever you want.  But hedge your bets.  Don’t sit around and wait for God to do it.  Get started yourself.  Walk forward.  Wade into the water, whatever your water might be.  And keep going, even when the water is up to your waist, or your chest.  And maybe something will happen that will change your life.

     The truth is big miracles are rare.  There are only a couple of them described in the entire Bible.  I would even argue that Judaism, by and large, is not that interested in big miracles.  But it is important in Judaism to recognize small miracles.  And the tradition tries to remind us that we are surrounded by those small miracles every single day.  There is a wonderful line in the Modim paragraph that is part of the amidah prayer, where we say מודים אנחנו לך ‘we thank you God – ועל ניסך שבכל יום עימנו – for the miracles that are part of our lives every day.’  

     Many of you remember the wonderful scene in Fiddler on the Roof just after Motel the tailor asks Tevye for permission to marry Tzeitel.  When permission is granted Motel breaks into song, one of the best known Broadway songs of all time – what is it?  Miracle of Miracles!  The lyrics refer to some of the Bible’s great miracles – Daniel surviving the lion’s den – the parting of the sea, from this morning’s portion – and anyone remember the other?  I think David defeating Goliath.  But then the last lines of the song – “But of all God’s miracles large and small, the most miraculous one of all, is the one I thought could never be – God has given you to me.”

     These are the human miracles, the miracles of daily life that we all too often take for granted.  Did you get out of bed this morning?  Since you are here I am imagining the answer to the question is yes.  If you’ve ever spent time in a hospital bed, unable to get up under your own power, you know that getting out of bed can feel like a miracle.  If you’ve seen a baby born, or welcomed a new life into your lives, into your family, you know how miraculous that can be.  If you found the courage and strength you needed to face a dark and difficult moment of your life, if a phone call happened to come from a friend just at the right moment, you know that too can feel like a miracle.  

     It is a miraculous thing to have your health, to share your life with a family, to have children and grandchildren.  It is a miraculous thing to show up for a friend in need, or to get up and face a new day.  These moments don’t require the parting of a sea.  Instead they come about through human courage, and strength, and love, and faith.  May we all find those qualities in ourselves, and those moments in our lives, over and over again, every single day.  

Here is a video clip of the classic scene with Charlton Heston as Moses – 

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Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say

this a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 7/22/17

As a child of the 70s, like many boys of my generation, I was both fascinated and obsessed with the Planet of the Apes.  I am guessing you all have a sense of what I am talking about – the movie franchise about a planet where apes speak and have a culture and society, and humans are mute and treated like animals.  In the early 70s when the movies were on TV I watched them – you’ll excuse the expression – religiously.  In 1974, when it was decided there was going to be a weekly Planet of the Apes TV series, I was beyond ecstatic.  When it was cancelled after just one season, I was inconsolable.  I begged my father to let me stay up late one Saturday night to watch the Carol Burnett Show because Roddy McDowell, the star of the movies and my hero, was going to be on.  There was a time in my life when it was Planet of the Apes pretty much 24/7.  And yes, I’ve seen the new Planet of the Apes movies, although the newest one is still on my to do list.

Some of you may know that the entire Apes franchise was based on a novel published in French in 1963, called La Planete des Singes – Planet of the Monkeys, I think is the literal translation – written by Pierre Boulle.  I read his Planet of the Apes novel in one night, straight through, with a flashlight under the covers so my parents would not know how late I stayed up.

When I was a little boy I was drawn to the story because of the space travel and adventure, but like all great science fiction the book deals with contemporary issues and themes, and at its core its one central question:  what is it that makes us human?  Is it the trappings of humanity?  The clothes, the manners, the culture, the societal structures?  Or is it something deeper, something perhaps even God given?  Our intellect?  Our consciences?  Our creative ability?  And the book explores these questions by taking humans out of the traditional trappings, and putting apes into them.  So if a human is naked and running around in a jungle, and an ape is dressed in a suit and sitting in a cafe sipping coffee, which of them is actually ‘human’ and which is the ‘animal?’

One of the most provocative ways that the novel tries to explore this question is through the use of language, of speech.  In the Planet of the Apes movies the most shocking moments, the most dramatic, are the moments where a character who is not supposed to be able to speak suddenly does.  And that is because more than anything else we understand that speech separates us from animals.  We have fundamental drives and needs, we must eat, we get angry, we have sexual drives, when we are pushed far enough we will even kill – and in all of those ways, we are indistinguishable from the animals.  But the one thing we can do that animals cannot is use language to communicate complex ideas to one another.  Language – our ability to use words – enables us to transmit scientific discoveries, to problem solve, to philosophize – to talk about God, or justice, or dignity.  And as the Planet of the Apes seems to suggest – were we to lose our ability to speak, to communicate with one another through language, we would also lose our humanity.

Judaism has long had a sensitivity to the power and importance of words and language.  It is not in my mind a coincidence that in the Creation story in the beginning of Genesis God brings the world into being by speaking a series of words.  Each act of creation in that story is preceded by the phrase ויאמר קילוהים – And God said.  And God said ‘let there be light.’  And God said ‘let the waters gather together.’  And God said ‘let us make man in our image.’  This is why we say in the siddur ברוך שאמר והיה העולם – blessed is the One Who spoke, and the world came into being.  God’s revelation at Sinai is conveyed to Moses and the people through words – וידבר קלוהים את כל הדברים האלה לאמור – God spoke all of these words, saying – that is the introductory verse to the 10 Commandments, emphasizing speech – language – as the means of communication between God and Israel.  And in fact in Hebrew – what are the 10 Commandments called in Hebrew?  The Aseret HaDibrot, which is probably best translated as ‘the 10 utterances, the 10 words.’

And human speech in the Bible is supposed to echo God’s speech.  It is supposed to  be sacred, it is supposed to have real meaning and real power, it is supposed to convey truth.  Harold Kushner points out that in the Torah a word is not merely a sound.  It is actually something that is real, that has substance and power.  There are many examples of this in the Torah.  When Isaac mistakenly gives his blessing to Jacob instead of Esau, he cannot take it back – the words have been spoken, and they must stand.  The covenants that are made in the Torah – between people, and between God and people – are verbal agreements, but they are eternally binding.  This morning’s double Torah portion begins with a series laws that describe how vows worked in ancient Israelite culture.  And it is clear that when a vow is made it cannot be broken, that the words that have been spoken have a true force that cannot be revoked once they have been uttered.

In our world today this might seem like a strange idea.  We have grown accustomed to using words cheaply, and even worse we have become very accomplished at using words to twist the truth instead of to arrive at it.  It is one of the great ironies of modern life that in what we call the ‘age of communication’ we are less and less capable of communicating with one another.  We talk by one another, and not to one another.  In a world of texts, and tweets, and emails, our sensitivity to the nuance of language, to the power of language, has been diminished.

There was a time, not so long ago, when this was not the case.  When I meet with a family about a funeral, and they are telling me about their loved one who was a member of the generation that we now call the greatest, they will often say like:  ‘they  meant what they said, and they said what they meant.’  Or, ‘their word was their bond.’  Or, ‘if they said they were going to take care of it, it was as good as done.’

It was just a generation or two ago that words still retained their meaning and power, their sacred sense of being binding and true.  That is something that we should not only remember – it is something we should strive to return to, in our own lives, in our communities, in our public discourse.  What are the six words we say before we pray the amidah?  Adonai sefati tiftach, u’fi yagid tefilatecha – God, open my lips, that my mouth might declare your praise.  Before we pray, we ask God to help us make our language sacred.  Perhaps we should keep the same idea in mind whenever we speak, to whomever we are speaking, and whatever it might be we are saying –


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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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Mumbling, Praying, or Both?

We Jews tend to be a garrulous people.  If you’ve ever been to a worship service in a church, you know that there is almost a hush in the room, a feeling of reverence and awe as people wait quietly for the service to begin.  In shul, it sometimes takes us a couple of minutes – full minutes! – to get the crowd quiet enough to even begin the service.  People talk, laugh, comment, walk in and out, and do it all again – and that is after they’ve ‘quieted down’ and the service has begun.  I admit that people are fairly quiet during the sermon, but that might be because they are sleeping.  Lets face it – by and large Jews are by nature noisy – we are kibitzers, from a long line of kibitzers.  And we wonder why the young people at the service make so much noise in the back of the sanctuary!

A talkative service environment is nothing new.  Find a traditional siddur and look at the brief description before the amidah.  Often it will say תפילה בלחש – prayer recited in a whisper.  In other words, even during our moments of silent prayer we are expected to be making noise, mouthing the words quietly, but just loud enough so that they can be heard.  We do come from a long line of ‘God-talkers.’  Abraham argued with God.  Moses did as well.  Job followed in their footsteps.  Hannah, the sages’ paradigm for prayer behavior, prayed quietly to herself, but her lips moved the entire time.  If you’ve ever davened in a traditionally oriented minyan you know that people are constantly mumbling various and sundry phrases from the liturgy, voices rising and falling as this or that word strikes someone and speaks to their spirit.  It can sound a bit confusing, even intimidating, but listen for a while – the voices weave together to form a pattern.  This is an old conversation with God, carried out by individuals in the context of community, over thousands of years.  There is a sense of familiarity – we’ve done it before, many, many times.  

I worry sometimes that that sense of familiarity is being lost in the liberal Jewish community.  We are still pretty darn good at kibitzing with each other, but we’ve become less and less comfortable kibitzing with God.  If you’ve ever lived in New York City you’ve spent a fair amount of time on elevators with people you don’t know well, or at all.  The silence in an enclosed elevator car can get pretty uncomfortable, even oppressive.  What to do?  Make conversation!  Comment about the weather, ask about last night’s game, whatever it might be – just say something.  A simple breaking of the quiet not only makes people feel comfortable, it makes them feel connected. 

So it might seem like a strange thing for a rabbi to say, but I’d actually like a bit more noise during services, especially during the moments of quiet prayer.  After all, if there is one thing Jews have learned over time it is that a little mumbling can go a long way.

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